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Full text of "Someone Had Blundered"

2 OU 158151 

CO 

Z)- 1 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 



SOMEONE 

HAD 
BLUNDERED 



Xke Story of the "Repulse" autd tke 
"Prince of Wales' ' 

BERNARD ASH 



DC^BLEDAY dr COMPANY, INC. 

GARDEN CITY, NEW YORK 

1961 



Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 60-13724 
Copyright 1960 by Bernard Ash 

All Rights Reserved 

Printed in the United States of America 
First Edition 



PREFACE 



A BOOK OF THIS SORT IF IT IS TO BE MORE THAN AN AB- 

stract of official papers and other works already published 
depends to a high degree on personal recollection and on 
the author's luck in running to earth people who have per- 
sonal contributions of value to make. Only a few of the many 
people who have helped me with this book appear in it by 
name, for the smaller contributions have become absorbed 
into a larger picture; moreover, as the personalities of the 
two ships began to emerge and the pattern of events in 
which they were involved began to become significant, in- 
dividuals tended inevitably to fade into the background. 

I am profoundly grateful to all who have sent or given me 
information: to some I owe a special debt. Pride of place 
among these must undoubtedly go to Slinger Wood of the 
Repulse, followed closely by Alf Tudor of the Prince of 
Wales. There was a point at which the book almost became 
the story of Slinger Wood, not only because he was an able, 



6 PREFACE 

enthusiastic, and well-balanced informant, but also because 
there was a thread in his own life, as the reader will find, that 
ran curiously close to the life lines of the ships. For that 
reason he "appears and disappears" (as Mr. Churchill might 
have said) more often than any other of the characters who 
are mentioned by name and becomes, perhaps, in the end 
almost a symbol of the ships and their companies. I am par- 
ticularly indebted also to Marine J. E. Garner, Stoker Albert 
Dick and Chief Petty Officer F. G. E. O'Rorke of the 
Repulse, to Cyril Williams and F. V. Seddon of the Prince 
of Wales. 

I owe at least as much as anyone who researches into naval 
matters to the kindness and co-operation of the Admiralty 
librarian and his staff. I owe thanks to Captain J. W. C. 
Dendy, R.N. (ret.), Repulses commander, for technical 
help on the damage situation in both ships in the final action. 
It was inevitable that I should seek the aid of Repulses last 
captain and the senior surviving officer of Force Z, Admiral 
Sir William Tennant: his help and advice have been readily 
given and most valuable. It is impossible not to comment 
on the respect and affection with which he is invariably 
spoken of by survivors of his ship's company. For her help 
in tracking down survivors of the ships, I am grateful to an 
old and sturdy friend and fellow townsman, Bessie Brad- 
dock, M.P. 

A short bibliography will be found at the end of the book. 

While the responsibility for my facts is spread over many 
sources, both human and documentary, responsibility for 
the conclusions I have drawn from the facts lies upon my 
shoulders alone; neither those mentioned by name above 
nor anyone who has helped me in any degree can fairly be 
charged with any part of them. This is the more important 
because my conclusions will be unpopular at least in some 
quarters though I cannot help it if they are. I have no axes 
to grind, nor do I seek a little ephemeral publicity through 
Churchill-baiting. I have tried to write as honest a history as 



PREFACE 7 

I could, and on the basis of the facts, insofar as I was able to 

come at them, my conclusions appeared to me inescapable. 

To all those who have helped me and to the memory of 

two great ships and their companies my book is dedicated 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 



1 



ON THE MORNING OF DECEMBER 1O, 1Q41, JAPANESE 

airmen, flying north over the Gulf of Siam, looked down at a 
calm sea and saw what they had been sent to find. They 
saw two great ships steaming at speed with three attendant 
destroyers. They knew that the ships were the Prince of 
Wales and the Repulse. They knew which was which and 
they knew precisely the armament and the armour of each. 
They knew what they had to do. 

These two ships should not have been there. 

Because they were there, they were bombed, torpedoed, 
and sunk. Many hundreds of men lost their lives, some of 
them trapped within the battered hulls of their ships, others 
in the oily water. With this disaster the control of the whole 
South China Sea passed beyond possibility of dispute into 
the hands of the Japanese who already, after the virtual 
extermination of American sea-power at Pearl Harbour, held 
mastery over the rest of the Pacific Ocean. Hong Kong was 



12 BERNARD ASH 

isolated, Singapore exposed, the way into the Indian Ocean 
laid open. In the whole of World War II no more bitter, 
sudden, or decisive blow fell upon Britain and her allies. 

This is the story of those two ships and of their passing; 
of the long sea ways that took them to their doom; of how 
they came to be there, and why they should not have been 
there. It is a proud story, not without glory. It is also a story 
of failure and folly. It is a story which men will remember, 
and about which they will dispute as long as there are ships 
to sail the sea or men to sail in them. 

Two ships . . . two very different ships. Both proud ships, 
but very different. One, a ship almost of another age that 
had known royal occasions, even been dubbed the "Royal 
Yacht/' steamed an immense tale of miles in many waters, 
sought the enemy indefatigably in fair weather and foul, 
never lost a ship from any of her convoys, yet came in the 
end to be H.M.S. Anonymous. The other a new ship, 
dubbed in her turn "Churchill's Yacht/' planned for the 
contingencies of modern war and known to some as H.M.S. 
Unsinkahle, which is always a dangerous thing to call a ship. 
She had known enemy fire before she left the dockyard of her 
birth, and controversy raged about her from her cradle to her 
watery grave. The few short months of her life were crammed 
with history. One man in this story helped to lay her keel 
and, struggling in the water, a survivor from the Repulse, 
watched his handiwork drown. 

To the eye H.M.S. Repulse was a most handsome ship, to 
those who lived on her a comfortable one. Before Slinger 
Wood discovered that if you lost your "breathing permit" 
you could not, in fact, breathe; before Stripey Shatwell 
menaced Mess 46 with the threat of the scran-bag; before 
the days of Leading Seaman Bigmore, Ginger Devine, 
Chicken Howe and the rest, a generation of ratings had 
found her messes spacious, airy, and well-arranged as messes 
go. In wartime, of course, with hundreds of extra hands to 
be crammed in somehow or other, they became over- 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 13 

crowded, as did the messes on all ships; nonetheless, by 
lower-deck standards, she wasn't a bad ship to live on. She 
was fast: on her trials she had comfortably exceeded her 
contract 31^2 knots, and even in her old age (without being 
re-engined, as her sister-ship Renown was) showed a clean 
pair of heels. She was efficient and well-officered; her whole 
company was profoundly convinced that its gunnery was the 
best in the Fleet, and that Six-Gun Coney, their gunnery 
officer, was the best shot on the seven seas. Many fights in 
clubs, pubs, and canteens were waged in support of this con- 
tention. 

Yet Repulse had an Achilles heel an Achilles heel in the 
most literal sense. For she belonged to the vanishing race of 
battle-cruisers and therefore, in a sense, to a conception of 
naval warfare which became obsolete not long before she 
received her first commission back when the Queen Mary 
and the Invincible blew up with appalling loss of life at the 
Battle of Jutland, just as the Hood, greatest of all the battle- 
cruisers and the British Navy's biggest ship, was to blow up 
in the Bismarck action twenty-five years later. In the age 
when the capital ship queened it over the world's oceans, 
the task of the battle-cruiser was to seek out by superior 
speed and destroy or cripple by superior gun-powerprecisely 
the role which was assumed by the torpedo-bomber in 
World War II. She was not intended to swap blow for blow 
in a stand-up action; least of all was she designed to meet 
any menace from the air. So Repulse was lightly armoured 
so lightly armoured that, in the light of the Jutland dis- 
aster, she was modified after her completion in 1916 before 
going into service. She was modified again in 1919, when 
her armour belt was extended and torpedo bulges fitted, and 
again in 1932, though she was never modernised to the same 
extent as the Renown. But to the end of her days her armour 
was far too light, and she was vulnerable not merely to 
air bombardment but also to the plunging fire of shot aimed 
at her from ranges of 1 3,000 yards or beyond. 



14 BERNARD ASH 

It was out of this very weakness that her beauty came 
out of her function, her need for speed. It was the need for 
speed that endowed her with her shapely hull with its 
pronounced sheer. The rest of her build, her well-propor- 
tioned upper works, completed the picture. At last in her 
and in her two surviving sisters, Renown and Hood, the 
capital ship had emerged from the incredible ugliness of the 
slab-sided, top-heavy monstrosities of the late Victorian and 
early Edwardian years that had made men hark back nostal- 
gically to the sweeping lines of wooden hulls, the towering 
symmetry of masts and shrouds. At last sheer function had 
created loveliness out of a mass of steel, an accumulation of 
machinery. To this day, those who saw the Repulse steaming 
at speed remember the sight with a catch in the throat. 

For the technically minded, she displaced 26,500 tons, 
was 794 feet long, ninety feet in the beam and twenty-seven 
feet in draught. Her turbines gave 112,000 horse-power to 
four shafts, she had forty-two boilers, and carried 4,200 tons 
of oil. She mounted six fifteen-inch guns in her three turrets 
fore and aft, fifteen four-inch guns, eight torpedo tubes; but 
for air defence she had but six obsolete four-inch high angle 
guns, with small-bore weapons and a couple of pom-poms. 
Eager hands and skill made the most of these, but she was 
no match for the Imperial Japanese Air Force or any other 
air force. 

In the 1920$ she carried Edward, the Prince of Wales, on 
his tours to South America and South Africa; in 1939 she was 
to have carried the King and Queen on their visit to the 
United States. These were her days of pride, her summer 
days. She represented a Navy that ruled the seven seas, a 
vision of imperial majesty that was already gone from the 
face of the waters by the grim spring of 1941 when the 
Prince of Wales left her fitting-out berth to be precipitated 
into the throes of a war for very survival the latest and 
greatest of battleships, already a legend in her lifetime. 

One of the best impressions of the Prince of Wales as she 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 1J 

appeared to the beholder against the taut, emotional back- 
ground of those times has been left by H. V. Morton, one 
of the two journalists who accompanied Prime Minister 
Churchill on his journey in her to meet President Roosevelt 
at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. 

We saw [he wrote] a giant among giants, the splendid 
ship that was to be our home, her great guns pointing 
fore and aft, her crew drawn up on deck. How beautiful 
she looked ttiat morning as she appeared out of the mist, 
full of power, strength and pride. As we approached 
her . . . we slowed and swung round to her and as we did 
so, we saw that the battleship, which from a distance had 
looked so graceful and so lithe, now towered above us 
like a mighty hill of steel. Far above us the fifteen 
hundred odd members of her crew stood mustered 
on the decks, the bosuns stood at the gangway, the 
Officer of the Watch with his telescope, the Captain, 
the Royal Marines with their band upon the quarter- 
deck . . . 

General C. E. Percival watched her arrival with Repulse 
at Singapore barely a week before her end and wrote of 
". . . the thrill it gave us all as we watched those majestic 
ships steaming up the East Channel of the Johore Strait and 
coming to anchor/' Alfred Duff -Cooper (sent to administer 
a territory of whose appalling perils both he and those who 
sent him there appear to have had singularly little idea) 
chronicled her arrival as an impressive and reassuring spec- 
tacle. Churchill boasted to Stalin that she was able to hunt 
down and destroy any unit of the Japanese Fleet; and even 
the men of the Repulse, disgruntled and bitter as many of 
them were at being reduced to the role of H.M.S. Anony- 
mous, could not restrain grudging admiration of her, steam- 
ing past them to take up her station ahead as Force Z sailed 
out to its doom and even as the signal was made from 
Changi Point that there would be no fighter cover for the 
ships. 



l6 BERNARD ASH 

"Just look at her, boy/' O'Dowd Gallagher reports them 
saying, "Churchill's Yacht ... the Glamour Ship. Look 
at her!" 

Yet all was not well in the midst of all this admiration, 
through no fault of either her captain or her crew. Those 
fourteen-inch gun turrets that appeared so overwhelming to 
Morton had her in trouble from first to last. She fought the 
Bismarck with half her heavy armament out of action in 
the words of an Admiralty observer, with one hand tied be- 
hind her back. Her anti-aircraft armament, though im- 
measurably more than that of the Repulse, was still below 
the needs of modern war, so that additional pom-poms had 
to be loaded on to her at Colombo, for fitting after her arrival 
at Singapore. And though her crew were keen, ship-proud, 
and trained to the peak, though they had already given good 
account of themselves, she never had a real chance to "shake 
down." 

She was laid down in 1937 at Cammell Laird's dockyard 
on the Mersey, in the same ways which the Rodney had left 
more than a decade before and no battleship had been laid 
down since either there or anywhere else, while the might of 
the Axis grew and the menace of war again descended on 
the world. She was shorter than the Repulse by a good fifty 
feet, but thirteen feet wider in the beam, and nine feet 
deeper in draught; her displacement was 35,000 tons. Her 
silhouette was described as differing from the traditional 
British "look" and was closer to that of the later German 
battleships, which points to nothing except that, in similar 
circumstances, naval designers tend to think alike. While 
Repulse's lack of armour endowed her with a vulnerability 
that belied appearances, Prince of Wales and her four sister- 
ships of the King George V-class were more heavily pro- 
tected than any battleships yet built. She had a sixteen-inch 
waterline belt with an "advanced system of underwater pro- 
tection and defence against air attack, a good distribution of 
side and deck armour and elaborate subdivision." Her 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED IJ 

armour weighed, in fact, no less than 15,000 tons, and 
though it had to be paid for both in gun-power and in speed 
(for with roughly the same engine power she rated three 
knots less than Repulse), it stood her in good stead, both 
in the Bismarck action and in her final struggle against im- 
possible odds. But alas, even the most heavily armoured of 
ships cannot escape having rudders and screws, and one 
lucky torpedo was enough to put her completely out of con- 
trol and seal her fate. 

Churchill thought she, too, had an Achilles heel as far as 
her armour was concerned. The aircraft hangar in the midst 
of her citadel, he insisted, left a gap in her protection and 
made her more vulnerable than she need have been. In this 
he was wrong, for her deck armour ran uninterrupted from 
stem to stern, hangar or no hangar, and the siting of the 
hangar made not one iota of difference to it, but the great 
man remained unconvinced and unrepentant. Where he was 
right utterly and horribly right was about her guns, and 
her guns became a sort of obsession with him. In memo- 
randum after memorandum he harped on them, even while 
admitting that the issue was academic, because the guns and 
the turrets were there and nothing could be done about 
them. In the very midst of battering down, with the dogged 
insistence that he brought to every task, the Naval Staff's 
resistance to sending this ship out East, he still went on 
about the guns. 

Now to put the reader thoroughly in the picture, the 
Prince of Wales's armament consisted of ten fourteen-inch 
guns, sixteen 5.25-inch guns, sixty two-pounder ack-ack guns 
and numerous smaller guns, including 4omm. Bofors and 
2omm. Oerlikon. It was the fourteen-inch guns that were 
the trouble. They were a new type, smaller in bore than the 
fifteen- and sixteen-inch guns of other years and other nations 
but designed for greater penetration and a higher rate of 
fire. She was originally intended to have had twelve of them, 
but two were sacrificed for greater weight of armour, making 



18 BERNARD ASH 

her broadside less weighty than had been intended. The 
turrets as well as the guns were new in design and even their 
arrangement was novel two quadruple, one foreward, one 
aft, weighing 1,400 tons each, with a smaller, two-gun tur- 
ret superimposed above the forward four-gun turret only. 
Had it been thought for a moment that both guns and tur- 
rets would have to be proved in war instead of experimented 
with in peace, things might have been done differently, but 
Hitler's affairs were more pressing than her designers, busy 
with drawing-board and theory, imagined. Not only was the 
weight of the Prince of Wales's broadside less than that of 
older ships with fewer guns, but mechanical trouble with 
the new machinery dogged her brief existence. It was not 
until over a month after she joined the Home Fleet that 
her last turret was accepted from the contractors. She sailed 
to meet the Bismarck with more than a hundred civilian 
contractors still aboard (something that must be almost 
unique in naval history, and a pretty poor view the contrac- 
tors' men took of it), and before the brief minutes of that 
action had run their course, mechanical breakdown had 
silenced five of her ten big guns. It is to the endless credit of 
the ship and her company that in the face of that tremendous 
handicap she succeeded in doing Bismarck damage that 
ultimately led to her undoing, and there is nothing meaner 
in the whole web of rumour, surmise, and sensation-hunting 
that is woven round any war than the attempts which were 
made at the time to deprive her of that credit. It can be 
taken that the Japanese, who knew more than we had the 
wit to realise, were not ignorant of these matters, and that 
the arrival of the Prince of Wales in Eastern waters was not 
so terrible to them as the Foreign Office, the fools' paradise 
of Singapore, or even the Prime Minister himself supposed. 
Someone had blundered . . . This was the first of many 
blunders. 

Yet there is more to ships than metal, machinery, and 
guns. Ships must be manned by men, and here is something 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 1Q 

which neither naval contractors nor strategists can blunder 
over. There were no two finer ships' companies in the Navy 
than the companies of these two, and the warmth with 
which their survivors speak of them, even after the passing 
of the deadening years and the fading of young men's fire 
and brightness, is spontaneous, unmistakable, and sincere. 
Stronger, perhaps, in the case of Repulse, because her people 
had been together longer, had been the bulk of thema 
ship's company in peace as well as one at war, had steamed 
a quarter of a million blacked-out miles together, had known 
frustration as well as joy stronger, perhaps, in her case, but 
strong in both. Happy ships, both of them, well com- 
manded. Captain William Tennant of the Repulse survived, 
to become an admiral and earn a knighthood. "We didn't 
make things easy for them," was the only comment he 
would make on being confronted with the spontaneous 
tributes of his men, but then fighting men don't ask to have 
things easy. Flag-Captain John Leach of the Prince of Wales 
was drowned together with his Admiral, Tom Phillips (bet- 
ter known to the lower deck as Tom Thumb, which any 
photograph will explain), and of Leach survivors have said 
that he always wore a smile upon his face: heaven alone 
knows he often had precious little to smile about. Leach's 
running commentary over the ship's loudspeaker system dur- 
ing the Bismarck action (when he had plenty of other things 
to do) was so clear and vivid that men still speak with re- 
markable unanimity of what went on in that battle; and 
Tennant's handling of his ship under the overwhelming as- 
saults of the Japanese bombers and torpedo-bombers reads 
like the pages of a naval instruction manual. Had we still 
been living in an age when ships laid alongside one another 
and fought their battles by sheer guts and spirit, these two 
ships' companies would have proved unbeatable. But noth- 
ing could beat the blunders that led them into the South 
China Sea, committed to an impossible task, devoid of air 
cover, without refuge or means of retaliation. They shot 



20 BERNARD ASH 

down seven bombers. They could have shot down seven hun- 
dred: they still would have been sunk. Had they survived 
that day, they would have been sunk the next day, or the 
day after, or the day after that. Once they were there, noth- 
ing could have saved them; and their being there was the 
last of the worst of the blunders. 



CHAPTER 



SLINGER WOOD WAS LUCKY TO HAVE A JOB. NOT SO VERY MANY 

years before, Cammell Laird's shipyard and all the other 
shipyards of the Mersey had been silent; and those who have 
known what silence means on a great river where the chmg 
and clamour of the pneumatic riveters should be echoing 
ceaselessly from shore to shore pray they may never know it 
again. The great graving docks and fitting-out basins had 
been deserted, the long slipways tenanted only by the ghosts 
of the proud ships of war and merchant ships innumerable 
that had taken shape upon them. The Great Depression had 
closed them down. 

There had been no Great Depression in the shipyards of 
Germany, Italy, and Japan, which were building modern 
ships of war as fast as they dared and merchant ships as fast 
as they could, till in every harbour of Europe the crooked 
cross of the Nazis, fluttering from the jackstaffs of serried 
ranks of loading and unloading tramp shipping, had almost 



22 BERNARD ASH 

ousted the red ensign from the quays. In those years Japan 
had had her Manchurian adventure; Italy had laid her bloody 
hands on Ethiopia, and finally, much nearer home, the grim 
rehearsal for World War II had begun in Spain; so that at 
long last there had been some sort of awakening. Ships were 
being built once again and, by a strange paradox, the coming 
of the war that was to bring disaster and death to so many of 
them put work into the hands of people like Slinger Wood. 

As a matter of fact, Slinger Wood should not have been 
in Cammell Laird's shipyard at all, but in Birkenhead Park 
High School, to which he had won a scholarship at the age 
of eleven. That meant an outlay of nine pounds on a school 
uniform: in those years of bare feet and bare bottoms on 
Merseyside, it might as well have been nine hundred. A year 
before that his mother had died in childbirth of her tenth 
child. His father, an ex-Regimental Sergeant-Major who de- 
served better than the dole, taught the boys to darn and 
sew their own clothes, and mended their boots with bits of 
old motor tyres, but darned breeches and patched-up boots 
weren't the uniform at Birkenhead Park High. Someone had 
blundered about this sort of thing as well, and in the event 
it might be said that Slinger Wood and thousands like him 
gave their country better service than it had a full right to 
expect. 

So he left school at fourteen, became an errand boy, and 
in 1936, the year that the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis was 
forged, was lucky enough to find himself a job as an appren- 
tice driller at Cammell Laird's shipyard. He worked first of 
all on the Ark Royal, the aircraft carrier whose planes were 
to put paid to the Bismarck long after Lord Haw-Haw had 
consigned her to the bottom of the sea; and after Ark Royal 
was launched, in the following year, he worked on the keel 
of the Prince of Wales, which was then not the Prince 
of Wales, but only a number. As the hundreds of com- 
partments which were to make up her double bottom took 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 23 

shape, he and his fellow-workers marvelled. "When one got 
inside with a drilling machine/' he writes (and truly, 
if he'd have been able to take advantage of that scholar- 
ship, he would have made a much better job of this book 
than the present writer), "there wasn't room to turn round. 
We used to swear that she would be unsinkable when she 
was finished . . . little did I realise that what my own eyes 
were to witness in only four or five short (or were they long) 
years' time." 

So even as she lay upon her very cradle the legend of this 
ship's invincibility was born a legend which was to send 
Singapore happily back to its flesh-pots and even coloured 
the better judgment of the Prime Minister himself. A fine 
thing to be building a great ship, but a finer thing still to 
sail on one! To Slinger and his mate, as they worked in the 
narrow compartments, came the vision which had come to 
generations of Liverpool lads before them, calling them 
away from the mean streets, the crowded little homes, the 
dole queues, the shifts and contrivances. Both their brothers 
were doing a China commission on H.M.S. Emerald: all of 
Wood's mother's family had been connected with the sea, 
and her uncle was one of the first secretaries of the Seamen's 
Union, while his father and grandfather had been soldiers, 
and the old man had many a tale to tell of the South African 
War. These were worlds beyond the shipyard, the docks, the 
wide estuary with its swirling tides. 

"Come over to Canning Place and join up," said Slinger's 
mate. 

To cut a long story short, they did. 

Not long after the Munich crisis, Slinger finished his 
boy's seamanship course and passed out of H.M.S. Wildfire 
at Sheerness with the Captain's Prize, for which he chose a 
cigarette case and a wrist watch. Both these now lie in his 
ditty box at the bottom of the China Sea. And by way of the 
Royal Naval Barracks at Devonport, known to the lower 
deck as Jago's Mansion, he found himself posted on his 



24 BERNARD ASH 

eighteenth birthday, January 16, 1939, to H.M.S. Repulse, 
which was fitting out in the dockyard for yet another royal 
tour the tour of the King and Queen to the United States 
and Canada. There was not a man in the whole of the Navy 
who did not yearn for such a posting at this time. Repulse 
was the most envied ship in Pompey albeit a Devonport 
ship at that and there was a lot of heartburning about these 
postings. Stoker Dick, who arrived on her about the same 
time, found much bitterness and jealousy in the town, for it 
was argued that the job belonged by rights to a Portsmouth 
ship, manned by Portsmouth men, not a ship from the 
other place, full of Scouses, Geordies, and other miscellane- 
ous breeds, some of whom didn't even have a seaport in their 
ancestry at all. There were what sailors politely term "dif- 
ferences of opinion" about it and not a few bloody noses. 
A very far cry indeed from those other days, not much more 
than two short years ahead, when this same proud ship was 
to find herself at Singapore in the role of H.M.S. Anony- 
mous, poor relation of the Glamour Ship, the Prince of 
Wales, whose decks swarmed with pressmen of all nationali- 
ties, whose crew were feted by the town, while the erstwhile 
Royal Yacht lay forgotten and despised astern of her. There 
were reasons for this, but they were bad ones, and the bitter- 
ness has even now not yet passed for many survivors of the 
Repulse, Slinger Wood himself among them. 

But however much Repulse's company and Pompey in 
general might be preoccupied with preparations for the Royal 
Tour, they were not the sole preoccupation of the Admi- 
ralty. Hitler's New Year Message, as well as certain sections 
of the British press, had made it quite clear that there was 
to be no war this year. But those concerned with the realities 
of life found themselves by no means so certain that the 
next autumn crisis would end in a Munich, complete with 
the then-unfamiliar spectacle of an airborne Prime Minister 
bearing an umbrella in lieu of a pipe of peace. Roughly 
coinciding, in fact, with the arrival on the Repulse of Slinger 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 25 

Wood and Stoker Dick, the Navy's first war plans had been 
issued to the Fleet The detail of them is unimportant for 
this narrative, but the background to them is of the utmost 
significance. For in the first place, they showed a clear un- 
derstanding of something which too many people in high 
places found it easier to forget in the years to come, or when 
they remembered it, speedily devised reasons why it should 
once more be forgotten. We must, declared the Admiralty 
very clearly, be prepared for the active intervention of Japan 
against ourselves and France. The forces at our disposal in 
the foreseeable future, moreover, would not allow us to wage 
war at sea simultaneously in the Atlantic, the Mediterra- 
nean, and the Pacific. An effective fleet in the Far East could 
only be provided by withdrawal from the Mediterranean 
the containing of the Axis forces wherein would have to be 
left, in that eventuality, to the French. What the plans did 
not foresee (and what no-one who wished to continue to 
think himself sane could foresee) was that the collapse of 
France would not only remove the French Fleet from the 
Mediterranean, but would shortly thereafter give the Japa- 
nese air bases in French Indochina within striking distance 
of Singapore and the whole South China Sea, but not them- 
selves within striking distance of the scratch, short-range 
American fighter aircraft with which our forces in that area 
were to find themselves equipped. Japanese air power, in- 
deed, was accorded very little thought at all. The Japanese 
"were not very good at aircraft/' They were not very good 
at anything in particular, and moreover, with the long war 
in China and one thing and another, their resources would 
already be stretched to the limit. They would starve; they 
would run short of oil; they would run short of everything. 
Remember that at the same hour we were comfortably 
reassuring ourselves that German mines were made of card- 
board, the ignition cables of their armoured fighting vehicles 
insulated with ersatz rubber which would not keep out the 
wet and so on why, even their soapless detergents wouldn't 



26 BERNARD ASH 

washl All these legends were part of the blunder which led 
the Royal Yacht, for postings to which men ached so bitterly, 
and the Glamour Ship that was yet to be, to their destruction 
in the Gulf of Siam in a December morning in 1941 and 
they were legends that were to die hard. 

All this was fortunately unknown and almost unsuspected 
to some hundreds of young men just back from Christmas 
leave and on top of the world, who left Devonport on a 
special train on a cold, wet morning and who, just before 
dark, found themselves alongside the Repulse, which was 
sitting on the blocks in dry dock and didn't look in the least 
like a royal yacht, or even very big. Among them was Slinger 
Wood, who was now a fully-fledged Ordinary Seaman, and 
who had met, on his leave, the girl who was to be his wife. 
He had not so far, however, been to sea on anything bigger 
than the Woodside Ferry, or known the ocean beyond New 
Brighton Pier. He found himself issued, in common with 
generations of seamen before him, with a station card, 
known in the Navy as a "breathing licence/' It bore his 
name, his mess number, his religion, his part of the watch, 
and some other details, and it was about one-and-a-half 
inches square. It seemed an insignificant trifle to add to the 
mass of kit with which he was already burdened on a long 
and complicated journey through a ship which he suddenly 
discovered to be very large indeed: as, moreover, she was in 
dry dock and on shore supply, which was very short, she was 
also extremely cold, and every watertight door that could be 
closed was closed as tight as possible, making things more 
confusing still and enlivening their progress with roars of 
"Shut that bloody door!" From the quarter-deck, via the half- 
deck, the torpedo flat, the marines' mess deck (where the 
first Japanese bomb was later to fall), past the bookstall, 
through the canteen flat, these sorry sailors struggled. How 
familiar is that sight of soldier, sailor, or airman staggering 
weary and strange to the complications of a new berth or 
billet! Round B Turret barbette, through a hatchway in the 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 2J 

armoured deck, down into the mess-deck space between A 
and B Turret barbettes which was to be his home from that 
moment until Repulse went down in the China Sea. And as 
he deposited himself and his belongings more or less upright 
at the bottom of the steel ladder, he heard for the first time 
the voice of Stripey Shatwell, whose welcome consisted of 
telling him to put his hammock straight in the hammock 
netting with the name showing, and not to leave anything 
lying around ever. 

"Or into the scran-bag it goes," declared Shatwell with 
conviction, and he was always as good as his word, from 
that moment until the ship went down, for he remained mess- 
deck dodger during the whole of that time. Men speedily 
learned that it was better to use their soap for washing their 
towels and other similar matters than to pay an inch a time 
of the bar to retrieve them from that same scran-bag and 
not to leave anything about. All this is not irrelevant: 
multiply the image of Stripey Shatwell by as many messes 
as Repulse contained, and you have an image of the spirit 
and the smartness of this ship. You have an image of what 
sort of men manned her, and you begin to regard her as 
something more than a pawn in the game of naval warfare; 
you begin to realise indeed that something more than a hull, 
some guns, and a miscellaneous collection of machinery was 
lost when she sank to the bottom of the sea because someone 
had blundered. 

"We didn't make it easy for them . . ." Which of them 
ever wanted to have it easy? Not Stripey Tom Murch, not 
Reg Slatter, not Cowin Webb, nor Chicken Howe. Not even 
Ginger Devine, the Scot, who believed in spending as little 
time as possible on board when there was a pub near enough 
to get to. Not Mess 46 or any other mess. 

Slinger's next duty was to report to the leading hand of 
the mess, Leading Seaman Bigmore, and never a man was 
better named, for he was one of the biggest men on the 
ship, and when he required something done there was no 



28 BERNARD ASH 

argument He ruled his mess with a rod of iron and a heart of 
gold, and was a father to the younger men, as well as the 
hardest of taskmasters. What he required just now was 
Ordinary Seaman Wood's breathing licence, and it was at 
this point that the breathing licence was discovered to be 
missing. Ordinary Seaman Wood literally had no right to 
breathe. There followed a nightmare journey back to the 
Regulating Office through all the complications of a ship 
that now seemed very big indeed, an outraged broadside from 
the Regulating Petty Officer, and his first visit to the Com- 
mander's table the following morning. The only time there- 
after that the precious square of cardboard was not in the 
pocket of his waistbelt was when he was on leave or under 
punishmentwhich, for the time being, was to be pretty 
frequently. 

A book could be written about Slinger Wood's progress 
from being a green new hand to a working member of 
Repulse's company who knew exactly what was required of 
him and who could do it quickly, keenly, and efficiently, 
whether the ship was on a peace-time exercise, rolling and 
pitching in the anxious darkness of the wartime North 
Atlantic, or in the relentless inferno of the Japanese bomber 
attack. Seamen of only a few generations before had learned 
their trade in a different way, by a three-year cruise round 
the world under sail alone in an old three-decker of the 
Flying Squadron: now there was no sail, no Flying Squadron, 
and certainly not three years to spare, but Stripey Shatwell, 
Leading Seaman Bigmore, Stripey Murch, the petty officers, 
the chief petty officers, the First Lieutenant, the Comman- 
der, the Captain himself all knew their trade through the 
long chain of command. There is no more vital thing either 
for men or for ships than this process of "shaking down/' 
Once a ship's company is knit together in this way, hell- 
fire itself can barely undo it; once interrupted in the 
knitting, it is never accomplished to quite the same de- 
gree. It is only when this is understood that it becomes 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 2Q 

clear what a shocking blunder it was completely to disorgan- 
ise the Prince of Wales (which had already had to fight a 
major action when barely out of the dockyard) by choosing 
her to be Churchill's Yacht for the journey to Placentia Bay 
and in what peril both Churchill and all the Chiefs of 
Staff were placed by the same token. 

It is a pity that there is neither room nor very much excuse 
to follow Slinger Wood through his individual process of 
shaking down, for it is the shaking-down of a ship in 
miniature and contains quite as many hair-raising incidents. 
The highlight of it was undoubtedly a matter of falling forty- 
five feet into the stokehold by way of an air intake through 
which the dockyard mateys had been lowering firebricks, and 
on which they had inconsiderately omitted to replace the 
cover; and it is quite typical of the ship, her discipline, and 
her sense of humour that when he returned to her later after 
six weeks in Haslar, he was on Commander's Report for not 
falling in with the duty watch after he had fallen down the 
stokehold. He was still on light duty when the ship sailed 
for Gibraltar, and on her second or third day out, she made 
a rendezvous with the Home Fleet, in or near the Bay of 
Biscay. The Bay was living up to its unenviable reputation, 
and filling both Ordinary Seaman Wood and some scores 
of other dry-land sailors with amazement at the antics 
which a big ship could peform and with agonised apprehen- 
sion at what was clearly happening inside them. Repulse 
was a lively ship in a good sea Scouse Garner was to make 
the same discovery when he joined her eighteen months 
later. 

It was dawn when Slinger decided that he might feel bet- 
ter on the upper deck. When he arrived there he found him- 
self not the first to come to such a conclusion, and there 
were plenty of others already hard at it. But what he saw 
(coupled, perhaps, with the cold, clean air), drove all the 
seasickness out of him. The rendezvous had taken place dur- 
ing the night and now, in the strong wind and heavy sea, they 



30 BERNARD ASH 

steamed in good order in as mighty a company of great ships 
of war as a man could wish to see, a sight which will never be 
seen again on the seas of the world. In the van, the Nelson, 
wearing the flag of the Admiral of the Fleet; with her, 
Rodney, Resolution, Revenge, Ramillies, Repulse, Ark 
Royal, the other ship he had helped to build; most of the 
City class cruisers, all the new Tribal class destroyers, and a 
host of others besides. Still the greatest fleet in the world, 
unchallenged for a century in its mastery of the seafull of 
precision and power, the capital ships almost contemptu- 
ously shouldering their way through the steep and stormy 
waters, the others keeping station with them almost as far 
as the eye could see. What need to remember that more than 
one of these ships was old, nearly all of them lacking in some 
degree or other their full equipment for defence or attack, 
the whole company of them inadequate in numbers for the 
tasks that were shortly to be demanded of them? Just as the 
folk of Singapore were to gaze on the Prince of Wales and 
the Repulse and see in them a whole mighty fleet which 
was to be their salvation, so young Wood and his fellows 
could gaze upon these ships and have no thought except 
that this was a Navy that ruled the ocean and would always 
rule the ocean. What price Germans, Italians, Japanese? It 
was this that had called in the clamouring shipyard, across 
the sandy flats of the Mersey, above the narrow, mean 
streets of Liverpool and Birkenhead. This was glory and they 
were the inheritors of it. 

The bad weather that had brought Slinger out on deck 
persisted (though he never felt like being seasick again) and 
cut down the exercises that had been intended. Nonetheless, 
they did a "throw-off" shoot with their fifteen-inch guns 
against Rodney, and Rodney returned the compliment: she 
was only just visible on the horizon, but her shells were land- 
ing very close to Repulse's wake, several hundred yards 
astern, as the method was. It was during this exercise that 
Lieutenant Commander Coney, Repulse's gunnery officer, 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 31 

earned his name of "Six-Gun Coney," with Lofty Waters in 
the rangefinder. "Nobody in the Fleet," declares Slinger, 
"could have convinced us that they had a finer or better shot 
than our Six-Gun Coney." If gunnery alone could not prove 
it, it was proved in the fist fights ashore, and in the pubs and 
canteens. A feeling of confidence filled the whole ship, and 
they never lost it, right up to the end. They were eager to 
have a go at anything or anybody. 

It is a matter of history that Repulse never took the King 
and Queen across the Atlantic. From that last of all her 
peace-time exercises with the Home Fleet she went to 
Gibraltar, and there her crew painted her from stem to 
stern, made everything spick and span for her assignment 
as Royal Yacht; but when she arrived back at Pompey, 
gleaming as surely no ship had ever gleamed before, there 
was a grievous disappointment in store for her. The year in 
which there was to be no war was already proving so dark 
and disastrous before it was half over, that the Admiralty 
had decided no ship could be spared from home waters for 
such a length of time. The Empress of Australia was to 
take their Majesties instead it was still before the days when 
Royalty could sail the seas in a converted cargo liner and 
Repulse, together with the cruisers Southampton and Edin- 
burgh could escort them half-way across the Atlantic, no 
more. The spick-and-span ship remained spick-and-span, the 
Queen's boudoir remained untenanted. Later (still decorated 
for the use for which it had been intended) it became an 
upper-deck wardroom, while the King's quarters reverted to 
the Captain. But Captain Tennant seldom used them, pre- 
ferring his sea-cabin. 

Regretfully the Repulse's crew (all those arguments and 
bloody noses had been in vain after all) dressed ship and 
saw the Royal party leave them. They took back with them 
the Royal mail; in getting it aboard the Commander and a 
party of men were overwhelmed by a green 'un which 
wrappd them round Y Turret, and a lot of profane remarks 



2 BERNARD ASH 

were made about His Majesty and his mail. His Majesty saw 
nothing of this, and made a signal ordering the main brace 
to be spliced. The bunting-tosser missed it and was never 
forgiven, although the double issue was made good later. 
Slinger Wood got his share. He was well under age, but by, 
now had good friends on the mess deck. In the weeks of hard 
training that followed, he found himself assigned to the for- 
ward starboard triple four-inch turret, almost abreast the for- 
ward funnel These old-fashioned triple mountings (a nov- 
elty in their time) were cramped as well as complicated, and 
it took a lot of training before a crew could work smoothly 
in them, especially at night when they were liable to be 
blinded by the flash of the guns. As rammer on the centre 
gun he was equipped with a sort of mop about seven feet long 
and a tub of water in which he splashed it, being careful not 
to step into the recoil of one of the other guns, and endeav- 
ouring to get in no-one else's way if possible. When the 
breech of his gun was opened, it was his duty to souse it 
(and everyone else within reach) with water, to cool it as 
much as possible. 

"What' 11 you do/' he asked Stripey Shatwell, who hap- 
pened to be breech worker of this same gun, "if I shove the 
head of the rammer in your face?" 

"Shove all your kit in the scran-bag/' replied Stripey 
Shatwell. 

Through these summer days the shadows of war were 
creeping up about them, and about a whole island which 
had already forgotten that Munich was peace in our time, 
or even that there was to be no war this year. Ships were 
ordered to their home ports, to give their crews summer 
leave a month earlier than usual, and on their way 'round to 
Plymouth, the mess deck debated furiously whether this was 
going to be another September crisis or the real thing. They 
were not as well-equipped for the real thing as their sister- 
ship Renown, now nearing the end of a major refitting in 
which she had not merely been completely re-engined but 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 33 

had her high-angle guns replaced with ten twin four-and-a- 
half-inch turrets twenty new guns for anti-aircraft work 
where Repulse still had only her six four inchers of World 
War I pattern. But they bragged of the drogues they had shot 
down and disposed of Hitler's navy. He hadn't much navy 
anyway only submarines, and the asdic equipment of the 
new destroyers would soon take care of those. By the time 
they made port they had sunk the lot, forgetting (as gentle- 
men in high places, prone to blunders, were wont to forget) 
that a torpedo may be launched from an aircraft as well as a 
submarine, and neither knowing nor thinking anything 
about Japanese torpedo-bombers at all. 

There are those in Liverpool who still remember the ar- 
rival of the Repulse's leave party (Slinger Wood among 
them) at Lime Street Station about three hundred of them 
who owned to the soubriquet "Scousc." It was July 12, the 
anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, when all good 
Orangemen march to their day's outing in honour of the 
good King William and the Protestant cause. The train 
bringing the Orange Lodge home had pulled into the station 
a few minutes before them; the Lodge had formed up ready 
to march out of the station, and the fine weather had brought 
out an impressive crowd to greet them to cheer or jeer, ac- 
cording to denomination, Billies or Paddies. The band struck 
up "Heart of Oak/' and at that moment, down the centre 
of the roadway which the police were keeping open for King 
BilHe's Navy, out charged three hundred men of the real 
Navy, fit, full of themselves, and all agog for leave. The 
crowd went wild, Billies and Paddies together. Who could 
have wished for a better reception? 

Beyond the city, across the turbid river where it widens 
out into the great, sandy lagoon of the upper estuary, the 
hull on which Wood and his mate had once worked towered 
immense amid its confining scaffolding, still not yet a ship. 
A quarter of a million miles of water still separated the 
Repulse from her rendezvous with the Prince of Wales off 



34 BERNARD ASH 

the coast of Ceylon; and from that rendezvous all too many 
of the bluejackets charging out of the station to the plaudits 
of the crowd would not return. Give them their hour: they 
deserved as much. 



CHAPTER 



ON THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 3, 19 39 A SUNDAY MORN- 

ing people in Britain waited in a curious state of suspense 
for the declaration of war. It was already two days since Hitler 
had invaded Poland, but the last act of the tragedy was being 
played out in the same atmosphere of indecision which had 
permeated every grim and darkening movement of its 
course. Some still hoped against hope for another Munich, 
another miracle which would bring yet another interlude of 
specious peace; others hoped that the long suspense would 
be over at last, that the fears would be ended, that we might 
know the worst. It was commonly expected, remember, that 
the moment war was declared, the sky would be dark with 
bombers, that all the terrors of the textbooks would descend 
on London, and probably every major populated centre in 
the land. There were to be no cheering crowds in the Mall 
this time, no wild enthusiasm, no overwhelming certainty 
of power and victory. 

Chamberlain made his speech, and almost immediately 



36 BERNARD ASH 

the sirens sounded a false alarm, a prelude to the "Phony 
War." 

There was no uncertainty aboard the Repulse, for which 
the war had already started. On August 31 she was at 
Scapa Flow, forming with Hood, the largest capital ship in 
the world, the battle-cruiser squadron of the Home Fleet, 
commanded by Admiral Forbes. On September i she was at 
sea near the Skaggerak, on Germany's very doorstep, and her 
crew was quite convinced that if any major units of the Ger- 
man Fleet ventured out, the shooting would start without 
further formality. Furthermore they had no doubt of what 
the issue would be, with their fifteen-inch guns against the 
eleven-inch guns of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau; al- 
though in the light of the subsequent fate of the Hood, the 
situation takes on a somewhat different colour. On the day 
war was declared, the two ships were sweeping away to the 
north in search of the Bremen, which was somewhere on her 
way home to Germany from the United States. But the 
Bremen fled to Murmansk and eluded them, as so many 
other things were to elude them in the endless combing of 
the seas in the coming months and years. Then came a re- 
port that the German Fleet was leaving Schillig Roads, and 
away they went through the Fair Isle Channel, plunging after 
phantoms through the grey northern seas. East of Orkney 
they groped, now in thick fog. On the morning of the 6th 
they were back in Scapa Flow. On the yth they were away 
again, patrolling the Norwegian coast to intercept enemy 
shipping which did not materialise. 

The ships were blacked out at night now, and if Slinger 
Wood and his fellows listened to one lecture on how far a 
cigarette-end could be seen in the darkness, they must have 
listened to a dozen. Life had changed very much for them, 
especially for the crews of the four-inch guns and the main 
armament. It became a regular thing, after dusk action 
stations, for the close range weapons to go into four watches, 
which meant that every fourth night they had no watch at 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 37 

all; but those on the fifteen-inch and four-inch turrets and 
the torpedoes remained in two watches, and there was no 
such luck for them. All very well for those on the main tur- 
rets and the torpedo tubes, for they were under cover! Wood 
and his mates on T-i were in the open. Under these circum- 
stances the long woollen pants which had caused so much 
innocent hilarity on the mess deck when they were first 
issued, ceased to be funny. They were worn with gratitude. 

Two things became important to them in the long, dark, 
cold hours of these watches: cover and cocoa the thick, 
greasy-looking "pusser's kye," of which a huge vat was left in 
the galley every night, and which became very palatable after 
the addition of a great deal of condensed milk and a great 
deal of sugar. Slinger Wood and Chicken Howe, who were 
usually the fetchers and carriers of the cocoa, became thieves, 
vagabonds, and liars in their endless quest for a sufficiency 
of both these commodities, and many a laugh they had 
quietly up their sleeves when Petty Officer Cory praised the 
generosity of the cooks, not knowing the sugar had come out 
of his very own mess's tea chest. 

As for cover, they would spend hours huddled up against 
the forward funnel, swapping lies, living their good times 
over again with interest, until the cold, the darkness, the sea, 
the war, the Scharnhorst, and the Gneisenmi receded. Lead- 
ing Seaman Davey in particular could have licked the hide 
off Barnacle Bill himself, especially with his yarns about the 
China commission from which he had not long returned, 
and Stripey Shatwell, who had been in the Navy since Adam 
was a lad, was not far behind him. No-one believed these 
stories any more than the primitive Greeks probably believed 
the heroic feats of Homer's heroes, but belief was a thing 
that bore no relation to them: the important thing was that 
they took the listeners away into another world where chill 
winds, damp, and discomfort did not exist; and there they 
squatted in comparative comfort in the lee of the roaring 
funnel while the ship beneath them, black as the night but 



38 BERNARD ASH 

vibrantly alive with her humming machinery and the thrust 
of her screws, drove on, pitching and rolling through the sul- 
len, sinister seas. 

When submarines were rumoured, the ship zig-zagged, 
driving them at intervals from one side of the funnel to an- 
other, and sometimes all this circumnavigation would fail 
to give them shelter from sea, wind, and spray. Then they 
would sneak into the captain's sea cabin flat usually to be 
evicted wrathfully by one of the duty Petty officers. Some of 
these were new to the ship, having joined when she was made 
up to her wartime complement, and their severities were 
less lightly taken than those of the PO's the men knew. One 
of them was a gunnery instructor, who won for himself the 
enviable title of Spit and Whistle. 

October a whole month of war and still nothing but 
empty seas and grim northern weather, with the dubious 
delights of Scapa when in port. These included a canteen 
which was not yet finished, football pitches which were be- 
ing laid out by reservists not yet posted to ships (how 
they must have loved it!) and the northern lights, which 
palled rapidly. But on October 8 an aircraft patrolling the 
Norwegian coast sighted German ships near the Lister light, 
steering north in murky weather, identified them as the 
Gneisenau, the cruiser Koln and nine destroyers. Here was 
a break-out, here was action at last! Flogging her old engines 
to the full, Repulse set out in high hopes, with the Hood, 
the cruisers Aurora and Sheffield, and the four destroyers 
which now were all that could be spared for a screen with the 
heavy demands of convoy duties. Alas, the seas were still 
empty. The German ships had reversed course under cover 
of darkness, re-entered the Kattegat, and were safely home 
in Kiel long before the hunt was called off. They never had 
any intention of breaking out: the thing was a snare, intended 
to draw the Fleet within the range of air attack and not 
even that materialised. The initiative was with the hunted, 
who could choose their time and place to sally out, to feint; 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 39 

the hunters had all the wide wastes of the ocean to cover 
with too few ships, and naval intelligence was not yet equal 
to coping with the enemy's moves. Repulse returned to 
harbour disgruntled. Six weeks of war and not a shot fired in 
anger, not so much as a glimpse of the German Fleet that 
had already been consigned to the bottom of the sea. Spirits 
began to flag. 

Far to the south in Cammell Laird's, the dockyard workers 
strove against blackout and earlier autumn sunsets to com- 
plete the Prince of Wales. There was still a year's work and 
more to be done on her, and the beginning of her war was 
to be a different matter. Two years were to pass before her 
meeting with the Repulse: if Lord Haw-Haw was to be be- 
lieved, the meeting would never take place, for he had al- 
ready sunk the Repulse more than once. 

But don't imagine for a moment that the Repulse was a 
dispirited and disillusioned ship. For one thing there was 
too much hard work to be done. H. V. Morton, writing later 
about the Prince of Wales, gave the world a very odd im- 
pression of life in a battleship at sea on a wartime ocean: 

While Nelson's seamen, stripped naked to the -waist, 
[he wrote], manhandled their tethered guns and lit them 
with fire, the modern gunner picks up a telephone and 
presses a button. No more physical effort is involved in 
firing a broadside . . . than in ringing the vicarage bell. 

Friend Wood and his shipmates, slopping and sweating 
in the confined space of their triple turret, could have given 
the world another story, much closer to Nelson's navy and 
certainly very far removed from the vicarage! Indeed that 
was one thing: for another, it only needed the merest hint of 
unusual movement, the slightest mess deck "buzz," to make 
them forget the weary weeks at sea and the dubious delights 
of Scapa Flow. Was it the Hipper? On the mess deck the 
Hipper was critically examined, assessed, disposed of, and 
sunk. Was it the Scharnhorst? The Gneisenau? They too, 



40 BERNARD ASH 

in turn, were speedily consigned to the bottom of the sea. 
Was it a matter of destroyers? Certainly the matter of 
destroyers might give anyone to think, for now the urgent 
need of escorts for the Atlantic convoys had skimmed their 
destroyer screen to the bare minimum and below. The four- 
inch and the close-range weapons would, they decided, cope 
with the destroyers. The main turrets wouldn't have all the 
shooting when the big gun battle came on. And the destroy- 
ers in turn were sunk. Captain Spooner, and for that matter, 
my Lords of the Admiralty, would have given the world for 
such a wealth of confidence. 

In the middle of October they went south to Rosyth for 
a boiler-clean. They had been at the degaussing range at the 
Kirkwall end of the Flow the previous afternoon, testing the 
degaussing equipment that had been hurriedly fitted when 
Jerry came up with his latest wonder-weapon, the magnetic 
mine. They'd passed within a cable's length of the Royal 
Oak. They always passed within a cable's length of the Royal 
Oak. She was as much a part of the scenery as the Rodney 
was to become before long in those days when a member of 
Rodney's crew was alleged to have had his romantic passage 
with a sheep. When the radio told them that the Royal Oak 
had been sunk, and sunk by a submarine at that, they 
wondered momentarily whether Lord Haw-Haw had taken 
over the BBC. But sunk she was. The mess deck decided 
that, after all, the safest place was at sea. 

But it was the high angle guns that fired their first shots in 
anger, and that, above all places, from the very dry dock 
where their boiler-clean was in progress, with half the ship's 
company on five days' leave. Jerry chose this moment to 
stage an air-attack on the fleet. The cruiser Southampton 
and the destroyer Mohawk were damaged. Repulse's after 
H.A. guns alone would bear from where she was lying, and 
they opened up with gusto. They had barely fired a dozen 
rounds when they found that with the best gunnery in the 
world, their chances of hitting Jerry or the Forth Bridge were 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 41 

just about equal. Out of respect for the Forth Bridge they 
gave up. 

Barely a week after that they were at sea again, this time 
with the aircraft carrier Furious, and they were at sea in a 
hurry. The Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau had broken out, 
made the northern passage undetected, and were at large in 
the sub-Arctic mists. This time there was no trailing of coats: 
it was commerce raiding in earnest. And there was a Halifax 
convoy already at sea. 

They found their convoy, and escorted it safely to port, 
the first of the many convoy jobs that were to be so much of 
Repulse's history. The pocket battleships did not find them: 
equally, they did not find the pocket battleships, and patrol- 
ling thereafter to the south and east of Newfoundland, 
storm-tossed, drenched and cold, they still did not find them. 
It was the armed merchantman Rawalpindi that found the 
Scharnhorst and, after a brief, unequal battle, went down 
fighting. Repulse and Furious were at Halifax refuelling. 
They put to sea in the teeth of a gale which might have been 
whistled up by the German Admiralty to conceal the move- 
ments of its ships, a gale through which even battle-cruisers 
and aircraft carriers could not steam at speed unscathed. 
Repulse suffered damage severe enough to make it im- 
possible for her to carry on, and an aircraft carrier on its 
own was no match for pocket battleships. Both ships put 
back to Halifax. 

On their next patrol, the battleship Resolution joined 
them. The stormy sea was still empty, and even submarine 
alarms seemed to be mythical. In the beginning the sound 
of depth-charges had been enough to send men scrambling 
from all directions to the upper deck in the hopes of seeing 
a kill, but they had scrambled so often with so little reward 
that they had given up wasting their energy in this way. 
However, in the dark, early hours of the morning, no more 
than a day's steaming from Halifax, it seemed as though the 
real thing had come at last Slinger Wood, being off watch 



A2 BERNARD ASH 

at the time, was sleeping on a mess stool. The mess stool 
was about nine inches wide and the ship was rolling and 
pitching in her usual heroic fashion. (He often wonders now 
how he managed to anchor himself so successfully to so 
narrow an object with all that motion going on, and further- 
more to relax while doing so.) Into the soundness of his 
slumbers came action stations, and he had barely blinked 
himself awake before the mess deck was empty. He got up 
to the gun deck as quickly as he had got up to the gun deck 
in his life, and when he got there it was obvious that this 
was not one of the periodic exercise alarms whereby the men, 
however browned-off by their lack of success in finding the 
enemy, were kept on their toes. T-2 was already closed up, 
loaded, and trained. In a matter of moments T-i was like- 
wise. 

Was it the Scharnhorst, the Gneisenau, or some other of 
the mythical raiders they had searched so many leagues of 
sea to find? It was, at least, a ship, a shape that emerged, an 
infinitesimal fraction darker than the darkness as eyes be- 
came accustomed to the night. Moreover, it was only a 
thousand yards or less away, and they were closing it broad- 
side on. The range was short enough even for the close-range 
weapons: the squeeze of a gun-layer's fingers could let loose 
anything on the target, fifteen-inch, four-inch, torpedoes, 
even pom-poms. And the target didn't seem to be aware of 
their existence. 

As Woods and his mates waited, tense with excitement in 
the triple turret, Repulse suddenly flashed her challenge, and 
even as it flashed, wondered whether the retort would be a 
blaze of fire. One second, two, three . . . the retort was noth- 
ing. 

The challenge was repeated, and still there was no reply. 

Then the Repulse's searchlights stabbed out into the 
night, over the white crests and the wrack of the stormy 
water. 

"Gripes! It's a liner!" said someone. 

Liner it was, and on a parallel course to their own. In fact, 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 43 

it was the Duchess of Richmond, and she was packed full of 
evacuees bound for Canada many of whom were probably, 
at that moment, saying their prayers pretty hard. In a matter 
of seconds the Duchess had lights on all over the place, so 
that the astonished men of the Repulse thought she looked 
as though she was on a peace-time cruise: in a matter of 
less than seconds, the signal deck was telling her to get them 
out again and take up station astern of the battle-cruiser. One 
can be forgiven for thinking that there was some degree of 
slackness, followed by a considerable degree of panic. Day- 
light showed her keeping station nicely with the Repulse 
ahead of her and the Furious astern, and no doubt by then 
the landsmen on board her felt that nice glow of safety that 
always comes of being convoyed by a capital ship; but there 
must have been a nasty moment. 

Did somebody blunder? Whether Repulse expected to 
meet the Duchess of Richmond, or the Duchess of Rich- 
mond the Repulse, cannot be known without the help of 
records that will not be made public for years, if ever; and by 
then the matter will have lost such small importance as it 
still has claim to. What evidence there is tends to the con- 
clusion that the meeting was unexpected, and that the liner 
came within an inch of being blown out of the water by every- 
thing the Repulse possessed. At this period of the war, such 
escapes were not uncommon, and there may even have been 
a few tragedies that have not yet been revealed, for the 
Admiralty, in a praiseworthy quest for perfect security, was 
overdoing things and still had lessons to learn. There were 
too many watertight compartments; the movements of ships 
were not universally known to each other. On the very re- 
turn voyage to England with the Canadian convoy, the 
Furious and the Aquitania were in collision with the 
Samaria, outward bound fortunately without serious dam- 
age to any of them and the official history admits that naval 
control at Liverpool did not know the movements of the 
Samaria. 



44 BERNARD ASH 

It is easy enough to pass strictures after the event. In 
the last resort the culprit was the war and its exigencies: 
even rookies sometimes damage themselves with their own 
weapons. 

A few days later the Repulse and the other two ships were 
on their way back to the Clyde with a very precious convoy 
indeed five large liners carrying the First Canadian Division, 
the first Dominion troops to reach England, and the first of 
Repulse's troop convoys. They themselves were not empty- 
handed: the hangars and every bit of spare space on board 
were crammed with flour and food and stores of all 
descriptions. People at home might not be feeling the pinch 
very hard as yet: to American commentators and the world 
at large it was still a phony war but every sack of flour and 
every tin of food was vital to the island that had not fed itself 
for generations, had found it more profitable to buy food 
beyond the seas, and let its own farmland go to rot. Another 
blunder? At every turn there was a blunder, a blunder of 
long or short standing. A battle-cruiser at war was stuffed 
as full of men as a hive is stuffed with bees, or an anthill of 
ants, but still room had to be found for food. 

Still their luck held, and they delivered the Canadians to 
the Clyde: the only untoward incident was the collision al- 
ready referred to. Then it was back to the Home Fleet again, 
still based at Loch Ewe instead of Scapa, where work to en- 
sure that the Royal Oak episode could not be repeated was 
still not finished. Back to the Home Fleet and back to those 
endless patrols. Bitter they were now. The northern winter 
seemed to have no end, and the shelter of the forward funnel 
was little comfort indeed to Slingcr Wood and his mates. 
Elderly ladies (and not so elderly ladies) knitting comforts 
at home have always seemed slightly funny heaven knows 
why, because the men of the Repulse would have been hard 
put to it without their help, and now, years later, feel that 
they never expressed their gratitude enough. Two pairs of 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 45 

socks, scarf, gloves, and two balaclavas were the minimum 
needed (on top of woollen underwear and everything else 
provided in the way of issue) to stop a man from turning into 
a human icicle, and they were donned as soon as the ship 
cleared harbour, not to be removed till she returned. 

So, three days after Christmas, they were steaming, roll- 
ing, pitching, and freezing in company with tbe battleship 
Bctrham (a new companion for them) and five destroyers. 
The crew of the triple four-inch guns had just decided for 
the hundredth time that it couldn't be long now: all they 
had to do was patrol the seas, keep the Jerries out of the 
convoy routes, polish off such odd surface raiders as the 
Scharnhorst, the Gneisenau, the Hipper and the restJerry 
hadn't a fraction of the ships he'd had in the first war, as the 
recalled veterans reminded them again and again. Then, in 
the spring, the Army would get moving, and before you could 
say "knife," it would all be over and back to peace-time 
sailoring. It all sounds very silly, but how many well- 
informed landsmen with ten times as much knowledge about 
the war as the men on the mess decks of the Repulse, suc- 
ceeded in convincing themselves in these months that the 
war was only beginning, would drag on for year after weary 
year, that unimaginable disaster lay only a few short months 
away, that disaster would be repeated again and again and 
again, first in Europe, then in Africa and Asia, then in the 
Far East, until the tiniest island of the Pacific was not out 
of the range of war? Singapore, at ease behind its impregna- 
ble defences, Hong Kong with a few old destroyers, good 
enough for a station remote from the battle area of the 
Atlantic who gave a thought to these or imagined that they 
in their turn would be overrun, engulfed in the day of 
reckoning for blindness and blunders? The Admiralty had 
warned of the active intervention of Japan. Who, even at 
the Admiralty, actively rememberedor had the ships or the 
resources to do anything about it if they did? 

Anyway, the crew of the triple four-inch had settled the 



46 BERNARD ASH 

war for the hundredth time, and it was at this point that the 
torpedo hit the Barham, which was just astern of the Re- 
pulse. No-one had spotted the submarine there had been no 
alarm. So much for that utterly fool-proof asdic, with which 
Mess 46, on a summer evening not so very long ago, had 
consigned every German submarine that dared venture 
within its range to the bottom of the ocean! Stoker Dick 
has told the author quite categorically that the torpedo was 
intended for the Repulse, missed and hit the Barham 
insteadon no authority whatsoever except that, when a 
ship like the Repulse was sitting in the periscope sights, who 
would waste torpedoes on the Barham? The funny thing was 
that after it was all over, the Liverpudlians in Repulse's com- 
plement were envious of the Barham because, being far from 
mortally wounded, she limped in to the Mersey and was 
there in dock for three months, while her crew got leave. 
Just now, however, the destroyers were charging furiously 
about the area and depth charges were throwing up moun- 
tains of water in all directions, hammering on the hulls of 
the other ships under water as depth charges will; and 
Repulse was best out of it. Her long hull quivered and rose 
to the seas and she put on speed until she looked more like 
an outsize destroyer than a capital ship herself. She raced 
into the Clyde and up the Clyde, nearly washing away the 
boom defences, boom vessel and all in the process. A battle 
cruiser left unescorted with submarines on the warpath was 
in no condition to think about her dignity. 

