Wednesday, 12 July 2017

HMS Thanet (Monthly Blog - July 2017)

HMS Thanet was ordered in 1917 from the Tyneside ship builders Hawthorn Leslie, a company established  in 1866 by the amalgamation of A. Leslie & Co. (shipbuilders) at Hebburn-on-Tyne and R & W Hawthorn (locomotive manufacturers) at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She was one of sixty-seven S-class destroyers ordered for the Royal Navy during WW1. Her keel was laid down in December 1917. She was completed and launched on 5th November 1918 just a week before WW1 ended. She completed her sea trials and was commissioned in August 1919. HMS Thracian, a destroyer of the same class, which fought in the Battle for Hong Kong, and HMS Kelly, commanded by Lord Louis Mountbatten, were also built at Hawthorn Leslie's shipbuilding yard on the Tyne.

HMS Thanet
Thanet displaced 1,075 tons and had a top speed of 36 knots. She was equipped with three quick firing (QF) 4-inch guns, one forward, one amidships (between the funnels) and one astern. In addition she had a pom-pom gun for AA defence, and two sets of twin torpedoes tubes. She had a usual complement of around ninety-six men and six officers. Her pennant number was H29, and her motto in hoc signo vinces, translated from Latin as in this sign you will conquer. After commissioning, Thanet was used for trials of aircraft platforms on warships, presumably with the platform extended over her lengthy stern section. In December 1919 she visited the Isle of Thanet in North East Kent. A British Pathe film clip records the officers and men visiting Ramsgate, at which time time the civic authorities of Thanet, and the three main towns, including Margate and Ramsgate, and presumably Broadstairs, presented the ship with silverware.

After the carnage of the Great War, the League of Nations had been established with the object  of ensuring peace through a combination of dispute resolution, disarmament, and arms control. People thought that the Great War had been the war to end all wars. Troops were de-mobilised, and ships were de-commissioned. HMS Thanet was a brand new warship, but the war was over and she was surplus to needs, and in 1921, Thanet was mothballed and placed in the reserve fleet. I have not been able to find out  how long she spent in the reserve fleet, but  in 1939 she was dispatched to the Far East where she joined the small RN force based in Hong Kong. She was commanded by Lt-Cdr John Mowlam from February 1939 until April 1941, at which time Cdr Bernard Davies took command of the Hong Kong based destroyer. 

  Jaunty caps, well turned out, good drill - the ship's company of HMS Thanet at the march-past in pre-war Hong Kong
By the time the Pacific War started there were three S-class destroyers stationed in Hong Kong. These were HMS Thanet,  HMS Scout and HMS Thracian. There were eight MTBs and four river gunboats. The largest gunboats were HMS Cicala and HMS Moth. They were well armed with two 6-inch guns, one 3-inch high angle (HA) gun, and a pom-pom gun. There were a variety of boom defence vessels, and the minelayer, HMS Redstart, which was used for laying contact mines, remote controlled mines and indicator loops. There were a number of converted launches and tugs, described as auxiliary patrol vessels (APVs) and manned by the HKRNVR. They were used for conducting minefield patrols, minesweeping and war patrols. The APVs were slow and lightly armed and once war started they were of little use militarily.

The main naval and military presence in the Far East was in Singapore. Hong Kong was seen as an isolated outpost and a strategic liability. Churchill knew it could not be defended. It was too close to Japanese aircraft bases in Formosa and Southern China and the Japanese had several divisions across the border. This explains the weakness of the Royal Navy and RAF in Hong Kong in the lead up to war. On the day war started, 8th December, 1941, Thracian, which had been converted into a minelayer role by clearing its rear gun and adding minelaying racks to its stern-quarters, was laying mines in Port Shelter guarded by ThanetScout was in dry-dock at Tai Koo  having its bottom plates cleaned. HMS Moth and HMAPV Margaret were in dry-dock at the RN dockyard. These two vessels never got out, and were later scuttled in the dock, and played no part in the battle.

