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"The strangest ship in the Royal Navy."


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#1 OpanaPointer

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Posted 10 September 2009 - 12:01 PM

Reposted from another forum with permission:

Hello 'Zilla!

As you're a Navy man, with a keen interest in naval history, you might like this oddity from the early days of the Far East campaign. Which I have a personal interest in, as my mother's uncle was the captain of the ship in question.

The early days of the war in the Far East saw the commissioning of the strangest ship ever to fly a Royal Navy ensign. A converted river ferry called the Li Wo. As my mother's uncle was a merchant seaman in the Far East for many years prior to WWII, and was actively listed in the naval reserves, he was given command of this vessel, which was thus renamed HMS Li Wo. The ship's task was to patrol rivers and coastal waters in the region around Singapore. Its sole armament was a 4 inch pop gun at the front, and two heavy machine guns. It wasn't expected to meet heavy opposition, but on Valentine's Day, 1942, that's just what it did.

Now, the captain, who now boasted the title of Lieutenant Commander Thomas Wilkinson, RNVR, was one of those larger than life figures - devilishly handsome, your typical lantern-jawed Boy's Own Paper "Days of Empire" hero made real, and thanks to his years in the Far East, he spoke Chinese and Japanese fluently. So, he knew the enemy he was dealing with, including the fact that capture was considered dishonourable in the enemy's eyes. He knew that any serious encounter with the enemy would be an all or nothing affair, literally a fight to the death.

The ship made a run from Singapore as the Japanese invaded, in order to avoid capture, and it was whilst entering open ocean, north of the Banka Straits, that the little ship ran into a full-bore Japanese convoy, complete with a nice juicy oil tanker. Only one problem - it had a heavy cruiser as escort with a full set of 8 inch guns.

True to form, the captain addressed his men. "Gentlemen, the enemy outnumber us, the enemy outgun us, the enemy can outrun us. There is only one possible course of action. Full speed ahead and attack!"

The Japanese were caught by surprise when this innocuous looking little ferry hoisted the Battle Ensign and began firing on their ships. Eventually, they came to their senses, and returned fire, only to find that HMS Li Wo had closed too closely for the heavy cruiser to bring its 8 inch guns to bear - the shells whistled over the top of Wilkinson and his crew as they closed to attack their target. Having set fire to one of the big transports, the little ship closed with the intention of ramming and sinking the now burning transport, that the Japanese sailors had mostly abandoned. Sure enough, HMS Li Wo holed its target below the waterline, and the two ships, now joined in a death embrace, began their descent to the bottom, the crew engaging in hand to hand knife fighting with the few remaining crew of the target. Eventually, HMS Li Wo slipped beneath the waves, with Wilkinson on the bridge, going down with his ship.

The vessel thus became the most decorated small ship in the entire history of the Royal Navy. Here is the list of decorations awarded:

Lt Cmdr Thomas Wilkinson - Victoria Cross (Posthumous)
Sub Lt Ronald George Gladstone Stanton - Distinguished Service Order
Petty Officer Athur William Thomspon - Conspicuous Gallantry Medal
Leading Seaman Victor Spencer - Distinguished Service Medal (later died in Japanese captivity 1945)
Able Seaman Albert Spendlove - Distinguished Service Medal (later co-author of the book Stand By To Die, an account of the HMS Li Wo action and the ordeals of survivors in Japanese captivity)
Lt Edgar Neil Derbridge RNZNV - Mentioned In Dispatches (Posthumously)
Sub Lt John Gardner Petherbridge, Malaya RNVR - Mentioned In Dispatches (Posthumously)
Albe Seaman (Signalman) Desmond Palmer - Mentioned In Dispatches (Posthumously)
Chief Petty Officer Charles Halme "Charlie" Rogers - Mentioned In Dispatches
Leading Seaman William Dick Wilding - Mentioned In Dispatches (served in Royal Navy into the 1950s)
Able Seaman John Smith - Mentioned In Dispatches

Among the other crew members were:

