Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, March 1, 2020

The Little Ship

While writing last week’s article on the Merchant Navy, I found mention of a little ship with several merchant navy crew on it. This ship's story is rather remarkable, and full of gallantry. It was however, too long for last week’s piece, so I have done it as its own stand-alone article. There are a few conflicting accounts due to the outcome, so some of the details are unclear, but here's the best I can do. The conflicting accounts are based around the two surviving eye witness testimonies that are available.
SS Li Wo
In 1938 a new 1000 ton passenger ship was commissioned, for use on the Yangtze river. Remarkably it had a draught of just 7ft when fully loaded. This was the SS Li Wo, and it was owned by the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company. In 1940 she was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and armed and equipped. The crew decided to remain with their ship, and became Merchant Navy, while the officers were from the Royal Navy. She was armed with a single 4in gun on the bow, and twin Lewis guns. There is also one account that states it was equipped with ASDIC and a Holman Projector. The ship was used to patrol the area around Indonesia.
On the 8th of December 1941 Japan entered the war with her sudden expansion. Things went badly for the Allies. HMS Li Wo was based at Singapore, and as the Japanese forces closed in in February 1942 HMS Li Wo was crewed with a scratch crew, including five men from HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, and a pair of RAF men, and ordered to reach safety. The crew from the two warships formed the gun crew for the single 4in gun, while at least one of the Lewis guns was manned by one of the RAF men. HMS Li Wo left Singapore on the 13th of February. Over the next 24 hours she was to shelter in the bay, advance and then take up shelter at another bay. The curse was the massive number of Japanese aircraft about. In those twenty-four hours she was attacked some four times, once by around fifty aircraft. One report has her radio gear being damaged. She certainly took heavy damage but was still afloat.
The only semi-contemporary photo I could find of a Japanese air attack on shipping.
On the 14th, she was making sail for safety, when she spotted a Japanese convoy. This was the Japanese landing force destined for the invasion of Sumatra. The Japanese forces consisted of two waves, each with four destroyers and a cruiser. Which force the HMS Li Wo encountered is not clear, but it is suggested it was the one led by the IJN Sendai, and contained eight transport ships. The HMS Li Wo's captain, Temporary Lieutenant Thomas Wilkinson’s (RNVR) next actions are not clear. Again, the eye witness' disagree if Lt Wilkinson ordered the attack, or consulted with his crew first, who all agreed with his intention to attack. Either way, the HMS Li Wo closed up and prepared for battle. The gun crew were asked on how much ammo they had. Six rounds of SAP, four HE and three AA. That's just thirteen rounds. Some secondary accounts suggest the ammo load was thirteen practice rounds, but this is clearly wrong, and seems to come from an inaccurate account in the 1980's at the Imperial War Museum. HMS Li Wo also hoisted not one, but two battle ensigns, just to make it clear whose side they were on. With preparations made, she headed in towards the transports.
Temporary Lieutenant Thomas Wilkinson
The Japanese were slow to react, and HMS Li Wo was the first to open fire, the first of their precious shells had missed, going long. The second was short, the third struck in the superstructure of the targeted transport, starting a fire. The gun crew carried on firing, and in two minutes they were out of ammo. However, the 4-5,000 ton freighter was well ablaze. Here again, eyewitness accounts differ. One says Lt Wilkinson rammed the burning freighter, others that he selected a smaller 800-ton vessel to ram. Either way, he made contact with it, and the bows were lodged with the freighter. The freighter had at least one light auto-cannon for AA work, possibly two, and these began to rake the HMS Li Wo, causing the first Allied casualties of the exchange. One of the RAF personnel manning his Lewis gun promptly dealt with the crews of the guns, then switched his fire to the Japanese troops swarming on the decks. The Japanese began to abandon ship.
HMS Li Wo struggled free of the stricken freighter, and began to move on, by now the IJN Sendai had responded, and closed with the British ship. However, her gunnery was so appalling the salvoes from her were missing by up to 300 yards. HMS Li Wo began to zig zag to throw off the Japanese gunners but slowly their shells crept closer. It still took over ten minutes before they were getting near misses, and further casualties were being caused by shrapnel. With a crippled ship, and no weapon to fight the cruiser Lt Wilkinson ordered the crew to abandon ship, although he stayed on board to go down with the HMS Li Wo.
IJN Sendai
Then the cruiser found the range, one of the shells hit the cordite locker and there was a large explosion. She began to list to one side then sunk. The survivors were subjected to a massacre by the Japanese ships and the few who survived that ordeal were left adrift at sea. Eventually a few made it ashore, but were captured and ended up as POW's, but some did survive. When they returned after the war the story of HMS Li Wo was told. Lt Wilkinson was put forward for a Mentioned in Dispatches, as that was one of only two decorations that could, at the time, be issued posthumously. This paltry reward was then cancelled. To be replaced by the other posthumous decoration, the Victoria Cross. Of the crew seven men returned, one received a DSO, one a Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, two Distinguished Service Medals and the rest Mentioned in Dispatches. A further three Mentions in Dispatches were awarded to deceased crew.

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Image credits:
ww2today.com, www.wrecksite.eu, www.ibiblio.org and www.world-war.co.uk