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Interview with Christopher Briggs

Great Britain
Great Britain

Name & Surname: Christopher Briggs
City of Birth & Country: Isle of Wight, Great Britain
Rank in Royal Navy in 1942: Served in the British Royal Navy from 1939 to 1946. Rank while on HMS Scout was Lieutenant RNR (Royal Naval Reserve)

[This interview with Mr. Christopher Briggs was done via e-mail in April 2000 and is posted here by his kind permission.]

Mr. Briggs, you are by profession a Master Mariner (Ship's Captain) and you were working for the Chinese Government when war broke out. Could you say us a little bit more about this time you being in the service of the Chinese goverment ?

In 1932 I joined the Chinese Maritime Customs in the Marine Department. With our headquarters in Shanghai. The Marine Department was responsible for the maintenance of the lighthouses on the China coast, the conservation of various rivers including the Yangtse and coastal patrol looking for smugglers. We also provided pilots in certain ports. The Customs’ quite large fleet was manned by Chinese and foreigners. Most of my time was in command of anti-smuggling patrol ships.

When did you joined the Royal Navy ?

In November 1939, I resigned from the Chinese Customs Service and joined the Navy in Hong Kong.

Can you tell us some words about your ship ? How many ships did Royal Navy had at that time in Hong Kong ?

This ship was one of a number of destroyers built at the end of World War I for use in the North sea in the war against Germany. By 1939 there were still a number of the ships in commission but they were ill equipped for a modern war. However they were still useful for anti-submarine work as they carried many depth charges and modern Sonar equipment. When the Japanese attacked Hong Kong there were three destroyers, two river gunboats and a flotilla of motor torpedo boats.

How did Hong-Kong look like at that time ? Was there any defence preparations in case of Japanese attack ? (Note shortly before the war landed in Hong-Kong approximately 3000 Canadian soldiers, which reinforced the colony's garrison)

There had been much preparation in case of attack by Japan. Air raid shelter tunnels under the hill. Most men were in an army volunteer unit. There were at leat three battalions of British troops and then a battalions of Canadians arrived but little time was left to get used to the country. Many fortifications had been built over the years, pill boxes, trenches. Some on the island but mostly on the mainland in Kowloon. Some minefields had been laid to defend the harbour and there was a anti-submarine boom across the harbour entrasnce at Lyemun.

When did HMS Scout leave the port of Hong-Kong ? Were there any troubles during your sail to Singapore? Were you attacked by any Japanese planes ?

This ship left Hong Kong at 9 p.m on Monday 8th December 1941 in company with another destroyer HMS Thanet. The ships called to refuel at Manila, Balikpappan and Batavia. No attacks by Japanese. One Formosan fishing trawler was found to be loaded with radio eqipment. The boat was sunk and crew taken prisoner to be landed at Balikpapan.

What kind of assigments was HMS Scout involved in while stationed in Singapore ? Were you engaged in any battles ? You arrived in Singapore shortly before the fall. Was there already any signs of panic among British and Australian military personnel and also among civilian population (Note people on Malaya were informed about savages of drunken Japanese soldiers in Hong-Kong)

While at Singapore Scout spent nearly all her time on patrol in the Strait of Malacca, ocasionaly returning to Singapore for fuel and stores. The ship was not engaged in any battles but were constantly attacked by Japanese aircraft. Our last visit to singapore was on 10th February 1942. There was some sign of panic and ships were loading passengers who had permission to leave. At that time there was not much evidence of military personal in the dock area. I was not able to leave the ship so I have no idea what it was like in the city. Japanese air raids were frequent.
Note: There were some instances of rape and murder in Hong Kong by drunken Japanese soldiers.

Do you remember when three British destroyers came into Singapore Naval base with Prince of Wales and Repulse survivors (Note HMS destroyer Electra arrived as last of three destroyers into Singapore harbour exactley at midnight on 10 December 1941 ? What was your reaction when you have heard the news about Prince of Wales and Repulse being sunk by the Japanese (Great Britain and Churchill almost got a heart attack) ?

