After Bismarck I


Destroyer HMS Maori (F24) underway, coastal waters.


HMS Maori Sinking.

Legend has it that, after a Bismarck officer was hauled up over the side of HMS Dorsetshire, plucked from a watery grave by the willing hands of his enemies, he told his British rescuers: ‘Us today, you tomorrow.’1 And so it was in the months and years which followed that his prediction came to pass for a number of the ships, their sailors and marines, who had pursued the mighty German battleship.

It was late when Winston Churchill’s doctor, Charles McMoran Wilson, encountered the Prime Minister’s secretary, Mrs Hill, coming out of the PM’s bedroom. She seemed relieved to see him. ‘He has just heard some very bad news,’ said Mrs Hill, indicating that he should go in. McMoran Wilson suggested, as the Prime Minister disliked being fussed over by a doctor at the best of times, it might be best to leave him alone. But Mrs Hill insisted: ‘I think he would like to see you.’

Churchill was sitting on the edge of his bed, head in his hands, seemingly in a daze.

‘You know what has happened?’ he asked, looking up.


The Prime Minister explained that the Japanese had sunk both Prince of Wales and Repulse off Malaya. Gone was the battleship that fought so valiantly against Bismarck in the Denmark Strait and which had carried him to Placentia Bay in August 1941, then rode shotgun on a Malta convoy before being sent to the Far East to safeguard Singapore. Both capital ships were lost in the South China Sea, on 10 December 1941. The First Sea Lord had advised Churchill not to send them to Singapore, but he overruled Admiral Pound, hoping the sight of those magnificent ships would deter the sons of Nippon. It was Admiral Pound who broke the news to the Prime Minister, ringing him in the early hours of 10 December. Setting aside a tray of paperwork to pick up the handset of a telephone on a bedside table, Churchill thought the First Sea Lord’s voice sounded odd, the first intimation something bad was about to be revealed. Churchill heard Pound cough and gulp, his words at first faint.

‘Prime Minister, I have to report to you that the Prince of Wales and the Repulse have both been sunk by the Japanese – we think by aircraft.’

It was simply unbelievable, even after all the other shocking ship losses during 1941 in the Mediterranean.

‘Are you sure it’s true?’ the Prime Minister asked.

‘There is no doubt at all.’

Churchill was plunged into turmoil, later confessing: ‘In all the war I never received a more direct shock.’

Who could have imagined the Japanese would deliver such a blow? They had sunk or damaged eight American battleships at Pearl Harbor on 7 December but, until Prince of Wales and Repulse were sent to the bottom, no capital ship on the open ocean had ever been destroyed by aircraft. Being sent to the Far East, so far from home, was not something the men of Prince of Wales regarded with great enthusiasm. Having spent so much time in the thick of the action, however, the long voyage did at least offer an opportunity for relaxed gunnery training, including on the anti-aircraft weapons, and to practise more traditional seamanship skills previously neglected. The accepted wisdom was, anyway, that the Japanese were not very good aviators. Lieutenant Commander McMullen attended an intelligence briefing in which it was claimed they could not fly at night because they had such poor eyesight and therefore could not see in the dark. How on earth would they manage to hit a battleship with a torpedo? But, while Prince of Wales was in dry dock at Singapore, the Japanese made a night attack. Nine aircraft, flying in perfect formation, dropped bombs on the naval base. As the Japanese planes were frozen in a searchlight, the anti-aircraft guns of Prince of Wales joined the flak barrage, but scored no hits. Soon news began flooding in of a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. It seemed the Japanese were not only good pilots, they had aircraft and weapons capable of sinking battleships.

Force Z, as Prince of Wales, Repulse and their escort destroyers were known, set sail from Singapore on 8 December, after hearing reports of Japanese transport ships heading for Malaysia. Shortly before the Prince of Wales left, Captain Leach invited his son, Henry, serving in the cruiser Mauritius, then in dock at Singapore’s naval base, to dinner aboard the battleship. It was the first time they had met since Christmas 1940, when the captain had been horrified to learn his son was drafted to Prince of Wales and arranged a transfer. Leach the younger thought his father was distracted by some gnawing anxiety, which he caught a hint of when Captain Leach suggested taking on the Japanese was a mission against the odds. A couple of nights later, father and son met for a swim at the naval base swimming pool and afterwards had drinks with the commanding officer of Repulse, Captain William Tennant. Two hours after Henry Leach said goodbye to his father, Prince of Wales set sail. The future Falklands War-era First Sea Lord later wrote of that parting: ‘I never saw my father again.’

