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Text by Greg Doyle
Photography by Andrew Georgitsis, Erik Engberg, and Greg Doyle
The British battle cruisers, HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales, lie deep in Malaysian waters about 50 nautical miles north of the resort island of Pulau Tioman. Unknown to the thousands of divers that pass through Tioman every year, these ships offer some of the world’s greatest wreck diving.

In November 2003, Erik Engberg was a tired and bored videographer living in Khao Lak, Thailand, filming newly certified divers bouncing over the Similan reefs. Erik needed a new challenge, he found all he could hope for and more when he teamed up with Greg Doyle, a TDI Trimix Instructor, who was setting up Penetration Divers (www.penetrationdivers.com), an outfit dedicated to Asian wreck exploration and technical diving.

Greg put Erik to work as a jack-of-all-trades on board MV Grace, his 36-meter technical live-aboard vessel and Erik quickly developed a passion for diving the massive battleship and supertanker wrecks that Grace visited most weeks.

One of the first wrecks Greg introduced Erik to was HMS Repulse, the British battle cruiser lost in the early days of the Pacific war to a combination of Japanese tactical superiority and the British Navy’s ignorance of the potential of aerial warfare against ships. After one dive on the Repulse, something changed forever in Erik and he became obsessed with the wreck, to the point of having almost no interest in diving other wrecks or any of the many tasks required of him on-board.

Exploration

Throughout March, MV Grace dived the Repulse at every opportunity. Greg and Erik maximized exploration by diving solo from each end of the ship pushing towards the middle. They quickly exhausted the lines of earlier divers on the upper deck levels and started laying new lines into the furthest interiors of the ship. Over Easter 2004, a group of Aussie divers led by Chris Law chartered Grace to explore all of the WWII wrecks in the South China Sea but Erik’s stories of the pushes into the Repulse convinced them to join his effort to fully map the interior of the wreck and find routes to both the engine room and the chapel and forget about the other wrecks. Between them, these divers racked up over sixty exploration dives on the Repulse to add to the fifty or more that Erik and Greg had undertaken since March.

Even with more than 110 dives into every opening in the wreck, by the end of the Aussies’ charter, nobody could find a way into the engine room or the chapel both of which had become the Holy Grail for the Repulse divers. Greg was particularly concerned to find the chapel as from the ship’s blueprints, it appeared adjacent to the Captain’s wine locker and he had become obsessed with the idea of toasting the men of the Repulse. The chapel was also an intriguing target as it was thought to contain stained glass portholes and possibly a large gold plated crucifix that Greg wanted to photograph in place.

Cable Drum with cable still well-greased below main hangar
Beer bottles in seaman's mess; full beer bottles are still often seen on Repulse
Searching for new passageways deep in the lower levels
Getting serious

A month or so later, Gideon Liew, Singapore’s leading GUE Instructor, and Andrew Georgitsis, GUE’s Technical Training Director chartered MV Grace again with the intention of diving all of the South China Sea wrecks. Like the Australian divers before them, the GUE crew became obsessed with the Repulse after the first day diving her and abandoned plans to dive the Prince of Wales and the submarines.

Since the GUE guys preferred to do their own gas mixing, Erik and Greg were off the hook on the dive deck and able to restart their four dive a day exploration regime. Each diving solo, and using Silent Submersion scooters, this allowed them a total of eight dives into the furthermost interior of the wreck each day.

The difference now was that the divers had full blueprints of the Repulse provided by local diver Brooks Jacobs. With these plans, Erik identified a definite route to the engine room. Unfortunately however, the route was filled with debris and the hatch blocked by collapsed steel. Over several dives, Erik slowly cleared the debris. The steel blocking the hatch proved immovable and remained a very tight squeeze without removing gear.

At this point, Erik thought he had the engine room penetration nailed, with the plans showing a short route through two passages and into the engine room. Starting early on 26 April, Erik set off on what he believed was a straight run to the engine room. Unfortunately, after squeezing through the obstructed hatch and speeding through the corridors laying line, Erik was disappointed to find that what he thought to be the door to the engine room was rusted shut. Believing that the door could not be opened, Erik started searching for other entrances. The plans showed a similar door on the other side of the engine room but the passage way to it was blocked by silt. Neither could he find a passage via the engine room vents passing through the upper decks, although a group of English divers led by famed British wreck diver Jack Ingle diving on the Repulse from another boat at the same time claimed such a route was possible.

After four fruitless dives searching for alternate routes, Erik decided to give the original door one more try with the aid of a crowbar. Thus armed, he spent twenty minutes at over 50 meters working on the door in zero visibility. But sixty years seemed to have rusted the door shut forever, and Erik was forced to admit defeat. Back on the boat, however he started to think that all that was needed was more muscle and that a team effort might make the difference. As Grace was being chartered that week by some of the world’s leading exponents of team diving, Erik was able to draw on their considerable experience for assistance.

Some lessons on teamwork for the solo diver

Erik turned to Gideon Liew and Andrew Georgitsis to make up a team to crack the door and the three divers, armed with video and still cameras, headed off to give the door another go. To Erik’s embarrassment, Andrew was able to open the door easily by unlocking the last remaining hatch dog holding it shut. Despite being the man at the very edge of history, Andrew selflessly moved aside to let Erik make the final push followed by Gideon. Unfortunately, in Erik’s haste to get into the engine room, he laid his line straight towards the final hatch, which meant there was very little room for his teammates to get out of the silt cloud and into the newly opened room, making it difficult for them to follow safely and see what was going on.