Now Hood became their companion again, but only for 
a little, because she was badly in need of a refit the mighti- 
est battle cruiser in the world could raise no more than 
twenty-five knots. After her, Renown, Repulse's sister-ship, 
re-engined, re-equipped, and very pleased with herself indeed. 
January, February the endless North Atlantic winter still 
dragged on and in March, Scapa Flow became their base 
again. The Royd Oak was gone, but the battleships Nelson 
and Rodney were bidding fair to take her place as permanent 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 47 

features of the uninviting landscape. Every time the Repulse 
returned from patrol, the two great ships were still there, 
swinging at their moorings. Some said, in fact, that they 
swung no longerthat they were aground on a mountain of 
food tins accumulated beneath their keels. The joke was an 
old one, even* then, but Mess 46 relished it nonetheless for 
that, and lost no opportunity of rubbing it in on the battle- 
ships' men when they got a little canteen leave. At the same 
time they admitted magnanimously among themselves that 
it wasn't their fault, that there was nothing much they could 
do about it, and that they probably didn't get much joy out 
of being stuck there for weeks on end. And yet, after all, it 
was to be Rodney that was in at the kill of the Bismarck, 
and not Repulse. In the event, Rodney laughed both last 
and longest, and no amount of ba'aa-ing from the Repulse 
could make up for it. 

The long, dreary months of the phony war were drawing 
to a close. Any time now would come the Allied spring 
offensive on the Continent: then there would really be action 
instead of all these dreary sea-miles and all these chases after 
phantoms. Then Repulse would come into her own even 
Rodney might get off her shoal of food-tins. There was an 
offensive, all right, but it was not the offensive the men of 
the Repulse or, for that matter, the whole of the English- 
speaking world had been looking forward to. For Germany 
struck first. Before unbelieving ears could take in the news, 
Denmark was overrun, Norway invaded a seaborne invasion 
by a power whose navy had seemed beneath consideration. 

"Every ship in the Skagerrak will be sunk," cried Churchill 
desperately, and hearts lifted momentarily with the hope that 
the damage could be undone. It was a vain cry. Where were 
the great ships to do the sinking, the destroyers to escort 
them, the carriers to give them fighter cover? Where were 
the heavy, long-range bombers, or for that matter, the 
heavy bombs with which to arm them? Great ships, desper- 
ately needed, still building, destroyers stretched out over an 



48 BERNARD ASH 

ocean too vast for their numbers . . . capital ships too few, 
too slow, keeping the sea for months, and some of them now 
urgently in need of refit. And phantoms breaking out every- 
where, the initiative still always with the besieged, the 
besieger trying to stop a hundred holes at once. 

The Repulse was at Scapa when news came of Norway 
on April 7. At dusk that day came the order to raise 
steam, and less than three hours later the whole fleet was 
making for sea at top speed. Far away to the north the little 
destroyer Glowworm had run full tilt into the Hipper and 
was fighting it out as best she might against impossible odds. 
As the Repulse drove, pounding and straining into a full 
north-north-west gale, Captain Spooner told his men over 
the loudspeakers of the situation, and had desire been steam 
or prayers propellers, she would have moved as a battle-cruiser 
had never moved before, and skimmed the towering seas like 
a veritable Flying Dutchman. All through the night they 
wrestled with the gale as Glowworm's reports came in; but 
before nine the following morning the reports had faded. 
Glowworm was gone and her men were heroes. Hipper was 
gone, the seas were empty again. 

Further north they went, where Admiral Whitworth 
was pursuing their old quarries, the Scharnhorst and the 
Gneiserwu, with their sister-ship Renown. There was no 
sign of either when Repulse joined Whitworth the fol- 
lowing day. Renown was to distinguish herself against the 
Gneisenau later but without the aid of the Repulse. 

"I think we could sail this bloody ship into Bremen with- 
out meeting a Jerry/* commented Stripey Shatwell in disgust 
and he didn't seem far from the truth, for before long they 
found themselves at the entrance to Narvik Fjord, which 
was certainly full of Jerry ships and Jerries too. Their de- 
stroyer escorts, Hardy, Hunter, Havock, Hotspur and Hostile 
went in and rattled up a hornet's nest. Repulse was about to 
go in after them when she was ordered out, and the Warspite 
went in instead. There was good reason enough for it: 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 49 

Warspite had eight fifteen-inch guns against the Repulse's 
six; her guns had greater elevation to deal with German gun 
positions on the cliffs, and she had more secondary arma- 
ment as well, which she used to good purpose, but the battle- 
cruiser's men could be forgiven for thinking that the other 
ship had stolen their thunder. Warspite went in and got her 
name in the news bulletins; the Repulse stayed outside on 
guard. Eighteen torpedoes were fired at her; all missed, so 
that at least she could be considered lucky, but it was a 
different sort of luck that Mess 46 asked for. Maybe they 
ought to have been grateful, but then they weren't that sort 
of men, nor was the Repuke that sort of ship. It is difficult 
for civilians, difficult even for men in middle age to look 
back on a war they took part in twenty years ago, to realise 
that men really pray for death and glory. It was the Rawal- 
pindi's sort of luck they wanted, the Glowworm's, the luck of 
Warburton-Lee and his immortal destroyers, the luck of 
Glorious that sort of luck, not the luck of standing by with 
guns that had never fired a shot in action, while others went 
in. 

Sometimes her frustrations had their humours. It was not 
long after the Narvik business that the Repulse and the 
Renown together were ordered out of Scapa in a hurry to 
the aid of the cruiser Suffolk, which had been bombed. 
Speed was all important and the Renown was told to make 
what speed she could with her fine new engines, so that the 
business took on some of the atmosphere of a race. Super- 
human efforts in Repulse's engine room produced a few 
cables' lead to start off with, but her sister-ship soon closed 
the distance and was slowly forging ahead along the Repulse's 
port side, with money, rum, and every other imaginable 
thing being wagered, when the lookouts reported aircraft on 
the starboard beam. Slinger Wood and his mates, reluctantly 
withdrawing their attention from the race, pronounced them 
German: the air defence position was just as sure that they 



50 BERNARD ASH 

were friendly RAF planes going to the assistance of the 
Suffolk. 

"Friendly aircraft!" disputed Leading Seaman Slatter, 
with heat "They're Heinkels . . . ins. And here's some 
friendly bombs, by God," he added. "Look out!" 

They dived for cover as the bombs came tumbling out 
like tennis balls, and in the same moment the AA guns 
opened up. The ship, still at full speed, heeled over under 
full starboard helm, and the next instant a wall of water rose 
up solid from the sea, to rear down again and drown the 

decks. On the Renown, they could see nothing but water 

it looked as though the Repulse's last moment had come. 
But she came steaming out of it without a scratch, and the 
only thing that was very much shaken was her crew's confi- 
dence in the air defence position. The air defence officer was 
christened "Friendly Aircraft" a less complimentary title 
than the gunnery officer's "Six-Gun Coney," but it stuck 
just as hard. 

The Suffolk was located, well down by the stern, and it 
was a slow convoy back to port, but there were no more 
Heinkels. 

Now came the invasion of the Low Countries: the hard- 
won gains in Norway had to be abandoned, and all the 
heroism was in vain. Out of the host of blunders came the 
Repulse, shepherding a slow convoy carrying evacuated 
stores from Harstad precious stores indeed, with the im- 
mense loss of equipment that was to follow in France, but 
not a glorious operation. Came Dunkirk, and a tremendous 
feeling of helplessness, while even the smallest unarmed 
motor-boats were playing a desperate game in the English 
Channel. And there began to dawn a realisation that the 
war wouldn't be over soon, that the lords of the contemptible 
German Navy were masters in Europe and would be masters 
for many a day, even if we managed to keep them out of 
England. All the wiseacres of the mess deck had been wrong 
politicians, service chiefs, wishful thinkers and war corre- 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED Jl 

spondents had been wrong. There was no foreseeable end to 
it now, and what the way might be out of all the blunders, 
even the mess deck couldn't guess. 

In particular, they couldn't guess that it was the happen- 
ings of the last few weeks that were to lead them to their 
end in the South China Sea. For the defeat of France took 
away the French Navy, on which the Admiralty had de- 
pended for the holding of the Mediterranean when war 
brewed up in the Far East: indeed, the Admiralty was (in 
the very words of the official historian) now at its wits' end 
for ships, even for the tasks of the moment. But the fall of 
France also meant the neutralising of French Indochina, and 
worse was to follow: for the Vichy government was pres- 
ently to cede to the Japanese, air bases in that territory, and 
those air bases, while themselves out of range of such aircraft 
as we had in Malaya, were to be just (albeit only just) within 
striking distance of Singapore. What matter? The Japanese 
weren't very good at aircraft, they had no more than eighteen 
months' reserves of oil, they wouldn't risk an attack upon 
the Western Powers. The politicians carefully assessed the 
evidence, proceeded to their conclusions, and blundered. The 
reckoning for their blunders was still eighteen months or 
more away, and in the meantime the Repulse could go on 
steaming her endless miles, searching forever for phantoms, 
and never coming to grips with them. She was to come to 
grips in the end with phantoms at whom she could not 
strike back effectively. 

It was just after Dunkirk that Captain Tennant took over 
the ship from Captain Spooner. He knew her well he had 
been her navigating officer fourteen years before. He took 
over a good ship: it is no slight to Spooner to say that he 
made her an even better one. 

Look at the ship for a moment through the eyes of a young 
marine, John Garner, who joined her not long after this, to- 
gether with two comrades, Marines Stocking and Claxton. 
He was barely eighteen, had just completed his recruit's 



52 BERNARD ASH 

training, and the Repulse was his first ship. He had originally 
been drafted to the cruiser Devonshire, but for some reason 
or another was unable to join her, but he never had any 
regrets about the Repulse. He had seen the ship only once 
before, in Plymouth, and the old soldiers had filled him and 
his youthful fellows with dread tales of how "pusser's" she 
was. They were undeterred they couldn't get aboard quick 
enough. Vividly and easily over the years he recalls his ship- 
mates, Loot Lissaman, Dusty Taylor, Scouse Johnson, 
Paddy Drake, Butcher Lovedon, each of whom could have 
written a book about his experiences; the Captain of 
Marines, Captain Lang ("Old Joe") and his second-in- 
command, Lieutenant Davies, who was to lead the marine 
survivors in their jungle days after the ship was lost; Sergeant 
Major Parsons, known (not to his face) as Jan. 

"Later," writes Garner, "as was usual, we met the Skipper, 
Captain William Tennant. The Skipper was a man who had 
the affection and the loyalty of every man aboard the ship, 
and I think it was his handling of the men that made the 
ship the happy community she was/' 

Neither sailormen nor marines, nor any other sort of 
servicemen pay that sort of tribute out of politeness. Tennant 
may protest as vehemently as he likes (although he is not 
a man given to vehemence) that he didn't make things easy 
for them. He made things easy for them in a way that 
sailors and soldiers understand, by running an efficient and 
well-disciplined ship. And the ship lives on in the memories 
of those who served in her. 

Garner was assigned to the after four-inch handing room 
and later became breech worker on T-3 gun originally T-4, 
but re-numbered when the original T-3 was taken out and 
replaced by a multiple pom-pom. This was a marine's gun, 
with Corporal Mick McKillen as its captain, and on it he 
was to become a neighbour, in a manner of speaking, of 
Slinger Wood, to whom the fitting of the pom-pom was 
presently to bring release from the cold watches of his triple 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 53 

gun deck and the eternal dodging round the forward funnel. 

For the arrival of the extra pom-pom and some half-dozen 
additional Oerlikons (how slender the ship's resources in 
these weapons still were!) created a shortage of AA gunnery 
ratings, and over a ready-cut wool rug with which Slinger 
happened to be giving him a hand, Leading Seaman Slatter, 
whose business up to that time had been .5 machine guns, 
put it to him that it might be a good thing to volunteer for 
the instruction class. 

Presently, therefore, he found himself on the after pom- 
pom, M.3. with Slatts in charge of his watch: that was ad- 
vantage number one because the close-range weapons, as we 
already know, were divided into four watches instead of two. 
The other advantage was that just behind M.3. were the 
engine-room air exhausts which poured out a constant stream 
of hot air, and this was very welcome, indeed, after all those 
frozen nights of dodging 'round the funnel. Unfortunately 
it wasn't quite so welcome when, with the widening of the 
theatre of war, the ship found herself in the tropics; but 
then it would have been too much to expect everything. 

The way the pom-pom was handled was typical of the way 
most things were handled on the Repulse. On the somewhat 
slender excuse that he was a bit rusty on pom-poms (slender, 
because he never really gave evidence of being rusty on any- 
thing to do with the Navy) Slatts insisted on stripping and 
cleaning one or two of the guns every watch never, of course, 
having more than one gun out of commission at a time, so 
that if necessary, fire could always be opened with the other 
seven. In the course of a couple of weeks both Slinger and 
any of the other ratings could have stripped, cleaned, re- 
placed, oiled, and re-loaded any one of the guns blindfolded 
on a dark night; just for a change they would take down, 
clean, grease, and re-place the hundred rounds of ammuni- 
tion on each gun's tray. 

Slatts very rarely let up. One of the few occasions when 
he did was on New Year's Day of 1941, when the ship was 



54 BERNARD ASH 

at anchor in Scapa. Scapa was full of ships and a batch of 
mail had arrived. Slatts decided to answer his letters, Slinger 
Wood buried his head in a cowboy book, Seaman Brown 
did likewise, and Kenny, the other member of the watch, 
got busy with a Hank Jansen. It was a general make and 
mend throughout the Fleet, with a low cloud ceiling, and 
everything was nice and peaceful. It was at this precise mo- 
ment that an aircraft chose to make its presence obvious 
above the cloud base and outside the safety lanes. Wood 
drew Slatts' attention to it, and Brown reported it to the 
Control, but before anything further could happen the 
plane's engine noise seemed to rise as though it were going 
into a dive. Slatts yelled at them to open fire and in the same 
instant the eight guns were each pumping out their one hun- 
dred thirty-five shells a minute. The whole Fleet followed 
suit; but in the next instant Slatter was yelling to Wood to 
cease fire and throwing the gun off the target. He had real- 
ised that the plane was a Fairey Fulmar off course: it dived 
and twisted away over Flotta and there was a lot of explain- 
ing to do, as well as four hundred thirty-five empty cartridge 
cases to deprime, the guns to clean, sponge out, and re-load, 
and in general quite enough work to keep them occupied 
until the next watch took over. Down on the mess deck they 
found themselves distinctly unpopular, and M-3. gun deck 
appeared to become a rendezvous for inquisitive visitors in- 
cluding the Fleet Gunnery Officer. However, nothing more 
was heard of it. 

There was a later occasion in Freetown when, owing to 
one of the tappets becoming jammed in the firing position 
after testing the circuits, M.3. sent seven two-pound shells 
sailing over the quarter deck of the aircraft carrier Furious 
at zero altitude. Nothing was heard of this either: the mess 
deck noted, however, that their mail suddenly started arriving 
promptly they had been missing it through leaving harbour 
at inappropriate times. Whether this was pure coincidence, 
or whether someone in authority thought the ship was on 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 55 

the verge of mutiny, is another of those things which will 
never be known. Had some newspaperman of the baser sort 
been lucky enough to get hold of the story, we should proba- 
bly have had a legend of mutiny on the Repulse as well as 
on the Prince of Wales. 

All this is anticipating the course of events a little, but it 
would be fruitless to attempt to continue to follow the move- 
ments of the Repulse in detail for the rest of 1940. There 
were more false alarms and more phantoms to chase. There 
were more Halifax convoys and convoys further afield. There 
was what Captain Tennant christened, in his own words, 
"the Watch on the Bay" still against the breakout of the 
Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau. There was another episode 
similar to the episode of the Duchess of Richmond when 
the Alcantara, bearing a load of evacuees from the Middle 
East, failed to answer a challenge until the third attempt, 
and came within an ace of getting herself blown out of the 
water in her turn. But it was mild stuff after the way in which 
their sister-ship Renown, leaving her destroyer escorts be- 
hind and steaming twenty-nine knots into a shocking sea, 
caught and severely mauled the Gneisenau. In October the 
Scheer broke out and found a convoy escorted by the armed 
merchant cruiser Jervis Bay. But for a combination of cir- 
cumstances the Repulse would have been escorting that con- 
voy, and she would have made a better match for the 
German raider: as it was, ablaze from stem to stern but with 
her guns still firing, the Jervis Bay steamed to her end and 
into history, saving her convoy and leaving the men of the 
Repulse once more to bemoan the chance that had been 
denied them. In December the elusive Hipper broke out 
again, but was back in Brest long before the Repulse and 
other units had given up the search for her. In January the 
Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau again . . . 

Yet all those sea miles, all those alarms and excursions, 
all those convoys from which never a ship was lost, could 
build a ship up to a peak of efficiency in which every man 



56 BERNARD ASH 

and his job fitted with perfect ease and certainty into the 
complicated jigsaw which makes up a great ship of war- 
even to Stoker Dick, whose job as freshwater tanky was to 
start the pumps for the pom-poms fore and aft every time 
the alarm went up. He started them time and time again, 
but apart from the escapades of M.$. there was very little 
to show for it. A ship could build up to a peak of efficiency 
like this: it seemed such a waste to have nothing to use it 
on. 

The blitz was causing the men a lot of worry now 
especially the Merseyside men, of whom there were so many 
aboard. It was easier for them in their interludes in Scapa, 
when the mail came regularly and leave could mostly be got 
somehow if the worst happened; but it was often very bad 
when they were on the other side of the Atlantic or in Gib 
or Freetown, where the shore lights still blazed across the 
harbour on the hot, humid nights, making blackout and 
blitz seem unreal. To Mess 46 it often seemed at this time 
that it was safer at sea than at home. 

Slinger Wood's grandfather died at this time, taking all 
his memories of the South African War to the grave with 
him. It was a pity he couldn't have lived just a little longer to 
wonder at his grandson being regaled with a pep talk by 
General Jan Christiaan Smuts at Durban, and wonder at the 
strange way in which things turned out. 

In October there was a dry-docking at Rosyth, and the 
ship's company all got leave in one go, with the exception 
of a small nucleus for necessary purposes and emergency 
defence. Most of these were volunteers, including Slinger, 
Slatts, Chicken Howe, and Ginger Devine. Slinger didn't do 
badly out of that, for apart from other considerations he 
spent a weekend at Ginger Devine's home in Belshill from 
which the pair of them returned like two walking barrels of 
beer. He got his leave from Scapa in November and during 
that time he took an important step in a man's life: he got 
engaged to be married. When he returned from that im- 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 57 

portant event, the ship was at sea, and it was the only time 
in her whole commission that he missed a trip. She came 
back from Iceland with a bunch of German scientists, whom 
she had been sent to scoop up from an enemy meteorological 
station: it seemed a pretty humdrum job for a battle-cruiser. 

So came the end of 19403 long, long way removed in- 
deed from the previous winter of the phony war, and from 
the days when Mess 46 confidently waited for their chance 
to polish off the little German Navy and hold the seas until 
the Army moved to its great offensive in the Spring. It had 
been a year of blunders and of penalties for blunders. Repulse 
herself had suffered from some of the blunders the blunders 
of faulty intelligence that had sent her chasing phantoms, 
the blunders that had left the Navy at its wits end to carry 
out all its tasks at sea, the blunders that had closed the 
Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, and left only the long 
sea route round the Cape to be covered by too few merchant 
ships and too few escorts. Another year was yet to pass be- 
fore the full consequences of all this were truly felt, before 
the Far East was aflame, the war world-wide, and the 
Repulse herself at the bottom of the South China Sea. The 
Japanese menace still lay, in Churchill's words, "in a sinister 
twilight/' and nearly everyone, from that great man down 
to Mess 46, was busy blundering over it. 

The great ship's last year was dawning. For the Prince of 
Wales, life had not yet begun. She still lay in the fitting-out 
basin at Birkenhead, baptized by the fire of the blitz before 
she could seek the enemy in her own element She was near 
completion: the King George V, first of her class, had al- 
ready appeared at Scapa Flow before the eager and critical 
appraisal of the Fleet bristling (or so it seemed) with AA 
guns and every modern device, more heavily armoured than 
any ship afloat, the shape of battleships to come. 

Across the narrow sea the Bismarck was also nearing com- 
pletion. 



CHAPTER 



WHEN ALF TUDOR FIRST SET EYES ON THE "PRINCE OF WALES" 

at the end of a long and dreary train journey north from 
Devonport, he said to himself "Tudor, son, you won't settle 
on that one." Alf was a regular sailor and a small ship man. 
He had gone down with the destroyer Brazen off Dover and 
been fished out of the sea, which was the reason for his post- 
inghe was to be fished out of the sea twice more before 
his war was over. In fact, he did settle in the Prince of Wales 
and, before a short space of time was out, would not have 
dreamed of wishing himself in any other ship. 

To young Cyril Williams and something like a hundred 
other boy seamen she was the most tremendous thing they 
had ever seen, and like Marine Garner on the Repuke, they 
couldn't get aboard her quick enough. They, too, found 
themselves on a happy ship and led their own peculiar and 
intense life on the boys' mess deck forrard. 

To the Navy at large she was H.M.S. Unsinkable which, 
as we have already noticed, is a dangerous thing to call a 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 59 

ship. To the world of soldiers, civilians, and other shore- 
bound individuals, she was a vast floating mystery replete 
with every device for attack and defence known to man. To 
the Prime Minister she was something almost magical, re- 
gardless of his just condemnation of her main armament, 
and his misgivings about the apparent gap in her armour 
caused by the aircraft hangar. 

She had finally been completed at Cammell Laird's dock- 
yard in spite of the difficulties of blackout and blitz at the 
end of February 1941; and fortunately the blitz had caused 
her even less damage than we were liable to inflict in our 
desperate bombing attacks on German battleships in 
harbour. 

Five weeks before her completion on January 18 
Frank Seddon, who was to be a member of her communi- 
cations branch from that moment until her end, joined her 
in the dockyard; and he is a useful and reliable witness to 
many happenings, for he had a signalman's view of all the 
events of her short and stormy life, and still has a signalman's 
memory. He was seeing his second war; he was another 
representative of the people over whom Britain blundered in 
the years between his two wars, for his tale was not unlike 
the tales of Slinger Wood's father and his grandfather. He 
had joined the Navy at Devonport as a boy of fifteen, and 
his first ship had been the old battleship Albion, guard-ship 
at Scarboroughhe had his first taste of fire there in 1916 
when the Germans were shelling the East coast. After that 
he'd gone to the 4th Battle Squadron in H.M.S. Colling- 
wood, then to destroyers. He was discharged to the Reserve 
in 1920, but soon found work in the dirt and stench of 
Fairrie's Sugar Refinery a different life for a man than the 
Navy. He had tried to get back but there was no getting 
back, and if it hadn't been for his second war he would never 
have got back at all. 

Seddon was on her when she left the dockyard, and her 
beginning was lacking in dignity, for at the very outset of 



60 BERNARD ASH 

her first short voyage her condensers were found to be thor- 
oughly bedevilled with Mersey mud, and she had to anchor 
while things were put right. At least no-one is to blame for 
this except the strange and sinister genii who brood over the 
mud banks of that turbid estuary. 

That first voyage should, in fact, have only taken her a 
matter of a couple of miles down river to Gladstone Dock 
to collect her stores; but the bombers that had failed to do 
the ship any material damage had succeeded in destroying 
the stores completely, and they were not there for collection. 
Escorted therefore by four destroyers, she set out for the 
Clyde. There were still a large number of dockyard civilians 
aboard her, and some of them were to stay aboard her for 
longer than they bargained for because this ship was having 
more than her fair share of teething troubles, and it is doubt- 
ful if she ever had time to get the last of her troubles out of 
her system. 

Now any ship let alone a ship with such an infinity of 
mechanical complications as a battleshipis liable to trouble 
in her early stages, and we must be cautious of making too 
much of the troubles that beset the Prince of Wdes. The 
overwhelming number of these can be put down to no more 
than the normal difficulties of getting new machinery run 
in, and new equipment into smooth working order. In peace- 
time they would have been disposed of one by one in a 
lengthy period of working-up, and modifications would have 
been made where necessary. Certainly there was an immense 
amount of trouble with her radar (or RDF as it was called 
in those days) but perhaps even of this too much can be 
made, because this equipment was still barely out of its 
experimental stages and the number of hands in the Navy 
thoroughly skilled in its use were very, very few. We know 
that both her search radar and her gunnery radar had been 
tested and found working in experts' hands a short time be- 
fore she left to meet the Bismarck, and while there are some 
contradictions in the evidence, as we shall see, it is pretty 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 6l 

evident that neither yielded any help worth talking about in 
that action. 

But the really serious trouble-^especially for a ship liable 
to be pitchforked into battle almost as soon as she joined 
the Fleet was the trouble with her main armament, the 
fourteen-inch guns. Here there was an endless and exasper- 
ating series of mechanical breakdowns. The design was new, 
the type of turret was new, everything was new. Whether 
there was similar trouble with the King George V, the Duke 
of York and other ships of her class, is a matter on which, at 
this moment, there is no available evidence nor is there any 
evidence as to whether the modifications made to the turrets 
after the Bismarck action were also made to her sister ships. 
The fact is that it was only at the end of April a few weeks 
before she sailed to intercept the Bismarck that the last of 
her turrets was accepted from the builders. It must have been 
even then accepted with some reserve, because we know that 
this was one of the things that kept the civilian dockyard 
workers aboard, and we also know that this turret broke down 
at an early stage of the action. Even later that summer, when 
the Admiralty was fighting a rearguard action against Mr. 
Churchill's determination to send the ship to the Far East, 
one of the specific points made was the necessity for the ship 
to be kept within as easy reach as possible of dockyard 
services. 

If the main armament had been so overwhelmingly 
superior in fire power to anything the enemy could bring 
against it, there would at least have been a reasonable pretext 
for a ship being involved in such unnecessary difficulties in 
the middle of a war, but it wasn't. The idea behind the 
whole thing had been to equip the ships of this class with 
a slightly smaller calibre gun capable of a rapid rate of fire; 
the reduction in calibre was to be more than compensated 
for both by this rapid rate and by the fact that they were 
to carry twelve guns instead of eight. But at a later stage a 
fatal compromise was indulged in: the weight of the pro- 



62 BERNARD ASH 

tective armour was increased and two of the fourteen-inch 
guns were sacrificed to allow for this. With only ten guns, 
even allowing for the rate of fire, the broadside was inferior 
to that of older ships and certainly inferior to the massive 
broadside of the Bismarck. Mr. Churchill told Stalin that 
the Prince of Wales was capable of hunting down and sink- 
ing anything the Japanese possessed; but there is very little 
doubt that she would have been outgunned by the Japanese 
just as she was by the Bismarck. All this we shall have to 
take into account when we come to consider the final 
blunder that sent her out to the South China Sea in a role 
which it was virtually impossible for any battleship to fulfil- 
even had she displaced a hundred thousand tons and been 
equipped with as many guns as Field-Marshal Montgomery 
at the crossing of the Rhine. So much for the theory, so 
much for the facts. And on top of the facts the thing that 
is above dispute the turrets were always in danger of failure 
and did fail in her one encounter with a major enemy unit. 

Could a change have been made in mid-ig39 when it was 
seen that an early war was unavoidable, that there would be 
no time to trifle with the temperaments of experimental 
equipment? Who is to say, with a great mass of the records 
and evidence on these matters still not available to the public, 
and the memories of those who were concerned with them 
still bound by the Official Secrets Acts? Certainly the 
Admiralty were disillusioned on this topic by the time the 
Vanguard was laid down because the Vanguard carried eight 
fifteen-inch guns of more conventional pattern. 

Obviously the whole tale of troubles was not known to 
the Prince of Wales' s complement although there can have 
been few of them unaware of some of them. Captain Leach 
was undoubtedly aware of all of them and that is why it is so 
surprising to be told that he always wore a smile upon his 
face. This mannerism is described repeatedly by a number of 
people: perhaps, indeed, it was only a mannerism; perhaps 
under the circumstances he found the smile particularly 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 63 

necessary. Seddon describes him as a fine, upstanding, and 
quiet man: he had much to be quiet about. One thing is 
certain: with all the difficulties of working-up under wartime 
conditions added to the difficulties created by the special 
problems of his ship, he succeeded in a very short time in 
producing a happy ship's company and, under the circum- 
stances, a surprisingly efficient one. On the whole he got little 
credit for it at the time, and even Admiral Tovey seems 
automatically to have echoed Rear-Admiral Wake- Walker's 
assumption that there could not possibly be anything to be 
said in favour of the Prince of Wales. 

It was a very diverse ship's company, as wartime ship's 
companies were liable to be. In age alone it spanned the 
distance between the boys' mess deck and reservists who 
themselves had sons older than the boys aboard. Its HO 
personnel ranged from characters such as Esmond Knight, 
who later fought his way back to fame as an actor while still 
blinded from the Bismarck action; and Empire Boxing 
Champion Johnny King, who became a particular member 
of Alf Tudor's circle and a very useful friend too, both in 
differences of opinion aboard, and in scrounging free enter- 
tainment in Singapore and elsewhere. Their hobbies were as 
diverse as themselves, ranging from the differences of opinion 
already referred to (to be settled finally in the approved 
fashion on the forecastle) to leather work and mat-making. 
Seddon applied himself enthusiastically to the latter: he had 
sent several completed works home before he started on his 
masterpiece, the Prince of Wales's Feathers in gold on a blue 
background. This one went to the bottom of the China Sea. 

However, there was not too much time for hobbies. Cap- 
tain Leach kept his ship's company hard at it, trying all he 
knew to make them as efficient as possible in the brief period 
before he must report that she was fit for service with the 
Fleet. She would go on working-up, of course, and working- 
up on active service had plenty to be said for it as long as it 
did not include an engagement which would subject to the 



64 BERNARD ASH 

very severest of strains a new ship and a new ship's comple- 
ment The landsman who sees a great ship and admires its 
power and majesty is in the happy position of not needing to 
pause for a moment to consider the vast amount of organisa- 
tion that knits the endless complications of its equipment, 
and the vast number of its personnel, into a thoroughly 
efficient whole that can be depended on to function under 
any circumstances. There is infinitely more to it than that 
button-pressing H. V. Morton found so impressive. The 
complement of such a ship alone is many times larger than 
that of an infantry battalion, and apart from the skills of sea- 
manship, practically every trade recognised by all the three 
Services finds its place aboard. Difficult enough to organise 
this so that every man knows his job and his place, and the 
equipment he is handling in a calm sea under peace-time 
conditions; but a battleship must be capable of going into 
action in fair weather or foul with all these complications, 
of suffering damage, light or severe, and still being able to 
carry on. It is a tremendous credit to the memory of Leach, 
his officers, and men that they were able not merely to sur- 
vive their first action so soon after being commissioned, but 
that they came out of it still efficient in spite of severe dam- 
age and were, moreover, able to inflict wounds on the enemy 
that led to his ultimate undoing. 

As one of those evils necessary under the circumstances 
they were inspected by a number of people of varying degrees 
of importance. They were inspected by the Commander-in- 
Chief, Home Fleet, Admiral Tovey. Finally they were in- 
spected by the King. 

"I trust you have been to sea before/' he said to Alf Tudor 
and his adjacent shipmates. 

"Are you kidding?" thought Alf while assuring his 
Majesty that he had. 

Was it one of that conscientious and well-loved monarch's 
less apposite remarks? Was he pulling Alf Tudor's leg? Or 
was he (being in an exceptionally good position to know 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 65 

what manner of things were in store for them) genuinely 
concerned about their welfare? After all, the King had been 
to sea! 

While Captain Leach was desperately making the most of 
every available moment to get his command into fighting 
shape, another ship was finishing her working-up on the other 
side of the narrow seas; and about her working-up there was 
no life-or-death urgency, for her job was to be efficient be- 
yond any possibility of failure before she embarked on her 
first mission. This ship was the Bismarck, the flower of the 
new German Navy, and there is no reasonable doubt that 
at that time she was the most formidable fighting ship in the 
world. Slinger Wood's messmates on the Repulse could 
dispose of her as much as they liked she would not be 
disposed of that easily. Landsmen, civilians, war corre- 
spondents, and wishful thinkers could still bandy the word 
"ersatz" about a convenient word but the meaning had 
rather gone out of it since the battle of France and the 
decisiveness with which German arms and equipment had 
won the mastery of Europe. There was nothing ersatz what- 
soever about the equipment of the Bismarck, and there was 
certainly nothing ersatz about the quality of her complement 
or its training. Everything of which Germany had been 
starved in the years leading up to the war had gone into this 
ship: a nation had been combed for its finest men and noth- 
ing had been spared for their indoctrination and their morale. 
They were the New Germany, the masters-to-be of the world 
for a thousand years; and unlike the ships of the hard-pressed 
Western Powers, desperately put to it to keep the seas, to 
protect the precious convoys, and to watch every bolt-hole 
from which the enemy might issue forth, they were not going 
to put their noses outside their protected seas until they were 
absolutely certain that they were fully efficient in every 
possible detail for the job. 

On May 21, Captain Leach piped all hands and told 
them over the loudspeakers that he had reported to the 



66 BERNARD ASH 

Commander-in-Chief that his ship was ready for service. He 
had, in fact, made this report on the iyth. It was not under- 
stood by this, any more than it was meant to be understood, 
that the ship was a fully effective fighting unit in every re- 
spect. She was no more than reasonably fit for ordinary 
service operations with the Fleet, and neither her Captain 
nor Admiral Tovey, who commanded the Home Fleet, had 
any illusions about it. Unfortunately neither they nor the 
ship's complement had any choice in the matter. In a very 
short time they, and all the world, were to know what at that 
moment was hidden from them that three days previously 
the Bismarck, in company with the cruiser Print Eugen had 
left Gdynia and was at that very moment steaming as hard 
as she could for the north-about passage by which they would 
break out into the Atlantic and wreak havoc among the 
convoys. Their crews had no dreams of knightly battles be- 
tween ship and ship; they would show their metal to any 
ship that opposed them, and there was no ship on the seas 
that could face them single-handed; but their job in the first 
place was to destroy, to cut the lifelines between the old 
world and the new, by virtue of which Britain narrowly 
survived. 

Almost immediately, therefore, after their Captain's an- 
nouncementor so it seems in the memories of the Prince 
of Wdes's survivors came an order from the C.-in-C. for 
steam at one hour's notice, and every man aboard knew that 
there was a "flap." 

At this stage nothing was known of the whereabouts of 
the Bismarck except that air reconnaisance had shown her 
and her consort missing from every harbour where they 
could possibly be. Weather conditions were poor with wind 
and a heavy sea; far to the North, on the escape route out 
into the Atlantic, there would be "rainstorms, snowstorms, 
icefloes, and mirage effects," to quote Admiral Tovey's later 
report. Through it all the German ships would be steaming 
at their best speed, which was at least as good as that of any 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 67 

battle-cruiser we possessed, and action to head them off was 
urgent. At midnight, therefore, the Prince of Wales was 
sailed for Iceland in company with the Hood, under the 
command of Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland, as the Battle- 
Cruiser Squadron of the Home Fleet. Prince of Wales, in 
other words, acting for the nonce as a battle-cruiser, was sail- 
ing with the Repulse's old companion in the role in which 
Repulse had sailed with the Hood so many times a search 
for yet another elusive phantom in the Northern mists. The 
Hood had only recently rejoined the Fleet from the dock- 
yard, and had already been out on convoy duty before she had 
had time to regain her full efficiency. The whereabouts of 
the enemy were not yet known. We were, as our first move, 
to head him off, throwing into the battle, in the words of the 
official historian "one twenty-five year-old ship, one so new 
that her armaments had not yet been fully tested, nor her 
ship's company adequately practised in their use." In the 
words of Leach's report on the action, his men were "im- 
mensely keen and well-drilled, but inexperienced/' 

At this point the Repulse 9 instead of being in company 
with her old comrade was preparing for another of her never- 
ending convoy jobs convoy WS 8B, crammed with troops 
and about to leave the Clyde on the long voyage to the 
Middle East around the Cape. With her was the aircraft 
carrier Victorious, herself almost as new as the Prince of 
Wales and able to put no more than a handful of Swordfish 
torpedo-aircraft into the air, flown by pilots who had next to 
no experience of active service. Both these ships were de- 
tached from their convoy and ordered to rejoin the Home 
Fleet: the convoy sailed naked and defenceless and probably 
the greater majority of those who made that voyage on the 
crowded troop decks still do not realise that in that state 
they steamed right through the battle area and crossed the 
track of the Bismarck twice. It was as well that they did not 
know about such things, for it is bad enough to be a helpless 
soldier on a troopship without being aware that one is in 



68 BERNARD ASH 

the middle of a major naval engagement and wide open to 
the largest and nastiest battleship in the world. 

But the Repulse and the Prince of Wales were not yet to 
meet. 



CHAPTER 



MAKING THEIR BEST SPEED IN VERY HEAVY WEATHER, 

the Prince of Wales and the Hood steamed together on a 
course for Hvalfjord. Through the racket of the storm and 
the pulse and vibration of machinery there was tenseness and 
quietness among the men. Once they had cleared harbour 
they had been told whither they were bound and why. For 
men like Seddon, for men like Alf Tudor and his mates, it 
was a familiar feeling. For the boys and for so many of the 
newly-joined ratings, not to speak of the civilians who had 
never expected to go into action at all, it was a hastening into 
the unknown. For Leach and his officers, possessed of all 
manner of knowledge which was denied to their men, it was 
a time of tremendous testing. 

Far away in the northern mists for which they were head- 
ing, not far from the ice edge in the Denmark Strait, Rear- 
Admiral Wake- Walker with his two cruisers, the Norfolk 
and Suffolk, was keeping watch on the northern passagea 
difficult and exacting watch. On the evening of the 



7O BERNARD ASH 

look-outs on the Suffolk, dimly and only for a few moments, 
sighted a large and a smaller ship steering south-east at speed. 
There could be no doubt what ships they were, and she im- 
mediately made her sighting signal. This was never received 
by the Admiralty but shortly afterwards, at 8:32 P.M., Nor- 
folk in her turn sighted them and made a report which was 
received. The hunt was on and the Prince of Wales was in 
the forefront of it: she and the Hood with their six accom- 
panying destroyers altered course to intercept. Watching the 
destroyers, the men on the bigger ships thought they would 
never be able to remain in company; but they held on, and 
the fact that in the course of that night they were parted 
from the Hood and Prince of Wales was not their fault but 
Admiral Holland's a poor reward for all their tenacity. 

At the same time, now that the whereabouts of the quarry 
was known, Admiral Tovey left Scapa with the Home Fleet. 
The Repulse had sailed from the Clyde at 7:10 that morn- 
ing and, with her three destroyers, came up with him north- 
west of the Butt of Lewis. This was better than convoys, 
even than a W.S. convoy. She was back where she belonged, 
and all that could be hoped for was that the battle-cruiser 
squadron would leave enough of the Bismarck and her con- 
sort for them to get their teeth into. 

Far ahead of them Admiral Holland had certain special 
problems in the action which was now almost inevitable. 
His adversaries were two ships whose object was to break 
out into the wide spaces of the Atlantic, and which by now 
had only to complete their passage of the Denmark Strait 
before they would do so. One of them was an immensely 
powerful and formidable ship, faster than his own ships, but 
also more heavily armed. His own ship, the Hood, was the 
British Navy's greatest ship, but she was a battle-cruiser and 
in common with all battle-cruisers, including the Repulse, 
was thinly armoured and especially weak in her horizontal 
armour. She was therefore safest at ranges of less than thir- 
teen thousand yards, for beyond this range the trajectory of 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 71 

shot begins to plunge steeply towards its end. The Prince 
of Wales 9 s situation was precisely the opposite: the horizon- 
tal armour was exceptionally strong, for she had been built 
to survive aerial bombing attack. She therefore was merely 
subject to the ordinary consideration that the closer she got 
to the enemy, the more the enemy's shot would hurt. This 
matter was so obvious to Admiral Tovey that he had thought 
of ordering Admiral Holland to send the Prince of Wales 
in first, but considered it unwarranted to draw the attention 
of so senior an officer to so obvious a situation. Whether 
Admiral Holland thought of it or not, the world will never 
know, for he went down with the Hood. All that can be said 
is that he led the way into action himself. His intention was 
to make contact at daylight on a favourable gunnery course. 

Now the gunnery officer's ideal is a situation in which he 
himself is broadside on to the enemy, so that as many as 
possible of his guns will bear, while the enemy is bows on 
to him, giving a margin of error in the fall of shot of a whole 
ship's length: in the case of a capital ship, a matter of the 
greater part of a thousand feet Such a perfect situation can 
never be realised completely in practice; commanders make 
the best approach to it they can, and a ship which is in- 
creasing its advantage in this way is said to gain bearing, 
while one which is losing it is said to lose bearing. 

Admiral Holland's original course was an excellent inter- 
cepting course. He expected to make contact in the northern 
twilight any time after i -.40 A.M., and shortly after midnight, 
the Prince of Wales, plunging furiously along on the Hood's 
starboard quarter, was closed-up for action. But even as the 
men hurried to their stations, something happened twenty 
miles or more away which upset all calculations: the shadow- 
ing cruisers lost touch, and as a result of this Admiral Hol- 
land made the first of a series of fatal blunders. He assumed 
that the crusiers had lost touch because the Bismarck and 
the Prinz Eugen had altered course. He reasoned that they 
had altered course to escape into the northern mists, and he 



J2 BERNARD ASH 

himself therefore altered course from north-west by west to 
due north, reducing speed at the same time. 

Why should the enemy have altered course? It is almost 
impossible to follow Holland's reasoning, although it is easy 
to criticisewith time for calmer reasoning and full knowl- 
edge of the whole story decisions made in the heat of an 
emergency. It also goes against the grain to criticise the 
decisions of an officer who cannot answer back because he 
lost his life in the action which was about to take place. But 
the object of the Bismarck was to break out into the Atlantic; 
being bottled up in the northern mists was the last thing she 
desired. She knew, admittedly, that she was being stalked by 
the cruisers and would assume the cruisers had called down 
the hunt upon her; but she was completely unaware of the 
presence of the battle-cruiser squadron and therefore could 
not possibly have been trying to escape it. If, moreover, it 
came to escaping it, she had both superior speed to run, and 
superior armament to fight it off while still continuing to- 
wards her objective. All this is confirmed by what we know 
after the event of the decisions made aboard the Bismarck 
that night: she held on her course to the south-west and all 
Admiral Holland was doing was to lose bearing, putting his 
gunners at a disadvantage, and his ship in the direst peril. 

In a moment the whole picture with the battle-cruisers 
on an intercepting course, the Home Fleet hastening up in 
support and ships over a wide area being redeployed towards 
the scene of the coming action was broken like a frustrated 
jigsaw puzzle. At 1:40 A.M. the Prince of Wales prepared to 
catapult her Walrus into the air to search, for twilight in 
those latitudes at that time of the year should last all night. 
But this night was unusually dark, and the attempt was aban- 
doned. It was this particular aircraft's last chance of doing 
anything useful; for not much later, it was damaged by shell 
splinters and jettisoned. At two o'clock, long after he should 
have made contact, the Admiral turned south but left his 
destroyers to continue on their northerly course. This again 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 73 

was a decision which as the official historian would say "calls 
for consideration." The destroyers could do nothing against 
the Bismarck themselves, but by thus being separated they 
lost the chance of weighing in with their torpedoes while the 
big gun battle was in progress and, in fact, only arrived on 
the scene in time to search for survivors from the Hood. At 
the same time, the Prince of Wales was ordered to search an 
arc of the horizon with her gunnery radar, but it would not 
cover the arc and Captain Leach requested permission to 
use his search radar. The official history says this was refused, 
but Admiral Tovey refers to the mysterious appearance on 
her radar screen of three echoes where it was known there 
were only two ships. Maybe, as he suggests, the Bismarck 
threw up two echoes, maybe the equipment was playing 
tricks. Used or not, it gave little or no help in the course of 
the action. 

It was after two o'clock when the frantically searching 
cruisers picked up their contact again, and Holland imme- 
diately made his final change of course to intercept; but it 
was a course that would make the gunners tear their hair with 
frustration when they in turn got their first sight of the 
enemy. At this time visibility began to improve and the men 
on the Prince of Wales, who had been closed-up and tense 
now for nearly two hours, were able to see a little more of 
what was going on those of them, that is, who were in a 
position to see; for the fact is that very few of those engaged 
in a naval action in a capital ship ever got much of a view 
at all. For this reason one finds that the memories of even 
the best of people are often confused; their timings, in par- 
ticular, go astray, and events are telescoped in recollection 
into a much shorter period than they actually occupied. It 
has been the writer's experience in talking to survivors that 
for the first time after all the years they were able to get a 
whole picture of this and other battles straight, things fell 
into place which they had never probably understood before 
light dawned. It is odd for one who was never nearer than 



74 BERNARD ASH 

many hundreds of miles from the Bismarck and who was, in 
fact, on dry land at the time, to find himself explaining to 
the people who took part in one of the most important naval 
actions of the War, exactly what went on under their noses. 

There was, in any case, very little to be seen except the 
same expanse of stormy ocean they had seen the day before 
if anything a little stormier with the Hood pitching and 
rearing her way along perhaps half a mile ahead of them on 
their port bow and their own ship carving her way at thirty 
knots through the heavy weather, repeatedly taking the sea 
green and flinging great sheets of spray over the forward tur- 
rets and the upper works. It continued to clear fast until 
visibility was twelve miles or more. 

It was 5:35 A.M. when the enemy was sighted. In the 
twenty minutes that were still to pass before the range 
closed sufficiently to open fire while the last urgent prepa- 
rations for battle were being made Captain Leach surveyed 
in his mind the state of his untried ship and crew. He had 
done everything a commander could do in the time allowed 
him. He had told his men what was expected of them, kept 
them informed, minute-by-minute, of the scene which he 
and those around him could see while so many of them 

could not. Something still seemed to be lacking there was 

still something to be done. H. V. Morton got the story from 
the Padre, the Rev. W. G. Parker, of how the Captain sent 
for him and told him that he wanted him to read a prayer to 
the ship's company. 

"Can you remember/' he asked, "a prayer which begins, 
'Oh God thou knowest how busy I am . . .7" 

"It is Sir Jacob Astley's prayer before the Battle of Edge- 
hill," said the Padre, "and I have the words in my cabin." 

"Fetch it quickly/' said the Captain, "There's not much 
time." 

And so through the loudspeakers all over the ship, in the 
midst of all the business of war, in the midst of the tenseness, 
the anxiety and the fear which comes before action to the 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 75 

bravest of men, there came the calm voice of the Chaplain. 
The words he spoke were the words of men in another age, 
fighting quite a different sort of war for quite different rea- 
sons, but their age was the age which created the Book of 
Common Prayer and shaped the language of prayer for the 
whole of the English-speaking world for countless genera- 
tions to come: 

"Oh Lord, Thou knowest how busy we must be today. If 
we forget Thee, do not Thou forget us; for Christ's sake. 
Amen." 

It was all there was time for, and all there was need for. 
Men bowed their heads briefly in their turrets, amid the roar 
of the machinery in the bowels of the ship; and the prepa- 
rations for battle went on. 

There must have been something approaching consterna- 
tion in the Prince of Wales's gunnery control when the 
course on which they were approaching the enemy became 
apparent; for the German ships were almost dead ahead, or 
at least fine on the starboard bow, so that it was touch and go 
whether the after turrets would bear on the target at all. The 
range-finders in the after turret were useless while those in A 
and B Turrets were obscured by spray: moreover, owing to 
the speed of their end-on approach, the range was difficult 
to determine in the extreme. In the event, we are told, fire 
was opened on a range obtained from a small auxiliary range- 
finder in the control position. The gunnery radar was in 
theory useable for obtaining ranges, but either through de- 
fect or through the inexperience of the half-trained operators 
it was, for all practical purposes, useless throughout the ac- 
tion. On the German ships, of course, the situation was 
exactly the opposite: the battle-cruisers were approaching 
them at a point only a little forward of midships, bows on 
to them, and they could hardly have been better placed for 
opening battle. 

This was the situation into which Admiral Holland's 
blunder of . the night before had led them. It must be taken 



y6 BERNARD ASH 

into consideration in passing judgment on the performance 
of the Prince of Wales; it must be taken into account when 
reading Rear-Admiral Wake- Walker's dispatch and Admiral 
Tovey's dispatch, which was based on it, and in correcting 
the very poor opinion they obviously had of Captain Leach's 
ship. It must be taken into account in passing judgment on 
the cruel and senseless rumours which were bandied about 
after the action, and in asking ourselves why nothing was 
ever done about them. It is only long, long afterwards, in 
recent years, that the facts have become public property and 
even so, as we shall see, some sections of the press could not 
resist raking up the ugly rumours all over again. 

It might be thought that nothing could now be done to 
make the situation worse than it already was for the Prince 
of Wales and the Hood. In fact, something was. The 
unfortunate Holland now proceeded to make his biggest 
blunder of all. During the night the two enemy ships had 
changed station and the Prinz Eugen was now leading the 
line, dead ahead of the Bismarck. It is true that the silhou- 
ettes of the two ships were remarkably similar, although it is 
equally true that the Bismarck was many times larger than 
the cruiser; it is also true that conditions were not ideal and 
that the relative sizes of ships at sea are often difficult to 
determine. Whatever allowance we may make for all the 
circumstances, there is no escaping the fact that Holland 
mistook the Prinz Eugen for the Bismarck, and ordered both 
his ships to open fire on the leading vessel. In the Prince of 
Wales's control position the mistake was immediately real- 
ised and fire was opened on the right-hand, not the left-hand 
ship. The evidence now is overwhelming that the Hood 
never fired a single salvo at the Bismarck and this conclusion 
is supported both by the official history and by Sir Winston 
Churchill's Memoirs. 

At 5:53 A.M., after the endless hours of suspense, the guns 
at last spoke. Both the German and the British ships opened 
up almost simultaneously. The range was twenty-five thou- 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 77 

sand yards and closing rapidly. The Prinz Eugen took the 
Prince of Wales for her target while the Bismarck concen- 
trated the full output of her massive fifteen-inch broadside 
on the Hood, especially vulnerable at this long range. Clearly 
the German ships were well informed about their adversaries 
and how to deal with them. Their equipment was first class 
and the men who handled it trained to the peak, so that they 
were able to make the most of their favourable position. 
They found their target rapidly. Against them were the 
fifteen-inch guns of the Hood and the fourteen-inch guns of 
the Prince of Wales. Hood was firing at the wrong target 
and there is no evidence that she found it in the few salvoes 
she got off. The Prince of Wales did not cross her target 
until the sixth salvo, and in view of both her difficult posi- 
tion and the lack of training of her men, it is much to her 
credit that she did not take longer. On top of all this, one of 
her forward guns failed after firing one single round, while a 
few salvoes later Y turret broke down completely and became 
useless. 

What happened now was engraved for the rest of their 
lives on the memories of those aboard the Prince of Wales 
both those who saw it and those who could only hear what 
was going on. Boy Williams in P. 3. high-angle turret heard 
the commentary coming over the loudspeakers amid all the 
din of action: first salvo in the wake of the Hood, second 
salvo between the Hood and Prince of Wales, third salvo 
closer still to the Hood. At this point he looked through 
the periscope and was in time to see shells from the fourth 
salvo hit the Hood somewhere about the after turret. Imme- 
diately a mass of flame engulfed the quarter-deck and sec- 
onds later the whole mighty ship erupted in a single titanic 
explosion. Seddon saw it also from the bridge: momentarily 
to him and to other watchers the forecastle of the Hood 
showed at a crazy, impossible angle, and then the whole ship 
completely disappeared from the face of the waters to rain 
down in wreckage on the sea and on the decks of the surviv- 



78 BERNARD ASH 

ing vessel. So, in almost an instant, perished the British 
Navy's greatest ship, leaving the Prince of Wdes alone 
against the enemy with only five out of her ten main guns 
serviceable. It was Jutland all over again. It was a fierce re- 
minder of the chances of battle-cruisers in any action be- 
tween capital ships a fierce reminder for any battle cruiser, 
including the Repulse. And no doubt the Japanese as well as 
the Germans took note of it. 

All over the Prince of Wales there went up the cry "The 
Hood's gone!" and following on it came the voice of Captain 
Leach telling them that they must do what they could by 
themselves. 

The range was still closing rapidly: the 5.25'$ were now 
in action, as well as the main guns. Bismarck immediately 
switched her target and switched it with devastating effect. 
Boy Williams's turret was put out of action by a shell that hit 
the working space below it but did not explode miracu- 
lously the only casualty was the seaman torpedoman, who 
had his hair singed. In the course of the next few minutes 
the Prince of Wales received direct hits from four fifteen- 
inch shells and three eight-inch shells. She was holed below 
the waterline aft and soon had a good four hundred tons of 
water aboard. Her radar room was wrecked, her foreward fun- 
nel shot nearly in half. Both her foreward H.A. directors and 
her after starboard director were put out of action and there 
was an infinity of minor damage. At two minutes past six 
Seddon, still at his post on the bridge, heard a crash above 
him like the end of the world, as one of Bismarck's shells 
hit the compass platform, carrying part of it clean away and 
killing and wounding practically everyone upon it. The only 
unwounded survivors were miraculously the Captain, the 
Chief Yeoman, and Leading Signalman Willey, who is deaf 
to this day from the blast. The Captain came staggering 
down to the bridge. He seemed dazed but was in full pos- 
session of himself. 

"Clear up the mess/' he said. 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 79 

Almost immediately he turned his ship away, making 
smoke, to open the range. He needed time to recover from 
the shattering blows which had been dealt him. 

The damage control parties went to work, and all men not 
otherwise engaged were put to cleaning up. Alf Tudor, 
emerging from his turret, was astounded at the damage and 
the change in the appearance of the ship for, with all the 
racket of the main and secondary armament firing, he had 
not realised how many times she had been hit or how hard. 
The foreward funnel was a caricature of a funnel, the com- 
pass platform was a ruin, the air reeked with high explosive 
and there seemed to be casualties lying around everywhere- 
one of them he recognised was Esmond Knight. The battle 
ensign was in shreds and when he got up on to the compass 
platform the wreckage was literally spattered all over with 
flesh and blood. 

Boy Williams was having a similar experience, he and 
those around him having been set to work on what was left 
of the after radar room. Here there were bits of complicated 
equipment all mixed up with bits of human beings. It was 
no baptism for a boy, but with the others he got on with it 
Seddon, in a note of his experiences at this time, compasses 
a laconic and almost Pepysian phrase. It was, he says, "not 
to our liking/ 7 

Unknown at this time to any aboard her, the Prince of 
Wales had in fact scored three hits on the Bismarck which 
set into motion the train of events that led to her ultimate 
destruction. They had been seen aboard the Suffolk, nearly 
fifteen miles away, but not by Wake-Walker's people in the 
Norfolk. They had not caused major damage to either ship 
or machinery but they had holed one of her fuel tanks, 
causing her both to lose oil and contaminating the rest of 
the supply in the tank with salt water. It was this that 
changed the whole of the Bismarck's plans, stopped her from 
breaking out into the Atlantic (which she was now other- 
wise in a position to do long before the Home Fleet came 



8o BERNARD ASH 

up), and caused Admiral Lutjens to decide to part company 
with the Print Eugen and make for St. Nazaire. In short- 
and we shall hear more of this later in spite of all her ap- 
palling handicaps, and in spite of the blunders that had put 
her at an even greater disadvantage than she would already 
have been, she had accomplished sufficient of her mission 
to earn boundless credit for a newly-commissioned ship in 
trouble with her most vital equipment and with her crew 
half-trained. What she got instead of the credit that was her 
due we shall presently see. 

Had those who were busy trying to make things as ship- 
shape as they could out of twisted steel, wrecked equipment 
and shattered bodies known all this, it would have done them 
a power of good; for it can readily be understood that their 
morale had been dealt a serious blow. It did not interfere in 
the slightest with the job on hand at least it does not appear 
to have done so. Perhaps there is nothing that puts the 
training and co-ordination of a ship to a greater test than the 
kind of situation with which they were now coping. On a 
ship something less than half worked-up conditions could 
well have become chaotic. What did happen was that at 
7:20 A.M. no more than an hour and seven minutes after 
the brief action was broken offthe ship was being conned 
once more from her normal position, two guns of Y turret 
were serviceable again, and Captain Leach reported himself 
able to make twenty-seven knots. However, Rear-Admiral 
Wake- Walker of the cruiser squadron, under whose com- 
mand the Prince of Wales fell automatically when Vice- 
Admiral Holland went down with the Hood, ordered him 
not to re-engage. Disconsolately she followed in the wake of 
the cruisers, which had now come up with her and were still 
stalking the Bismarck. 

It was only forty minutes later that Admiral Lutjens 
signalled his intention to make for St. Nazaire. If only they 
had known of itl 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 8l 

Now, at the moment the battle-cruiser squadron opened 
fire on the Bismarck, the Repulse was pounding and thun- 
dering along with streaming decks in company with the 
Home Fleet three hundred miles or more from the scene 
of the action. With her were Tovey's flagship, the King 
George V, the new carrier Victorious, the cruisers Galatea, 
Hermione, Aurora, and Kenya, and seven destroyers. It had 
been a hectic and hurried departure from Greenock, and the 
mess deck had been alive with "buzzes" of every description, 
all on the best authority (this was regular routine) until once 
harbour had been cleared, Captain Tennant broadcast to the 
ship's company and told them what they were about. The 
favourite "buzz" in Mess 46 had been that they were going 
to the rescue of a convoy which was being attacked off 
Northern Ireland. There was a convoy all right, for they 
steamed through it at twenty-eight knots, leaving their wash 
behind them, but the truth was much more acceptable. At 
speed in that heavy sea, the ship was putting on one of those 
displays of acrobatics that had so upset Slinger Wood on his 
first trip through the Bay, long ago in a world of peace she 
was taking it green as far aft as B turret. Nonetheless, Slinger 
and his mates settled down to plan out the campaign. They 
did not realise that the battle-cruiser squadron would go into 
action long before them; they visualized a concerted attack 
on the Bismarck by the whole of the Home Fleet together. 
Long before they turned in that night if the term could be 
used for a night of action stations, with most men trying to 
get some sleep alongside their guns, down shell rooms and 
magazines, and in all manner of other unlikely places the 
Bismarck was at the bottom of the sea, as the U-Boat fleet, 
the Scharnhorst, and the Gneisenau, and every other unit of 
the German Navy had been before them. There was utter 
confidence everywhere, the confidence of a good ship, which 
these men never lost. Scouse Garner remembers discussing 
the limitations of their guns against the Bismarck, but also 



82 BERNARD ASH 

remembers the marines deciding that their gunnery would 
make up for it. 

Early in the morning a bridge messenger, a boy seaman, 
came running through the marines' barracks. 

'The Hood's gone!" he cried, bursting with the impor- 
tance of his news. 

A marine corporal grabbed him. 

"What's that?" he demanded. 

"The Hood's gone/' repeated the boy. "Sunk by the 
Bismarck.' 9 

"I've a bloody good mind to run you in/' said the corporal. 
"Spreading buzzes like that." 

"It's true. Honest it is/' insisted the boy. "She's gone." 

The corporal let him go reluctantly and he disappeared 
into the racket of the driving ship. The marines looked at 
each other, unwilling to believe. Ten minutes later Captain 
Tennant piped all hands and told them over the loud- 
speakers, and then they knew it was true, whether they 
wanted to believe it or not. It was the same for Slinger Wood 
and Mess 46 it was the same for all of them. It wasn't just 
that the Navy's greatest ship had gone to the bottom of the 
sea, sunk literally in seconds after firing no more than a few 
rounds at the enemy. It was much more than that: Hood 
was almost their sister-ship, they'd sailed together so many 
times, shared so many of those grinding searches and 
abortive chases. They'd friends aboard the Hood, many 
friends. They weren't the first friends they'd lost in the war, 
any more than the Hood was the first ship to be lost, but this 
was something different They burned with revenge, every 
one of them. They wanted to get at the Bismarck and get 
their own back. Six main guns and twelve four-inchers re- 
gardless, they wanted to get at the Bismarck. They'd have 
wanted to get at the Bismarck if they'd been in a trawler 
equipped with no more than a popgun. 

But where was the Bismarck? All through the day they 
stormed along, the weather getting worse rather than better. 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 83 

They knew now that the mighty Prince of Wales had been 
battered into breaking off the action, they knew that in a 
matter of hours the Bismarck would be out in the Atlantic, 
loose among the convoys, and that finding her would be like 
looking for a needle in a haystack. The hours seemed 
interminable, the seas through which they crashed their way, 
endless. 

