The Sinking Of The Prince Of Wales

By Jim Dyer
First published in the Western Mail 1988

© Jim Dyer 2012

In May 1988 some 50 German navy men met with their former adversaries at Cwmbran in a unique gathering to remember events of the Second World war.

Clive Sutton (now deceased), a Cwmbran man who was aboard the Prince of Wales which was sunk in the Indian Ocean, met survivors of the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen.

The 19,800 tons ship was one of Germany's most feared vessels, carrying guns with a range of 36,000 metres. Britain was not short of fire-power either, its Home Fleet having the new King George class battleship, Prince of Wales, patrolling the sea lanes. Two huge capital ships destined to meet in a classic naval battle but to suffer different fates.

Clive Sutton was a gunner aboard the Prince of Wales and as a member of the Cwmbran Royal Naval Association was involved with the reunion. For many years he kept in touch with the Prinz Eugen Association in Germany and helped to bring more than 100 shipmates together from all over the world. At the reunion some visitors were survivors from the Bismarckand the principal guest was Sir Henry Leach Admiral of the Fleet.

Sea Battle

It was in May 1941 that the battleship Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen were spotted by the cruiser HMS Suffolk in the Denmark Strait. This was the start of a chase across hundreds of miles of ocean and involving many fighting ships.

Before the Bismarck was sunk off Brest on the 27th of that month, the battle cruiser HMS Hood was blown-up with only three survivors The Hood engaged the Prinz Eugen, the leading ship mistaking her for the Bismarck and took a hit.

The Bismarck sank the Hood but the Prinz Eugen having detached herself only just found her support tanker before running out of fuel. She had damaged propellers and engines badly needing overall and reached Brest on June 1st.

The Prince of Wales, Hood and four destroyers had steamed north at full speed to intercept the two German battleships. During the engagement she was hit by a number of shells and smoking turned away. But she hit the Bismarck twice, damaging her fuel tanks.

The Prinz Eugen was again involved with a dash for open water when in February 1942 together with the Sharnhorst and Gneisenau she broke out from Brest up the English Channel.

They reached Wilhelmshaven but a few weeks later she was damaged by a submarine torpedo. She survived the war after capture in Brest to be used as a target ship when the atom bomb was dropped at Bikini Atoll in 1946.

South-East Asia

In an attempt to deter Japanese conquest plans of south-east Asia, the Prince of Wales was despatched to Singapore with the battlecruiser HMS Repulse in late 1941. Their patrol was to be short-lived. On December 9th wave after wave of Japanese planes bombed and sank both ships. There were some 200 survivors, including Clive Sutton.

He lost one shipmate, Arthur Carey, from Newport when the Hood went down. but this time was thankful that another Gwent friend was on board the Prince of Wales when he dived into the tropical Indonesian waters.

'I jumped over with Fred Tottle from Cwmbran but we lost each other. I felt myself sinking when I was hauled onto a raft by him. We were on it for a few hours and then picked-up by the destroyer Electra.'

The Electra was sunk the following year in Javanese waters but Clive had another lucky escape when only three days before the Imperial Japanese forces took Singapore in 1942, he got away in an old Javanese rubber-carrying boat.

Back at home he was posted missing and much to everyone's surprise turned-up in Columbo weeks later after a harrowing experience aboard the rat-infested boat.

He regards himself as one of the lucky ones as his fate could have been a lot different if he had been taken by the Japanese. Instead he stayed in Columbo for 18 months as a crew member of ML1086, an anti-submarine vessel, and one of the smallest in the Royal Navy.

After the D-Day landings aboard a hospital ship, Clive Sutton transferred to the police branch.

Having served aboard one of the largest ships of the war and one of the smallest Clive enjoyed the reunion with relish.

Jim Dyer - 23 Dec 2011


Article revised from the one which appeared in the Western Mail on 29 March 1988.