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Grafton Maggs recalls
'The best Christmas present of them all......ever'. Written 30th November 2011
In mid-December 1941, those of us fortunate enough to be at home, or even have a home, were making preparations for the celebration of Christmas. This was the third Christmas of World War 2, a subdued Christmas, when perhaps the fortunes of Britain and her Allies were at their lowest ebb and the savagery of total war had literally reached the heart of Swansea.
As in every other town and village in Britain, many lads and lasses were far away from home serving in the Armed Forces, each and every one sorely missed by their kin. However, in spite of those empty chairs at the festive table and Draconian rationing, families tried hard to make the best of things and celebrate this most special of days.
And this was the like situation in the Balsdon family home, Gloucester Place, Mumbles. On 10th December, in an unwitting routine, Evelyn Balsdon and 21 year old daughter, Lottie, sat down to lunch in their comfortable home. Lottie reached over and switched on the wireless set for the One o’clock News.
Announcer, Alvar Liddell, introduced himself and then delivered an item of news that had as devastating an effect upon this household as if it had been struck by a thunderbolt.
The central character of this drama was born on 31st August 1922 when Evelyn Balsdon was delivered of a son, Bryn, at her mother’s house in Hill Street, Mumbles. When fit to cope, she returned home to Gloucester Place for a happy reunion with husband, Colin and daughter Lottie.
Reared on good plain Mumbles tack, Bryn developed into a handsome, healthy lad who enjoyed the happiest of childhoods and described this period of his life as if it were spent, “in a pink haze of sheer enjoyment”. Local education was followed by three years in Glanmor Secondary School, in which period Bryn enjoyed a full social life, considerably enriched by Scouting as a member of the 1st Mumbles Troop. Burning within him, however, was restlessness, a fervent desire to enlist in the Royal Navy.
Fulfilment came on 1st October 1937, when, as Boy 2nd Class, he joined HMS Ganges at Harwich. Prior to departure, Skipper Bert Moore, Troop Leader “Buster” David, fellow Patrol Leaders, Freddie Schroffer, Fred Dawtry and Dickie Meach, plus all the rank and file of 1st Mumbles Scouts (which included me), gave him an uproarious send off in the Grove Scout Hut, off Queens Road.
There were no regrets! He loved life in the Senior Service, from the word “go”! After completion of a 12 month training course in Wireless Communications, (at a weekly pay of 5s. 3d.), he was posted to HMS Drake, Portsmouth. After Christmas leave at home, Bryn returned to Drake, to find orders posted. Boy 1st Class Bryn Balsdon was to join battle cruiser, HMS Repulse, in Plymouth. His first ship!
Repulse had just left the shipyards after a radical refit and, in January 1939 took on a completely new crew, under the command of Captain James Spooner, RN. This crew numbered 967 of which 150 were boys. The new crew was a carefully constituted mix of seasoned veterans and rookies. When Bryn first saw the rakish Repulse, she took his breath away, she was the most beautiful thing afloat that he had ever seen in his life, an impression he cherished to the end of his days.
Bryn as a young sailor
He reported to the Chief Petty Officer i/c Wireless Section and became part of the staff of 50, 16 of which were boys. Throughout the ship, watches, duties and quarters were allocated and the crew began to dovetail in to a team reflecting the legendary standards of the Royal Navy (8 centuries of tradition helping somewhat). Boys messed separately from the men and on the first day aboard, Bryn heard the loud, clear voice of a Leading Boy sorting out a Mess protocol problem. With his accent there could be no mistake in identifying the source of his upbringing. Leading Boy Willie Vaughan was a Hafod boy, Swansea! He and Bryn became very close friends, and, regularly, travelled home on leave together.
By May 1939, after extensive North Atlantic exercises, the ship’s company was working, and living together, in full harmony. There was pride! Repulse was now battleworthy- and not a moment too soon! On Sunday morning, 3rd September 1939, Repulse was at sea. Tannoys blared throughout the ship demanding immediate attention.
A hushed crew listened to the weary, resigned voice of Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, as he announced,- that a state of war now existed between Britain and Germany.
