AN EXPEDITION TO DIVE HMS REPULSE AND HMS PRINCE OF WALES
The end of October brings with it the impending monsoon season, but also just before it breaks, one of the best windows of opportunity to head up the east coast of Malaysia to the historic WWII wreck sites that are the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales.
This time of year, as well as early in the dive season (Apr/May) tends to bring the flattest seas and more manageable currents; the perfect time to dive back in history deep below the South China Sea.
We leave just before sunset from NE Singapore for the sail up the eastern seaboard of Malaysia. We are following the same path the Force Z fleet took on 8 Dec 1941.
Obviously a lot has changed since that time, particularly in Singapore. However as we enter open sea we can just see the coast of SE Johor which probably wouldn’t have looked too different 70 years ago. That coupled with the fading phone signal makes it is easier to comprehend what it would have felt for the crew heading north.
Our mission is quite different, and that of exploration. Due to the long sail required to HMS Repulse, we spend the first day at the Aur Tanker, a perfect way to break the journey.
Named after the nearby island of Pulau Aur; little is known of the wreck’s origin even though it has been dived for more than 20 years. It made it through the war and was most likely scuttled. It should not however be considered a checkout dive as it sits in 65m of water.
There was more current than we had hoped for on the Aur Tanker, but a good days diving. The open circuit divers opted for three dives, whilst rebreather team had two longer dives. Although none the wiser on the origin, two whalesharks were spotted throughout the dive. These are also more common at the start and end of season. Both the 8m and 4m specimens hung around for a while both on the wreck itself, as well as providing suitable entertainment on the deco stops.
An overnight sail takes us to HMS Repulse; more than 100km off the coast of Pahang, Malaysia.
I had the pleasure of tying the line to the wreck. With this task comes the privilege of being the first person onto the HMS Repulse. Despite numerous visits, I’m always taken aback by the sheer size of the ship itself. Swimming from close to the bow to the propeller shafts reminds me that the battlecruiser is indeed 242m in length.
The 32,000 T vessel now looks at one with itself. The propeller area is covered in fishing nets; the hull encrusted with soft coral. Much of the mighty armaments that sat atop the deck have now fallen to the seabed. It’s still possible to make out their great shapes and also marvel of the magnificence of the vessel that set sail fearlessly from Singapore.
The plan is to spend two full days at the HMS Repulse. Most of the first day is spent exploring the aft of the ship. She was driven by four Brown Curtis turbines delivering an impressive top speed of 31.7kt (51 kph). Although the ship lies heavily to her port side in 55m of water, the positioning of four propeller shafts allow a good assessment of the lie of the vessel. Two of the four props remain and bear testament to the top speed that could have been achieved. There is also torpedo damage by the propeller shaft.
There is also a bonus on the first day with further whaleshark sightings. We have been very fortunate in this respect; which has offset the more challenging currents that we have been facing.
The second day offered the opportunity to explore further towards amidships. Here it is clear to see the cause of the very rapid sinking of HMS Repulse. Although Capt Tennant managed to avoid the initial salvo of torpedoes and bombs a second wave of Mitsubishi G4M torpedo bombers scored five direct hits on HMS Repulse. This torpedo damage on the starboard amidships is clearly visible to the diver; with the hull ripped apart by the hit.
We have a dilemma at the end of the second day on the HMS Repulse. With currents stronger than we would anticipate at this time of year; heading to the deeper HMS Prince of Wales will be even more challenging than it usually is; given it’s greater depth of 68m. With so much of the HMS Repulse yet to explore, we decide to stay an extra day and save the HMS Prince of Wales for better conditions.
The final day is spent viewing the impressive armaments that HMS Repulse was fitted with. At the stern section we have already identified the overturned turret that housed the twin 15” guns, which are unfortunately buried in the sand out of sight. Several of the huge shells also sit nearby. Further forward sit 4” low angle (LA) guns; half buried in the sand.
The most impressive guns however are the twin 15” guns towards the bow. Viewing these requires a lengthy swim along the ship. The effort is well worth it though. Both guns are still attached to the turret and point skywards. They really provide context on the size and significance of the vessel.
They no longer look as menacing as in the period photos of HMS Repulse at full steam. Now adorned by soft coral with rock cod now replacing the shells as owners of the mighty shafts.
This poignant image is probably the one that most divers take away with them and a good way to wrap up the expedition and start the long sail back to Singapore.
Article authored by Liam Winston. Liam is a qualified TDI instructor and is leading a pioneering expedition to link the three significant wrecks of World War Two, HMS Hermes, HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales in April 2012. See www.secretcompass.com