February 21, 2019 – A cross of remembrance floats in the South China Sea over the last resting place of 840 British sailors as HMS Montrose paid her respects to the men of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse.
The new battleship and veteran battle-cruiser were sunk just three days after the raid on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 as they tried to stop Japanese forces overrunning Malaysia.
Instead, the two ships – the kernel of task group Force Z which Churchill sent to the Far East in a bid to deter Tokyo – were pounced upon by Japanese bombers and sunk inside 90 minutes.
Nearly 1,000 men were rescued (some would fall into Japanese hands when Singapore fell two months later) and the ferocity of the fight the two leviathans put up earned the admiration of the enemy pilots, who laid a wreath over the site of the battle the day after in tribute to the British sailors.
More than 77 years later and it was Montrose’s Commanding Officer Commander Conor O’Neill casting a cross into the same waters, following a service of remembrance on the Plymouth frigate’s flight deck.
After ten days at the same berth used by the two ill-fated capital ships in Singapore back in 1941, passing over the hallowed sites struck home.
“Many of the crew learned about the Japanese occupation of Singapore during our visit, so it was especially poignant to remember those in Force Z who lost their lives in an effort to protect it,” said Commander Conor O’Neill, HMS Montrose’s Commanding Officer.
“It allowed us to remember the past but also look forward to the current HMS Prince of Wales soon to sail on sea trials – and to note how far our relationship with Japan has come.”
Montrose is now heading for Tokyo to take part in combined exercises with the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force.
As well as the service for Force Z, the journey to Japan was punctuated by training with the American Navy and its supply ship USNS Guadalupe.
Based in Japan, it served as a ‘playground’ for Montrose’s boarding team of sailors and Royal Marines; the latter ‘secured’ the Guadalupe by clambering aboard, sweeping the decks and making sure the crew posed no threat.
Then the sailors joined them, conducting a bow-to-stern search of the 40,000-tonne vessel for any suspicious cargo.
They found a member of the crew playing the role of a people trafficker and drug smuggler who was interrogated while his small haul of ‘drugs’ was recovered, allowing Montrose’s Royal Navy Police officers to test their legal and evidence-handling skills.
“Carrying out the specialist search role on such a large US Navy Ship was a big step up from what I’ve done before and practicing with our Royal Marines showed me how well we can work as a team,” said Engineering Technician (Weapon Engineering) Jake Nicoll who led one of the search teams.
The rest of the work-up with the American tanker was dedicated to practicing refueling under way – a Replenishment at Sea – with the two ships steaming parallel, separated by just 50 metres and lines passing between them to transfer fuel and stores.
Four times Montrose practiced maneuvering into position from different angles. On the fourth pass, lines were sent across to allow the fueling rig to pass between the two ships to allow Montrose to top up her tanks.
“This was a very useful day – operating seamlessly with our allies on USNS Guadalupe, we proved two essential capabilities: board and search and replenishment at sea,” said Commander O’Neill. “It demonstrated that if called upon to conduct either during our period of operations, Montrose is ready.”