Bad weather initially hid the British vessels from Japanese scouting planes, but when it cleared they were cruelly exposed. The only real defence against determined air attack would have been fighters from an aircraft carrier sailing with the two big ships, but the vessel assigned to that role had run aground in the Caribbean and was instead in dry dock for repairs.

Hard-pressed in the Mediterranean and in the Atlantic, and particularly with convoy runs to Russia, which had just started, the Royal Navy had been unable to find another carrier to send.

Flying from bases in Indo-China, eighty-five Japanese aircraft attacked Force Z at 11 am on December 10, the first wave of bombers passing over Prince of Wales to attack Repulse. Later, both ships were assailed by torpedo-bombers approaching on the bow and stern. Prince of Wales suffered hits in her stern that damaged her steering and propellers. As she started listing to port she turned around in a huge circle, shuddering under a constant onslaught. Repulse succumbed first but by that stage Prince of Wales was a sitting duck, with seemingly endless waves of Japanese aircraft coming in. She was soon beyond hope and the ‘abandon ship’ order was given. Many of the seriously wounded, who would not be able to escape, were taken to the battleship’s small chapel, where the ship’s dentist was doing what he could to ease their pain. As he moved among the wounded, the floor of the chapel slick with blood and vomit, the dentist was approached by a sailor, who told him: ‘Sir, the Captain says that you should please come onto the upper deck and get away.’ The dentist thanked the sailor but shook his head. ‘Tell Captain Leach thank you very much, but I’m not going to leave my patients.’ The Rev. Wilfred Parker, who had delivered the prayer before the Battle of the Denmark Strait on 24 May 1941 was tending to wounded elsewhere. Both men went down with the ship.

Boy Seaman Alan McIvor, who had used his wits to get an 8-inch shell from Prinz Eugen ejected from his gun turret, was wounded in the head. Fortunately he was able to leave the ship without even getting his feet wet, walking along a plank that had been laid across from the battleship’s stern to HMS Express, an escort destroyer, which had come alongside.

Eighteen-year-old Marine Peter Dunstan, who somehow managed to struggle up from below decks, was shocked at the angle to which the ship was listing. Momentarily bemused by the unfamiliar chaos that had gripped his usually well ordered ship – smoke and flame everywhere, wreckage cluttering the deck and men staggering about clutching wounds, shouting their heads off – he just stood there until somebody shouted, ‘Jump!’

Managing to pull himself onto a raft with a number of others, Dunstan turned to watch as the ship rolled over, spotting senior officers still standing on a bridge wing. They were gone within an instant, taken down to oblivion in a frothing, churning sea.6 Captain Leach had to be one of them, and his corpse was spotted later floating in the water, but not recovered.

Junior rating Joseph Willetts had also escaped to Express and then watched Prince of Wales slowly turning turtle, he believed still with hundreds of sailors trapped inside her hull. He saw those who had made it to the upper deck, but had yet to jump, trying to scramble clear, a few falling into the sea where some ingested oil and soon died. The Japanese had by now stopped their onslaught, and the ocean was littered with dead and wounded. Willetts decided he had to do something to help. Hanging on to a stanchion with one hand, he dropped over the side of Express to offer his other hand to survivors in the water. In this way, one by one, he saved some of them from a watery grave. But eventually, his strength ebbing away, Willetts had to be hauled back up on to Express. He found himself next to a petty officer gunner, seemingly without injury, who was standing perfectly still watching Prince of Wales begin to slide stern first under the waves. The petty officer looked at Willetts and said: ‘I’m going back … I’m not going to leave the lads there.’ The senior rating jumped over the side and swam the 100 yards back to the Prince of Wales, just so he could be sucked down with his shipmates.

Lieutenant Commander McMullen was taken down with the ship, but then, like Ted Briggs of Hood, popped to the surface. He got into a Carley float with four ratings whom he found singing the Volga Boat Song to keep their spirits up: ‘Yo heave ho! Yo heave ho! Once more, once more, Yo heave ho!’

