HMS Sutherland Remembers Wartime Tragedy in South China Sea
Heads bowed in reverence, sailors and Royal Marines pay their respects over one of the most hallowed sites in Royal Navy history. The location 3°33′36″N, 104°28′42″E – the South China Sea, 75 miles east of the Malaysian city of Kuantan. Beneath this location lie the wrecks of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, last resting places of 840 men killed when the battleship and battle-cruiser were sunk by Japanese bombers in December 1941.
Seventy-seven years on and Devonport-based frigate HMS Sutherland paused as the sun set over the location for a service of remembrance.
The act was particularly poignant for the men and women of the Sutherland; their ship sailed from the very same dockyard in Singapore and passed through the exact waters as their forbears in 1941. Brand-new Prince of Wales and the veteran battle-cruiser – armed like a battleship, but without the same armour protection – HMS Repulse were dispatched to the Far East in the autumn of 1941 by Winston Churchill to deter Japanese aggression.
They did not; when the Japanese invaded Malaya, the two capital ships – collectively known as Force Z – were dispatched from Singapore to halt the attacks. Instead, they fell prey to medium and torpedo bombers. Within two hours, first Repulse, then Prince of Wales were lost.
Lt Max Cosby, Flight Observer (navigator/warfare specialist) in Sutherland’s Wildcat helicopter, outlined the battle – and the fate of the men – for his shipmates. "It is easy for history to become merely a list of facts, so to be able to draw on first-hand accounts of the battle from stokers and gunners made it much easier to close the gap of seven decades,” he said. “I have been fascinated by the story of Force Z since I was a young boy, so it was very special for me to be involved in commemorating their loss over the wrecks themselves.”
HMS Prince of Wales
Engineer ET(ME) Jacob ‘Eddy’ Edwards was struck by how similar his plight might be to the stokers keeping Prince of Wales going in the heat of battle. “Hearing the stories from the sailors on-board during the battle really makes you think about it, and how they were just like us," he said. “The photo on the order of service showing the escorting destroyer taking off men from Prince of Wales as she began to capsize made me realise just how quickly things can change in a warship.”
A wreath, dedicated to the men of Repulse and Prince of Wales and their families, was laid at the edge of the flight deck by Commanding Officer Cdr Andrew Canale, ahead of a minute’s silence at the going down of the sun.
Image courtesy ETWE A Forsythe / RN
“Seventy-seven years ago the Royal Navy was engaged with the forces of Japan, but fortunately we are now allies once more, and in the last few months we have continued to build a strong partnership with our naval counterparts from Japan.
“These relationships are key to the UK’s future in the Asia Pacific region and I know we will continue to remember our forebears whilst looking to the present and the future.”
Following the service HMS Sutherland resumed her passage to Malaysia to conduct further defence engagement activities aimed at strengthening international partnerships and increasing training opportunities in the region.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.