Eventually, Erik made it through to the engine room and found it so large his HID light was unable to penetrate the gloom to the other side. Despite the murky conditions Erik says, the wow factor was “pretty high.” Once Gideon had made it through, it was time to turn the dive and with a quick glance around the room and a bit of snappy video work to prove they’d been there, the dive ended.

Erik continued a bit into the room tying off his line with the intention of leaving it permanently in place. Realizing that he was reaching thirds on his air and the agreed upon time limit, Erik had to hurry the tie off a bit but still took the time to secure the line to the reel as not to get entangled on the way back. This done, he turned to meet Gideon near the hatch leading to the exit route. However, the intense silt induced by the divers exhaust bubbles reduced visibility to zero and navigating the line back through the very narrow passage with machinery, piping, and spars obstructing the way proved time consuming. By his own admission, Erik began to feel the stress at this point, and as a solo diver, he was further stressed by having not one, but two, divers between him and the exit. In addition, his primary light gave out, leaving him in absolute
Above: One of many sets of remains seen throughout the wreck - MV Grace employs a strict look, but do not touch policy

Top right:
Swedish RB-80 diver at 45 meters exploring the amazing soft coral growth that covers the ships hull

Second down:
Dr. Mike, a well-known local Inspiration diver, on deco

Third down:
Regular Repulse divers some 100 meters inside the hull

Bottom right:
Unknown object resting on the hull at 40 meters
Photo: Erik Engburg and local IANTD Instructors doing deco on the Australian charter
darkness until one of the backups could be deployed. Eventually, Andrew and Gideon navigated the obstructions and got through to the larger passages leading to the exit. However, Erik got jammed up in the hatchway while going down head first and took several minutes to work himself loose, all the time desperately trying to control an increasing breathing rate as his stress levels rose in response to the constricting conditions.

Diving and respect for the dead

Diving on the Repulse is legal under both British and Malaysian laws, but diving it remains controversial. The Force Z survivors association is highly active in monitoring and protecting the wreck. After, the GUE team members publicized the dive, Alan Matthews of the Survivors Association sent letters to Andrew Georgitsis indicating the group’s opposition to diving of any sort on the wreck.

According to Greg Doyle, owner of Penetration Divers, which runs charter trips to both the Repulse and Prince of Wales, the survivors association can be very difficult to deal with. However, Greg is sympathetic to the concerns of survivors and requests that divers visiting these wrecks agree not to disturb any remains or artifacts on the wrecks.

Brief history of HMS Repulse

HMS Repulse was a World War I renown class battle cruiser hopelessly pitted against far superior forces, strategy, and tactics in a very different war than that she was designed for. First laid down on 25 January 1915 at John Browns Clydebank shipyard in Scotland, she was commissioned on 18 August 1916 and served in the North Sea until the end of the war. Even then, the naval authorities were very concerned about the light armor carried by this class of battle cruiser and immediately following the armistice, they embarked on a massive refit of the Repulse, increasing her total displacement by over six-thousand tons from here original 26,500 tons.

From 1922 when the refit was completed through 1936, the Repulse proudly toured the world demonstrating the apparent might of the rebuilt British military. Perhaps in anticipation of the coming conflicts in continental Europe, Repulse again went through a major refit and modernization. This time, she received strengthened deck armor and the capacity to store and launch aircraft. Enhancements we also made to her antiaircraft capability.

After serving as part of the Home Fleet in the North Sea and Atlantic from 1939 to 1940, she was sent to Singapore together with the new battleship Prince of Wales to strengthen the then colonial outpost from a potential Japanese push southwards. At the time, it was believed that Force Z, of which Repulse and Prince of Wales were the major components, would act as a deterrent force to the Imperial Japanese Navy. Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, both ships rushed northwards to stem what was believed to be a major Japanese invasion force. On the return journey to Singapore on 10 December 1941, a fleet of more than 80 Japanese bombers and torpedo planes mounted a sustained attack on both ships in the waters North of Tioman Island off the East Coast of Peninsula Malaysia. It is believed traitors in the British forces in Singapore guided the Japanese in for the attack.

Although only suffering moderate damage from bombs and successfully evading some nineteen torpedoes launched from the Japanese ‘Betty’ bombers, Repulse eventually succumbed to five torpedo hits and sank rapidly at 12:35 hours. A total of 513 men were lost in the attack and sinking. Many were strafed in the water by the Japanese planes. It took the Japanese 34 land based bombers and 51 torpedo bombers to sink the Repulse and the Prince of Wales over three separate attacks.

The sinking of these two ships was notable for several reasons. First, it was the first time that Capital ships succumbed to air attacks on the open sea (as opposed to in port such as was the case at Pearl Harbor). Secondly, it was the Royal Navy’s largest loss in a single engagement. Historians generally agree that hubris on the part of British Naval authorities caused them to underestimate the strength of the Japanese forces and their then superiority in air to sea combat.

The wreck of the Repulse was located in 1959 lying on her port side in 54 meters (173 feet) of water with the highest point of the wreck at 40 meters (130 feet).

Diving the Repulse

The best time to dive the Repulse (and the other South China Sea WWII wrecks) is during March/April and September/November. At those times, current is negligible, visibility is around 40 meters (130 feet) and water temperature is a comfortable 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees F) — however diving is possible the whole year from late February to the end of November.

Singapore GUE Instructor Gideon Liew in-front of MV Grace waiting for the rest of his team
One of the dozens of engineering controls still in place, this one is located near torpedo loading tubes
Divers exploring the exterior of the wreckage