Arriving just too late to matter, Buffalo fighter aircraft wheeled overhead. Shocked survivors shook their fists and hurled abuse skywards, cursing the RAF for failing to protect them against the Japanese. And so, Prince of Wales –sent to try and prevent an attack by Japan on British colonies in the Far East – was lost on a forlorn mission bitterly opposed by senior officers, but forced on the Royal Navy by Churchill. Prince of Wales took 327 of her officers and men with her to the bottom of the South China Sea, while a further 513 went down with Repulse, the ship Admiral Tovey had sent away to refuel in May 1941 rather than risk her in a battle with Bismarck. The two great ships were dinosaurs killed by gnats.

Electra had gone east with Prince of Wales, her fate seemingly still intertwined with the battleship that she had been in company with during the Bismarck Action. As such, she accompanied the battleship and Repulse on the ill-fated foray to prevent the Japanese landings. Her men looked on horrified as Japanese aviators, unlike their Italian and German counterparts, proved adept at high-level bombing, scoring a hit on Repulse which saw black smoke belching out of a large hole in her deck. Then, the destroyer men watched as torpedo-bombers skimmed low over the sea from all directions, Electra trying in vain to place herself between them and the British capital ships and shooting down a Japanese aircraft. First Repulse succumbed, and then Prince of Wales stopped dead in the water, mortally wounded. This time, rather than receive the thunderbolt of disaster via signal, as had been the case with Hood, the destroyer’s sailors saw the dreadful spectacle unfold before their eyes. Prince of Wales, which had escaped to fight another day on 24 May, just over six months earlier, began to sink. This time Electra could save more than just three lives. Provided she got there in time, she could offer salvation to many more.

After ordering the terrible news to be conveyed via signal to Singapore, Commander May took his destroyer in, finding Express was already nestled alongside Prince of Wales taking off survivors. Therefore Electra went in search of survivors from Repulse, pulling them from an oil-covered sea in various states of distress.

As Prince of Wales rolled over, bilge keel threatening to capsize Express, the destroyer backed away, fortunately speedily enough to avoid that fate. Watching from Electra, Lieutenant Cain saw ‘a whirlpool, spread over the water in brief fierce testimony of the violence of her passing …’ It wiped men ‘from the sea like chalk figures from a slate.’ Electra was able to pull several hundred survivors from the sea and carried them to Singapore, more than making up for the paltry few she had saved from Hood.

Nine months to the day from Bismarck’s sinking, Electra was claimed. Her death ride came during the Battle of the Java Sea on 27 February 1942, as she aimed to protect Exeter, the latter having suffered a crippling hit in a boiler room. Exeter needed time to get moving again. American and British destroyers made a smokescreen to hide the crippled British cruiser from the enemy and waited for the attack that would surely come. Cain contemplated mens’ attitude to mortal danger, the feeling of personal immunity ‘that other ships sank, and that other men died, but that we were immortal’. How else could he and his shipmates have survived so long? Exeter was finally able to get underway again and retire from the scene. As the Japanese came forward in strength Allied cruisers and destroyers counter-attacked, Electra vanishing into the smokescreen and seconds later breaking through the other side. For a few brief moments, the only sound was her engines and the noise of the sea parting in huge bow waves. Every man aboard was grimly silent, waiting for first sight of the enemy. Electra appeared to be alone, but then cutting across her path came the menacing silhouettes of a Japanese light cruiser and half a dozen heavy destroyers. Electra charged bravely on, exchanging fire with the enemy. Three devastating hits slammed into the British destroyer – one cutting off communication between the bridge and the rest of the ship, another wrecking the electrical system forward, the third exploding in the aft boiler room. Electra came to a halt with steam and smoke pouring through multiple holes. The Japanese fighting line had disappeared, but a single enemy destroyer came back to finish Electra off. Cain, swearing blue murder, ordered torpedoes fired, a forlorn attempt to blunt the enemy attack. None hit. Electra, with no central gunnery control and no power forward was a sitting duck as the heavily armed Japanese warship circled, taking out turrets one by one. Fire took hold aft, preventing any shells from being passed back to Y turret, the only one left in action, which soon ran out of ammunition, its gun falling silent. A message came down from Commander May on the bridge: ‘Prepare to abandon ship.’

