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Commander Bill King: The last surviving Second World War submarine commander


A desperate plea for help from a doomed Singapore garrison in 1942 sent submarine commander Bill King on a voyage in the Eastern seas that would haunt him until his death.

His boat, HMS Trusty, was the sole British submarine in the South China Sea during the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. She set sail five days before the Japanese landings on the island began on 8 February that year, and remained at sea for three weeks, until after the surrender on 15 February.

The tensions of his service from the first day of the Second World War to its last drove King for the rest of his life to hunt, climb mountains, and sail single-handed round the world in search of tranquillity. The man who won a DSO and DSC in 1940, and a Bar to his DSO in 1944, was to become the last surviving British Second World War submarine commander, his extraordinary memories still ablaze at the great age of 102 in his Irish fastness of Oranmore Castle, Galway.

The son of Lieutenant Colonel William de Courcy King, he was educated from the age of 13 at Dartmouth, passed the submarine skippers' test in 1939, and was made Commander in 1943. He had been sent to Singapore from Alexandria in December 1941 taking extra men and equipment for a submarine flotilla, but found as he voyaged East only increasing disarray. At Colombo he learned from a haggard Commander in-Chief that Trusty was the only submarine reinforcement, and entering the Strait of Malacca with the Japanese in control, he had no choice but to burn the intended flotilla's confidential books.

Passing up the Johore Strait to the new £60m British naval base, which had taken 12 years to build on Singapore island, he saw a huge column of black smoke, and found staff destroying papers: "The naval base was disappearing before our eyes!" That afternoon Japanese bombs had flattened the submariners' intended lodgings, and Singapore's Admiral Ernest Spooner and his wife Megan invited King to stay at their villa. Air-raids being mostly by day, they dined after dusk in the fragrant garden, the admiral's wife singing for their guest "in a sweet untroubled voice".

Spooner's morale impressed King even as he found gates unguarded and stores empty, and "the dauntless Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders", who had fought a retreat before the Japanese 400 miles down the Malay peninsula, also drew his admiration. Still, as Trusty sailed, "we knew the show had been bungled." King took with him the extra crew he had brought, realising that the Japanese would capture them if he did not.

Lacking orders, he made for Cam Ranh Bay in French Indochina (now Vietnam), which had surrendered to Japan in September 1940. Saving Trusty's 11 torpedoes for the Japanese fleet, he fired with surface guns on two small tankers. The blaze from the first lit up the sea, but the second rammed her, shaving her stern, and escaped.

"Days passed … my men grew apathetic while I brooded," King wrote of the mood in the foul air of the overcrowded vessel. The radio announcement of Singapore's surrender dashed their spirits. They explored the Anambas Islands but the Japanese fleet had gone. Putting in at Surabaya, Java, they sailed on hearing of Japanese parachute landings, with an unrepaired oil leak robbing them of attack capability as it would betray their position. At Batavia (now Djakarta) a trapped rat was their only prize.

Trusty kept to the surface for speed and air the 3,000 miles from Java via the Sunda Strait to Colombo, with little to eat but Horlicks Malted Milk and Australian cough sweets, water too precious to wash with, and her crew in rags. She survived the Easter Sunday air raid of 5 April 1942 that sank British ships in the Indian Ocean including the aircraft carrier Hermes, but, being under repair, missed the Japanese fleet by a day. King patrolled back to Malacca in extreme heat but found only water snakes and crawling things on the surface of an eerily empty sea. Dengue fever ended his command of Trusty, and he wrote of the strain put on a submarine forced to operate without a base, food, medicine, intelligence, ammunition, or clothes. Several of his crew had episodes of madness.

Two men helped King recover peace of mind: RN Captain Philip Ruck Keene, later a vice-admiral, and the round-the-world-yachtsman Sir Francis Chichester. Ruck Keene was a paternal figure for King, who had lost his own father in action in the First World War, when he was seven. In 1943 Ruck Keene took King, stationed in Beirut, skiing in the clear air of the mountains of Lebanon, where King met his future wife, the author Anita Leslie, who was working in Cairo. Later Chichester was to suggest the single-handed ocean sailing at which King made his name in the 1960s and '70s.

Beirut was almost the only respite King had in the six years of the war, during which, in the 1940 Norway campaign in his first command, the submarine Snapper, he sank or damaged six ships, and in 1941 in Trusty patrolled the Mediterranean from Malta. Success returned after Beirut, and he earned a Bar to his DSO on 17 July 1944 when his third command, the submarine HMS Telemachus, torpedoed the Japanese submarine I-166 in the Malacca Straits.

This event had consequences for the fatherless King: the 87 killed included Chief Engineer Tsuruichi Tsurukame, whose son, seeking links with his father, 60 years later arrived at Oranmore. "My father was terrified – he made me and my brother go out, saying it didn't matter if he lived, this might be revenge," King's daughter Leonie recalled. But Akira Tsurukame, who was three at the time of I-166's sinking, became a close friend.

"My parents talked about the fall of Singapore endlessly," Leonie remembered. "He was a very distressed man when we were children." King later went deaf, and would go about singing rhymes and songs. "I had a strong respect for his personal character and leadership," Tsurukame, who this June attended King's last birthday gathering, said. Their families in 2004 and 2005 planted "peace trees" at Oranmore and in Japan, and by the two men's third meeting "grief, pain, suffering evaporated… we drank many bottles of Chardonnay together and felt as if we are all in heaven already."

King enjoyed fox-hunting in Galway, climbed the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc, and in 1973, at his third attempt, circumnavigated the globe in his 42ft junk-rigged schooner Galway Blazer II. He records his wartime exploits in The Stick and the Stars (1958), and also wrote about his later adventures.

William Donald Aelian King, submarine captain and yachtsman: born Farnborough, Hampshire 23 June 1910; married 1949 Anita Leslie (died 1984; one son, one daughter); died Galway 21 September 2012.