Captain Tennant had his own anxieties. All this high- 
speed steaming was using up oil at a frantic rate as it also 
was for the other ships and if the chase went on too long 
their tanks would be empty long before they came to grips 
with the enemy. The lesson of the Hood had also not been 
lost upon him: he knew quite clearly and dispassionately that 
one plunging shot in the right place on his horizontal armour 
would do to him exactly what such a shot had done to the 
Hood, as well as to the Queen Mary and Invincible a quarter 
of a century before. There was precious little he could do 
about either. As to the former, he must take his orders from 
the Commander-in-Chief and steam as long as he could; as 
to the latter, it was just one of the risks of the business, and 
there was an end of it. It was one of the risks which he and 
other people accepted when they joined the Navy. 

Far ahead of them, all through this day, the Prince of 
Wales steamed in company with the cruisers, alongside the 
Suffolk and on the Norfolk's port quarter, shadowing the 
Bismarck. The German ship was twisting and turning now: 
she seemed to be trying to shake them off and might well do 
so. The need to slow her was desperate, yet further engage- 
ment might drive her beyond their reach. Shortly after mid- 
day she turned south and reduced speed to twenty-four knots. 
There was a brief exchange of fire: the two surviving guns of 
Y turret immediately broke down again. The admiral ordered 
Captain Leach to fire no more unless himself fired on. 

This was, in fact, the moment when Admiral Lutjens 
parted company with the Prinz Eugen and laid his course 
for France, the course that was to lead him into the net of 



84 BERNARD ASH 

his destruction. The Prince of Wales was responsible for it. 
The Prince of Wales still didn't know. And the rest of the 
world was not to know for years. 

The day wore on with Tovey's ship steering a converging 
course, in the hope of bringing Lutjens to action at first light 
the following morning. He ordered Victorious to dose to a 
hundred miles of the quarry, and fly off the few Swordfish 
planes that were operational, in the desperate chance of be- 
ing able to slow the German down; but the planes were too 
few, the conditions too bad for their inexperienced pilots. 
Alf Tudor, Johnny King, and the rest of them aboard the 
Prince of Wales saw the aircraft go over: it heartened them 
to know that the Home Fleet was getting near. What would 
have heartened them still more would have been to have 
known that one of the pilots, mercifully scraping home at 
dusk on to a wildly plunging flight deck, had reported that 
the Bismarck was leaving an oil track behind her. It was the 
first indication anyone had had that she had suffered any 
damage at all. It was automatically assumed that the damage 
had been done by the Hood, because it was taken for granted 
that the Prince of Wales was incapable of hitting anything. 

By morning the Repulse had been steaming at high speed 
for the greater part of two days, and the fuel situation was 
becoming critical. Already, if everything went according to 
plan and contact was made with the Bismarck at daylight, 
she had enough to last her for no more than a short sharp 
action. Then she would have to break off and make for the 
nearest port at as economical a speed as she could compass. 
Just a few salvoes surely this ship had it owing to her to try 
her metal against the enemy just this once! 

It was not to be. There was to be no action for the 
Repulse. She and the Prince of Wales were not yet to meet. 
For in the early hours of the morning, the cruiser squadron 
blundered. 

Through the dim twilight of the northern night, they had 
been shadowing their quarry by radar. The Prince of Wales's 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 85 

radar was, as we know, unreliable, and the Norfolk's was an 
early installation which would only cover a limited sector. 
Suffolk, having the best radar of the three, had been ordered 
to keep in touch and act independently. The Bismarck was 
zig-zagging; so was Suffolk, for there had been a submarine 
report. At the end of every leg of her zig-zag, the Bismarck's 
echo disappeared from her screen: regularly, as she made 
good on her new course, it came back. She grew over- 
confidentthat is the charge laid against her by the official 
history and there came a moment when the Bismarck's 
echo did not come back. By pure bad luck, at the very mo- 
ment when she was invisible to the radar as well as to the 
naked eye, the Bismarck had changed course. It was 3:20 in 
the morning, the Home Fleet was still a good four hours' 
steaming away, and the Bismarck was lost. 

Admiral Tovey split up his ships and proceeded to quarter 
the seas as best he could, but the area to be covered was a 
wide one, conditions were still bad and the Bismarck might 
have turned in any direction. An examination of the official 
chart of the action shows, after the event, that the direction 
in which she had turned was the one direction he did not 
cover: she had laid a straight course for St. Nazaire. Roughly 
about the time Admiral Tovey had hoped to engage, the 
German ship passed a hundred miles astern of him. 

With the splitting up of the ships, the Repulse found her- 
self alone and the amateur tacticians aboard her had to revise 
their plans completely. Even such optimists as Slinger Wood, 
Chicken Howe, Slatts and the rest could not blind them- 
selves to what had happened to the Hood as they hammered 
it out at their action stations. They thought perhaps they 
might at least be able to hold the Bismarck at bay until K.G.5 
and the others came up, if they were lucky enough to find 
her: they had an idea also that there were other heavy units 
on their way. In this they were perfectly right, for the 
Admiralty had whistled-up Force H from Gibraltar, and all 



86 BERNARD ASH 

other units with the remotest chance of getting there on 
time but all these were still a long way away. 

"I wish we had the bloody Rodney with us/' Slinger re- 
members someone saying. "They don't know there's been a 
war on yet. All that time swinging around a buoy and now 
they're going to the States for a bloody refit" 

For the last time they had seen their friend, the Rodney, 
that (to them) permanent ornament of Scapa Flow, her 
decks had been stacked with wooden cases of spare parts, 
and she had been all set for departure to an American dock- 
yard. Many a true word is spoken in jest; wooden cases and 
all, it was the Rodney that played a major part in the last 
scene of the Bismarck drama, battering her into silence after 
she had been finally slowed down by the Ark Royal's 
torpedo bombers, till the Dorsetshire could be left to finish 
her off with torpedoes. Wooden cases and all, after all those 
months of sitting on those empty tins, the Rodney got the 
chance that the Repulse had steamed her never-ending miles 
of ocean and failed to find. 

Before eleven o'clock that morning the Repulse's fuel 
supplies had been reduced to a point that made action out of 
the question and even made it doubtful whether she could 
make port. She was detached to Newfoundland, and when 
she arrived at Conception Bay it was touch and go whether 
she would have to be towed into harbour. She had also 
suffered damage battering her way at high speed through the 
storm. Much of it was trivial, but some of it was at least 
uncomfortable her forward breakwaters, for instance, were 
flat on the deck. She was in need of repairs as well as fuel. 

Some four and a half hours before that, Admiral Tovey 
had signalled to the Prince of Wales to join him, but now 
the Prince of Wales was in the same predicament as the 
Repulse. She, too, had to withdraw for fuel. Burying her dead 
on passage, she arrived at Hvalf jord in Iceland on the 2yth, 
and from thence went to Rosyth for repairs in her turn. 

The rest of the Bismarck cbase was, therefore, no concern 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 87 

of either the Repulse or the Prince of Wales, and there is no 
point in retelling a story which has already become history. 
But there was a dreadful moral about the end of the Bismarck 
which people in high places as well as amateur strategists 
would have done well to mark. If ever there was a ship that 
was "unsinkable" it was the Bismarck: she was at least as 
unsinkable as the Prince of Wales and perhaps had an even 
better claim to the title. She had demolished the Hood and 
crippled the Prince of Wales, while herself suffering damage 
that certainly caused her to abandon her raiding mission, 
but which only affected her endurance without affecting 
either her speed, her seaworthiness, or her fighting strength. 
Turned into the pursuers' net by this, she yet out-distanced 
them all and came within an ace of finding safety under the 
protection of the Luftwaffe. Only one thing stopped her: that 
one thing was that the Ark Royal's Swordfish (string-bag, 
antiquated-looking planes to many eyes) flown off under 
well nigh impossible conditions found her, blasted her 
steering gear, and wrecked her propellers. How much more 
easily were modern torpedo-bombers of long range, flown 
from shore bases, to find and cripple the Prince of Wales 
and the Repulse over a calm sea with excellent visibility, 
away on either side of the world! After Taranto, after what 
had happened to the Bismarck, could responsible people still 
think of battleships as unsinkable? Could they still dream of 
capital ships dominating any area of sea to which they might 
be sent? Or did they, like Slinger Wood and his pals, think 
of the Japanese planes as made of rice paper and put together 
with string and glue? 

There yet is one more thing about the Bismarck action of 
which we must take notice, for it, too, has a bearing on the 
end of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. In this action 
we see for the first time the "working-up" of the Admiralty's 
own war machine accomplished and perfected: from it 
^merges a very different picture from that of the days of the 
phony war and the Repuke's endless phantom chases after 



88 BERNARD ASH 

adversaries who were discovered too late, or were never in the 
places where they were reported to be. Intelligence was now 
excellent, appreciation and decision rapid, co-ordination in 
the concentration of forces over a wide area outstanding. 
There could no longer be any doubt that the Admiralty 
knew what it was about and its views and appreciations were 
worthy of respect. That the Admiralty's views were not re- 
spected in the long drawn-out battle of words which was 
shortly to commence over the dispatch of the Repulse and 
the Prince of Wales to the Far East, was one of the biggest 
blunders of the war. 

In this now-perfected web of command and control there 
was inherent a factor which was not only of paramount im- 
portance in sinking the Bismarck but also in finally winning 
the war at seathe training and experience of subordinate 
commanders which made it possible for them, under con- 
ditions of radio silence, to act correctly and promptly in the 
way that the overall plan of action clearly demanded. Nearly 
two years of unremitting warfare at sea had been the school 
in which this accurate and intelligent use of initiative had 
been learned. Luckless Admiral Holland, unfortunate in his 
decisions, was an exception. In the words of Captain Roskill, 
the official historian, "the instinctive manner in which every 
commander in every class of ship had guessed and correctly 
interpreted the wishes of the Commander-in-Chief proved 
the soundness of our basic Naval training and traditions/' 
And with justifiable pride Admiral Tovey, in his report of 
the action, declares that "the co-operation, skill, and under- 
standing displayed by all forces . . . gave me the utmost 
satisfaction. Flag and commanding officers of detached units 
invariably took the action I would have wished before and 
without receiving instructions from me." 

At the very centre of this web of trained and instinctive 
command, at the Admiralty in London, was working one 
Rear-Admiral Tom Phillips, Vice-Chief of Naval Staff and 
right-hand man of the First Sea Lord, later to command 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 89 

Force Z at Singapore and drown with his two capital ships, 
the Repulse and the Prince of Wales. In that last action, as 
we shall presently see, he in his turn reacted instinctively to 
intelligence that was passed to him and took it for granted 
that those who passed him the intelligence would foresee 
his reactions without him breaking radio silence. They did 
not do so because they had had neither Admiral Phillips's 
training nor his experience of such battles as the battle of 
the Atlantic and the chase of the Bismarck; and we shall have 
to ask ourselves whether he could in all fairness and justice 
be blamed for that. 



CHAPTER 



THE FACTS ABOUT THE "PRINCE OF WALESA" BRIEF EN- 

counter with the Bismarck, related in the last chapter, are 
those which are now generally accepted by people best quali- 
fied to judge: among these, the greatest weight must be given 
to the official history of the war at sea because its author, 
Captain Roskill, points out (a little smugly, perhaps), in 
his preface to it, that many of the official records from which 
it is compiled will not be accessible to the general public 
for years to come. But they are supported in addition by the 
memories of the ship's survivors who either observed shot 
strike on the Bismarck themselves or were told so by their 
Captain in his running commentary over the loudspeakers; 
the latter is also the evidence of the Captain himself. And 
they are confirmed by German sources. These were not the 
facts accepted at the time, and under the cloak of the wartime 
security blackout on information, sinister rumours circulated 
about the Prince of Wales. She had "run away/' or to use 
the phraseology of more exclusive circles, she had "with* 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 9! 

drawn somewhat precipitately from the action/ 1 How strong 
the rumours were, or to what extent they were believed, is 
difficult at this distance of time to say: some of the Prince of 
Wales' s people admit rather guardedly to having heard them 
or heard about them, to finding a certain coolness in the can- 
teens and pubs. On the other hand, others disclaim all knowl- 
edge of them. It is quite certain that hasty and cruel remarks 
were made to Captain Leach by certain people in high places, 
who were afterwards bbliged to apologise for what they had 
said; but for him the wound was never quite healed in the 
short spell of life left to him. 

These rumours bubbled evilly in the lower strata of the 
press, sensation-starved and prevented by wartime restric- 
tions from letting the stuff out into the open air. God knows, 
there was enough copy for the press in those times without 
hunting for this sort of dirt, and the greater majority of 
decent newspaper men who knew their business had no truck 
with it. In 1948, when the official despatches on the action 
were first published, one "naval correspondent," at least, was 
at pains to drag it all out and turn it into a running com- 
mentary to the despatches, together with the story of the 
Prince of Wales "mutiny" and a lot of other nonsense which 
would best have been left in oblivion. 

How did all this start? In official circles, at any rate, it 
cannot but have started with Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker's 
report. His view of the action was from the cruiser Norfolk, 
fifteen miles away in fair visibility but stormy weather. He 
states that he observed no hits or damage on the Bismarck 
although we know in fact that the hits were observed from 
the Suffolk, which was in company with him. He goes on to 
say of the Prince of Wales: 

"I had seen her forced out of action after ten minutes, at 
the end of which her salvoes were falling short and had a very 
large spread indeed. She was short of one gun and her bridge 
was wrecked. I did not and do not consider that in her then 



92 BERNARD ASH 

state of efficiency the Prince of Wales was a match for the 
Bismarck" 

He adds that re-engagement would only have resulted in 
further failures and damage to the cruisers in return for little 
damage or loss of speed to the Bismarck. Admiral Tovey's 
fleet, he points out, was coming up and demonstrates nis 
own accuracy and efficiency by miscalculating the estimated 
time of Tovey's arrival by no less than five hours a fact 
which appears to have been overlooked in commentaries on 
his report. 

Well, Admiral Tovey was coming up to be robbed of his 
chance of engagement when almost within sight of the 
enemy by a blunder on the part of one of Wake-Walker's 
own ships, now set down to over-confidence. There is no criti- 
cism of the Suffolk in either Wake- Walker's or Tovey's des- 
patchesat least in the form in which they were made public 
after the war, yet it was this blunder that robbed the Repulse 
of her long-awaited battle, robbed the Prince of Wales of the 
chance of vindicating herself by re-engagement, and caused 
the fuel supplies to Admiral Tovey's other ships to be so 
severely eaten into as to jeopardize the rest of the action. 

Tovey's own account is coloured inevitably by Wake- 
Walker's bias, since he had to depend upon Wake-Walker 
for his facts. Of the beginning of the action he says, "the 
shooting of both the Hood and the Bismarck was excellent 
and both scored hits at once." Yet we know now that Hood 
was not firing at the Bismarck, and if the hits are admitted, 
they must have been from the Prince of Wales's guns. 
Tovey's authority for the hits is apparently from observation 
from the Suffolk. He says, in fact, elsewhere that the Suffolk 
reported three hits on the Bismarck, but that Wake-Walker 
on the Norfolk did not observe them, although black smoke 
was seen at times. 

Captain Leach's own statement is factual and logical. It 
contains no criticism of other units nor any criticism of his 
superior officer, who was drowned and could not answer for 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 93 

himself. Neither does it contain any criticism of the manner 
in which he was led into action on a course which would 
have made gunnery difficult for any ship, let along a newly- 
commissioned ship with her obvious troubles. This is what 
he says in his own despatch: 

"Some explanation remains to be made as to my decision 
to break off the action after the sinking of H.M.S. Hood a 
decision which clearly invites the most critical examination. 
Prior to the disaster to the Hood I felt confident that to- 
gether we could deal adequately with the Bismarck and her 
consort. The sinking of the Hood obviously changed the 
immediate situation, and there were three further considera- 
tions requiring to be weighed up, of which the first and sec- 
ond had been in my mind before action was joined. 

"(a) The practical certainty that owing to mechanical 
'teething trouble' a full output from the main armament was 
not to be expected. 

"(b) The working-up of the ship had only just reached a 
stage when I could report to the Commander-in-Chief, 
Home Fleet, that I considered her reasonably fit to take part 
in service operations. This was the first occasion in which 
she had done so ... 

"(c) The likelihood of a decisiv6 concentration being ef- 
fected at a later stage. 

"In the circumstances, I did not consider it sound tactics 
to continue single-handed the engagement with two German 
ships, both of whom might be expected to be at the peak of 
their efficiency." 

This cool and calm reasoning is accepted and supported 
by Admiral Tovey, although in all the dark rumour and 
surmise that followed not one hint of it (suitably vetted to 
meet the requirements of security) was allowed to escape. It 
shows quite clearly that Captain Leach, in spite of the dam- 
age his ship had suffered, had no thought of withdrawing 
permanently from the action. He was able and willing to re- 



94 BERNARD ASH 

engage with such guns as he had; his inexperienced ship's 
complement had dealt with the battle-damage like old hands, 
and Leach was able both to steam and to fight. Admiral 
Tovey accepted this to the extent of ordering him to leave the 
shadowing cruiser force and join the main fleet, which was 
at that time his proper place; and if the ship had not run out 
of fuel he would have done so. In that case (had Wake- 
Walker not lost touch with the enemy) her five serviceable 
guns would have made as substantial a contribution to the 
final battering of the Bismarck as the Rodney's guns: for it 
must not be forgotten that the Rodney was in no outstand- 
ingly serviceable condition. No-one criticised Admiral Tovey 
for "withdrawing precipitately" with the King George V be- 
fore the end of the battle, because that ship's fuel supplies in 
turn had reached rock bottom. No-one criticised the Repulse 
for withdrawing from the search for the same reason. No- 
one criticised any other unit that had to drop out of the fight 
through shortage of oil. Why criticise the Prince of Wales? 
And certainly no-one criticised Rear-Admiral Wake- Walker 
and his force for losing touch with the Bismarck twice until 
the official history was published a decade and a half later. 
Now the language of Admiral Wake-Walker's despatch is 
the restrained language of the official document: for an 
official document it is strong language. It appears to suggest 
the assumption that a newly commissioned ship which was 
known to be suffering from more than her ordinary share of 
teething troubles could do no good. Be that as it may, 
mouth-to-mouth gossip in turn found its way into the ears of 
ferreting journalists of the baser sort, and remained itching 
for expression, so that here is what one of them wrote years 
later, when the despatches on the action were published after 
the war-under the banner headline, "WHY THE BAT- 
TLESHIP 'RAN AWAY; " 

"The honour of seventeen hundred figfiting men and 
the captain they idolized is vindicated. 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 95 

"For six years their battleship, Prince of Wales, has 
been branded as a 'coward ship' a giant 'which ran 
away after only ten minutes engagement with the Ger- 
man Bismarck . . . 

"This skeleton, which the Navy believed forever 
buried, is dragged from the Admiralty cupboard in to- 
day's issue of the London Gazette." 

Some extracts from the official despatches follow, and at 
the conclusion of them the journalist goes on to say: 

49 Admiral Tovey's despatches were secret then, and the 
men of the Prince of Wales were cruelly misjudged. 
They were called 'the POWs who ran away 9 and the 
rudest words of the Navy's 'destroyer song 9 (those about 
'no futile good 9 ) were used in lower deck banter. Prince 
of Wales's officers found themselves coldly treated by 
some brother officers in the Fleet. 99 

There was no "cruel misjudgment" of the Prince of Wales 
and her men except by those who should have known better. 
There was no need to vindicate the honour of the Prince of 
Wdes's fighting men and their captain, because their hon- 
our had never been impugned. And the only dragging of 
skeletons out of cupboards was done (if the mixed metaphor 
can be overlooked) not by the London Gazette, but by the 
"naval correspondent" who wrote this piece. 

The information services must also bear their share of 
responsibility for all this. For as well as dishing out such 
information about the war as could be vouchsafed to press 
and public, it was their job to know what rumours were fly- 
ing around and to take steps to counteract "despondency 
and alarm/' The ugly rumours about the Prince of Wales 

cannot have escaped their notice newspapermen must 

inevitably have asked questions about them. It might be 
supposed that they would think it important to the war 
effort to both civilian and service morale and to feeling 



96 BERNARD ASH 

abroad to clear the reputation of a fighting ship. They could 
have done so easily enough without letting any cats out of 
bags. Obviously a great many things could not be disclosed 
for a variety of different reasons, including Admiral Hol- 
land's blunders and the mechanical state of the Prince of 
Wales'* turrets. Equally obviously, misconceptions in re- 
ports prevented the truth about the Prince of Wales'* share 
in the sinking of the Bismarck being known. But there was 
still a whole heap that could have been said: the information 
services and those responsible for them made not the slight- 
est attempt to say it. Either they were living (as they so 
often did) in a rarefied atmosphere of their own, divorced 
from the ways and thoughts of ordinary mortals, with which 
it was their business to be familiar or they couldn't see their 
way to doing what was necessary, didn't know how, thought 
the difficulties too great. Not on this occasion alone the con- 
duct of the information services (to use again that delightful 
phrase of the naval reports) "invites consideration/' In 
plainer language, one wonders what they were for. 

'The battleship with her crestfallen crew was dry-docked 
at Rosyth for a spell . . . then the Prince of Wales went 
back to Scapa for the men to begin all over again the 
monotonous grind to work, to build-up battle efficiency." So 
continues our "Naval correspondent." If the Prince of Wales 
complement had been told that years later their return home 
would have been described in such language they would have 
been very surprised, indeed. It is against this background that 
the "Prince of Wales Mutiny" is alleged to have taken place 
and this story also would have surprised many of the Prince 
of Wales'* complement: in fact it still appears to surprise 
survivors at the present day. 

Before we go into this legend, let us have a look at how 
matters stood with the battleship and her crew. She had re- 
turned to Rosyth with her battle scars; her dead had been 
buried at sea and her wounded landed in Iceland. The 
Bismarck had been sunk and the Prince of Wales'* people 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 97 

were quite confident that they had played their part in her 
sinking, even if the press and the outside world thought 
otherwise. They had been in action, they had a tale to tell. 
The ship was obviously bound for the dockyard and with any 
luck there might be leave this the more welcome because 
while they had been chasing the German Navy, the Luft- 
waffe had once more been bombarding their homes, espe- 
cially on Merseyside, where many of them lived; they would 
be glad enough to reassure themselves that all was safe and 
well or to cope with their personal tragedies if it wasn't. 

They got their leave, but before they did so there was one 
last "flap". It was only when they arrived at Rosyth that it 
was discovered that among their souvenirs of the Bismarck, 
they had been carrying with them all the way from the dis- 
tant Denmark Strait an unexploded fifteen-inch shell, well 
down in the ship on the starboard side. It was an uncom- 
fortable travelling companion: they were not pleased to dis- 
cover it nor were they sorry they had not discovered it sooner. 
Least pleased of all were those who had to mount guard on 
this unwelcome projectile while preparations were made for 
its removal. It seemed a funny thing to be guarding an object 
which might blow you to kingdom come at any moment and 
they were delighted to see it go. It is one thing to await the 
arrival of fifteen-inch shells in the heat of battle but quite 
another to meet them in cold blood in the battle's hangover. 

They got their leave: the civilian personnel also departed 
for their homes, thankfully and not without distinction. It 
is impossible not to write about the Navy without taking a 
rise out of "dockyard mateys" and sometimes their presence 
aboard the battleship has been treated with a touch of 
flippancy. There is no harm in it, and dockyard mateys 
everywhere will understand: let us admit that these men had 
been in a sea battle, whether they had bargained for it or not, 
and there is no evidence whatsoever that they disgraced 
themselves. 

One of the few people who got no leave was Captain 



90 BERNARD ASH 

Leach. He had not escaped unscathed when the compass 
platform was hit, and when the ship was docked he went 
into hospital. He had not yet returned when the watches in 
turn came back from their leave, although he did so not long 
afterwards, and the men generally seem to have been very 
well aware where he was and why. This fact is important in 
taking to pieces the "mutiny" story. 

The repairs were completed and modifications made to 
the turrets. It is difficult to discover whether these modifi- 
cations cured all their troubles, because the only action in 
which the ship was engaged during the rest of her life was 
aircraft action. No doubt there are reports about them hidden 
away in those records to which official historians alone have 
access: to the world at large they are still secret documents. 

But what is all this nonsense about a "crestfallen crew," 
about the "monotonous grind" to work-up battle efficiency? 
Of course there was hard work, gruelling hard work; of course 
there was also monotony. Both of these were part of the war 
at sea and the men never looked on either as a punishment 
peculiar to themselves. Monotony in particular was insepara- 
ble from a place like Scapa Flow, to which the ship returned 
after her repairs were completed. Conditions there had im- 
proved considerably since Slinger Wood had first made its 
acquaintance at the beginning of the war: there was the 
NAAFI Canteen, there were concerts with stars and radio 
personalities, and turns given by the lads themselves. Beer 
was rationed, but there was an occasional air-raid to liven 
things up. In spite of all these delights it was still Scapa and 
still not very exciting. But it was good enough for Alf Tudor 
and Johnny King and Joe Dempsey and Smithy and Jimmy 
James, and scores like them all over the ship. No doubt they 
had their grumbles as all service men had, but memory of 
them in detail has long since disappeared. When the delights 
of Scapa were exhausted or when their time was up, they 
would make their way back on board and finish off their 
amusement there in their own canteen with Jimmy James 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 99 

and Smithy knocking hell out of the piano and everyone else 
swearing that they were as good as professionals. They never 
tired of making their own amusement and wondered at times 
why they went ashore, because they had better facilities for 
amusement aboard. Jokes aside, there seems to have been 
quite a lot of talent on this ship and it never lacked an appre- 
ciative audience in the men's spare time. Apart from that 
there were poker, draughts, crib, quoits and uckers which 
landsmen call ludo and never fail to be astonished at the 
earnestness with which it is played by grown men in mighty 
ships of war. There was also the ship's cinema. There were 
sparring bouts for those who liked them as well as those 
"differences of opinion" which were liable to end in sparring 
bouts, whether this had been intended or not. There was the 
mat-making and belt-making business, and this was not 
confined to old hands like Seddon. Immensely tough young 
men became immensely serious and absorbed over this pas- 
time, carefully cutting hundreds of identical pieces out of 
old serge and similar trifles extracted from the rag bag, and 
pushed home into a backing of potato sack with a home- 
made wooden implement. The belts were made of coloured 
twine. Quite a lot of these manufactures found their way 
home and quite a lot of them went with the ship to the 
bottom of the South China Sea. 

Men can honestly say with their hands on their hearts, at 
this distance of time, that there wasn't a dull moment Of 
course they're quite wrong and of course there were many 
dull moments; because it is a most commonplace and 
elementary thing about the memories of all servicemen that 
as the years go by recollection of times when people were 
bored, cold, hungry, and afraid tends to fade and only the 
memories of good times remain bright and shining, so that 
to hear such people talking in any pub in the kingdom you 
would think all wars were a holiday. It is only when there 
is unbearable and unjustifiable hardship, when men are un- 
fairly treated, that it remains and rankles, and there are no 



100 BERNARD ASH 

recollections of this sort among the Prince of Wdes's sur- 
vivors. Whatever her troubles or whatever her difficulties, 
Captain Leach (still with that persevering smile on his face) 
was running a good ship. But listen to the "naval corre- 
spondent's" version of those days at Scapa Flow between the 
Prince of Wales'* refit and the Churchill trip: 

"Their idol, Captain Leach, was away from them. He had 
not told them that he was injured by blast when his bridge 
was hit. The crew felt that he would not come back. His 
removal, they thought, was a reflection on the ship and on 
themselves. 

"Then the chalking on the mess decks began. Like the 
rumours of 'passive mutiny' and reports of 'indiscipline' it 
was much exaggerated in the Scapa canteen. The chalking 
was usually nothing more than 'We want Leach/ " 

One's first reaction to this stuff is that the journalist who 
wrote it knew singularly little about the realities of life aboard 
a big ship, especially a big ship overcrowded with its extra 
wartime complement. How would it have been possible for 
anonymous hands to chalk these messages in the mess decks 
unseen or undetected? It is quite certain that the majority 
of the men would never have tolerated it it is equally certain 
that any such offending scribble, even if it had been possible 
to make it unseen, would have been expunged long before it 
came to the eye of authority. Perhaps some joker did write a 
message on a wall or perhaps there was a joker who had a 
passing craze for writing messages on walls. Perhaps there 
was some really discontented man who did such a thing. 
Men have written messages on walls since the beginning of 
time it is one of the peculiarities of the male sex and the 
remains of them are found both in the ruins of Pompeii and 
in the lavatories of large modem railway stations. What of it? 
Suppose it got picked up and bandied about in the canteens 
ashore? It might even have been retailed for a space with as 
much gusto as the story about the Rodney's man and the 
sheep and seriously believed just as little. A credulous 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 101 

journalist with his ear to the ground might pick it up and, 
lacking a sailor's robust and elementary sense of humour, 
prize it greatly and store it up for future use. 

It has proved impossible to discover any surviving memory 
of this alleged chalking on the mess decks, of the so-called 
"indiscipline" or of the "mutiny" at all. In fairness it could 
be admitted that there might be other reasons for this. Men 
might not wish to discredit their ship by admitting knowl- 
edge of it. Only a very few men might have had knowledge 
of it, for a battleship is a very large place in which no single 
man knows every other man aboard, or is familiar with what 
goes on in every part of the ship. But if the latter is the cause 
of the universally professed ignorance of all this, then 
automatically it is proved that it must have been small and 
insignificant. And if it is a case of men not wishing to speak 
ill of their ship, that also shows a spirit in which anything 
approaching "mutiny" or even "passive mutiny" could not 
have existed on any appreciable scale. Of course there was 
"indiscipline." There is "indiscipline" on any ship and in 
any type of service unit. Slinger Wood on the Repulse made 
more journeys to the Commander's table than he could ever 
count and so did many of his mates, but no-one has ever 
written about "indiscipline" on the Repulse. If there are well 
upwards of a thousand men aboard a ship there is bound to 
be a long series of petty breaches of discipline and petty 
charges day by day. It means absolutely nothing, and the 
whole story of the mutiny probably means absolutely noth- 
ing likewise. 

The reader must not run away with the impression that 
the whole of the press is being damned out of hand for the 
faults of a section of it. Nothing would be more unjust to the 
legion of newspapermen who were trying to do a job of work 
reporting the war in spite of tremendous difficulties. These 
newspapermen were much too busy trying to get their hands 
on genuine news to waste time in this way, even if they had 
been inclined to. We shall meet one of them later O'Dowd 



102 BERNARD ASH 

Gallagher, who was the only British journalist on the spot 
when the Repuke and the Prince of Wales were sunk. He 
was there because with a true journalist's "hunch" he 
correctly divined what a proffered assignment was likely to 
be, in spite of its being cloaked in security and mystery, and 
in spite of other journalists having turned it down. He 
deserved his "scoop" (to use a word more common in lay 
circles than in Fleet Street) and he went on to write a first- 
class book called Retreat in the East, which has had nothing 
like the recognition it deserves. This is factual, realistic 
reporting, full of guts and fire. It is the kind of reporting 
which a nation at war deserved; and the muck-rakers would 
have done well to take a lesson from Gallagher and men like 
him. 

When Leach came back to the ship he was wearing the 
ribbon of the D.S.O. The high days of the Prince of Wales'* 
summer were approaching. She was soon to be the glamour 
ship, Churchill's Yacht 



CHAPTER 



IN THE MEANTIME THE "REPULSE" WAS HAVING, QUITE UN- 

expectedly, a moment of glamour of her own. Her arrival 
at Conception Bay, Newfoundland, short of fuel as she was, 
was complicated by the fact that there was no oiler available, 
and she had to steam around until one arrived from St. John's 
in the morning. Her stay here was very brief, but the men 
were allowed a run ashore to a little town called Wibama, 
and there, the local inhabitants really did them proud. They 
walked or hitch-hiked the four miles in from the jetty: on 
the return journey they rode in triumph upon all manner of 
transport that ranged from big, shiny American cars to 
horses and carts. They were loaded with gifts of all descrip- 
tions and Marine Garner has a distinct recollection of one 
rating staggering back aboard with an enormous bag of sugar 
on his back. It might seem a funny thing to give a sailor, 
but when you think of the amount of hot, sweet kye that 
was consumed in those long, dreary watches at the guns, 
and the amount of scrounging and thieving that went on to 



104 BERNARD ASH 

keep it as thick and as sweet as it should be, the gift was 
pretty appropriate and extremely useful. 

From there the ship went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, for 
repairs, especially to the forward breakwater and the port 
and starboard forward HA gun barbettes, that had been so 
unmercifully pounded by the seas in the vain chase of the 
Bismarck. Here there was a fortnight with plenty of shore 
leave, wonderful hospitality, lashings of food, football 
matches for the ship's teams and exactly everything that was 
needed to make them all feel heroes. 

This was just what they needed, and it couldn't have come 
at a better time. In the glow of it all they felt very kindly 
about the Rodney, which after all those months of abuse, 
swinging at a mooring above her mound of food tins, had 
after all gone in and helped to sink the Bismarck. In fact 
they were very proud of Rodney: in spite of all the bellyaches 
they were both West country ships and the Repulse's men 
had a lot of friends and towneys aboard her. They were very 
proud of her, but they didn't propose to show it. 

A few days after they had arrived at Halifax, who should 
show up but the ruddy Rodney in person, to make fast at 
the next berth, bursting with pride and very full of herself. 
Do you suppose that she got a hero's welcome from the 
Repulse? In almost any war film men would have crowded 
Repulse's decks and cheered the Rodney in till the harbour 
rang with their cheering and tears ran down their faces. 

In point of fact, what happened was that as the Rodney 
slowly inched her way past them towards her berth a solitary 
voice from somewhere aboard her shouted "Who sunk the 
Bismarck?" And for a retort from the crowded decks of the 
Repulse, there came a great chorus of sheep noises, as 
though all the flocks in the New World had been herded in 
the bowels of their ship. 

"Baa! baa! baa!" they roared at the tops of their voices until 
the harbour echoed with sheep noises instead of cheers, and 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 105 

people not in the know must have thought the Repulse a 
shipload of crazy men. 

Now as we have already hinted, there is almost certainly 
absolutely nothing to this story of the Rodney's man and 
the sheep. Similar stories were told in all the services, wher- 
ever men were billeted in desert and unlovely places. They 
were told about the Army in the Western Desert, they were 
told about the RAF in Shaibah, and the variants on sheep 
included camels and all manner of other creatures. For that 
matter similar legends were probably told in the armies of 
Xerxes, the armies of Alexander and the armies of Mo- 
hammedalbeit with perhaps a little more truth in those 
barbarous ages. 

"Baa! baa!" cried the Repulse's men, and so Rodney was 
acclaimed after her victory and the Repuke's men got any 
envy they might have felt healthily out of their systems. 

The funny thing was that if anyone else baa'd at one of 
Rodney's men in a pub or canteen, the Repulse's lot 
invariably went for him. 

Of all this jollification and feasting Slinger Wood (who 
had been robbed of seeing his handiwork on the Prince of 
Wales sailing the high seas) was able to take his full share, 
because for some considerable time he had been an exem- 
plary character and was quite free from punishment; further- 
more he had just passed his twentieth birthday and so was 
not merely allowed his rum ration officially but also all-night 
leave to seven A.M. Within minutes of the ship berthing, a 
motor boat came alongside from the submarine depot ship 
Forth, and the coxswain of it was his brother's mate. From 
him he discovered that his brother was on the submarine 
Thunderbolt moored alongside the Forth. He couldn't get 
over there quick enough. 

Now before this submarine had been the Thunderbolt she 
had been the Thetis, and ninety-nine men had died in her 
when she went down on her trials in Liverpool Bay. She was 
to go down again and most of the men then aboard her were 



1O6 BERNARD ASH 

to die in their turn. Slinger Wood had been aboard subma- 
rines before with his brother at Gosport, and in common 
with most ordinary people not accustomed to them, he 
didn't like them. No submarine, however, had succeeded in 
giving him the feeling of horror he experienced aboard 
Thunderbolt. From having been unable to get aboard her 
quick enough he couldn't get off her quick enough; but he 
and his brother, together with the happy villains of Mess 46, 
spent a very pleasant week in Halifax, and his bank book was 
in a sorry state when he left a pity because he was saving 
up to get married. 

It couldn't last, of course, but his downfall did not 
come until the last night ashorefrom which he awoke the 
following morning with a very large hangover, indeed, and 
he was an hour adrift getting back to the ship. Here he was 
welcomed with open arms by Regulating Petty Officer Cawte 
(the same who had been involved in the breathing licence 
episode long before), and RPO Cawte thought it was time 
he got back to his normal routine. And so at nine o'clock he 
traced his well-worn steps to the Commander's defaulters' 
table, where he was duly lashed up with seven days' number 
elevens. 

As they were sailing that day with a convoy, he reckoned 
it would just about last him home, and it turned out to be 
one of the most comfortable voyages in the whole odyssey 
of Slinger Wood and the Repulse; for about an hour before 
they sailed a draft came aboard from the Thunderbolt and 
the Tdisman for passage back to England, and in this draft 
was his brother, on his way back to a course at Gosport. Thus 
he both escaped the second sinking of the Thunderbolt and 
was able to give Slinger the voyage of his life. Being the senior 
among the ratings on passage, Slinger's brother was detailed 
off to look after the men under punishment The men under 
punishment had bfeen detailed off to paint out the recreation 
space, and here occurs one of those paradoxes which bring 
civilians who try to study the psychology of servicemen close 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 

to insanity. The men on passage had nothing to do and were 
bored stiff; the men under punishment had a great deal to 
do and would do anything on the face of the earth to avoid 
doing it. So Slinger's brother and the rest of his party painted 
out the recreation space and painted it out well and truly, 
while the men under punishment got their heads down. 
The Commander, prowling through the recreation space 
one day, told off Wood senior for using a paint brush himself. 
What he didn't know was that not a single man painting was 
a man under punishment, and that not a single man under 
punishment was painting. 

While this was going on, the Repuke safely escorted yet 
another convoy of Canadian troops across the Atlantic and 
duly arrived at Greenock the day Slinger's punishment ran 
out, as arranged. 

It was now July 1941, and the sands were running out for 
the Repulse, as well as for the Prince of Wales. For the 
Repulse, too, there was to be one more brief spell of summer 
days, splendour, and admiration. Not quite so splendid, or 
at any rate not quite so publicised to the four corners of the 
earth as the splendour of the Prince of Wales, but still to be 
a happy and healing memory for the men of the fine ship 
that was so soon to become H.M.S. Anonymous. 

There was no portent of sands running out, nor thought 
of it, among her men. The only thing there was portent of 
was leave, persistently rumoured by one of those mess-deck 
buzzes that originate from heaven knows where and that turn 
out to be true at least as often as they turn out to be false. 
Slinger, on the strength of it, made all his plans for his wed- 
ding and arranged for his brother to be his best man; and 
the leave duly arrived ten days for each watchjust as the 
buzz said it would. It was the last leave these men were to 
have from the Repuke, and the last time many of them were 
to see their homes. 

Wood and those of his shipmates who lived on Merseyside 
could well have harked back with regret to that homecoming 



108 BERNARD ASH 

of just about two years previously, when the leave party had 
burst out of Lime Street Station into the sunlight of a world 
still at peace, ousting King Billy's Navy and being cheered 
by Billies and Paddies alike. There were no crowds to greet 
them now: servicemen coming and going, especially injhat 
port of many convoys, were too common a sight. It was a 
different Liverpool too, blacked out, shattered by blitz after 
blitz that had swept away homes and obliterated familiar 
landmarks. Only a few weeks before this leave there had been 
a whole continuous week of raids on the dock area and on 
Bootle, that had wiped out hundreds of homes, damaged 
thousands more, and lengthened still further the tale of 
dead and injured in the long-suffering townships on either 
side of the estuary. Most of the men found it almost impos- 
sible to reconcile themselves to a situation in which their 
homes and their families and all the familiar things and 
places that had been part of their lives were under the 
enemy's fire night after endless night, while they sailed the 
seas in their great, steel ship weary, it is true, harassed, cold, 
wet, and uncomfortable, but never meeting German ships 
or manning their guns in earnest. 

Slinger Wood, for better or worse, had other things to 
distract him. The business of his marriage was complicated 
in common with so many other Merseyside marriages 
by the fact that he was a Protestant and his wife a Catholic. 
At some other time he might have taken a happy-go-lucky 
view of the business and changed his faith to make matters 
easier; only it so happened that Canon Bezzant, the 
Repulse's padre, had carried out on the soul of Slinger Wood 
as efficient an operation as most of the other operations 
carried out aboard his ship. He had been confirmed and re- 
ceived his first communion in the Repulse's beautiful little 
chapel; and how could he turn round and tell the chaplain 
almost in his next breath that he wished to become a Roman 
Catholic? This difficulty dragged on through most of the 
leave until it looked as though the couple would have to be 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 109 

married in desperation by the Registrar. With no more than 
three days to go, however, Father Burke of St. Nicholas's 
came to their rescue, got them a special licence, and married 
them in the imposing background of the pro-Cathedral. 
Their honeymoon consisted of one day's outing to New 
Brighton. A photograph, now a little dog-eared, shows the 
wedding party in all their finery standing self-consciously be- 
fore the dingy background of a typical Liverpool terrace 
house that belies the smart uniforms of the men and the gay 
attire of the women. Behind so many of the men of the 
Repulse, of the Prince of Wales, of every other ship in the 
fleet, of every unit in the Army and the Air Force lay this 
contrast, generations old and still unresolved. For what were 
these men fighting? One day it might have to be decided, 
but it was one of those issues that would have to wait. In no 
time at all the farewells were being said at Lime Street 
Station. 

Pause for a moment, knowing what they could not know, 
to see the leave-taking of these men who had so long sailed 
the seas with impunity, but were now to be sacrificed with 
their proud ship in one of the most unforgiveable blunders 
of the war. With Slinger Wood in his compartment were 
seven other men: Marine Bob Bloxham, who was to hear of 
his fiancee's death at Freetown and was to be killed himself 
fighting in the jungle against the Japanese after the ship went 
down; Able Seaman Sid Anton, who went down with the 
ship; Able Seaman Nudge Keen, who was lost somewhere 
on the Malayan coast; Stoker John Dykes, ahead of whom 
lay four grim years in Japanese captivity on the Burma Rail- 
way; Boy Howard, who was drowned; Marine Garner and 
Able Seaman Bob Hewlett, who, together with Wood, were 
alone to return to that place before the war was over. Five 
men out of eight to be sacrificed for a blunder. 

The train pulled out to shouts of "Look after yourself!" 
"See you again soon!" and all the trite phrases that cover 
such departures. 



11O BERNARD ASH 

"I don't think those we left behind/' writes Wood, 
"realised that our concern was mostly for them. The amount 
of damage that we had each seen during our leave was the 
main topic of conversation on our return journey, and we 
were all convinced that the safest place in those days was<at 
sea." 

There was something to start the buzzes going in full force 
when they got back to the ship: the stores they were taking 
aboard included vast quantities of tropical equipment which, 
it was quite obvious, would not be required in the North 
Atlantic, even in the summer. The buzz most favoured was 
that they were going raider hunting in the South Atlantic 
a logical conclusion that, for once, turned out to be com- 
pletely unjustified. They were, in fact, due for another W.S. 
convoy a convoy for the Middle East, which they were to 
escort all the way round the Cape to Durban, and far north 
through the Madagascar Channel. Captain Tennant told 
them it would be the largest convoy they had ever escorted, 
and this did not impress them at first particularly, because 
they had escorted many convoys and large ones at that. But 
when they saw the convoy it staggered them. A troopship 
convoy is always impressive, even to those who are accus- 
tomed to ships, for it is only in wartime and in these cir- 
cumstances that so many really big ships are seen together 
at sea at one time. A man would not have thought there were 
so many great liners and cargo liners in the world as there 
were in this convoy, steaming at speed in orderly ranks, with 
the destroyer escorts rolling and plunging along far distant 
on the flanks, and the battle-cruiser herself ploughing her way 
proud and mighty in the midst of it. It was so vast, it was 
spread over such an area of sea that it seemed a target the 
enemy could not possible miss: as all Repulse's convoys did, 
this convoy, the greatest and the last, reached its destination 
without the loss of a single ship. Before the ships anchored 
under the sun-baked, pitiless rocks of Aden, the Repulse 
would have left them on her way back to Durban and thence 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 111 

to Ceylon. She had already been allocated to the Far East: 
the blunder that was to send her to the bottom of the South 
China Sea was already half perpetrated. 

The day before Slinger Wood made his appearance at the 
altar of St. Nicholas's, the Prince of Wdes had put to sea 
from Scapa Flow on an errand which was a very well-kept 
secret indeed, and which the German High Command 
would have given their very eyeballs to know about. In a 
matter of ten days it would be headline news in the four 
corners of the world: as late as the morning of sailing, 
officers and ratings alike were completely in the dark about 
it, as well they might be. It was obvious to them, from the 
disruption of the internal economy of the ship that they 
were to have among them a VIP or VIPs of some sort or 
other. H. V. Morton tells us that the officers ran a sweep- 
stake on it. Three of them drew outside chances, these being 
(in order of apparent probability) taking Rudolf Hess back 
to Germany, taking Mr. Cochran's Young Ladies to Dakar, 
and taking Winston Churchill to see Roosevelt Lower deck 
controversy was so fierce that it swamped all "differences of 
opinion" over football and boxing: vast quantities of money 
and rum were involved in it, and even some blood. 

So that on the morning of August 43 morning of poor 
visibility, with low-lying mist and driving rain, a typical 
Scapa morning the ship's company was mustered on deck 
in a state of suspense and high excitement. The new de- 
stroyer Oribi was racing towards her at full speed across the 
turbulent waters of the narrow sea, performing those antics 
which delight the hearts of beholders and make destroyers 
the most exhibitionist of ships. Straining eyes made out a 
great deal of brass, somewhat damp: on the bridge was a 
man in a peaked cap without any brass whatsoever. He was 
smoking a cigar. Audibly all over the ship went round the 
astonished murmur, "It's Winston!" 

It was Winston, and he was on his way to a secret rendez- 
vous with President Roosevelt at Placentia Bay in New- 



112 BERNARD ASH 

foundland, from which was to emerge a declaration which, 
at the time, seemed beyond all doubt to be one of the most 
spectacular events in human history the signing of the 
Atlantic Charter. With him were all the Chiefs of Staff, a 
score of very senior officers and civilians, three top-rank 
journalists, and President Roosevelt's personal representa- 
tive, Harry Hopkins. They were probably the most valuable 
and vulnerable cargo any ship had ever carried across the 
seas in time of war, and their accommodation had involved 
a major reorganisation and rendered a large section of the 
wardroom homeless. The Prince of Wales, for the nonce, 
was no longer merely a battleship she was Churchill's 
Yacht. Whether the two roles could be satisfactorily com- 
bined might remain to be seen, and what effect all this would 
have on the working-up of the ship was obvious to any 
experienced observer. For the moment no-one worried about 
such considerations nor could they fairly be blamed. It was 
a tremendous honour, and the Prince of Wales' s people felt 
very proud of themselves. 

"We felt," recalls our friend Tudor (now thoroughly 
settled down and not hankering after destroyers any more) 
"as though nothing could touch us with him on board/' 

H. V. Morton had other thoughts. As the great ship put 
to sea with her three attendant destroyers, Harvester, Have- 
lock, and Hesperus, as Orkney became a blur in the mist 
astern and then faded from sight altogether, he thought of 
another voyage, another mission which was perhaps the only 
one in history to bear any similarity to this Lord Kitchener's 
mission to Russia in the previous war, in the cruiser Hamp- 
shire. Kitchener and the Hampshire were drowned off the 
coast of Hoy, and the whole mission and the end of it was 
so fantastic and improbable, that books are still being written 
about it. How would Churchill's mission end? Everyone of 
the relatively few people in the secret must have been shak- 
ing in their shoes at the thought of all these important and 
well-nigh irreplaceable eggs in one basket being committed 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 

to the battleground of the Atlantic. There can hardly have 
been one of them who did not feel that both the Prime 
Minister, his staff, and the service chiefs, would have been 
infinitely safer being flown across the ocean in small parcels 
in bombers. It has never been revealed how much argument 
and battle there was behind the scenes, but it is a practical 
certainty that more than one attempt was made to dissuade 
the Prime Minister. It is equally a practical certainty that 
no-one got any glory for trying to do so. He got his way about 
taking this ship to Newfoundland, just as he was to get his 
way later about sending her to Singapore. At least, in this 
case, it brought her fame instead of destruction. Maybe Alf 
Tudor was rightmaybe nothing could touch them while 
Winston was aboard! 

What lay behind Churchill's choice of a battleship to take 
him to Newfoundland at this time has much to do with the 
qualities that endeared him to the British people in those 
dark and dangerous days. If we understand them, we shall 
also understand better why he pressed so stubbornly for the 
dispatch of the Prince of Wales to the Far East. He was 
incurably flamboyant, he loved spectacular gestures; and 
there was surely a need for them in those grim years. His 
personal courage was undoubtedly of a high order (later he 
had to be restrained from appearing on the Normandy beach- 
heads) and there was a need for the courageous example he 
always set. Though not over-fussy about his personal dignity, 
he had a keen sense of the dignity of what he represented, 
and one of the things he represented was British domination 
of the seas: therefore he probably could just not see himself 
being bundled unceremoniously out of the belly of a bomber 
like a consignment of NAAFI tea. But above all, there was 
his own curious and highly personal mystical conception of 
battleships. Most ordinary people feel something of it when 
they look at a monster ship of war or rather, felt something 
of it, because, although capital ships and their ways are 
referred to in the present tense in much of this book, they 



114 BERNARD ASH 

are already things of the past. Most ordinary people feel 
something of it, a lot of people feel it strongly, and people 
connected with the sea can feel it as an emotion almost as 
strong as physical love. Churchill's reaction to battleships- 
complex, obsession, fetish, call it what you like according to 
your feelings about the man and his works was of this order. 
It overrode all reason and flouted all logical considerations. 
Certainly he knew, as a matter of cold intellectual appraisal, 
that the Prince of Wales was neither unsinkable nor invinci- 
ble. Had he not himself bitterly campaigned about the de- 
fects in her main armament and what he thought was a flaw 
in her horizontal armour? Inevitably he must have read both 
Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker's and Admiral Tovey's des- 
patches, though it is to his credit if Wake-Walker's prej- 
udices about the Prince of Wales had not influenced him 
unduly. Weighing the chances, he must have known that 
she could be destroyed if the U-boats and the Luftwaffe 
found her out just as he must have known later that she 
could not stand up against the entire Japanese Navy if the 
whole Japanese Navy came out. But intellectual appraisal 
counted for nothing. The Prime Minister of Great Britain 
was going to meet the President of the United States, and the 
pair of them were going to make history between them; and 
reasoning be damned, the Prime Minister and his entourage 
would go in a great ship, a mystery larger than life, riding the 
seas in glory, while all the winds of the heavens in diapason 
played "Rule Britannia/' It was a magnificent conception: it 
was also a gamble that paid off. The world applauded. 
Britain's stock went up, and morale at home received a much- 
needed uplift. 

But there was one thing that was utterly and inexcusably 
wrong about the whole business the choice of the Prince 
of Wales for the job. We already know too well that she was 
both a new ship and a new ship in trouble. We know that she 
was faced with the appallingly difficult problem of "working- 
up" in wartime in a fraction of the time that would be allot- 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 11 5 

ted for the purpose in peace. We know that her working-up 
had already been interrupted by a major naval action and a 
spell in the dockyard for battle damage repairs and modifica- 
tions. We know that, in the unanimous opinion of all compe- 
tent naval authorities, to interrupt the working-up of a new 
ship is disastrous. Yet here was the Prince of Wales with her 
internal arrangements completely disrupted, her routine dis- 
organised, her very accommodation turned upside-down, on 
duty as Churchill's Yacht or more appropriately Churchill's 
floating fortress. 

Although Mr. Churchill was not always visible to the 
ship [writes Morton], evidence of him was bellowed 
all over the battleship by loud-speaker. Men in the en- 
gine room, sailors on the mess decks, Marine sentries 
and others smiled with delight as they heard unaccus- 
tomed orders shouted such as 'Witt Mr. Martin please 
go at once to the Prime Minister on the bridge?' 
or 'The Prime Minister requests the presence of Brigadier 
Dykes upon the bridge.' Hearing such orders the crew 
caught a reflected glory and knew that this voyage was 
like no other. 

This was all very well for the crew: of course they loved 
it, and of course they felt the reflected glory shining upon 
them, but the fact is that this was not what the ship's loud- 
speaker system was for, any more than the whole business 
was what the ship was for. To a ship fully worked-up and 
fully efficient the interruption would have been of little or 
no consequence. To the Prince of Wales it could well have 
been disastrous. It could, in another major action, have 
weighed the scales between victory and defeat, between 
survival and sinking. The fact that she was ultimately sunk 
by air action with no real chance to defend herself properly 
has no bearing on the matter, for certainly neither the Prime 
Minister nor anyone else had any foreknowledge of how the 
Prince of Wdes was going to be sunk. 

There were other battleships. There were other modern 



Il6 BERNARD ASH 

battleships. There was King George V, Admiral Tovey's 
flagship in the Home Fleet, which had been commissioned 
months longer than the Prince of Wales. There were older 
battleships, as fast and as well protected for all practical 
purposes and much more reliable from a gunnery point of 
view. Why choose the Prince of Wales? It is another great 
tribute to Captain Leach, his officers and his men that the 
damage to her working-up process caused by this further 
interruption was apparently kept to a minimum. 

There would have been one circumstance in which the 
choice of the Prince of Wales to be Churchill's Yacht could 
have been considered a brilliant piece of morale building. 
That circumstance would have been if the journalists' chatter 
about her had been true if the morale of her complement 
had really been at rock bottom, if she had really been 
branded as the ship that ran away, if there had been "passive 
mutiny" chalking on the mess decks, and all the rest of it 
Here, straight away would have been a master stroke of 
rehabilitation, a demonstration to her people, and to the rest 
of the fleet, as well as such outsiders who knew about such 
things, that they stood as highly in the Prime Minister's eyes 
as any other ship, that they were worthy to be his guardians 
and protectors. But this does not hold water. It only holds 
water if you believe the journalists' gossip and the story of 
the "mutiny," which the writer categorically does not. And 
furthermore, the very idea of it is self-contradictory because 
Churchill cannot be regarded as a complete and utter fool, 
and only a complete and utter fool would have entrusted 
himself, the Chiefs of Staff, and other extremely valuable 
people to the keeping of a palpably mutinous ship. So that 
not only is the suggestion that the Churchill voyage was an 
antidote to the mutiny a silly suggestion it also joins itself 
to the other evidence to help prove that the mutiny was a 
legend with the slenderest of foundations. 

The funny thing about the Churchill trip is that in spite 
of their pride at the honour of it, its actual details bulk re- 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED llj 

markably small in the memory of survivors. They remember 
the church service which Roosevelt attended, they remem- 
ber the Prime Minister and President gripping each 
other by the shoulder, seeming immensely pleased with 
themselves and each other and seeming also to be sharing 
some private joke between them. They remember the 
quantities of ice cream they got aboard the American ships. 
Boy Williams remembers getting "some sort of souvenir" 
but cannot for the life of him remember what it was, and in 
any case what is left of it lies in his ditty box at the bottom 
of the Gulf of Siam. Signalman Seddon, that mine of 
accurate information who would have had the dates and 
times of things as firmly recorded in his excellent memory 
as he has so many other things, is unable to help us because 
he was absent from the ship having been detailed with a 
wireless operator from King George V to join the tanker 
Black Ranger in a raid on Petsamo and Spitsbergen. 

There are very good reasons for their lack of memory 

quite apart from the fact that there was a lot of war still to 
come to them, that a lot of things have happened since and 
that much time has gone by. For the whole of their time at 
sea in both directions they were continuously at action 
stations Captain Leach, incidentally, was on the bridge 
himself for the whole of that time. Truth be known, apart 
from hearing those continual messages coming in over the 
loudspeakers, apart from seeing him at Scapa, at Placentia, 
at Iceland, and occasionally in the distance about the ship 
if they were lucky, they had very little contact with him or 
with the important people who accompanied him. If, after 
all, you seek intimate details about visiting personalities at 
Claridge's or the Ritz, you don't go to the man who stokes 
the central heating boilers, or oils the machinery that works 
the lifts. 

The story of the voyage itself is quite briefly told. The 
battleship with her precious cargo and her destroyers set 
course westward at high speed into a rising wind and a steep- 



Il8 BERNARD ASH 

ening sea. The journalists (and no doubt other more distin- 
guished landsmen aboard who have left no record of their 
feelings) found that the great mass of steel which had looked 
so imposing to them in the anchorage could perform the 
most alarming and disturbing antics. As the day -wore on 
into evening and the weather worsened, speed was reduced 
to eighteen knots in the hope of being able to keep the de- 
stroyer escort in company. Shortly after midnight the at- 
tempt was given up: the destroyers were detached, the battle- 
ship put on speed again and continued her way across the 
Atlantic utterly and completely alone. In the midst of all this 
Mr. Churchill had entertained the wardroom to a showing 
of one of the films he had brought with him, sitting compan- 
ionably among the officers in the mess dress of the Royal 
Yacht Squadron. He had thereafter retired to bed, but the 
officer of the watch, who was summoned to him shortly 
afterwards in the Admiral's suite astern, found him less 
ceremonially attired. He demanded to be taken to the 
Admiral's sea cabin on the bridge away from the appalling 
mechanical racket in the Admiral's quarters. There he slept 
wellso well in fact that he decided to stay there for the 
rest of the voyage. The following day he admired the airiness 
of the warrant officers' mess, so presently the warrant officers 
were evicted and he was given it as his day quarters 
in lieu of the Admiral's suite. The warrant officers, however, 
were not offered the latter in exchange. 

On Wednesday the storm abated: its place was taken by 
thick fog into which the battleship still steamed relentlessly, 
so that those who had been thinking about the Hampshire 
were able to think about the Titanic instead. Three Canadian 
destroyers from Iceland now picked them up and took the 
place of the original escort. In the calmer weather the 
journalists and VIPs were able to explore the ship and have 
its wonders explained to them: these included the marvels 
of discharging guns by pressing a button which we have al- 
ready heard about, the fantastic number of loaves produced 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 11Q 

every day in the ship's bakery, the serving out of spirits, the 
Captain's Request Men, the inspection of the ship's cats, 
and other show pieces. The Thursday was uneventful and 
on the Friday a full dress rehearsal of the ceremonial for the 
reception of the American President was held; and the film 
show that night was Lady Hamilton, in which Nelson's death 
scene so affected the Prime Minister that Morton saw him 
unashamedly wipe his eyes. On Saturday morning, August 
9th, they made rendezvous with an escort of American de- 
stroyers who took them into Placentia Bay where, amid a 
great assembly of American ships of war, President Roose- 
velt awaited them in the cruiser Augusta. The Prince of 
Wales'* crew manned ship, the band of the Royal Marines 
played "The Star-Spangled Banner/' the Prime Minister and 
his attendant officers stood to the salute and Captain Leach, 
who had had no sleep for the greater part of a week, ap- 
peared on the quarter-deck looking like a tailor's dummy. 

If there is perhaps one impression outstanding among 
those who were there at that moment, it is the contrast be- 
tween the Prince of Wales and the American shipsstill in 
their full peace-time splendour with snowy decks and gleam- 
ing brass work. Although the British ship was almost fresh 
from the dockyard, she looked war-weary and travel-stained 
in her dark camouflage. It was not the last time she was to 
sail out of a world at war into a world at peace: on this 
occasion as well as the one that was to follow it was a world 
the peace of which was very soon to be shattered. The 
American ships were not to wear their peacetime dress for 
very much longer. There was for them to be at least as big 
a blunder as the blunder that sent the Prince of Wales to the 
China Sea: in fact it was part and parcel of the same blunder 
and the blunder was being perpetrated at this very moment 
when American officers were gazing with something like awe 
at a ship that had been through battle the blunder of which 
the price was Pearl Harbour and the loss of the Pacific Ocean. 

