- Creer, H.V., Commander, RAN
- Ship histories and stories, History - WW2
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- RAN Ships
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- September 1979 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This is an edited account of the loss of the auxiliary patrol vessel HMS Kuala as related by her commanding officer Lieutenant Franklin Caithness, RNR, to the late Commander H.V. Creer, RAN
HMS KUALA sailed from Singapore on Friday, 13th February 1942 with approximately 500 evacuees on board – men, women and children. Embarkation began at 3 p.m. from the RNVR Headquarters, HMS Laburnum, while the ships in the harbour were being heavily bombed by Japanese planes. At 5.15 p.m. many of the evacuees were killed by bombs, and motor cars were set on fire by incendiary bombs on the wharf.
Lieutenant Caithness gave orders to weigh anchor at 6.15 p.m. with instructions to proceed to Batavia, Java via the straits of Rhio, Barbala and Banka, but anchored at 5.45 a.m. on the morning of the 14th at Pompong Island in company with HMS Tien Kwang, an auxiliary anti-submarine vessel. After anchoring, boats were lowered in charge of officers with orders to collect branches of trees to camouflage the ship. By 9.30 a.m. the ship was completely camouflaged. Tien Kwang, commanded by Lieutenant W. Briggs, RNR, which was also at anchor a few cables astern, was also trying to disguise the ship by the same method. Pompong Island is south of the southern exit of Rhio Straight about 45 miles south east of Singapore.
At 11 a.m. seven Japanese planes were observed making towards HMS Kung Wo, an auxiliary minelayer, which had been bombed and abandoned the day before some three miles distant from Kuala and Tien Kwang. One plane dive bombed Kung Wo with a stick of bombs and disappeared. The other planes circling around, sighted Tien Kwang and made for Kuala. Both vessels were at anchor 200 yards off Pompong Island. Sticks of bombs were dropped direct on Kuala, one bomb hitting the upper bridge, one the stokehold and one the engine room. The ship at once burst into flames and all the superstructure was soon ablaze.
Lieutenant Caithness was on the lower bridge lying on his face, the whole top bridge had fallen on top of him and the bomb blast had struck the back of his neck and had almost paralysed him. He was badly wounded on the right side, but managed to struggle free of the wreckage on recovering from shock. He opened the First Lieutenant’s cabin door and rescued five women who had taken shelter inside. All were suffering from shock and the effects from the blast of the bomb which had exploded above their heads. To the captain’s surprise the women were uninjured.
After helping the women out of the cabin and seeing they were uninjured, he proceeded onto the shade deck and tried to lower the gangway, but discovered there was a jambing hitch on the fall. It took five minutes to release the fall. When he had lowered the gangway he ordered all women who could swim and possessed lifebelts to take to the sea and swim for the shore as best they could.
The boats at this time were ashore gathering trees to camouflage the ship. Thirty men and women floated past on rafts and drifted east and then south west, however only three survivors were picked up off a raft on the Indragiri River, a man and his wife and an army officer. There was no panic, no tears were shed and most of the women and girls walked down the gangway and plunged into the sea.
Sub-Lieutenant T.S. Brand, with the lifeboats ashore, returned immediately with the utmost despatch to take off the injured and got them safely ashore, where they were received by lady doctors and nursing sisters, who were fortunate in reaching the shore first.
There was very little tide running at the time and the sea was calm, but when the struggling women were between the ships and the rocks, the Jap had turned and deliberately bombed the women in the sea and those struggling on the rocks. Quite a number were killed. The lady doctors and nursing sisters, most of whom were Australian and British nurses from various hospitals in Malaya, carried the wounded to a clearing in the jungle about a hundred feet above sea level.
Chief Engineer Lieutenant (E) Marshall RNR, set about and built a canopy overhead using branches and vines for lashings, in order to protect the wounded from the heat of the sun’s rays and dampness during the night. The scene was one never to be forgotten and too awful to mention. One poor man asked Lieutenant Briggs to shoot him as he was a mass of raw flesh, but Briggs had not the heart to do it. Mercifully it was only a matter of a few minutes before he passed away for which Briggs said ‘Thank God!’
Lieutenant Caithness and Lieutenant George were the last to leave Kuala after searching the ship fore and aft, but there was nobody alive on board. Captain Hancock, Governor of Prisons in Malaya, who was one of the evacuees, was last seen to go over the gangway, but returned with a vague idea of being able to extinguish the fire then raging in the ship. There must have been a delusion on his part as he was never seen again.
The bombs which hit the engine room burst the auxiliary steam pipe, thus putting all the fire fighting appliances out of action. The survivors who did reach the shore landed at two different points on the island thus forming two camps. The tide had in fact separated them with the ebb setting to the eastward.
The evacuees consisted of nursing sisters, quite a number of Australians and British from various hospitals in Malaya, and civilians. Senior officers, Army and Air Force, were also included, amongst whom was Brigadier General Fosset, who had lost three fingers in the bombing. He nearly passed away whilst on the island.
When all the survivors were safely ashore the Army collected all stores available whilst the Royal Engineers set off looking for fresh water. They finally found a small trickle of water, which saved the situation (according to the Sailing Directions no food or water was procurable on the island). The only other water available was three beakers of water from three lifeboats.
At 11 a.m. on the 16th, a small Dutch steamer, Tandong Pinang, arrived on the scene and took off two hundred women and children and the critically injured. The Master of this vessel was advised by Sub Lieutenant Brand to make for the nearest port in Sumatra, which happened to be Tembrilahan on the Indragiri River, a hundred miles away. The Master ignored his advice and said he was bound for Batavia. The ship has never been heard of after leaving the island, but it was later reported that the two hundred passengers had been captured.
The following day a small ex-Japanese fishing craft, which had been captured in Singapore and was commanded by an Australian, Bill Reynolds, late of the Johore Government Service and who held a Board of Trade Certificate, arrived and took off seventy of the walking wounded, the Captain Lieutenant Caithness being amongst them. The rescue vessel was the Krait, later to distinguish herself in these waters by an attack on Japanese shipping in Singapore Harbour.
Lieutenant Caithness was unable to swim on leaving his ship, because the blast injuries had caused a wound in his side and he was paralysed down the back. However he managed to slide down the gangway and hang on to the lifeline and side ladder until Brand came to the rescue in the lifeboat. But Caithness was a heavy man, sixteen stone and six foot two in height, and it was impossible to haul him into the boat and he was much too exhausted to assist himself. Brand procured a copper life buoy and passed it over Caithness’s shoulders, and with the help of the boat’s crew kept hold of him and towed him ashore hanging on to the bow with the aid of a lifeline. They finally landed him on sharp rocks where he was assisted into the clearing and placed alongside the wounded. He collapsed from sheer exhaustion and remained out of action for three days after an excruciating experience.