The history of humanity is full of epics of unequal battles. Some of them took place on the high seas, like the one that concerns us today.
The Li Wo was a 50 meter long passenger ship launched in 1938 in Hong Kong, then a British colony. She was owned by the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company Ltd, a major Hong Kong shipping company, which used her to navigate the Yangtze River in China. In 1940, after the start of World War II, the British Royal Navy seized and militarized the ship, renaming it HMS Li Wo and arming it with a 100mm cannon and two Lewis machine guns.
HMS Li Wo was in Singapore when the Japanese attacked that British colony. Before the surrender of the British forces defending Singapore, HMS Li Wo was ordered to proceed to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies, taking on board 84 men. HMS Li Wo sailed from Singapore on the 13th. February 1942, suffering several air raids by Japanese planes. On February 14 she encountered the Japanese fleet that was on its way to invade Sumatra. The ship had no escape: if she returned to Singapore she would be captured by the Japanese, and if she continued she would have to face that fleet. Lieutenant Thomas Wilkinson made the decision to engage.
With only 13 shells left for her main gun, HMS Li Wo hoisted her battle flag and headed for the troop transport headed by the Japanese convoy. The attack by the small British ship caused bewilderment among the Japanese. As he had gotten into the middle of the convoy, the Japanese warships had no way of reaching him without risking damage to their troop transports. Lieutenant Wilkinson managed to get the crew of the first attacked Japanese transport to abandon ship before the damages caused. Finally, HMS Li Wo rammed her rival. After that, a Japanese cruiser and two destroyers turned her guns on HMS Li Wo, destroying and sinking her. Despite this, the small British ship managed to sink that Japanese troop transport.
Only 7 of the 84 crew members of HMS Li Wo survived. Lieutenant Wilkinson went down with her ship. For that heroic action, Lieutenant Wilkinson was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military decoration. Other crew members on the ship were also decorated, some of them posthumously. Today, the story of HMS Li Wo is remembered by the British Royal Navy as an example of bravery in combat against a far superior enemy. The channel Yarnhub has just published a video recreating the epic story of that ship and its crew:
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