British Naval history abounds with tales of gallantry. Some concern the tumultuous meetings of fleets, with the very heavens reverberating to the thunder of shot and shell, and others, so often unrecorded because they are not spectacular enough to warrant "headlines" in the papers, are buried in the vast scroll of history without the credit which is their due. This then, though much abbreviated, is the story of another naval action, fought by FEPOWs, early in the war. A very little action, in a very little ship - but one which rivals in heroism the tales of Trafalgar and Jutland. . . and all the rest.
The 'S.S. Li Wo' was a very shallow draught vessel, built to carry passengers on the rapids of the Upper Yangtse Kiang River. As the Jap invasion of China gathered momentum, she was brought down the river and south to Singapore. When Japan declared war on the Western powers she was commissioned 'HMS Li Wo' and her Captain became Temporary Lieutenant, RNR. She was given an ancient four-inch gun and two machine guns, and before the Japs had quite reached the bottom of the Malay peninsula, the crew of this ship was increased to a motley throng of 19 Navy, 5 Army, 2 R.A.F., 34 Europeans, 10 Malayas, and 6 Chinese. The Naval Ratings were survivors from 'HMS Repulse' and 'The Prince of Wales' , and some of that composite Battalion, the 'Plymouth Argyles'. One of the central figures was CPO Charlie (Lofty) Rogers - of the Swindon Club.
Just twenty-four hours after this crew joined the 'Li Wo', she began her bid to get-to-hell-out-of-Singapore before the Japs arrived. Within twelve hours of sailing she had suffered four air attacks; her hull and superstructure were damaged and the radio was a shambles. A Jap invasion convoy was then sighted off the port bow and soon after, an even bigger one off the starboard bow. They knew they were for it!
The captain called his ship's company together and told them ..... chance of escape or not, he proposed doing what the 'proper Navy' called "Closing the enemy" in the hope of taking one of the transports with them as they were sunk. It didn't matter a hoot in hell what happened to him, or them, or this "bloody ship" and they all agreed with him. Altering course towards the leading ship of the convoy of transports, the little 'Li Wo' went in with all boilers bursting under the pressure of steam-right under the noses of a large escorting cruiser and destroyer. The Japs didn't seem to think that this odd looking little passenger ship posed any threat to them; they didn't realise that they were going in with malice aforethought and a four-inch gun (and exactly thirty-four shells). It was not until the 'Li Wo' bravely unfurled her battle ensign at the masthead and started lobbing shells into the transport that the Japs woke up and by then the 'Li Wo' had scored a number of direct hits and was charging in on a collision course ready to ram the transport.
The engagement lasted for nearly an hour, until finally, and seemingly reluctantly, the gallant little 'Li Wo' sank beneath the combined fire power of the cruiser and the destroyer - but her battle ensign still flying from the masthead and her captain, Temporary Lieutenant Thomas Wilkinson. RNR, was still standing on her bridge and the transport she had attacked was abandoned on fire and sinking fast.
Jap machine gunners opened fire on the swimmers, on rafts and on lifeboats. They threw grenades at them and even lumps of coal and finally the destroyer cleaved its way through the wreckage at speed in an attempt to mow them down as they struggled in the water. Only eight survived to clamber on to a swamped life boat, and out of these two succumbed to their wounds. Later, three of the others got over to another piece of wreckage that appeared to be more durable, leaving Charlie Rogers with one Leading Seaman and one Malay to drift on. The next day they had the good fortune to drift along side a naval whaler, which, though badly damaged, and swamped, had oars in it along with a sail. They got the sail up and started to move. During the night they heard faint cries and found two rafts with seven more survivors from their ship. All they could do for these lads was to tow the rafts, for the whaler was near sinking as it was, but by the next day they reached Banka Island. Here they all crawled on to the beach to lie exhausted, and it was in this state that the Jap invasion force found them and made them prisoners. That was the start of another saga.
In recognition of his bravery, and of those who died with him, the Captain of the 'Li Wo' was awarded a posthumous V.C. Other awards for this action included one D.S.O., one C.G.M., two D.S.Ms. and six mentioned in Despatches.
The full story of this gallant little ship and her motley crew is told in the book, appropriately titled"Stand by to Die" by A. V. Sellwood.
Taken from the Fepow Forum dated Aug - Sept 1972