“Stand by. Here comes another, starboard side, it’ll hit about midships – here it is, NOW!”
The director officer’s voice, in his impromptu role as a commentator, came down the line from his lofty, exposed position to the transmitter station deep in the bowels of the ship.
The commentary was carried out many times as torpedoes were released by the low-flying Japanese aircraft at the crippled battleship.
The crew, helpless to do anything to help save the ship, could only sit in their tiny machine-packed compartment, listen to what was going on in the outside world and count the explosions.. one, two, three, four..
One explosion sounded ominously close. The lights failed, the large ship lurched, then the emergency lighting went out and, unnoticed at first, fresh air stopped filtering down on to those sweating bodies.
Suddenly everything had gone black and uncannily quiet, and someone muttered: “Talk about the Black Hole of Calcutta.” As we sat there, unseen by each other, came another thunderous explosion. We waited. Was this the end?
Our thoughts were shattered when Snowy, a short, white-haired, long-serving matelot burst in and shrieked: “The magazine’s been hit.” I could not see how my shipmates reacted to the awesome news, but I know my stomach fluttered. I felt sick.
Amid a growing buzz of voices filtered one addressed to me through the blackness from a corner to my right: “Hey, Doug, I reckon the magazine must be flooded. The water’ll be in here soon. What will you do? Resign yourself to being drowned or try to keep alive? Once it gets to the deckhead we’ve had it.”
I began to accept the full realisation that we were several decks below the water line, and that above us were three nine-inch thick bombproof decks, the hatches closed down for action stations.
They could be raised only from above by geared pulley chains. We were trapped and isolated.
There were mutterings, strangely subdued cursings, but little or no coherent conversation and certainly not a single word about this proud ship going down. We were deep in our own thoughts.
Eventually, the director officer ordered them to report to him on the forecastle. They left the 10ft by 10ft room “which had been our prison for the past few hours” and found their luck was in as one-half of each of the three hatch covers was slightly open, just enough for a man to squeeze through.
Out on the forecastle, the light was blindingly brilliant. It took me several moments before, still half squinting, I could take a look around. I had come up, I knew, on the port side but I never expected to be so close to the sea. It was lapping gently against the gunwale. The starboard side of the ship was up in the air, outlined against a cloudless sky.
All was serenely quiet and all I wanted was a cigarette. I lit up, but barely had I taken my first satisfying taste than a voiced behind barked: “Put that out and get over the side. You haven’t got time to smoke.”
I spun around and there stood the tall, powerful figure of the director officer. He pointed up the steeply sloping deck to the starboard side and told me I had better get up there quickly and into the water.
I was wearing blue serge trousers, undervest and shirt, socks and shoes, plus my anti-flash gear. But I had no lifebelt – I had always carried it previously.
There was only one thing to do.. take the plunge. I looked around but could see only calm sea and patches of thick brown oil. I asked a Marine in front of me: “Where is the Repulse?”. He replied: “She went down more than an hour ago. See that destroyer over there, she’s picking up survivors.”
We few were obviously the last to leave. Looking back up towards the bridge, I saw the admiral and the captain leaning over the side, each smoking a cigarette.
After sliding feet first into the water and swimming 100 yards, using the breaststroke to conserve energy, I felt safe from any disturbance caused by the heeling ship. This achieved, I began to shed some of my clothing which was feeling heavy.
The ship completely turned on her side and, as if from nowhere, dozens of seamen appeared, running aimlessly about the huge steel bulk. Slowly the stern sank and the bows rose high out of the water. Visibly the ship began to slip beneath the water until, with a final gush, she disappeared from sight.
I remember someone telling me to give up any thoughts of swimming ashore as land was 25 miles away. It was simply a matter of survival from now on.
Among the debris I spotted a chair. It was a dining chair, no doubt from the wardroom. In the absence of a lifebelt, this was the next best thing.
I swam to it, stood it upright and laid myself across the seat, but after only a couple of strokes cast it away, having taken a sickening knock on the knee.
As I floated lazily I heard a shout and, turning over, saw a ship’s whaler. It was crowded with survivors and when I reached it I was told that there was no room on board, but if I raised my hands I would be lifted sufficiently to hang on the side.
Fortunately, a look-out on the destroyer HMS Express, which had been escorting the Prince of Wales, spotted the small whaler and lowered a scramble net so that the survivors could climb to the overcrowded safety of her deck.