by Tony Domaille
It’s cold and I fear what might lurk below me. I’m floating in wreckage strewn, oil topped, water that gets into my mouth and makes me urge. I wonder if this is the end and think of my wife, three daughters and son. I remember their faces as they waved me off from the dock at Plymouth. Was that the last time I would ever see them?
There are crew mates floating all around me. They call encouragement.
‘Don’t you worry, they’ll pick us up.’
‘Never fear, matey.’
Yet every so often I see another head slip beneath the waves forever. And as the planes fly overhead, I wonder if they are ours or the enemy’s coming to finish us off with machine guns.
I lied about my age to join the Royal Navy way back in 1917. When you’re an uneducated Irishman, looking for work in England, you just need to take whatever someone will pay you for. Stoking fires for a ship’s engine room was something I could always do, so when the Great War ended, I didn’t leave the Navy. I thought – we all thought – the ‘war to end all wars’ had come and gone and keeping the peace would be our role.
But 1939 came and once again we were fighting everywhere. No one wanted it, and, though I am proud to do my part, I feel foolish now. I truly never thought my ship would be sunk. I’m not stupid; I didn’t believe it unsinkable, but I thought a battleship like HMS Prince of Wales would take a lot of sinking.
Floating here now I realise I never counted on wave after wave of Japanese Nell bombers and torpedo bombers coming at us and HMS Repulse. Even after the first torpedo hit our outer port propeller shaft, we thought we would be all right. We shot down one Nell, hit another couple. We thought they surely couldn’t sink us, but they did.
The next waves of attack hit us again and again. They also hit HMS Repulse. And then the seemingly impossible was happening. We were going down.
For hours I have been clinging to this piece of I know not what to stop me going under. Planes fly over, and my floating crew mates call out and wave. It’s almost as if they are waving at a plane from the seaside and I marvel at the strength of character of those with whom I serve. They seem to instinctively know our planes from theirs.
I close my eyes. I can see Margaret and the children. They are smiling. Will I ever see them again? Floating here in the sea off Malaya they seem more than a world away, and not just in distance. I want to keep them in my mind’s eye for as long as possible, but I am drifting. Not just in the surface of the sea, but towards an unconsciousness from which I may never wake.
A voice calls out to me. ‘We’re saved, mate. It’ll take more than a few Jap bombers to see us off, eh?’
I struggle to open my eyes, but I see a floating, oil covered matlow grinning as he bobs by, pointing behind me.
I follow his direction. For a moment I am unsure if the sight is real, but I can see ships in the distance. They’re ours. I know by the outlines against the sky, and now I know we will be saved if we can stay afloat long enough.
I want to answer the grinning matlow, but when I look for him he’s gone. I spin myself round in the water, searching for him, but the sea has taken him down. If he could have just held on…
I push him from my mind. If I can just hold on. If I can just stay awake, maybe they will find me and the others who still float amongst what is left of our ships.
‘Hold on, Paddy,’ I tell myself. ‘If you can just hold on, you might even get home for a while before they find you a new ship to serve.’
I tell myself to hold on, but I cannot stop my eyes closing.
Japanese war planes sank HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse on 10th December 1941 off the east coast of Malaya.
Stoker Petty Officer Robert Patrick Francis (Paddy) Browning was one of many HMS Prince of Wales crew picked up from the sea by HMS Express. However, three hundred and twenty-seven of his crew mates died.
Following his rescue, Paddy found himself in hospital in Singapore. Unfortunately, Singapore fell to the Japanese invading army soon afterwards. He was then a prisoner of war for four years while his wife and children believed him dead.
Paddy returned to England in 1945. He was finally free, but he was a changed man. The long years of torture and hardship at the hands of his captors had taken a huge toll.
Paddy was my grandfather, and he would never speak of what had happened. My story is based on recorded history and my imaginings.
About the author
Tony is an award-winning stage script writer and director with more than twenty published plays. He also writes short stories and has been published by Café Lit, Your Cat Magazine, Seven Magazine a number of anthologies. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.