Able Seaman William Henry Baker - Killed In Action
Able Seaman John Thomas Frederick G. S. Bennett - Survived, possibly killed by Japanese troops on Bankga Island whilst evading capture
Leading Seaman Cyril John Cartwright - Killed In Action (ex-HMS Repulse)
Chief Steward Chu Woo Pau - Killed In Action
Leading Seaman Regional Cowtan - Wounded in bayonet attack, Survived, later Killed In Action on HMS Kung Wo
Leading Seaman Richard Clarence Farley - Survived, later Killed In Action aboard HMS Kung Wo
Leading Seaman James Bruce Douglas Hadley - Survived, Wounded, Captured by Japanese, died in Japanese captivity (ex-HMS Repulse)
Able Seaman Edward Hannan - Killed In Action
Engine Room Artificer 4th Class Charles Derek Harvey - Killed In Action
Water Tender Hisa Sung Fah - Killed In Action
Petty Officer Cecil Huntley - Killed In Action (ex-HMS Repulse)
Fireman Hwa Peng Loomg - Killed In Action
General Servant Ling Ah Ling - Killed In Action
Water Tender Loh chung Chu - Killed In Action
Sub Lt john Manson - Survived, possibly died in Japanese captivity
Able Seaman Muhammad Yusf bin Jafar - Killed In Action
Lieutenant (Chief Engineer) James Gall Murray - Killed In Action
Leading Seaman Thomas Henry Parsons - Survived, Mentioned In Dispatches for valour whilst in Japanese captivity, died 1999
Signalman Bernard John Radford - Killed In Action
Signalman Raja Anwar bin Raja Majid - Serious head wounds in action, Killed In Action either during the battle or shortly after
Lieutenant Andrew Robertson - Killed In Action
Able Seaman William Thomas Snow B.E.M. - Killed In Action (British Empire Medal awarded for previous gallantry aboard HMS Glasgow)
Able Seaman Leslie Topliss - Killed In Action
Fireman Wah Way Hung - Killed In Action
Sub Lt John Richard Wood - Killed In Action
Sick Berth Attendant Harry Young - Killed In Action

From here is reproduced the account in The Times newspaper of December 18th, 1946:

VC WON IN NAVAL ACTION
The Times, Wednesday December 18,1946.
RNR Officer's Valour


The King has approved the award of the Victoria Cross to: The late Temporary Lieutenant Thomas Wilkinson, RNR.

On February 14, 1942, HMS Li Wo, a patrol vessel of 1,000 tons, formerly a passenger steamer on the Upper Yangtze River, was on passage from Singapore to Batavia. Her ships company consisted of 84 officers and men, including one civilian; they were mainly survivors from His Majesties Ships which had been sunk, and a few units of the Army and R.A.F. Her armament was only one 4in. gun, for which she had only 13 practice shells, and two machine guns.

Since leaving Singapore the previous day, the ship had beaten off 4 air attacks, in one of which 52 machines took part, and had suffered considerable damage. Late in the afternoon she sighted two enemy convoys, the larger of which was escorted by Japanese naval units, including a heavy cruiser and some destroyers. The commanding officer, Lieutenant T. Wilkinson, gathered his scratch ships company together and told them that, rather than try to escape, he had decided to engage the convoy and fight to the last, in the hope that he might inflict damage upon the enemy. In making this decision, which drew resolute support from the whole ships company, Lieutenant Wilkinson knew that his ship faced certain destruction, and that his own chances of survival were small.

Straight for the Enemy

HMS Li Wo hoisted her battle ensign and made straight for the enemy. In the action which followed the machine guns were used with effect upon the crews of the ships within range, and a volunteer gun's crew manned the 4in. gun, which they fought with such purpose that a Japanese transport was badly hit and set on fire.

After a little over an hour HMS Li Wo had been critically damaged and was sinking. Lieutenant Wilkinson then decided to ram his principal target, the large transport, which had been abandoned by her crew. It is known that this ship burnt fiercely throughout the night following the action and was probably sunk. HMS Li Wo's gallant fight ended when her shells spent and under heavy fire from the enemy cruiser, Lieutenant Wilkinson finally ordered abandon ship. He himself remained on board and went down with her. There were only about 10 survivors, who were later made prisoners of war.

Lieutenant Wilkinson's valour was equalled only by the skill with which he fought his ship. The Victoria Cross is bestowed upon him posthumously in recognition both of his own heroism and self sacrifice and of that of all who fought and died with him.

