Our ship’s gone, now swim for it
The 24th torpedo was one that sank us
GUY GRIFFITHS, 95
Royal Australian Navy
On December 10, 1941, Guy Griffiths was swimming for his life.
The teenage midshipman was one of five Australians aboard the HMS Repulse, a World War I-era British battlecruiser that had been sent to Malaya to disrupt a Japanese landing.
That morning, the ship was attacked by a squadron of Japanese bombers. Griffiths, who was later to become a rear admiral in the Australian Navy, was manning the anti-aircraft guns.
Captain William Tennant managed to dodge 19 torpedoes. But, soon after midday, five hit the ship in as many minutes. At 12.33, Repulse listed severely to one side and capsized.
There were 1180 men on board but the ship sank so quickly that almost half of them died.
Minutes before the Repulse sank, Rear Admiral Griffiths heard the call to abandon ship. There was no panic. “I must say it was a very orderly exit, for those who could get out,” he recalled.
In minutes, midshipman Griffiths and his team had scaled ladders, clambered around turrets, climbed out a porthole and slid down the side of the ship into the water, which was thick with oil.
Many of the British sailors couldn’t swim well enough to reach the waiting ships and died in the water.
They had life jackets but not enough time to blow them up.
Even for strong swimmers like the Australians, it was a gruelling journey.
“I still had my shoes on,” Griffiths said. “You swim very carefully. I was concentrating on getting to the destroyer quickly. “I did at one stage look back at the Repulse and watched the last portion of her bow disappearing below the surface. You don’t get too sentimental when you’re flopping around in the water.”
Midshipman Griffiths was rescued by a nearby destroyer. He went on to serve in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Three of the other Australian midshipmen survived the sinking and the war.
But Robert Ian Davies of Greenwich, Sydney, did not.
As the Repulse sank, he was seen at his gun, shooting at the Japanese planes. “Instead of casting off from his gun, he put himself in the gunner’s position,” Rear Admiral Griffiths said. “It was a very courageous thing.”