On Dec 10th, 1941, just days after the Japanese attack on the U S base at Pearl Harbour, two British battleships, the modern Prince of Wales and First World War era battlecruiser Repulse were called to Singapore to assemble for possible operations against the Japanese.
Amongst the crew of the Repulse was a young man, Thomas Dennehy of the Old Blarney Rd.
He was the youngest son of Patrick and Mary Dennehy. He had six older brothers and one sister. Every day as Thomas walked up and down to school in Strawberry Hill, all he wanted was to join the British Navy. He made several attempts to join up but was turned down because of his age. He was a very good-looking young man with dark hair and brown eyes, a promising athlete. Thomas worked for a while for a cobbler near the North Gate Bridge. Finally, at age 19, he was accepted and began a few months training as a Stoker 2nd class at the Royal Naval Barracks, Devonport.
His niece, Eileen Dwyer, who was five years old when he left, remembers him leaving the house with his kitbag over his shoulder. When his mother discovered he had forgotten his clothes brush, she sent her up the road after him with the brush and a tanner (sixpence) for the bus. Eileen caught up with him at the corner of the cottage acre, where the water pump was set back from the road. It had been Thomas’s job every morning to fill the two white enamel buckets with water for domestic use. He took the brush from her and gave her the tanner for herself.
Amongst his mother’s papers I found a letter she received shortly after he enlisted, written by his Training Commander dated January 18th, 1939 just after Thomas’s 20th birthday. This letter told her that her son Thomas had chosen a magnificent career, with early facilities for improving his position, and that if he should indicate he was homesick in his letters home, she should give him cheerful encouragement and advise him to go and see his Division Officer.
By December 8th, 1941, he was promoted to Stoker 1st class and serving onboard HMS Repulse a Renown-class battlecruiser of the Royal Navy, launched during the First World War. Repulse had an overall length of 794 feet 2.5 inches (242.1 m), a beam of 89 feet 11.5 inches (27.4 m) and a maximum speed of almost 32 Knots (35 m.p.h.). The construction, in 1916, cost £2,829,087 (£ 155,720,000 in 2019). It was travelling together with HMS Prince of Wales and their escorting destroyers under the East Indies Command, which was supposed to deter Japanese aggression against British possessions in the Far East.
Comprising Force Z, they departed from Singapore to destroy Japanese troop convoys and protect the British army’s seaward flanks from Japanese landings and expansion into British possessions, particularly Malaya (current-day Malaysia) and Singapore, and to reinforce the British colonial garrisons in the Far East. However, the fleet was without any air support, which had been declined by Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, commander of Force Z.
They were spotted by the Japanese during the afternoon of Dec 9th who shadowed them until dark. This led Admiral Sir Tom Phillips to cancel the operation and Force Z turned back having tried to deceive the Japanese that they were heading to Singora, a city in Songkhla Province of southern Thailand, near the border with Malaya.
At approximately 1 a.m. on Dec 10th Admiral Phillips received a signal of enemy landings at Kuantan, Pahang, Malaya and correspondingly altered course so that he would arrive shortly after dawn. The crew of a Mitsubishi G3M “Nell” reconnaissance bomber spotted the British at 10:15 a.m. and radioed in several reports. They were ordered to broadcast a directional signal that the other Japanese bombers could follow.
The first attack began at 11.13am when bombs (551 lb) were dropped from 11,500 feet. The battlecruiser was hit by several bombs, one of which exploded on the armoured deck. This inflicted several casualties and damaged the ship’s Supermarine Walrus seaplane which was pushed overboard to remove a fire hazard.
Repulse was skilfully handled by her captain Bill Tennant, their anti-aircraft fire damaged five of the Japanese bombers, two so badly they had to return to Saigon. They managed to avoid 19 torpedoes; however, Repulse was caught by a synchronised pincer attack by 17 Mitsubishi G4M torpedo bombers and hit by four or five torpedoes in rapid succession.
The gunners on the Repulse shot down two planes and heavily damaged eight more, but the torpedo damage to the ship proved fatal. At 12.23 p.m. Repulse listed severely to port and quickly capsized with with the loss of 513 Officers and men.