Shortly after the ship's arrival the Prime Minister and his 



12O BERNARD ASH 

staff disappeared aboard the Augusta: his talks with the 
President and the discussions of the Service Chiefs with 
each other occupied the whole of the time between then 
and the following Tuesday morning, apart from formal visits 
and informal occasions. Two completely separate streams of 
life were being lived in the vast anchorage of Placentia Bay. 
One, the life behind closed doors of the statesmen and the 
chiefs of staff battling out their world problems and the 
complexities of the relations between two allies, one of 
whom was at war and the other still at peace. The other life 
was that of the ordinary people who were not concerned in 
these discussions at all the Americans and the British, 
fraternising with each other, yet fraternising through the 
barrier that divides war from peace. More than one of the 
British ratings felt that, in spite of the kindness of their 
hosts, in spite of the gifts that were lavished on them, the 
barrier could not be passed by the people on either side. 
Throughout all the days there was immense activity in the 
anchorage craft of every description coming and going on 
all the mysterious errands that are a part of great fleets and 
great occasions. On one of these occasions there arrived 
aboard the British ship fifteen hundred cardboard cartons, 
one for every man aboard her: each carton contained an 
orange, two apples, two hundred cigarettes and half a pound 
of cheese, and they were a personal gift from the President 
of the United States. Half a generation later it sounds an 
odd sort of gift in a world that has forgotten that cigarettes 
were things of great value and that cheese was almost price- 
less. There is no evidence that the President's gift appeared 
strange or that it was not appreciated. Later, of course, the 
men also received souvenir photographs. 

As night came on the Prince of Wales blossomed from 
a dark, grim camouflaged bulk to a thing of light. She 
was free of the blackout for the first time since she was a 
half-formed hulk in the dockyard of Birkenhead. 

The Atlantic Charter, which emerged from the discussions 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 121 

which were going on behind closed doors on the Augusta, 
loomed so large in the eyes of the world at the time and has 
done since that it is not often realised that anything else was 
discussed or decided at all. To people in beleaguered Britain, 
the Charter was a splendid, a shining thing that came upon 
them suddenly in the midst of the drabness and the weariness 
of that dreadful year. The writer of this book, still a junior 
and frustrated NCO in an infantry battalion, bogged down 
on a parade ground from which there seemed to be no escape 
in all eternity, vividly remembers the news of it coming over 
a welfare radio in a sunlit and barren barrack room. Sud- 
denly there was interest and light and hope; suddenly there 
was a reminder that the world would not be a barrack room 
forever, although it still might be a barrack room for a very 
long time. Suddenly there was memory of the things that 
had been in our minds when at last, after all the dithering 
and dallying, we went to war; and for a little space there 
seemed once more some purpose in it all. If, indfeed, the 
Atlantic Charter was a more nebulous document than it ap- 
peared to be at the time, let us remember what it meant to 
us in those days and let us remember also the men who were 
responsible for it; since presently we shall have to say some 
hard things about at least one of them. And if the hope of 
the Atlantic Charter was yet another hope that was to be 
belied, that is no concern of this book. 

Certainly the Atlantic Charter got all the limelight, but 
very many other things were discussed and one of the things 
that came in for its fair share of discussion was the Far East 
the Japanese menace, which in Churchill's own words lay 
at that time in "a sinister twilight." It is perhaps not wholly 
true to say that the seeds of the blunder which put paid to the 
Repulse and the Prince of Wales were sown at this meeting 
they had been sown long before. Nor is it true to say that 
the blunder was perpetrated at this meeting. It is, however, 
true to say that it arose in a large measure out of what was 



122 BERNARD ASH 

said and done at this meeting; and what was said and done at 
this meeting arose out of some misconceptions which are, in 
the light of later events, almost impossible to credit. The 
most important of the misconceptions were, perhaps, three 
in number: that the Japanese would on no account risk war 
with the Western Powers while Russia remained unbroken 
and she herself was bogged down in China; that there was 
all the time in the world to negotiate with the Japanese in 
the face of a steadily deteriorating situation; and that the 
Japanese were not in a position to survive a war for long if 
by any chance they were so ill-advised as to start one. That 
these misconceptions should have existed passes from the 
incredible to the fantastic when we are told that the Ameri- 
cans had been in possession of the Japanese war ciphers since 
1940. 

Japan was in alliance with the Fascist powers of Germany 
and Italy: the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo axis had been forged 
long before the war. This had been further strengthened by 
the Tripartite Pact of September 1940, which committed 
the Japanese to enter the European war on the Axis side if 
the United States entered it on behalf of Britain. A month 
before the Placentia meeting, an agreement with Vichy 
France had ceded Japan bases in Indochina from which, 
given sufficient force and insufficient interference, they could 
control the whole South China Sea. The reaction of the 
United Sates had been to impose economic sanctions and, 
as the Japanese Fleet was alleged to have only eighteen 
months' reserve of oil, these sanctions must bear heavily 
upon her. It was the nearest move to war that Roosevelt 
dare make; further than that he could not go. And from the 
Atlantic Charter meeting Churchill telegraphed a warning, 
that any further Japanese moves would mean war. How 
impotent a threat this must have seemed from a Britain 
fighting a lone battle on the other side of the world! How 
impotent it must have seemed to a Japan where, in October 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 12 3 

1941, Prince Fumimaro Konoye's government of compro- 
mise had been ousted by the war party of General Hideki 
Tojo, a Japan to whose imperial ambitions the whole of 
South-East Asia lay wide open, a Japan better prepared and 
better informed than anyone in the Western hemisphere 
dreamed! Churchill and Roosevelt could discuss, decide how 
long they could temporize with Japan, agree in a perhaps 
uneasy conviction that Japan could not be lunatic enough 
to pit herself against the West: one and one only out of all 
the allied statesmen appears to have had the picture of 
Japan and Japanese intentions in correct proportion in his 
mindJan Christiaan Smuts, perhaps the most intelligent 
of them all. 

Churchill, in his own history of the war, reveals very little 
about that part of the Placentia conferences which dealt with 
Japan. What was decided and what was agreed must be 
deduced from the fact that almost immediately after his re- 
turn he started the long chain of memoranda and discussions 
which ended up by the Admiralty's opposition being steam- 
rollered flat and the Prince of Wales sent with the Repulse 
to Singapore. 

So with neither thought nor knowledge of how their own 
very particular fate was involved in what was going on be- 
hind closed doors, the Prince of Wales's complement re- 
ceived the President at Church Parade on the Sunday morn- 
ing. They sang, Morton tells us, a hymn chosen by the Prime 
Minister, "Onward Christian Soldiers/' and one chosen by 
the President, "Eternal Father, Strong to Save/' 

Now as the voices rose and fell [he wrote] a situation 
that was almost intolerable in its uncalculated emotional- 
ism reached breaking-point. I have seen many poigpiant, 
heart-searching ceremonies in my time. I saw the Victory 
March through London at the end of the last War. I was 
present in St. Paul's 'when King George V and Queen 
Mary returned thanks for victory. I was in Westminster 
Abbey when the Unknown Soldier was buried. I saw 



124 BERNARD ASH 

the Menin Gate unveiled upon the blasted ramparts of 
Ypres. I saw George V carried to his grave. 1 was in the 
House of Commons when a king gave up his crown, and 
in Westminster Abbey when another king was anointed. 

All these events putted at the heart in their different 
ways, and the scene upon the quarter-deck of a British 
battleship in war-time, yet so far from the War, was of 
that order too. We from England had come to it fresh 
from two bitter years of struggle, years in which some 
of our best friends thought our time had come. But it 
had not, and we held on alone; and war can be very 
lonely at times. The scene before us upon our battleship 
that morning was certainly a symbol of unity, might it 
not also have been a promise of alliance? 

Maybe it was a promise of alliance. Alliance there was to 
be, but this ship would never see it. The hymn the President 
had chosen, a hymn sung in ships and seamen's churches 
and chapels the whole world over, was more terribly appro- 
priate on that quarter-deck than could possibly be imagined. 

There was a great deal of photographing, there was a 
luncheon, there was a day of anti-climax in which the press- 
men were allowed ashore. The day after that, the good-byes 
were said, and the Prince of Wales sailed out of her world of 
peace back into a hostile and U-boat-infested sea, No official 
announcement about the meeting had been made to the 
world, nor had the curtain of security yet been drawn aside 
for the merest fraction, but it was quite unthinkable that 
such a show could have been staged without any whisper of 
it at all reaching enemy ears; and late on the night after his 
ship had left the shelter of Placentia Bay, Captain Leach 
received a signal that German Intelligence was without 
doubt aware that the meeting had taken place, that there was 
reason to suppose it either knew or suspected where. Early 
the following morning he spoke to the ship's company over 
the loudspeakers. He warned them that U-boat attack must 
be expected at any moment and that they must also be 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 1 25 

prepared for air attack when they came within range. Yet all 
that day a calm day the great ship, closely hugged by her 
destroyers, carved her way onwards unscathed through the 
seas, vibrating to the thrust of engines and screws and leaving 
her mighty wake behind her. The Prime Minister again had 
his film show. The following day the weather broke and 
perhaps this was the salvation of the ship, and of Mr. 
Churchill, for the U-boat plot indeed seemed to show a con- 
centration right across her course. She was steaming now for 
Iceland, where she was due to call on the sixteenth for Mr. 
Churchill to inspect an American base there. 

There was no film show that night: Mr. Churchill was 
indisposed. There was a broadcast instead from London by 
Mr. Clement Attlee. From it officers and men of the Prince 
of Wales learned for the first time what had been happening 
at Placentia Bay at least they heard it made public to the 
world that the meeting had taken place "at sea/' They heard 
the terms of the Atlantic Charter. They also knew that 
whether or not there had been any doubt about it before, 
German Intelligence and the whole world knew about it 
now. The ship altered course twice that day to avoid reported 
U-boat packs. 

The day after thatFriday, August 153 large convoy of 
merchant ships making its way in good order eastwards to- 
wards the British Isles at a plodding eight knots, became 
aware of a large ship escorted by destroyers overhauling them 
at speed. It was not for them a pleasant or welcome sight. 
It could have been any one of a number of possible German 
raiders the Scharnhorst, the Gneisenau, the Hipper, the 
Prim Eugen, the very Tirpitz herself at large and in pursuit 
of them. Their escort consisted of corvettes only, and the 
corvettes appeared to be surprisingly undisturbed by what 
they saw, for they had been warned by radio. It was no 
German raider: it was the Prince of Wales which in spite of 
the extreme peril of her situation had altered course yet again 
on Mr. Churchill's personal insistence to steam right through 



126 BERNARD ASH 

this convoy at sea. It was one of those flamboyant gestures 
which the Prime Minister could not resist. Call it folly if 
you like, for it undoubtedly was; call it madness to expose 
this precious, irreplaceable ship; call it irresponsible, lunatic 
to add to the peril in which his own person stood, together 
with the persons of so many whose loss would have been a 
crippling blow to Britain's war machine. Call it anything you 
like: you have to take off your hat to this piece of irrepressible 
showmanship. It brings back just the faintest of memories 
of the spirit of those dangerous years, the faintest of mem- 
ories of why and how Churchill loomed larger than life to a 
united nation at war. By all logic, Churchill should have 
been sunk. By all logic, Britain herself should have been sunk 
months before. Logic made no sense to the English in those 
years. The Prince of Wales and surely this was one of her 
glorious moments which are an abiding part of her memory 
steamed through the ranks of the convoy at twenty-two 
knots with Churchill on her bridge, waving and gesturing 
like old Father Neptune himself; and defying U-boats and all 
the perils of sea and sky, she turned about and steamed right 
through the convoy again. 

Early next morning they arrived in Iceland and the 
journalists admired the wild scenery of this rugged land, 
thrown up for them in a rare burst of sunlight. The ratings 
were somewhat less enthusiastic: they had seen Iceland be- 
fore and they had seen a lot of scenery of this kind since their 
war began. Too much of their time seemed to have been 
spent in places like Hvalf jord and Scapa. But at least it was 
a harbour, and they were glad of any harbour. For the last 
week, continuously at action stations with all the extra 
vigilance demanded by the hunting U-boats, had tired them 
very much indeed. The Prince of Wales might be a modern 
ship, she might have all sorts of comforts and conveniences 
for seamen that had not been thought necessary in previous 
generations; but nothing could relieve the misery of the 
watch on the guns in bitter, stormy weather- continuously 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 12J 

on the alert, always cold, wet and uncomfortable and 
desperately short of sleep. Even in ordinary watch-keeping, 
men slept so deeply and so greedily that they would have 
to be shaken and pummelled back into consciousness and a 
man's best pal would shake and pummell as hard as anyone 
else, grudging every moment of rest snatched by the sleeper 
and denied to him. "It was torture/' writes Alf Tudor, "to 
see some of the boys struggling and moaning getting out of 
their hammocks/' 

But on the guns even the comfort of their hammocks was 
denied them. They snatched odd hours or fractions of hours 
cramped up into such space as they could find in a space in 
which there was little enough room to move about upright, 
let alone lie down. Hardest hit of them all was the com- 
munication number, usually a boy rating who might not be 
much more than sixteen. With his earphones clamped about 
his head, it was very difficult for him to rest, and indeed it 
was better for him not to rest, because if he rested he might 
drop off to sleep and then anything might happen. The 
other men used to give the boys a break now and then as 
far as they could and take over the headphones themselves 
for a spell. Sandwiches and tea were the most they could 
expect for food. The petty officer in charge of Tudor's 5.25 
turret probably never realised how close he came to assassi- 
nation, for he always seemed to have managed to provide 
himself with a small bottle of rum and he drank the lot him- 
self. It must have been well nigh unbearable. 

So Iceland was a relief. Something much more important 
than the Atlantic Charter was afoot in Iceland: the Ameri- 
cans had only a few weeks before landed troops there and 
were, moreover, themselves escorting convoys of American 
ships to these shores. It was these troops the Prime Minister 
was to inspect. It was really the first important move by the 
United States into the active theatre of war. But inspection 
and all, the rest was a bare twelve hours: at eight-thirty in 
the evening the battleship sailed on the last leg of her 



128 BERNARD ASH 

journey. Throughout the whole of Sunday a contrast of a 
Sunday to the brilliance and calm water against which the 
previous Sunday's church service had been set she ploughed 
and buffeted her way onwards towards Scapa. The Prime 
Minister did his rounds of the ship, was entertained by Jhe 
gunroom and the wardroom. He attended his last film show. 
And early the following morning they sailed into their base 
with their guns firing. Scapa itself did not seem to be im- 
pressed: it had seen the coming and going of so many great 
ships and so many important people that another great ship 
and another important person (even with the Atlantic 
Charter and much else beside) was nothing to it. The rain 
came down as solidly and continuously as it had come down 
on the morning of their departure indeed it might never 
have stopped. In the rain Churchill addressed the ship's 
company. The ship's company cheered him; and he was gone. 
But if Scapa was not impressed, the rest of the world was. 
A glamour-thirsty people soaked up the story of the ship and 
her tremendous mission. Heaven alone knows how many 
pictures of the ship appeared in the days that followed in 
newspapers and periodicals and magazines, newsreels, and 
every other conceivable medium pictures of the ship, 
pictures of her officers and men, pictures of Churchill and 
Roosevelt, pictures of the figures of both nations surround- 
ing both Churchill and Roosevelt. Even in the days when 
the Repulse had sailed on her imperial missions bearing the 
heir to the throne to South America and South Africa amid 
all the pomp of peace, there can hardly have been a ship so 
much photographed and so much illustrated, so much 
written about, talked about, as this ship was now. She had 
been denied the ceremonial beginnings of other ships, she 
had had secrecy and blackout for her launching and for her 
commissioning in place of pride and pageantry. She had been 
pitchforked into battle in the sub-arctic seas almost before 
she was really a ship at all and she had been surrounded with 
a dark and sinister web of nameless and unworthy rumour; 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 



she had been belittled by Admirals and denied credit for 
what she had done. Now all this was made up to her. She 
was a glamour ship, she was Churchill's Yacht. Her days 
were numbered but she was to remain a glamour ship for 
such span of life as was left to her. 



CHAPTER 
8 



LET US LEAVE THE "PRINCE OF WALES" FOR A MOMENT, 

triumphant and basking in her glory in the rain and mist of 
the Orkneys, and the somewhat utilitarian junketing of 
Scapa Flow, and look at a very contrasting scene on the other 
side of the world. It is a scene which was presently to provide 
a better backcloth for the glamour ship than her grim anchor- 
age of the northern isles a scene to which the Repulse, 
having left Scapa behind forever, was already steaming. 

On the other side of the world lay the great fortress of 
Singapore. It thought itself impregnable and so did most of 
the rest of the world: in fact it was as impregnable as the 
Prince of Wales was unsinkable it was as impregnable as a 
toy fortification of cardboard. It was the focus and the 
symbol of British naval and commercial power in the Far 
Eastern seas which it had dominated as long as men cared 
to remember. It basked in a sunlight far removed from war. 
It knew neither blackout nor air-raid warnings, nor bombs; 
it knew nothing of battle-scarred ships, limping home with 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 

their dead and their dying, or of decimated convoys strug- 
gling in to port In fact it lay in that sinister twilight of Mr. 
Churchill's phrase: it was a fool's paradise and a breeding 
ground for blunders of the first water. 

For its defence at sea and indeed for the maintenance 
of British naval supremacy in an area where it had been un- 
challenged for a hundred years it had two old D-class light 
cruisers and two old destroyers in the immediate vicinity, 
two more old destroyers and eight motor torpedo boats at 
Hong Kong, far to the north on the Chinese coast. These and 
the naval base were under the command of Vice-Admiral 
Sir Geoffrey Layton, who bore the imposing title of Com- 
mander-in-Chief, China Station. There were also two Aus- 
tralian destroyers in the area; away to the south-east in Aus- 
tralian waters were three cruisers, two destroyers, and one 
Free French light cruiser. At Auckland there were two New 
Zealand cruisers, and the Dutch in Java had three light 
cruisers, six destroyers, and thirteen submarines. At Manila 
was the American Asiatic Fleet, the name of which was as 
misleading as the name of Admiral Layton's command, for 
it mustered no more than three cruisers, thirteen destroyers, 
and twenty-nine submarines. The main American strength 
was concentrated on Pearl Harbour, six thousand miles away, 
and for all practical purposes off the edge of the world: in 
any case, America was not in the war. It is true that these 
forces were no smaller in size and fire-power than the forces 
which had sustained the British overlordship of these seas 
in the nineteenth century, but circumstances had changed 
very much: we were no longer asserting ourselves over 
mediaeval kingdoms armed with antique and ineffective 
weapons but, in the case of Japan at least, against a people 
which had thirstily absorbed the mechanical trappings of 
western civilisation and western war, had equipped itself 
with a modern fleet and modern aircraft, and enjoyed the 
facilities for battle practice on the Chinese mainland for the 
greater part of twenty years. 



132 BERNARD ASH 

For the air defence of Singapore, under Air Vice-Marshal 
Pulford, there were a few squadrons of Brewster Buffaloes 
American lease-lend aircraft of short range, poor perform- 
ance, and inferior armament, quite useless for the Mediter- 
ranean or the European theatres of war. There were a few 
Catalina flying boats. 

On land there were no defences at all, bar the narrow 
strait that ran between Singapore island and the mainland- 
making the whole elaborate fortress rather like a stage set 
with one side missing. North of this stretched the jungle of 
Malaya, held by a few battalions of troops, thin on the 
ground, badly equipped and badly cared for, insufficient in 
numbers and weapon-power even to defend effectively the 
landing grounds on which the Brewster Buffaloes were 
based. Malaya, as a glance at the map will show, is a long, 
thin tongue of land, stretching southwards from the main- 
land towards Sumatra; it is narrowest near its northern 
borders, where the Kra Isthmus, barely fifty miles across, 
joins it to Siam and Indochina. It is said that even 
Mr. Churchill himself was unaware, till the tragedy of the 
Far East was almost played out, that the defences of Singa- 
pore faced seaward only; and no-one at all seems to have 
grasped the fact that the Kra Isthmus could have been made 
into a forward defence line for the whole of Malaya and 
for Singapore. 

Any suggestion of fortifying the Kra Isthmus would have 
raised an outcry in the Foreign Officeany evidence of 
military preparations around the Siamese border raised an 
outcry from the Foreign Office, which was convinced that 
any such moves would upset Britain's diplomatic relations 
with Siam; and this in itself was part of a nineteenth 
century attitude based on information which shows no 
evidence of having been amended since Queen Victoria's 
reign. It required no maladjustment of diplomatic relations 
to make the Siamese turn against us: they had already turned 
against us and were ready to welcome with open arms the 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 

Japanese, the saviours of Asia. The Malayans, confidently 
reported by people who had known the country for years and 
honestly and truly should have known better, to be loyal and 
deeply attached to Britain, were equally ready to welcome 
the Japanese and the country was riddled with fifth column 
activities. (Italy had been christened by Mr. Churchill "the 
soft underbelly of the Axis" and how we all gloried in that 
luscious and entirely appropriate phrase! Neither he nor any- 
one else had said anything about the soft underbelly of the 
British Empire.) 

Now there were very good reasons why this area was 
starved of ships, starved of aircraft and starved of troops. The 
situation was part and parcel of that "sinister twilight" of Mr. 
Churchill's. It was inevitable that it should have been starved 
when the whole weight of war in the western world fell on 
Britain alone, and something of the situation had been fore- 
seen in the Admiralty's first appraisal of the war early in 1939. 
"I am sure/' says Churchill himself, "nothing we could have 
spared at this time, even at the cost of wrecking the Middle 
East theatre or cutting off supplies to the Soviet Union, 
would have changed the march of fate in Malaya" al- 
though he also said in his Guildhall banquet speech that 
every preparation to defend British interests in the Far East 
had been made, and he also said repeatedly that he could 
not envisage a Japanese attack in force on Malaya. But 
people on the spot, from the Commander-in-Chief , Air Vice- 
Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham downwards, did not see 
themselves being starved, neglected, or ill-equipped. With 
the very evidence before their eyes, they still regarded them- 
selves as omnipotent and impregnable. They fell into the 
most extravagant extremities of self-deception. The Brewster 
Buffaloes, Air Vice-Marshal Pulford confidently asserted, 
"were good enough for Singapore." They were not afraid of 
Japan: five days before Pearl Harbour, Brooke-Popham told 
correspondents that Japan did not know which way to turn 
and that Tojo was scratching his head. They regarded war 



134 BERNARD ASH 

as an unfortunate circumstance afflicting the other half of 
the world, from which they were happily far removed; they 
had air-raid precautions of a sort which were so efficient that 
the night Japanese aircraft first appeared above the city, the 
man whose job it was to turn off the street lights could not 
be found. They were not bothered by the establishment of 
Japanese air bases in Indochina: they thought that the 
Japanese were "not very good at aircraft." 

Yes, the Japanese were "not very good at aircraft." They 
were short of oil; they had fought themselves to a standstill 
in China. We ourselves had comforted ourselves with a 
number of similar illusions about Germany in the period of 
the phony war. Nobody seemed to understand that what had 
been phony in the phony war in Europe could be just as 
phony in the Far East. Because in point of fact there was 
nothing phony about Japanese war preparations or war 
plans, and if use had been made among other things of the 
Japanese war ciphers that had been in American hands for a 
good twelve months, everyone, including the good-time em- 
pire-builders of Singapore, would have known about them. 
There was certainly nothing phony about the Mitsubishi air- 
craft at Saigon, the weapons with which they were equipped 
or the training of the men who flew them. 

Lulled by their feeling of false security, the men of Singa- 
pore neither protested against their lack of equipment nor 
asked for the merest gleaning of the supplies that were be- 
coming available for other theatres of war. Warn against the 
dangers mounting against them they could not, for they had 
no appreciation of these dangersat least, there is no 
evidence that they had. All very fine that they should accept 
the priority of the Middle East and of supplies for Russia; 
all very well that they should understand that frittering away 
of supplies, equipment, and men on half-a-dozen theatres of 
war at once would, end in no theatre being properly equipped 
or armed or manned. Was there any need to carry the process 
further by pretending that they had all they needed, that the 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 135 

defence of the Malay Peninsula and all that depended on it 
was assured, that there was all the time in the world to rein- 
force themselves against the rising menace of Japan? For this 
very pretence lulled the War Cabinet into a state of false 
security about Malaya and the Far East, and there cannot be 
the slightest doubt that no-one at home, from the Prime 
Minister downwards, fully envisaged the true nakedness of 
Singapore, the true peril of Malaya and through these the 
appalling threat to Burma, India, Australia, New Zealand, 
and all those territories through which Mr. Duff Cooper's 
stately (but somewhat rapid and cursory) progress took him 
in search of material for his report. 

Supposing Air Vice-Marshal Pulford had begged for just 
a few Spitfires, General Percival for a few more troops, and 
a few tanks, and modern anti-tank guns, Vice-Admiral Lay- 
ton for air defence for his base; supposing Brooke-Popham, 
with the whole responsibility for the defence of these vast 
territories on his shoulders, had really tried to drive his situ- 
ation home. Who is to say that, in spite of all the other 
commitments, a little might not have been spared for 
Malaya? And who can tell what difference that little might 
have made when the success of the Japanese attempt to 
establish themselves on the Kra Isthmus hung in the 
balance, when the ability to keep landing-grounds in the 
north serviceable, would have extended immensely the range 
of fighter cover, when the power to reach and attack the 
Japanese bases in Saigon could have changed the whole 
course of the war? Singapore might even have become an- 
other Tobruk. Certainly the Repulse and the Prince of Wales 
would not have been overwhelmed in a calm sea, under the 
shadow of an empty sky, defenceless, save for their own too- 
few anti-aircraft guns, against a trained and resolute enemy 
who found not a single fighter to deflect the torpedo-bombers 
from their straight and deadly course. 
But no the fortress was impregnable; the Brewster 
Buffaloes were good enough for Singapore, and the Japanese 



136 BERNARD ASH 

were not very good at aircraft. Not a voice was raised, not 
a protest uttered; and so the ships went down and the Far 
East was lost. 

While Slinger Wood of the Repulse had been enjoying 
his one-day honeymoon, while the Prince of Wales was 
steaming hell for leather westward with Churchill on board 
and her destroyers left far behind, a gentleman called Alfred 
Duff-Cooper, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and ex- 
Minister of Information, was setting out by air for Singapore 
with the duty of reporting to the Cabinet on the situation 
there. In his book, Old Men Forget, he tells us something of 
what he found. He found that there were certain absurdities 
of organisation, that there was a great deal of overlapping 
between various departments, but this only occupies a 
paragraph in his book. How much more space it occupied in 
his report we do not know though we do know that this 
report started off with the prescient statement that the Far 
East was destined to play a far greater role in the future 
than it had in the past. He extols the happiness and pleasant 
quarters of his official party and the merits of his Chinese 
cook, a great artist who would never repeat himself: 

Diana loved Singapore. Its baroque beauty and bright 
colours appealed to her. She got on well with the 
Chinese and the Malays. She began to learn the lan- 
guage and made some progress. She enjoyed the streets 
and the shops and the people. I suffered for the first 
time from grandeur. I like, as she does, to wander at 
will in new cities, explore narrow streets, gaze into shop- 
windows and sit down in little cafes. But I was too im- 
portant now to be natural. Such behaviour would have 
been severely criticised. I should have lost "face" and so 
would my mission. Indian soldiers stood as sentries at 
our doors and I could scarcely leave the house except in 
a motor-car. So I missed much of the fun of Singapore 
and have often thought that I should like to go back 
there as a private citizen. 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 137 

There can be nothing more expressive of Singapore and 
everything in it than this attitude and these impressions. 
Certainly Duff-Cooper could eat delicately and live pleas- 
antly in Singapore. Certainly, when the time came, Admiral 
Phillips and his staff would be royally entertained there for 
a brief space; certainly there would be entertainment (albeit 
of a different sort) for Johnny King, Alf Tudor, and their 
shipmates of the Prince of Wales. While they entertained 
and enjoyed their civilised life behind their stage-set fortifi- 
cations, the Japanese pilots were training at Saigon and the 
war cabinet in Tokyo was adding the final touches to their 
country's plans for taking possession of its imperial inherit- 
ance. 

It was in an attempt to defend this rotten and crumbling 
bastion, this temple of folly and blunder, that the Prince of 
Wales and the Repulse were about to be sacrificed. Since 
this is the story of those two ships and not the story of 
Singapore (which has been ably and fully written of by 
O'Dowd Gallagher, Frank Owen and others) it is necessary 
to say no more. This much however had to be said in order 
to put into proper perspective the false and utterly unrealistic 
background of the views of the Prime Minister, the Foreign 
Office, and all those who supported them in their campaign 
to get the ships sent out for sacrifice in the South China Sea. 

. . . Slinger Wood had come into the mess, last as usual, 
for breakfast. The mess was like a turkish bath: those wide, 
airy spaces that had been so extolled by upper-deck observers 
were not so wide and airy in the latitude of Freetown and 
beyond. The men spent most of their time down there in 
their underpants or with towels wrapped round their middles, 
and when they had a cup of tea most of it seemed to come 
out again through the pores of their skin. Tempers were easily 
roused over the most trivial of things. 
< Most of the boys had already finished their breakfast, but 
Taffy Mannings was still sitting at the other end of the table 



138 BERNARD ASH 

and was just about to start on his second cup of tea, when 
he noticed that the sugar basin was empty. Now one rule 
in a mess is that whoever takes the last spoonful of sugar 
fills the basin from a chest at the end of the table, and Taffy 
thought Slinger had just emptied it; so he slid the basin up 
the table to Slinger, who was, as a matter of fact, sitting 
right by the chest, and asked him to fill it. 

"Get your lazy self up off your arse and fill it your bloody 
self/' said Slinger, throwing the basin back at him. 

Whereupon Taffy Mannings did get his lazy self up off 
his arse and invited Slinger to accompany him up on to the 
forecastle. Here they spent the next half hour knocking hell 
out of each other, to the pleasure and delight of most of the 
ship's company, including the officers on the bridge. Not 
for many years have those who patronise the sport of boxing 
in more genteel circumstances seen such a marathon bout, 
without rounds or pauses for refreshment. Eventually Wood 
managed to catch Taffy with a right hook and he slid down 
the forward breakwater with the silliest of looks on his face. 

"I've had enough/' he said. 

"So have I," said Slinger, and the two of them shook hands 
with the greatest of good will and returned to the mess deck. 
Slinger filled the sugar bowl and the pair of them finished 
what was left of the breakfast. They remained the best of 
friends and shipmates after this, although they never saw 
each otfter again after Singapore. 

There may be several things that occur to the reader about 
this. In the first place he may think what a wonderful world 
it was in which a man could get his petty spites and irritations 
straight out of his system just as soon as they came in, and 
never give them a second thought afterwards. They may also 
notice how remarkably fit these men must have been and 
how their method of settling their differences was approved 
and encouraged by all concerned from the highest to the 
low. Perhaps we might occasionally remember such things 
as this when we read stones of brutality in barrack rooms, 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 

savagery in base depots and so forth, and when every NCO 
or petty officer must sometimes feel that there is a pressman 
hanging at his elbow, ready to report even a word he may 
say out of place. Yet the Repulse and ships like her were 
pretty good ships: they were certainly not slave ships and 
their men went to their end in them very willingly. 

So through the endless tropical days the great ship 
steamed, stately in the midst of her vast convoy, ever south- 
wards. Endless days indeed: few who travelled that way can 
ever forget how endlessly and how idly they followed one 
another until the whole world seemed to be blue ocean, and 
a man might have been on a ship for ever and a day. Endless 
days, with all the petty routine of a convoy: daily gun practice 
with the anti-aircraft weapons, daily boat-drill for the troop- 
ships, jettisoning of rubbish at sundown, mysterious comings 
and goings by the destroyers who alone in the world seemed 
to be free to move otherwise than in a set, predetermined 
series of patterns and stations occasional depth-charging, 
though it seemed quite impossible that any submarines 
could lurk below the surface of that dazzling sea flecked by 
flying fish and starred with Portuguese men-of-war. Idle days 
indeed, watching porpoise and dolphin sporting about the 
ships. Idle days and sweltering nights in the blacked-out 
ships, with the thrash and judder of propeller and shaft 
vibrating endlessly in the confined spaces, while the Pole 
Star dipped below the sea and the Southern Cross rose higher 
and higher each night amid the brilliant constellations. 

Very far from the war they all felt now far from the 
battles they had missed and the battles that were likely to 
be. For the men on the troopships certainly there was battle 
at the end of it, if ever they came to the end of this eternal 
sea voyaging which drugged their very minds, so that they 
seemed to know neither past nor future the Repulse was a 
symbol of strength and security, and one of them told Scouse 
Garner long afterwards that they felt her presence was safety 
and a sure shield to them. 



BERNARD ASH 

On and forever on until the Southern Cross was high in 
the sky and the days became less torrid; till the seas lost their 
unending dazzling blue and steepened into the great, parallel 
rollers that surge forever out of the Antarctic to crash against 
the southern shores of Africa. On round the Cape, with the, 
escorts burying their bows in the southern seas, and even the 
battle-cruiser and the biggest of the convoy's ships pitching 
solemnly and heavily in the steepest waters of the world. 
On round the Cape and into the Indian Ocean, divided from 
the war now not only by half a world but by the great 
continent they were circumnavigating. On the third of 
October they arrived in Durban. 



CHAPTER 



ALL THIS TIME A BATTLE-ROYAL WAS BEING FOUGHT IN 

London. It was not a continuous battle: it went by fits and 
starts, surged up and died down, rather like the Hundred 
Years' War. The main protagonists were Mr. Churchill and 
the Admiralty. On Mr. Churchill's side there intervened 
from time to time the Foreign Office, backed by its nine- 
teenth century dossiers and its notions of gun-boat diplo- 
macy. Of all the blunders that were perpetrated about the 
two ships the blunders of the Foreign Office are the most 
fantastic. Added to their views that the loyalty of the Malays 
was unshakeable and that the Siamese must not be 
"offended" by establishing forward bases for the defence of 
Malaya, they stuck hard by the Victorian precept that all it 
was necessary to do was to "send a ship." Without doing 
the Foreign Office any injustice at all, its spokesmen appear 
quite seriously to have believed that one nice, big, modern 
Battleship would make the Japanese cringe in awe and dread, 



142 BERNARD ASH 

and forego any thoughts they might have had about the con- 
quest of Asia. 

Now the Admiralty had not been idle over the Far Eastern 
question. We may fairly assume that the state of things in 
the Far East and our negligible strength at sea there had 
been very much in their Lordships' minds ever since the loss 
of the French Fleet in the Mediterranean had made any 
reinforcement of our Far Eastern Fleet impossible for the 
time being. During 1941, the official historian tells us, the 
Far Eastern situation had been repeatedly before them and 
a great deal of thought, discussion, and planning had been 
devoted to it. With the obvious signs that things were begin- 
ning to move faster in the Far East with the occupation 
of Indochina, with the American oil embargo, with Church- 
ill's own warning from the Atlantic Charter meeting the 
fact that action could not be much longer postponed was 
very apparent. Since the war plans that were issued in the 
early days of 1939, the Admiralty's appraisal of situations 
had been good, and the appraisal they had arrived at over 
the Far Eastern situation now was good. If use had been 
made of the Japanese war ciphers which had been in Ameri- 
can hands for a year it would have been seen immediately 
how sound their appraisal was; and the course of action they 
proposed was very similar to what was actually done as the 
only remaining alternative when the American Fleet had 
been bombed out of the Pacific, the Repuhe and the Prince 
of Wales sunk and Hong Kong and the "impregnable" base 
of Singapore over-run. 

Towards the end of August, however, and before the 
Admiralty plan was actually put forward for consideration 
by the War Cabinet, Mr. Churchill made his own first move 
albeit at this stage he was only talking in terms of putting 
a "deterrent squadron" into the Indian Ocean. It should con- 
sist, he said, of the smallest possible number of the best 
ships: he pointed out the endless preoccupation which the 
existence of the Tirpitz, ready for sea in a Baltic harbour, 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 143 

caused the Admiralty and the War Cabinet. A small but very 
powerful force in or near Japanese waters, he asserted, would 
exercise precisely the same effect on the Japanese as the 
Tirpitz exercised on us. The Tirpitz, he thought, would not 
sally out from the Baltic while the Russian Fleet was still 
in being although how long the Russian Fleet would con- 
tinue in being was at that stage of the war a very open ques- 
tion, indeed. He proposed, therefore, that we should place 
in the Aden-Singapore-Simonstown triangle a force consist- 
ing of one King George V-class battleship with the Renown 
and the Repulse and one carrier of high speed. 

At the very outset two important flaws must be noted in 
Mr. Churchill's thinking. The first was his comparison of 
the effect the Tirpitz had on us with the effect that one King 
George V-class battleship was likely to have on the Japanese. 

It exercises a vague general fear and menaces all 
points at once [he wrote]. It appears and disappears, 
causing immediate reactions and perturbations on the 
other side. 

Yet it is as plain as a pikestaff to anyone viewing the situ- 
ation objectively that the position of ourselves and the posi- 
tion of the Japanese was not comparable in any way. We 
were on the defensive we had convoys strung out all over 
the seas with a bare minimum of protection, overseas 
theatres of war to maintain which could easily be cut off. 
One big, fast, heavily armed and armoured ship, breaking 
out as the Bismarck had nearly broken out, could wreak 
havoc piled on havoc in any direction. And for the selfsame 
reason the very existence of one such ship, ready for sea in 
a Baltic port, could keep tied down for watch and defence 
against that ship forces that could be ill-spared and were 
sorely needed elsewhere. The Japanese were in a different 
case altogether. They were on the attack (or about to be), 
not on the defensive. They could chose their time and place 
as the Germans had done in the early days of the war, when 



144 BERNARD ASH 

the Repulse and the Hood were forever chasing phantoms; 
and the existence of one powerful ship in any one particular 
place could do no more than cause them to make an altera- 
tion to their plans. They had no tenuous, straggling lines of 
supply across the ocean to protect, no almost-isolated over- 
seas bases to maintain. Where, then, was the menace to 
them of one powerful capital ship? In all the annals of naval 
strategy there cannot have been a more fallacious parallel or 
a greater misrepresentation of the roles of the attacker and 
the attacked. 

The second flaw was Mr. Churchill's own peculiar con- 
ception of the war at sea in general, and of the functions of 
capital ships in particular. This arose partly from his own 
romantic conception of warfare and that mystical addiction 
to battleships we have already noticed. Odd contradiction 
in a man whose rapid introduction of the convoy system 
from the earliest days of the war had served his country so 
well and whose hard-headed grasp of an incredible mass of 
detail kept both service chiefs and civilian ministers con- 
tinually on their toes. Yet the fact is that essentially he re- 
garded war at sea not as a matter of studied and premediated 
moves by balanced forces against one another, but as a series 

of knightly duels between individual ships not as a matter 

of fleet engagements but as a series of almost personal 
combats. Ruled by his head, he was a brilliant First Lord and 
an able Minister of Defence; ruled by his imagination, he 
had about as much appreciation of the proper use of modern 
naval units as Nelson's seamen with their firebrands would 
have had of H, V. Morton's push buttons. And in this 
present case, his imagination was taking charge. 

He favoured the placing in position of his proposed force, 
he said, by the end of October, and of telling the Australians 
and the Americans of our intentions. He added, however, 
that there was plenty of time: negotiations with the Japanese 
might go on for some time, even for the three months 
envisaged by Roosevelt; and the Japanese might well wait to 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 

see how things were going in Russia before committing 
themselves. * 

The First Sea Lord's reply was uncompromising. He re- 
jected any idea of employing King George V-class battle- 
ships in the Indian Ocean or, indeed, away from home waters 
at all. He pointed out that ships cannot work-up without 
targets and that there was no possibility of target practice on 
the way out east; that if working-up is interrupted, a ship 
rarely recovers; that the ships were intricate, manned by 
crews of whom more than half had never been to sea before, 
so that damage in working-up was inevitable and nearness 
to contractors' yards vital. He then put as counter-proposals 
the proposed dispositions which the Admiralty had already 
worked out: the Nelson would be based on Ceylon by the 
end of November, her sister-ship the Rodney (of tin can 
and Bismarck fame) by the end of January, the Renown by 
mid-January, the carrier Hermes immediately, the Ark Royal 
in April or the new carrier Indomitable in emergency. To 
this nucleus a force of R class battleships would be added, 
thus forming a balanced and homogeneous fleet. It was not 
pretended that this would be a deterrent force that is to 
say, a force capable of meeting the modern Japanese fleet on 
level terms but it would fill the need for capital ship escorts 
in the Indian Ocean and would safeguard supply convoys 
in that ocean against Japanese cruisers which would be the 
particular peril of such convoys. And one King George V- 
class battleship would make no difference, because this class 
had not the speed to run a Japanese cruiser down. Last of 
all, the Prime Minister's contention that the Tirpitz would 
not venture out of the Baltic while the Russian Fleet was 
intact was thought to be dangerous, and three King George 
V-class ships were needed in the Atlantic to deal with her if 
she did break out. 

Surely this was a realistic plan. It accepted the fact that if 
the Japanese came into the war we would not be able 
(especially while America was not with us) to defend Far 



146 BERNARD ASH 

Eastern waters, and would have to fall back on the Indian 
Ocean. The force the Admiralty proposed would not be able 
to fight the Japanese, but based on Ceylon it could certainly 
keep the Indian Ocean safe for a while; and the keeping safe 
of the Indian Ocean was vital to the defence and supply of 
Malaya, not to speak of Australia and beyond. As 1942 pro- 
gressed, strength in home waters and the Mediterranean 
would increase with the arrival of new ships and older ships 
from refit. During these months, therefore, the Admiralty 
hoped to increase their Indian Ocean force at least to seven 
capital ships, one aircraft-carrier, ten cruisers, and twenty- 
four destroyers more if more could be spared. Churchill's 
proposal had taken no account at all of the need to protect 
the Indian Ocean and keep the convoys sailing through it. 
It took, moreover, not the slightest account of one thing 

that surely should have been taken for granted that the 

Japanese knew just what naval forces we had, the extent to 
which our naval resources were stretched and were most un- 
likely to be fooled by the appearance of one modern leviathan 
into thinking that we had an unlimited array of fast super- 
ships readily available to "appear and disappear causing im- 
mediate reactions and perturbations," and so drive them back 
into the safe shelter of islands or their new base at Camranh 
Bay in Indochina. 

But Mr. Churchill's reply was an indignant broadside. 
Broadside anyone who disagreed with Mr. Churchill was 
liable to get, and very frequently these broadsides were 
justified and did a lot of good, even if they were unreasonable 
over matters of detail. This particular broadside was not 
justified; nor was it reasonable, nor did it pay even the 
slightest regard to the facts of the case at all. He denounced 
the First Lord's proposed dispositions as inherently unsound. 
He agreed that the R class battleships were good for convoy 
defence against the Japanese eight-inch cruisers but if the 
Japanese despatched against them one fast modern battle- 
ship they would be easy prey. They were floating coffins, he 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 147 

fulminated. These were his very words and he must have 
forgotten them by the time he agreed that the Repulse 
should accompany the Prince of Wales to Singapore, for 
with her light armour and her piteously few anti-aircraft guns 
she was much more liable to become a floating coffin than the 
heavily-armoured R class battleships. A superior force, he 
insisted, could only be coped with by using a small number 
of the best fast ships. It was all illustrated by the Admiralty's 
extraordinary concern about the Tirpitz and so back to the 
Tirpitz he came again with his talk of 'Vague general fear/' 
"appearing and disappearing" and so on. It is difficult some- 
times to read these words without wondering whether the 
Prime Minister was talking about a real-life battleship or 
some sort of naval Flying Dutchman. Yet however far- 
fetched these words of Churchill's about the Tirpitz may 
seem, one must at least give him credit for what he really 
said and really meant. Captain Russell Grenfell in his book, 
Main Fleet to Singapore, has made it appear that the Prime 
Minister was using these words about fast modern battle- 
ships in general rather than about a particular ship. This 
was not so. Exaggerated as Churchill's assertions were and 
even with his imagination strongly in charge of him, he never 
degenerated to the complete lunacy this would imply. There 
is quite enough to condemn his views and his statements 
in this matter without attempting to make him look insane 
a condition of which even his most biased critics could not 
have accused him. 

There were some rounds in the broadside still to be fired. 
He was astonished by the First Sea Lord's claim that three 
King George V-class battleships were needed in the Atlantic 
to contain the Tirpitz; and immediately this brought him 
back to that other old hobby-horse of which he never tired: 
if three were really needed, this seriously reflected on the 
weakness of these ships under-gunned, weakened by the 
hangar in the middle of the citadel and so on. We know very 
well that he was right about one of these points and wrong 



148 BERNARD ASH 

about the otherbut right or wrong, he was now trying to 
have it both ways. Because if these ships were as bad as all 
that, it was as much folly to demand one of them for the 
Far East as it was to send the "floating coffins/' You cannot 
in one breath portray a ship as a floating miracle which is 
going to keep a whole enemy fleet on tenterhooks, and in 
the next dismiss the same as under-gunned and under- 
armoured. 

Landing safely on all fours on the far side of this Becher's 
Brook of an argument (the two-edged character of which 
no-one seems to have spotted) he added a consideration that 
certainly could not be taken for granted at that time unless 
something had been agreed on at the Atlantic Charter meet- 
ing which has never been revealed: that American disposi- 
tions in the Atlantic could now be counted on. For make- 
weight, he mentioned the power of carriers to slow down a 
ship like the Tirpitz (omitting to notice that the Japanese 
also had carriers which could slow down a ship like the Prince 
of Wales, and showing that he had only half learned the 
lesson of the Bismarck) and he repeated yet once again that 
the Tirpitz must inevitably stay in the Baltic as long as the 
Russian Fleet existed. 

The last shot of all in the locker shows once more how 
utterly and inconceivably ignorant were the War Cabinet, 
the service chiefs, and everyone else about Japanese plans 
and intentions. He reasserted that he could not feel the 
Japanese would face the United States, Great Britain, and 
Russia whilst still preoccupied in China. He was sure Japan 
was likely to negotiate with the United States for three more 
months at the very least. The sort of force he wanted in Far 
Eastern waters would increase Japan's hesitation and prolong 
her negotiations: a King George V-class battleship would 
increase the one and prolong the other more than anything 
else. 

The tide of battle surged backwards and forwards. It be- 
came apparent that the views of the Prime Minister and the 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 149 

views of the Admiralty were completely irreconcilable, and 
this being the case, there was only one conclusion the battle 
could possibly have. Churchill could in the last resort over- 
rule the Admiralty, but the Admiralty could not overrule 
Churchill. The former in effect is what happened, but the 
Admiralty fought a long running battle and half of October 
1941, had passed without any conclusion being reachedby 
which time it was already too late for the Admiralty to start 
the programme it had so carefully worked out for the Indian 
Ocean on the timing originally set forward. 

It was at this point that the Foreign Office intervened with 
their demand to "send a ship/' It had at last awoken to the 
fact that Japan was a partner in the Axis, was committed 
by the Tripartite Pact, had moved into Indochina and was 
showing aggressive intentions. It demanded a show of force 
in the Far East, and (though heaven alone knows why the 
Foreign Office was allowed to express opinions on matters of 
naval strategy or if it did why its opinions were accorded 
any weight) supported Mr. Churchill's contention that one 
modern super battleship would produce a much better effect 
than a fleet of older battleships. In other words the Foreign 
Office came down on Mr. Churchill's side, and for some 
incredible reason was allowed to influence not the sending 
of "a ship" (for it was obvious that a ship or ships must be 
sent) but what sort of ship. It is not difficult to suppose that 
if the Foreign Office had intervened against Mr. Churchill in 
this or any other similar matter it would have been roundly 
sent about its business and quite rightly. 

On October 17 Mr. Churchill opened the final stage of his 
offensive: In the two months that had passed some of his 
ideas had changed and others become more definitely crys- 
tallised. It was no longer a case of the Aden-Simonstown- 
Singapore triangle that had vanished somewhere in the 
jungle of thinking and re-thinkingit was a case of Singapore 
alone with an obvious orientation towards the China Sea and 
the Pacific rather than towards the Indian Ocean. It was not 



150 BERNARD ASH 

a case of an unspecified King George V-class battleship with 
a choice of older battle cruisers which might accompany her: 
the choice had hardened on the Prince of Wales and on the 
Repulse, which was just leaving Durban with her great W.S. 
convoy on the last leg but one of the long, long voyages to 
Suez Roads. Neither ship had as yet any clue what was in 
store even for the Repulse there were obviously a number 
of possibilities and ratings would wait as ratings on warships 
and soldiers on troop-ships always had to wait until the ship 
left Aden and they could see whether she turned right or left. 
Henceforth, in such of the discussion as is left they are al- 
ways mentioned by name, and so what has been perhaps a 
rather long preamble comes back to the two ships, whose 
fate was now indissolubly involved with it. 

It is interesting that there are two versions, presumably 
already on their way down to history, of the manner in which 
the solution to the long battle was finally arrived at. The first 
is that of the Admiralty's official history, which says, 

The discussion ended by the Prime Minister inviting 
the First Lord to send as quickly as possible one modern 
capital ship, together with an aircraft carrier, to join up 
-with the Repulse at Singapore. He added that he would 
not come to a decision on this point without consulting 
the First Sea Lord, but in view of the strong feeling of 
the Committee he hoped the First Lord would not 
oppose hisf suggestion. The First Lord agreed to discuss 
the matter with Admiral Pound and make recommen- 
dations in a few days 9 time. 

On October 20, according to this account, the matter was 
re-discussed and the First Sea Lord made one final attempt 
to get a last hearing for the Admiralty Plan, shifting his ar- 
gument from the protection of convoys in the Indian Ocean 
to action against a possible Japanese invasion force, which 
Mr. Churchill clearly had in mind and which had no doubt 
been discussed at the previous conference. To such a force, 
he said, one modern battleship would be no deterrent, for 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 

the Japanese could easily detach four battleships to protect 
any south-bound invasion force; but if the Nelson, the 
Rodney and four R-class battleships were at Singapore, they 
would have to detach a greater part of their fleet. This would 
uncover Japan to the American Navy on whose support he 
(the First Sea Lord) relied in the event of a Japanese attack. 
Notice that the First Sea Lord has also shifted his attention 
from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea; notice, at 
the same time, that the American Navy in the Pacific be- 
comes for the first time a quoted element in the discussion. 

It was all in vain. The Prime Minister reiterated that he 
did not foresee an attack in force on Malaya: it is very im- 
portant indeed to notice that reiteration because it is made 
almost as the dispositions of the two ships are to be finally 
settled. He rather feared commerce raids against which the 
R class battleships would be useless, and he quoted the sup- 
porting opinion of the Foreign Office. 

And so the First Sea Lord yielded, but yielded reluctantly 
and up to a point only: he made a condition of his yielding 
that the Prince of Wales be sent as far as Capetown and that 
her final destination be reviewed at that point. In spite of 
this, on October 21 the Admiralty was officially told that 
the Prince of Wales was likely to leave soon for Singapore. 
On October 31 the Prime Minister told the Dominion 
Prime Ministers that the Prince of Wales was to join the 
Repulse in the Indian Ocean. On November i the First Sea 
Lord reiterated his demand that the battleship's destination 
be reviewed on her reaching Capetown: on November 5 
Churchill repeated his statement to the Dominion Prime 
Ministers. 

That is one account. The other account is in Mr. Church- 
ill's history of World War II, and this is very brief: 

It was decided to send as the first instalment of our 
Far Eastern Fleet both the Prince of Wales and the 
Repulse and as an essential element the modern 
armoured aircraft carrier Indomitable. 



BERNARD ASH 



This suggests quite clearly that he had made up his mind, 
and in his later recollection could only remember having 
made up his mind. He was determined to send a modern 
battleship and a battle cruiser later the Prince of Wales and 
the Repulse to the Far East. He had known all along what 
he wanted, he had been determined to get it and he got it. He 
always got what he wanted. So many of the things he had 
wanted had been things that helped to save England he 
wanted planes, he wanted tanks, he wanted destroyers from 
the Americans, he wanted a hundred other vital things and 
got them now he got the Prince of Wales and the Repulse 
and the result of his getting them was their destruction, to- 
gether with ruination and the end of British power in the 
Far East. 

For the first time the aircraft carrier Indomitable has not 
merely been mentioned, but mentioned "as an essential 
element." This shows that originally at least he had some 
appreciation of the air cover that would be necessary for the 
ships and in this appreciation he was at least in advance of 
the Service Chiefs at Singapore. The Indomitable was also a 
brand-new ship newer in fact than the Prince of Wales 
and her employment on such a mission was for this reason 
as questionable a piece of policy as the employment of the 
other ship. Undoubtedly she would have gone down in the 
South China Sea with the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, 
or if she had been able to save the other two ships from fatal 
damage by staving off the torpedo bomber attacks, would 
have been sunk in or around Singapore not many days later- 
just as they would have been 

The lucky chance that saved her did not therefore materi- 
ally influence the fate of the Prince of Wales and the Re- 
pulse, although perhaps it altered the precise date of their 
end and the manner in which they met it. On November 
3, while working-up in the West Indies, she went aground 
off Kingston, Jamaica, and damaged herself sufficiently for 
her repair to be a dockyard job long enough to rule out any 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 153 

possibility of her sailing with the Prince of Wales for the 
Far East. The only two other armoured aircraft carriers of 
her type which might have replaced her, the Illustrious and 
the Formidable, were both repairing battle damage in 
American ports. So vanished any possibility of serious air 
cover for the ill-fated ships: they could hope now only for 
the help of the problematical Brewster Buffaloes which 
were "good enough for Singapore." 



It wds decided in spite of this [writes Mr. Churchill, 
using once more that umbrella-like term which conceals 
all the pros and cons that must have been argued], to let 
the two fast capital ships go forward in the hope of 
steadying the Japanese political situation and also to be 
in relation to the United States Pacific Fleet. 

To Stalin he wrote, "We are sending our latest battleship, 
the Prince of Wales, which can catch and kill any Japanese 
ship in the Indian Ocean." One cannot help seeing a 
parallel between this and his desperate statement after the 
invasion of Norway that every German ship in the Skagerrak 
would be sunk. 

To the House of Commons he presently said, "We now 
feel ourselves strong enough to provide a powerful naval 
force of heavy ships with the necessary ancillary vessels for 
service if needed in the Indian and Pacific Oceans." The 
reader must decide on his own judgment whether this de- 
scription could possibly be by any stretch of the imagination 
applied to the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. Especially 
when it is on record that the ancillary vessels consisted of 
four destroyers. Two of these, the Express and the Electra, 
came from the Home Fleet and were experienced, battle- 
scarred, and in reasonable shape. Two of them came from 
the Mediterranean Fleet which had been asked to spare and 
detach two destroyers to meet the Prince of Wales at Ceylon 
and quite naturally detached the two destroyers which were 



154 BERNARD ASH 

in the poorest shape. These were the Echo and the Encoun- 
ter: one of them had something radically wrong with her 
trim, so that when her fuel tanks were full she developed a 
permanent list; the other is described as having a corrugated 
bottom due to unduly close contact on some occasion with 
the sea bed of the Mediterranean. The only thing that could 
be done with them when they ultimately arrived in Singapore 
was to put them in the dockyard and substitute for them 
the Australian destroyer Vampire and the small, antique 
destroyer Tenedos, whose endurance was so low that she 
could not even accompany the ships to the point of their last 
mission, at which it was planned to detach the destroyers 
and send them back to base. 

Such was the force which was intended to act as a deter- 
rent to a Japanese navy of ten capital ships, ten carriers, six 
seaplane carriers, eighteen heavy cruisers, twenty-two light 
cruisers, one hundred and thirteen destroyers, and sixty-nine 
submarines homogeneous ships closely linked in type, easy 
to concentrate and easy to dispose. 

In the whole of the war was there any fiction more absurd 
or more pointless? Especially when we remember that the 
Japanese cannot possibly have been unaware either of the 
state of the Prince of Wales's working-up or of her me- 
chanical troubles; were certainly very well acquainted with 
the fact that the Repulse was an old battle cruiser lightly 
armoured with but six fifteen-inch guns and anti-aircraft 
guns, both few in number and ancient in pattern. Events 
were soon to show that the Japanese knew all they needed to 
know and were already on the other side of the world making 
their disposition accordingly. 

"Every preparation to defend British interests in the Far 
East and to defend the common cause now at stake has been 
and is being made." So spoke the Prime Minister at the 
Guildhall Banquet on November 10. The Prince of Wales, 
the Repulse; four destroyers, two of them unserviceable: the 
cardboard fortress of Singapore; the almost nonexistent for- 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 155 

ward defence of Malaya and its airfields; the Brewster 
Buffaloes is there any need to go on? Call it blunder, call it 
self-deception, call it anything you like it adds up to the 
same thing and the outcome was inevitable. 



CHAPTER 
10 



WHILE ALL THIS ATTACKING AND COUNTER-ATTACKING 

had been going on, the Prince of Wales had not been kept 
idle sitting on her food tins in Scapa Flow like the Rodney. 
She had, in fact, once more been in action and had distin- 
guished herself. Following on the Placentia trip there had 
been an interval of that hard and soul-destroying grind to 
work-up efficiency of which the naval correspondent had 
spoken so bleakly. It had not been unwelcome to Alf Tudor, 
Johnny King, and the rest of them after the strain of con- 
tinuous action stations on the way home across the Atlantic 
with Mr. Churchill. They had had time ashore to drink their 
ration of beer in the NAAFI canteen and to punish the 
piano a little more. Seddon had found leisure for a little 
more mat making; Cyril Williams and the boys pursued 
their intense and vivid existence on the boys' mess deck, part 
of the ship's complement yet a world of their own. For 
diversion there had been the occasional air-raid and the 
crews of the high-angle and close-range weapons got in a 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 157 

little more realistic practice than could be provided by 
drogues. 

Whether or not they had been a ship in disgrace, a ship 
that "ran away/' a ship full of discontent and passive mutiny, 
there was certainly nothing of the sort now. They were 
Churchill's Yacht, they were the glamour ship, they were 
probably for this brief space the most publicised ship in the 
Royal Navy. It was a pity that the security of wartime re- 
duced their cap ribbons to an anonymous "H.M.S.": if 
they'd been able to walk about under a label reading "H.M.S. 
Prince of Wales," they would have been able to put a 
swagger to it indeed. As it was they felt pretty good, even in 
the desert wastes of Scapa. 

Before long they were storing ship again, and early one 
morning they weighed anchor and went to sea to join up 
with the almost legendary Force H, which operated from 
Gibraltar, to take a convoy through to Malta. Among their 
companions were the battleship Nelson and the fabulous 
Ark Royal, which had been sunk by Lord Haw-Haw times 
without number but was still afloat and had, with her planes, 
scored the next hit on the Bismarck after themselves. 

Mess 46 and almost anyone else on the Repulse would 
have given the world for such a convoy assignment as this. 
In those days the Mediterranean was a closed and hostile 
sea into which no merchantman might sail without the 
heaviest of escorts, equipped to fight off attack both from 
the air and on the water. In the midst of it, Malta had been 
holding out alone for well over a year, and everything Malta 
needed both for defence and sustenance had to come by sea 
through the Pillars of Hercules and the gates of hell. The 
island was not yet in its most desperate straits, but things 
were bad enough, and its supply convoys had to be got 
through at almost any price. 

The Prince of Wales was very well fitted for this sort of 
job. Her armour was heavy and her anti-aircraft battery, 
though not completely adequate for modern war, was as good 



158 BERNARD ASH 

as anything in the fleet. It was, alas, the sort of job for 
which the Repulse was most unsuitable. Her sister ship the 
Renown had been employed on Malta convoys but she had 
many more anti-aircraft guns than the Repulse: nonetheless 
she had been so employed at very considerable risk for so 
lightly armoured a ship. Anyway she was already far, far 
away in the South Atlantic shepherding her W.S. convoy to 
Durban and feeling the war recede far behind her. 

When the Prince of Wales cleared harbour, Captain 
Leach, as usual, told his men over the ship's loudspeakers 
what they were about: he told them this was the most vital 
convoy that had so far sailed for Malta and he told them 
that the convoy must get through. This was exactly the same 
thing that was said to merchant ships and escorts in every 
convoy that left for Malta at this period and in every case it 
was equally true. Every convoy was vital and every convoy 
had to get through. 

The third week of September saw them at Gibraltar. There 
had been no trouble so far from air, sea, or those unpleasant 
depths in which the U-boats lurked. On the way the mer- 
chant ships had been exercised in evasion tactics and 
emergency turns and both by way of practice and to give 
the merchantmen a little encouragement the naval units had 
done some practice shooting in which the merchant vessels 
joined with their own anti-aircraft guns. It was all very noisy 
and very impressive, but no-one had any doubt that things 
would soon get noisier. By the time convoy and escorts left 
the shelter of the Rock to steam eastwards on September 
24, everyone was pretty well keyed-up and on their toes. 
This time action had to come. 

From the moment of leaving harbour, the Prince of 
Wales, in common with the other ships, was at action 
stations; but the weather was warm and the air balmy, ideal 
for 9 Mediterranean cruise. The redoubtable company of 
boozers and boxers found it for the time being very pleasant 
indeed much more pleasant than being at action stations in 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 159 

the filthy weather that the North Atlantic had put on to 
greet Mr. Churchill and his Yacht. 

