HMS Valient and the Floating Dock Incident, Trincomalee, Ceylon by the late Fred Laverick
Gunner F. Laverick
Between 1941 and 46, I served in the Royal Artillery. I was one of the gunners in an anti-aircraft battery and operated the “bofor gun.” I served in what was known as the South-East Asia Theatre of World War II but I was well away from the battlefront in Burma. My claim to fame is that I did a course in signalling and went from Gunner to Signaller to Corporal in the cyphers, all in one day!
Trincomalee Harbour, Ceylon: This was the base for the Royal Navy’s Eastern Fleet. Ships were repaired and serviced in the dockyard. In August 1944, HMS Valient, a battleship which took part in raids against Japanese bases in Indonesia, came into Trincomalee to be repaired using the floating dock facilities.
On the Sunday, my Battery’s football team played a team from the dock. I played and afterwards got talking to one of dock’s Petty Officers. He invited us round the floating dock and we went there on the Monday. It was a “U” shaped structure, split into compartments – water was let into each compartment until it submerged, the ship entered the dock then water was pumped out as the ship was made stable. When the dock was dry work could begin on the ship. Well, that was the theory. On the Thursday, at about 10.30 at night, I was up on Sober Island, manning the Ack-Ack gun overlooking the harbour. It was called Sober Island because in days gone by those British sailors who were “the worse for wear” were sent there to sober up. From our position we had a good view of the floating dock and HMS Valient. The dock had been sunk, it was tilting and Valient was in there. That wasn’t supposed to happen. The Admiral of the Fleet was in an aircraft carrier elsewhere in the harbour. He came over to inspect the scene. A lot of small boats were milling about then the order came:
“All small craft stand clear!”
I was told there could be an explosion. We continued to watch. There was banging and cracking. They asked for volunteers to stoke the boilers. Many chaps came up to our position for a better view. I was told by an officer:
“If you think it’s going to go, run like hell!”
Another took a different view:
“You needn’t run. If that goes, it’ll blow this ******* island out of the water!”
At that point, Fred was getting a little worried!
The Dock Master appeared – smart uniform, white socks, white shorts, cap, pipe in mouth. He was the man to sort this mess out. He was on the floating dock. More banging and clattering, water flowed into the dock. The Dock Master waited until water was slapping about his boots then got out. The day was saved. HMS Valient slowly moved out of the submerged dock.
I couldn’t help thinking – Monday, it was unsinkable; Thursday disaster, it was at the bottom of the water!
Years later, I was talking to my old mate Bob Heseltine. He was actually serving on a ship that was in harbour and he witnessed the whole event. There we were, both in the same harbour and unaware of it.
I served elsewhere in south-east Asia:
- Bangalore, India: My recollections here are of Dennis Compton, the great English all round sportsman. An England and Arsenal footballer and Test batsman, he was involved in a football match against a team organised by Tommy Walker, a Celtic player. They were sergeants in the Forces and they were employed to entertain the troops. Servicemen from the bases played in the football matches. Tommy Walker was a real gentleman who involved everybody on his side although my memory of Compton was that he wanted to be the star attraction. Freddie Mills, the boxer also came to entertain the troops.
- Chittagong (now in Bangladesh but was then in India) – I was based there for a while then went to Ramree Island, off the west coast of Burma in 1945. Victory in Europe came and we were all given a bottle of beer and invited to attend a show – Burmese Dancing Girls. Well, as a young lad of 22 or 23, I was really looking forward to that. I need not have bothered. They were performing in Burmese national costume – covered from head to toe – some victory party that was!
- Ramree Island, Burma: the island was just off the coast of Burma and close to where there was some action. I heard a story that when the British Forces took the island, only a few Japanese soldiers surrendered because it was against their military code of honour. Those who weren’t killed in fighting, committed suicide or fled into the swamps on the south of the island only for them to meet up with the saltwater crocodiles and they took care of them. I didn’t know whether or not to believe it.
Then back to Blighty:
- Hutton, Guisborough: At the end of the War, I was clerk to the Welfare Officer. Manning the office when he was away, a young soldier came in with his complaint. His wife had cleared off with an American soldier. He wanted her maintenance money stopped. He said:
“I don’t mind him taking my wife but I’m not giving him his beer money as well!”
We did what we could for him. There were many stories like that.
- A more technical account of the HMS Valient episode is provided below:
- 8 August 1944: Whilst in the floating dock at Trincomalee, Ceylon, HMS Valient was severely damaged when the dock collapsed. The two inner screws were jammed as well as one of her rudders. Floating docks and the ships that they hold are raised through increased buoyancy gained when sea-water ballast is pumped out of ballast tanks. In Valient’s case, the sequence in which tanks were being emptied was inappropriate for the ship’s weight distribution which was exacerbated by a full munitions load. As a result, the dock was over-stressed at its ends, broke its back and sank. Valient had remained in steam and was able to avoid worse damage or sinking. After the incident, the responsible Naval Constructor was disciplined.
- The Despatch submitted, 26 April 1948, to the London Gazette, “Naval Operations in Ramree Island Area 19th January to 22nd February 1945” by Vice-Admiral Sir Arthur J. Power KCD CVO, Commander-in-Chief, East Indies Station concluded:
- “35. Thus concluded he operations for the capture of Ramree Island. Of the 1,200 to 1,500 Japanese in occupation on the day of the landing, only a few escaped. The remainder were either killed in battle or drowned in the mangrove swamps. Only 20 prisoners were taken in spite of all efforts of persuasion towards the close of “Operation Block,” when many Japanese troops, without hope of relief or escape, had reached the final stages of exhaustion.”
- Fred Laverick’s uncle was killed in action during WW1, 53318 Private J. Hutchinson, 9/Manchester Regiment, KIA 23 March 1918.