SS Empress Of Asia
REPORT OF AN INTERVIEW WITH THE MASTER CAPTAIN A B SMITHSS EMPRESS OF ASIA - IN CONVOY
Burnt out by bombs from Aircraft on 5th February 1942
We were bound from Bombay to Singapore carrying troops. The ship was armed with a 6" gun, a 3" HA, 6 Oerlikons, 8 Hotchkiss, 4 PAC rockets and depth charges. The 'pig trough' was not completed and we had no ammunition for it. The crew, including 7 military and 18 naval gunners, numbered 416 and we had on board 2,235 troops. One of the crew was injured and died later in hospital. I was informed by the CO Troops that 15 men were missing but some of these may have turned up later. All confidential books, including wireless books, were thrown overboard in a weighted box except the Merchant Navy Decode and Consigs which were burnt on the bridge.
We sailed from Liverpool on 12th November 1941 with troops, proceeding via Freetown and Durban, to Bombay where we arrived safely and discharged the troops. We then embarked 2,235 British troops for Singapore and left Bombay in convoy on 23rd January 1942 in company with three other ships, theFelix Roussel, a Dutch steamer Plancius and the SS Devonshire. Shortly after sailing we joined up with another convoy going to Batavia. There were about 8 ships in this convoy including the Empress of Australia, Dunera, City of Canterbury, a Blue Funnel ship and three or four others. At the approaches to Batavia they broke off from us but the City of Canterbury remained with us so that there were now 5 ships making for Singapore together.
We were steaming at 12½ knots in single line, ahead led by HMS Exeter, the Empress of Asia being the last in the line when at 11.00 hrs on the 4th February, whilst passing through the Banka Straits, a large 'V' formation of about 18 Japanese planes flew overhead at a high altitude - about 5,000ft. One dropped a large number of bombs which all fell together. None of the ships were hit but there were 5 near misses round our ship, the nearest being only 10ft away. The bombs exploded on striking the water, sending up columns of water to a height of about 20ft which descended on the deck. We received the brunt of this attack, no other bombs falling near the other ships. Two of our lifeboats were pierced by bomb splinters and some splinters were found round the decks. Otherwise no damage was sustained although the ship was badly shaken. The OC Troops and some of his officers examined the shell splinters and gave it as their opinion that the bombs were of an incendiary type. My Chief Officer had his white shoes covered with some black substance thrown up by the explosions. All the ships had opened fire, including our escorts which then comprised HMS Exeter, HMS Danae, HMS Yarra, HMS Sutlej and two destroyers.
On the afternoon of the 4th February two of the faster ships, SS Plancius and SS Devonshire parted company from the convoy in order to arrive at Singapore first thing in the morning. The remaining three ships, City of Canterbury, Felix Roussel and ourselves, proceeded at 12 knots which would bring us into Singapore about 11.00 hrs on the 5th.
Weather on the morning of the 5th February was fine with good visibility, smooth sea and light airs. We steered an easterly course in single line ahead, led by HMS Danae. We were approaching Sultan Shoal at a reduced speed - about 5 to 6 knots - preparatory to embarking pilots when at 10.45hrs Singapore time on the 5th February a large 'V' formation of about 24 Japanese planes flew over at a high altitude and disappeared into the clouds; no bombs were dropped. The planes were of the same type as those which attacked us in the Banka Straits, painted silver with two engines. Fifteen minutes later, at about 11.00 hrs, the planes returned singly, or in twos and threes, and attacked the convoy from all directions at both high and low altitudes.
They dived down from about 15,000ft to about 5,000ft, sometimes to 3,000ft but never lower and there was no steep diving. One plane I watched particularly carried out a shallow dive, less than 45° from forward and I followed his bomb down into the water alongside the bridge. It appeared to be a large bomb. The attacks were from forward, aft and athwartships, all the ships in the convoy being attacked. We, as the largest ship with three funnels and well known to the Japanese owing to our peacetime voyages to that country, seemed to bear the brunt of it.
All the ships of the convoy and the escorts opened fire at once on the invaders and bombs started falling all around us. Terrific concussion shook the ship and standing on the bridge it was difficult to know what were near misses and what were direct hits. Spouts of water were thrown up by the misses but not very high. At 11.05hrs thick volumes of black smoke came pouring out of the deck on the starboard side in the vicinity of the forward funnel. It was evident that a direct hit had been sustained and that the ship was on fire. Fire parties, under the direction of the Chief Officer, immediately proceeded to the seat of the fire. The attack lasted for about an hour and we sustained at least three direct hits. One bomb smashed its way through the aft end of the lounge and penetrated to the dining saloon on 'B'' deck. Looking aft from the bridge, volumes of black smoke covered the whole length of the boat deck and fiddley top.
When the attack started the troops had been sent below to take cover but now I gave instructions through their CO for all troops to assemble at their Muster Stations on 'A' deck. A complete muster was effected at the two ends of the ship, the midship section of 'A' deck being untenable owing to the smoke pouring out on deck from the accommodation which was on fire. About 11.25hrs the Chief Officer reported that the fires below decks were entirely out of control. They had been unable to obtain any water from the fire hydrants as the water service pipes had been shattered although the pumps were working at full pressure. We were not fitted with a sprinkler system but every use had been made of numerous fire extinguishers, fire buckets, axes etc. At 11.30hrs the engineers reported that the engine room and stokehold was filling with smoke and they could not continue to remain below. The accommodation above was on fire and pieces of burning material were dropping into the machinery spaces, so I gave the order for them to be evacuated.
