Title: “Corvettes – Little Ships for Big Men” Author: Frank B. Walker Published by: Kingfisher Press, 177 Sunrise Avenue, Budgewoi, NSW. 2262
The headlines on the fly sheet, “This story shall the good man teach his son”, set me in the right mood for reading this book. However I soon found that the author, with a journalist’s penchant for a good racy story, doesn’t let reasoning stand in his way!
For instance, to illustrate the fire power – or lack of it – of a corvette, he compares it with Nelson’s “Victory”, claiming the former to be no match for the latter in combat. A moments thought would have convinced him that a modest (and not so modern) 4″ gun, used at a range outside that of “Victory’s”100 guns (not 60, Frank!) would have wrecked the old wooden ship without the latter laying a glove on the corvette! Also, Walker re-cycles some of those old (apocryphal) naval chestnuts, presumably from Jackie Broome’s “Make a Signal”, which have been going the rounds of the RN and RAN for ages. Parts of chapter three upset me: One of “those formidable battle-wagons, “Repulse” became, on the next page, “HMS Repair“, which left the impression that the author thought her somewhat of a “retread”. In fact between 1935 when I saw her, just a hull, under refit in Portsmouth dockyard, and 1939, she was almost completely rebuilt. She was, in many ways, as modern as the “Prince of Wales“. And how can the author be so confident of the thoughts of Admiral Phillips about the lack of air cover for his ships? Phillips had been the Vice Chief of Naval Staff at the Admiralty and must have been totally aware of the ascendency, in the Mediterranean particularly, of shore based aircraft against battleships unprotected by air cover. I refuse to believe that he was as insensitive to this vital factor, as the author avers.
Singapore was a disaster. But the blame for it cannot be sheeted home entirely on the service chiefs on the spot. As Walker admits, British and Allied intelligence about Japan’s naval air service was pitiful. They had no idea – no one had – of the capabilities, the types, the numbers or the dispositions of the Japanese aircraft, or the ability of their aircrews. The Japanese had very cleverly deceived everyone. The area in which the British ships were was thought to be beyond the range of any Japanese naval aircraft operating from their bases in southern Indo China. Therefore it is a fair assumption that Phillips judged the risk of serious air attack to be small. If otherwise, why did he sail his force to almost certain disaster?
The die had been cast in London months before with the decision to send the two big ships, with the aircraft carriers “Indomitable“, to Singapore as a deterrent force. With “Indomitable” out of action, there was a move in the Admiralty to recall the squadron from its exposed position, and “Repulse” actually left for Darwin on 5th December. But it was too late. On the 6th December the Japanese troop convoy was sighted. Churchill’s bluff had failed. With Malaya now openly threatened, ‘it was inconceivable that the Royal Navy should turn tail, no matter what the odds…”
(Donald Macintyre – The Battle for the Pacific pg 34. My emphasis) It was a forlorn hope from the start… “(ibid) Is it too remote, too fantastic, to equate the suicidal sortie by the two capital ships with the exploits of the “Jervis Bay“, the “Yarra” and the “Glowworm”? The Singapore story calls for something more substantial, less superficial, that the hindsight assumptions (notoriously 20/20) of the author, and sailor’s bar room gossip.
This is not a book meant to be a serious work of history. Having said that, and having read on, I found that it abounds with good yarns; has interesting and dramatic photographs: a mass of detailed information, the movements and employment of all Australian built corvettes; a list of those ships sunk or damaged; members of their ships’ companies who died or as a result of active service in corvettes and, of great value and convenience, a list of all men who served in those gallant little ships. It will be appreciated and enjoyed most by former members of their ship’s companies and will add to the general knowledge of a wider public concerning corvettes and the outstanding job they did in WWII. In modern terms they must be classed as being phenomenally cost effective!