It was not very long before the aircraft arrived, and there- 
after the memories of most of the Prince of Wales's people 
seem to be rather hazy about the precise details and sequence 
of events. On and off, they were under fairly continuous air 
attack and in action all the way to Valetta. The aircraft came 
at them in waves, the confusion was prodigious, and the noise 
immense. Alf Tudor kept on hoping that it would let up for 
a bit so that he could get out of the 5.25 turret and not only 
get a breather but also a look round and see what had hap- 
pened to his own ship and the rest of the convoy. He 
remembered the Bismarck action, when amid all the noise, 
racket and thunder of the ship's own guns firing, he had been 
barely conscious that she had been hit more than once and 
was amazed at the change of scene when he finally got out 
into the open and was able to survey the damage. 

At one point there was a vague general impression that 
the sky was full of planes, the sea full of bomb splashes, 
planes falling into the water, and pilots bailing out in all di- 
rections. The commentary from the bridge once more served 
them well and at one point the speaker it was probably the 
Captain's secretary became so excited himself that his 
voice resembled that of a boxing commentator from the 
ring-side in a really first-class bout. 

The crews of the fourteen-inch guns had no chance of 
putting the modifications that had been made to the turrets 
to the test. There was a time when it seemed very likely that 
the big guns would go into action, although the men them- 
selves were not told about it until afterwards, for units of the 
Italian fleet did put out and were reported making for the 
convoy. At what stage they thought better of it was not clear, 
but they were presently reported on a reverse course, making 
away from them. They were never actually sighted and not 
a shot was exchanged. 

When Alf Tudor finally did emerge from his turret he 



l6o BERNARD ASH 

found that the ship looked exactly the same as it had looked 
before, albeit somewhat less tidy. She had not received a 
single hit, and in spite of all the noise and bombardment, 
very little damage had been done to most of the naval vessels 
and no serious damage to the merchantmen with one ex- 
ception only. This one merchant ship was set on fire by a 
bomb, and, having been abandoned by her crew, was sunk 
by the guns of the escorts. The vital supplies reached Malta, 
and while, in a strange way, it could hardly have been called 
a naval engagement because no hostile naval units had been 
involved, it ranks deservedly as a battle honour on the 
memorial card issued by Abrahams of Portsmouth in the 
identical form familiar to all naval men. 

The one exception among the escorts was the battleship 
Nelson which suffered damage serious enough to make her 
a dockyard job, although not a very long one. Had the 
Admiralty's plan for using her as the earliest instalment of 
its proposed build-up in the Indian Ocean prevailed, this 
could have had quite far-reaching consequences: another 
ship would have had to be found to take her place, although 
it is unlikely that the Admiralty of its own volition would 
have sent the Prince of Wales or any other King George V- 
class battleship so far from the contractors' yards unless there 
was absolutely no alternative. Mr. Churchill, however, did 
not lose the opportunity of adding yet a further shot to his 
barrage of argument, or any time in pointing out that the 
damage to the Nelson now, in any case, made the Admiralty's 
plan impossible to carry out. 

By the time the Prince of Wales arrived back in home 
waters, her fate as we know had been as good as settled. 
Presently there appeared aboard her a little man wearing an 
Admiral's insignia. He was Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, 
destined to command the new force in the Far East, now 
for the first time named Force Z. The men, from a respectful 
distance, sized him up, and Admiral Tom Phillips promptly 
became Admiral Tom Thumb. 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED l6l 

Now Admiral Phillips is another figure about whom there 
has been a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of nonsense 
talked both by press and public. In his earlier career he had 
gained a great reputation as a practical destroyer commander. 
He had spent the first two years of the war at the Admiralty, 
first as Deputy and later as Vice-Chief of Naval Staff. In this 
latter role he had been the right-hand man of the First Sea 
Lord and a Rear-Admiral. He was appointed Acting Admiral 
on taking up his new command, thus achieving an unusually 
rapid step in promotion at the comparatively early age of 

fifty-three a momentous step, when it is remembered 

that the force he was destined to command was intended 
to be built up to great strength in a comparatively short 
period; and had events gone otherwise than they actually did 
go he would have been a figure of considerable importance 
in the naval scheme of things. But because he had come 
straight from the Admiralty to his command he was dubbed 
a "desk AdmiraF'the implication apparently being that so 
far he had fought all his battles on paper and had no qualifi- 
cations for fighting battles in a ship at sea. It is true that he 
had up to this moment neither commanded a naval force 
nor had he even been second-in-command of one, but from 
that "desk" at the Admiralty he had played an outstanding 
part in the fighting of the Battle of the Atlantic which was 
by far the most important as well as the lengthiest naval 
operation of the war so far (indeed, it was still going on) and 
in which the navy had learned almost all its more important 
operational lessons. He had seen naval command and naval 
intelligence knit together, grow experienced, and mature 
from the fumbling early days of abortive sorties and unre- 
warded chases to the state when a great engagement such 
as the pursuit of the Bismarck could be co-ordinated over 
an immense area of ocean and brought to a successful con- 
clusion with every unit and subordinate commander falling 
into the plot exactly as he was intended to do. Here he had 
learned his tactical lessons, and the only thing that could 



162 BERNARD ASH 

possibly be said against him is that he had learned them too 
well: for in his first and last battle in the South China Sea he 
expected the same instinctive appreciation of the passing-on 
of intelligence and the consequences of receiving it, as he 
was used to in the Battle of the Atlantic, and in this he was 
grievously and fatally disappointed. Of him the Admiralty's 
official history says that he had "borne an immense burden 
with unshakeable resolution and had won the complete 
confidence of the Prime Minister." 

It is tempting to say that the Prime Minister rewarded him 
by sending him to his death with a totally inadequate force 
under circumstances in which neither he nor his ships could 
possibly survive; but the reward of commanders in war is 
often to be sent to their deaths on impossible assignments- 
it is even the reward of "desk Admirals." There is nothing to 
suggest in the history or the fate of Force Z that Phillips' 
appointment was a blunder or that he failed to fulfil the con- 
fidence and trust of both the Prime Minister and the Admi- 
ralty. We shall find his proceedings workmanlike, his de- 
cisions sound, and his understanding of his duty in the 
face of appalling odds clear and resolute. 

"ARE WE SURE THIS MAN HAS 
MISSED BEING A HERO?" 

The year after he was lost off Kuantan, the self-same 
"naval correspondent" who was treasuring up the story of the 
Prince of Wales mutiny and other similar matters, trumpeted 
this question in a four-column headline in his paper. In the 
copy that followed it he told his readers that the Admiralty 
had already held an enquiry into the loss of the Prince of 
Wales and Repulse and that its findings were secret tidings 
not very remarkable nor even news. He then went on, with- 
out saying so in so many words, to imply that he was fully ac- 
quainted with these findings. 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 163 

Much of what follows after that is either inaccurate or 
plain balderdash, and most of the remainder is highly in- 
accurate: all this will be dealt with in its proper place. What 
is more to the point at the moment is that he here Was re- 
ferring to Admiral Phillips as having become "the centre of 
the most acutely personal controversy since Jellicoe-Jutland." 
He pictured the Admiral as already having become a figure 
of legend. "His critics/' he added, "are anonymous but not 
all of them are unimportant," and after going on at much 
length in the same vein he declared that if the ships had not 
been spotted by enemy aircraft and sunk, "Admiral Phillips 
would have been a hero as famous as Nelson/' 

No-one would have been more surprised at all this than 
Admiral Phillips himself. He did not set out to be a hero, 
any more than any other commander in the fleet doing a 
service job of work and making decisions as they arose from 
day to day. He took no spectacular or unconventional risks: 
he assessed the situation with which he was faced in a 
straightforward and workmanlike way and took the only de- 
cisions he could have taken. He had not the slightest idea of 
being acclaimed, through some theatrical stroke of naval 
tactics, the saviour of Malaya or even the saviour of Singa- 
pore; and even had he had any such ideas he would have 
been grossly misleading himself. The whole world knew that 
Singapore was impregnable: if Singapore had not fallen it 
would have been set down to its impregnability and not to 
any heroic achievement by the desk Admiral. 

Questions of "heroism" do not usually enter into the de- 
liberations of naval commanders and certainly they did not 
enter into the deliberations of Sir Tom Phillipsor those of 
Captain Tennant or of Captain Leach, who both supported 
the decisions he made. He was a competent naval officer 
doing the job assigned him to the best of his ability (which 
was great) and the equipment at his disposal (which was 
not). There is quite enough high drama in the bare facts of 
this story without indulging in mock heroics. 



164 BERNARD ASH 

On October 25 the Prince of Wales left Greenock and 
behind her the ragged cliffs of the Scottish coast that had 

c/o 

seen the departure of so many ships faded for the last time. 
There must have been very little doubt in Phillips' mind, 
after the instructions and the briefing he had received, that 
his final destination was Singapore. 

There was very little doubt in Mr. Churchill's mind either, 
as may be seen from the character of the signal which he 
sent to the Dominion prime ministers. The ship, he told 
them, would be noticed at Capetown "quite soon," but he 
gave no hint that her ultimate destination would be open to 
further examination at that point; and it is obvious that this 
condition, on which the First Lord had insisted as the 
price of his reluctantly giving way, had already vanished from 
both the Prime Minister's recollection and his calculations. 

Field-Marshal Smuts, who, like the other Prime Minis- 
ters, approved the sending of ships to Singapore, telegraphed 
a warning to Mr. Churchill saying that he was worried about 
the division of power in the Pacific between two fleets, each 
of which on its own was inferior to the Japanese Fleet. He 
used these significant words: "If the Japanese are really 
nippy there is an opening for a first class disaster." The 
Japanese were not being "nippy," and this is the only respect 
in which that very sagacious old warriors observation was at 
all incorrect. They were being extremely deliberate; they were 
making their dispositions in their own time and with infinite 
care. Even as the Prince of Wales was weighing anchor in 
the estuary of the Clyde, Japanese ships on the other side of 
the world were being stored, fuelled, ammunitioned, and 
made ready to keep a rendezvous in the far Kurile Islands, 
from whence almost exactly a month later was to sail the 
carrier force that launched its planes on Pearl Harbour and 
set the whole of the Far East aflame. At this time also the 
ships that were to carry the invading forces to the Kra 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 165 

Isthmus in the neck of Malaya were being detailed for their 
work, together with the units who were to sail in them and 
the escorts which were to accompany them. The Mitsubishi 
aircraft destined for the attack on Singapore and on the 
Prince of Wales and the Repulse were rehearsing their roles 
and making their plans at their airfields at Saigon. All this 
must have been going on although it was not until Decem- 
ber i that Tojo's Cabinet made the formal decision to go to 
war. They were only doing what our own Admiralty had done 
in the summer of 1939: making their disposition ready for 
the moment they should be needed. 

All these things were being done, and Field-Marshal 
Smuts was the only allied statesman who expressed any pre- 
monition of them. As we follow the Prince of Wales on her 
voyage south, the Repulse in her last triumphal progress 
around the African ports, let us not fail to keep in our minds 
the progress of those other ships far, far away, anonymous, 
cloaked in secrecy, accorded no triumphal receptions but 
moving with deadly purpose and ultimately to deadly effect, 
while the nations against whom they were moving remained 
confident that they had at least three months' negotiation 
time in hand. 

Meanwhile the Repulse had already brought her W.S. 
convoy safely into Durban: standing at the dockhead the 
Lady in White sang her welcome as the great ships passed 
one after the other through the narrow harbour entrance. 
There was always a welcome at Durban, there were always 
fleets of cars drawn up on the quayside and hospitality un- 
limited for all who cared to avail themselves of it -at least 
at this stage of the war. There was also the YMCA, the 
Victoria League, the Navy League, and, perhaps outstand- 
ing among them all, the Jewish Club, to which all denomi- 
nations as well as all ranks were welcome. The Royal Marine 
detachment marched through the city with band and drums 
and made as terrific an impression on their own matelots as 
they did on the inhabitants. Slinger Wood, in theory, was 



l66 BERNARD ASH 

now short of money no new experience. He was now a 
respectable married man, and although his wife was on war 
work at Rootes Motors' aircraft factory, he had allotted her 
most of his pay and was only getting ten shillings a fortnight 
for himself. But it takes more than a trifle like that to 
bankrupt a lucky and resourceful sailor, and he had done 
exceedingly well at tombola on the way out. There was quite 
enough in the kitty for a few good runs ashore in Durban; 
but for Slinger and the gang of happy criminals round about 
him there was no conventional progress from Point Docks 
to town and back again. Stoker Johnny Dykes knew the sec- 
ond cook on the Mauretania, which was in the convoy, and 
the second cook on the Mauretania knew a way out of Point 
Docks which by-passed the naval guard on the gate. So even 
when these good and dutiful sailors were on duty watch, they 
would manage to get out for a few pints and the way back 
from the few pints was usually via the Mauretania, where 
they filled their stomachs to their great satisfaction, and 
drank a little of the cook's home-brewed beer which as 
Slinger recalls with relish at this long distance of time "cer- 
tainly had a kick in it/' 

It was pleasant at Durban in the South African spring. On 
the long sea-front, the eternal blue rollers of the Indian 
Ocean reared and spent themselves rhythmically on the 
beach. There were green lawns and the shade of trees; fresh, 
clean air in place of the perpetual turkish bath of the swelter- 
ing mess decks or the torrid breath of the stokehold air 
exhausts pouring round the pom-pom deck. There were 
coloured lights under an indigo sky, brilliant with the 
southern constellations; there was music and the shuffling 
of dancers' feet. There was beer. There were even women. 
The lights of the white buildings along the front blazed out 
into a sea innocent of war, blackout or alarms. The North 
Atlantic with its tenseness of men shivering at action stations 
through grey days and bitter nights seemed to belong to an- 
other planet altogether. The terror of great cities cowering in 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED l6j 

the darkness under the drone of the pitiless bombers and the 
stuttering thunder of anti-aircraft fire was an unreal night- 
mare that could never have been. Pleasant days, indeed 
pleasant days and a good reward for those two years of toiling 
and chasing and shivering and suffering. Who could grudge 
the men of the Repulse or the proud old ship herself this 
happy respite between her days of exacting service and her 
end so soon to be? 

But even Durban could not last forever: before the 
Prince of Wales had sailed from Greenock the convoy was 
away againship after ship clearing the harbour in quick 
succession with the White Lady singing "Land of Hope and 
Glory" to them on their way, to reform and resume their 
endless steaming through calm seas up the other side of 
Africa. At last, in the latitude of Mombasa, the Repulse left 
them. She left them triumphantly, and one wonders whether 
some premonition did not come upon Captain Tennant that 
this was the last time his great ship would ever take her fare- 
well of a convoy. He dressed her over-all and her people 
manned ship; so in her pride she steamed up and down 
the far-strung lines of shipping while the troops on the mer- 
chantmen cheered her farewell in admiration and in grati- 
tude. In later years John Garner was to find himself working 
with a man who had been one of the soldiers in that convoy. 
He told him how every morning of the voyage they used to 
look out and see Repulse steaming with them; they always 
felt safe whilst she was there and indeed there was some- 
thing to being convoyed by a ship that had never lost a single 
vessel out of all her charges. So proudly on her summer sea 
she said good-bye the ship that was now so soon to become 
H.M.S. Anonymous. 

From Mombasa she went to the Seychelles much like any 
other tropical port and very little joy for anybody, because 
no-one was allowed ashore. Then back again to Durban, 
where the Lady in White welcomed them once more and 
where Captain Tennant, hearing that Field Marshal Smuts 



l68 BERNARD ASH 

was in the vicinity, invited him to inspect the ship. He still 
has, a prized possession, an autographed picture of the old 
warrior and himself walking together down the ranks of the 
Repuke's crew. Very fit the men look and very hearty and 
beefy, standing to attention with their caps off, their chests 
thrown forward and their stomachs held well in; and about 
them there is that faint air of challenge which suggests both 
that all this business of inspecting is a bore to them, and 
that they dare the inspecting personality to find anything 
wrong with them. 

The sun is shining on this cherished picture, but it had 
not been shining for very long. The marines had formed a 
guard of honour on the catapult deck, all done up with their 
khaki drill pressed to razor sharpness and their equipment 
blancoed to perfection. As they waited, drawn up and ready, 
for the South African Prime Minister to arrive, there came 
upon them a thunderstorm and a downpour. The work of 
many hours was ruined: bianco ran allover the place and 
their K.D. looked as though it had just come out of the wash 
tub. Smuts did his best for them by remarking on their smart 
appearance. 

After the inspection he spoke to the ship's company and 
this speech is remarkably strong in the memory of the sur- 
vivors. He spoke to them, as he always did, about South 
Africa, what a splendid country it was and how good a home 
it made. Looking back at these speeches, one feels how 
desperately anxious was the old man, seeing so clearly the 
shape of things to come, to encourage as many British people 
as he could persuade to settle there after the war was over. 
Then he spoke of the old days of conflict between British 
and Boer, of how those days had passed and how they were 
now friends together, an example to the world. Slinger 
Wood's thoughts at this moment wandered away to his 
grandfather, the Boer War veteran so lately dead he won- 
dered what the old soldier would have thought had he been 
in his grandson's shoes, listening to his old enemy talk peace 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 169 

and fellowship. And remembering it now in after years, he 
wonders whether some day his own grandchildren may be 
getting a pep-talk from some German admiral or general and 
wondering why the hell nations ever go to war at all ... 
Smuts finished up on his earlier theme. He hoped, he said, 
that some of them would settle in South Africa when they 
came back. 

"But many of you will not come back," he added, voicing 
suddenly the premonition of doom that he had so far men- 
tioned only in his signal to Prime Minister Churchill. Had 
he debated the whole matter still further with himself and 
the more he debated, realised that the Japanese were fully 
prepared for war and these ships sailing into a trap? Had 
some further messages passed between him and Mr. Church- 
ill of which we have no knowledge? Or was it just an old 
man's foreboding and compassion? Whatever it was and it 
was the sort of remark not usually made in this kind of 
speech or under these circumstances whatever it was, it had 
become so strong with him that he clearly could not resist 
just One brief phrase of warning and premonition to men so 
many of whom were truly doomed. It struck into them, cold 
and uncompromising, under the blue sky and the warm sun, 
so very far from war. They all remembered it Stoker Dick, 
Marine Garner, Slinger Wood, Slatts, Chicken Howe, Gin- 
ger Devine, and all the rest of them. They remembered it as 
the ship went down and those who survive remember it till 
this day. Smuts became for them a prophet. 

There was at least one function at Durban in which the 
Repuke did not shine so conspicuously. An invitation came 
to send a team to box against South Africans at the Technical 
Institute. It might be thought that all those "differences of 
opinion" (as well as all those beefy chests and biceps evident 
in Admiral Tennant's picture of the Smuts inspection) 
might have added up to a team of boxers capable of laying 
any opposition flat, but the fact is that twenty-four hours- 
about watch-keeping is not very good training for meeting 



BERNARD ASH 

men in the peak of condition, fortified by continual practice 
in the ring. Young John Gamer had boxed in the Division 
at Plymouth as a middleweight and when the physical train- 
ing instructor sergeant, knowing this, detailed him to repre- 
sent the ship at that weight he agreed very readily although 
he was not in a position to say no. To the Institute they 
went, stripped off, and prepared for the bouts. Before the 
eyes of their astonished and crestfallen comrades in the au- 
dience, flyweight, bantamweight, featherweight, lightweight, 
welterweight all bit the dust in turn. Now came Marine 
Garner's turn for the slaughter and in view of what hap- 
pened to the others, slaughter he was quite confident it would 
be; but something had clearly gone wrong and his bout was 
not called. They carried on with the other weights until the 
end of the programme and the final score was Durban 8, 
Repulse i the one fight credited to the ship being Garner's 
because his opponent hadn't turned up. The ship's company 
had to content themselves with fighting the fights all over 
again on the mess decks, and here it is safe to say they won a 
return match at every weight, just as they had sunk the 
Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, the Bismarck, and the 
whole German submarine fleet. 

Now through that lovely and peaceful sea they retraced 
their course to Mombasa leaving behind a few, but only a 
very few, gentlemen who had taken Jan Smuts so literally at 
his word that they decided to settle in South Africa forthwith 
and forgot to return to the ship. Time and circumstances 
caught up with most of these: Slinger Wood had the dubious 
pleasure of escorting one of them to Exeter detention 
quarters when he finally gave himself up in 1945. At *^ e 
naval base at Kilindini there were a couple of weeks of 
intensive gunnery practice, for in that long voyage the ship 
had been without targets for practice firing. This made it 
quite obvious to the meanest intelligence that they were 
headed for the Eastern Mediterranean, where there was 
plenty of shooting in progress and where, as a matter of fact, 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED IJl 

their old friend H.MS. Barham was to be finally blown up 
and this time sunk, with great loss of life. If it wasn't obvious 
to the meanest intelligence, it was certainly obvious to Mess 
46, which had all these things properly worked out. But the 
mess-deck strategists came unstuck in their conclusions after 
all, because when they left Mombasa they headed due east 
and so continued across the Indian Ocean to Colombo, and 
then round the coast to Tricomalee not a remarkable place 
but remembered for a football match against the Ceylon 
Regiment, where the Repulse's team were somewhat con- 
cerned to find themselves playing in their studded boots 
against opponents who wore no boots at all. It seemed unfair 
and unsportsmanlike and, believe it or not, they were even 
scared of treading on their opponent's feet. Then one of the 
Ceylonese kicked a dead ball well over the half-way line with 
one of these same bare feet and they put their inhibitions 
behind them. Repulse won the match 3-1 in spite of a 
tropical downpour which came down in the middle. It was 
the last game ever to be played by the ship's team and not 
long afterwards she sailed to make her rendezvous with the 
Prince of Wales. 

The other ship made the voyage from Greenock around 
the Cape to Ceylon in just over a month. It was for her 
company also a pleasant and peaceful voyage although Cap- 
tain Leach worked his men hard at any sort of training the 
long passage allowed of. They, too, felt the war recede behind 
them and wondered where they were bound. They too, even 
on this fine modern ship, found the heat of the tropics a 
great trial below decks. For them, however, there was some- 
thing more serious than heat there were rats. Alf Tudor first 
made their personal acquaintance one night when he awoke 
from a very sound slumber on the mess deck, feeling as 
though someone was running his fingers lightly over his face. 
Someone, he thought, was playing a joke probably his pal 
Johnny King, who was sleeping beside him. So he opened 
his eyes cautiously, and instead of Johnny King saw the 



172 BERNARD ASH 

biggest, dirtiest, and blackest rat he had ever set eyes on, 
crawling all over him. His yell awoke the whole mess and as 
sailors are no more fond of rats than other people, there was 
hullabaloo and chase all over the mess deck. Thereafter there 
were rats on the beams, rats in awkward places, rats all over 
the place; and presently there was an order that anyone 
catching a rat would report it and show it to the officer of 
the watch, dead or alive. The procedure then was that the 
officer of the watch handed over half a crown and ordered 
the rat to be thrown over-side. Now, naval officers are trained 
to have very sharp eyes but naval ratings have their own ways 
of dealing with such matters: it was quite common for the 
same rat to be used twice and Alf swears that one of his 
shipmates got three half crowns out of the same rodent. It 
is a common practice and an old skill in the navy and it was 
much more fruitful on this particular voyage than the spot- 
ting of mines (for which there was the same reward) for 
there were no mines about in these latitudes. 

Where the rats had come from was a mystery, because 
there were certainly none in the spick-and-span ship when 

she was first commissioned at least there were none in 

evidence. Maybe a small colony of them had been lying low 
in one of those deep-down compartments where Slinger 
Wood and his mate had once passed the rivets, and there 
bred prolifically until, like the Nazis, they had come out in 
search of Lebensraum. They were first noticed when the ship 
came out of dock after the battle damage of the Bismarck 
action had been made good. It was commonly supposed (and 
it is very much more likely) that they found their way aboard 
during this particular docking; so the Birkenhead docks were 
absolved and Clydeside took the blame. It was even stated 
in some quarters that they were rats with a Scottish accent, 
but this is undoubtedly carrying the matter too far: Scottish 
or otherwise, they kept a lot of people busy and served to 
provide annoyance and sport, according to the occasion on 
which they were sighted. 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 173 

For watching in idle moments, however, there were 
porpoises gambolling endlessly round the ship, and flying 
fish in their never-ending flights of death: some of these 
would land on deck, and men would clean them and cure 
them and varnish them for a souvenir centrepiece of a 
grandfather's tale in years to come, perhaps, if only Smuts's 
premonition were wrong and the Japanese were not "nippy." 
Now and then, in the course of streaming and retrieving the 
paravanes, a small shark would find its way aboard. A little 
enthusiastic butchery on the part of one of the ratings would 
yield the teeth, and these made a very nice souvenir indeed: 
the rest of the shark was returned to the sea. Apart from that 
there were deck quoits and draughts and the eternal uckers 
championship games being played on deck with gigantic 
pieces not to speak of crib, on which a tot, gambled away 
in "sippers," could last a goodly time. There was the cinema, 
with a good supply of films. There were boxing tournaments, 
with Johnny King and the PTI sergeant as the star turns. 
There was the recreation room and the piano, still with a bit 
of hell not yet knocked out of it, and plenty of voices to help 
it out in a sing-song. There was the canteen, but here there 
were soft drinks only, so that generally there developed a 
great thirst and longing for beer. And the mat and belt-mak- 
ing business was still in full swing. 

Alf Tudor had a very interesting job: he was 2 i/c side 
party, which consisted of twelve ratings; and when the petty 
officer was on other duties, which was often, he tasted the 
sweets of command. It was then his job to march smartly 
up to the Commander, salute and report his party present 
and correct; whereupon the Commander would then give 
him instructions about his party's work. It was as well that 
the Commander never took it into his head to check up 
whether the party was truly present and correct or not; if he 
had done so, he'd have found most of them smoking in the 
lavatories, whence Alf presently had to wheedle them out to 
get on with the job. What matter? The work always got done 



174 BERNARD ASH 

and there were no complaints; and it is not unlikely that the 
Commander had as good an idea as anyone else of what went 
on. 

What were the thoughts of Admiral Phillips and Captain 
Leach in these days, segregated in the loneliness of command? 
Surely they must have been long and anxious, even without 
foreknowledge of the movements of those other ships in an- 
other ocean. How Leach must have ached for gunnery 
practice for his crew, for more working-up time, for a hun- 
dred opportunities this hurried voyage into the southern seas 
gave no hope of. Well enough for the men to enjoysailor 
fashion their summer days, preening themselves on the ac- 
tion they had already seen, on the glamour with which the 
Churchill trip had surrounded them, their success in the 
Malta convoy. Well enough for Mr. Churchill to send 

boastful cables to Stalin the Captain had to deal with hard 

realities. And Phillips, with the greatest opportunity of his 
career before him and the responsibility for a whole new 
theatre of war at sea, must have wrestled very earnestly with 
the problem of turning two ships into a fleet. 

The Prince of Wales was "noticed" at Capetown on 
November 16, and Capetown went wild over the Glamour 
Ship, the most powerful modern battleship that had ever 
entered Table Bay. She was one of the last generation of 
British ships of war which would get a reception under the 
shadow of Table Mountain, where so many generations of 
naval commanders, from Captain Cook and Captain Bligh 
of the Bounty onwards, had thankfully found haven. In all 
this welcome and crowding and cheering it would have been 
quite impossible to imagine that in not very many years this 
would be almost an alien port, the freedom of which could 
not be taken for granted by ships flying the White Ensign. 
Surfeited with their weeks of soft drinks in the canteen and 
their thirst for beer heavy upon them, the ship's company 
smacked their lips at the promised joys ashore, and their eyes 
opened with joyful anticipation at the lines of big American 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 175 

cars drawn up on the quay, with amiable hosts and hostesses 
proffering hospitality. It was all very exciting: the noble 
quartet of Johnny King, Joe Dempsey, Smithey, and Alf 
Tudor made their way down the gangway and took their 
pick. 

For a while they were driven round sight-seeing, relaxing 
in the soft seats of the big car and feeling like the lords of 
creation. Then at last Johnny King (after all he was a boxing 
champion and not to be overawed by big cars and well-to-do 
hosts and hostesses) suggested stopping for a drink, 

"Plenty of time/' said their host, "you'll get all the drink 
you'll need when we get home. It won't be long/' 

So they sat back and possessed themselves in patience a 
little longer, with thoughts of long, cool tankards rioting in 
their fevered brains and their lips as dry as parchment. 

They got there at last and were made comfortable in a 
spacious and comfortable living room, while their host and 
hostess disappeared. 

"I hope he's not much longer getting the bottle out/' 
muttered Johnny. 

The words were hardly out of his mouth when in came 
their host, all smiles, bearing a tray of half-pint glasses 
clinking with ice. They took their glasses, they raised them 
gratefully, they drank, and pain and astonishment spread 
over their faces. 

It was lemonade. 

There was only one thing to be done about it: as soon as 
they decently could they thanked these good people for their 
kindness, made their excuses and withdrew. They were 
offered a lift back into the town which they accepted; the 
doors of the car were barely closed behind them before they 
were legging it at their best speed and with grim determina- 
tion for the nearest pub. 

Now Alf Tudor was carrying the kitty, and even under 
such circumstances as these, a sailor cannot resist a good 
practical joke. So he told his pals to sit down at a table while 



176 BERNARD ASH 

he went to the bar for the drinks: and here he bought himself 
a beer and sent his mates three large lemonades. 

"To hell with this!" they said, and it was only the danger 
of being thrown out of the bar that saved Alf from being 
torn limb from limb. It was only when they had a few pints 
inside them that they began to see the joke. By the time 
they were on their way back to the ship it was uproariously 
funny. And so they made their way back up the gangway, 
roaring, and slapping their thighs. Capetown was all right, 
after all. 

Admiral Tom Phillips had other things to think about 
than beer or even lemonade. As Mr. Churchill's emissary he 
called upon Field Marshal Smuts. There is no record of their 
conversation, but it is safe to assume that the shape of things 
in the Far East was earnestly discussed between them and 
there is no doubt whatsoever that Smuts once more unbur- 
dened himself of the premonitions which he alone among 
the statesmen appeared to feel so keenly. We do know that 
he approved of the sending of the ships to Singapore; we also 
know that he repeated his warning of Japan's position in the 
balance of power between the naval forces in the Pacific. 

The further review of the Prince of Wales's destination 
which had been promised the First Lord when the ship ar- 
rived at Capetown never took place, and at this stage prob- 
ably no-one had any expectation that it would take place. 
Churchill had been determined that the ship should go to 
Singapore. She was on her way to Singapore: she had passed 
the point of no return, and all the doubts and all the pre- 
monitions would not cause her to deviate from the course 
which had been set for her. 

Smuts inspected her as he had inspected the Repulse. The 
weather was kinder and no-one got wet. And so in all her 
majesty and splendour, before the eyes of the cheering 
crowds who feasted their eyes on this vision of power and 
might, she weighed anchor, cleared the harbour, and was 
gone a great floating bastion carrying imperial strength into 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 177 

distant seas. What other eyes were watching among those 
cheering crowds? Or was there now any further need for alien 
eyes to be watching? Already the Japanese High Command 
knew what ships were on their way to Singapore and already 
they had been added to the all too slender total of Allied 
naval strength in Far Eastern waters for which allowances 
would have to be made when the time for striking came. 

That time was near at hand. As the Prince of Wales 
steamed majestically round Africa's rugged last ramparts 
against the great southern ocean that batters eternally upon 
them, pitching slowly and deeply in the long Cape rollers, 
the movements of those other ships on the other side of 
Asia were quickening in pace and in intensity. They as- 
sumed purpose, pattern. The concentration in the Kuriles 
was complete: the troop convoys for flinging into the Kra 
Isthmus and into the Philippines were assembled, the air 
striking forces were ready and poised. In only a few days, 
Tojo would be warning the Japanese Ambassador in Berlin 
that the outbreak of the Far Eastern war might be "sooner 
than anyone dreams." 

So widespread became these movements that they could 

no longer wholly escape the notice of the Allied powers 

up to this moment confident in the three months or more 
of negotiation that still assuredly lay ahead, comfortable in 
the assurance that the appearance of Churchill's latest and 
greatest battleship at Singapore would "steady" the Japanese 
situation. On November 26, President Roosevelt sent a 
warning to the High Command in the Philippines. Its tone 
is almost reluctant, a half-admission that time suddenly 
seemed to be running out, that the time-table of British and 
American preparations was about to be thrown out of gear: 

"Preparations are becoming apparent for an early aggres- 
sive movement ... As yet there are no indications of its 
strength and character." 

It was on the selfsame day this message was sent that 
the Japanese carrier force sailed from the Kurile Islands. Its 



iy8 BERNARD ASH 

destination was not the Philippines, but a pin-point in the 
vastness of the Pacific Ocean a pin-point within air striking 
distance of Pearl Harbour. From it a blow would be struck 
that would truly change the course of the war and of history. 
These ships were on a mission that would turn the voyage of 
the Prince of Wdes and the Repulse into a futile gesture of 
outworn diplomacy, a threat couched in a dead language, 
belonging to an antique and superannuated conception of 
the balance of naval power in the East. And once they had 
sailed, once the whole, complex machine of Japanese agres- 
sion stirred into motion, the Prince of Wales and the 
Repulse were doomed, Singapore, Hong Kong, and the 
Philippines were doomed, the Western hold on the outposts 
of Asia cracked. 

See, then, the great ship, mighty yet only half-ready for 
sacrifice, tried in battle yet with her working-up never prop- 
erly completed, steaming oblivious through brilliant weather 
and a glassy sea the whole of Africa between her and both 
the grim North Atlantic and the battle-torn Mediterranean, 
the only war at sea her people were yet aware of. Steaming 
towards her rendezvous with the Repulse, which Tom 
Phillips knew of and Captain Leach knew of but also to- 
wards another rendezvous in the morning of a day off 
Kuantan, which they did not know of; any more than did 
the Lords of the Admiralty, Mr. Churchill, President Roose- 
velt, or anyone else. 

On November 28 she arrived at Colombo and, pausing 
only to top up with oil and water, sailed to meet the Repulse 
at sea off the coast of Ceylon. Sir Tom Phillips left her 
temporarily here: he had orders to fly ahead of his force to 
Singapore. 

So the two ships were in company at last after all the near 
misses, and Slinger Wood, from the deck of his own ship, 
could at last behold his handiwork at sea. Somewhere deep in 
the bowels of this other leviathan that steamed in company 
with them were the narrow compartments in which he had 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 179 

worked on Cammell Laird's slipway in Birkenhead, away on 
the other side of the world the compartments at the 
strength and complexity of which he and his workmate had 
wondered, the compartments where they had seen the vision 
of great ships queening it on a British ocean, that had driven 
them to the naval recruiting office at Canning Place. The 
thought intrigued him, but what intrigued him and his ship- 
mates still more was what the hell two capital ships were 
doing together so far from any theatre of war of which they 
knew. The whole thing had got completely beyond the com- 
prehensions of the lower deck, and many long and furious 
debates were held about it. In the end they decided the only 
thing they could possibly decide, and the course their ship 
was now shaping confirmed them in it that they were out 
there as a warning to the Japs. For once the mess deck and 
Mr. Churchill were in complete agreement. 

It remained now to discuss and put in its proper place the 
Japanese Navy and the Japanese Air Force, just as the Nazi 
naval and air forces had been discussed and put in their 
proper places both before the outbreak of war and after. 
What did they know? Almost as much, it might seem, as 
the people who had sent them therealmost, beyond denial, 
as much as the Foreign Office, which had played such a 
strong and curious part in their sending. Almost all the units 
of the Japanese Fleet were old and obsolete. The Japanese 
Air Force was small and such aircraft as it boasted were sup- 
posed to be made of rice-paper, wood, and string: it con- 
sisted mostly of fighters, with a few squadrons of bombers, 
and some Mitsubishi torpedo-bombers. These latter, they 
were certain, were similar to our own Swordfish flying crates 
not a patch, for instance, on the Coastal Command 
Beauforts, which they had seen for the first time just before 
they left the U.K. and which they had marvelled at for their 
speed and performance. They disposed of all these as readily 
as they had disposed of the German pocket battleships, the 
U-boat fleet and the Luftwaffe as readily as a nation of wish- 



l8o BERNARD ASH 

ful-thinkers had disposed of cardboard mines, fighting vehi- 
cles rolling on ersatz rubber, and all the rest of it. Very comi- 
cal, very lower deck: but was it really so different from the 
too-ready assumptions of the people in high places who ought 
to have known and could have known better, of the braggarts 
in the fools paradise of Singapore, of the strategists who were 
confident that the Japanese "weren't very good at aircraft," 
of the Air Vice-Marshal who said that the Brewster Buf- 
faloes were "good enough for Singapore?" Both the lower 
deck and their betters were soon to know otherwise: the 
lower deck would atone for their ignorance in blood and in 

the choking death of an oil-covered sea their betters in 

the loss of an empire which they did not deserve to keep. 

The two capital ships and their four destroyers set course 
for Malaya. Captain Tennant was the senior captain and 
now, with Admiral Sir Tom Phillips temporarily absent, was 
in command. The Repulse, therefore, took the lead with 
the Glamour Ship following on her starboard quarterthe 
last time that the fine old ship would lead either this or any 
other naval force. Her days were numbered, but the days of 
pride left to her were even less. In a very short time indeed 
now she would be H.M.S. Anonymous. 

On December 2 they arrived. Before they entered 
harbour, Sir Tom Phillips rejoined the Prince of Wales, 
which now took the lead, and the Repulse followed behind 
her. Round they came into the narrow waters of the Jahore 
Strait, and at the naval base everyone who was anyone in 
Singapore was waiting to greet them. Vice-Admiral Sir 
Geoffrey Layton was there, Air Vice-Marshal Brooke-Pop- 
ham, General Percival, Air Vice-Marshal Pulford, Admiral 
Spooner, and Mr. Duff-Cooper. The latter gentleman, after 
a truly royal progress through Malaya, the Dutch Indies, 
Burma, and India, seeing the sights and dining in state, had 
compiled his report, in which he had recommended the ap- 
pointment of a Commissioner General for the Far East. 
Since completing it he had occupied the time with a light- 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED l8l 

ning visit to Australia and New Zealand. It had only been 
on December i that Keswick, his assistant, left for London 
with the report: it was an ominous and most appropriate 
day, for it was the very day on which Tojo's Cabinet made 
its official decision to go to war, so confirming the prepara- 
tions which had been so amply and thoroughly made. In 
short it was now certain that before very long there would be 
no Far East for a Commissioner General to rule over and 
organise, but Duff-Cooper and the other personalities had 
no inkling of this. They watched the ships arrive, punctual 
to the minute. To them they appeared to be the final con- 
tribution to the security of the great fortress and the defence 
of South East Asia. Now there was not only a fortress: there 
was a fleet. There was not only a fleet but there was the 
greatest and most powerful battleship in the world, that had 
fought the Bismarck and carried the person of Mr. Churchill 
himself across the sea. Could anything more be wanted? 

The Japanese aircraft carriers were well on their way. Re- 
ports of the other ship movements were becoming so 
persistent that the Admiralty were already seriously con- 
cerned about the future and the fate of Force Z. Their con- 
cern was not shared by those in Singapore. How many of 
those who had a right to know about it is difficult to assess, 
because there is no record of it having been discussed. Vice- 
Admiral Layton broadcast on the improvement in the situa- 
tion brought about by the arrival of the ships. 



CHAPTER 
11 



ALONGSIDE THE "PRINCE OF WALES," THE QUAYSIDE WAS 

like Portsmouth in Navy Week. Cars came and went. People 
jostled. Up and down her gangways there was a continual 
procession; she swarmed with visitors and journalists the 
latter ferretting valiantly for any palatable bits of non-secu- 
rity information about ship or crew they could lay hands on. 
They had already discovered Johnny King, and Johnny King 
was holding court in a manner which was to prove highly 
beneficial to his messmates as well as to himself. Every 
European in the town seemed to be anxious to get as close 
as possible to the floating fortress that had come to make 
their security complete. The Glamour Ship was in the 
limelight again. 

By contrast the Repulse was as innocent of visitors as 
though she were stiD berthed in Scapa Flow. No-one ap- 
peared to be interested in her for all practical purposes no- 
one seemed to be aware that she was there. To begin with, 
her crew paid very little attention to this. The Prince of 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 183 

Wales was, after all, the Admiral's flagship inevitably there 
must be comings and goings, arrivals and departures of 
official personages and all the other commotion that went 
with an Admiral's business. And no-one could deny that she 
-was the Glamour Ship, Churchill's Yacht, the latest and 
greatest of battleships: in comparison with the Repulse, she 
bristled with guns of every shape and size. You had to be fair 
about these things. 

Night came. The good-time city blazed with lights. There 
was no blackout, ashore or afloat. Scuttles were open and 
pleasant breezes filled the living spaces of the ships: even 
the ventilating ducts no longer pumped out hot air, and there 
was no inducement to Slinger Wood or anyone else to lose 
his temper. The war seemed further away than ever. 

Then it came. It came first through the BBC news bulletin, 
which had brought so many shocks and surprises to the 
Repulse, from the sinking of the Royal Oak onwards. 

'The Prince of Wales and other heavy units," it said, 
"have arrived at Singapore." 

It sounds a small thing, especially at this distance of years. 
It was not a small thing for a proud ship's company, as proud 
as the company of any ship in the King's Navy. Had not 
this ship been the envy of Portsmouth, gleaming from stem 
to stern and ready to take the King and Queen to Canada? A 
great number of the men who had manned her then were 
still aboard her: they remembered the envious looks, the ar- 
guments, the bloody noses. Had she not, long before the 
Prince of Wales was launched, laid down or even thought of, 
steamed majestically into the ports of South Africa and 
South America, bearing the heir to the King Emperor, while 
sirens bellowed, guns thundered in salute, craft swarmed 
round her and the populace ashore went mad? Had her crew 
not a reputation for gunnery unchallenged in the Fleet? Had 
they not steamed a quarter of a million miles at war and 
never lost a single life or merchant ship entrusted to them? 
Had they not, brief weeks only before, manned ship to take 



184 BERNARD ASH 

a formal farewell of the last and greatest of their convoys 
and heard the troops cheer them from ship after ship as they 
passed? Had they not been feted in Durban, inspected by 
Field Marshal Smuts? Had they not been the Repulse, a ship 
whose name was known to and admired by all the world? 
And now they were lumped somehow into that phrase, 
"other heavy units/' They were no longer H.M.S. Repulse. 
They were H.M.S. Anonymous. It rankled bitterly. 

But there was more to come. Presently it was discovered 
that the Prince of Wales's men were being allowed leave 
ashore: there was canteen leave only for the Repulse. Then 
news filtered through that the crew of the Prince of Wales 
had permission to write home and tell their people where 
they were after the BBC announcement there was no point 
in their situation being barred from mention anyway. And 
this was the unkindest thing of all: Prince of Wales could 
have all the glamour, her men could have all the beer in 
Singapore and all the floozies on the island but why should 
their friends and families be able to have news of them while 
the friends and families of the Repulse's men could not? 
They must have been anxious and wondering why mail had 
been so infrequent, listening, perhaps, to every news bulletin 
for ill tidings of the ship. Let the proud old ship be H.M.S. 
Anonymous if she had to be, but why should wives, sweet- 
hearts, and parents have to pay in heartbreak for the fact that 
their men were not on the Glamour Ship? 

For the first time in all her vicissitudes, the spirits of her 
crew hit rock bottom. The men who had refused to be dis- 
couraged by all the phantom-chases, still remained ready and 
eager for anything through disappointment after disappoint- 
ment, felt weary and forlorn. Their bitterness turned to 
anger. Some of them remember that bitterness to this day. 
Forever after, even on the rescue ships, even in their return 
as survivors to Singapore, many of them read into every 
hardship that was inflicted on them, every shortcoming in 
the arrangements made for them, preference for the Prince 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 185 

of Wales'* men and neglect of themselves. It was a good 
job the journalists were not bothering themselves about the 
Re/imfce otherwise, once again, we might have had a legend 
of "passive mutiny" about the Repulse to cap the famous 
"mutiny" of the Prince of Wales. It would, of course, have 
been an equally fatuous legend: there was no mutiny or any- 
thing remotely like it. There was not a shred of possibility 
of it aboard as good a ship as the Repulse. 

Captain Tennant piped all hands and spoke to his crew 
over the loudspeakers. He told them he was doing what he 
could for them. He told them he had spoken to the Admiral, 
and that they could now write home, telling their people 
where they were. This action prompt and understanding as 
always eased things a lot, and in a matter of minutes, every- 
one was writing furiously. More than that he could not give 
them, because he knew the reason for that anonymity and 
could not tell them. Even had it been possible for him to 
tell them, the truth would perhaps have hurt them still more. 
The announcement and the form in which it was made had 
two purposes: to advertise to the Japanese the presence of 
the Prince of Wales in Far Eastern waters ( thereby providing 
the Foreign Office with that "steadying" influence it so much 
desired and filling the enemy with those "reactions and 
perturbations" Mr. Churchill had spoken of); and at the 
same time to conceal the fact that the "other heavy units" 
consisted of one twenty-five year old ship with but six main 
guns, lightly armoured and appallingly deficient in AA de- 
fence, together with four destroyers, two of them unservice- 
able or nearly so. 

Logical, indeed, but what hollow logic! What needless 
humiliation of a fine ship and a splendid ship's company! 
Could it really and truly have been supposed that the progress 
of the Repulse over half the world had not been reported to 
the Japanese? Could it really have been imagined that within 
hours or less of the arrival of Force Z in Singapore the 
Japanese High Command were not aware of just what ships 



l86 BERNARD ASH 

were there, what sort of ships and with what escorts? There 
was no need to advertise the arrival of the Prince of Wales; 
there was no need to conceal the presence of the Repulse. 
There was no chance of doing so, let alone need. Singapore 
Island and the whole of Malaya boasted a better Fifth 
Column by far than Spain had boasted in its Civil War, or 
France in 1940: that became obvious enough when the in- 
vasion came and should have been obvious before. General 
Percival himself has owned to the existence of at least one 
radio transmitter it had never been possible to track down, 
and where there was one there were undoubtedly others. Had 
the security forces been ten times the size they were it would 
have been impossible to guard against such things com- 
pletely: in the actual state of things there was not a hope of 
being able to do so. If more evidence be required, it is pro- 
vided by the manner of the subsequent Japanese attack on 
the ships, by the fact that the high-level bombers attacked 
the Repulse alone knowing what ship she was and that her 
horizontal armour was light, knowing equally that bombs of 
the weight they carried would make no impression on the 
Prince of Wales. It was just another blunder, another piece 
of sloppy thinking, another part of the illusion that ours was 
the initiative to arrange things the precise way we wanted 
them in Eastern waters and that the Japanese were without 
a clue. By this blunder and to foster this illusion, a fine ship's 
company were humiliated before they were sunk, and felt 
their ship's name besmirched before it was obliterated. 

In the end the Repulse's men reconciled themselves to 
things. They had been in desolate places often enough be- 
fore, they had wiled away the long monotony of endless days 
at sea, in fair weather and foul, tensed for action that never 
came or bored for want of prospect of action. It was hard 
with the bright lights and the night life of Singapore beckon- 
ing, but it was not impossible: at least the war was far away, 
at least they were released from the blackout and the eternal 
humid fug that went with it. For them, therefore, such enter- 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 187 

tainment as they could make among themselves; for the 
Prince of Wales the garish splendours of the bars and clubs 
wide open to them and eager to take their money. It could 
not fairly be grudged to them even some of the Repulse's 
people in all their bitterness had to admit that it could not 
be grudged. A very large number of them a much larger 
proportion of them than of the Repulse's crew were 
"hostilities only" ratings, making their first long voyage away 
from the theatres of war in which their brief service had so 
far been spent. A century of British seamen had been the 
lords of the nightspots of the ports east of Suez had drunk, 
danced, taken their women, been fleeced, knocked on the 
head, and run riot in their turn. Now in their trail came the 
last of the last generation: the long, long era in which every 
cafe in every seaport had been open house to men of the 
Queen's Navy and the King's Navy was drawing to a close. 
It was positively the final appearance in these places of the 
swashbuckling British tar as he had been sung right from the 
days of Tom Bowling and before. These were the last 
inheritors the clerks, the artisans, the civilians in uniform 
who had taken the place of the press-ganged crews, and the 
hard-living sailormen of the generations before them. 

In another fashion the admirals, the generals, the air vice- 
marshals, and the civilian dignitaries were also celebrating 
the arrival of Force Z. There was a great dinner party for 
the Admiral and the senior officers, attended by all the im- 
portant people in the city which had received so many im- 
portant people and had been the scene of dinner parties with- 
out number. Everybody, says Duff-Cooper, felt cheerful and 
confident, and it may be that in the glow of good hospitality 
and against the traditional background, dignified by all the 
trappings of British sovereignty on the seas, even those who 
knew enough for foreboding could feel cheerful and confi- 
dent together for just this short space, before all the blunders 
of the century caught up with them, and the particular 
blunder of those who had sent it there caught up with Force 



l88 BERNARD ASH 

Z. "There was a sound of revelry by night," adds Duff- 
Cooper; and to aD who have survived to remember it, that 
night's gathering is known as the Waterloo Dinner. 

It can have been but the briefest of respite for Admiral 
Phillips and for those who were either in his confidence or 
in the confidence of the war cabinet and the Admiralty. In 
London there was already deepening anxiety about the ships, 
and a growing conviction that Singapore was no secure haven 
for them under the existing circumstances and under the 
menace of the intense activity that was now clearly going on 
among the hidden forces of the new enemy. On December 
3 the Admiralty was already asking Admiral Phillips if he 
could get some destroyers from the American Asiatic Fleet 
to take him away, and the Prime Minister himselfwho had 
campaigned at such length and with such intransigence to 
get the ships despatched to this place as a menace and a 
warning to the Japanese read the signal and observed that 
the ship's whereabouts should become unknown as soon as 
possible. To paraphrase his own description of the function 
of battleships under such circumstances, they had appeared 
and now it seemed they were about to disappear, but neither 
their appearance nor their impending disappearance seemed 
to be arousing the "reactions and perturbations" that had 
been foretold. 

For his part Phillips (although he must have known that 
he was almost asking for the moon) had signalled stressing 
the urgency for more ships to reinforce him. The Revenge 
and the Royal Sovereign which were on convoy duty in 
Indian waters could, he supposed, reach Singapore by 
December 20. The Warspite would be due at Singapore soon 
on her way back to England from the West coast of America. 
The Ramillies and the Resolution two more of the R-class 
battleships the Admiralty had originally proposed to base 
upon Ceylon were still in the U.K. and it would take six 
weeks or more to get them there at the best. The aircraft 
carrier Hermes was also in the Indian Ocean, and some 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 189 

commentators have expressed surprise that she was not sent 
to Singapore to make good the loss of the Indomitable which 
should have accompanied Force Z but was prevented from 
doing so by her grounding off Kingstown. It is true that this 
would temporarily or superficially have helped to make good 
the fighter cover for the ships that could not be provided 
by Air Vice-Marshal Pulford's command. But the Hermes 
was an old carrier, based on cruiser design, and unarmoured. 
To send her to join Force Z would have been sending her 
and her fighters to suicide. It is doubtful whether they could 
have helped, and it is quite clear now that enough ships and 
men had already been put up for useless sacrifice. 

Phillips was also exploring the possible use of Port Darwin 
in Australia as a base for the ships, and arrangements were 
already being made for Captain Tennant to proceed there 
with the Repulse in a couple of days' time. In the midst of 
all this, however, he was still saddled with his duties, as 
commander of Force Z, of working out plans and proposals 
for the employment of that force to best advantage in Far 
Eastern waters and for co-ordinating its movements with the 
American, Dutch, and other forces. He was unenviably try- 
ing on the one hand to safeguard his force against annihila- 
tion and on the other laying down plans for its future 
tactical and strategical employment. About this latter, too, 
the increasing tempo and menace of Japanese naval and 
troop movements were changing people's minds. General 
MacArthur was alarmed (and very justifiably) about the 
situation in the Philippines and was proposing that the 
British ships should come to Manila and so be in a position 
to help repel a Japanese landing there. On December 4, there- 
fore, Phillips flew to Manila to discuss the situation with 
Admiral Hart, the American naval commander there, and 
to produce with him the co-operative plan of action between 
the British, American, and other naval forces which it had 
been part of his brief to achieve. 

We therefore have the following situation, already com- 



190 BERNARD ASH 

plex and about to become more complex still: the ships are 
at Singapore in a position now clearly precarious and becom- 
ing more precarious daily their offensive role is rapidly be- 
coming obscured by the need to provide for their survival. 
The Prince of Wales is having fitted at the naval base the 
extra Oerlikons which she has brought from Ceylon; the 
Repulse is about to sail with two destroyers, ostensibly on a 
short training cruise (what further training did this very well 
worked-up ship's company require?), but actually to explore 
the possibilities of Port Darwin as a base for Force Z. The 
two remaining destroyers Jupiter and Encounter are in dry 
dock for the making-good of the defects they have brought 
with them all the way from the Mediterranean. Far away in 
London the Admiralty is frantically endeavouring to do what 
it can to organise the safety of the two capital ships it had 
fought a losing battle to save from the situation in which 
they have now been placed. Admiral Sir Tom Phillips is air- 
borne on his way to discuss strategic naval plans under cir- 
cumstances in which neither he nor the people with whom 
he is about to discuss them any longer hold the initiative: 
at least half the factors which should condition his discus- 
sions are unknown and the whole situation is liable to change 
radically without warning. The good-time city is still care- 
free by day, blazing with light, and gay with music by night, 
and in it the men of the Prince of Wales are taking their 
traditional sailors' pleasures as far as their inclinations move 
them or their pockets permit, while the men of the Repulse 
are making the best of being the men of H.M.S. Anonymous 
with canteen leave only permitted to them. 

And the Japanese carrier force, still steaming in complete 
security down the vast sea spaces of the Pacific Ocean, has 
now made good the major part of its course towards that 
pin-point in the ocean from which the aircraft will be 
launched against Pearl Harbour. The seaborne forces and 
their escorts for the invasion of Malaya and the Philippines 
are poised to strike; the Mitsubishi bombers at Saigon 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 

(Which are not made of rice-paper, wood and string, and 
which are manned by pilots specially trained in attacks on 
shipping) are at readiness. The scene is set for that disaster 
that Field-Marshal Smuts had foreseen and spoken of. 

It took no more than two days for Phillips to reach com- 
plete agreement with Admiral Hart at Manila. It may, per- 
haps, be supposed that neither of them had their hearts com- 
pletely in this planning for future naval strategy in the 
Pacific, and it may also be supposed that, with the still vague 
but increasingly threatening intelligence reports coming in, 
both felt some measure of haste to get the job over and done 
with. Nonetheless, the document they produced is a compe- 
tent and workmanlike job and would certainly have worked 
out very well if only the Japanese had given it time to. Since 
they did notsince, moreover, we are only concerned with 
matters of high strategy insofar as they affect the fate of the 
Repulse and the Prince of Wales there is no point in re- 
producing it in detail here. It is only necessary to say that it 
started by stressing two points of prime importance: that in 
the early stages of hostilities the initiative would lay with 
the Japanese and not with the Anglo-Americans, and that it 
was vital to prevent the Japanese from penetrating the 
"Malay barrier." True though the first of these was, it must 
still have been novel to some people, at least, in London 
until the events of the next few days made it historical fact; 
true though the second was, it was still not altogether obvious 
to the defenders of Singapore, although forthcoming events 
were to make it also a matter of history. His appreciation of 
the overriding urgency of this point to the defence of 
Singapore was a very strong factor in Phillips' subsequent 
decisions: it has a strong bearing on the fate of Force Z. Al- 
most as a postscript it recorded the conviction of the two 
admirals that Singapore as a base for Force Z was untenable, 
and it proposed Manila as the only alternative. But in the 
outcome, the one turned out to be as untenable as the other. 



BERNARD ASH 

Phillips brought the agreement back to Singapore with 
him when he flew in on the yth, and it was immediately 
signalled to London. By the time he reached Singapore it 
was obsolete; by the time his signal reached the Admiralty 
it was antedeluvian. 

For on the 6th the first hard information about Japanese 
movements became known in London and Washington. 
Thirty-five Japanese transports, escorted by eight cruisers and 
twenty destroyers were on the move from Indochina across 
the Gulf of Siam, with the undisputable object of a seaborne 
attack on the Kra Isthmus, the "neck" of Malaya. Other 
Japanese Fleets were also at sea: information about these was 
vague and certainly included no hint of the movements of 
Admiral Nagumo's carrier force, which was now within a 
matter of hours of flying distance from Pearl Harbour. 

The first consequence of this news was the recall of the 
Repulse, only a matter of hours at sea on her voyage to Dar- 
win. Her change of course occasioned little surprise to the 
men who had had so much experience of racing and chasing 
any more than did the end of weeks of near-peacetime rou- 
tine that sent them to battle stations. They guessed that some 
balloon of some sort had gone up somewhere or other, and 
under the circumstances it could only be a Japanese balloon. 
They had seen a lot of balloons go up and all too many of 
them had been imaginary balloons. Nonetheless, as the 
ship's faithful old turbines, vibrating beneath them, drove 
her back at speed to Singapore, they re-examined once more 
the Japanese Fleet, the Japanese Air Force and Japan's 
chances in generalthe obsolescence of the first, the rice- 
paper planes of the second and the general dimness of the 
third and came to the same conclusions as they had come 
to before. On the afternoon of the 6th they arrived back. 

There was no outward sign of flap or balloons going up at 
Singapore. The carefree city looked as carefree as ever, going 
about its business and its pleasures. As dusk fell it was a 
Saturday night the bright lights blazed out again. Still in 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 1Q3 

their role of H.M.S. Anonymous, denied shore leave, the 
men of the Repulse relaxed, taking what pleasure their ship 
afforded. The Marines' Band played on the upper deck and 
most of those who were free to do so sat or lounged and 
listened to it. Some even danced together. When they 
turned in, it was to the familiar fug of blackout, with port- 
holes shut, deadlights down and the ventilating trunks pour- 
ing out hot air. Singapore might wait until the enemy planes 
were overhead, but not His Majesty's ships. 

The Prince of W ales' s people, however, were enjoying 
their own equivalent of the Waterloo Dinner. Three of the 
same quartet that had had that famous teetotal reception at 
Capetown Johnny King, Joe Dempsey and Alf Tudor 
went ashore. Their desires were not teetotal and their inten- 
tions far from innocent, but the bars and honky-tonks had 
already taken toll of their purses, and they had but a few 
dollars between them. It was time to cash in on Johnny's 
boxing reputation. 

It wasn't difficult. A few words with one of the reporters 
forever about the place produced introductions to one person 
and another, and before long they found themselves ac- 
quainted with a wide circle, all the members of which had a 
much better understanding of the tastes of sailors and boxing 
champions than their Capetown hosts. Presently they were 
told to go to the "New World," which Alf describes as "a 
kind of show place and night club entertainment/' To the 
"New World" they went, and found that they were expected; 
they were royally received, in fact, and escorted to a table. 
Presently a bottle of whiskey, with glasses, made its appear- 
ance on the table. 

"All right, boys," the manager assured them, appearing in 
person, "It's on the house." 

"O.K.," they said, and started on the bottle. 

The bottle was followed by a book of tickets for each of 
them, and the tickets made them free of the dancing 
hostesses, temptingly displaying themselves along the wall 



194 BERNARD ASH 

and awaiting the pleasure of their guests. They danced. They 
drank. They danced and drank again. The evening began to 
go with a swing. It not only went with a swing it went very 
fast. It went so fast that before any of them had drunk 
enough or danced enough, it was long past midnight, and 
their entertainment was suddenly cut short by naval pickets 
rounding up the ship's complement and ordering them back 
aboard. A little unsteadily, perhaps, but no more, they piled 
themselves into rickshaws and rode back in state. It was a 
lordly end to a wonderful evening. It could have been more 
wonderful and it could have gone on longer, but it was good 
enough and they were well content. It was their last evening 
ashore in Singapore, and the last night of bright lights for the 
good-time city. 

There was still one day of peace left to Singapore. There 
was still one day in harbour left to the Prince of Wales and 
the Repulse. It was a strange twilight sort of daythe same 
kind of twilight that had descended on life in Britain between 
Hitler's invasion of Poland and Chamberlain's declaration 
of war. There was a difference however: a difference espe- 
cially for those in the Repuke who, in the first days of 
September 1939, had been at sea off the enemy's coast, 
aggressive and confident, ready to blow out of the water the 
first enemy ship that dared poke its nose out of port whereas 
now they were made fast to a quay in a place that had only 
not much more than hours before seemed incredibly far 
from war and now still showed no consciousness of the 
presence of it. There was none of the tenseness of those 
September days in a Britain ready with barrage balloons in 
the sky, policemen in steel helmets, sandbag barricades 
going up and every evidence of a determination to do the 
best in the face of whatever the Luftwaffe had in store. The 
mess decks of both ships were alive with buzzes of one sort 
and another and not only the mess decks. Every hour 
brought intelligence reports, some of them clear, some of 
them conflicting, most of them vague, all of them sinister. 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 

The Japanese ships had again been sighted by a Catalina in 
the Gulf of Siam and a Hudson had been fired on by a sub- 
marine. There seemed to be two convoys now, one large and 
one smaller. Suddenly the sea seemed infested with Japanese 
submarines on mysterious patrols and still more mysterious 
errands; above the waters surface craft seemed to be appear- 
ing and disappearing in a fashion calculated to cause as many 
reactions and perturbations as the distressful Tirpitz herself. 
There were rumours of aircraft concentrations at Saigon; 
indeed, there were aircraft concentrations at Saigon and had 
been for a long time, but how many people realised even now 
on this last and fateful day that they were equipped with 
machines of sufficient range to cover the whole Malay Penin- 
sula, including Singapore itself, and all the waters around it? 
Sir Tom Phillips arrived back to hurry his signals off to 
London and then, having freed himself from the problems 
and proposals of a hypothetical future, turned to the urgent 
problems of the present which menaced his ships at every 
turn. 

