Thomas Wilkinson (1942) VC

b. 01/08/1898 Widnes, Lancashire. d. 14/02/1942 Java Sea.

Thomas Wilkinson (1898-1942) was born on 1st August 1898 in Widnes, Lancashire, the son of William Wilkinson and Esther (nee Sharps). They married on 18th March 1884 in Liverpool. Thomas was their 8th of 9 children. Sadly, Thomas’ mother died in 1906, when he was just 8.

Thomas Wilkinson VC

Sadly, little more biographical information is in the public domain, but it is known that at the age of 14, he joined the crew of his father’s sailing sloop as part of the Merchant Navy. During the Great War he served in the SS Alicinious, a Blue Funnel Line vessel converted into a troopship. Four years after the Armistice, he joined the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company. Sadly, his father passed away the following year, 1923, and Thomas continued his career at sea. In 1936, he gained his Master’s Certificate.

In 1938, Thomas Wilkinson became skipper of the Li Wo, designed as a river boat for sailing the upper reaches of the Yangtze, working from Shanghai. When the Second World War broke out, the Royal Navy took her over, and she became a ship of war, with the addition of a 4 inch gun forward, a couple of machine guns and a depth charge thrower. Wilkinson became a Temporary Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve. He took her out of the sheltered waters of the Yangtze, into the China Seas, and south to Singapore.

On 12th February 1942, he received orders to sail for Batavia. In the early hours of the 13th, he took her quietly out of Singapore harbour, with another converted river boat, HMS Fuk Wu, commanded by Lieutenant Cooke. On 14th February 1942 in the Java Sea, off Malaya, HMS Li Wo, a patrol vessel, formerly a passenger steamer, commanded by Lieutenant Wilkinson, sighted two enemy convoys, one escorted by Japanese warships, The lieutenant told his crew he had decided to engage the convoy and fight to the last in the hope of inflicting some damage, a decision that drew resolute support from the whole ship’s crew. In the action that followed, a Japanese transport was set on fire and abandoned, and Li Wo engaged a heavy cruiser for over an hour before being hit at point-blank range and sunk. Lieutenant Wilkinson ordered his crew to abandon ship, but he went down with Li Wo.

Wilkinson’s body was never recovered. He is commemorated on the Liverpool Naval Memorial. His medal was donated to the Imperial War Museum, London by a member of the Wilkinson family. It is now displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery.




Steve Lee – Images of the Liverpool Naval Memorial and of the family grave in Widnes Cemetery.