Obituary: Vice-Admiral Sir John Hayes

By A. B. Sainsbury | The Independent (London, England), September 29, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: Vice-Admiral Sir John Hayes

A. B. Sainsbury, The Independent (London, England)

IN SEPTEMBER 1939, when the Second World War broke out, John Hayes was the junior Navigating officer (N) in Vindictive, the cadet training cruiser, after three years as a specialist navigator, spent mainly in Fowey, a sloop in the Persian Gulf, and with four years seniority as a Lieutenant.

During the next six years he would survive the sinking of the Repulse, the surrender of Singapore and the disintegration of Convoy PQ 17. He was one of that generation of officers who had lived through the singular rigours of Dartmouth and began to enjoy the relative peace of wardroom life in the old Navy and the last years of peace wherever it took them. They were to start their war as junior officers, and those who survived would find themselves competing for professional survival and promotion when it ended and the Fleet began to contract, just as they were in the zone for a brass hat or a fourth stripe.

Christened John Osler Chattock Hayes, Hayes inevitably became known as Joc, which is how he is remembered in the Navy. He entered via Dartmouth in 1927 and went on to enjoy most of the 39 years he spent on the active list and the 32 more in nominal retirement.

He was born in Bermuda in 1913, to the wife of an Army doctor in the RAMC. Before the Second World War, he had survived life in the gunrooms of the college, of the Royal Oak in the Mediterranean and the stately cruiser Cumberland on the China station, before going as a Sub-Lieutenant to the older light cruiser Danae in his native West Indies.

Vindictive had been demilitarised in 1937, and mobilisation meant a need for regular officers in the ships to come out of reserve. Hayes became N of the old light cruiser Cairo, manned mainly by ratings from the recently formed Humber division of the old RNVR. A navigational near-miss with a channel buoy during the passage of an East Coast coal convoy revealed that he had an eye problem. One consultant pronounced that he should never have been entered; another attributed the incident to strain.

He was discharged to shore early in 1940, but his dismay and uncertainties were resolved by an appointment to the old battle- cruiser Repulse. He had acted as Accountant officer as well as Navigator in Fowey; now he remustered as Signal Officer, and again as only the second N.

Admiral Sir Tom Phillips had been serving in the Admiralty for some time when he found himself sent to sea. He was far from enthusiastic about the doctrine of "naval air" and a strong partisan of the battleship. He took his little squadron, the Prince of Wales, Repulse and four elderly destroyers, without air cover on a fruitless reconnaissance east of the Malayan peninsula which ideally should have been left to land-based aircraft - a grounding had denied him the carrier Indomitable intended for his force.

The result was that, within the hour, the two capital ships were sunk by Japanese aircraft on 10 December 1941. As Captain S.W. Roskill, the Navy's official historian of the Second World War, found, the Admiral's "belief that air cover would meet him off Kuantan, when he had given Singapore no hint that he was proceeding there, demanded too high a degree of insight from the officers at the base".

It was wishful thinking, described as a reluctance to break radio silence. Hayes called it a "lethal mistake". However defined, Churchill later admitted that the Repulse's torpedoing was "the most direct shock" he felt in the war, and despite some brilliant and valiant ship-handling it cost the lives of the Admiral, his Flag Captain, 327 men from the flagship and 513 from the Repulse, which sank within eight minutes, turning over at 20 knots after three torpedoes opened her port side.

Hayes was lucky. Out on the signal deck, he found his movements being "dictated by gravity, like one of those balls on a bagatelle table that bounces off pins . . . the funnel, red hot from steaming, the port flag lockers, normally 50 feet above the waterline, they were almost awash, and so overboard helplessly and down for what seemed a long time.

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