|Jaunty caps, well turned out, good drill - the ship's company of HMS Thanet at the march-past in pre-war Hong Kong|
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 Thanet. Scout 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.
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|
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.
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)|