HMS Express 1937
By this time I had learned quite a good deal about the Express's history to date. The Destroyer was built at Swan Hunter's Dockyard Hebburn-on-Tyne, in 1934, and was a Mine laying 'H' Class Destroyer of about 1,500 tons, with a crew of 250 men. Her first years of war service were traumatic, so say the least. After work in the North Sea, she did sterling heroics at the famous Army evacuation of Dunkirk and was the last warship to leave the ill-fated port with hundreds of the British Expeditionary Force, which she rescued and took aboard to return to England.
Under the command of Captain 'D' (Lord Louis Mountbatten) she was then ordered to investigate, with other Destroyers, a spot of bother with German 'E' Boats. Unluckily they ran into a minefield, and it was disastrous. The Express had her bows blown off, most of her officers and men were killed or wounded and many survivors in the sea were picked up and taken to prisoner of war camps. The badly damaged ship limped back to her home port; later I was to hear more of this incident from the wife of the P.O. Telegraphist who was taken prisoner of war.
After a massive refit, with a complete new forepart, she was then selected to lead a flotilla of Destroyers as escort to Winston Churchill's showpiece 'Force Z', the South Atlantic fleet, with the battleship Prince of Wales, the fast battle cruiser Repulse, all under the command of Admiral Tom Phillips. They visited Gibraltar, Cape Town, Bombay, and Singapore, showing the British Fleet to the capitals of the British Empire. The Express laid mines in the Java Sea, and was involved in the Battle of the Java Sea against the Japanese.
Newspaper Headline, the sinking
of HMS Prince of Wales
In December 1941, they were sent to investigate a reported enemy landing on the Malaysian coast. This proved to be false but on return to the main fleet they were all attacked by a large force of Japanese suicide bombers, wave after wave of planes with Kamikaze (suicide) pilots. In half an hour the Repulse was sunk, planes with bombs and pilots crashing on to the decks of the warships. HMS Prince of Wales was getting the same treatment, and although Admiral Phillips gave orders for the escort vessels to circle round the stricken ships, Lt. Commander Cartwright of the Express decided to go in and tie up alongside the Prince of Wales, knowing that he could take off more survivors than from the sea.
This was successful and before the two great ships went down finally, Express had taken nearly 800 men and boy seamen on board. Admiral Tom Phillips went down with his ship, saluting the ensign. Maybe it was as well because he had refused an offer of air cover for his 'Z' Force fleet saying, "We are fighting ships!" The Express sped off to Singapore with her survivors, many of whom were wounded and burned, and in need of hospital attention which was not possible at sea. Many of these men were taken prisoners by the Japanese afterwards when Singapore surrendered. The Express was the last ship to leave the doomed Naval Base, and at the time it looked like the end of the British Empire. She raced to Simonstown in South Africa, after a fire in the Indian Ocean, to have repairs, and then to Durban, where I was thrilled after all these stories to join such exciting and famous ship.