KUANTAN: The unveiling of a memorial to the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse, which were sunk off the coast of Kuantan during World War II, is a lesson in history especially at a time when parts of the world are in conflict.
For Henrietta Wood (née Leach), her family’s history is inextricably tied to the history of the region as her grandfather Captain John Leach was the Prince of Wales’ commanding officer (CO) and among the 840 sailors who perished after both warships were sunk by Japanese aircraft.
The event left an impact on the life of Wood’s father Admiral Sir Henry Leach, who had met with Captain John a few days before the warships set sail as part of the ill-fated Force Z sent to intercept Japanese amphibious forces.
In her speech at the unveiling of the memorial, Wood, 64, recounted her father’s written recollections of his last days with Captain John.
“In December 1941, my father, who had recently celebrated his 18th birthday, was a midshipman based in Singapore as a temporary plotter in the war room whilst waiting to rejoin his ship HMS Mauritius.
“In 1940, he had been due to embark on HMS Fiji, but his father intervened and suggested that the Prince of Wales would be a better and safer option.
“It turned to be a lucky intervention for Fiji was sunk off Crete with the loss of nearly all the gunroom. When John Leach was appointed CO of Prince of Wales, his son was reappointed to HMS Mauritius,” she said.
Shortly after the arrival in Singapore of Prince of Wales and Repulse, Henry and his father dined together.
“He was in an upbeat mood and when his father asked him his opinion of the position of Singapore and the mounting Japanese threat, he said, ‘Let them come, let’s have a crack at them.’
“My grandfather replied very seriously, ‘I don’t think you have any idea of the enormity of the odds we are up against.’ Two days later, father and son met for a swim prior to meeting up with Captain Bill Tennant, CO of Repulse.
“My grandfather announced that he was going to swim a few lengths, saying, ‘You never know when it may come in handy.’ Shortly afterwards, the two captains who were good friends parted.
“Two hours later, Force Z sailed and father and son did not see each other again,” said Wood.
On the evening of Dec 10, 1941, after the sinking of the two warships, Wood said her father headed for the quayside in Singapore to try to get news of his father.
“After much frustration and increasing despair, he went back to the war room where he was gently informed of his father’s death by an exhausted first lieutenant of Prince of Wales who had miraculously survived the ordeal,” she said.
Henry eventually rose to become First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, but Wood said the death of Captain John had always stayed with her father.
“My father told me a little about my grandfather but mainly during the later part of his life. I think the memory remained raw in his mind and he found it very emotional to talk about his father.
“I think his career in the Navy was very much coloured by his experience as an 18-year-old. He was young and enthusiastic. I think his father’s death was a huge shock and brought him back to reality.
“His career after that was affected by his father’s death. I think he wanted to do well to live up to his father’s memory,” she said in an interview here yesterday.
The memorial overlooking the South China Sea was unveiled by Yang di-Pertuan Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah on Sunday, marking the 82nd anniversary of the sinking of the warships.
It features an auxiliary anchor, believed to be from the Prince of Wales, which was seized from illegal salvagers in 2016.
Wood said the memorial was a reminder to learn the lessons of history and look to a future of trust, understanding and respect between nations.
“It’s a lesson to all of us that conflicts can be resolved. The Japanese ambassador was there as a friend. Feelings change and who is your enemy today might be your colleague or ally tomorrow.
“Everybody is different individually. Countries are also different, and we will have different beliefs, loyalties and politics.
“I think in most cases, you should respect those differences and allow people to have freedom to live those differences,” she said.
The HMS Prince of Wales has since been revived as the name of a Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier, which was formally named by Queen Camilla, then the Duchess of Rothesay, in 2017.