Into this atmosphere of rumour, confusion, and menace 
burst the news of Pearl Harbour. That other voyage which 
had at its commencement run parallel in time with the voy- 
age of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse from Ceylon to 
Singapore had reached the pin-point that was its objective, 
undetected and unsuspected from start to finish. The Ameri- 
can Pacific Fleet had been reduced from a mighty and domi- 
nating assembly of ships of war to a shambles of foundering 
wreckage, of which the surviving units lacked both cohesion 
and all pretence of being able to control the seas. In half-an- 
hour, for all practical purposes, the American battle fleet had 
been extinguished like a light and the whole balance of 
power in the Pacific Ocean had been reversed. The supply 
lines had been cut, Admiral Hart's forces at Manila virtually 
isolated, the few and elderly British units at Hong Kong 
placed beyond hope of succourand the Prince of Wales and 
the Repuke were out on a limb in the most dangerous sort of 



196 BERNARD ASH 

situation it is possible for two capital ships to be in, with 
insufficient escorts and well-nigh non-existent air cover. 

Now the lower deck understood the meaning of Smuts's 
words to them, which up to that moment had seemed a bit 
of old man's strange nonsense, an irrelevant piece of sooth- 
saying without logic or over-much meaning. "Many of you 
will not come back/' he had said, and alone of all the 
prophets he had been right. The attack on Pearl Harbour 
did not seem like the work of rice-paper planes tied together 
with string: from what little they knew of the details it did 
not seem to have been carried out by men lacking either in 
skill or in determination. It was obviously time to make a 
reappraisal, to take much more seriously the little yellow 
men, their aircraft, their training, and their equipment. They 
did not know yet about the Japanese troop convoys at sea 
heading for the Kra Isthmus, nor of the submarine sightings, 
nor of the aircraft in readiness at Saigon. These things were 
only known to the Admiral, his staff, the senior officers, the 
chiefs of the other services. To Admiral Phillips the role that 
he would be forced to play with his ships was already be- 
coming obvious. It was a role dictated not by his own wishes 
or his own views of naval strategy, but by the circumstances 
themselves. There was only one possible salvation for his 
ships precipitate withdrawal either to the Indian Ocean, to 
Australia, or anywhere out of these waters in which Japan 
almost in a moment had achieved a position of supremacy 
that could not be materially affected by the biggest and most 
powerful capital ship ever launched. And withdrawal the one 
course that was not open to him. 

"The remaining forces of all the nations involved had 
either to be withdrawn at once or left to fight against im- 
possible odds to the finish . . . though their last fights made 
little or no difference to the enemy's progress . . . Once 
there, the ships had to fight as best they could with what 
they had, for they were committed to playing their part in 
the hopeless struggle. It was that requirement which, in the 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 197 

end, dictated the movements of Admiral Phillips' ships." 
So Captain Roskill sums up the situation in the Navy's 
official history, and the accuracy of this summing-up cannot 
be contested. 



CHAPTER 

12 



SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL HAS RECORDED FOR US HIS 

thoughts and emotions when he heard the news of Pearl 
Harbour. Overwhelmingly, out of the tragedy that had 
descended upon the American Fleet, upon the Pacific and 
upon the whole of the eastern hemisphere, one thought took 
possession of his mind. Britain at last was no longer alone: 
Britain would be saved. No need any longer in the midst of 
all the preoccupations of war to have to wrestle with the 
problems of American politics. No more need for deliber- 
ations over how far Roosevelt could go or could not go. No 
need any longer to see the bastions of the free world falling 
one after another around us and wonder how long we could 
hold the conquerors of Europe, Asia, and Africa at bay. In 
the dark days of 1940, when France had been over-run and 
Britain first stood alone, he had trumpeted his determination 
to hold on until the New World in God's good time should 
come to the rescue of the Old. But how often as the long 
and weary months went on, as disaster followed disaster, as 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 199 

American neutrality seemed again and yet again unshakeable, 
must his resolution have wavered and his spirits flagged. 

In the light of this, could he perhaps be forgiven for feel- 
ing emotions of thanksgiving for a tragedy that had meant 
the sinking of great ships, the death$ of many men, the pitch- 
forking of yet another nation into the holocaust of war? 
Could he be forgiven for failing to be mindful of the Repulse 
and the Prince of Wales, on whose mission to the Far East 
he had so stubbornly insisted, steamrollering opposition and 
doggedly standing his ground until he got what he wanted? 
Could he be forgiven for failing at this moment to have 
thought for the fact that, instead of sending these ships and 
these men to steady the Japanese situation, he had sent the 
ships to their end and the men to their deaths with no use- 
ful purpose served by either? 

The reader must judge all this for himself and in due time 
history will also judge. The fact is that Winston Churchill 
did not think at this moment at all of the Prince of Wales 
and the Repulse. He thought only of the immense change 
that had come about in the world situation. He slept; and 
having slept, decided to visit Washington. 

It is difficult to synchronise events in London and Singa- 
pore without performing a mathematical calculation at every 
stage: the time difference is very great. The Prime Minister 
slept, lulled by his overwhelming thankfulness that Britain 
had an ally. The men in the two great ships at Singapore 
went to their hammocks once more in the hot and fetid 
atmosphere of a darkened ship the atmosphere from which 
they had been mercifully free for a little space. The sweat 
ran over their naked bodies in the overcrowded spaces where 
the ventilators again blew hot air instead of cold. They 
would toss and turn for a long time: in the end the very heat 
itself seemed to dope them into sleep. But their awakening 
was a different one from Mr, Churchill's, for they wakened 
to the sound of the alarm and the quartermaster's voice rasp- 
ing in the loudspeakers with the air-raid warning yellow. 



200 BERNARD ASH 

Slinger Wood and his mates raced for the guns, almost glad 
in the midst of wondering what was coming to feel the cooler 
air above decks on their faces and bodies. The brilliant lights 
of the city were blacked-out the only illumination was that 
of the probing searchlights, brilliant against the dark sky. It 
seemed, he says, as though someone had thrown a switch and 
cut every light in the place off at one movement. The 
journalist, O'Dowd Gallagher, however, has another story, 
a story of confusion, of lights left burning long after the 
air-raid had started even the street lights, because there was 
no co-ordination, no organisation for the air attack which 
no-one had seriously believed would come. Confusion there 
certainly was, and death and destruction, too more people 
were killed and injured and more damage done this first 
night than in any subsequent raid before the city's last 
agonies descended upon it. At their guns and at their other 
stations about the ships the men listened to the familiar 
thump and reverberation, the familiar engine drone coming 
and going elusively in the obscurity: it had once been so 
familiar to them and from it they had seemed so far away. 
They had known it at Scapa Flow and at sea, they had known 
it in their homes, in crowded cities which Goering's bombers 
had pounded night after night till even the North Atlantic 
seemed a safer place by far. Now it had followed them, now 
they knew that this was no business of rice-paper aircraft and 
comic-opera crews: just as their superiors now knew that all 
the intelligence stuff about Japanese aircraft types was out of 
date and hopelessly misleading. Pulford had said that the 
Brewster Buffaloes were all right for Singapore: now it was 
realised in a flash that from the very fact that the attacking 
aircraft could only be from bases in Indochina their range 
and speed was far greater than had ever been suspected and 
that the Brewster Buffaloes were no match for them in 
either. Just as the whole of the Pacific Ocean lay open to the 
Japanese Fleet, the whole of Malaya and the whole of the 
Gulf of Siam lay open to Japanese bombers. The legendary 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 2O1 

defences of Singapore were no defence against them. There 
was no cover and no protection from them and there was 
no protection for the two ships save for their own anti- 
aircraft guns inadequate even in the case of the Prince of 
Wdes, hopelessly and pitifully inadequate in the case of the 
Repulse. 

The two ships were undamaged in the air-raid, which ap- 
peared to be concentrated on the town rather than on the 
harbour. It was not a long raid, for the aircraft were operating 
at extreme range. The all-clear went in the end, and back 
the men stumbled to their hammocks, to toss and turn or 
be doped into sleep in the heat until five-thirty came with 
the quartermaster piping "Lash-up and Stow/' 

It was strange for them to be about the ordinary tasks of 
tropical harbour routine on this morning scrubbing decks, 
breakfasting, working their part of the ship. It was almost a 
peace-time routine and it seemed strangely irrelevant to the 
new circumstances in which they found themselves. They 
went about their work quietly and soberly; there seemed sud- 
denly to be an absence of buzzes crackling through the mess 
decks. They had heard nothing since the news of Pearl 
Harbour and most of their talk was about Pearl Harbour; 
they realised not merely that the attacks on Pearl Harbour 
could not have been carried out by rice-paper airplanes, but 
also that the American Fleet was out of action, leaving them 
the only operational allied units in Far Eastern waters. As 
such they must be a priority target for the Japanese. There 
was no shrinking, no panic: their realisation came quietly 
and coldly as had come the realisation on another morning, 
many months before, that Repulse might have to face the 
Bismarck's guns alone. There was nothing they could do 
about it except do as they were told and make the best of it, 
but it was none the more pleasant for that 

What they did not yet know was that this same night 
thpre had been simultaneous attacks on Hong Kong and on 
the Philippines, that only a few hundred miles to the north 



202 BERNARD ASH 

of them in that narrow northern neck of Malaya, which 
could have been a bastion of defence but which virtually had 
no defences at all, the Japanese transports under the cover 
of their aircraft and their escort's guns had landed their 
troops at Singora and Kota Bharu. There southward move- 
ment had already begun, and in advance of it, the airfields in 
Northern Malaya from which alone the short-range Brewster 
Buffaloes could operate over the Kra Isthmus were being 
bombed and made untenable. Already the defences were 
being rolled up like a piece of paper: without air cover, as 
the ships were without air cover, the slender and ill-equipped 
land forces were proving totally inadequate to hold the ad- 
vance which appeared to push on through the jungle that 
had been hopefully declared impassable, as well as along the 
roads which were thought to be Malaya's only arteries of 
communication. And at the same time all over Malaya the 
Fifth Column was operating ahead of both troops and air- 
craft. The Siamese, whom the Foreign Office had been so 
anxious not to alienate from their loyalty to Britain by 
fortifying the Kra Isthmus, were receiving the saviours of 
Asia with open arms. 

Duff-Cooper didn't know either. He was unhappy. Diana 
was ill with dengue fever; his report had not yet been 
acknowledged; no-one told him anything, and he felt he had 
no right to ask. Sir Tom Phillips and the other service chiefs 
were too engrossed with the grim situation that was develop- 
ing to be concerned with him. As the reports came in one 
after the other, as the picture became clarified and deterio- 
rated at the same time, the only role that the Admiral and 
his ships could play became more apparent still. 

In London there was now the most acute anxiety for the 
ships. It does not seem to have been realised, even by the 
Admiralty, that an operational role would be forced upon 
them transcending even the problem of rescuing them from 
the impossible situation in which they had been placed. 
Probably the time for extricating them at all with any hope 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 203 

for their survival had already gone by. Mr. Churchill, at a 
meeting held the following evening "mostly Admiralty" 
expressed his opinion that they should "disappear amid the 
innumerable islands." In his own war history he gives this 
as the opinion of the meeting: "There was," he says, 
"general agreement about that" There was indeed no agree- 
ment of the sort. None of the Admiralty present could 
possibly have either voiced such a curious opinion or agreed 
to it. To what "innumerable islands" was Mr. Churchill 
referring? Even granted innumerable islands, how do capital 
ships "disappear"? Had the German capital ships been able 
to "disappear" from the searching eyes of our own aircraft 
even in the steep defiles of the Norwegian fiords? They would 
be sought out, photographed, hunted down. 

How could capital ships be maintained among such 
islands? How could they navigate among them Repuke 
with a draught of twenty-seven feet, Prince of Wales with 
thirty-six? How could they be anything but sitting targets, 
denied sea-room in which to manoeuvre unhampered? How 
could they be fuelled? How could their few destroyers, more 
vital to them now than ever, be maintained at sea? How 
could they be ammunitioned, provisioned? Capital ships are 
immense fighting units which, like any other fighting units 
on sea, land or air, need a long chain of complex organi- 
sation to keep them in existence, let alone operational. It 
was a fine turn of phrase to talk about the ships disappearing 
amid the innumerable islands: it was an empty phrase, it 
was impractical, it was unrealistic. 

Now Churchill had been First Lord of the Admiralty in 
peace and in two wars. To Roosevelt he signed himself as 
"Former Naval Person." Until he was called to a greater 
destiny in 1940, he had regarded his days at the Admiralty 
as the happiest and most rewarding of his whole career: he 
rejoiced in ships, was completely in his element on the 
bridge of the Oribi, bucketing her way across Scapa Flow, or 
the Prince of Wales, flinging herself majestically through the 



204 BERNARD ASH 

Atlantic storm or showing her pride and her paces up and 
down the great convoy. On these occasions he was the Old 
Man of the Sea himself he looked it, he felt it. And yet in 
spite of this one suddenly faces the shattering realisation 
that he apparently knew absolutely nothing of ship handling, 
of the mechanics of big ships, of their maintenance, of their 
employment. There is no alternative to it: the facts admit 
of no other explanation. The suggestion about the ships dis- 
appearing amid the islands could not possibly have come 
from a mind that harboured any practical lore about ships 
whatsoever, and that is why it is unthinkable that there could 
have been "general agreement'* about it. 

But after the meeting had broken up he had a still more 
extraordinary idea: 

"I thought myself they should cross the Pacific to join 
what was left of the American Fleet. It would be a proud 
gesture at this moment that would knit the English-speaking 
world together ... in a few months there might be a fleet 
in being on the west coast of America capable of fighting 
a decisive battle if need be/' 

Once more he thought he would sleep on it and decide 
the following morning what to do with the Prince of Wales 
and the Repulse. 

It would have at least been as well if some signal could 
have been sent to Tom Phillips at this stage, or even earlier, 
conveying the information that the Prime Minister wished 
him to devote himself to the salvation of his ships rather 
than to the defence of Singapore. Such a message alone 
would have reopened to the Admiral the one course which 
he regarded, in common with everyone else, as closed to him 
to withdraw the ships; and probably had he done so and 
been able to extricate them, he would have withdrawn them 
either to Port Darwin or Ceylon. No indication was given to 
him that the Prime Minister had changed his mind about 
the role he was to play. By the time the Prime Minister's 
meeting broke up it was probably too late; by the time he 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 2OJ 

had slept on it it was definitely and irrevocably too late. The 
policy of sleeping on things which had provided the answers 
to so many knotty problems put the solution to this one 
beyond scope of realisation. 

But what a still more extraordinary idea! These two ships 
were to cross the Pacific and join the remains of the United 
States Fleet, now hastily withdrawing from the shambles of 
Pearl Harbour to the west coast of America much as one 
might sail two toy battleships across the Round Pond. 
Certainly a grand conceptiona magnificent gesture that 
Britain, the erstwhile suppliant, should make a gift to the 
great ally now in distress, that all America should see 
Britain not yet wholly contemptible, should see her generous 
and sincere; so the friendship of the English-speaking peoples 
would be cemented. Can he have paused to think that from 
Singapore to Pearl Harbour is well nigh six thousand miles, 
from there again to San Francisco over two thousand more? 
Over this whole great distance the Japanese were in com- 
mand of the sea with capital ships, destroyers, submarines 
and aircraft carriers able to strike at will. There was not a 
single port at which the two ships could refuel, still less their 
destroyer escorts, whose endurance was much more limited. 
The destroyer escort in itself was inadequate. There was no 
possibility of any air cover whatsoever. How in the name of 
Heaven could the Prince of Wales and the Repulse have been 
got across these vast distances of hostile ocean totally un- 
protected from air attack, virtually unprotected from under- 
water attack, and easy prey to a massive concentration of 
surface vessels against which they undoubtedly would have 
given the best account of themselves they could, but by 
which they must have been overwhelmed in the end? They 
would never have reached the United States, they would 
never even have reached Manila, where Admiral Hart's 
Asiatic Fleet already lay with its supply lines cut and its 
4oom upon it. What was it about battleships that could 
turn Mr. Churchill's thoughts into such extravagant fan- 



206 BERNARD ASH 

tasies incapable of realisation in a hard world of concrete 
facts and practical realities? 

What Sir Tom Phillips had done in fact was to call a meet- 
ing of senior naval officers at which he expounded the facts 
of the situation and the course he proposed to take. He did 
not intend that this course should be open to confirmation 
or alteration by any discussion or majority vote at the meet- 
ing, for no commander can conduct his operations after the 
manner of an urban district council, but he felt that both the 
situation and his proposed action on it were such that all 
concerned should be thoroughly in the picture on it and all 
concerned should have an opportunity to voice their views. 

He saw in the landings at Singora and Kota Bharu a fear- 
ful threat to the "impregnability" of Singapore. He saw it 
more clearly than many of those better acquainted with 
these regions saw it themselves, even at this time. He was 
not impressed by the seaward-facing defences of the great 
fortress, nor was he impressed by the alleged impassability 
of the jungle through which the attacking Japanese would 
have to move and were apparently already moving quite 
successfully. Experienced in war (albeit not in war on land), 
he realised that the Kra Isthmus was the fourth wall of 
Singapore's defences. He realised that the enemy, instead of 
joining the audience, which was goggling in awe at the 
bastions so impressively depicted on the hollow stage set, 
had gone round by the stage door and was taking the whole 
illusion in the rear, where there were no bastions at all. To 
him the landings on the Kra Isthmus were the most 
significant part of the complex and menacing picture that 
had developed over the previous thirty-six hours; and he 
thought his ships had just a fighting chance of doing some- 
thing about it. The uncertain reports had only suggested one 
enemy capital ship in the area, the old battle cruiser Kongo. 
As long as he could use speed to supplement his barely 
adequate destroyer protection against submarine attack and 
be granted some measure of air support, he argued that the 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 2OJ 

sixteen heavy guns of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales 
could blast the Japanese out of their beach-head, isolate their 
troops already ashore and turn the whole situation. If this 
could be achieved it would save Singapore for the time being 
and, in doing so, save Sumatra, Java, and the stepping stones 
to Australia. It would alter the whole of the Pacific situation 
by forcing the Japanese to concentrate naval forces on the 
South China Sea at the best it could affect the outcome of 
the whole war. He realised that the risks were very great, but 
they were assessable risks, and he accepted them. It is im- 
possible not to feel that he knew the ships were doomed in 
any case, if they could not be immediately withdrawn out 
of the battle area, and thought that if they had to sink they 
might as well sink to good purpose instead of to none. 

In any case, in the words of the subsequent official dis- 
patch, it seemed to him "inacceptable to retain the powerful 
naval force at Singapore in a state of inaction/' 

The essence of his plan was to sail the two ships and their 
escorts that evening on a northerly course up the Gulf of 
Siamin other words heading well away from the Kra 
Isthmus towards Indochina. A day's steaming would bring 
him into the latitude of the Kra Isthmus; under cover of 
darkness on the second night he would turn westwards to- 
wards it at high speed. During the night the destroyers would 
be detached and return to Singapore, for their endurance was 
much less than that of the capital ships and they were poorly 
protected. At dawn the following morning the two battle- 
ships would carry out an intensive bombardment of the 
beach-heads, eliminating as far as possible both them and 
any surface craft that might be in the vicinity including, 
if possible, the Kongo. He calculated that the surprise of the 
attack and the speed of his ships would be sufficient to protect 
them from serious damage. He hoped for sufficient fighter 
support to disorganise any air attacks. And he thought it 
unlikely, if the element of surprise could be maintained, that 



2O8 BERNARD ASH 

any aircraft encountered would be carrying either anti-ship 
bombs or torpedoes. Having thoroughly beaten-up the beach- 
head and anything else within range, he would then retire 
and steam hell for leather for Singapore. There would obvi- 
ously be an attempt at retaliation by air, but the effectiveness 
of hastily-organised bomber sorties from the bases in Indo- 
china would be doubtful. There was thus a reasonable chance 
that the ships would regain their base with insufficient dam- 
age to impair their fighting efficiency, and it would be an 
infinitely more secure base for the time being than when 
they had left it Singapore would have a respite to improve 
its defences and receive reinforcements: there might be time 
to organise at least something more than token resistance. 

Now this was no death-or-glory, wild-cat plan. It was a 
clear-cut and logical piece of thinking which demonstrated 
Tom Phillips' qualities as a staff officer and justified the 
trust that the Prime Minister placed in him. It involved con- 
siderable risks, but these risks were assessed and accepted, 
and the assessment of them was sound. It was exactly what 
the ships were there to do. The spectacle of them appearing 
at speed out of the blue, hundreds of miles from where they 
were supposed to be, deluging the luckless Japanese with fire 
and slaughter, and retiring again into the blue at high speed 
before anyone had time to do anything serious about them, 
was a vision such as Mr, Churchill himself might have rev- 
elled in. But it was more than a vision or a pipe-dreamit 
was a tactical possibility based on the facts of an actual 
situation. There was no blunder about it: failing a direct 
order not to employ the ships in the way they had been sent 
to be employed, but to withdraw them, it was inevitable and 
unavoidable that they should be used in precisely the way in 
which Phillips proposed to use them. The blunder was in 
the ships being at Singapore at all: once they were there, 
the rest followed. 

Those present at the meeting the Chief of Naval Staff, 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 2CX) 

the Captain of the Fleet, Captains Tennant and Leach, and 
the staff officers unanimously gave their support to the 
proposals. Tennant, realising that he was the only officer from 
the Repulse present, thought it incumbent on him to speak 
first, and did so: the others followed in turn. The clarity and 
logic of Phillips' thinking was as apparent to them then as it 
is to those who examine it with more time for reflection 
years later, and their appreciation of it reflects as much credit 
on them as it does on him. It was supported to the hilt by 
the Admiralty in the enquiry that followed the sinking of 
the ships: it has since been supported by Sir Winston 
Churchill, by the official historian of the war at sea, by 
Grenfell (whose book, Main Fleet to Singapore, is one of 
the bitterest and most critical of books) and by everyone 
who has so far written or commented with any authority 
upon it. The unanimity of opinion about it is of a degree 
rare in the discussion of naval operations. 

Now there were two basic elements on which both the 
chances of the plan's success and the chances of the ships' 
survival rested. The first of these was surprise; the second 
was at least sufficient fighter support at the beach-heads to 
upset the effectiveness of enemy air-attacks on the spot 
Surprise, in turn, demanded effective air reconnaissance 
sufficiently far ahead of the force to remove any possibility 
of the merest sighting. Fortified, therefore, by his fellow- 
officers' support of his plan, Sir Tom Phillips went to the 
Air Officer Commanding, Air Vice-Marshal Pulford. From 
him he asked three things: reconnaissance a hundred miles 
to the north of him the following morning, December 9; 
reconnaissance ten miles off the coast and a hundred miles 
round the mid-point of Singora at first light on the follow- 
ing morning, the morning of the beach-head attack, and 
fighter support off Singora at the same time. The first of 
these Pulford agreed to provide: it was provided, in the event, 
by one solitary Catalina. The second he thought he would 



21O BERNARD ASH 

be able to provide: in the event, it turned out not to be 
necessary. About the third at least as vital as the other two 
he was doubtful, and Phillips appears to have had con- 
siderable difficulty in getting any firm decision out of him. 
By the time the ships were due to sail (and had to sail if 
they were to be well clear of the Anamba Islands by day- 
light), there was still nothing definite, and the Admiral's last 
action before getting under way was to send ashore an urgent 
note to Pulford with his Chief of Staff, Rear-Admiral 
Palliser, who was remaining in charge of the Commander-in- 
Chief's office at Singapore. It was not until after the ships 
had sailed that Palliser was able to signal to his chief: 

"Fighter protection on Wednesday, loth, will not, repeat 
not, be possible." 

He added the information that Kota Bharu airfield had 
been evacuated and that the British seemed to be losing grip 
on other aerodromes, due to enemy action; that the Japanese 
had large bomber forces based on Indochina and possibly 
Thailand, and that General MacArthur had been asked to 
carry out an attack on them with his long-range bombers 
from the Philippines. The latter was a fat lot of good, for 
General MacArthur had his own preoccupations. 

It remained for Phillips to decide the composition of the 
rest of his force. Of the four destroyers he had brought with 
him, only two, Express and Electra, were serviceable. Both 
were veterans of the North Atlantic; it had, indeed, been 
Ekctra who, racing back from the position away to the 
north where Vice-Admiral Holland's detaching of his de- 
stroyers had placed her, picked up the three solitary survivors 
of the Hood. Lieutenant Commander Cain tells us that one 
man aboard her, at least, recalled at this point what had hap- 
pened the last time the Prince of Wdes went to sea with a 
battle cruiser. The other two, Jupiter and Encounter, be- 
queathed him by the Mediterranean Fleet, were still in dock. 
He replaced them with the Australian destroyer Vampire 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 211 

and with Tenedos, a small and elderly vessel whose endur- 
ance was so low that she would have to be sent back long 
before the other three destroyers. These four, therefore, with 
the Repulse and the Prince of Wales, made up Force Z. 

"On the Monday night during the first dog watch/' writes 
Marine John Garner laconically, "we went to sea." 

All this day, while the menacing messages had been com- 
ing in, the conferences and discussions going on and the 
arrangements taking shape for the sortie of Force Z, the men 
of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales had continued in 
the settled way of their everyday ordinary routine. Though 
they knew nothing either of the deteriorating situation or of 
the measures that were being taken to counter it, the atmos- 
phere of unreality grew about them. The last news they had 
had was the news about Pearl Harbour, the last evidence of 
the danger of Singapore, the air-raids of the previous night. 
Neither Pearl Harbour nor the air-raids had touched them, 
but this was sufficient for them to realise that the Japanese 
were on the move, attacking in every quarter at once and 
attacking with a speed and efficiency that completely belied 
anything they had been led to suppose. In the uncertainty 
and unreality of these hours the traditional picture implanted 
in their minds of little yellow men, barely more than medi- 
eval in their equipment and training, worry ineffectively 
about the feet of the great white colossus of the West, was 
turned upside-down. Out beyond the Johore Straits the 
Japanese Fleet was somewhere at sea while the Japanese Air 
Force was ranging the ocean. It stuck out a mile that they 
would have to meet the Japanese Fleet; it stuck out a mile 
that Singapore might at any moment become another Pearl 
Harbour. They had forgotten their contempt for the Japa- 
nese: they talked no more of rice-paper airplanes similar to 
the earlier type of Swordfish. In a matter of hours the legend 
of Japanese invincibility that was to persist so long had been 



212 BERNARD ASH 

born, just as the legend of German invincibility was born in 
the grim days of the Battle of France. 

These men were not despondent or afraid any more that 
is than the bravest of men is afraid in the dark hour of in- 
action before battle. The men of the Prince of Wales, with 
the Bismarck action, the Atlantic Charter journey and the 
Malta convoy behind them, were as strong as ever in their 
pride in their mighty and unsinkable ship, and if their morale 
had needed any boosting, their reception in Singapore had 
been a boost indeed. The men of the Repulse, in spite of 
their resentment at becoming H.M.S. Anonymous and at 
the favours showered on the other ship's complement but 
denied to them, were still confident in themselves, their skill 
and training, their ship, their officers, and their Captain. 
They were still ready for anything and the events of the 
next thirty-six hours were to put their readiness beyond all 
doubt forever . . . No, they were neither despondent nor 
afraid but sober and thoughtful in a situation that might 
give anyone to think, especially sailors on ships of war. 

It was no surprise to them, therefore, that as the day wore 
on, orders came to prepare the ships for sea. Aboard each 
of them men could see the others preparing likewise and it 
was obvious to them that the whole of Force Z, such as it 
was, was to sail together. It could only mean that they were 
going to seek action with the Japanese Fleet. For once Mess 
46 on the Repulse had neither arguments to contend over, 
possibilites to discuss, buzzes to accept or reject, or wagers 
on which to stake their rum: the thing was self-obvious, and 
when all was said and done it was the thing they had been 
seeking for and combing the seas to find for more than two 
mortal years. 

Before the Repulse sailed she received two passengers, the 
English journalist O'Dowd Gallagher and the American 
newsman Cecil Brown, who represented the Columbia 
Broadcasting System. Gallagher had been offered by the 
Services Public Relations Office (which the journalists, 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 213 

inevitably adding to its initials, knew as ASPRO) a mysteri- 
ous assignment which would take him away from Singapore 
for four or five days: no more could be revealed than that. 
Journalist after journalist had turned it down, including 
Cecil Brown, because all were quite convinced that the 
biggest stories of all would break in Singapore at any time 
and that it would be madness to be away from it. But some- 
thing had clicked in Gallagher's brain: he had asked a 
guarded question and received an evasive answer, and knew 
his hunch was right. The trip could only be on the Prince of 
Wales (naturally he never thought for a moment about the 
Repuke), and it was going to be the biggest story of the lot. 
He begged and bullied Brown into coming with him for his 
own good and they were whistled aboard so rapidly that they 
had neither kit, typewriters, nor any other tools of their trade 
Gallagher had not even sufficient ink in his fountain pen. 
This was fortunate for him, strange though it may seem, 
because when his fountain pen ran out he went scrounging 
for ink to Repulse's writers and was given the only sort of 
ink tfcey had, a concoction made up from issue powder sup- 
plied by the Admiralty: he filled his fountain pen with it 
dubiously. When he and his notes were fished out of the 
South China Sea the fountain pen ink had been washed clean 
from the paper but the Repulse's concoction had stood firm 
and was quite legible. Over the years the Admiralty has had 
a great deal of experience in supplying ink to ships for 
which it has been given no more credit than it has for some 
other things, and when it came to mixing ink even the 
Repulse's writers knew their job. It is a nice and comforting 
thought to see efficiency in small details that landsmen have 
no thought of, and there is a moral in it for those who are 
inclined to doubt how much the Navy knew about its busi- 
ness. 

As a matter of fact, when Gallagher and Brown discovered 
that they were to sail not on the Prince of Wales but on the 
Repulse, they very nearly gave up. It was much more than a 



214 BERNARD ASH 

question of the Prince of Wales being the Glamour Ship 
and Repulse being HLM.S. Anonymous: if they were aboard 
Prince of Wales their despatches could carry the dateline 
"Aboard Prince of Wales in the Gulf of Siam," whereas if 
they were aboard the Repulse they would not be allowed to 
mention her name and would simply have to say "with the 
Eastern Fleet." It was fortunate that they did go after all 
because Gallagher has been able to give us one of the only 
two journalists' account of the sinking of the ships and, as 
has already been said, he deserved his "scoop" for having a 
journalist's hunch and knowing his trade. His account is far 
from completely accurate in detail for two very good 
reasons: he suffered from the same difficulty as the ratings 
themselves in that one man in one place on a big ship can 
only see so much of what is going on and has to rely on 
rumour and surmise for the rest; and he suffered also from 
the fact that the part of his notes not written in the Repulse's 
good waterproof ink was lost to him. These defects do not 
destroy its value: in the age of push-button warfare, when 
ships are no longer manned, and missiles are untouched by 
human hands, it will serve as an example of the function 
and the work of the vanished breed of war correspondent 
and of its era, which lasted for a little less than ninety years. 

Repulse was first under way. This was her last departure. 
Heaven alone knows how many times the well-worn routine 
of falling in for leaving harbour had been carried out upon 
her decks. It would never be carried out again. What can one 
say or feel, looking back over the years at this moment with 
all the foreknowledge of her doom that her complement 
could not have? Would foreknowledge have made any 
difference? Service routine permits of no heroics, nor are long 
farewells the habit of fighting men. 

"I hope/* wrote Sir William Tennant to the author, "you 
can make the Repulse book a fairly happy one, until she is 
sunk, for they were a good, keen and happy ship's company 
and even if she went down in battle with her ensign flying, 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 21 J 

I suppose it was what we all joined the Navy to do if 
necessary so don't let us be too sadl" 

So be it. The stiff upper lip, the silent tear, and all the 
trappings of emotion belong to the world of melodrama, to 
the lives of secure people with armchairs under their 
bottoms and dry land under their feet, seeking a spurious 
thrill as spice for a safe existence. In a world of action they 
have no place. Certainly let there be anger for the Repulse, 
for the Prince of Wales and for all the other ships who fought 
out their last fights in these seas anger for their needless 
sacrifice, for the blunders that led them into it, for the waste 
of good vessels and good ships' companies their sacrifice 
involved. Let there be anger by all means, but let there be 
no tears. Let us just remember that she was a good ship, a 
happy ship and that she was sunkand be thankful for her 
and the kind of men who sailed in her, for all the good work 
she did, the long convoys she shepherded safely into port, 
the countless men who felt secure while she was with them. 
Let us even forget that she went to her end as H.M.S. 
Anonymous. 

She was under way first, and then the Prince of Wales 
was with her, slowly overtaking her to take up her position 
in the van. Mighty and terrible the Prince of Wales looked, 
one of the last and greatest of the breed of battleships, the 
doom of which was implicit in her own. From her commis- 
sioning, she was less than ten months old. Out of that time, 
allowing for her two months in dock after the Bismarck 
action, for the Placentia trip, and for the long voyage east, 
she had spent a bare five at sea on the work for which she 
had been built. Into that time had been crammed the 
Bismarck action, the Atlantic Charter, and the great Malta 
convoy, and now she was to go down fighting in the South 
China Sea. A short life for a great ship that had taken so 
many years to build, but a life with history in it. The men 
of the Repuke looked out upon her and, in spite of all their 



2l6 BERNARD ASH 

resentment, admired her: Slinger Wood looked out upon 
his handiwork. 

Aboard her, Admiral Sit Tom Phillips, with all his 
responsibilities, all his problems, all his too-clear certainties 
of the situation developing around him . . . Captain Leach 
with all the difficulties of his too-new ship and company- 
still not fully worked-up and now never to be Churchill's 
Yacht, the Glamour Ship, H.M.S. Unsinkable. H.M.S. Un- 
sinkable with H.M.S. Anonymous astern of her, and astern 
of them both, falling into station, Electra, Express, Vampire, 
Tenedos. 

Along the waterside the folk of Singapore, who had 
welcomed them so tumultuously only a few days previously 
in a world of peace, gathered to see them going, waving and 
cheering as they went. Still half-way between peace and war, 
these people, in spite of the news of Pearl Harbour and the 
air-raids of the night before still believing, in spite of every- 
thing, that their fortress was impregnable and that ships 
could not be sunk. What eyes among them watched Force 
Z put to sea? It is certain that the departure of the ships 
was as speedily reported as their arrival had been; and 
though security about their destination and intentions had 
been excellent, there is every evidence that before many 
hours were up the Japanese were searching for them at sea, 
determined to discover both. 

Soon the cheers faded, the people became indistinguisha- 
ble: at half-past six they cleared the boom, then the land 
was falling behind them and Singapore Island was going 
down into the sea. The vibration of turbines and screws in- 
creased: the fleet was steaming at seventeen and one-half 
knots and Admiral Phillips was making a wide sweep round 
the Anamba Islands, as a precaution against possible mine- 
laying activites inshore. 

Night fell upon them with the ships' companies in first 
degree of readiness and the eagerly awaited news of what 
they were about was, as usual, given to them now that har- 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 217 

hour had been cleared. Gallagher faithfully copied down the 
notice that was posted in the Repulse's upper-deck wardroom 
(still delicately decorated as it had been for the Queen to 
use as her boudoir on that long ago and far away state visit 
to the United States) , and fortunately he now had the ship's 
special concoction in his fountain pen, so that both this and 
Captain Tennant's subsequent message have been preserved 
for us. 

TO THE SHIPS COMPANY FROM THE CAPTAIN: 

We are off to look for trouble. I expect we shall find 
it. We may run up against submarines or destroyers, 
aircraft or surface ships. 

1 . We are going to carry out a sweep to the northward 
to see what we can pick up and what we can roar up. 
We must all be on our toes. 

2. For two months past the ship has felt that she has 
been deprived of her fair share of hitting the enemy. 
Although we have been constantly at sea and steamed 
53,000 miles in nine months we have seen practically 
nothing. 

3. There is every possibility that things are going to 
change completely. 

4. There is every likelihood that we shall get a good 
deal of bombing in harbour. 

5. I know that the old ship will give a good account 
of herself. We have trained hard enough for this day. 
May each one of us without exception, keep calm if 
and when action comes that is very important. 

6. Lastly, to all of you, whatsoever happens do not 
be deflected from your job. When, say, high-angle guns 
are engaging a high-flying aircraft and all eyes are in the 
sky, none of the short-range guns on the disengaged side 
should be looking at the engagement but should be 
standing-by for a low-dive-bombing or torpedo-bombing 
attack coming from the other side. Similarly in a surface 
action at night, provided the disengaged guns look out 
on the disengaged side they may be able to repel a 



2l8 BERNARD ASH 

destroyer attack that might otherwise seriously damage 
the ship. 

7. For all of us concentrate on the job. Keep calm. 

8. Life-saving gear is to be worn or carried, or is to be 
immediately to hand, not because I think anything is 
going to happen to the shipshe is much too lucky 
but if anything happens you have your life-saving gear 
handy; that is all you have to think about with regard 
to yourself; you are then absolutely free to think of 
your duty to the ship. 

Later he amplified it as follows: 
TO THE SHIPS COMPANY FROM THE CAPTAIN: 

We are making for the north-east coast of Mdaya and 
shall be off the north-east comer at sunset to-night. At 
dawn we shall be to the seaward of Singora and 
Pattani, where the Japanese landing is taking place. 
Though we may, of course, run into Japanese forces any- 
where during the day I think it is most probable that 
only submarines and enemy aircraft are likely to be 
sighted. 

1. Any time during the night and at dawn the fun 
may begin. We must be on the look-out for destroyer 
attack tonight. If we are lucky enough to bump into a 
Japanese convoy to-morrow at dawn it will be a most 
valuable service and seriously upset the plans. 

2. Having stirred up a hornet's nest, we must expect 
plenty of bombing on our return to-morrow. 

3. That is what the high-angle guns crews have been 
longing for. It will be much better than sleeve-target 
practice, and I hope the marking will be done for us 
by the Japanese aircraft falling into the sea. 

Through the brevity and restraint of these messages there 
is an eloquent note of Tennant's relationship with his men 
and an eloquent note of the spirit of the Repulse. There was 
nothing spurious about his use of the term "lucky/' nor was 
there any overstatement in the suggestion that the high-angle 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 219 

gun crews had been waiting for an opportunity to show what 
they could do. It was just for this sort of thing that Slatts 
and his pom-pom crew had worked and trained with their 
endless stripping and oiling and cleaning of ammunition; it 
was just for this that Slinger Wood had slopped about be- 
fore that in the triple turret with his long-handled mop; it 
was just for this that they had labelled their gunnery officer 
Six-Gun Coney long before the war began. They had been 
all these years waiting for it and apart from the German 
raiders over the Firth of Forth, the unfortunate contretemps 
in Scapa Flow and a few other fleeting moments, the 
opportunity had never come. All the frustration of those 
missed opportunities in the North Atlantic they would be 
only too glad to work off against the Japanese. 

It was not until a little before eleven o'clock that Palliser 
was able to signal from Singapore that one Catalina would 
provide reconnaissance ahead the following morning, that a 
dawn reconnaissance at Singora the following morning of 
the loth was "hoped" for, that fighter cover over the beaches 
was impossible. Out of Phillips' two essential conditions for 
the success of the operation, let alone the safety of the ships, 
one had already gone. 

"We must carry on without it," he is reported to have said. 

It was possible that surprise still might have been achieved, 
for the Gulf of Siam at this particular time of year is liable 
to rain, mist and low cloud ceilings conditions not unlike 
those at some seasons in the North Sea, albeit with more 
comfortable temperatures. He proposed to try and take 
advantage of these conditions: where Pulford could not pro- 
vide cover for him, the elements might. In the early hours 
of the morning he made this signal to his force: 

Inform ships 9 companies as follows: 
"The enemy has made several landings on the north 
coast of Malaya and has made local progress. Our Army 
is not large and is hard pressed in places. Our Air Force 



22O BERNARD ASH 

has had to destroy and abandon one or more aerodromes. 
Meanwhile fast transports lie off the coast 
"This is our opportunity before the enemy can establish 
himself. We have made a wide circuit to avoid air 
reconnaissance and hope to surprise the enemy shortly 
after sunrise tomorrow, Wednesday. We may have the 
luck to try our metal [not "mettle," as Gallagher quotes 
it] against the old Japanese battle cruiser Kongo or 
against some Japanese cruisers and destroyers which are 
reported in the Gulf of Siam. We are sure to get some 
useful practice with the HA. armament. 
"Whatever we meet I want to finish quickly and so 
get well clear to the eastward before the Japanese can 
mass too formidable a scale of air attack against us. 
So shoot to sink." 

Darkened, the Repulse drove on through the night, out 
into the Gulf of Siam to outward eyes a fleeting blur, a hiss 
of foam and a heave of sundered waters in the blackness, but 
vibrant within with the hum of complex machinery and the 
thrust and vibration of turbines and screws. These inner 
voices of her own, this audible pulsing of her own life, were 
the only sounds: her crew talked in whispers. It might have 
been any one of those other departures, any one of those 
endless sorties and sea-chases, so familiar was everything 
about it, yet there were differences as wide as the world and 
as big as the oceans. There was the sweltering heat of the 
humid tropical night below decks to remind the men that 
seas and continents separated them from the familiar waters 
of their other war. There was the unreality that besets 
familiar things and routines seen against unfamiliar back- 
grounds. There was the certainty of action against forces 
whose equipment was unknown, and whose quality could 
only be guessed at, though it was clear that both had been 
grossly under-estimated and this certainty itself was un- 
reality in the ship that had known so many certainties and 
missed out on them all. But above all, there was a change 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 221 

of role, a reversal of character. They were now the hunted, 
not the hunters. They were no longer part of a navy 
struggling to hold command of the seas, watching to the 
limits of endurance and dashing frantically hither and 
thither to contain an enemy who could break out wherever 
he chose and vanish in the vastness of seaspaces. They were 
the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, the Hipper, the Prim 
Eugen, the Bismarck, breaking out in the darkness and 
running the gauntlet of watching forces to reach their 
objective undiscovered. They were the raiders, the phan- 
toms; and where they had once quartered the seas for a blur 
of German smoke or a glimpse of German upper works, the 
Japanese would now be quartering the seas for them. This 
is not imagination or transplanting of thoughts born of after 
events into minds that could never have conceived them: 
Donkey Bray said as much to Slinger Wood and his mates 
and they agreed with him, talking in whispers. From time 
to time they thought they could hear the drone of aircraft 
(and who is to say they were wrong, since these were not 
men given to fearful imaginings?), and were coolly and 
calmly convinced that these were Japanese aircraft searching 
for them. For they were sure of what we may accept to have 
been quite certainly the case that their sailing had been re- 
ported by secret radio to the Japanese before Changi was 
astern of them. 

The main armament, the triples and the high-angle guns 
were closed up at all-night action stations; the crews of the 
close-range weapons were in two watches. In the flat outside 
the captain's sea cabin, Slinger and his friends squatted, 
whispering. Bob Bloham came up with the information that 
one of the war correspondents aboard was Hughie Gallagher, 
the Scottish International, a much more glamourous person 
in their eyes than Gallagher of the Express, reporter. Hughie 
Gallagher started them on football, and from football the 
whispered talk fanned out, widened, until it was back again 
in those fields of half-fantasy where they had beguiled them- 



222 BERNARD ASH 

selves on so many nights of so many other sorties, squatting 
in this flat or dodging around to keep in the lee of the funnel. 
Familiarity re-asserted itself. The ship drove on. 

It is less easy to put words to the atmosphere in the Prince 
of Wales. They had not known these long sorties, these 
chases, these endless, patient watches in the gloom. For 
them there had been the hurried putting to sea after the 
Bismarck, scarcely yet a ship's company at all, the fever-heat 
and concentration to breaking-point in the helter-skelter 
passage of the Churchill trip, the continuous action and 
heady excitements of the Malta convoy. Then there had been 
the long journey into peace and sunny seas, their triumphal 
progress into Singapore, the bright lights and excitements of 
the good-time city which had been denied to the men of 
the other ship. The savour and smoke of the bars and night- 
places was still about them, the music was still in their ears. 
The day between the coming of the war to Singapore and 
their sailing had telescoped into nothingness for them: so 
much so that nearly every man who remembers is convinced 
that they were rounded up by the pickets and put to sea al- 
most immediately. They were much more a ship's company 
than they had been when they went to meet the Bismarck, 
though they would never attain to the smoothness and unity 
of the company of the older ship; they were keen, they knew 
their jobs, but they lacked experience and the leaven of 
regular seamen among them was small. They had immense 
confidence in their captain, in Admiral Tom Thumb, in 
their great, powerful, unsinkable ship except for the old 
hands who knew that no ship is unsinkable. Their confidence 
was of a different order from the confidence of the Repulse's 
crew: confident, nonetheless, they were, eager to get to grips 
and unafraid. 

All through the night the ships hurried on. Dawn found 
them far from the land and from prying eyes ashore and it 
was such a dawn as Sir Tom Phillips might have prayed for. 
The light came grey: there was mist, with a low cloud ceil- 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 223 

ing, occasional showers of rain no day for spotting aircraft 
and not much of a day even for submarines. At six-thirty in 
the morning a look-out on Vampire momentarily glimpsed, 
or thought he glimpsed, an aircraft. It was gone before the 
sighting could be confirmed or the aircraft identified it may 
have been an illusion of the mist or a trick played by strain- 
ing eyes. It was a fair gamble that if it was an aircraft and an 
enemy aircraft at that, it had not spotted the ships: they 
could not have been identified in that fleeting moment of 
time. Phillips decided to disregard it, and the ships drove 
on, steady on their course, towards their destiny. If only 
twenty-four hours of this weather could be vouchsafed, the 
ships could make good his plan, reach the beach-heads un- 
detected, carry out their bombardment and be away again 
into the mist before the bombers from Saigon could be 
upon them. 

Presently the solitary Catalina found them with a mo- 
ment of mounting excitement, a brief interlude of gun- 
muzzles roving quickly on to it before it was identified. It 
circled the ships, flashed a message by Aldis lamp; fleeting 
visitor from a land that never was with fleeting tidings of 
battles on the moon. Then it was gone again on its lone 
reconnaissance one single aircraft, a token almost, to seek 
safe passage for such precious ships and so many men on 
whom so much depended. 

Alone again, hemmed in by their close horizons and low 
sky, the ships sped on. From time to time aircraft droned 
overhead, never sighted: the unseen skies were busy and 
probably the depths of the sea as well. Half the Japanese 
fleet might have been around them, for all they knew. The 
gun crews only left their positions to go to the heads or in 
relays for their meals. In the light of day they were a strange 
and motley collection of men, very different from the smart 
companies which had manned ship for the arrival in Singa- 
pore or for leaving harbour. They were dressed for action in 
whatever clothes of their choice would cover as much of their 



224 BERNARD ASH 

skin as possible and reduce the effect of burns football 
jerseys worn with bell bottoms, sweaters, odd coloured 
long-sleeved shirts, old flannels, pumps. Lifebelts and tin 
helmets were the one thing common to all of them. Perhaps 
the only exceptions were the journalists aboard the Repulse, 
who had come in haste just as they stood in their tropical 
shirts and shorts, without another stitch of kit. Someone 
lent Gallagher a flash helmet in which he appeared (he was 
a portly man) like some strange and uncouth creature from 
another world. Aboard Repulse, too, there was one casualty 
on this day: an officer, Lieutenant Gifford, missed his foot- 
ing on the ladder that led to the air defence position and 
fell eighty feet to the deck, breaking an arm and ribs. He 
was carried to the sick-bay where he lay, far from mortally 
injured, but helpless. His ultimate end would have been 
kinder had he killed himself on the spot. 

As the day wore on, tension mounted. Every hour of day- 
light behind them was an hour of concealment won, every 
hour's steaming undetected so many miles towards their ob- 
jective made good. It became almost unbearable as the ships 
hurried on to the north, their wakes marking the sullen sea 
and disappearing. Down to the youngest boy, every man on 
battleship, battle-cruiser, and destroyers knew how vital 
these hours of concealment were these hours that would 
lead them into the friendly night, in which the big ships, 
leaving their destroyers, would turn westward for the beaches 
and find at dawn success within their grasp. Four hours to 
nightfall in the fickle Gulf of Siam, three hours, two hours, 
one. 

And with an hour of daylight to go, Sir Tom Phillips' 
luck ran out. The luck of the Repulse that had made her a 
talisman to endless convoys ran out. Shortly before five 
o'clock the mist began to recede rapidly, the cloud ceiling 
to rise. The sun came through. In a matter of minutes the 
sea was clear from horizon to horizon, and in next to no 
time, at least three aircraft were shadowing them. Alien air- 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 22 5 

craft, sleek, businesslike, twin-engined monoplanes, quite 
unlike the stringbags Mess 46 had disposed of so easily. Pur- 
poseful and sinister, they circled, out of range. The second 
essential element, surprise, was gone, and Sir Tom Phillips 
was immediately faced with having to make a decision about 
the future of the operation. It was a difficult, a vital decison: 
he must now weigh in the balance the immense conse- 
quences the operation could have against the certainty that 
his whereabouts were known; he must consider whether, 
since he had been discovered, the operation had any prospect 
of success at all. If some prospect of success still exited 
almost any risk was tolerable; if it could not succeed and 
the ships must be lost into the bargain, then obviously he 
must withdraw. At the worst the ships could be sacrificed 
to save Singapore it would not be the first time in the 
war that ships had had to be sacrificedbut to sacrifice 
to no end at all was foolhardy and useless, and would leave 
Singapore even more defenceless than it already was. He 
had to decide, and he had to decide alone and on the spot. 
He was Commander-in-Chief : he had no easy access to any 
higher authority nor would he expect to have to refer such 
a decision at sea to higher authority. Discuss, seek views he 
might, but the decision must be his and his alone. 

He had a little time in which to make it. His course was 
still northward, his real objective somewhere away on his 
port bow, to the eastward of him. To the eyes of the searchers 
he might be heading for Indochina, might perhaps be going 
to attack Carmranh Bay, might even be engaged on some 
foolhardy mission to relieve Hong Kong, far away. He had 
not proposed, in any case, to turn in towards the Kra Isthmus 
before nightfall: between now and nightfall he must there- 
fore make his choice. If he chose still to steam for the Kra 
Isthmus and the enemy had already guessed his intentions, 
they would be waiting for him. If he decided to withdraw 
and turn south he could, at his ships' best speed, make good 
many hundreds of miles before daybreak and the enemy 



226 BERNARD ASH 

would have to start hunting him all over again. And luck 
might favour him again with overcast weather for at least 
part of the day on the morrow. 

Whichever decision he was to make, he would have to 
hold his northward course until dark; and therefore the ships 
still steamed on between the wider horizons and under the 
clear, blue sky. No word came yet to the ships' companies 
and the tension mounted almost to breaking point. It had 
a curious effect on the crew of Slinger Wood's pom-pom; 
it induced almost a feeling of lethargy, a lethargy which 
nothing but action or some change could break. There was 
nothing more they could do. They had crammed the eight 
loading trays with as many belts of two-pounder shells as 
they could get on them. There were boxes of ammuniton 
stacked all round the gun deck ready for immediate reload- 
ing. Everything was checked, oiled, tested, ready not even 
one minor detail had been overlooked. There was nothing 
more to be done and there was no refuge in small talk any 
more. After dusk action stations they went into two watches, 
so that they could get their supper, and succeeding the 
lethargy came a curious depression almost a predeliction of 
doom for those who believe in such things and it is prac- 
tically impossible to write about this last night on the 
Repulse without imposing one's own after-knowledge of 
their doom upon the ship and the men. Without discussing 
it they all "seemed to decide," as Slinger puts it, that it would 
be a waste of time peeling the potatoes for the following day's 
dinner. The general feeling was that they wouldn't be there 
to eat them, although nobody said so. When Slinger finished 
his supper, he went over to his kit locker and started squaring 
it up a gesture which in a serviceman might either mean 
a relief from boredom or a sense of finalty, of being about 
to leave one station for another. He picked up the wedding 
photographs which his wife had sent him and paused to look 
through them yet again. In his ditty box lay an unfinished 
airmail letter and the letter took his thoughts away to 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 227 

Merseyside to things at home. He wondered what sort of a 
Christmas they were expecting and whether they were still 
looking forward to seeing him home on Christmas leave. 
Probably they would not yet know that the Repulse was 
HLM.S. Anonymous, the other "heavy unit" with the Prince 
of Wales. But the air letter he had sent from Singapore, when 
at last they had been given permission to write of where they 
were, would be there any time, and they would know that 
he would not be home for Christmas. Perhaps the postman 
was delivering the letters at that very moment: he came 
about eight o'clock in the morning as regular as clockwork, 
regular even in the blitz, and the difference in time was such 
that it would be just about eight o'clock in the morning on 
Merseyside now. The postman would be delivering letters, 
his wife would be setting out for work at Rootes' Aircraft 
Factory, where she was a driller ... the idea of drilling took 
his thoughts away at a tangent again and he wondered how 
many holes he had drilled in the Prince of Wales while she 
was building on the slip at Cammell Laird's. Well, when 
he got back home he would be able to tell them in 
Birkenhead how the Prince of Wdes had made out and how 
she had knocked hell out of the Japanese; it still could not 
enter his thoughts either that there was any possibility of 
him not getting home or that the Prince of Wales could 
fail to knock hell out of the Japanese. Through alarms and 
excursions he had lived three years in the permanent world 
of his ships: it was not possible to think of anything other 
than permanence. 

Back to the kit locker. He looked over the Burberry his 
father had given him for a wedding present. It was a beauty, 
silk-lined, and it had only been worn three times: he had 
had several good offers for it, but it wasn't for sale at any 
price. 

Then it was time to return to the gun deck, closed up at 
first degree of readiness: and suddenly the mood of depres- 
sion, of doom had worn itself out and the old confidence 



228 BERNARD ASH 

came back. The ship, he learned, had changed course and 
now they would be heading for the beach-heads. Of course 
they would break up the landings and of course they would 
save Malaya. So they would give the Yanks a little time to 
regroup their battered forces and get back into the fight. The 
weight of the Yanks would reassert itself, on our side. When 
that happened it would be curtains for the Japanese the war 
in the Far East would be over and with the combined forces 
of the Americans and ourselves concentrated against Hitler, 
the war in Europe too could be over in six months. With 
this conclusion they settled down to try and get what sleep 
they could on the steel gun deck alongside the pom-pom. 
They had already drawn lots for the duties that had to be 
done throughout the night one man on the headphones in 
communication with the air-defence position, one man as 
extra lookout and had divided the night into tricks of one 
hour each. So passed this night, the last night on the ship 
which had been their home for nearly three years of their 
lives. In like sort passed the night elsewhere on the Repulse, 
on the Prince of Wales and on the destroyers. 

Now Admiral Phillips had indeed altered course to the 
north-west and increased speed to twenty-six knots, as he had 
previously planned; but he had, in fact, already made up his 
mind that the risks that now faced him, discovered by the 
enemy and without prospect of fighter support in the morn- 
ing, were beyond tolerance. Tenedos was due to return to 
Singapore, for this was as far as her fuel supplies would take 
her at the speed Force Z had been making: in any case she 
was the oldest, the slowest, and the most poorly defended 
of the destroyers. Now he detached her and he gave her a 
message to transmit by radio to Rear-Admiral Palliser in 
Singapore in the morning, when well clear of the main force. 
This message informed Palliser that his chief was calling off 
the operation and turning south during the night: it asked 
for all possible destroyer support to meet him at the ap- 
proaches to Singapore. At about eight o'clock he signalled 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 229 

the other ships that he had decided to keep the remaining 
three destroyers in company and cancel the operation "in 
view of the fact," reads Captain Tennant's report, "that the 
whereabouts of the Force was actually known to the enemy; 
it would therefore be improbable that we should meet any 
convoy in the morning and the enemy would have at least 
twelve hours to concentrate his airforce to attack us/' 

Half an hour later course was altered to south-eastwards 
and speed reduced to twenty knots, to husband the fuel sup- 
plies of the destroyers. 

"Will this ship never get into action?" Gallagher heard 
someone say in the wardroom. 



CHAPTER 
13 



THE MERE FACT THAT THE OPERATION HAD BEEN CALLED 

off made no difference to the degree of vigilance that was now 
demanded of the ships' officers and men. In fact the very 
circumstances under which it had been called off made the 
need for vigilance even greater. It was now certain that they 
were being hunted: in the morning, wherever they might be, 
they might expect attack from aircraft, submarines or even 
surface vessels for although intelligence had indicated no 
major enemy units in the area, it could not be depended 
upon. They were being hunted as surely as the Bismarck 
and the Prim Eugen had been hunted down the Atlantic 
from the Denmark Strait. But for the Repulse and Prince of 
Wales there was no umbrella of air cover to beckon them on 
into safety, only a handful of Buffaloes and the dubious 
haven of Singapore. Cloudy weather and poor visibility 
could save them as it had saved them on their way north. If 
they could give the Japanese the slip during the night and 
continue under a low cloud base undetected, in the morn- 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 23! 

ing they might yet win back to what safety there was in 
Singapore. In effect the ships were already doomed: if they 
were not sunk at sea in the morning, they would be sunk the 
day after in Singapore, or at sea in whatever direction they 
attempted to escape from Singapore or wherever the Japanese 
might find them. Probably this was apparent to Phillips, but 
it did not absolve him from the responsibility of keeping 
his force afloat and effective as long as he could. It was not 
apparent to the men, though they would not have flinched 
from it if it had been: ignorant of it, they kept their vigil at 
action stations through the night. They were now to be con- 
tinuously at action stations until the ships went down. 

During the night a further signal came from Singapore. It 
read as follows: 

TO: C.-zn-C., Eastern Fleet. FROM: Chief of Staff, 
Eastern Fleet. 

IMMEDIATE 

Enemy reported landing Kuantan, latitude 03 50' North. 

T.O.0. 15057/9. 

No indication of the reliabflty of this report was given, 
nor had Rear-Admiral Palliser any indication to give. But 
Kuantan was almost on the return track of the force to Singa- 
pore, from which it was a mere one hundred and forty miles 
distant within flying distance even for Brewster Buffaloes. 
It could almost have seemed that the signal indicated a fore- 
knowledge of his decision to return, albeit Palliser could not 
be informed of this until he received the signal from Tenedos 
in the morning. But in any case the ships would be returning 
south in the morning after their attack on the Kra Isthmus 
convoys and landing places returning at speed. 

To Admiral Phillips this message meant a number of 
things. It meant in the first place an even more urgent threat 
to Singapore than the Kra Isthmus landings much further 
north. He knew, and a surviving staff witness has told us that 
he knew, that from Kuantan there was a road running west- 



232 BERNARD ASH 

wards through the jungle which would enable the Japanese 
to move quickly and cut land communications with our al- 
ready hard-pressed forces in the north. Every move in this 
game indicates how well Phillips had informed himself of 
the situation on land, as well as at sea, and how much keener 
was his appreciation of it than that of people who might 
have been expected to be more intimately acquainted with 
it. If, therefore, there were landings at Kuantan, they must 
be, if possible, stopped at almost any cost. 

In the second place it gave him an objective after all, and 
if he could accomplish this objective, his sortie would not 
have been in vain, whatever the consequences for the ships. 

In the third place Kuantan was a full four hundred miles 
from the airfields in Indochina and, as we have already seen, 
within distance of fighter protection of Singapore. 

In the fourth place, assuming that his change of course 
had not been observed and assuming that he could escape 
detection for the rest of the night, Kuantan was a long way 
away from the position in which he had last been reported to 
the enemy and in a different direction from the direction in 
which he was steaming when so reported. 

Last of all, it would be understood in Singapore that this 
would be his reasoning and that he would make for Kuantan 
on receipt of Admiral Palliser's signal, without the need to 
break wireless silence by saying so. This anticipation of the 
results of receiving information was the lesson he had learned 
from the operations in the Battle of the Atlantic: he had 
learned it too well, but Singapore had never had the oppor- 
tunity of learning it. 