There was a plan that in the event of war breaking out Thanet and Scout would sail to Singapore and join Force Z, which had arrived in Singapore on 2nd December 1941, and consisted of  the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse and their escorting destroyers. This plan had been agreed with the US naval authorities and included a commitment for some US warships to be sent to Singapore.

After nightfall on Monday 8th December Scout and Thanet sailed through the gates of the anti-submarine  boom at Lye Mun. Since Lt-Cdr  Davies on Thanet was more senior than Lt-Cdr Lambton on Scout,  Thanet took the lead as senior ship. Whilst on passage to Manila they spent some time looking for SS Ulysses which had left Hong Kong on Sunday with passengers bound first for Manila and then Singapore. Ulysses had sent a distress signal after being bombed and strafed by Japanese aircraft on Monday. She was undamaged and changed course for Singapore. She arrived safely in Singapore, but was sunk by a U-boat off the Carolinas while on passage to UK. 

After docking in Manila the destroyer crews learnt that Prince of Wales and Repulse had been sunk by Japanese aircraft. The task force had been sent up the east coast of Malaya to intercept Japanese landings but lacked air cover. The new aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable should have been part of Force Z, but was being repaired following a grounding in the Caribbean Sea. The two destroyers then proceeded to Batavia, now known as Jakarta, and thence to Singapore arriving on 13th December.

The two destroyers were involved initially in escort work around the Straits of Singapore. On Christmas Day Thanet was sent out on an SOS mission to pick up the crew of a Catalina that had been shot down by Japanese AA fire. The crew were picked up by a Dutch submarine before Thanet arrived. On 26th January 1942, a Japanese troop convoy was reported to be approaching Endau, on the east coast of Malaya, north of the town of Mersing, and by leap-frogging down the coast by use of troop landings, the Japanese Army were outflanking the British  and getting closer to Singapore.

Map showing location of Endau relative to Singapore
The Japanese vessels and their destroyer escorts were attacked first by nine RAF Lockheed Hudson bombers and twelve Vickers Vildebeests. The Vildebeests were obsolete torpedo bombers with a maximum speed of 100 mph. The attack was not successful and five of the Vildebeests were shot down. 
Lockheed Hudson 

Later that day, on 26th January, HMS Thanet and HMAS Vampire were ordered to sail from Singapore to intercept the Japanese convoy at Endau some eighty miles north of Singapore.  In the early hours of 27th January they sighted a Japanese warship, thought to be a destroyer, and Vampire fired at her with torpedoes, which missed the target. The Japanese vessel turned out to be a minesweeper and the torpedoes probably passed underneath her shallow hull. A short while later they sighted the  Japanese destroyer IJN Shirayuki, and  Vampire fired two more torpedoes which also missed their target. Thanet then launched her four torpedoes, which also missed. The two Allied destroyers then engaged the Japanese vessels with their 4-inch QF guns. Shirayuki was then joined by the Japanese cruiser Sendai. Outgunned and outnumbered, the two Allied destroyers then started to withdraw towards the southeast. At 0400 hours Thanet was hit in the engine room, lost propulsion and was brought to a stop. Vampire commenced laying a protective smokescreen, but it was too late, Thanet was already sinking. The Japanese destroyers, Fubuki, Hatsuyuki, Asagiri, Amagiri, and Yugiri closed in for the kill. Thanet sunk within fifteen minutes of being hit. Vampire was undamaged, but facing a strong Japanese naval force, had no opportunity to assist Thanet by picking up her survivors, and accordingly, she disengaged and sailed back to Singapore.

After the order was given to abandon ship, it is thought there was enough time for most of Thanet's  crew to get off the ship and into the water. Many were able to get aboard Carley floats, others hanging on to anything that could float, they started paddling, and pushing their rafts towards the Malayan coast. Reports suggest that the Shirayuki picked up thirty-one of Thanet's crew members. They were landed at Endau and handed over to the Army. None of these men were seen again and it is assumed they were all executed by the Japanese Army as an act of retaliation for Japanese losses in an ambush with Australian troops. One of the Thanet officers, Sub-Lt R.H. Danger, the ship's Torpedo Officer, remained on Shirayuki, it is not clear why, perhaps he was wounded, perhaps they wanted to interrogate him as to presence of minefields.  He was later interned in Indochina, and he survived the war.

