- Sinfield, Peter
- Ship histories and stories, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Vampire I
- June 2004 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
After the tragic loss of Force Z (HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse) the previous month, HMAS Vampire experienced a short, defiant action against the invading Japanese off the Malayan coast in early 1941.
By late January 1942, the campaign in Malaya was looking increasingly grim for the Allies. In less than seven weeks the Japanese – with overwhelming superiority at sea and in the air – had taken nearly the whole peninsula and now threatened the defenders in the southernmost state of Johore.
Within days of the initial attack the surviving aircraft and personnel of the tiny air force had been pushed back to Singapore, while the loss of Repulse and Prince of Wales prevented offensive action and reduced the Navy to escorting convoys. On land, the enemy had moved south down the east and west coastal roads, and the trunk road running down the centre of the peninsula. By 24 January they were applying pressure along the line Batu Pahat-Kluang-Mersing, only some 50 miles from the causeway spanning Johore Strait to Singapore Island.
It was in this climate of withdrawal and defeat that on the evening of the 25th, the crew of a Catalina reported enemy ships off the east coast steaming south. The next morning two RAAF Hudsons flew north from Sembawang on reconnaissance, locating a convoy steaming towards Endau, a small port some 20 miles north of Mersing. The convoy consisted of two transports (Kansai Maru and Kanberra Maru), the light cruiser Sendai, destroyers of the 3rd Squadron and smaller vessels. Its purpose was to land airfield and signals troops at Endau with supplies, fuel and munitions for use at the Kluang and Kahang airfields, which the Japanese intended to use to support their final drive on Singapore.
Determined to prevent – or at least disrupt – the landing if at all possible, a weak strike force was assembled from the few remaining aircraft of the RAF’s Far East Command. The air attacks on the convoy took place in four phases during the afternoon and evening of 26 January:
First phase: attack by twelve Wildebeestes (lumbering biplane torpedo bombers with a maximum speed of 150 mph) and six Buffalo fighters (the latter were woefully outclassed by the Japanese Zeros and, presumably in recognition of this fact, were relieved by Hurricanes over the target area).
Second phase: attack by nine Hudsons, escorted to the target by six more Buffaloes.
Third phase: attack by nine Wildebeestes and three Albacore bombers (designed as replacements for the Wildebeestes and not much faster). The unescorted bombers arrived over the target area earlier than the Hurricanes and, with their slow speed, fell easy victims to the defending Zeros.
Fourth phase: attack by five Hudsons based in Sumatra, escorted by four Buffaloes and eight Hurricanes. These attacks resulted in direct hits on both and troops and equipment landing or transports, the Sendai and two of the destroyers; 13 enemy aircraft definitely shot down with another five ‘probables’; already ashore destroyed. However, the price was high – eleven Wildebeestes, two Albacores, two Hudsons, two Hurricanes and one Buffalo had been lost, along with most of their crews. This was a major blow to Far East Command, reducing its air striking force to virtually nil.
However, the cost of this gallant but forlorn attempt to stem the Japanese advance was to rise still higher.
Among the ships at the Singapore Naval Base were the old destroyers HMAS Vampire (CMDR W.T.A. Moran, RAN) and HMS Thanet (LCDR B.S. Davies, RNR), which had entered harbour on 24 January with a reinforcement convoy. Ordered to attack the Japanese ships off Endau, they sailed from the Base at 1630 on the 26th and steamed up the East coast. Speed was adjusted to arrive after moonset and at 0151 on 27 January, the ships turned west with Pulau Tioman behind them and closed the coast in poor visibility. Unknown to the two destroyers, the gloom ahead concealed not only the transports but the light cruiser Sendai, six powerful destroyers of the ‘Fubuki‘ class, five minesweepers and half-a-dozen smaller craft.
Initially, all seemed to be anti-climax as the ships glided forward at 15 knots for three-quarters of an hour without seeing anything. Then at 0237 Vampire sighted a destroyer on her starboard bow but, apparently not being seen, Moran pressed on hoping to find the transports. Three minutes later a second vessel was sighted dead ahead; Vampire altered course to port and fired two torpedoes from about 600 metres. Unfortunately, they failed to explode but the enemy ship (minesweeper No. 4) immediately gave the alarm. However, Vampire and Thanet were able to elude the Japanese ships in the poor visibility, and the two destroyers resumed their search for the transports. Having found nothing further, at 0313 they altered to SE by E and increased to full speed.
It was obviously Moran’s intention to head back to Singapore, but fate intervened – and very quickly. Just five minutes later Vampire sighted Shirayuki on the port bow, ordering Thanet to alter course and fire her torpedoes. Vampire discharged her last torpedo and Thanet her three but all four were unsuccessful. Shortly thereafter Sendai, the destroyers Asagiri, Fubuki, Yugiri and minesweeper No. 1 joined the firefight, pursuing the Allied ships at high speed for some forty minutes while both sides engaged with gunfire.
With Vampire in the lead, the Japanese guns naturally concentrated on Thanet and about 0400 the little British destroyer was hit in the machinery spaces. The main steam pipe was fractured, causing her to slow down considerably; suddenly there was a huge explosion and a great cloud of steam and smoke. Vampire turned back and tried to cover her consort with a smoke screen, but the latter was disabled, stopped and listing to starboard. She sank about 0420. In the confusion, which saw Japanese ships engaging each other, Vampire made good her escape and, without damage or casualties, reached the Singapore Naval Base at 1000 that morning.
Thus ended a little-known incident of the Malayan campaign, one of the few in which the Navy was able to take offensive action. However, it was ‘too little, too late‘ – five days later Johore was abandoned; within a fortnight the Japanese had landed on Singapore Island and on 15 February the defenders surrendered. Total Allied losses (battle casualties and captured) from the 70-day campaign amounted to nearly 140,000.
Postscript: After a couple of further convoys in the Singapore-Sunda Strait- Batavia area, Vampire transferred to the East Indies Station early in February. On 9 April, she was sunk by aircraft in the Bay of Bengal while protecting the British carrier HMS Hermes, which was also sunk. Eight of Vampire‘s ship’s company, including Commander Moran, were lost, the remainder being picked up by the hospital ship Vita.
The fate of Thanet’s men is not so clear – indeed, there is some confusion as to the exact number on board during her final action (although a reasonable estimate would be 100 – 110). Some sixty-five survivors were able to make their way in small groups down the coast back to Singapore, while another 31 were picked up by the destroyer Shirayuki after the battle. Thirty of the latter were handed over to the army at Endau the following day; they are believed to have been executed in retaliation for losses sustained by the Japanese in an ambush by the 2/18 Battalion AIF, which occurred south of Mersing about the same time as the naval action off Endau.