At one o'clock in the morning, therefore, he altered course 
again to 245 and increased speed to twenty-four knots, 
with the intention of being off Kuantan in the morning. 

'The rest of the night," says the official report on the ac- 
tion, "passed without incident" In other words it passed 
with the two capital ships and three destroyers steaming 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 233 

hard for their new objective with their men at action stations 
and their look-outs straining their eyes into the night. 

Well might they strain their eyes: they were being hunted 
every bit as hard as the most fearful imagination among 
them could suppose they were, and the Japanese were strain- 
ing their eyes too. They had not, in fact, remained undetected 
as long as they had thought on the previous day. A Japanese 
submarine had sighted them but remained unseen itself: the 
Asdics missed it and the eyes of the lookouts missed the 
tiny feather of its periscope in the overcast weather. This 
submarine reported them and its report was received: oddly 
enough the first reports of the aircraft which sighted them 
later did not reach their base. 

Immediately the Japanese saw Sir Tom Phillips' purpose, 
and they were not deceived by the fact that his ships were 
on a northerly course. It really required no superhuman 
intelligence to do so, for in spite of Phillips' attempts to 
disguise the direction of his objective, the Kra Isthmus land- 
ings were after all the only major objective in that area 
against which such immensely valuable ships would make 
a sortie involving so many perils. They were convinced the 
moment the news came to them that Force Z was intent on 
beating up their beach-heads and their convoys and they 
were seriously alarmed for both; for although they could now 
claim naval control over the whole Pacific, they had no units 
in the immediate area able to contain the Prince of Wales 
and the Repulse. There was no likelihood that this situation 
would be permanent, that the two ships could go on "ap- 
pearing and disappearing" and arousing "reactions and 
perturbations" indefinitely. There was no parallel between 
our situation in the North Atlantic and the situation of the 
Japanese in eastern waters. In their own good time they 
could detach units to take care of the Prince of Wales and 
the Repulse, but just at this moment their beach-heads were 
wide open to them, and the programme for the conquest of 
Asia faced a hitch. No battleship as heavily protected as the 



2 2A BERNARD ASH 

Prince of Wales had ever been sunk by air attack alone; but 
even the mighty Bismarck had been disabled and sufficiently 
slowed down by air attack for the surface forces to be able to 
come up and pound her to destruction. It is possible that at 
this stage the Japanese hoped for no more from air attack on 
the Prince of Wales than had been achieved by the Ark 
Royals Swordfish in their attack on the Bismarck, and that 
would be enough for their purposes. The Repulse, not 
nearly so well protected and able to put up nothing like the 
Prince of Wales' s anti-aircraft barrage, they might be able to 
deal with by air attack alone. 

Now, disabling the Prince of Wales automatically meant 
torpedo attack bombs of the calibre available might cause 
destruction, loss of life above decks and reduction of her 
efficiency, but could not possibly sink her. Torpedo attacks 
called for a minimum of interference from fighter aircraft 
and, for preference, the attack must therefore be made while 
the ships were out of range of the Brewster Buffaloes: with 
the British grip on the northern airfields becoming weaker 
every hour, the Brewster Buffaloes could only operate within 
a couple of hundred miles of Singapore itself, and therefore 
the ships must be attacked while still beyond their range. 

The nearest force available to do the job was 22 Air 
Flotilla, operating with ninety-eight aircraft from Saigon: it 
was in fact this flotilla which had mounted the air-raids that 
doused the bright lights of Singapore. It was a unit well 
suited for the purpose, because it had been specially trained 
in attacks on shipping; but at the moment when the sighting 
report came in, its aircraft were bombing up for another raid 
on Singapore. The raid was immediately called off, but both 
bombs and bomb racks had first to be unshipped so that the 
aircraft could be loaded with torpedoes. This took time. It 
was six o'clock in the evening and daylight was already going 
before the bombers were ready, yet so seriously did the 
Japanese view the prospect of an attack on the convoys and 
beach-heads at dawn the following day that it was decided 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 235 

to attempt a night attack. And so while the ships were chang- 
ing course and racing back towards the south, straining 
every nerve for sight or sound of their hunters, the torpedo- 
bombers were in fact actually seeking them. They failed. One 
more night of life was vouchsafed to the two capital ships 
and Singapore was spared the air-raid that had been planned 
for it. Further search would have to wait for the dawn. 

Just as the dawn of the previous day was such a dawn as 
Tom Phillips might have prayed for, so the dawn of Decem- 
ber 10 was a dawn for which the Japanese in turn might 
have prayed. From end to end of the Gulf of Siam it was 
bright and clear. There was no sign of rain or mist, not a 
vestige of cloud to hinder the hunters or to bring succour to 
the hunted. The watchers on the ships, still at action stations 
after their long night of vigilance, saw the sun come up like a 
ball of fire into a tropical blue sky, under which they steamed 
naked and visible from horizon to horizon. In this dawn the 
Japanese had already been searching anew for them but failed 
to find them where they expected to find them, off the Kra 
Isthmus. They searched far to the south, to their limit of 
endurance about the latitude of Singapore. They did not find 
Force Z, but they found little Tenedos returning alone and 
eliminated her before she had time to transmit Admiral 
Phillips' message to his base. It was in fact a submarine 
which once more spotted the ships and home the attackers 
on to their target as they were returning northward. 

Force Z was now near the coast off Kuantan and closing 
it rapidly. On all the ships the men got their breakfast and a 
bit of a wash to freshen themselves up as best they could. The 
officers ate a scratch meal, hurriedly. At about half-past six 
the loudspeakers told the crews about the new operation and, 
tension mounting again, they watched the land grow clearer 
as the ships closed in towards it. To Slinger and his mates at 
this time it appeared that they were going to be passengers 
at the pom-pom while the big guns and the secondary 
armament did the work for which they had been waiting so 



236 BERNARD ASH 

long, for pom-pom shells explode at 3,500 yards and in this 
visibility there seemed no likelihood of them closing any- 
thing within that range. But they were not idle: they had 
been well warned that their job was to watch the sky for 
enemy aircraft irrespective of what else was going on and 
not let their attention be distracted. 

So, the Prince of Wales ahead, Repulse on her starboard 
quarter, they came close to the shore. The big ships each 
flew off a Walrus to carry out a reconnaissance, Express was 
sent in to investigate more closely and the rest of the Force 
passed down ten miles from the coast inside the seven 
fathom line. The only thing sighted was a small tug in the 
distance with what appeared to be a string of barges clearly 
no invasion force, nor did Phillips seek to draw attention to 
himself either by closing it or firing upon it. It was about 
this time that he himself was sighted by the Japanese sub- 
marine which reported his new position. It fired all its 
torpedoes but missed, and once more apparently, remained 
undetected. The time that elapsed, however, before Phillips 
actually knew he was discovered afresh, was so little that the 
matter is unimportant. 

There was no sign of any activity on the shore, nothing 
could be seen from the flagship or the Repulse, nothing 
could be seen by Express passing close inshore, nothing was 
seen by either Walrus. The Kuantan landings were a false 
alarm. There were no targets after all for Repulse's fifteen- 
inch guns, which had still never fired a shot in anger and 
now never would. There was no last chance to discover 
whether Prince of Wdes's turrets had at last left all their 
"bugs" behind them. As they turned away, Captain Tennant 
signalled, suggesting that they should investigate the tug 
and barges and Phillips agreed. He also suggested that his 
second Walrus should now be flown off on anti-submarine 
patrol. Both these suggestions were agreed: the Walrus was 
flown off and the ships turned back towards the barges. 

It was now Slinger Wood's turn to do his spell with the 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 237 

aircraft lookouts in the air defence position a platform on 
the top of the foremast in which there were a dozen swivel 
seats, each fitted with a stand on which there was a powerful 
pair of binoculars. He climbed the ladder from which Lieu- 
tenant Gifford had fallen the day before. Aloft he found 
Lieutenant Parker in charge with the Warrant Gunnery 
Officer, Mr. Page: for both of these he had a hearty respect, 
especially for Lieutenant Parker, whom he had once watched 
in a boxing match with Rodney in Scapa standing toe to toe 
with a marine almost twice his size, and slugging it out until 
both were barely able to stand up. Boy MacDonald slid out 
of his lookout seat and Slinger took his place. Applying him- 
self to the binoculars, he commenced to quarter his sector 
of the sky from Red 05 to Green 25: giving every ounce of 
his concentration to the task he forgot the weariness of the 
night 

He had covered the sector several times and had just 
started on another sweep when low down on the horizon in 
the almost indeterminate meeting place of sea and sky he 
saw the tiniest of small black dots. 

"Aircraft in sight," he cried immediately. 

He heard the voice of Mr. Page urging him to keep on 
it. He sensed the midshipman alongside him reading off the 
bearing and angle of sight and barely had he done so when 
the order "repel aircraft'' sounded through all the ships. Even 
as the alarm was given the Prince of Wales's radar picked 
the aircraft up: it had not done so sooner because it was so 
low on the horizon. 

Wood's place was now back at his pom-pom and as he 
made his way hurriedly back down the foremast ladder he 
thought once more of Lieutenant Gifford lying in the sick 
bay with his broken ribs. When he got to the triple gun deck 
he saw that everyone had donned their anti-flash gloves and 
hoods so that they looked like some strange order of nun 
with a touch of Ku Klux Klan in it except that on top of 
the head was perched the inevitable tin hat. Behind T-i 



238 BERNARD ASH 

his old gun where he had slopped so desperately with his 
long-handled mop in his green days of long before and spent 
so many freezing nights in the northern seas the spare gun's 
crew was busy setting fuses on the barrage shells. Everywhere 
here and as he made his way aft, an air of expectancy had 
replaced the tension of the day before and an air of alertness 
had swept away the tiredness of the hours closed-up at action 
stations. This was the Repulse again, ready for anything up 
to the very end. 

Seconds before Wood reached the pom-pom, Scouse 
Garner had reported to his action station on T-} gun below. 
He had had time to equip himself with a tin of "ticklers" 
from his locker and a few other essentials. Below T-3 again 
was Y Turret, with the Oerlikon mounted on top of it and 
its great guns alert but silent, useless against the menace 
from the sky. Also below, but forward of the pom-pom was 
high-angle gun R-3, antiquated but efficient in good hands. 
All were closed up and ready: somewhere below, Stoker Dick 
was busy with his fresh water pumps that supplied cooling 
water. He was thinking of his rum ration which was not far 
off. On the flag deck, assigned to them as their action station 
because they were least likely to be in the way there, were 
the journalists Gallagher and Brown, chatting with the 
signallers and wondering what sort of a party they had let 
themselves in for. Gallagher had managed to equip himself 
with a suit of overalls, oil-stained but covering his skin; be- 
neath these, in the pocket of his shorts, was his precious 
note-book and he continued to add jottings to it from time 
to time, using his fountain-pen full of the ship's home-made 
ink and determined to make the best job he could of his 
uselessness. It is from him that we have the only report of a 
single-funnelled, two-masted ship that appeared, hull-down, 
on the port bow of the ships. He examined it through the 
yeoman's telescope, but it showed no flag or other clue to 
its identity. Later, he declares, he met its skipper in Calcutta: 
it was a British freighter on the run from Hong Kong, and 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 239 

when the air-sea battle developed it continued to run, quite 
justifiably. It is odd that this vessel is not mentioned at all 
in any of the official published accounts of the action, nor 
have any of the survivors whose memories form so much of 
the basis of this book mentioned it. Gallagher felt that the 
whole force was watching it. In this he was wrong, for the 
men's attention was on the arcs of their guns and on their 
other tasks. They were too well-trained in their duties for 
sight-seeing. His other outstanding impression is of the 
Prince of Wales's guns, sky-raking at all angles -like chop- 
sticks, one of the signallers remarked to him. And here Alf 
Tudor, Johnny King, Joe Dempsey, and the rest waited, 
tensed for the order to open fire at the aircraft they must 
expect at any moment, following the single spotter plane. 
Boy Williams was at the same station in his 5.25 turret from 
which he had watched the Hood go down: he thought of the 
Hood, of Blaenau-Festiniog, of his girl friend Betty, to whom 
he was now engaged and would one day marry. Seddon was 
on the bridge, his great mat with the Prince of Wdes's 
feathers still unfinished, his thoughts roving back to the old 
Albion and another war, to Fairrie's refinery and the dark 
years between one war and the next. The Clydeside rats, 
decimated but still undefeated, prowled undisturbed, una- 
ware that the classic fate of rats in ships was upon them: had 
they but deserted the ship in a body at Singapore, they might 
have gone down to history as a sign and a portent, but per- 
haps their rat intuition had played them false, or else they 
found the Prince of Wales too comfortable a billet. 

The legend of the unsinkability of the Prince of Wdes 
and their pride in their splendid and famous ship lay strong 
on many of her men especially the less experienced men, 
the men who had been landsmen less than a year before, 
who still, in spite of all their pride and keenness, were still 
landsmen just a little in their hearts. Certainly they had 

known air action they had known it hot and strong in 

the Malta convoy, had triumphed over it and not received 



240 BERNARD ASH 

a major scar. But this wasn't the Malta convoy, or anything 
like it. There was no Ark Royal, no fighter cover for them. 
Leach knew it was no Malta convoy. It wasn't his business 
to tell them. Shortly after eleven o'clock his radar picked up 
a formation of high-flying aircraft approaching from the 
south, fifty degrees on his starboard bow. 

Slinger Wood's mates on the pom-pom had been discuss- 
ing the phantom landings at Kuantan the latest and last 
of all their phantoms when the new warning crackled from 
the loudspeakers. They'd decided that the information had 
probably come from the Japs themselves, and in this they 
may not have been far wrong. Now they left Kuantan to 
history. High-flying aircraft were not their job, and they 
must keep alert for sudden attack within the range of their 
own weapons, but they saw the aircraft come nine of them 
in close single line abreast, faultless in formation. Everything 
went dead quiet, save for the voices of the communication 
numbers on the guns, shouting "aircraft in sight!" and re- 
porting bearing and angle of sight. 

"This is it!" he heard Dinger Bell say alongside him, and 
in the same moment their own four-inch high-angle guns 
and the whole of the Prince of Wales's anti-aircraft battery 
opened fire together with a tremendous, crackling barrage 
that seemed to blanket the whole sky. Below the pom-pom, 
R-3 had gone into action as though at a touch of one of H.V. 
Morton's buttons, working with the perfect co-ordination 
that comes of endless training; they seemed to be loading 
and firing twice as quickly as they had ever done in practice. 
The destroyers joined in, and now the aircraft seemed to be 
flying down a lane of shell-bursts that dirtied the sky. They 
seemed to float in out of the heavens, silent amid the noise 
of the guns. Their formation was still perfect; their height 
about ten thousand feet. The time was precisely 11:18 A.M. 

Two illusions were dispelled in these moments: one, the 
legend that the Japanese were "not very good at aircraft," 
inefficient little yellow men flying rice-paper planes; the 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 24! 

other, the idea that the identity of the Repuke and the 
knowledge of her poor protection and slender ack-ack 
armament could be kept from them by turning her into 
H.M.S. Anonymous. These Mitsubishi 86 bombers looked 
at least as efficient as our own new Beauforts, and they were 
being flown with both skill and resolution. In face of the 
metal that was being poured into the sky against them they 
kept course, height, speed, and formation. Not one so much 
as jinked as they continued on towards their target. And their 
target was the Repulse. They knew not merely that one of 
the ships was the Repuke they knew which of the ships 
was the Repulse. The anonymity which had aroused such 
bitter resentment in Repulse's crew was a vain expedient. 
The Japanese knew them as clearly as if no attempt had ever 
been made to deceive them and they knew this was the only 
one of the two capital ships vulnerable to high-level bomb- 
ing. With complete precision, the attack was pressed home 
on the Repulse alone. 

For an eternity of minutes, then, the bombers floated in 
while the ships, steaming ahead furiously continued to hurl 
every ounce of metal they could into the sky. They seemed 
to disregard the barrage; well might they, because although 
the Prince of Wales possessed as massive an anti-aircraft 
battery as any ship afloat, it was still not massive enough, 
while the anti-aircraft armament of the Repulse and the 
destroyers was wretchedly inadequate. They might strive to 
throw a curtain of fire across the sky, but it was a curtain 
with holes in it; and while one fighter might have broken up 
this formation, the combined fire of all the ships could not 
budge a single plane a fraction from its course. For an 
eternity they floated, and then each aircraft released a single 
bomb. 

Hundreds of eyes saw the bombs detach themselves from 
the aircraft and fall. Seddon saw them from the bridge of 
the Prince of Wdes, Slinger Wood saw them. Sergeant 
"Taff" Wadley, Repulse's marine gunnery instructor spot- 



242 BERNARD ASH 

ting from the deck above T-3, which was not in action be- 
cause the elevation was too great, saw them and yelled to 
the marine gun crew to take cover. They did so in the only 
cover that seemed to be available to them, which happened 
to be the ready-use magazine in which the ammunition 
brought up from below was stored. It was only afterwards 
that they realised the inappropriateness of their shelter and 
still were able to laugh about it. Then the racket of guns 
was drowned in the detonation and blast of a couple of 
thousand pounds of high explosives, and to the watchers on 
the other ships, Repulse disappeared in a mighty curtain of 
upflung water and smoke from which it seemed impossible 
that she should ever emerge. It was the Norway campaign 
all over again. And just as she had done in the Norway 
campaign, the ship presently shot out from it, still at speed 
and still on an even keel; but black smoke poured from her 
and she seemed to be afire. Wasn't that the way Hood had 
gonefirst a hit, then fire, then disruption? The watchers 
waited for the end and many of her own people thought 
the ship was finished. The smoke was belching black from 
the air-vents behind the pom-pom that had supplied com- 
forting hot air in the North Atlantic and torrid blasts when 
they were less welcome. Surely this meant that the bombs 
had gone through the armour deck and that there was havoc 
in engine and boiler rooms? Gun crews not in action were 
ordered to the assistance of the damage control parties and 
to help with the wounded. They obeyed at the double: T-3's 
crew had a couple of hoses down from the catapult deck in 
no time. There was a dreadful mess, hammocks and gear all 
round the foremast, smoke and acrid fumes: there were 
casualties from belowburned stokers. 

Actually the damage was quite superficial: the ship was 
barely scratched. The bombs were no more than 250- 
pounders. One was a near miss on the starboard side abaft 
the bridge, five were near misses on the port side, and one, 
and one only, hit the ship. It struck the catapult deck port 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 243 

side, penetrated the upper deck and the main deck by the 
marines' barracks, the torpedomen's mess and the torpedo 
tubes, and burst in a fan chamber near the torpedo office, 
where the torpedo writer was trapped. Here it started a fire, 
but it did not penetrate the horizontal armour or cause any 
damage whatsoever below. The near-miss loosened rivets and 
caused leaks in number three dynamo room. Certainly there 
were a number of casualties, mainly from burns, and most 
of them were stokers, but they were men on duty in the 
torpedo flat and elsewhere above decks, not below. One of 
them, for instance, was Stoker Dick who had just come up 
from the port engine room and was making his way along 
the deck when something hit him very hard on the head. He 
woke up in the sick-bay and although he has a scar to this 
day as a souvenir, his injury was not serious: but it nearly 
caused him to be drowned along with other casualties. He 
followed the rest of the action by ear. As for the smoke pour- 
ing from the engine room air-vents behind Slinger Wood's 
pom-pom, the explanation is quite simple. The air might be 
coming from the engine and boiler rooms, but the smoke 
was coming from no further than the fan chamber above 
the armoured deck where the bomb had actually exploded. 
The ship continued to steam and manoeuvre at high speed 
for the rest of the action and this can be taken as positive 
confirmation that no material damage was suffered below. 
The sky was clear now the planes had gone and the guns 
for the moment had ceased to fire; and in this interval the 
Repulse's damage control parties, aided by the disengaged 
guns' crews, went to work on the dynamo room and the fire 
as though they were on a peace-time exercise. The dynamo 
was taken off the board, the leaks caulked, the space pumped 
out and the dynamo put back. The fire by the torpedo office 
was put out. When the crew of T-j had finished swamping 
what was left of their possessions in water, they turned to 
to help the wounded, but found the situation in the sick-bay 
well under control and unskilled assistance not in demand. 



244 BERNARD ASH 

So they returned to their gun deck, where presently there 
came to them the ship's padre, Canon Bezzant, making his 
rounds and proffering a drink of water, padre-fashion. They 
asked him whether he couldn't make it champagne, but 
water was all the good man had to offer and they drank it, 
finding themselves now in high spirits. By the time the next 
attack came in all the material damage from the bomb burst, 
such as it was, had been put right, and even damaged light- 
ing had been replaced. 

There was now a respite of nearly half an hour, though 
few of the survivors remember it as so long. Events have 
telescoped in their minds; the action seems to them shorter 
than it was in fact and unbroken by any pause. The ships 
steamed on. Was this all they were going to get? Or was it 
just a foretaste? Was whatever was coming next going to be 
as easy to deal with as this first attack? Ships' crews won- 
dered what fighter planes would come to their succour and 
when they would appear, but the sky was empty even of 
Brewster Buffaloes. It was at 1 1 144 that the Prince of Wdes's 
radar picked up another large formation of aircraft coming 
from the south: not many moments later, they were visible 
to the naked eye. They were flying low. So low were they 
flying that Seddon, on the Prince of Wales's bridge, won- 
dered why they didn't open up with the fourteen-inch guns 
on top of everything else it seemed impossible to miss. Low 
flying bombers could only mean one thing torpedo attack. 
Very well, they would see what Jap torpedoes were made of. 

Now the barrage broke out anewbroke out with an even 
greater racket and clamour than before, for these low-flying 
planes were within the reach and range of every weapon the 
ships possessed, Oerlikons, the pom-poms and all. But the 
torpedo bombers, infinitely more vulnerable than the high- 
altitude bombers which had preceded them, nonetheless 
kept on their course just as resolutely and unshakeably as 
the high-altitude bombers had done, and this time the 
Prince of Wales was their target. 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 245 

Straight into the teeth of the anti-aircraft fire they came, 
to drop their torpedoes and zoom across the battleship's very 
decks before they could recover and rise clear. Two of them, 
savaged by the close-range guns, all but crashed into the ship: 
narrowly clearing her they plunged into the sea on her 
disengaged side and disintegrated. Captain Tennant saw the 
torpedoes fall: he noted, almost with professional detach- 
ment, that the Japanese launched them both from a greater 
height and a greater distance than our own Swordfish did: 

the torpedoes nonetheless ran true they also ran shallow 

and their tracks were clearly visible through the water. They 
were as coolly and accurately aimed as the bombs had been. 
For years the crews had trained for this moment; for years 
the back-room boys had worked on their weapons and given 
them tools as good and even better than the navies of the 
West could boast. 

Heeling over to her helm while her guns still blazed, the 
Prince of Wales turned towards the torpedo tracks streaking 
towards her. She was not quick enough. One torpedo struck 
her. One torpedo only, but it wrought unbelievable havoc. It 
destroyed H.M.S. Unsinkable. 

It struck her in the stern, the Achilles heel of any ship. It 
raised a tremendous fountain of watergreater, Tennant 
says in his report, than the column thrown up by any of the 
subsequent torpedoes. There was a lot of black smoke about 
with it, which puzzled him and has continued to puzzle him 
ever since. It was as though a small magazine or something 
of the sort had gone up, but survivors he questioned at Singa- 
pore afterwards could throw no light on it. Explosion of some 
sort, however, there was, quite separate and distinct from 
the strike of the torpedo: Cyril Williams, working in P-3 
turret, which was almost above where the torpedo hit, felt 
first a thud and shudder as though the fourteen-inch guns 
had opened up: that was the torpedo. Then there was a great 
blast and concussion, as though something had exploded in 
the waist of their ship. It threw P-3's crew down like nine- 



246 BERNARD ASH 

pins: shells rolled off the rack and knocked one seaman un- 
conscious. When they got themselves to their feet again, 
they found power had failed, so that they could not elevate 
or train the turret: they tried to work it by hand, but by then 
the ship was already listing and jamming everything. 

If the torpedo had done no more than put the battleship'* 
steering gear out of action and jammed the port propeller 
shafts, it would have been bad enough. But what it did was 
infinitely worse than that: what it did was fantastic. The ship 
was steaming full ahead, and there was something like thirty- 
thousand horsepower behind each of the huge shafts. Under 
the complex change of stresses caused by the explosion, the 
port outer shaft sheared at the A-bracket and bent. All this 
happened in an instant, before anyone could close throttles 
or think of closing them: in the next instant the bent shaft 
had sliced the massive bottom of the ship as one might slice 
a can with a tin-opener. Then it jammed, reducing the 
engine-room to a shambles, the machinery to scrap, and 
spreading death and destruction through the vitals of the 
ship: the frustrated power of her own turbines disembow- 
elled her. This may well have been what Williams felt as an 
explosion in P-}. Water poured in a torrent through the gash 
made by the shaft, overwhelming men where they were 
wounded or trapped. B Engine Room, Y Boiler Room, the 
port Diesel Room, and Y Action Machinery Room were 
flooded. The warning telephone system failed. Radio and 
radar ceased to function. There was no power to either of 
the after groups of 5.25 inch guns. The ship listed thirteen 
degrees and speed dropped to fifteen knots: she was never 
under complete control again. It was the Bismarck story 
once more with a few additions. And the Prince of Wales 
H.M.S. Unsinkable, the Glamour Ship, Churchill's Yacht, 
the imagined terror of the Japanese Navy, the saviour of the 
fortress of Singapore was as doomed and damned as the 
Bismarck had been when the torpedoes from Ark Royal's 
Swordfish had caught her. The Japanese could take their 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 247 

time to finish her off. They could bring up more aircraft, 
they could leave her for surface ships or submarines. They 
could leave her for an hour or leave her for a week. They 
could sink her at leisure by any means they wished. She was 
a sitting target. And the skies were still empty of British 
planes. 

Neither Captain Tennant nor his crew had much time to 
spare at this point to take all this in, for almost immediately 
there developed another attack on the Repulse. Another 
formation of Mitsubishis came up over the horizon, and 
from their low altitude and the manner of their approach, 
it was apparent that this also was a torpedo attack. It was 
dealt with as though the ship were on manoeuvres, playing at 
war upon a summer sea. Amid the racket of the guns, which 
made the passing of helm orders extremely difficult, with 
the huge ship tearing along at something like twenty-seven 
knots, Tennant held on his course until the torpedoes were 
launched and committed. Once more they ran shallow, with 
the tracks easily seen: the bridge personnel, steady at their 
posts, were pointing them out. Then, and only then was the 
wheel put over: her guns still blazing, her speed unchecked, 
she slewed madly, steadied to her new course and steamed 
up the tracks of the torpedoes, "combing" them so that they 
passed her harmlessly by. It was the supreme test of a per- 
fectly trained, perfectly co-ordinated ship's company, steady 
as a rock, every officer and every rating, master of his job. It 
was copy-book-stuff. It was magnificent. 

At last the close-range weapons had been freed from the 
stifling bonds of inaction. The instant before the ship 
turned, young Brown, the pom-pom's communication num- 
ber, had yelled, "Aircraft starboard! " Gallagher saw him 
pounding the gun layer on the back with one hand, stabbing 
at the plane with a finger of the other. The heel of the ship 
as she slewed to starboard made training difficult, the eight 
machine-guns burst into their deafening chatter. The jour- 
nalist saw, as one sees small things in the midst of mighty 



248 BERNARD ASH 

happenings, the black paint on the cone-shaped flash guard 
of one of them rise in a great blister: then seven out of the 
eight guns stopped and the gun's crew were madly working 
to clear them. One was hopelessly jammed, but the other 
stoppages were only separated cases, soon dealt with, and 
the gun was in action again. 

But T-3 had scored a hit. With all the stuff that was flying 
about, T-3's survivors are quite confident of the hit and so 
are the pom-pom's crew, who were above them. The plane 
was coming in on the port quarter, having dropped its 
torpedo, but had not yet veered away. Its machine-guns were 
blazing, silently amid the noise of the bigger guns. T-3 laid 
on it and fired, and the plane disintegrated before the gun 
crew's eyes. It was incredibly simple. Corporal McKillen, 
Scouse Garner and the other nineteen of them screeched in 
triumph like savages, barely able to credit their eyes. Then 
another plane swept over, machine-gunning, and several of 
the gun's crew were hit. They went below to have their 
wounds dressed and their mates never saw them again. 

Immediately on the tail of the torpedo attack came an- 
other high-level bombing attack, and this again was exclu- 
sively reserved for the Repulse. The previous one had been 
no accident. The Japanese knew which of the ships were 
vulnerable to their 250-pound bombs. The bombs were 
delivered with the same coolness and the same accuracy as 
the first high-level bombs, but Tennant was still twisting 
and turning at speed, and the ship was actually under helm 
as the bombs fell. There was one near miss on the starboard 
side; the others fell just clear to port. 

Was this the last of it? Again the battle seemed to peter 
out for the moment. The high-level bombers dwindled and 
vanished, the guns stuttered and barked into silence. The 
pom-pom crew ruefully cleared the empty cases littering the 
deck. 

"It'll take more than an afternoon to deprime this bloody 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 249 

lot/' said Slinger to Leading Seaman Slatter, thinking of 
their old Scapa escapade. 

It was only then they looked at the Prince of Wales, and 
what they saw struck cold upon them. She was two or three 
miles away on their starboard quarter. She listed. She seemed 
to be hardly moving. She had "not under control" balls 
hoisted. An Aldis lamp flickered from her. The loudspeakers 
crackled and told them that her 5.255 were out of action. 
Then Repulse was turning and racing back towards her: at 
this moment, in the quiet of the lull, she seemed almost a 
dead ship already. 

Immediately after the high-level attack had passed over, 
Tennant had signalled his flagship by radio, enquiring about 
her damage, but got no reply. Was her radio out of action 
and if so how long had it been out of action? Had any signal 
been made to Singapore that Force Z was under air attack? 
Had the admiral, keeping radio silence as long as he possibly 
could, been caught out by the unexpected magnitude of the 
damage before he could make any bombing report at all? He 
asked his own people what radio signals Prince of Wales had 
made. They replied: "None." On his own initiative, there- 
fore, he broke silence and made an emergency report to 
Singapore, "Enemy aircraft bombing." It was 11:58, nearly 
an hour after the first spotter plane had come over and forty 
minutes after the first high-level attack on the Repulse. It 
was the first signal received in Singapore and the first 
intimation that Force Z was under enemy attack. 

Now he turned towards the other ship and reduced speed 
to twenty knots, "the better to see her damage and to see if 
I could be of any assistance." He made further signals by 
visual means, telling the Commander-in-Chief that his own 
bomb damage had been got under control and that he had 
avoided all torpedo attacks. He told him, one imagines, with 
some little feeling of pride in his ship he had every right to. 
He asked whether the flagship's wireless was in action, and 
whether Admiral Phillips wished him to make any signals to 



250 BERNARD ASH 

base for him. There was no reply to all this either, though 
shortly afterwards the Aldis lamp signals seen by Wood and 
his mates were made from the Prince of Wdfes to them 
they seemed to be urgent appeals for help. And Seddon later 
remembers signalling later to the destroyers to go to the aid 
of Repuke. 

Why had Phillips delayed so long reporting the attack; 
The handful of Brewster Buffaloes that later arrived on the 
scene were in the air within six minutes of Captain Tennant's 
signal being received. Had they come earlier they might have 
been in time to put the torpedo bombers, if not the high- 
level bombers, off their stroke. Very likely Phillips himself, 
realist though he undoubtedly was, was caught out by the 
intensity and efficiency of the attack. Certainly it could not 
have entered his head that the Prince of Wales could be so 
rapidly and so completely put out of action, and his com- 
munications so utterly wrecked in so short a time. Such a 
thing had never happened under aircraft attack to any capital 
ship in the North Atlantic or the Mediterranean: the pos- 
sibility was so remote that it can never have come into his 
calculations. And so, still reluctant to break radio silence in 
case breaking it might bring other attackers swiftly upon him 
from near at hand in this enemy-infested sea and sky, he 
delayed making any report when the spotter plane was 
sighted, delayed again when he saw how little effect the high 
level bombing attack had made on the Repulse for he him- 
self had little to fear from such attacks, however accurately 
carried out. Then came the unbelievable destruction 
wrought by the torpedo, and in the instant it was too late: 
he lacked the means to send any messages to Singapore at 
all. The failure to deal with visual signals is another matter 
altogether and not at the door of Phillips. As we shall see in 
a moment, disintegration was setting in pretty fast in the 
Prince of Wales. 

Slinger Wood looked at the ship he had helped to build. 
He and his mates felt no pity for her only surprise, 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 251 

indignation, and disgust for they had no means of knowing 
of her appalling luck, of how speedily and how irreparably 
she had been crippled. Their own ship, under-gunned, under- 
armoured, with nothing like the Prince of Wales 9 s equip- 
ment for any purpose, had dealt with her bomb damage, 
shrugged off the torpedoes by dint of speed and skill, 
downed one, perhaps two, enemy aircraft and was in tip-top 
shape. While here was the Glamour Ship, the ship that had 
got all the publicity, all the favours, all the privilegesthe 
ship that had reduced them to anonymitysteaming in 
circles like a wounded duck, listing heavily, down by the 
stern. What of her serried ranks of anti-aircraft guns, what 
of her vaunted unsinkability? What sort of ship was this, 
after all and what sort of men aboard her? In the attack 
that was to follow, they thought she had practically ceased 
to defend herself. 

I noticed that she only had one Oerlikon gun firing 
[writes Slinger Wood]. These were not power-operated 
guns, so why the lot (and she certainly had plenty of 
them) shouldn't have been firing, God alone knows, 
apart from those that manned them . . . How we 
could have done with those extra Oerlikons which were 
silent aboard the Prince. 

The true picture was not so solidly black as this. The 
Glamour Ship had not ceased to defend herself with what 
guns she still had not by a long, long chalk and she was 
still to take toll of the enemy. It was not really that Repulse's 
people were so intentionally biased against the battleship 
that they could believe no good of her, even in this moment 
of extremity: good seamen and good comrades that they 
were, they could never have consciously allowed their preju- 
dice to blind them so. Yet it did blind them the bitter 
resentment against the other ship that had eaten into them 
made them more prejudiced than they themselves knew, and 
against the background of their own completely organised 



252 BERNARD ASH 

and efficient ship, what was happening aboard the Prince of 
Wdes was past their comprehension. The Prince of Wales' s 
men were still full of fight: many of them were still fighting 
and some of them did not even know their ship was already 
wounded to the death. The majority of them, their horizons 
bounded by the confined limits of their own stations, the 
turrets of their own guns, never knew and still do not know 
to this day, that they gave any impression of having ceased 
to fight back. But two things are obvious. In the first place 
the ship was so crippled that she was no longer able to steam 
or manoeuvre at the will of those in charge of her, and for 
the same reason a very large part of her armament was out 
of action, while the part that was not actually disabled 
could be neither directed nor controlled. Secondly, the 
organisation and cohesion of the ship was vanishing. There 
was no break-up of discipline, there was no surrender, no 
vestige of cowardice, no element of disgrace. They were still 
the same keen, well-drilled crew that had blasted their way 
to Malta and before that taken the onslaught of the Bis- 
marck in their stride, hitting hard and effectively in spite of 
the defects of their cranky new armament and coping with 
their battle damage in a way that Rear-Admiral Wake- 
Walker and Admiral Tovey had refused to believe was pos- 
sible for a newly-commissioned ship on her first active serv- 
ice assignment. Those who survived were to prove their 
mettle again in the defence of Singapore, in the last-ditch 
battles in the jungle, in other ships and on other seas. But 
something had happened which all their discipline, and all 
their courage could not cope with. 

Blasted and battered though the ship had been by the guns 
of the Bismarck, the damage had been no more than a well- 
organised ship and a well-disciplined ship's company could 
handle: control was unaffected the ship was palpably still 
able both to steam and fight. What had happened below now 
was quite beyond the scope of any damage control parties, 
beyond the scope of anything but a dockyard, could the ship 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 253 

have been got to one. It was impossible for a large number 
of ratings aboard not to be aware that she was mortally 
wounded and sinking. This in itself was a shattering blow to 
men who had heard the world call their ship H.M.S. 
Unsinkable, had called her so themselves. Further, there 
were a great many men trapped below, in the mangled and 
flooded compartments, and to those in the after part of the 
ship their yells and screams came dreadfully through the 
ventilators, sapping and nagging at them for their own help- 
lessness in the face of their comrades' agonies. On top of 
that the loudspeaker system, as well as the telephones and 
every means of communication other than by word of 
mouth had failed. It had been Leach's use of the loudspeaker 
system, throughout the Bismarck battle and the other hectic 
moments of her short, vivid life, that had proved such a 
splendid weapon in keeping the crew informed and together. 
Bereft of all such artificial aids, such means of mass com- 
munication, it was inevitable that the ship's lack of work- 
ing-up time and the interruption of such working-up as 
she had had should betray themselves. Many of the men 
did not yet know well (or sometimes know at all) their 
officers, warrant officers, or petty officers, nor these their men. 
They did not know who to turn to, how to make good the 
lack of direction and information that was the very backbone 
of their ordered lives. Circumstances such as these are the 
supreme test of a well shaken-down ship's company. The 
Prince of Wales's company, heroes though they were, never 
had the remotest chance of surviving such a test, nor should 
such a test have been inflicted upon them. It was not the 
admiral, the captain, the officers, or the men who were 
responsible for the disintegration that was now setting in. 
What was responsible was the blunder that sent the ship, 
too little prepared to die, to undergo her supreme trial too 
soon in a place where she never should have been the 
blunder and those who made the blunder. 
"Aircraft in sightl" 



254 BERNARD ASH 

Another attack was coming in* There was to be no respite. 
There is no quarter for a wounded ship. The Prince of Wales 
was to be battered until she sank. What could be done for 
her? Little enough was left serviceable of all her anti-aircraft 
fire the Repulse and the destroyers had nothing like enough 
to protect themselves alone. There was only one thing that 
could be done to go on firing till there were no more guns 
to be fired. To fight until the ships, fighting, sank beneath 
them. 

The sinister black dots low over the sea were climbing 
over the horizon, visible now to those at deck level. Already 
the guns were barking and chattering again, but the volume 
of sound was noticeably less with so many of the stricken 
battleship's guns out of action. Under the threat of the new 
torpedo attack, Repulse increased speed again until once 
more she was creaming and crashing through the water at 
twenty-seven knots or more. This was her last and her finest 
hour, and she would meet it with dash and with the grace 
of a great ship at speed for which she would always be ^re- 
membered in the hearts and minds of seafaring men. Not 
for her the long, slow agony of the crippled bird on the water, 
creeping in dying circles till the sea claimed its prey: she 
would steam to her doom whole and in one piece and go 
down steaming. 

The aircraft came on in the face of the barrage just as the 
aircraft before them had come, and they were going to do 
exactly as the aircraft before them had done; there was a 
sameness about it and the very sameness itself was a menace. 
The first group of them came in down the Repulse's star- 
board side to loose their torpedoes at the helpless Prince of 
Wales. They ran the gauntlet of the close-range and high- 
angle guns: the water in the cooling jackets of the pom-pom's 
seven remaining guns bubbled and steamed with the fury of 
the firing and one of the aircraft again was first mangled by 
tracer bullets and then blasted out of the sky: they saw the 
very face of the airman as he went and thought savagely that 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 255 

he had not put on his funeral robes in vain. It was fruitless. 
One aircraft stricken so many still remaining. Three torpe- 
does in quick succession hit the Prince of Walesone right 
forward, one abreast of B turret, and one once more in that 
vital place right aft. The starboard outer shaft was jammed 
now in addition to both the port shafts, so that one propeller 
only turned and her speed dropped still further. There was 
more damage below the waterline, too: water poured into 
her hull on the starboard side so that she seemed to right her 
list and settle almost on even keel, but in doing so she was 
ominously lower in the water. She was beginning to sink by 
the stern. Any ship less strongly constructed would have 
been at the bottom of the sea long before; any ship less 
strongly constructed could not possibly have lasted for a 
whole hour more of agony as the Prince of Wales was to last 
The strength and complexity of those underwater compart- 
ments on which young Wood and his mate had worked were 
now evident yet all that strength, all that complexity, all 
the ingenuity that had devised the system of compartments 
and all the integrity of the workmanship that went into them 
could do no more than prolong her life by that single hour. 

The sky was still full of planes. The tempo of the attack 
seemed to be increasing rather than diminishing. Once more 
a group of aircraft came in on Repulse's starboard side. Once 
more Tennant played his waiting game and once more when 
the torpedoes were committed he put his helm over and 
steamed through the tracks of them. Already he had combed 
a score of torpedoes in this way and it seemed that the swift 
old ship, doubling and turning in response to every feint of 
the attacking aircraft would go on combing them forever. 
There was contempt, almost arrogance, in the way she 
turned and shrugged the torpedoes away. Let this indeed be 
the last picture of her, as fine a picture as there could be of 

any ship riding the sea, at speed, intact, superior in wit 

and efficiency to her enemies. 

For in the very moment of her triumph, as she combed 



256 BERNARD ASH 

the new attack, her fate came upon her. It was not for noth- 
ing that Air Flotilla 22 had been specially trained in ship 
attacks: they knew all about ships combing torpedoes and 
how to deal with them. Even as the Repulse steamed down 
the tracks of the torpedoes that had been launched on her 
starboard side, three aircraft came in on the other side. They 
were flying straight for the Prince of Wales. It looked as 
though the flagship was destined for a further battering: the 
guns turned on them, barking and chattering, but failed to 
stop them. But when they were a little before the Repulse's 
port beam and perhaps a mile away, they wheeled, turned 
straight for her and launched their torpedoes. Once more 
the shallow tracks were apparent, streaking through the water 
towards the ship but this time there was absolutely no action 
that could be taken to avoid them. They could not be 
combed: she was still combing the torpedoes launched in 
the previous attack on a bearing almost at right-angles to 
the new one. If she turned now these first torpedoes would 
strike her; if she held her course she would be struck by the 
new ones. And so Tennant held his course: he had no option. 
He and all the others with eyes to spare watched the tracks 
approaching the port side watched them for a good minute 
and a half. Two passed astern, the third struck her amidships 
with a tremendous roar and concussion and an upheaval of 
the ocean that deluged the decks and the gun crews. Mo- 
mentarily she seemed to try to lift herself out of the water, 
then she steadied again and continued on her course, still on 
an even keel, her speed undiminished. For so old and so 
lightly armoured a ship she had stood the explosion extraor- 
dinarily well: if she could stand up to torpedoes like this 
could she not still survive? 

There was little scope for such illusions. The respite was 
very short. Almost immediately more torpedo-bombers ap- 
peared. The sky seemed full of them and now they were no 
longer in formation they appeared to be coming in every 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 257 

conceivable direction at once. There could be no question of 
even attempting to comb these attacksthere could not 
even be any question of the guns being able to concentrate 
upon all these targets at once. For a matter of moments there 
was a sort of air circus around the ship and then the torpedoes 
launched from different directions began to strike her in 
rapid succession. First one smote her right aft abreast the 
gun room on the port side, and in a moment it became ap- 
parent that she was no longer answering her helm. Her 
rudder was jammed but her shafts and propellers were 
intact. She continued to race through the water but she was 
no longer under control she could do no more torpedo 
dodging. The next again caught her on the same side aft and 
almost in the same instant she was struck abreast the port 
engine room and on the starboard side of E boiler room. 
Before even the first results of this bombardment could be 
seen or felt, before the upflung water had ceased to rain down 
on the decks, almost before the echoes of the explosions 
had died away Tennant knew that the ship had had more 
than she could stand. He knew the ship intimately he 
knew precisely what she could do and what she could not 
do, what she could take and what she could not. A less 
resolute commander, loving his ship and hoping against hope 
that she might survive, could well have wasted precious sec- 
onds and minutes waiting for the full effect of the torpedo 
damage to be seen. The ship was still at speed, her guns 
were still blazing for all the eye could tell she might have, 
by some mysterious dispensation, remained whole below the 
waterline. Tennant knew that it could not be so: he knew 
also that precious lives depended on the speed with which 
men could get up from below and get clear of the ship before 
she sank. Every second the decision was put off would waste 
some of those lives. He did not put the decision off. He 
ordered stations to abandon ship. His Commander J. W. C. 
Dendy, in fact, is sure that he issued the order before the 



258 BERNARD ASH 

last torpedoes actually struck home: even as he did so, and 
as the first men came pouring up on deck, the ship, still 
forging furiously ahead, began to list to port and settle by 
the stern. 

When the ship had a 30 degree list to port, I looked 
over the starboard side of the Bridge and saw the 
Commander and two or three hundred men collecting 
on the starboard side. I never saw the slightest sign of 
panic or ill discipline. I told them from the Bridge 
how well they had fought the ship and wished them 
good luck. The ship hung for at least a minute and a half 
to two minutes with a list of about 60 degrees or 70 
degrees to port and then rolled over at 12:33. 

The factual, restrained phrasing of Tennant's report con- 
veys no picture of the fine ship's end. Listing more and more 
to port and at the same time settling further and further by 
her stern she continued to drive on through the water, her 
speed only diminished by the greater resistance of her sink- 
ing hull. Lower and lower she sank and the list increased, 
then the starboard screws, still revolving madly, were out 
of the water: so she remained for a little, then she turned 
turtle and sank rapidly by the stern. Only the survivors were 
left, flotsam on the face of the water the survivors and a 
great spreading stain of oil. 

Within minutes of her disappearance, another wave of 
high-level bombers came over but found that their target 
was no longer afloat. Prince of Wales opened up at them 
with her three remaining 5.25$, S-i, S-2, and P-i, and the 
pom-pom: they loosed their bombs at her in default of the 
more vulnerable target coolly and accurately as all the 
bombs had been loosed. These bombs straddled the ship, 
though they could not pierce the armoured deck or do her 
any more serious damage than she had already suffered, but 
they caused casualties and superficial damage, and added to 
the confusion on the ship's decks. Still afloat, the ship was 
now nonetheless like a punch-drunk boxer: she could not yet 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 259 

die but she could no longer defend herself, and there was 
nothing that could be done for her. The Express came 
alongside the quarter-deck on the starboard side and Captain 
Leach ordered all wounded to be transferred to her and all 
men no longer required to work his ship to pass over. Very 
shortly afterwards he gave the order to abandon ship. The 
destroyer hung on courageously alongside the sinking hulk, 
a situation of great danger, while men poured across on to 
her decks. Just as Tennant's quickness in ordering his men 
up from below saved hundreds of lives on the Repulse, so 
the tenacity and skilful handling of the Express saved hun- 
dreds of lives from the Prince of Wales. She continued to 
hang on while the battleship's list increased further and 
further until it became suicidal to remain alongside an 
instant longer. Indeed, at the very moment she went astern 
to get clear, the bilge keel of the dying ship rose up beneath 
her and all but capsized her. Then at last, the long agony 
over, Prince of Wdes heeled over quickly to port and sank 
at about 1:20 P.M. 

It was at this very moment that the squadron of Brewster 
Buffaloes which had taken off from Kallang six minutes after 
the receipt of Captain Tennant's air attack signal, arrived 
over the scene. There was not a single Japanese aircraft in 
the sky: on the sea were three destroyers, one battleship 
sinking, masses of survivors in the water, and the great ugly 
stain of oil creeping wider and wider. 

One of the first people to move when the order to abandon 
ship was given aboard Repulse was her Commander: he had 
work to do. For the whole of the action he had been 
incarcerated in the tiny compartment in the lower conning 
tower on the Captain's strict orders to stay there and not go 
chasing about with his damage control parties. "If I get 
knocked out/' he had said, "I want you there to take over/' 
He had heard the torpedoes strike but, of course, had seen 
nothing: he, too, knew just how much the ship would stand. 
He got himself out up the "tube" and emerged on to the 



260 BERNARD ASH 

upper deck where the several hundred men mentioned by 
Tennant in his report were collecting. They saw the Captain 
come to the wing of the bridge: he waved them over the side, 
and they went. The ship was moving fast and many of them 
were buffeted as they went in. Commander Dendy, like so 
many of the others, heard the screws race by, found the 
water green and clear and not unpleasant. When he came to 
the surface the ship was already going: the quarter deck was 
awash. An Australian midshipman, who had strapped him- 
self to an Oerlikon was still firing madly at anything within 
sight and so firing, went down with the ship. As she turned 
turtle the forward starboard triple Slinger Wood's old gun 
came clean out of its mounting and dropped down the fun- 
nel. And as she turned over and sank, the great rents made 
by the torpedoes in her hull were clearly to be seen. 

From the air defence position, Warrant Officer Page 
jumped with the wounded lookout, Boy McDonald, in his 
arms: he never survived although McDonald was picked up. 
Lieutenant Parker, diving from the same place, got cattght 
in some rigging and crashed on to the guard rails eighty feet 
below. In spite of his broken ribs and other injuries, Lieu- 
tenant Giff ord managed to get himself somehow or other on 
deck, but was never seen again. Stoker Dick, who was also 
in the sick-bay nursing his bandaged head, had counted nine 
thuds and thought he felt the ship start to lay over. Then 
came Tennant's voice over the loudspeakers. 

''Abandon ship," it said, "and may God be with you." 
All the casualties who were able to move immediately 
started to get themselves up on deck as best they could. One 
man had lost a leg and the doctor had given him a shot of 
morphia. He was unconscious and had no hope of survival: 
they left him there to drown in a merciful stupor. They got 
as far as the recreation space, helping each other as well as 
they might, while the list of the ship increased. Things were 
beginning to slide about all over the place, and they had the 
greatest difficulty in preventing themselves sliding about 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 261 

with them. The door which led from the recreation space to 
the upper deck was jammed by the list, and momentarily 
there was panic among the wounded men; but one fellow 
kept his head, opened the porthole, got through and heaved 
himself on to the deck above him. Dick followed him, and 
others came after. He stood on the deck, watching men going 
over the side in all directions and then he himself almost 
panicked, for he discovered he had left his life-jacket behind. 
Then he got hold of himself and carefully slid down the side 
on to the torpedo blister. From there he plopped into the 
water and swam away. He found himself near a writer who 
had a life-belt and was hugging books in his arms. Dick (who 
never had much respect for books any way) told him he had 
better dump them because they were no good: he needed no 
second telling. Having lightened himself in this way he was 
able to support Dick for a little while he had a rest. Then he 
swam round again and bumped into a boat, just awash. It 
was at this moment that the high-level bombers came over 
and he and everyone else who saw them thought they were 
in for a machine-gunning in the water, but the planes passed 
over them. There is no mystery about this, nor was it any 
chivalry on the part of the Japanese which caused them to 
spare these men. They were at the limit of their endurance 
they only had enough fuel to unload their bombs and get 
back to their base. This fact undoubtedly saved a lot of the 
ship's men from the grisly end which befell so many survi- 
vors of so many ships shot cold-bloodedly in the water with- 
out a shred of defence. 

Dick clung to his boat for about three quarters of an hour. 
It enabled him to keep his head above the water and so avoid 
the choking death which the black, spreading oil fuel 
brought to so many of his shipmates. Then Electra came up, 
threw ropes over her side. He got hold of a rope and three 
men promptly got hold of him; so he let go of the rope, 
swam to a Jacob's ladder, put his foot through a rung and 
was pulled up, Jacob's ladder and all. 



262 BERNARD ASH 

"I was then sick," he wrote later, setting down his experi- 
ences. 

He was lucky. All around him men were retching them- 
selves to pieces with the corruption and corrosion of the fuel 
oil black-faced, red-eyed caricatures bereft of individuality 
or human dignity. The sea was dotted with lifeless figures 
still supported by their life-jacketsmen who had suc- 
cumbed to the corroding poison of the oil before the de- 
stroyers could pick them up. 

Scouse Garner's gun, T-3, had lost communication before 
the order came for stations for abandoning ship: Corporal 
McKillen, the captain of the gun, was firing in local control. 
They heard the torpedoes battering one after the other into 
the hull and the water thrown up by the explosions deluged 
them, pounding them, and soaking them to the skin. They 
felt, rather than saw, her settle slightly, with a trace of list 
to port; but she was still under way, and they went on firing. 
Then, quite suddenly, the quarter deck was awash and they 
saw men in the water as the ship swept by. The list Became 
alarming. Petty Officer Harris, a gunnery instructor, shouted 
to them to get over the side. They blew their lifebelts up, 
shook hands all round, and wasted no more time. In front of 
Garner, as he climbed over the guard-rail, was a lad called 
Alf Hughes from Wigan, who had joined up with him and 
served with him right through: they paused long enough to 
wish each other luck. 

Garner's intention had been to get to the armoured belt, 
and so down to the torpedo blisters and into the sea in the 
most convenient manner with everything under control; but 
he hadn't bargained (who would?) for the fact that the 
ship's sides were coated thick with fuel oil while he himself, 
in common with most of his mates, was still soaked from 
the torpedo spray. So once he started to slide, he could not 
stop himself, and went in just forward of 8-3 HA gun like 
the Big Dipper. As he went down, he heard the thunder of 
the screws grow to a crescendo as they raced by, was buffeted, 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 263 

and all but drawn into them: but they passed and the 
thunder died, and when he broke surface he was already a 
good thirty yards astern of the ship. Only the top of Y Turret 
was visible; the bows were already rearing up and she was 
already beginning to turn turtle at the same time. She was 
still going away from him swiftly and he saw he need no 
longer fear being sucked down with her; so he trod water and 
watched her go, spellbound and awestricken. For a few mo- 
ments she seemed to stand vertical, her superstructure level 
with the water. Then suddenly she started to slide, and in ten 
seconds there was nothing but a bubbling of water and 
wreckagemen, Carley floats, and boats everywhere, with 
the menace of the oil already welling up and spreading 
among them. It was at this moment that the last flight of 
bombers came over. He saw men shake their fists at them 
and curse them for what they had done to their ship. 

For Garner, in common with so many other survivors, his 
time in the water has telescoped in memory in exactly the 
same way as the action which had preceded it. As he remem- 
bers things, it was immediately after the ship had gone down, 
and the last of the bombers gone over, that he and those 
about him looked round for the Prince of Wales and found 
her gone. In fact he had already been in the water three 
quarters of an hour by then. Similarly, it was at least another 
hour, though it seemed like no time, before the circling de- 
stroyers came within easy swimming distance: he struck out 
for the nearest one, keeping his mouth shut against the fuel 
oil all around him, and thought he was doing pretty well 
until a man he knew called Lennie Brighton went past him 
it seemed, like a speedboat pausing long enough to ex- 
change greetings before they went their ways. He missed the 
circling Electra once, caught her scrambling nets the second 
time round, and was dragged aboard in pretty good shape, 
apart from being black as a Kentucky minstrel from head to 
foot, and as unrecognisable to his friends as they were to 
him. He blessed the many hours he had spent in Lodge Lane 



264 BERNARD ASH 

Baths, away back in Liverpool, learning to swim and to keep 
his mouth shut Hours were never better spent. 

The realisation that the ship was sinking also came slowly 
to Slinger Wood and the gun's crew of the after pom-pom. 
They felt the ship lift and shudder to the torpedoes, were 
deluged with water like everyone else above deck but thfe 
familiar vibration of the engines continued and she was still 
going full ahead. The gun numbers continued replacing the 
used belts of ammunition on the trays; then suddenly the 
guns were becoming unmanageable, the weight of ammuni- 
tion already on the trays was sliding down and they got the 
locking bars on just in time to stop everything tumbling off 
on to the deck. In the same instant came the Captain's voice 
through the loudspeakers, ordering all hands on deck and 
wishing them Godspeed. It was a shock. Their minds refused 
to believe that the ship was sinking. It was quite impossible 
that the ship should sink. 

But there was no doubt about it. The port gunwales were 
already awash. 

"Come on, Slinger/' said Leading Seaman Slatter, aban- 
doning his beloved guns, "Let's work our way on to the star- 
board side. Everyone else is." 

Everyone else was, indeed, but something kept telling 
Slinger not to he thought the best thing was to get into the 
water as quickly as possible and swim clear of the suction of 
the ship when she went down. He didn't realise that an ever 
greater danger than the suction was the still-turning pro- 
pellers. He slid down the gun deck and never stopped at the 
guard rails. Normally they were about thirty feet above the 
water-line, but now the water was nearly up to them. The 
next moment, instead of finding himself in the sea and clear 
of the ship, he found himself being forced inside T-3 gun- 
shield by a trick eddy of the water, churning round the 
projections of the still-moving ship. For a moment he 
thought all was up with him the water was growing darker, 
his lungs were bursting. With a desperate clutch he got his 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 265 

hands on the top of the gun-shield and with an equally 
desperate effort heaved himself clear. The moment he broke 
surface he seemed to get into the reverse half of the eddy, 
and was borne rapidly away from the ship. 

Twenty yards from him, he saw a familiar landmark, the 
fog-buoy of the Tribal class destroyer Matabele. It had got 
caught in Repulse's paravanes more than twelve months be- 
fore and had adorned the after deck ever since. Now it 
floated, justifying its existence: Slinger made for it and reach- 
ing it, turned to look at the Repulse. She was already com- 
pletely on her side and the propellers were churning a 
fountain of water and oil a good fifty feet into the air. There 
were heads drifting down the port side, the heads of men 
apparently powerless to save themselves from being sucked 
into the blades. But the churning ceased as the ship turned 
completely over: then her stern was under, her bows high 
in the air, she was sliding, sliding, gone . . . 

The oil was all around the fog-buoy now and through it 
there came two men helping a third, a non-swimmer- 
recognisable as a stoker by the badge on his overalls but 
apart from that black and anonymous like the rest of them. 
Others arrived and the fog-buoy began to get a little over- 
crowded. Vampire was picking up survivors, but she was still 
quite some way away; nearer at hand, however, the captain's 
barge was floating, empty, and Slinger suggested that the 
swimmers should make for it, leaving the fog-buoy to the 
others. 

So they set off again through the thick, treacly oil that lay 
like a carpet on the water, and as they neared the barge a 
cheer went up. Someone had spotted the Captain, just climb- 
ing aboard Vampire; and at that, as though by some sort of 
signal, all those around started singing "Roll out the Barrel" 
with all the heart and lungs they had left to them. It was 
lunatic, it was crazy as men opened their mouths to sing, 
they swallowed the deadly oil, unable to help themselves 
yet it was lunatic and crazy enough to give just a few yards' 



266 BERNARD ASH 

more endurance to men who could endure no longer, and 
so if lives were lost by it, an equal number were probably 
saved. 

Slinger and Leading Seaman Hodson reached the barge 
at the same time, with still sufficient strength left to them to 
heave themselves and each other aboard. For a little they 
rested, recovering themselvesthen lying flat in the bows, 
where the gunwale was about three feet above the water, they 
contrived to give a hand up to other swimmers as they 
struggled the last few yards to the boat. All alike were filthy, 
black, and unrecognisable with the oil. Most were done in 
and able to do nothing but lay on the boat, retching with the 
oil they had swallowed. P. O. Monaghan alone was able to 
help Wood and Hodson with their work of rescue. Then a 
baldy head came alongside: its owner was in a pretty bad 
way, stripped to the waist and covered with oil. They grabbed 
his hands but he kept slipping from their grasp he didn't 
seem able to help himself. 

"You've got to try, pal," they urged him. "We're about 
buggered ourselves." 

The bald-head just gasped and held on. 

Now, when the order to abandon ship had been given, the 
journalist Gallagher discovered that he had overlooked one 
important matter he could not swim. Also, he was a portly 
type and, as is the way with journalists, not over-fit. How- 
ever, it was a case of drowning if he stayed or drowning if he 
went so he went. Either in bravado or playing for time (he 
never knew which himself) he paused on the torpedo blister 
to light one of the last two cigarettes in his case and offer the 
other one to a rating beside him. Then, making sure his pre- 
cious notebooks were tucked well into the pockets of his 
shorts, he jumped. For him, too, accustomed though he was 
to noting things accurately, time telescoped the Repulse 
and the Prince of Wales seemed to disappear almost together. 
He felt very lonely after the ships had gone and being a non- 
swimmer, was defenceless against the oil: his eyes burned 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 267 

with it, it was in his mouth, his nostrils and in his hair. 
He joined three other men holding on to a round lifebelt, 
all as black as himself but presently lost them again and was 
once more alone for a spell and in a panic amid the oil. He 
bumped into a paravane and again became one of a quartet 
but they upset that also, trying to push it along, and it was in 
his struggles after this that he came up with the boat in 
which Wood, Hodson, and Monaghan were doing their 
best to help survivors out of the sea. He hung on to a thin 
wire rope at its bows, too weak to help himself and too 
heavy for the rescuers. 

