Royal Navy Reserve
February 14, 1942
His Majesty’s Ship much of a warship. Barely 160 feet long, with steam engines Li-Wo wasn’t generating less than 300 horsepower, it was built to carry passengers on the upper Yangtze River. In 1940, however, Britain was at war, and with proper warships needed in more militarily active regions, the Royal Navy commandeered Li-Wo, bolted an old 4-inch gun to its foredeck, installed a couple of Lewis machine guns and commissioned it as a patrol vessel. It was then dispatched to Singapore, considered a rear area of the conflict.
All that changed after the Japanese invaded Malaya on Dec. 8, 1941. By Feb. 13, 1942, Malaya had fallen and Singapore was about to follow. The British had already withdrawn their major warships in the region to Ceylon or Java. Among the last to leave Singapore was Li-Wo, with orders to proceed to Batavia, on the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies (present-day Jakarta, Indonesia).
Li-Wo’s 84 crewmen were as unlikely as their ship. On the day of departure its crew included 19 Royal Navy men, five soldiers, two Royal Air Force men, 10 Malays, six Chinese and 34 assorted Europeans. In command was 43-year-old Thomas Wilkinson, who had been Li-Wo’s master when it had been a merchant vessel. Since he knew the ship, and since regular navy officers were required elsewhere, Wilkinson had remained in charge with the rank of temporary lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve.
Over the next 24 hours Li-Wo’s crew repelled four air attacks, one of which reportedly involved 52 enemy aircraft. The vessel’s gunners expended most of their ammunition, but the ship, though damaged, remained seaworthy.
On the afternoon of February 14 Li-Wo was passing north of the Bangka Strait when smoke appeared on the horizon. It came from a Japanese convoy en route to invade Sumatra, escorted by the 5,660-ton light cruiser Yura and two 2,000-ton destroyers, Fubuki and Asagiri.
Under the circumstances Wilkinson had only two rational options: surrender or make a run for it. Instead, he addressed his crew: “A Jap convoy is ahead. I am going to attack it. We will take as many of those Jap bastards as possible with us.” He then asked the gunners how much ammunition was left. They reported a total of six semi-armor piercing shells, four graze-fuze shells, three anti-aircraft shells and three practice rounds. That and the Lewis guns was it.
What followed was perhaps the most one-sided sea battle since 1591, when Sir Richard Grenville, in HMS Revenge, single-handedly attacked an armada of more than 50 Spanish ships. HMS Li-Wo, its battle ensign flying and its single puny deck gun blazing, made straight for the nearest transport. The Japanese didn’t return fire immediately, and Li-Wo’s gun crew, survivors of the capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse, sunk two months earlier, made every shot count. Incredibly, the Japanese transport caught fire, and its men abandoned ship. After expending its ammunition, Li-Worammed the transport. Only then, under heavy enemy fire and with both ships locked together and sinking, did Wilkinson give the order to abandon ship. He remained at his station on the bridge and went down with Li-Wo. The battle had lasted almost an hour.
The enraged Japanese machine-gunned Li-Wo’s survivors in the water, and one ship reportedly ran through the wreckage at high speed. Only seven men survived to be taken prisoner, and few of them lived through the next three years in Japanese prison camps. Not until the end of the war, when they were repatriated, did the story finally come to light. In 1946 the British government officially recognized the crew’s valor. HMS Li-Wo became the most highly decorated small ship in British naval history. Heading the list of honorees was Temporary Lieutenant Thomas Wilkinson of the Royal Naval Reserve, awarded the Victoria Cross, as his citation reads, “in recognition of the heroism and self-sacrifice displayed not only by himself but by all who fought and died with him.”
Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.