Lieutenant Wilkinson, who was 44, was the youngest of five sons of the late Captain William Wilkinson, of Widnes. His VC is the 181st awarded in the war, and the 22nd won by the Navy.


The following is the citation in the London Gazette of 13th December 1946, for the award of the Victoria Cross to Thomas Wilkinson

Citation:
The citation in the London Gazette of 13th December 1946 contains the following details :

On 14th February, 1942, H.M.S. Li Wo, a patrol vessel of I,000 tons, formerly a passenger steamer on the Yangtse River, was on passage from Singapore to Batavia. Her company consisted of eighty-four officers and men, mainly survivors from H.M. ships and Army and Air Force units. Her armament was one 4-inch gun (with 13 practice shells) and two machine-guns. Since leaving Singapore she had beaten off four air attacks and had suffered considerable damage. Late in the afternoon she sighted two enemy convoys, the larger being escorted by Japanese fleet units, including a heavy cruiser and some destroyers. Lieutenant Wilkinson, with the unanimous backing of his mixed company, decided to engage the convoy and to fight to the last, inflicting what damage he could. He knew that his ship faced certain destruction. In the action that followed the machine-guns were used effectively, and a volunteer gun-crew fought the 4-inch gun to such purpose that they hit and set on fire a Japanese transport. After a little more than an hour, H.M.S. Li Wo was critically damaged and was sinking. Lieutenant Wilkinson decided to ram the damaged transport. It is known that this ship burned throughout the night and was probably sunk. Having ordered his ship to be abandoned, Lieutenant Wilkinson himself went down with her. Lieutenant Wilkinson's valour was equalled only by the skill with which he fought his ship. The Victoria cross is bestowed upon him posthumously in recognition of the heroism and self-sacrifice displayed not only by himself but by all who fought and died with him.


Needless to say, he is a hard act to follow. :)


Calilasseia.


"One of our King Tigers could take five of your Shermans, but you always had six of them."


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#2 Slipdigit

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Posted 10 September 2009 - 12:58 PM

That was a tough bunch of men.

We don't realize how trivial some of the decisions we have to make, when compared to that which Capt. Wilkinson made.

Best Regards,  
JW :slipdigit:

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#3 urqh

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Posted 10 September 2009 - 01:47 PM

The evacuation from singapore for those that got on a boat or were withdrawing is littered with many stories of similar if not as engulfing as this one. But the tales many have of the run to safety are gut wrenching on occasions.

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#4 Gromit801

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Posted 10 September 2009 - 05:11 PM

Hand Salute!
"I love deadlines. I love the 'Whooshing' noise they make when they go by." - Doug Adams

#5 OpanaPointer

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Posted 12 September 2009 - 12:32 PM

Debriefing Report Of Last Action of HMS Li Wo.

