Eighty-four poppies today drift on the surface of the South China Sea, a tribute from today’s Royal Navy over one of its most hallowed sites and a Pacific tragedy.
Bookending the UK’s annual period of remembrance, the men and women of patrol ship HMS Spey honoured those lost in December 1941.
One poppy was cast for every ten souls killed when battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battle-cruiser HMS Repulse were sunk by Japanese air attack in the opening moves of the Battle for Singapore.
Dispatched in a bid to halt the Japanese invasion of the Malay peninsula, the two ships – which formed the kernel of the Royal Navy’s Force Z task group – were overwhelmed by enemy aircraft just three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In a battle lasting barely two hours, first the Repulse, then the brand-new Prince of Wales were lost, at a cost of 840 lives – sailors and Royal Marines – around 80 miles east of Kuantan.
Eighty-two years later, HMS Spey paused over the wrecks – both internationally-recognised war graves – to allow her 50-strong crew to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice for King and Country in the very same waters.
It’s the first time since before the pandemic that a Royal Navy warship has passed over the two wrecks; HMS Prince of Wales sits 233ft (70m) and HMS Repulse 183ft (55m) below.
“It is an absolute honour for the Ship’s Company of HMS Spey to have been able to pay tribute to the 840 men who lost their lives off the coast of Malaysia some 82 years ago,” said Lieutenant Commander Bridget Macnae, the patrol ship’s Executive Officer.
“As we remember them, we also pause to remember the friends and families of those that perished and give thought to those who survived the tragedy and lived on with the difficult memories of the loss of their friends throughout their lives. The Royal Navy will honour their memory for evermore.”
Engineering Technician James ‘Pat’ Patterson cast 84 poppy leaves into the sea from a hand-woven rope basket made onboard, while Spey’s First Lieutenant Lieutenant Commander Rebecca Deakin RN committed two paper-crafted flowers – handmade from maritime charts, each bearing a crest of the lost ships.
“Being deployed on patrol across the Indo-Asia Pacific, we are all very conscious onboard Spey that we have the opportunity to pay our respects to the sacrifices made by our fellow serviceman so far from home,” said Leading Hand Andrew ‘Drew’ MacClean, who researched the history of the tragedy and outlined the course of the battle for his shipmates during the memorial service.
“With Remembrance Day having just passed, it is such a privilege to pause and give thought to those sailors and marines at rest in these waters.”
As Spey paid tribute, today’s HMS Prince of Wales – Britain’s biggest warship – is conducting aviation trials off the east coast of the USA. She carries the bell from her predecessor, recovered from the wreck of the battleship by Royal Navy divers 20 years ago.