HMS Scout was arriving in Manila at the time Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk and was a long way from seeing the three destroyers retuning to Singapore. Our reaction to the sinking of these ships was the realization of how this will change the whole strategic situation and naturally one of sorry at such a tragedy. I don’t know about a heart attack for Churchill but "It was acknowleged by Churchill to have given him the most direct shock he experienced during the whole course of the war, itself a period of grave and stunning shocks".

(Here it came to a little misunderstanding/mistake caused by me, for which I sincerly appologise. When I said that "Churchill almost got a heart attack", I was meaning this as a metaphorical expression, in a way as a 'shock', as Christopher has later corrected me :-) -- Klemen L..)

When did you arrive on Java Island (port of Batavia) ? Do you remember how look like the situation at that time in Batavia ?

We arrived at Batavia next day (11th) spent a few hours in the floating dock to have our sonar dome replaced. There were constant air raids and we had no contact with the shore except by signal.

How did the Dutch and Javanese civilians act towards the R.N. (British) personnel ? Any problems ?

We had no contact with civilians except workmen at drydock and fuel lighter. All were very co-operative.

What kind of tasks did you perform while stationed in Batavia, Dutch East Indies (you also saw many times USS heavy cruiser Houston) ?

We were instructed to become part of the Western Striking Force. This force was to consist of three cruisers, HMAS Hobart (Australian), HMS’s Dragon and Danae (light cruisers both British) and two old destroyers HMS’s Scout and Tenedos. Our main duty was to patrol the Sunda Strait and to the West of it. This strait was the main escape route for shipping to the West and Japanese submarines were operating in the area. USS Houston was operating in this area too but was not part of our force.

How would you rate the Dutch, Royal Navy and United States naval forces during the Netherlands East Indies Campaign ?

The available Naval forces in the area were in all ways inferior to what the Japanese were able to bring to the area. This would include air power too. There were Japanese aircraft carriers and the Allies only had a few land based fighters.

Could you describe the situation in Padang, Sumatra Island, when your ship arived in this port to evacuate military and civilian personnel ? Were you during evacuation time attacked by any Japanese planes ? Did you have any time to look over the town and to see the real situation in town or did you stay all time aboard HMS Scout ? How many people did you manage to evacuate ?

This small port is situated about two miles up a river. I have no idea what the situation was ashore at Padang. HMS Tenedos went up the river first and loaded about 600 people leaving Scout and the cruisers outside. Then Scout went up the river while Tenedos put her passengers on board the cruisers. HMS Scout loaded about the same number and then Tenedos went in again. This was a total of about 1,800 people both military and civilian, mainly the latter. Our great fear was of Japanese submarines and it was considered too dangerous to stay any longer so the force sailed for Colombo. There was no time to go ashore. We stayed alongside the wharf only long enough to load the passengers. Fortunately there were no Japanese air raids while this operation was taking place.

When did you finally arrive to Colombo, Sri Lanka ? Were you attacked at any time by any Japanese naval or air force forces ? What your your follwoing assigments ?

I have no idea when we arrived in Colombo. The trip would only have taken two or three days. We were not attacked during the trip from Sumatra to Colombo even though the Japanese were very active. Java had surrendered and the battle of the Java Sea had taken place by the time we arrived in Colombo.

How would you describe the Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942 from your point of view ? What could have been done differently to stop at the Japanese advance ? Could the Japanese naval forces been defeated in this campaign ?

The Netherlands East Indies Campaign 1941-42 can only be described as disastrous. The total of naval ships available might have been sufficient if under one command. They were to be up against the third largest Navy in the world and a modern one at that. The non-arrival of the aircraft-carrier HMS Indomitable, coupled with the loss of the battleships in Singapore left the allies in an inferior position.

Mr. Briggs, you have also wrote a book about your WWII experiences in Dutch East Indies. Could you tell us some words about it ?

My new book which covers the writer’s personal experience in the Netherlands East Indies campaign has not yet been published. It requires some re-writing. I will let you know when it has been printed. The Netherlands East Indies covers only the first chapter and there is much after that including emigrating from Britain to Australia.

Veterans of the Dutch East Indies Index . Bibliography . Article List . Geographic Names
Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942
Copyright 1999-2000 by Christopher Briggs