On This Day...February 14th
9th Armored Division technician Alvin Harley with a little French girl on 14th February, 1945.
The traumatic evacuation of Singapore against the overwhelming might of the Japanese imperial Army in February of 1942 bears many stories of bravery and defiance. Little more so than the little known story of the HMS ‘Li Wo’, where Lieutenant Thomas Wilkinson was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for bravery. His citation for the award is below.
“On 14th February 1942, H.M.S. Li Wo, a patrol vessel of 1,000 tons, formerly a passenger steamer on the Upper Yangtse River, was on passage from Singapore to Batavia. Her ship’s company consisted of eighty-four officers and men, including one civilian; they were mainly survivors from His Majesty’s Ships which had been sunk, and a few from units of the Army and Royal Air Force. Her armament was one 4-inch gun, for which she had only thirteen practise shells, and two machine guns.”
“Since leaving Singapore the previous day, the ship had beaten off four air attacks, in one of which fifty-two machines took part, and had suffered considerable damage. Late in the afternoon, she sighted two enemy convoys, the larger of which was escorted by Japanese naval units, including a heavy cruiser and some destroyers. The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant T. Wilkinson, R.N.R., gathered his scratch ship’s company together and told them that, rather than try to escape, he had decided to fight to the last, in the hope that he might inflict damage upon the enemy. In making this decision, which drew resolute support from the whole ship’s company, Lieutenant Wilkinson knew that his ship faced certain destruction, and that his own chances of survival were small.”
“H.M.S. Li Wo hoisted her battle ensign and made straight for the enemy. In the action which followed, the machine guns were used with effect upon the crews of all ships in range, and a volunteer gun’s crew manned the 4-inch gun, which they fought with such purpose that a Japanese transport was badly hit and set on fire.”
“After a little over an hour, H.M.S. Li Wo had been critically damaged and was sinking. Lieutenant Wilkinson then decided to ram his principal target, the large transport, which had been abandoned by her crew. It is known that this ship burnt fiercely throughout the night following the action, and was probably sunk.”
“H.M.S. Li Wo’s gallant fight ended when, her shells spent, and under heavy fire from the enemy cruiser, Lieutenant Wilkinson finally ordered abandon ship. He himself remained on board, and went down with her. There were only about ten survivors, who were later made prisoners of war.”
“Lieutenant Wilkinson’s valour was equalled only by the skill with which he fought his ship. The Victoria Cross is bestowed upon him posthumously in recognition both of his own heroism and self-sacrifice, and of all who fought and died with him.”
This is the Finnish fighter plane, ‘Brewster 239 Buffalo’ found on August 1998 in Big Kolejärvi Lake, about 30 miles from the town of Segezha, the last Brewster 239 Buffalo in existence. Photo taken February 14th, 1942.
During the ‘Winter War’ against the Russians, Finland had purchased an order of 44 Brewster fighters from United States, the Finns quickly learning to accept the Brewster’s lack of speed and developing tactics enabling them to exploit the aircraft's potential.
Fighter commanders Colonel Richard Lorentz and Lt.Colonel Erik Magnusson adopted German "finger-four" formation before the war and also introduced ‘pendulum-tactic’ or hit from above and then disengage. Armament was increased replacing the sole 7.62mm MG with four 12.7mm HMGs.
In 1941 Finnish Squadron 24 became legendary shooting down 135 Soviet aircraft with only 2 losses, neither from Soviet a/c.
This pursuit plane got credit for being the best Finnish fighter of World War II. It was registered in The Guinness Book of World Records twice: for shooting down 477 enemy planes, an average of nearly 11 victories per Brewster, and for a single fighter shooting down a record 41 enemy planes. Finnish renowned aces Eino Ilmari Juutilainen (94 victories in 437 air fights) and Hans Henrik Wind - seen in photo below - (75 victories in 302 sorties) engaged the enemy in Brewster fighters.
On 25th of June, 1942, a fighter flown by lieutenant Lauri Pekuri in a group of 8 fighters of this same type, met 10 British made Soviet Hurricane fighters at Segozero lake. In the fight 7 Soviet planes were damaged. Lieutenant Pekuri shot down two Hurricane fighters (he had to his credit 18 shot down planes in total – 7 Hurricane in all) but his fighter was shot down and destroyed. He tried to land the burning BW-372 onto Big Kolejärvi lake. The fighter turned over on its cowl at high speed and sank. Lieutenant Pekuri succeeded in getting out from the cockpit and walked about 20 km to the battle-front, passing across a mine field to join his front-line units.
All of this achieved with the universally voted ‘worst fighter of World War II’. There’s a reason why there are so few Brewsters left.
(Buffalo found recently at Midway)
F6F Hellcat 37 of VF-6 carrier USS Hancock CV-19 – February 14th, 1945
1 additional image. Click to enlarge.