Yangtze River Passenger Steamer HMS Li Wo Rams and Sinks Japanese Supply Ship

The King has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the Victoria Cross to the late Temporary Lt. Thomas Wilkinson, Royal Naval Reserve.

(London Gazette of 13 December 1946)



Temporary Lt. Thomas Wilkinson, VC

(photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)


Temporary Lt. Wilkinson had been master of Li Wo, a 1,000 ton passenger steamer designed to operate on the Yangtze River. In 1940 the ship had been taken into service by the Royal Navy as HMS Li Wo and became part of the defense of Singapore. The small passenger steamer was not designed to operate in the ocean.

After intense fighting, the Japanese secured their conquest of Singapore on 14 February 1942. In the early morning of the day previous, a desperate order was given to the commander of HMS Li Wo: steam immediately from Singapore and make his make his way to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies. (Now metropolitan Jakarta).

Temporary Lt. Wilkinson sailed the morning of the 13th with a scratch crew of 84 men most of them survivors from RN ships sunk by the Japanese. She was armed with a 4 inch gun, manned by volunteers and two machine guns.

Throughout the day of the 13th, the ship beat off four attacks by Japanese aircraft including one made by a group of 52 aircraft. (London Gazette)

On 14 February 1942, lookouts sighted a Japanese convoy guarded by several warships. Gathering the men together, the captain asked if they wanted to fight and they all agreed that they did. Unfurling her battle ensign, HMS Li Wo went at the largest Japanese transport ship. While she only had but 13 rounds for her 4 inch gun, her volunteer gunners made those count and managed to set the transport afire.

While doing so, HMS Li Wo was attacked by the Japanese warships and herself set afire with her hull so badly damaged she began to sink. The blaze aboard the transport grew so intense the crew abandoned ship but just to make sure it went down, Lt. Wilkinson used the last measure of steam aboard his sinking ship to ram the Japanese transport. The ship later sank.

Only 10 of the 84 men aboard subsequently survived. Wilkinson went down with the ship.

According to the London Gazette of 13 December 1946, the official legal newspaper of the British government:


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
that of all who fought and died with him.




Temporary Lt. Thomas Wilkinson, Royal Naval Reserve

born 1 August 1898

lost in action against the Japanese

14 February 1942


Official British Ministry of Defence model

(photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)



Published by

Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/