Within weeks, she had her first taste of war in the rather mundane, but gruelling, duties of escorting Ark Royal and Atlantic convoys. Later in 1940, came the more dramatic task of chasing the Bismarck. Summer of 1941 arrived and Repulse was ordered to the Far East under new CO, Captain William Tennent. Bryn was delighted to discover that on board Repulse, now, were two Mumbles ratings, HOs (hostilities only), incredibly, one was Fred Dawtry (fellow 1st Mumbles Scout!) and the other, Billy Rees of the well known, West Cross family. En route, they sampled together the fleshpots of Durban.
Repulse reached Singapore on 2nd December 1941, to become part of a newly constituted unit, Force Z. This group consisted of battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse, with escorting destroyers, Electra, Express, Vampire and Tenedos. Force Z was not to be idle long. On 8th December, orders came to intercept a Japanese convoy bound for Singora, Malaya.
Prior to sailing, Admiral Tom Phillips on Prince of Wales, in his wisdom, declined the offer of air cover, made by Flt. Lieutenant Tim Viggors of the RAAF. Ahead of his time, Viggors appreciated the vulnerability of naval vessels to modern air attack. Phillips, based on the intelligence that he had, plus having, on the Prince, the most sophisticated of anti aircraft defence systems, felt justified in his decision. So, at 1710 on 8th December Force Z left Singapore to do battle, with no air support.
Message to the Captain - HMS Repulse
En route, a few hundred miles NE of Singapore, Force Z (now minus Tenedos, due to fuel problems) missed contact with the Japanese force they were seeking and later in the day (9th December) the Admiral chose to abort the mission and return. Tragically, it was not to be as simple as that. As the sky darkened, lookouts spotted a solitary approaching aircraft; it kept its distance but circled and was identified as being Japanese. It took no aggressive action and after a short interval, departed.
Force Z had been discovered and reconnoitred. What now? The Admiral, for reasons of his own, made the decision to return at maximum speed under cover of darkness. Normal duties continued and at 2359 hrs, Bryn came off watch and “got his head down”. At this stage of the war, little was known about the Japanese capability on sea, or, in the air for that matter. So, what might daylight bring? Had they really been located and, if so, what?”
At 0400 hrs December 10th, Bryn was back on watch, where he was to remain until the watch ended at 0800hrs. Dawn arrived with its usual spectacular show and Force Z ploughed on at maximum knots through a beautifully calm sea. There was no sign of any Nip activity but, as Bryn said, he was not the only man on Repulse who felt the hackles on his neck rising! The heat of the day began to be felt as Bryn, and his comrades off watch, tried to bed down, not easy under the circumstances.
At 11.13 hrs, everyone was rudely and dramatically catapulted into action by the Marine bugler, sounding…
(There’s a Bomber over there!... There’s a Bomber over there!”)
With the adrenalin rush, weariness was instantly forgotten. As he hastened to his station in the wireless office, Bryn heard the sound of approaching aircraft, not unlike “the buzzing of a swarm of angry bees” and getting louder, by the second! Then the guns opened up! Prince of Wales with her most sophisticated long range radar system felt capable of frustrating any air attack and Repulse, although less well equipped, was confident too. It was as if all hell was let loose as the ships heeled and shuddered with every salvo fired. And, then, in came the Japanese aircraft! From the mastheads came the report,
“… there’s thousands of the b…...s!...
The bombers flew high but some planes were coming in low, almost at sea level in waves of a score or more. Both British warships were at maximum knots, weaving and firing. They threw everything that they possibly could at an enemy which seemed to be coming in from all directions, in numbers beyond belief. Below decks at the wireless station, operators were almost thrown out of their seating by the antics of the ship. Within minutes, Repulse experienced eight near misses but a small bomb did hit the hangar deck area, inflicting superficial damage.
Loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse,
10 December 1941
Photograph taken from a Japanese plane, with Prince of Wales at far left and Repulse beyond her. A destroyer, either Express or Electra, is maneuvering in the foreground.
Dulin and Garzke's "Allied Battleships in World War II", page 199, states that this photograph was taken "after the first torpedo attack, during which the Prince of Wales sustained heavy torpedo damage."
Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.
Prince of Wales was attacked by torpedo bombers. Four torpedoes hit her, one of which struck her outer port, propeller shaft.