[FONT="]Report By Chief Petty Officer C. H. Rogers D/JX 125387[/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]
[FONT="]Final Action Of The Li-Wo Near Banka Island[/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]
[FONT="]After returning from my last job in Singapore, Jahore Straits Patrol, I was detailed to join HMS Li Wo, a river boat of 1,000 tons and speed of 15 knots. It had one 4” gun forward, two twin Lewis guns, one Halman projector and ASDIC installation procedure.[/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]
[FONT="]My joining orders were to report to Orange Hotel at 1500 hours, 13 Feb 42. The Japanese were occupying Singapore very quickly and the hotel was under fire from trench mortars. On reporting I was detailed to take a party of men from about 80 idfferent branches to join the Li Wo. Having loaded the lorries with provisions we proceeded to Keppel Harbour where the ship was anchored about 1 mile off shore.[/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]
[FONT="]Once on board the 1st Lieutenant, Lt. Stanton, gave my orders, which were to detail off gun crews, lookouts, and men for the engine and boiler rooms. About midnight we found we were no longer able to communicate with shore but were advised by another ship to move off. This we attempted, but the C.O., Lt. Wilkinson, found it extremely difficult owing to the lack of marker buoys and decided to anchor until morning. At dawn the gun crews were closed up and the ship got under way.[/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]
[FONT="]During the afternoon of the 14th we were bombed but luckily no hits were scored. At about 19000 hours we anchored in a small bay on one of the islands. The next morning we were bombed again but escaped being hit. The planes were very low which gave us a chance to retaliate with machine gun fire. The Captain then decided we would make a dash through “bomb alley”, the Banka Straits. Whilst proceeding to this area we sighted a convoy of about 30 ships, on the horizon off our starboard bow, heading in the direction of Banka Island, but were unable to identify them until we closed to about 16,000 yards. Suddenly, on the horizon, dead ahead, we sighted the tops of 3 funnels, which turned out to be a Jap cruiser carrying 6” guns. We also sighted off our port bow a Jap destroyer heading the convoy, which was in sections of 4 and 6 ships. The Captain was also certain that its mission was to support the invasion of Singapore.[/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]
[FONT="]Word very rapidly passed around the ship that we were going to go into action and that the leading ship in the nearest section would be our first target. Battle ensigns were hoisted, one on Gaff and one at Masthead, and we closed rapidly with the 4” gun ready to open fire. With no sign of enemyfire we closed to 2,000 yards when the order to open fire was given. The 1st salvo fell short, the 2nd crossed the bow and the 3rd scored a direct hit just under the bridge. She appeared to be on fire and turned to port. The other ships turned to starboard and commenced firing at us with small calibre guns.[/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]
[FONT="]The damaged ship was now approaching the Li Wo, still firing, so the C.O. decided to ram her. We hit her at top speed amidships and became interlocked, our bows being buckled back – we were now really at close quarters. A machine gun duel took place which was fast and furious, with many men killed or wounded. The Li Wo gunners eventually wiped out the 2 guns which caused the Japs to abandon ship, which by this time was well on fire.[/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]
[FONT="]Whilst all this was happening the Jap cruiser had circled around behind us and was heading straight for us at high speed. We eventually became disentangled from the crippled Jap ship and set course away from the cruiser. The cruiser opened fire at a range of 18,000 yards and noticed that the enemy destroyer that had been heading for us on the opposite was turning away. No doubt she knew that we were at the mercy of the cruiser as we were outgunned and out-ranged.[/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]
[FONT="]We zigzagged as the salvos fell – we had a poor opinion of the Jap gunners as their salvos of 6” shells were falling wide, sometimes 300 yards or more off target. However, gradually they came nearer and nearer and shrapnel was now hitting us causing many men to be killed or wounded. I personally was hit with 3 pieces of shrapnel in the leg, but not seriously wounded. After about the 9th salvo we were told to abandon ship, so all who were able to jumped overboard. Very soon afterwards the cordite locker at the rear of the gun and amidships was hit. The last sight I had of the Li Wo as she started on her last voyage to the bottom of the ocean was something I shall never forget – her ensigns were still flying and the Captain was standing on the bridge, and, although, listing to port, she was still under way. Then, suddenly, she disappeared – the Li Wo was no more. For this action, Lt Wilkinson was awarded the V.C. (Posth).[/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]
[FONT="]HMS Li Wo[/FONT][FONT="] had fought her last action and was now at rest on the bottom of the ocean. The few remaining men who had escaped were at the mercy of the sea – there was no land in sight. Eventually in the distance a lifeboat was sighted, bobbing up and down in the swell. L. S. Thompson and myself struck out towards it, but just as we were approaching it, we noticed a ship from the convoy heading towards us. We swam away as fast as possible and on glancing back saw the ship ram the lifeboat. Around this area there were about 30 men struggling for their lives, little realising that the worst part was yet to come – the Japs were not content to leave us to our fate, but circled around and opened up a murderous attack with machine guns, hand grenades, coal and wood. It was just plain cold blooded murder. Amidst the hell, men could be heard crying out for mercy, but still the Japs continued their ‘sport’. I lay on my back with arms outstretched and luckily no more shots came in my direction.[/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]
