World War Two: Hong Kong; Malaya; Force Z- Naval Actions December 1941-42

On the first day of the East Asian War, the Japanese Navy took three major risk. Disaster in any one of these operations would at least have forced an immediate change in the strategy of the war, and might, at the worst, have produced a terrible debacle. First, in the Pearl Harbor attack, they risked early detection and the possible presence of American carriers nearby, which could have severely damaged Admiral Nagumo’s strike force. They took a second risk, when the launch of the Japanese Navy’s air fleets at Taiwan was delayed by fog, for the USAAFFE could have struck a first and possibly devastating blow against these grounded planes. If this had happened, the Philippine landings would have lacked air cover, would have been met by an intact American air fleet., and American ships in the Philippines and Borneo would have been able to remain in Philippine waters. They took a third risk when the Japanese Army made landings in Malaya (Thailand), protected by a Japanese force inferior in capital-ship fire to what the British had in the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Repulse. But again the Japanese were depending on naval air power (land-based this time) to counter and destroy British naval strength. They were throwing the dice for a third time.

Although Great Britain was hard-pressed by conditions in Europe and North Africa, she gathered ships at Singapore and formed them in to Force Z. The Prince of Wales, one of Britain’s newest and most powerful battleships, fresh from participating in the successful hunt for Germany’s Bismarck, had been so dispatched, joined by the Repulse. The remainder of Force Z consisted of the destroyers Electra, Express, Vampire and Tenedos, Force Z’s ships could not depend on the Royal Air Force (RAF), which was pitifully weak in Malaya and which, in the first days of the invasion, would be committed to the defense of the Malayan beachheads; they were supposed to get air support from a first-class carrier, the Indomitable, but that carrier unfortunately had run a ground at Kingston, Jamaica on 3 November, and was not yet repaired.

The Japanese Navy could not depend upon the planes of Admiral Nagumo’s strike force to counter Force Z; but since Yamamoto was committed to the use of planes to destroy warships, he resorted to the use of land-based naval planes at attack Force Z. The Japanese Navy had constructed three airfields in French Indochina in November 1941, and had placed an air fleet there, composed of six reconnaissance planes, thirty-nine fighters, and ninety-nine bomber and torpedo planes– a formidable groups, at the same time, as a backup force, a Japanese fleet was sailing south to engage Force Z in battle in necessary

Malayan Peninsula Landings

The Japanese Army made extensive perpetrations for the conquest of the Malay Peninsula and the capture of Singapore. The major elements in the initial landings were the 15th Army and the 25th Army. The troops had gathered at Samah Bay, Hainan, and embarked on 4 December, carried by nineteen transports. Since war had not been declared, the ultimate destination of the expedition was unknown to the Americans, British, or Dutch. They hoped that an invasion of Thailand was the objective, which was exactly what the Japanese wanted them to believe. The convoy rounded Cape Camao on the 6th of December and changed course toward Bangkok, where it proceeded to point “C” in the Gulf of Sian. Course was again changed on 7 December at 0830 toward Singora and Patani, Thailand.

The initial invasion, however, was made at Kota Bharu, Malaya, from three transports on 8 December, more than an hour before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The landings, again, did not get off to a good start: seas were rough, landing craft capsized, the British army had artillery batteries firing in defense, and there were sporadic British air attacks. The Japanese casualties were moderate. The landing was backed by the Sendai and her destroyers, the Isonami, Uranami, Shikinami, and Ayanami, which delivered covering and counterbattery fire from two miles offshore. Conversely, at Singora, there was no resistance met by the troops disembarking from eleven transports. The operation was covered by the destroyers Asagiri, Amagiri, Sagiri, and Yugiri. (the Sagiri acted as headquarters ships for all invasion points) By midnight all eleven troopships were heading north, thus allowing the destroyer group to reinforce the warships at Kota Bharu. The second beachhead in Thailand was at Patani (sixty-five miles south of Singora); troops from five transports began landing on 8 December, again meeting no resistance. This landing was covered by the destroyers Shinonome and Shirakumo, which then also raced south to Kota Bharu. The Murakumo, who had been off Tepoh, nine miles south of Patani, also joined the other ships, gathered around flagship Sendai. (four other landings were made on 8 December against no resistance, farther north on the Kra Isthmus in Thailand; a transport of troops landed at Prachuab, two transports at Jumbhprn, one transport near Bandon, and three transports near Nakhorn. These landings did not require destroyer support. When British resistance at Kota Bharu crumbled 9 December, the Sendai with eleven destroyers could join the Southern Force heading south, possibly to meet Force Z. Because a considerable portion of the Japanese Army was then ashore in Thailand and Malaya, their lines of supply had to be open, and the destruction of Force Z therefore became an urgent priory.