The Prince of Wales was hit by 4 torpedoes and sank at 12.30 p.m. The Repulse sank at 1.20 p.m. The final death toll was 840 men, the Repulse 513 and the Prince of Wales 327. 2,081 lives were saved by the escorting Destroyers, Electra, Vampire and Express and taken back to Singapore.
No such luck for Stoker 1st Class 22-year-old Thomas Dennehy, caught down in the engine room and possibly killed by one of the torpedo explosions.
The Survivors Association in the years since, have contacted the Japanese pilot who led the attack Lt. Haruki Iki, formerly of the Kanoya Air Corps, who accepted their invitation to England. He told them that in keeping with Japanese tradition, the day after the attack, he flew over the site of the battle. He dropped two wreaths of flowers into the sea to honour combatants from both sides who had died in the battle. One was for his fellow members of the Kanoya Air Group, while the other was for the British sailors whose display of bravery in defence of the ships had gained them the utmost admiration from all pilots in his squadron.
Thomas Dennehy’s name is on panel 52, column 3, on the Plymouth Naval Memorial. There are many other brave Irishmen listed on this Naval memorial. He was among six Irishmen from the Republic of Ireland who were killed when H.M.S. Repulse sank. They were:
Ahern, Patrick, aged 21 from Carrigaline, Stoker.
Coughlan, Jeremiah Daniel, aged 36 from Crosshaven, Petty Officer Stoker.
Dennehy, Thomas, Aged 22 from Blarney Rd, Clogheen, Stoker 1st Class.
Duffy Patrick, aged 34 from Ballinamore, Leitrim, Stoker 1st class.
Murphy, John Anthony, aged 18 from Bray, Wicklow, Able Seaman.
O’Donoghue, Aged 25, from Carrigtwohill, Leading Stoker.
Thomas was survived by his six brothers and one sister.
They were: – Patrick, better known as Patie Dennehy of The Groves, Blarney, a stalwart of the Blarney Athletic and Cycling Club and the Blarney Development Association.
Michael Dennehy, who spent his working life mostly in The Finishing Department in the Martin Mahony and Bros., Woollen Mills, Blarney.
Brothers Jack and Ritchie, both emigrated and worked in the Ford Motor Company. Jack in Dagenham and Ritchie in Dagenham and Adelaide, Australia.
His brother, Bartholomew (Barny), worked in Insurance in Cork City.
His brother Jimmy, worked in Construction, also in Cork City.
His only sister Mary Dwyer of The Groves, Blarney was a founder member of Blarney I.C.A., (Irish Country-women’s Association) and her son, Teddy, was a prominent member of the Blarney Athletic and Cycling club.
His niece Eileen Dwyer who saw him off when she was five, remembers Thomas’s mother, Mary, sitting by the open fire in the cottage three years later, her hands shaking as she held a much wrinkled and tear-stained telegram telling of her missing son, in one hand, with a scroll of honour from King George VI in the other.
A memorial was dedicated on 10th December 2011 at The National Memorial Arboretum, the UK’s national site of remembrance at Alrewas, near Lichfield, Staffordshire, United Kingdom. The memorial was dedicated in the presence of the few remaining surviving former crews of the ships.
It is currently traditional for every passing Royal Navy ship to perform a remembrance service over the site of the wrecks.
Today H.M.S. Repulse and Prince of Wales lie almost completely upside down in 58 and 68 metres depth of water and while both are declared protected war grave sites, it was reported in October 2014, by the Daily Telegraph, that they were both being “extensively damaged” with explosives by scrap-metal dealers.
The 4 Medals awarded to Thomas Dennehy for his service in the Royal Navy were:
Awarded for service in the Second World War between 3rd Sept 1939 and 2nd Sept 1945.
The Pacific Star
Awarded for service in the Pacific Theatre between 8th Dec 1941 and 23rd March 1943
The Atlantic Star Medal
Awarded to Royal Navy for 6 months in Atlantic between 3rd Sept 1939 and 8th May 1945, provided they had earned the 1939-1945 star.
The War Medal
Awarded for service during World War II between 3rd Sept 1939 and 2nd Sept 1945.II
The above article, Death of Stoker 1st Class Thomas Dennehy and Battlecruiser H.M.S. Repulse 1941, was written by Mona Lynch and published in ‘Old Blarney’ Journal Issue No. 12.