Water flooded in and resulted in a serious list to port, and as a result starboard guns could not depress enough, there was power loss to turrets, pumps and steering. The ship became unmanageable. Remorselessly the Japanese moved in for the kill using more torpedoes, machine guns and cannon fire. The Prince was taking a ferocious beating, with many casualties. With incredible courage, destroyer Express immediately came to the crippled Prince’s aid and pulled alongside, to help evacuate the many wounded. To the very last minute, Express stayed tight against the Prince until, at 1318, the stricken vessel settled by her head and sank. As she went down, she very nearly took Express with her, scraping the destroyer’s side. Electra and Vampire stood off.
Simultaneously, Repulse, had come under attack and by throwing herself all over the sea had survived attacks by the high altitude bombers. Then, in came a low, attack by torpedo bombers, in two waves from different directions. Again Repulse avoided these missiles “brilliantly” and continued to steam.
Bryn recalled a signal being received from Admiral Phillips on the Prince,
"Have you suffered damage from torpedoes?”
The reply from Captain Tennent,
“Thanks to providence, we have dodged 19 torpedoes!”.
At Bryn’s side, the Petty Officer sending that reply, muttered wryly,
“Balsdon! I know that as soon as I send this.
Something b…… diabolical is going to happen!”.
He sent it.
And something did.
An incredible sequence of events was unleashed. Those who endured it, and survived, would say that it was a terrifying experience, of such magnitude, as to haunt them for the rest of their lives. Within three minutes of sending the signal, Repulse was hit. First, a sickening thud on the starboard side that shook the entire ship, followed within seconds by three more juddering impacts on the port side
This was at 1215hrs. At once, Bryn and, everyone else on Repulse, felt the change in the behavioural pattern of the ship. It was dramatic. After two years afloat, every single man on that ship had instilled within him, the heartbeat of the ship, the rhythm and throb of Repulse’s every move and mood. Within minutes, it all changed and then came the terrifying behaviour of a ship in her mortal throes. Only an experienced sailor can describe the horror of feeling the deck beneath ones feet beginning to heel. Bryn felt the slow canting to port, slow but with an awful feeling of finality.
Bryn followed his POs action and removed his head phones to hear Tannoys blaring,
“Everyone up on deck…. Everyone up…..!”
Discipline was maintained and manifested itself in the orderly climb up the narrow deck ladders.Bryn reached B Gun Deck, looked at the teeming mass of matelots about him and, with surprising presence of mind, assessed the situation. What options? He climbed down to the Main Deck and here, already, the portside rail was underwater. He clambered back up to the canted starboard side and in a swift glance along the decks saw the tremendous havoc created by Japanese cannon and bullet. Capping it all was the sight of a column of black oil shooting 70 to 80 feet in the air and falling back on to the ship and men in the water.
Then, over the Tannoy, came the Dartmouth intoned voice of Captain William Tennent RN, tensely but calmly,
“Abandon Ship!... Abandon Ship!..Good luck to you all and God Bless you all!”
This was really it! It was not a dream! It was the end! Chaos developed as lifeboats fouled against the rising starboard side with a degree of panic ensuing. All this, Bryn took in. He decided to make his own way! He stripped off his clothes, down to his shorts, donned his life jacket and blew into it. Horror of horrors! It was perished and completely useless but there was no going back! He slid down the sloping starboard side to the, now exposed, torpedo bulge, which was covered with green weed. This weed hid barnacles which ripped his shorts and legs to shreds.
Now, the stark reality of the situation hit Seaman Bryn Balsdon! He was over 100 miles from land, he had no lifejacket and Repulse was doomed! Immediate action was imperative, perhaps with only minutes to go, before the ship went down. Peering through the haze, Bryn made out the silhouettes of Vampire and Electra, about two or so, miles away.
One or the other, he had to reach, or perish! Almost lapping his bare feet was a slowly undulating, tarry sea with the blackened heads of sailors bobbing amongst the floating debris. The whole of the surrounding area had a dreadfully bizarre appearance due to the thick layer of oil, the stench of which was causing Bryn to gag. Japanese aircraft showed no mercy and were still screaming in for the final kill. It was Hobson’s choice!
He slid down and pushed off into the polluted sea and found the water to be surprisingly warm. Memories of films in the old Tivoli suddenly flooded into his mind, prompting the fear of sharks- were there sharks in the South China Seas? Sharks or not, he swam to get well away from the doomed vessel and, when a few hundred yards off, turned to look back. Repulse had righted itself but was settling by the head, her stern rising. Then, with dignity, this most elegant of ships sank with her Ensign defiantly flying from the stern mast. This was one of the most moving moments of Bryn’s young life.