Force Z

The invasion did not catch the British entirely by surprise; indeed, they had held out little hope that Malaya would be spared. But the locations of the landings did surprise them, for they had expected an invasion farther north, on the narrow Kra Isthmus. The three major beachheads, however, were about halfway between the Kra Isthmus and Singapore. Thailand surrendered on 9 December. From the very first moments of invasion, Japanese sir raids fully occupied the attention of the small Malayan -based Royal Air Force.

The officer commanding Force Z, Admiral Sir Thomas Phillips, faced a dilemma. His air forces on the heavy carrier Indomitable were unavailable, and the hard pressed RAF could promise him no air cover. But, at the same time, British naval tradition would have been violated if the British fleet were to remain at anchor in Singapore while enemy landings were taking place within it’s striking distance. Furthermore, there was always the chance that he might catch loaded or unloading transports at a beachhead. In the end, Phillips had no choice, for, although Force Z sailed from Singapore on 8 December at 1705, the invasions had been carried out too rapidly and too efficiently–Singora and Patani were occupied, the troop transports had been withdrawn, and by the time Force Z could read Kota Bharu, the transports there would also have departed.

With out adequate sir reconnaissance or other reliable information, Admiral Phillips was unaware of these events. All that he knew was that the Japanese were invading to the north–so he sailed north, between the mainland and the Anambra Islands. By 0559 on 9 December he knew Corce Z had been detected, for the destroyer Vampire had seen a Japanese reconnaissance plane. Phillips could expect an air attack, and he knew that he would have little or no air protection. Still hoping, however, to get tat the Singora transports, he took the force north, to a point 150 miles south of French Indochina and 250 miles east of the Malayan Peninsula. From there, his tactical position began to worsen rapidly, and at 1800, Japanese planes were once again spotted. He then turned south, toward Singora; but at 2330, receiving false information that the landings were being made at Kuantan (between Kota Bharu and Singapore), he headed Force Z there at top speed. At day break, when it was still sixty miles from Kuantan, Force Z was again spotted by a Japanese reconnaissance plane. After Admiral Phillips’ own observation planes reported that there were no landings at Kuantan, he then steamed first north and then east, stubbornly searching for Japanese ships. His luck, however, had finally run out, and own 10 December at 1000, Force Z came under concentrated Japanese air attack.

The Japanese Navy for its part, had a healthy respect for the potential threat posed by Force Z’s foray north. Carrier planes from Admiral Ozawa’s Third fleet had spotted an RAF “snooper’ on 6 December, so the Japanese knew that their hugh southward movement had been discovered. Although war had not yet been declared and Admiral Nagumo’s success depended on a surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa nevertheless recklessly ordered his carrier pilots to shoot down any further British reconnaissance planes.