We were now approaching the Ajax Shoal buoy and passing between the minefields to the north and south of the swept channel. The ship still had some way to go so I decided to swing her round and anchor close to the Sultan Shoal Lighthouse. The lower bridge, chartroom and officers' accommodation were ablaze and it was impossible to remain on the bridge on account of the smoke and heat. Escape by the ladders was impossible so I gave instructions for all bridge personnel and gunners who had collected there to slide down a rope to the fore-deck. This was done. I threw the steel box containing confidential documents over the side. The ship, with little way on her, was swinging round towards the position I intended to anchor and finding it impossible to remain on the bridge I followed the others down the rope to the fore-deck. Anchors were ready to let go and the ship gradually swung round to a position about three quarters degree east of Sultan Shoal Lighthouse and anchored, it then being about noon. We were then some 11 miles to the westward of Singapore.
Before leaving the bridge I did not give instructions to lower the lifeboats; the thick volumes of smoke that enveloped the boat deck would, I felt, make any such undertaking hazardous, if not impossible. Also, some of the lifeboats were already on fire. The situation at noon was that the entire midship part of the ship from bridge to after funnel was ablaze. The two ends of the ship, from bridge forward, and from No 3 hatch aft, were free of damage and packed solidly with troops and crew. Japanese planes were still flying overhead but shortly after noon the enemy dispersed and small craft began coming alongside and taking off personnel. A large number were landed on Sultan Shoal Lighthouse, the boats returning to the ship to pick up others. The sloop Yarra rendered excellent service by coming alongside aft and taking on board all remaining personnel from that end of the ship. It was estimated that she took off well over 1,000 troops and crew. By 13.00hrs all personnel were off the ship. I then left by motor launch and boarded HMS Danae, the ship of the senior officer of the escort. From her I boarded HMS Sutlej and made a wide sweep round the Empress of Asia to make sure that no-one was in the water and had been overlooked by rescue craft. This done, the Sutlej proceeded into Keppel Harbour where we berthed at 20.00hrs.
During the attack we had no protection from our own fighters. There was not one British plane overhead but I learned later that this deplorable lack of air support was probably due to the fact that at the same time as the attack on the ships, the Japanese were bombing the aerodrome at Singapore and our planes were kept fully occupied in that area. We had not sufficient planes to oppose the vastly superior air strength of the enemy. There was no gunfire from the island itself during the attack but our escorts put up a splendid show. The Oerlikons were very satisfactory, also the Hotchkiss and the naval gunners did fine work but no planes were brought down. Everyone behaved very well indeed. There was no panic, the troops were splendid and everyone did their job.
I do not think there is much chance of the Japanese salvaging the ship. I went out to her two days later and the fire had then extended to the bunkers. I cannot say how far the machinery would have been damaged by the fire.
I was in Singapore until the 11th February. On arrival on the 5th, the troops were taken care of by the Military and my crew by our Agents. The next day, Friday, the Shipping Master at Singapore informed me that two transports were leaving that day and I arranged with him for 127 firemen and 1 steward to leave in these two ships. The remainder of the crew were taken to a military camp as there was no accommodation in the town owing to the large number of troops and residents from the Malayan Peninsular. On Saturday, 7th, I learned from OC Troops that a check had been made and only 15 of his men were not accounted for but he pointed out that some of these men might have got adrift in the town after landing and might yet turn up. The only known casualty to my crew was D Ellsworthy, a Canadian Pantryman, who died in hospital from injuries and was buried at Singapore.
The Japanese made their first landing on the Island on Sunday night, 8th. On Monday, business in the city carried on much as usual, the population appearing confident that the situation was well in hand and that the enemy would be driven off without difficulty.
On Tuesday 10th February, the Director of Civil Medical Services made an appeal for members of our Catering Department to assist with the medical services in the hospitals. Things were getting desperate in Singapore and it was feared that the native helpers in the hospitals would run away leaving them without assistance. The bombing was severe all this time and my men were really glad to be able to do something, so when the proposition was made to them and the Catering Staff, 147 men, volunteered to help. Unfortunately these men were left behind in Singapore and as far as I know they are still there. I have no information about their having escaped.
On Tuesday afternoon a Naval Officer came out to the Camp and took full particulars of deck and engine room crew and that night, cars were sent to take all the men into the city and then on board three small ships lying at anchor, abandoned by their native crews. They were small 100 ton ships and my men were divided into three crews to man them. We were told to get up steam as best we could, take the ships alongside for stores, enough to take us to Batavia and this was done. We finally got away on Wednesday, 11th February, leaving behind in Singapore the catering staff, still helping the Medical Services. During the voyage we saw numbers of ships being bombed by the Japanese but as far as I know, none of them were sunk. Two of these small vessels reached Batavia on Sunday 15th February, the third being forced to put into Palembang, owing to shortage of oil. On Friday 13th. The Japanese landed there on the 14th but later I received information that the crew reached Batavia safely, having got away from Palembang by train and that they were proceeding to Australia.
In my opinion the Japanese success was entirely due to our lack of air strength. We arrived on Thursday, 5th February, and up till the Tuesday, 10th, there was no thought amongst the residents that the Island would fall. They were prepared for invasion. The viaduct over the Johore Straits had been blown up and they were prepared to defend the Island. I do not think there were many Fifth Columnists, if any, at work behind the lines but the constant bombing and lack of air support dispirited the people; there was no shortage of water up to the time I left.
The City itself was rather badly bombed but not the central business portion and Raffles was still intact. Fire stations were still functioning. The wharves had suffered severely but the buildings along the waterfront were not touched. There was not a great deal of shipping in Keppel Harbour. Apparently there was no labour to discharge cargo, most of the discharging being done by troops.
The SS Felix Roussel, which was ahead of us when the convoy was attacked sustained one direct hit I believe but she got away safely.