SEVENTY years ago last month, 840 British sailors perished in the lukewarm waters of the South China Sea when Japanese torpedo bombers descended from a cloudless sky to ambush two Royal Navy battleships making haste for Singapore.

The devastating two-hour aerial assault, which left HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse rooted to the seabed, was the greatest single defeat suffered by the Royal Navy during the Second World War and has been dubbed ‘Britain’s Pearl Harbour’ by historians.

With the passage of time the tragedy has faded from the national consciousness but for Stonehouse resident Charles Wright, 92, the events of that fateful day will never be forgotten.

Indeed, the memories of the chaotic scramble to help wounded comrades emerging from below deck, many of them severely scalded by steam from burst pipes, are never likely to be forgotten by him.

Ebley-born Charles Wright was in charge of the starboard aft 5.25-inch gun turrets mounted atop the HMS Prince of Wales on December 10, 1941.

"They estimate that 92 aircraft attacked us," he said.

"We never had a chance really. We kept putting barrages up but they just kept coming.

"We had no air cover ourselves, no fighter planes to assist us. A ship of that size out in the open sea, we were a sitting target."

Last month, exactly 70 years on from the attack, Charles stood alongside half a dozen of the few remaining survivors as a special monument to the dead was unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

"Of course my emotions were running high. I can assure you there were a few tears shed that day among the party," he said.

"My general health has not been great of late and I was very hesitant right up until the last week whether I should attend or not. I am so glad I did though. It was a lovely day."

Funds for the £13,000 marble tribute, honouring the 327 men who lost their lives aboard the Prince of Wales and the 513 seamen from the Repulse, were raised by friends and relatives of the deceased.

It was only with the help of Stroud Royal Naval Association, of which Charles is the founder and current president, that he was able to attend the memorial service.

The sinking of the two battleships dealt an enormous blow to the war effort and the nation’s morale.

HMS Prince of Wales, which had been in service less than a year, was the pride of the Royal Navy and its most technologically advanced battleship.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who travelled on the boat with his war cabinet prior to the signing of the Atlantic Charter with American President Franklin D Roosevelt in August 1941, was awoken in the middle of the night to be informed of the vessel’s destruction.

"In all of the war I never received a more direct shock," he would later write.

"As I turned over and twisted in bed the full horror sank in upon me."

Accompanied by the destroyers Express, Electra, Vampire and Tenedos, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse had been dispatched to the Far East as part of Force Z, a flotilla intended to deter Japanese aggression through a bold display of British naval power.

On December 2, 1941, HMS Prince of Wales anchored in Singapore. Five days later the Japanese launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbour and America entered the conflict.

"Of course we got involved immediately after that," Charles said.

"Singapore was raided by the Japanese on December 8 and we were still in the harbour at that time."

Under thick tropical cloud cover, Force Z set sail the next day to hunt for ships ferrying Japanese troops but as the evening drew in and the sky cleared, the convoy were spotted by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft.

Shortly after 11am on December 10, Japanese bombers swarmed on the horizon.

A two-hour firefight ensued but the crews of the two ships were ultimately unable to resist the fierce aerial onslaught.

At 12.33pm the repeatedly torpedoed Repulse slid to the bottom of the sea off the Malayan coast.

The Prince of Wales, four miles away, followed it down 47 minutes later.

"One of their torpedoes damaged the ship to the extent that a lot of the power was knocked out and my turret was one of those disabled. There was little more we could do," said Charles.

"I was involved in helping the wounded over on to the destroyer Express, which came along side to support us.

"I took several lads over who were wounded and needed help. In the mean time the Prince of Wales was starting to capsize and I found myself left on board the Express helping those chaps who had been injured.

"I was on the Express when the Prince of Wales sank. That was my escape route."

Others were not so fortunate.

Most drowned, while a number of survivors were later captured and incarcerated in the notoriously barbarous Japanese prisoner of war camps.

Following his evacuation to Sri Lanka aboard an American ship, Charles spent a brief period in a rest camp before he was redrafted to HMS Dorsetshire.

In April 1942 that cruiser was also sunk by Japanese dive-bombers and Charles spent 24 hours floating in the Indian Ocean awaiting rescue.

After the war, the veteran spurned the opportunity to live in South Africa, opting instead to return home to Stonehouse.

"I always wanted to come back," Charles said.