[FONT="]After what seemed like an eternity the ship moved off, leaving the ones that had cheated death again, once more, to their fate. Those that were able to, made toward the lifeboat, which was by now about half submerged – there were only 8 survivors. Lt Stanton had a bullet hole through the back of his head, another officer was wounded in the stomach and had part of his hand shot away, P. G. Huntley had his foot blown off and was in very bad condition. We helped each other into the lifeboat which was now submerged to the gunwhale, and tried to make the best of a bad situation. There were no oars, food or medical supplies, all we could do was let the boat drift. As e drifted we saw the ship that we had crippled – it was also drifting, and still on fire. We spent a very cold night, and as dawn broke, one of the officers whom I had been holding in my arms, died from his severe shrapnel wounds. I informed Lt. Stanton who helped me take off his lifebelt and put him over the side where he slowly sank below the surface.[/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]
[FONT="]After about 2 days, we eventually saw our first sign of land on the horizon, about 16 miles away. We were all in rather bad shape, but ignoring the sharks which have been swimming around us continuously and yet never attacked us once, we attempted to tow the boat toward the shore, but to no avail. A Jap destroyed came and had a sniff at us and we wondered if our earlier experiences would be repeated. However, they only gave us a cursory glance and sailed away, leaving us to our fate, but we were not going to be beaten.[/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]
[FONT="]The boat was now getting extremely waterlogged and we expected her to go down at any time. Lt. Stanton decided to try to get to the Jap ship which was now 2 miles away, and so, along with the gunnery officer they started to swim, but the tides were against them and they were lucky enough to be picked up during the night. The almost totally submerged boat now contained myself, L. S. Wilden, L. S. Spencer, P. O. Huntley, a Malay called Tel, and an unknown soldier. P.O. Huntley died as a result of his wounds and the soldier was lost overboard. L. S. Spencer set off to swim ashore but was unsuccessful and was picked up extremely exhausted.[/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]
[FONT="]Only 3 of us were now left, myself, L. S. Wilden and the Malayan, so we decided to let the boat drift to wherever the tide would take her. As luck would have it, another partly submerged boat drifted toward us, just before dark. We swam towards it and found it was a Naval Whaler, split down the centre, but preferable because it had oars and sail. We boarded her, rigged her for sailing, and had just picked out a sight of land to sail for when we heard yells and shouts. They came from 2 rafts we hadn’t previously seen – on one raft there were 3 men, on the other 4 men. They were also survivors from the Li Wo, and we were glad to find that they had a tin of biscuits with them. I could only let a few on board the whaler and then we took the rafts in tow. We were helped by the strong wind which sprang up, but the boat was submerged up to the gunwhale so we were actually sitting in water all the time.[/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]
[FONT="]During the night a Jap patrol boat approached and shone her searchlight on us, but because we had dropped over the lee side they did not detect us.[/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]
[FONT="]My aim was to try to reach the land ahead which I knew to be Sumatra, but the tides were so strong that we could only drift with them. At about 2am we sighted land straight ahead so I put 6 men on the oars and we started rowing for our lives. We were still rowing 4 hours later but I knew we were getting nearer to the shore. We went ashore several hours later on Banka Island, along with a Jap invasion party who seemed to ignore us until later when we were taken prisoner – but that’s another story![/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]
[FONT="] [/FONT]

"One of our King Tigers could take five of your Shermans, but you always had six of them."


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#6 urqh

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Posted 12 September 2009 - 12:45 PM

As always.. Great thread.

British Army 1939-1945 - World War II Tribute Video

 

 

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#7 OpanaPointer

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Posted 12 September 2009 - 02:47 PM

(Further message from the source of above.)

Oh by the way, here's a brief description of Lt Cmdr Wilkinson, with a photo.

Brief Account Of Action With Photo

Lt Cmdr Wilkinson's Victoria Cross is now on display at the Imperial War Museum.

As an aside, another website carrying the story of HMS Li Wo is this one, devoted to the preservation of the memory of Far East prisoners of war. The COFEPOW page on HMS Li Wo is here. Their remembrance page for FEPOWs is here.

The local memorial at Victoria Park, about 15 minutes' cycling time from my home, is depicted in this photo, and a brief mention of him can be found on the Victoria Cross Website. More can be found on the Royal Naval Reserve pages here.

"One of our King Tigers could take five of your Shermans, but you always had six of them."


WWII Resources. Primary sources.
The Myths of Pearl Harbor. Demythologizing the attack.
Hyperwar. Hypertext history of the Second World War.
Pearl Harbor Attack Message Board
Veteran: USN, 1969-1989




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