Many officers and men who had been astonished, and deeply dismayed, by the lack of survivors from Hood were to be among those claimed by the sea that day. Cain was hit in the legs by shrapnel, the wail of the Japanese shell ringing in his ears as he continued trying to get a Carley float into the water despite his wounds. Fortunately for Cain he did not escape in it, for the Japanese destroyer decided on some target practice against the Electra’s floats and their survivors, achieving a direct hit on the one Cain helped put over the side. He escaped on another, which fortunately avoided the attention of the merciless enemy. Only fifty-four of Electra’s 144-strong ship’s company survived. Commander May was not among them, choosing to go down with his ship. He appeared on the bridge, giving those in the water an encouraging wave just seconds before Electra sank. Cain heard ‘one gentle sigh from our ship as she plunged below, her torments ended’, the White Ensign flying proudly from her gaff. The American submarine S38 rescued Electra’s survivors, ten of them so ill they had to be left in the care of Dutch doctors in Java, while the other forty-four, including Cain, made it to Australia aboard a small steamer called Verspeck. They reached Fremantle on 10 March, nine days after Exeter was sunk in a sequel to the Battle of the Java Sea, the cruiser meeting her end in the Sunda Strait. After taking shelter at Surabaya to effect further temporary repairs, Exeter set sail on 28 February, in the early hours of 1 March sending a signal picked up by a British destroyer, reporting sighting three enemy cruisers. Unable to make more than sixteen knots, Exeter was easy meat for the Japanese warships, which reduced the British cruiser to a floating wreck via gunfire before sending in a destroyer to torpedo her. Fifty-four of Exeter’s men went down with her, while 651 survivors were rescued and taken prisoner by the Japanese. Meanwhile, in Australia, some of Electra’s survivors were put on the Ceylon-bound liner Nankin, which was intercepted by the German raider Thor. Cain and others were among those transferred to a Japanese destroyer off Java, not far from where their ship had been sunk. They were to spend three years as prisoners. Also subjected to the degradation and brutality of captivity in Japanese hands were men from Prince of Wales, captured after fighting on land in defence of Singapore. A number of them died in captivity, one more sweep of the scythe that is war’s bitter harvest.

Like the Swordfish of Ark Royal who put paid to Bismarck nearly seven months earlier, those infernal Japanese aircraft that destroyed Prince of Wales dropped torpedoes and bombs that cost a fraction of what it took to create a vessel with the awesome firepower of a battleship. In both cases a few impudent torpedoes found the battleships’ unprotected Achilles heel – their steering and propulsion. Like Achilles crashing to the dusty plain beneath the walls of Troy, the myth of battleship omnipotence had been slain. However, the ships the torpedo-bombers flew from – the new capital vessels that replaced battleships as rulers of the seas during the Second World War – were also not invulnerable. Ark Royal was sunk in the western Mediterranean by a single torpedo fired by U-81 but she did not go down straight away, for her crew managed to get tows across from two tugs. However, in transferring the majority of the ship’s company to the destroyer Legion key damage control personnel went, too, and it was not possible to return them. The structure of Ark – the vast hangar running through the entire length of the ship – also enabled flooding to take hold rapidly. In the early hours of 14 November, with fire breaking out and water ingress creating an irretrievable list of 35 degrees, those left aboard abandoned ship, all save one sailor who went down with Ark. A number of the aviators who flew in the Swordfish attacks from Ark Royal did not survive the war. The leader of the strike from Victorious, Eugene Esmonde, was killed on 12 February 1942, leading 825 NAS on a mission to prevent the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen from breaking through the English Channel to Germany – the notorious ‘Channel Dash’. Esmonde’s aircraft suffered a hit as he made his torpedo run in the Channel, going down in flames. None of the other aircraft made it, all but five of the eighteen aviators in the squadron losing their lives. The Germans had learned how to shoot down Swordfish. Esmonde’s body was eventually washed up in the Medway and he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Eight of the forty-three Fleet Air Arm aviators who took part in attacks launched by Ark Royal against Bismarck later lost their lives. Among them was Tim Coode, who led the successful strike on the night of 26 May, killed in early 1943. Based ashore at a naval air station in east Africa, his aircraft caught fire and crashed during a night low-flying sortie. David Godfrey-Faussett was also killed, during a flying accident at night in March 1942, his Swordfish plunging into the North Sea off Easthaven.