1223hrs. Repulse was gone.
A thought flashed into his mind. Such had been the obsession with his own survival, that he had had no thoughts for others. With guilt, he wondered- had Willie Vaughan got away? Now distanced from the action, it had become relatively quiet and sounds, other than those of battle, could be heard. As Bryn turned back to the long haul, he saw the bobbing heads about him, silhouetted against the oily sea and, in spite of his choked up ears, he could hear cries and shrieks for help - some were shouting for their mothers. He had to turn away and as he did so, there came a hail from a lad nearby. He requested to accompany Bryn and they swam slowly together- later Bryn found out he was a fellow Welshman from Newport. In spite of enemy action, destroyers, Electra and Vampire, moved in to collect all the survivors that they could. As Bryn and his fellow swimmer ploughed on, a whaler from Electra approached, it was grossly overloaded with survivors and a hailer shouted encouragement to the swimmers, but was unable to lift them.
Years later, I heard from Bryn’s own mouth how, during that marathon haul, his mind wandered back to the happy three mile swims that the village lads used to make, from the bowling green steps at Oystermouth, out to the “Nets” in Swansea Bay. Even at full tide the posts of those nets were never topped and afforded a resting place, before the one and a half mile swim back. Bryn swore that those swims as a lad, gave him the stamina for the two mile swim to Electra.
Needless to say, he wondered, would he ever see Mumbles again?
Arms were heavy, legs ached and throats burned but the two young tars forged on. About two hours later, Electra was reached and the two exhausted sailors climbed up nets, on to the crowded decks. They were black with oil from head to foot and the interchange of badinage reflected this! In today’s politically over-sensitive climate, such remarks would be interpreted as being racist. Never forgotten, too, was the blistering heat of the sun baked decks! The jig and dance Bryn performed as his bare feet touched the surface, didn’t pass unnoticed, again he was subjected to coarser, naval ribaldry!
Unlike a Hollywood rescue, there was no fuss upon arrival. The ship was still under attack. No blankets, no hot cocoa, no cigarette from a stunningly beautiful nurse. Just shouts from Electra’s crew, to get the hell out of the way! Surprisingly, some gunners from Repulse were capable of manning the ship’s 4.7 guns to free Electra’s sailors for rescue duties.
Repulse had sunk at 12.23hrs and the Prince followed at 13.18hrs. Express continued to search for survivors from the Prince of Wales, whilst Vampire and Electra sought those from Repulse. They did a magnificent job, in spite of their vulnerability to further attacks. Finally, orders were received to make full speed for Singapore and on the way back, they passed HMS Stronghold and four US Destroyers. News was signalled that the action was over but these four vessels continued to the battle area and searched for survivors. None was found. Very late that night, the comparative safety of Singapore was reached. The survivors were well received with hot soup, rum and scalding baths and after repeated scrubbing, most of the external oil was removed, but, nearly all survivors (amongst them, Bryn) suffered severely for the rest of their lives, from the long term effects of oil inhaled and swallowed. The following morning, survivors from both ships, paraded on the quayside. It was, needless to say, a most moving occasion because this was to be the last time that Repulse and Prince of Wales would parade as ships’ companies.
Captain William G. Tennent found it nigh impossible to conceal his emotion as he scanned his ship’s company and addressed them for the last time. The gaps in the ranks said it all. He paid a glowing tribute to his men, thanked them for their brave conduct and bade them farewell.
Repulse had lost 513 men and Prince of Wales, 327. 840 men, in total, had perished.
Admiral Phillips and Captain Leach had chosen to go down with the Prince of Wales. A great personal blow to Bryn was the discovery, that best friend Willie Vaughan of the Hafod, had not survived. Mumbles lad Billy Rees had made it to safety. Fred Dawtry had missed the action.
Within hours, news of this devastating loss circumscribed the globe, eventually reaching that living room in 35 Gloucester Place Mumbles. BBC’s Alvar Liddell gravely intoned, “…. The Admiralty regrets to announce the losses of His Majesty’s Ships, Prince of Wales and Repulse, as a result of enemy action in the South China Seas….”.
Simultaneously, the news reached Colin Balsdon, at work in Swansea Docks, who made haste to return home to be with his family. A later BBC bulletin did little to assuage fears… “…heavy loss of life suffered by the crews of both ships…..” It doesn’t need much imagination to appreciate the stress now endured by the Balsdons, and all those thousands of other affected families, elsewhere in Britain.