The web site for Force-Z survivors, highlighted below, details some one hundred and thirteen crew members, including some Chinese stewards and cooks, and identifies those that were killed in action on 27th January 1941. There are thirty-seven listed as killed and their details are also shown in Commonwealth War Graves Commissions records. Thirty of those thirty-seven listed as killed on 27th January must have been in the group picked up by Shirayuki and the remaining seven may have perished when the ship sank, or they may have failed to make it ashore and drowned, or a combination of both or died whilst trying to make their way south to Singapore.

Some seventy-six members of the crew survived the sinking, and made it to the shore including the commanding officer. A large number,  I have not found the exact number, but reports suggest more than fifty of the crew made it back to Singapore ahead of the surrender of Singapore on 15th February 1942. Five crew members are listed as having died in POW Camps. I can not find details of how many ended up in POW camps or where the camps were. Some of the POWs may have been caught in Singapore at the surrender, some may have been captured in Malaya whilst trying to escape south to Singapore.

When the survivors reached the shore they were spread out widely, and therefore split in different groups. Few of them had any footwear or much clothing. They all headed southwards immediately determined to get back to Singapore more than eighty miles away. Some went along the jungle shore following the coast. Some found boats. Some went along roads through the jungle towards Johore. They ran into various RAF aircrew who had been shot down and who were also heading south for the relative safety of Singapore with the Japanese advancing behind them. Sgt Charles MacDonald had been shot down in his Vildebeest, most likely in the attack on the same group of enemy landing ships and destroyers at Endau. He recalled coming across a number of Thanet survivors. They joined up and made their way through the jungle to Singapore. Sgt Harry Lockwood had been shot down in a Fairly Albacore. He recalled meeting up with six Thanet survivors who were heading to Singapore. Two RAF officers who had ditched their aircraft north of Mersing, found a boat which they used to cross the Mersing River. They then ran into a group of Thanet survivors. They joined up, and used the boat to go south, rowing at night and sleeping ashore during the day. They were eventually picked up by a coaster and taken to Singapore.  In another incident, RAF pilot John Fleming had ditched in the sea. He swam ashore and started heading south. He swam the Mersing River and after continuing southwards came across a large group of Thanet survivors, some of which he recalled had been badly injured. They found a whaler and used the boat to sail down the coast. At one point they were hailed by another group of Thanet survivors who were with two aircrew from a shot-down Vildebeest. They were taken onboard and they continued down the coast eventually reaching Singapore.

Between fifty and sixty survivors trickled back to Singapore all having made incredible escapes, some by land and some by sea. The Naval Historical Society of Australia web site states that some of the survivors were allocated to HMS Stronghold and HMS Sultan. The former was another S-class destroyer which was sank in March 1942, the latter was the RN shore base in Singapore. Any of the Thanet crew deployed there would have most likely ended up in POW Camp. Other sources state that a number of Thanet survivors together with other Force Z survivors got away on HMS Endeavour which was reportedly one of the last evacuation ships to get away from Singapore before the surrender.

The gallant Thanet (Naval Historical Society of Australia)
It has been difficult piecing this story together, particularly as it relates to the escape to Singapore and the fate of the survivors. As usual I would appreciate any comments, corrections or additional information that I can build into this post. I have a spreadsheet for the crew list which I will add to as I get more information on each crew member. As for the gallant Thanet, she still rests in that watery grave off the east coast of Malaysia. Recreational divers have reported diving on Thanet, lying at a depth of some 20 metres, and stating that she was immediately recognisable, although broken in two, by her three sets of single barrelled 4-inch guns which still stand and still seem to whisper by this sign I will conquer. 



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