He might have hung there foreveror at least until he 
was too weak to hang any longer but Petty Officer Mona- 
ghan dived in and managed to give him a boost up from 
below: between that and the pulling of Slinger and Hodson 
this particular piece of human salvage was got aboard and 
dumped on the deck. By now he looked to his rescuers to 
be in a very sorry state indeed, for with all the oil and sea- 
water he had swallowed his belly was swollen like a balloon 
and his khaki shorts seemed to be cutting him in half. 
Slinger undid them, pulled them off and was about to throw 
them back into the sea while his mates attempted to squeeze 
some of the water out of the big man, when Gallagher 
stopped him. 

'Take the books out of my pocket first/' he croaked, "and 
the fountain pen. Take my watch off too. You can have the 
watch and the pen/' he added, "but take my notebooks to 
the news office as soon as you get ashore/' 

"Who are you, mate?" asked Slinger. 

"Gallagher of the Express," said the journalist 

Slinger remembered his whispered conversation of two 
nights before with Bob Bloham and thought it funny that 
this bloated and unlikely figure could have been mistaken for 
Hughie Gallagher, the Scottish International footballer. 
Bob, however, wasn't there to share the joke. 

"Never mind, mate/' he said to Gallagher, "you'll soon 



268 BERNARD ASH 

be playing at Wembley again/' but Gallagher couldn't see 
the joke because he didn't know about it and was probably 
past appreciating jokes anyway. 

Soon after this Vampire came alongside and willing hands 
helped them up the scrambling nets. They got Gallagher 
and those who could no longer help themselves along to the 
sick-bay, already crammed with the black, still figures of 
exhausted men reeking of the loathsome fuel oil, then made 
their way back to the upper deck to see what was still going 
on and what they could do. No doubt in fact they did the 
same thing that Cain saw so many of the Repulse's people 
do aboard Electra: almost instinctively, he says, they seemed 
to make their way towards what stations were familiar to 
them, to give a hand there while the ship's own ratings were 
busy pulling their comrades out of the sea. It was yet an- 
other test of the training and cohesion of a good ship's 
company. Gallagher's watch was still going: it is still going 
eighteen years later and is on Slinger Wood's wrist at the 
moment this story is being written. It showed ten to two 
an hour and a quarter after Repulse had gone down and half 
an hour after the final plunge of the Prince of Wales. Vam- 
pire was still circling slowly, searching for further survivors, 
with a wary lookout for submarines and more aircraft attack. 
But there seemed to be little life left in any of the bodies 
that were still floating on the water. The oil had done for 
them. They were corpses, simply kept afloat by the air in 
their lifebelts. They floated thus on every side, dark protuber- 
ances on the stained surface of the sea. 

Slowly there gathered together groups of friends that had 
survived, messmates recognising each other by peering 
intently under the black camouflage, and hazarding a name. 
They talked of friends they would see no more, of what their 
families would be thinking at home, and how soon they 
would be able to let them know they had survived, as the 
destroyers joined up and turned at full speed for Singapore, 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 269 

burdened with the flotsam of what had been the companies 
of two fine ships. 

Of Repulse's complement of 1 309 officers and men, 796 
survived; 1285 of the Prince of Wales's complement of 1612 
were rescued: neither Admiral Sir Tom Phillips nor Captain 
Leach were among them. Her senior surviving officer was 
Lieutenant-Commander Skipwith; Captain Tennant and his 
second-in-command, Commander Dendy, found themselves 
the two senior survivors of Force Z. Gallagher has suggested 
that the Repulse's longer casualty list is due to the fact that 
she was in action to the end, and that the order to abandon 
ship did not reach many men in time. This is probably in- 
correct: there is ample evidence that in the compartments 
aft where communication had been lost, word was passed 
very rapidly and most who were not already casualties were 
able to get clear. But many men did lose their lives in 
abandoning ship sucked down with her, battered and drawn 
into the screws and in similar ways still more lost their lives 
in the water not through the exposure of their long wait as 
they would have done in northern seas, but because of the 
oil that crept over them and poisoned them as they floated 
or struggled in the water. The oil probably accounted for 
more casualties than anything else. 

The long agony of the Prince of Wales was the main 
thing that made her casualty list smaller. A very large number 
of men, indeed, had been able to get over on to the Express 
while the destroyer courageously hung alongside the sinking 
battleship's quarter-deck: these never had to face the hazards 
of the sea or the fuel oil at all. Those who did go into the 
sea were picked up much more quickly from the very fact 
that there were fewer of them, and because the ship was only 
steaming very slowly as they went over the side. They were 
scattered over nothing like so wide an area as the survivors 
of the Repulse. The proportion of survivors who lost their 
lives in the oil was very much less. 

Those who went overside from the Prince of Wales tell 



270 BERNARD ASH 

very much the same sort of story in general terms as those who 
did from the Repulse Seddon, Tudor and Boy Williams 
were all among them and there comes a point even in the 
war at sea when repetition becomes monotonous. Beyond all 
doubt there was much more confusion. Tudor has a general 
impression of casualities lying around everywhere when h 
emerged from his 5.25 after the power failed was quite sure 
the Japanese were suicide-bombing the ship. He stepped over 
one prostrate man to find it was his mate Joe Dempsey: 

"For Christ's sake, Joe, get to the floats/' he said, but Joe 
did not reply, and at that moment the blast of another 
explosion sent Alf spinning along the deck: this must have 
been in the one high-level bombing attack the Prince of 
Wales suffered after the high-level bombers' special target, 
the Repulse, had sunk. 

Williams has a dim and flickering memory of an officer 
with a pistol ordering men over the side some of the lads, 
he thinks, said it was the Commander. His more abiding 
memory is of the dreadful cries and screams of the men 
trapped below coming up through the quarter-deck ventila- 
tors: their agony was the longer for the time it took the ship 
to sink. Few of the survivors who were in that part of the 
ship during the sinking find those sounds and the memory 
of them easy to banish. 

Perhaps one of the most publicised descriptions of the 
men of the two ships in the water is contained in a report 
by Flight-Lieutenant Vigors, commanding the Brewster 
Buffaloes that took off from Kallang at 12:15 and arrived 
just in time to see the Prince of Wales sinking. It is worth 
quoting in full: 

I had the privilege to be the first aircraft to reach the 
crews of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse after 
they had been sunk. 1 say the privilege, for during the 
next hour while I flew around low over them, I wit- 
nessed a show of that indomitable spirit for which the 
Royal Navy is so famous. I have seen a show of spirit 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 2JI 

in this war over Dunkirk, during the "Battle of Britain" 
and in the London night raids, but never before have I 
seen anything comparable with what I saw yesterday. I 
passed over thousands who had been through an ordeal 
the greatness of which they alone can understand, for 
it is impossible to pass on one's feelings in disaster to 
others. 

Even to an eye so inexperienced as mine, it was 
obvious that the three destroyers were going to take 
hours to pick up those hundreds of men clinging to 
bits of wreckage, and swimming around in the filthy 
oily water. Above all this, the threat of another bombing 
and machine-gun attack was imminent. Every one of 
those men must have realised that. Yet as I flew around, 
every man waved and put his thumb up as I flew over 
him. 

After an hour, lack of petrol forced me to leave, but 
during that hour I had seen many men in dire danger 
waving, cheering and joking as if they were holiday- 
makers at Brighton waving at a low flying aircraft. 
It shook me for here was something above human 
nature. I take off my hat to them, for in them I saw the 
spirit which wins wars. 

I apologise for taking up your valuable time, but I 
thought you should know of the incredible conduct 
of your men. 

Now Flight-Lieutenant Vigors was no raw recruit as he 
himself pointed out he had seen service in the Battle of 
Britain and the London blitz but nonetheless he allowed 
his emotions to run away with him and his emotions led 
him into some serious mistakes. The most important of these 
is that while he flew around admiring the men who were 
waving and putting up their thumbs, the men were, in fact, 
shaking their fists at the aircraft which had arrived too late. 
Boy Williams, indeed, says that when the fighters first arrived 
and flew around with their pilots waving, the men in the 
water waved back in sheer relief that they were not Japanese 
come to machine-gun thembut the waving soon changed 



272 BERNARD ASH 

to fist-shaking. It was not the fault of Vigors nor of any of 
the other pilots that they arrived too late any more than it 
was their fault that they had Brewster Buffaloes instead of 
Spitfires. In the end the men in the water would admit, in all 
fairness, that all this wasn't the pilots' fault. But just now 
they had had their ships sunk under them by planes whicK 
had had the sky to themselves: they had seen their comrades 
die and on one of the ships heard the screams of them dying 
without being able to help them. And the niceties of just 
who was to blame for the planes not being there in time 
were of no particular interest to them. 

Of course, men made the best of things in the water as 
long, that is, as they had more air than water in their lungs, 
as long as they had strength in their limbs, as long as the 
miseries of the poisonous fuel oil were not making them 
want to die anyway. Of course, there were crazy incidents, 
like Slinger Wood and the rest bawling out "Roll Out the 
Barrel" with their mouths full of water and oil. What else 
could they do? But few of them would have expected to see 
their efforts at self-preservation trumpeted forth in such 
emotional and highly-coloured fashion as in Vigors' report 
still less handed down to history in this fashion, because 
that is what inevitably happened. There was never a service 
document calculated to have a better appeal to the sob- 
writers. It was a heaven-sent gift for sob-writers. Poor Vigors 
didn't intend it to be, but it was. And when the accounts of 
the action were eventually published, the sob-writers gave 
the Vigors story pride of place. There were many other 
things about the action more interesting and important, 
many other things which the survivors themselves would 
sooner have seen earn the prominence of black type. There 
are all sorts of morals to it; and perhaps one of them is that 
even under the stress of the kind of emotion Vigors was 
understandably feeling, service reports are, on the whole, best 
couched in the restrained language which is more usual for 
them. 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 273 

The wreck of the Prince of Wdes was located by H.M.S. 
Defender on April 23, 1954. Nearby but not identified 
anonymous even in death in the presence of the Glamour 
Shiplies the Repulse. May the bones of both of them lie 
quietly in their sea change; for this is the grave of the capital 
ship the whole rise, supremacy, decline and fall of which 
had occupied a space of time not very much greater than the 
active life of Nelson's Victory, already fifty years old when 
she fought at Trafalgar. Until well past the days of the 
Crimea, navies had patrolled the seas with steam-driven 
ships of the line. In the eighteen sixties came the first turret 
ships and from the dockyards of the Western Powers began 
to emerge the strange and abominable shapes of monsters 
whose very ugliness thrilled the landsman but revolted the 
seaman often with good cause. These slab-sided, top-heavy 
gun platforms, low in freeboard and cranky in habit were 
many a time a menace not merely to their country's foes, 
but also to those who sailed in them, such as the notorious 
Captain, which capsized off Finisterre in no more than a 
modest storm. But even as armour thickened, as guns in- 
creased in power, range and weight, the needs of the sea 
asserted themselves and the capital ship became a ship 

again a ship of a very different sort, indeed, from the old 

wooden walls, a new conception of a ship, but nonetheless a 
ship that could become a new naval tradition, a new em- 
bodiment of sea power. It grew in size; it became the 
dreadnought, the super-dreadnought. It became something 
only the greatest of powers could afford to build and main- 
tain, and so it became something over the building of which 
great powers competed, both in numbers and in size: this 
accelerated its development enormously. It also became the 
badge, the symbol, and the instrument of Western imperial- 
ism's domination of the oceans and continents of the world: 
its decline and fall were associated in many complex ways 
with the rise of the factors which undermined that imperial- 
ism. The pattern of its fate was being woven before it 



274 BERNARD ASH 

reached its full development: before it achieved either the 
beauty of the Repulse at speed or the awesome majesty of 
the Prince of Wdes or the Bismarck, the capital ship was 
decadent. Radio robbed it of its ability to surprise and over- 
whelm, the submarine of its invulnerability and its freedom 
to operate unhampered, without an escort screen. The air- 
plane menaced it first as a spotter, then as a bomber of not 
very much account against horizontal armour and finally as a 
torpedo-bomber. It began to be an integral part of naval 
strategy and tactics and to play an increasing part in the 
harrying and sinking of capital ships, until in the Bismarck 
action its ability to cripple and pin down for destruction the 
strongest ships great powers could produce was clearly 
demonstrated. Still no capital ship had been sunk by aircraft 
action alone, and singularly few people appear even to have 
supposed that capital ships could be sunk by aircraft action 
alone. To too many people- alas, to Churchill himself they 
continued to be a mystical symbol of sea power long after 
their capacity for maintaining sea power had vanished. Why, 
heaven alone knows: all the forewarning, all the evidence 
was there, it wanted only an open mind and the application 
of a little logic to appreciate it. 

Now, not merely H.M.S. Anonymous, the elderly battle- 
cruiser, but H.M.S. Unsinkable herself, lay at the bottom 
of the Gulf of Siam, put there by aircraft-launched torpedoes 
and aircraft-launched torpedoes alone. Doom hung over the 
capital ship. The Japanese Navy's own two greatest ships 
were in turn to be sunk by air attack before their war was 
over. In the wake of the torpedo-bomber were to come the 
atom-bomb, the hydrogen bomb, new instruments of power 
infinitely smaller in size, incomparably greater in destruction 
than the fifteen- and sixteen-inch gun turrets which had once 
seemed like the organ-pipes of hell. Capital ships would see 
their second world war out, diminished in their status as 
weapons. They would keep the seas for a little after that, and 
then their power and their glory would be gone from the face 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 275 

of the oceans. Their passing would leave the world poorer 
as it is always poorer when things die that stir human hearts 
and emotionsbut the better, perhaps, for the fact that some 
of the darker sides of the imperial majesty they represented 
had gone as well. Only if the world ceased to breed the kind 
of men who manned ships like the Repulse and the Prince 
of Wales, would the world really be a worse place than it 
had been before; and there is no evidence of that happening. 



14 



THERE WAS YET A LITTLE RESPITE BEFORE THE NEWS OF THE 

sinking of the ships broke upon a Britain which had had to 
stand up to so many grievous reverses and endure so many 
bitter humiliations in the course of that year the almost 
unbelievably sinister year 1941. It had not yet even broken 
upon Singapore or on Mr. Duff -Cooper, who that very morn- 
ing had just received the news for which he had been longing. 
It was a telegram informing him that he had been appointed 
Resident Cabinet Minister at Singapore for Far Eastern 
Affairs, and authorising him to form a War Council. He had 
already seen the Governor and arranged with him to hold the 
first meeting of his Council at 5:30 that evening: he then 
drove across to the naval base feeling that he was back in 
the world of great affairs and no longer a tourist. He walked 
into the office of Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, Commander- 
in-Chief, Far East. 

"I have some news for you/' he said to Sir Robert, and 
told him. 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 277 

"I have also something to tell you," was the reply. "The 
Prince of Wales and the Repulse have been sunk/' 

They agreed that Duff-Cooper should broadcast the news 
that evening. 

Poor Duff-Cooper! He was to have a few brief weeks of 
power in this crumbling outpost that had once been the hub 
of Far Eastern affairs; then, as the Far Eastern empire which 
he had been appointed to govern, folded up on every side, 
he was to find himself a man without a job once more. He 
had tried so hard, he had had such great hopes. It is im- 
possible even in the midst of stark and overwhelming 
tragedy to resist a sardonic smile at the way in which the 
relentless march of titanic events constantly outran the little 
man's struggle to keep up with them. 

But there was nothing funny about the awakening of Mr. 
Churchill to the news. There is not even room for the most 
sardonic of smiles, for here was tragedy without relief. He 
has told us the story himself. He had gone to sleep, it will 
be remembered, lulled by the magnificent vision of the 
Repulse and the Prince of Wales steaming triumphantly 
across the Pacific to cement the Anglo-American alliance 
forever. He had awakened refreshed and was opening his 
boxes in bed, according to his habit, when the bedside tele- 
phone rang. It was the First Sea Lord. His voice sounded 
odd. There was a sort of cough and a gulp, and at first 
Churchill could not hear him quite clearly. 

"Prime Minister/' he said, "I have to report to you that 
the Prince of Wales and Repulse have both been sunk by 

the Japanese we think by aircraft. Tom Phillips is 

drowned." 

"Are you sure it's true?" demanded Churchill. 

"There's no doubt at all," was the answer. 

Churchill put the telephone down, glad to be alone at this 
moment. As he turned and twisted in bed, the full horror 
of the news sank in on him. Who among his bitterest 
enemies, his most unrelenting detractors, could grudge him 



278 BERNARD ASH 

a mite of sympathy just at this moment? It was not merely 
that the ships were lost, that the Japanese were indisputable 
masters of the eastern seas, that Malaya was doomed, Singa- 
pore as good as finished, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, New 
Guinea, Australia in peril. It was not that the Prince of Wales 
and the Repulse would never sail gloriously majestic into 
some west coast American port, White Ensigns fluttering 
at their jack-staffs. It was not that Tom Phillips, in whom 
he had placed so much trust, was gone. It was not that once 
more he must stand in the House and deal yet another blow 
at the long-suff ering people who looked to him as their leader. 
It was more. It was that for all this and for whatever other 
consequences the sinking of the ships might have, he was 
personally responsible. 

Soon after eleven he went down to the House. He knew 
he must break the news to the Commons himself. It is to 
his credit that he did not attempt to shirk whatever reckoning 
there might be. 

"The House," he writes, "was very silent and seemed to 
hold its judgment in suspense. I did not seek or expect more." 

It was a bewildered and bitter public upon whom the 
tidings broke, and the little information about the sinking 
of the ships that could be allowed to pass through the sieve 
of wartime security did little to counter the bewilderment 
or assuage the bitterness. Once more the information services 
bungled the job and once more the "naval correspondents" 
who had never been nearer to a ship than the receiving end 
of a pair of binoculars launched their flights of fancy. So 
plausible were some of these and so well were they believed, 
that we even find them being interpolated into news stories 
summarising the true story of the sinking of the ships, when 
the official dispatches were at last published several years 
after the end of the war. 

One of the most persistent and most persistently revived 
of these is that the Repulse and the Prince of Wales were 
sent to Singapore "because they were the only two ships 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 279 

available that could get there in time." It is amazing how 
deeply this particular story was inculcated and how hard it 
has died: from some forgotten source and on some unim- 
peachable authority, the writer of this very book discovered 
it was firmly embedded in the wartime jumble at the back 
of his mind. One almost is driven to suspect that the in- 
formation services, so far from bungling or falling down on 
the job, had found means of implanting in the minds of the 
nation at large a story which would forestall any talk or 
thought about blunders, except that one knows that such an 
operation would have been far beyond both their intelligence 
and their skill. 

The only two ships available that could get there in time 
... It doesn't hold water. It is grossly and wholly irrelevant. 
In time for what? No-one knew what was going to happen. 
Not one Allied statesman, with the possible exception of 
Field-Marshal Smuts, had the ghost of an idea that Japan 
would enter so early and so decisively into the war still less 
that her equipment was so good or her service units so well 
practised in its use. Roosevelt, right up to the last moment 
when those ships and troop movements were both past con- 
cealment and past forestalling, had been certain and sure of 
the three months of negotiation left to him. Churchill, up to 
the very day when the news of Pearl Harbour broke, was 
unshakeably convinced that Japan would not attack the 
Allied powers, that it would be suicidal for her if she did. 
Smuts had talked of possible disasters: "I told your little 
Admiral/' he said to Captain Dendy in South Africa later, 
"to go there and hide himself, not to go rushing about." But 
did even he foresee anything so sudden or so complete? 

How, then, could the Repulse and the Prince of Wales 
have been sent because they were the only ships available 
that could get there in time for something no-one supposed 
was going to happen? In a situation where it was believed 
that the Japanese were going to allow us to get on with our 
war until we had smashed the western end of the Axis and 



280 BERNARD ASH 

were able to deal with the eastern end in our own good time, 
why rush ships? 

The Foreign Office indeed had wanted ships not further 
to> forestall any known movements on the part of the Japanese 
but to "steady" a situation which they read against the back- 
ground of their Victorian conception of power in the Far 
East. Singapore had wanted ships not to stave off disaster 
from its very doorstep but to perfect the impregnable 
defences which would keep war far, far away from it for all 
time. No-one had wanted ships because they had any con- 
viction that the Japanese were ready and poised for attack. 
In assessing the blunders that were made and the responsi- 
bility of those who made them, we must underline first the 
folly and the failure of both those who persisted in opinions 
that were not supported by any vestige of fact and those who 
should have supplied the facts that might have changed these 
opinions. The British and American intelligence services had 
both fallen down on the job. Neither had any excuse for 
falling down, for the Japanese war ciphers had been in 
American hands for a year without the slightest use being 
made of them. Even without them is it conceivable that the 
very existence of aircraft of the character and quality of the 
Mitsubishi bombers, or the efficiency of the torpedoes with 
which they were aimed, should have remained such a closed 
book that there was no trace of them in the aircraft recogni- 
tion manuals nor any information issued to the services at 
all? Or was it part of the blunder of failing to take the Japa- 
nese seriously that no attempt was even made to secure in- 
formation about their equipment? 

Did Phillips blunder? Did he try to be a hero, visualise 
himself as the architect of a lightning naval victory that 
would have sent his name down to the history books with 
all the glory of a Nelson? So much of what was rumoured 
at the time and so much of what had been written since 
suggests, by implication, that he led his ships out on a vain- 
glorious adventure which could in theory have been a spec- 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 281 

tacular success but was in fact bound to be a disastrous 
failure. Phillips did none of these things. Enough has already 
been said to make it clear that he took the only decision 
which the British naval commander in that place could have 
taken at that time. His decisions were made for him not by 
any dreams of sudden glory but by the march of circum- 
stances in the Far East. Once the ships were at Singapore 
he had no option but to employ them as he did. It cannot 
be repeated too often that it was not he alone who saw the 
conclusions to which he was forced that all the senior naval 
officers on the spot supported him, that the Admiralty sup- 
ported him after the event and has supported him ever since. 
He took calculated risks and when the risks became too great 
he withdrew, but it was then too late. He made no blunders, 
his subordinate commanders made no blunders, the men 
who fought the two ships made no blunders not even the 
men of the Prince of Wales in the final overwhelming of 
their ship, the disintegration under stress of disaster of the 
organisation of a ship's company which had had no time to 
work itself up to perfection. Blunders indeed there were 
about the ships, and the Prince of Wdes's lack of working-up 
time was one of them. Blunders there were about the ships' 
armament and their protection, but even these became 
irrelevant; while, for instance, better anti-aircraft equipment 
might have staved off the worst of that particular attack, it 
could only have postponed the fate of the ships for a matter 
of hours or even days. Had they not been sunk off Kuantan 
they would have been sunk in Singapore harbour. Had they 
not been sunk in Singapore harbour they would have been 
sunk trying to find refuge either amid Mr. Churchill's 
innumerable islands or elsewhere, or fighting some other 
desperate last battle at sea. They would have been sunk just 
as Exeter was sunk, just as Electra was sunk, just as all the 
other ships which fought their desperate last fights in the 
darkening Far Eastern twilight were sunk. The fact of their 
being there made it certain that they would be sunk. 



282 BERNARD ASH 

But the inevitability of their being sunk is no alibi for 
those who failed to take what measures they could for their 
salvation, or for those whose past blunders or blunders in 
other directions affected what measures could be taken. In- 
deed, these were people who seemed unable to grasp the full 
implications of the situation and therefore were quite in- 
capable of realising that the ships were bound to be sunk. 

"My God!" said Air Vice-Marshal Pulford that night, "I 
hope you don't blame me for this. We didn't even know 
where you were/' 

Why did he not know where they were? Was no air 
reconnaissance being carried out over the Gulf of Siam, 
where so many threats to Singapore were developing not 
even with a solitary Catalina? Was no attempt made to 
reconnoitre Kuantan, only a hundred and forty miles from 
Singapore, to see if the reported landings there could be con- 
firmed? Surely this would have been a natural indeed, an 
essential thing to do, and if it had been done, the where- 
abouts of the ships must have been discovered. Was it 
necessary for Phillips to break radio silence in face of all the 
potential destroyers of his ships lurking in the air, on the 
water and below the water, to tell Pulford what he ought to 
have been intent on discovering for himself? Even in default 
of any reconnaissance, Phillips expected Pulford and every- 
one else at Singapore to know where he was to know that 
th^ signal about the landings at Kuantan would automatically 
send him there. He also, it is true, expected Tenedos to have 
transmitted his message that morning and so give a suffi- 
ciently close clue to his position, not knowing that Tenedos 
was overwhelmed but even that was not essential. The 
official historian suggests that he assumed too great a degree 
of insight on the part of Pulford and the others involved; 
but did he? Time and time again in the Battle of the Atlantic, 
which had brought Phillips to his maturity as a naval staff 
officer, everything had depended on just this degree of in- 
sight, until in the end failure became so rare that its possi- 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 283 

bility was not reckoned on. Why expect Pulford and those 
around him to fail when officers very much junior to him 
could be relied on not to fail in all the rapidly changing 
situations of a far-flung naval battlefront? 

Admiral Sir William Tennant, a just man, insists that it 
is unfair to blame Pulford; so does Captain Dendy, second 
senior survivor of the Repulse. But Pulford must be blamed, 
together with Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, his C.-in-C. Ad- 
mittedly they cannot be blamed for the poverty and paucity 
of their equipment, for having Brewster Buffaloes and not 
enough of those, for being short of flying boats for recon- 
naissance and everything else although even here the writer 
has surely not been wholly wrong in suggesting that had they 
been less ready to accept their poverty and had they been 
insistent enough in their demands for just a little more, that 
little more might have been vouchsafed to them. But they 
need not have been so complacent about what they had. They 
need not have gone out of their way to proclaim to friend 
and foe alike that the Brewster Buffaloes were "good enough 
for Singapore." It has been urged in their defence that they 
were not complacent, that they were trying to bolster morale, 
to keep Singapore and Malaya from alarm and despondency. 
They succeeded. They succeeded too well. Morale in Singa- 
pore was not low: it was high it was impossibly and 
ridiculously high. It did not require boosting it required 
jolting. Pulford's complacency was not morale-building: it 
was wishful thinking, and the blame of it is inescapable. 

When Phillips asked for fighter support for the morning 
of his proposed bombardment of the Kra Isthmus landing 
forces, Pulford lacked the resolution to say on the spot that 
he could not give it. He allowed Phillips to complete his 
plans on the assumption that at least there was a good chance 
of getting it. "It's all laid on/' said Captain Tennant, when 
Commander Dendy asked him about air support on his re- 
turn from the conference at which Admiral Phillins had ex- 
pdunded his plan, and this shows that Phillips at least gave 



254 BERNARD ASH 

the impression of thinking he could rely on air support. 
Only after Force Z had sailed and after more than one re- 
minder did Pulford say categorically that fighter support 
could not be given: it was then that Phillips was driven to 
taking his gamble on the weather, which almost came off. 
Had Phillips known from the beginning that there was no 
possibility of fighter support, he might still have gambled on 
the weather. On the other hand, he might not. But at least, 
when the risks were so great and every one of them had to 
be so finely weighed, surely he could have been spared in- 
decision which, under the circumstances, almost amounted 
to deception. 

Now two reasons are given why Pulford decided he could 
not give air support to the operation. One was that because 
of the short range of the Buffaloes, such support would entail 
their operating from northern airfields, and the northern air- 
fields were rapidly becoming untenable. The other was that 
he was husbanding his fighters for the defence of Singapore 
itself. Certainly conditions in the north were becoming diffi- 
cult and the land forces, right from the beginning of the Jap- 
anese attacks, were too thin on the ground and too ill- 
equipped to maintain their positions. The airfields were 
under threat: partly, already, they were under bombardment. 
But in the Battle of Britain, airfields had been kept opera- 
tional under conditions at least no better than those prevail- 
ing up to that moment on the north Malayan airfields often 
under worse conditions. In many of the other theatres of war 
where, in that terrible year, we had fought so disastrously, 
airfields had been kept operational in well nigh impossible 
conditions. Pulford had not yet lost his airfields. He was 
afraid of losing his airfields. Could he not have taken at least 
as much of a chance with them as Phillips was taking with 
his precious and irreplaceable ships and men? 

As to the second reason that he was keeping his fighters 
for the defence of Singapore Pulford should have asked 
himself where lay the best defence for Singapore. Phillips 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 285 

knew: Pulford should have known too. It lay not in contract- 
ing the lines of defence until the Japanese were poised for 
their leap over the narrow waters on to the island itself, but 
in keeping them at bay in the place where they were best 
contained, and if possible cutting them off and strangling 
them there. That place was the Kra Isthmus, the natural for- 
ward defence line of Singapore, and the place where the 
Japanese would have to be stopped by some means or other, 
if they were going to be stopped at all. If they could be 
stopped there, if their supply convoys and their reinforce- 
ments could be blasted out of the water, as Phillips hoped 
to blast them, then the northern airfields would continue to 
be safe, save for air attack from Saigon, and the defences of 
Singapore would get a new lease of life. If Pulford wanted 
to use his fighters for the defence of Singapore, then there 
could not have been a better place to use them than against 
the Kra Isthmus; and there could not have been a better way 
of using them against the Kra Isthmus than to use them in 
support of Phillips' attack on the Japanese landings there. 
He did not see it. And in the event, his fighters failed to 
defend Singapore. Once the Japanese got themselves thor- 
oughly established, once they were able to operate from the 
Malayan airfields, the fighters could not defend Singapore. 
At that stage, fighting on level terms with the Japanese, they 
were too few in number, too poor in performance and too 
weak in fire-power. Then not all the gallantry of the pilots 
who, ever-decreasing in numbers, fought out their last battles 
as the ships were to fight out their last battles in the South 
China Sea, could make any difference. It was too late, and 
they were overwhelmed. 

The Brewster Buffaloes were not "good enough for Singa- 
pore." Neither was Air Vice-Marshal Pulford. 

So one could so on indefinitely, describing and detailing 
the blunders of lesser men which had a bearing on the sink- 
ing of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales. There is srcli an 
infinity of blunders, they stretch so far backwards from the 



286 BERNARD ASH 

event, that a lifetime could be spent tracking them all down 
and meticulously cataloguing them. But just as the defects 
and deficiencies of the ships become irrelevant against the 
one outstanding fact that once there they were bound to be 
sunk, so the lesser blunders of the lesser men become ir- 
relevant against the greatest blunder of them allthe only 
blunder which, in the last resort, is really important at all. 
And it was not committed by lesser men: it was committed 
by Mr. Churchill. 

At the time this history is being written, Sir Winston 
Churchill is still alive. Living, he has been canonized: his 
services to his country have been many and his achieve- 
ments great. But this book is not concerned with any general 
assessment of his life and career, nor does it presume to pass 
any general verdict at all upon him as statesman, strategist, 
or anything elsethese are matters of infinitely wider issue. 
We are concerned with one thing and one thing only the 
loss of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales and there is 
absolutely no escape from the conclusion that the prime 
responsibility for their loss was his. History will judge this 
quite surely, and will weigh it in the balance when the time 
arrives for its verdict to be passed in generations to come. 

Mr. Churchill blundered. At some points his blunder ran 
parallel with the blunders of others; at other points he 
blundered in the face of advice and argument which he 
would have done well to heed. He was far from alone in his 
utter and complete under-estimation of the Japanese, his 
failure to assess either their strength or their intentions, but 
his responsibility here, in the first place, is greater than the 
responsibility of lesser men who fell into the same errors. 
He was almost alone save perhaps for that unlikely and 
irrelevant ally, the Foreign Office in his erroneous and 
antique conception of naval strategy, his misunderstanding 
of the uses and limitations of capital ships. Among politi- 
cians, service chiefs, and practical men of affairs in high 
positions, he must have been utterly and completely alone 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 287 

in his time in that curious mystique of the battleship he 
created for himself in the way in which he seemed to credit 
battleships with almost magical powers. Is there any other 
way of describing his expositions of what one single ship of 
the highest quality could be expected to do, or his complete 
disregard of the requirements of working-up or any other 
practical considerations in the employment of such ships? 
Not only, to him, could they work miracles irrespective of 
the size and character of the forces arrayed against them 
they could cross vast oceans unescorted and without refuel- 
ling, they could disappear amid island labyrinths where there 
was neither sea-room for them to manoeuvre nor sufficient 
water for them to float. Often enough, no doubt, the 
Admiralty would have been glad enough to have had ships 
capable of such things, had they existed but they never fell 
into the error of supposing that they did exist. Lesser men 
might have dreamed such dreams (and maybe did) without 
imperilling anybody: when the Prime Minister and the 
Minister of Defence, able to wield almost dictatorial powers, 
dreamed them, disaster was bound to result. 

For Churchill did have almost dictatorial powers, and 
furthermore he chose to use them. He wanted the ships sent 
to Singapore. The Admiralty opposed him. So did everyone 
in a position to formulate an informed opinion and possess- 
ing the right to express it. It was not a question of hidebound 
traditional strategists opposing a novel conception or an un- 
conventional move: it was a question of hard-headed men, 
who knew firsthand the conditions and requirements of war 
at sea in their time, knowing that what they were hearing 
was a proposal to send ships to certain or near-certain de- 
struction. For a time, Churchill countenanced argument and 
sent his own broadsides back, as we have seen, changing his 
ground, repeating arguments in different contexts, reaching 
the same conclusions by different routes, but nonetheless 
reaching them. Unflinchingly stubborn, he insisted, insisted, 
insisted; he accepted concessions without making the slight- 



288 BERNARD ASH 

est concession in return. And when his patience was ex- 
hausted, when the Admiralty refused complete and uncon- 
ditional surrender, he overrode them. He overrode them with 
so little compunction and with so little abiding conscious- 
ness of having done so, that by the time he came to write his 
own war history, the very memory of their long opposition 
was gone for he could never be accused of wilfully mis- 
representing facts. 

So it cannot be disputed that it was by his personal and 
undeviating insistence that the ships were sent to Singapore. 
Once they had been sent to Singapore, they were bound to 
be sunk. On the day before the ships were sunk he was forced 
to realise this himself. And instead of taking the most urgent 
possible action to get Sir Tom Phillips out of it, either into 
the "innumerable islands" or anywhere else, he indulged 
himself in dreams more dreams about his darling, magical, 
mystical ships and went to sleep dreaming while the ships 
were lost 



CHAPTER 
15 



THE TRAGEDY OF THE FAR EAST WAS NOT YET FULLY PLAYED 

out: nor was the tragedy of the two ships which had become 
so much part and parcel of it. The ships were at the bottom 
of the sea but there still survived sizeable portions of their 
companies in numbers alone sufficient to be a factor in the 
defence of Singapore. Deeply laden with their burden of 
filthy, oil-stained survivors, the three destroyers Electra, Ex- 
press, and Vampire were racing back to Singapore. On 
Electra, as a measure of helping to balance the enormous 
and unwonted load, the men of the two ships were separated 
Repulse port side, Prince of Wales starboard side, marines 
aft. Many of the Repulse's men, in whom the memory of 
H.M.S. Anonymous still rankled, were deeply suspicious that 
this boded some sort of differential treatment of the ships' 
companies even in disaster, and subsequent incidents, great 
and small, ashore were interpreted in the same way, although 
it could not be fairly suggested that any such differential 
treatment was meted out or intended. 



2QO BERNARD ASH 

Aboard all the destroyers everything that could be done 
for the crowded survivors was being done, but some of them 
were so badly injured or had suffered so much from the fuel 
oil that they were past recovery. Of those not in need of 
medical care perhaps the men who had been picked up by 
Vampire were the unluckiest, because she was an Australian 
destroyer and had no rum. Aboard Electro, Stoker Dick got 
the ration he had been enjoying in anticipation when the 
first wave of aircraft came over. Aboard Vampire, Slinger 
Wood and those of his cronies who had managed to find 
each other thought sadly of what a wonderful thing a tot of 
rum would be. 

In the course of the afternoon, the journalist Gallagher 
sought him out, having made a fortunate and rapid recovery 
from the oil; no doubt the energetic and effective artificial 
respiration that Wood and Monaghan had applied to him 
had got rid of a lot of it. He took possession of his notes 
once more and promised to get a message home to Mrs. 
Wood as soon as he got ashore. He was as good as his word, 
and Mrs. Wood was one of the first of the survivors' relatives 
to hear that her husband was safe. 

About half-past two, half-a-dozen Brewster Buffaloes came 
over again and circled the destroyers for a little time. Pulf ord 
now seemed to be carrying out some sort of air reconnaissance 
at last. On the Vampire the men felt cheered up a little by 
seeing them, but on the Electra their appearance only drew 
forth more bitter remarks about the fact that they had not 
come in time to save their ships. Just before dark the men 
who had died after being rescued were committed to the 

sea covered in oil and near-naked as they had been when 

they were picked up. Their shipmates, filthy and exhausted 
themselves, bade them a last farewell. "We prayed over the 
few," writes Slinger Wood, "but our thoughts were of the 
many, then on into the rapidly falling dusk raced the three 
destroyers." 

During the time since Force Z had sailed, the cruiser 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 29! 

Exeter had arrived at the naval base. She, like the Repulse, 
was a West country ship and aboard her were many friends 
and townees of the Repulse's crew. They turned to, to give 
a hand to the survivors as the three destroyers entered the 
blacked-out harbour where they had so recently been feted 
under blazing lights, and came alongside with their sorry 
load of human salvage, the survivors of Force Z. 

Let Wood tell his own story, firsthand, of the moments 
that followed: 

It was somewhere around midnight when we berthed 
at Singapore, in the ghostly emergency lighting we 
made our way off the destroyers on to the carpet of 
coke and clinkers with which the quay was surfaced and 
most of us were still barefoot. Halfway across it someone 
shouted, "Get on my back, Slinger" It was Jan 
Humphries, former Leading Hand of Mess 48 and 
messmate of my brother when they had been aboard 
Revenge together. He was now a Petty Officer on the 
Cruiser Exeter. Thankfully I climbed on to his back 
and was carried over to the tables which were laid out 
with bowls of hot soup and where a number of writers 
were taking our names and numbers and filling in next 
of kin forms for us. At the end of the table was a rum 
tub and it wasnt being served out with a tot measure. 
Someone handed me a full glass of neaters. Its warming 
glow seemed to shake off the tiredness, then we made 
our way up to the naval barracks and the lovely hot 
showers. Then we were issued with some underwear, 
tropical shorts, vest and a pair of pumps, then with 
a couple of packets of free issue cigarettes and another 
tot of rum. 

We made our way into the long, empty dormitories, 
and in the dim glow of the blue night-lights we could 
make out rows of single beds complete with mosquito 
nets. Bob Bloham, Jackie Bristow and myself made our 
way to three beds alongside each other, wearily we 
crawled inside the nets. The rum was beginning to have 
its effect. I started laughing. Bob said, "What the hell 



292 BERNARD ASH 

are you laugfung at?" I send, "My ruddy foot's stuck in 
this netting and the only person I ever saw getting into 
one of these was Dorothy Lamour and I feel just like 
her now." 

I laid my head on the pillow and closed my eyes. 
Almost immediately I was forced to open them again. 
It felt like someone was jabbing hot cigarette ends into 
my eyeballs. It was caused by the oil under my eyelids. 
I forced them shut till they were watering, hoping it 
would clear the oil. It must have been an hour later 
when I finally went to sleep with my eyes wide open. 

Their place of refuge was H.M.S. Sultan, the great new 
naval barracks, gift of the Sultan of Johore, which had hardly 
been completed and very little used. Even H.M.S. Sultan, 
however, could not altogether cope with such an enormous 
influx of men in need of a complete clean-up, and for the 
last arrivals the water ran cold. Marine John Garner and 
those with him from Electra found they simply could not 
get rid of the sticky fuel oil at all. They soused themselves 
with cold water and wiped the muck off as best they could 
on the towels chalking up another black mark for Singapore 
and still with vague thoughts about discrimination against 
the men of the Repulse. In this one instance, at least, Singa- 
pore could not really be blamed and, of course, there was no 
distinction between the survivors of the two ships in the 
matter of hot water or anything else from now onwards. 

The morning brought a pleasant enough awakening for 
shipwrecked men. There was relief from intense vigilance, 
violent action, and struggle for survival. There was a swim- 
ming pool into which they could plunge. A couple of days of 
ease lay ahead before they were drawn back into the wheels 
of the Far East's tragedy and the tragedy of Singapore. 
Captain Tennant addressed what was left of both ships' 
companies. He explained to them that he was under orders 
to leave for England almost immediately and told them that 
he would do what he could for them and get them home as 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 293 

soon as possible. He was cheered to the echo by his own 
ship's company and the Prince of Wales' s men joined in and 
cheered him too; and this was the last that many of them 
saw of him. For the moment Commander Dendy, the second 
senior surviving officer of Force Z, was in charge of them. 
Once again in his memory and he is a man of no foolish 
prejudices there stands out the impression of how coherent 
an entity the Repulse's crew still remained, even with their 
ship no longer under their feet. They were known to each 
other, they knew their petty officers and their petty officers 
knew them even the leaven of additional personnel who had 
joined her to make up her wartime complement had been 
spread so thinly and evenly through the ship that they had 
been absorbed into the company long before this. It was 
comparatively easy to arrange and do things for so closely 
knit a body of men. Inevitably the Prince of Wales's people 
were less closely knit and less homogeneous as a body. This 
again was no fault of theirs, but of the people who had sent 
them there before they had reached that state of close 
cohesion that marks a thoroughly well worked-up ship's 
company: they were proud, eager and willing, but it was less 
easy to organise them, and less easy to do things for them. 
In the course of this couple of days' vacation the ships' 
crews occupied themselves according to taste, opportunity 
or whatever use they could find for the twenty Malayan 
dollars given each man by the Sultan of Johore. Inevitably, 
Slinger Wood found himself sought out by an uncle serving 
on the Australian merchant cruiser Kinimbler, which was 

in harbour an uncle he had never even seen. One wonders 

whether there was anywhere a corner of the world where 
some member or acquaintance of the far-flung Wood family 
was not liable to pop up and make things easier at a crucial 
moment. Slinger and the survivors of Mess 46 sat long in 
the canteen with the Australians, smoking cigarettes, drink- 
ing and yarning while the sun went down. Alf Tudor of the 
PHnce of Wales and some of his surviving cronies spent the 



294 BERNARD ASH 

day more adventurously but less comfortably. They decided 
to go for a walk outside the town, which is a foolish thing 
sailors sometimes do, got themselves thoroughly lost in the 
jungle and were in trouble when they got back. 

Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton was now back in command 
at Singapore. His China Station command had been ab- 
sorbed into Sir Tom Phillips' command, although he had 
only officially relinquished his appointment on the morning 
Force Z sailedthe morning of December 8th. He was 
actually embarking for home when the news of the sinking 
came, and he was prevented from sailing only by a matter 
of minutes. 

It might have been a good thing for the survivors of the 
two ships if in fact he had sailed, because his ideas about 
their treatment were very different from Captain Tennant's, 
and he lost no time in making them clear. On the second 
day after the survivors had landed he piped all hands and 
proceeded to address them in his turn; this address put an 
end very rapidly to their brief holiday, to their hopes of 
getting home and to the sense of security that had been 
imparted to them by Captain Tennant 

They were assembled on the parade ground of H.M.S. 
Sultan under the open sky. They were told that they need 
have no illusions about what the future held or what was 
coming to them they were to forget in particular about early 
evacuation from Singapore, survivors' leave or easy postings 
home. They were still in an operational unit, he warned them, 
and they would go on being in an operational unit, and there 
would be no nonsense. In particular, until they were allotted 
duties, they would not go wandering about on their own: in 
fact, ratings found so wandering about outside the town 
would be treated as deserters and shot. Alf Tudor and his 
mates could not help feeling that this last warning was di- 
rected specially at them and had an uncomfortable impres- 
sion that the Admiral was looking straight in their direction 
when he gave it 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 295 

If they had shown themselves thoroughly demoralised 
and undisciplined, there would have been good cause for 
cracking the whip, but there is no evidence that they had 
shown themselves anything of the sort. They had fought 
their ships to the bitter end, they were conscious of having 
done as much as they could do with what they had and they 
were not ashamed of themselves. Now they were being 
addressed like a collection of criminals or a ship-load of 
deserters. If anything could be calculated to undermine their 
discipline or destroy their morale, it was this. 

When the draft chits began to go up, as they did very 
shortly after this, it was seen that he had been as good as 
his word. Apart from wounded there were practically no 
home postings or, indeed, postings out of Singapore for 
either of the two ships. Postings indeed there were: they were 
for the most part for personnel who had spent the whole of 
the war so far in Singapore and had seen no active service 
at all. One of the few exceptions was old Seddon of the 
Prince of Wales, who was packing off to Colombo on the 
cruiser Mauritius. 

On this ship, by coincidence, was serving Midshipman 
Leach, the son of his lost captain, who was in Seddon's own 
watch. Captain Stephens of the Mauritius issued strict orders 
that the sinking was not to be discussed, but no orders were 
needed. Seddon, oddly enough, felt badly about all this, but 
when Singapore fell he realised that he was one of the lucky 
ones. 

When the postings did start coming for the survivors of 
Force Z they were postings for demolition parties to go up 
the coast, for armed guards for Changi wireless station, and 
similar inviting possibilities. The ships were gone and now 
the companies were beginning to break up. The Far Eastern 
empire which they had been sent to save was also breaking 
up, for even in these past couple of days the Japanese had 
been inching their way relentlessly down the Malay Penin- 



296 BERNARD ASH 

sula. Yet what was left of the Repulse's crew came within 
an inch of going to sea in one piece as a ship's company 
again. 

At Surabaya, the Dutch had a cruiser which had just com- 
pleted a refit. There was no crew for it. Commander Dendy 
was sent over by Layton to see if he could come to terms 
with the Dutch about taking it over. It was the second mis- 
sion for which Dendy had been briefed by the Admiral. The 
first had been to go to Penang, blow up what he could, do 
what he could and come back: fortunately for him the news 
of the fall of Penang arrived just in time to prevent his some- 
what reluctant departure from Singapore, and so he lived to 
fight another day. This seemed a more hopeful assignment. 

The cruiser was there all right and fit for service, but there 
was an interminable haggle with the Dutch C.-in-C. over the 
manner in which she was to be taken over, and the flag under 
which she was to sail. Dendy refused to allow his men to 
sail under any other flag but their own, and the Dutch made 
precisely the same stipulation about the cruiser. To some 
minds it may sound silly and odd from this distance, in the 
middle of a war. It is not so silly when it is realised that 
there was deep distrust of the Dutch command, which 
boasted not one single senior officer with battle experience: 
this distrust, unfortunately, proved justified in the disastrous 
Battle of the Java Sea the following February, when the 
Dutch commander failed to keep his force under control, so 
that it was split up and most of the surviving naval units in 
those waters sunk piecemeal by the Japanese. Maybe Dendy 
felt that his men had suffered sufficiently by one series of 
blunders to be spared exposure to another. Who can blame 
him? 

The negotiations fell through altogether in the end. The 
cruiser remained in dock, to be sunk by Japanese air bom- 
bardment instead of Japanese naval action at sea, and Dendy 
returned to Singapore. He found that in any case there was 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 297 

now no ship's company to take over a cruiser or any other 
ship. The companies both of the Refnike and the Prince of 
Wateshad been dissipated completely and posted here, there 
and everywhere. 

Perhaps one of the most coherent groups that still re- 
mained were the marines. Repulse's marines formed A 
Company and the Prince of Wdes's B Company of the 2nd 
Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who im- 
mediately became known as the Plymouth Argylls. Few of 
them were to return. They were to bear the brunt of the bitter 
rearguard action down the peninsula as the Japanese ad- 
vanced on Singapore with ever-increasing strength and speed: 
they were to be among the last troops across the causeway and 
thereafter, cut off and with no further retreat, to give up their 
lives in desperate last hand-to-hand combats. 

The others were divided up in penny numbers guard 
duties, demolition parties, postings to other ships, lorry 
driving, supply and communications duties. There can 
hardly have been a job of any kind in the last days of 
Singapore that the men of the two ships did not have a 
finger in. Boy Williams of the Prince of Wales had, perhaps 
the best bird's-eye view of the situation, for he was given a 
job in the wireless office, working a decoding machine; so 
that between air-raids and other excitements, his days be- 
came a sort of hour-by-hour chronicle of the onward march 
of the Japanese through Malaya, and the progress of the 
Japanese by land, sea and air throughout the whole of the 
eastern theatre of war. 

To him and to all the other men the rottenness of Malaya 
became rapidly apparent. Their reminiscences are full of 
stories of Malay naval ratings throwing away their uniforms 
and changing into native dress, of ack-ack gunners sitting 
idly at their guns and watching the Japanese come over. How 
badly all the experts had blundered over the allegedly un- 
shakeable loyalty of the Malays was now plain to see, and 



298 BERNARD ASH 

plainer still was the size and strength of the Fifth Column, 
now emerging into the open. Of all the Asiatic peoples, only 
the Chinese showed any desire or will to resist the Japanese: 
in February, just before the end, Alf Tudor and some others 
were driving lorry loads of Chinese volunteers up to help 
in the defences, and the Chinese were singing and cheering 
as they drove. They, perhaps, had cause to know that the 
Japanese were not the saviours of Asia. 

Among the scattered survivors of the ships' companies, a 
steady attrition was taking place through action, through 
air raids, through all the many avenues of death that opened 
up in these twilight days. In the final stages casualties rose 
sharply: apart from all those lost in the final desperate 
battles, many drowned in the evacuating ships, a very large 
number in trying to save civilians. 

No figures exist of the total number out of the comple- 
ments of the two ships who actually got out of Singapore 
alive. Slinger Wood cannot even remember the name of the 
ship in which he reached Ceylon; Cyril Williams remembers 
his as the Bulan, remembers also being bombed on the ten- 
day voyage by a Catalina which had been captured by the 
Japanese. Tudor got out in a Chinese river-boat called the 
Ping Wo. Let him tell a typical tale of the last days of 
Singapore. They had delivered the last of their lorry loads of 
Chinese volunteers: 

We made our v^ay back after dropping the Chinese, 
looking for a bite to eat and some place for a nap. My 
mate [McMins from Bolton] suggested dropping in on 
the Union Jack Club but it was packed like flies, so 
we made our way elsewhere. Where we were going I 
didn't know and didn't care, as dl 1 wanted was some- 
thing for my inside. I was bloody starved. My mate 
said 9 "Boy I could eat a cow now! 9 It was while we 
were walking and roaming around amongst the bomb 
ruins, we met an oncoming lorry. I was relieved to see it 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 299 

contained some naval sailors and others. They asked us 
'where we were going. I said I was going to see what I 
could salvage to eat in regards of food and drink. One 
chap said, "You had better bloody well jump in the 
lorry unless you want to walk into Japanese hands, 
that's where you are heading for." ''Good Christ" I said, 
and jumped in, finding to my joy the lorry well equipped 
with tin food and biscuits and drove on to Singapore 
harbour, which by now was getting the full weight of 
the enemy. The harbour was one ball of orange flame 
and operations in full swing in regards of evacuation 
of Singapore. On our arrival we were told to make our 
own way. There wasn't much time to lose as it was a 
matter of hours [it was middle of February 1942], I 
and my mate manned sampans towed by a small motor 
boat helping civilians to board ships that were already 
under steam to make under way. We worked desperately 
that night. We were on our way with another batch, 
this was the last batch to board and I and other sailors 
were told to board a Chinese river boat named Ping Wo. 
On looking around for my mate McMins there was no 
sign of him. I later learned his sampan broke tow and 
was left to drift around the harbour and drifted near 
the beach to be taken prisoner by the Japanese four 
hours after we left. I recently met up with McMins in 
Liverpool one day on his travels from Bolton. On 
boarding the Ping Wo I met up with Ginger Hayes who 
I knew well. 

It was on February 15, 1942, that resistance in the fabled 
and fabulous fortress ceased and Singapore surrendered to 
the Japanese. With its fall British power and indeed the 
power of the West passed forever from the Far East, and 
all the years of gunboat diplomacy, all the years of swagger- 
ing domination by merchant adventurers were avenged. For 
more than a hundred years the warships of the West had 
held sway in these waters: under their protective guns 



BERNARD ASH 

generations of greedy men had battened on the seaboard 
people of the far eastern nations, disgracing the name of 
Britain, which through them became a synonym for oppres- 
sion, extortion, and fear. The grossness of their arrogance, 
the unscrupulousness of their extortions, were but little 
known or realised in their native land, to which they returned 
swollen with plundered riches and heavy with ill-gotten 
gains; and such knowledge of them as there was has long 
since gone down into oblivion. 

In the whole of British history, with all its glories, all its 
failures, its shining splendours, and its dark places, there is 
no more discreditable episode than this. In many territories, 
British trade went hand-in-hand with British conquest and 
British imperialism: traders, conquerors, and empire-build- 
ers, were followed by a strange and dedicated race of civil 
governors who, albeit alien of race and purpose, won the 
respect and often the affection of those over whom they 
ruled, and did no little good. With them, too, came mis- 
sionaries, doctors, civil engineers, and a host of others. In 
some areas their achievements were great and in others 
small: at the most they left a permanent mark on the culture 
and structure of the peoples over whom they had held sway; 
at the least they went in the end without disgrace. But in 
the Far East we had exercised domination without posses- 
sion, tyranny without responsibility. The merchant adven- 
turers went where they would and traded on what terms they 
would, openly contemptuous of the wily oriental gentlemen 
whose only defences against them were subterfuge and 
evasion. Any attempt to impose the slightest restriction, or 
curb on their activities, or deny them entry into any place, 
could bring down hell-fire and thunder in the shape of naval 
bombardment, followed by burning and looting. Justice was 
summary, defence by temporising or by oriental wiles was 
not allowed. "There was obviously no point in wasting time 
in negotiation" is a phrase which occurs again and again in 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED J01 

such books as Britain's Naval Power by Hamilton Williams, 
published at the end of the last century. This and similar 
books, widely used as text-books in their time (and, one is 
tempted to suppose, still lying about in the Foreign Office, 
historical background to that Department's demand to "send 
a ship"), portrayed the whole business as a series of glorious 
naval victories and heroic exploits. Heroic exploits there cer- 
tainly were and many deeds of high personal courage by men 
who were only doing the duty laid upon them, and who 
neither knew nor were responsible for the injustice of what 
they were doing: it is curious to notice that they often did 
their duty with unsuitable ships, inadequate equipment, and 
always under wretched conditions of service, for Victorian 
Britain bragged of its Navy but hated to waste money on it. 
The details of these operations have long since vanished 
from the most traditional of schoolbooks. The names of 
them read like fairy tales, belonging to another world: the 
storming of Tycocktow, the Peiho River, the Battle of 
Fatshan, the capture of the Tagu Forts, the bombardment 
of Kagosima, the sacking of Shimonoseki, and so on. A few 
names, such as the Boxer Rebellion, survive: this latter, 
without the memory that among its prime causes was a 
justifiable attempt by the Chinese to exclude Indian opium 
imported by British merchants. 

But the peoples of Asia had not forgotten these things, 
have not forgotten them to this day. The Japanese had not 
forgotten them. In both the hearts of the Japanese and the 
hearts of these other peoples who saw them as the liberators 
of Asia, the helpless, hopeless hate had smouldered con- 
cealed for all the years. Now it burst into flame and burned 
lividly in a holocaust of savagery and atrocity with all the 
variations and refinements of revenge that will not be sated, 
but goes on renewing and renewing its impetus like unap- 
peasable lust. 

Many of the survivors of the two ships were to endure 
th^ full honors of that revenge; more than a few of them to 



302 BERNARD ASH 

succumb to its cruelties. And since we have been talking of 
blunders, the blunders of the nineteenth-century gentlemen 
who laid the fuel for this fire should not be forgotten; for 
these blunders too played their part in the long chain of 
causation that led to the sinking of the Repulse and the 
Prince of Wales. 



EPILOGUE 



THE MORNING OFF KUANTAN SEEMS BOTH LONG AGO AND 

far away in the sitting-room of Slinger Wood's home in 
Liverpool. But the memories of it and of the great ship in 
which he served still come alive in his talk and in the talk of 
old shipmates with whom he still meets from time to time. 
In the rest of his war and the rest of his time in the Navy he 
is still convinced that he never found another ship quite like 
the Repulse. 

It was not until 1943 that he got home to continue that 
one-day honeymoon. He gravitated in his career as an anti- 
aircraft gunner into smaller and smaller ships and finally 
ended his career in MTBs. He is still concerned with ships, 
but only treads their decks as an alien visitor from the shore, 
for he is a stevedore on the Liverpool docks. 

Times have changed for him and for people like him since 
those grim days in Birkenhead in the 19305, when the lack 
of a few pounds robbed him of his scholarship and his place 
in the world. The little house is spick and span and com- 



504 BERNARD ASH 

fortable: neither his pretty teen-age daughter, nor his up- 
and-coming son (who has a twinkle in his eye like his 
father's), will want for a shilling or a rag to their backs. 
Perhaps at least some of the blunders that were inflicted on 
his grandfather and his father and mother have been partly 
made good, and his children will have a better chance in 
life than he had. To that extent at any rate the service of 
such men has been requited and it is perhaps sometimes 
worth remembering for a moment that there was a debt 
owing to them. 

In like manner, most of those whose names have occurred 
in the pages of this book have left the sea and the services 
behind them. One of the few exceptions is Alf Tudor of the 
Prince of Wales, who still sails the sea in tankers; but he has 
a cabin and a bunk and all sorts of amazing conveniences 
that he would never have dreamed of, even aboard "Church- 
ill's Yacht"; and so life for him too has changed for the bet- 
ter. Marine Garner served in landing-craft and ended up as a 
commando. He is a commando still, though only with the 
Territorials, and an army battalion of Territorials at that; 
but he still enjoys his spare-time soldiering. 

Captain Tennant in his report formally signified his readi- 
ness for another sea-going command. He never got another 
ship he got promotion instead and next time Slinger Wood 
saw him on H.M.S. Gambia he was a Rear-Admiral com- 
manding a cruiser squadron. He became in the end Admiral 
Sir William Tennant, C.-in-C., West Indies, from which ap- 
pointment he retired to lead the active and interesting life 
which he enjoys today in his native Worcestershire, with 
business interests that take him frequently to London. 

Amid a great mass of detail about people and what hap- 
pened to them after the ships were sunk and their companies 
divided up, the most extraordinary story of all is that of Boy 
Seaman Williams of the Prince of Wales whose career reads 
like the pages of an adventure book and only differs from one 
in that it happens to be true. From the rest camp in Ceylon 



SOMEONE HAD BLUNDERED 305 

after he was evacuated from Singapore he was drafted to the 
carrier Formidabk in the Bay of Bengal, and from there 
presently to Force H in the Mediterranean: so he covered 
the landings in North Africa including Oran, Mers el Kebir, 
and Algiers; then the Sicily campaign, and he was on his 
way to cover landings at Naples when Italy surrendered. 
From the Mediterranean he went straight to Iceland in Oc- 
tober 1943, was with a Russian convoy escort to Bear 
Island. Home for Christmas that year, he did a course in 
anti-submarine detection and was drafted to the mine- 
sweeper Serene in Canada. In her he spent four years sweep- 
ing the seas of the world clear of moored and magnetic 
mines: in the course of these he re-visited Penang and Singa- 
pore. In 1945, he was with the first minesweeping flotilla to 
enter Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atom bombs had 
faflen on them and from these, acquired another memory 
he will never forget. After more home leave and another 
torpedo course in mines he joined the destroyer St. James 
in 1947, had a win on the Pools and painted Plymouth red. 
In 1949, he was back in the Far East again, and in April of 
that year joined H.M.S. Amethyst at Hong Kong, a fit 
Leading Seaman. Nine days later he had both his legs blown 
off by a Chinese shell in the Yangtse River "which," he 
observes, "after ten and a half years of exciting and interest- 
ing times in the Royal Navy, put an end to my naval career." 

He married the girl he was courting in his Prince of Wales 
days, and the pair of them are manager and manageress of a 
small hotel in his native Blaenau Festiniog, where he leads 
an exceedingly happy and contented life. 

"I have no regrets whatsoever," he writes, "and I am not 
bitter. I count my blessings and thank God for looking after 



me." 



Which perhaps makes a fitting end to a book which 
inevitably has had at least its share of bitterness. 



A Snortfc BiWiograpliy 



Supplements to The London Gazette: 

38098 October 16, 1947 Sinking of the German Battle- 
ship Bismarck 

38214 February 26, 1948 Loss of H. M. Ships 

Prince of Wales & Repulse 
Capt S. W. Roskill-War at Sea 1939-45 Vo1 - l (History of 

the Second World War, U. K. Military Series, H.M.S.O.) 
Sir Winston Churchill-Tfce Second World War, Vol. Ill 
Russell Grenfell Main Fket to Singapore 
M. Okuniya & J. Horikoshi Zero 
O'Dowd Gallagher-Retreat in the East 
Cdr. R. Pears-British Battleships 
Lt. Cdr. Cain-H.MS. Electra 
H. V. Morton Atlantic Meeting 
Alfred Duff-Cooper (Lord Norwich) Old Men Forget 
C. S. Forrester Sink the Bismarck! 
Lt Gen. C. E. Percival-Tfie War in Malaya 



C 4