Within a few hours, the loss of Repulse was common knowledge in every corner of the village. Everyone knew that Bryn Balsdon was on this ship, - that’s the way it used to be in Mumbles! Family, neighbours, friends flocked to give support and were thanked by an understandably subdued Colin. At the best of times, he was a reticent man, now he was stunned. Amongst the first to call was family friend, Councillor Harry Libby and after the usual platitudes were offered, he struck a more positive note, “Remember one thing! He’s a Mumbles boy and he can swim like a fish!”
At this stage in the war, Harry Libby was all too familiar with this type of situation but in anticipation earlier in the conflict, had reached an agreement with Postmistress Mrs. Jones. (An agreement which, considered in retrospect, must surely be seen as grossly illegal!). Whenever a Mumbles boy was missing, sooner or later, an official telegram would arrive at the Mumbles Post Office for immediate delivery. Mrs. Jones agreed that she would hand over that telegram to Harry to deliver personally, in case the news was of the worst. Harry would handle the situation with all the delicacy and kindness that an official messenger may lack.
Then, the telegram arrived at the Mumbles Post Office. Mrs. Jones, true to her word, contacted Harry who took immediate action; he read it, pocketed it and made his way up to 35 Gloucester Place. Lottie answered the door and when she saw Harry Libby standing there with the flimsy paper in his hand, her hand went up to her mouth and she uttered a little cry. He didn’t milk the situation for drama, but walked in, shouting,
“I told you so! I told you he could swim like a fish! Bryn is one of the survivors!”
Again, within hours, we all of us in Mumbles knew that Bryn was OK!No one prayed with warmer hearts, in the Christadelphian Chapel that following Sunday, than the Balsdon family, God had chosen to preserve Bryn and they thanked Him for His mercy.
For Evelyn, Colin and Lottie Balsdon,
“That was the best Christmas present of them all….ever!”
There was no early homecoming. Within days of landing in Singapore, Bryn found himself crewing the main signals station on the doomed Island, soon to be under direct attack by the Japanese. Just prior to the downfall of the Base, all valuable trained personnel were evacuated. Bryn embarked on HMS Scout, along with the gold reserves of Singapore and Mrs. Spooner, the Admiral’s wife. Eight days later, Bryn, fellow matelots, the gold and Mrs. Spooner were safely delivered to the British Authorities in Colombo.Three days later, rekitted, Bryn and fellow survivors were back at sea.
There was a war on, don’t you know!
It was not until 1944 that Bryn returned home. On that leave, his first duty was to make a journey to Odo Street, the Hafod, to visit the family of his late friend, the gallant, Willie Vaughan. He found a sorely stricken home. Not only had they lost son, Willie, but Mrs.Vaughan’s husband had been killed in the Swansea Blitzes of 1941. Later, she was to lose her other son on the beaches of Normandy. Bryn was never to lose touch with the family. He returned to action in the North Atlantic and took part in the D Day landings. The war in Europe came to a close with the, not unpleasant, task of escorting in the U Boats as they surrendered.
Later came even greater satisfaction! On HMS Dart, Bryn returned to Singapore, this time as a victor and his ship was amongst the very first to dock at the newly liberated Base. Only three and a half years before, they had pulled out with such ignominy! Now, they were back! Bryn Balsdon had seen it all!
Outwardly, he appeared to have changed little and refused to accept words of praise or admiration, brushing them aside with a brusque,
“It comes with the job!”
If you happen to be in Mumbles, on Saturday, 10th December 2011, please look up to All Saints Church! That most prestigious of flags, the White Ensign, will be flying from the tower.
This particular Ensign was donated by: Senior Chief Petty Officer Bryn Balsdon, RN, himself. It was donated for two reasons: firstly, it is to express his pride in the Royal Navy and secondly, it is a tribute to HMS Repulse, sister ship HMS Prince of Wales and their gallant crews. (not the least among them being Willie Vaughan of the Hafod).
Look up at the White Ensign and think of the sacrifice made by those sailors on this day, seventy years ago.
HMS. Prince of Wales 10th December 1941 HMS. Repulse
Bryn Balsdon, Senior Chief Petty Officer, RN.
1922 – 2002
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