Ever the fighter, it took four days for Cossack to give up the fight after she was struck by a torpedo fired by U-563 west of Portugal. On 23 October 1941 Cossack was helping to escort a UK-bound convoy, the fatal hit suffered just forward of the bridge on the destroyer’s port side, blowing off her bows and ‘about a third of the forward section of the ship’. She suffered 159 deaths12 and her twenty-nine survivors were picked up by fellow British escorts Carnation and Legion as well as the Free French warship Commandant Duboc. The following day a salvage team, including some of Cossack’s own men, was put aboard from Carnation. They strove valiantly to save the ship: ‘The fires were put out and bulkheads were shored up. The ship was lightened by throwing loose equipment, ammunition etc. overboard. Working under Commander E Halliwell, the engineering officer and senior survivor, they managed to get the main engines going again, although they could only proceed stern first, heading back to Gibraltar very slowly.’ They managed to stabilize the situation and on 25 October a tug from Gibraltar duly arrived and a tow was successfully put across. Towed stern first into steadily worsening seas, the salvage team was taken off during the night but could not get back aboard, the tow being slipped on 27 October, leaving Cossack slipping below the angry waves. Among the men lost in Cossack was telegraphist Eric Farmer who left such a graphic account of the Bismarck Action. The survivors took passage home to the UK in another veteran of the Bismarck Action, battleship Rodney, which had spent some time based at Gibraltar as flagship of Force H. Vian had departed Cossack that June, on promotion to Rear-Admiral and was tasked with organizing protection for convoys to northern Russia. When it came to the rest of Vian’s heroic destroyers of the 4th Flotilla, they were all lost in 1942: Maori was sunk by air attack in harbour at Malta, 12 February; Zulu sunk by air attack, off Tobruk, 14 September; Sikh sunk by enemy shore batteries, at Tobruk, 14 September.

Like Dorsetshire, the destroyer Maori had of course rescued Bismarck survivors and similarly, she too fulfilled the German officer’s grim prediction of ‘us today, you tomorrow’. But her casualties were light and only one man was killed when a Luftwaffe bomb penetrated and exploded in her machinery space in the early hours of the morning, a fire detonating a torpedo magazine blowing the ship apart. Fortunately the ship’s company was sleeping ashore rather than aboard ship. Maori broke in two, with her bows and stern poking above water. Because it was a hazard to shipping in the middle of Malta’s busy harbour, the wreck was raised and moved to a creek. After the war in Europe ended Maori’s wreck was raised yet again, towed out to sea and consigned to a permanent grave in deep water. In August 1942, Zulu and Sikh had joined forces with two other warships and RAF aircraft to hunt down and kill U-372 off Haifa. Both Tribal Class destroyers met their end during an ill-starred venture to put ashore a Royal Marine raiding force at Tobruk. Just after 5.00 am on 14 September, as the ships moved in to carry out the landings, a searchlight illuminated Sikh and an 88mm gun in a Luftwaffe anti-aircraft battery opened fire, displaying its lethality against targets other than aerial ones. Shells ripped into Sikh in several places in quick succession, putting her propulsion out of action and setting off the ammunition and demolition charges belonging to embarked marines. Her bridge was also wrecked. Sister ship Zulu attempted to tow Sikh out of trouble but was hit several times herself, abandoning the idea. Sikh was scuttled shortly after 7.00 am, 115 of her men lost and many others taken prisoner. After withdrawing from the range of enemy guns, Zulu sought protection from the cruiser Coventry. A few hours later enemy dive-bombers plunged from the clouds, leaving Coventry so badly damaged she had to be scuttled by fire from Zulu’s guns. Hardly had Zulu left this disaster in her wake, with Coventrís sailors joining Royal Marines packed aboard her, when no less than eighteen enemy dive-bombers attacked at once and from all directions. With a bomb destroying her engine room, the doomed warship was left dead in the water. Even then her end did not come quickly. With most of those aboard evacuated to another British warship, a valiant attempt was made to tow Zulu to safe harbour, all the while under enemy air attack, but the situation was soon rendered hopeless. Zulu turned turtle and sank just inside the breakwater at Alexandria, the Royal Navy’s main base in the eastern Mediterranean. Thirty-seven of Zulu’s men lost their lives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.