To counter Force Z, the Japanese had Vice Admiral Nobutake Knodo’s Malay Force. When, at 1315 on 9 December, the submarine I-65 sighted the northbound Force Z, south of Poulo Condore Island, Admiral Kondo ordered all transports to return to the Gulf of Siam and ordered his air fleet in French Indochina to begin showing the British force. (Submarine I-58 also tracked Force Z) Kondo ordered his own warships to close on the British to offer battle. First his heavy cruisers, the Mogami, Mikuma, Suzuya and Kumano, screened by destroyers Fubuki, Hatsuyuki, Shirayuki and by the Sendai and her destroyers, would launch a night attack if Force Z were discovered. Meanwhile, Kondo would bring up his two battleships, the Haruna and Kongo, and the heavy cruiser Atago, Takao, and Chokai, and all ships would then launch a daylight attack. Admiral Kondo was kept informed of the location of Force Z by the Kumano’s floatplane, and by reports from submarines. The surface engagement never took place, but Force Z, with its larger naval rifles, could certainly have given a worthy account of itself.

The Japanese bases in Indochina were also kept informed of the various courses taken by Force Z. On 9 December observation and attack units were sent out, but they found nothing. During the night, however, it was concluded that an air attack on Force Z, early on 10 December, would be possible, and at 0220, five Japanese planes left Camranh Bay, refueling at Poulo Condore Island and taking off again at 0430. From Saigon a nine plane formation was sent out at 0525 to search a 40 degree arc up to 600 miles. Also from Saigon’s airfields, from 0614 to 0730, thirty-four bombers and fifty torpedo planes took off. When Force Z was sighted at 1120, the location was passed to all units in the air.

Although the Japanese planes were almost at the limit of their fuel supply, they made an attack, beginning at 1148, with eighty-four planes taking part in the assault. Despite heavy antiaircraft fire the five ships of Force Z (destroyer Tenedos had been ordered back to Singapore at 1805 on 9 December), the Repulse received ten torpedo hits on her port side, almost evenly spaced from bow to stern, four forward on the starboard side, and a 550-pound bomb amidships. Unable to withstand such a pounding, she sank at 1203. The Prince of Wales received one torpedo forward, one aft on her port side, and five evenly spaced along the starboard side. She was hit twice aft by 1,100-pound bombs, was damaged in her starboard quarter by a near miss and finally sank at 1250. No British destroyers were sunk, but the Tenedos underwent a thirty-minute air attack during the morning of 10 December. In all, three Japanese planes had been shot down, and twenty-eight of the returning planes had been damaged.

Force Z had been crushed, and British power to defend Malaya at sea had been destroyed, without any intervention by Admiral Kondo’s surface fleet. Most remaining British naval units either went south to the Netherlands East Indies or retired to their Indian Ocean bases. The lack of British warships or planes gave the Japan freedom of the sea; thus the Japanese Army could by pass strong British land positions by using barges for transports. The Japanese had taken the state of Penang on the west coast by overland march on December the 19th. The Malay Force could then be released for the successful invasion of Borneo, which ere taking place at the same time.

The last effort of the Royal Navy to intervene in the rapid advance on Singapore came at Endau, a small town on the east side of the Malay Peninsula. If the Japanese could come ashore in sufficient strenght at Mersing, a few miles to the south of Endau, a considerable portion of the British’s army strenght would be cut off from Singapore, 100 miles to the south. The Japanese Army, believing that the defenses at Mersing would be formidable, by passed it in favor of Endau, which was invaded and captured on 21 January, 1942–but not in enough strength to break through the British Sungei-Mersing barrier. British Command at Singapore fully expected that the Japanese effort at Endau would soon be strengthened by a large convoy, a suspicion confirmed on 26 January when at 0715, a large armada was sighted by plane, 20 miles north of Endau. Some of the group were headed for the invasion of the Anambas Islands; others served as a cover force for both operations. The RAF threw many of its operational planes into a counterattack, flyingfrom Sumatra and Singapore. (ther had been some crated RAF planes on Singapore’s piers) By the time the air attacks could begin, the beachhead had been widened. Despite heavy antiaircraft fire and fighter-plane opposition by the Japanese, their transports, fuel dumps, and landing troops were bombed. The attacks continued until dark, with the British losing half their number of attacking planes.

The royal Navy then took up the task of breaking up the Endau landing by sending north of Singapore two old destroyers built during World war I: the Vampire and Thanet. The Vampire had only six torpedoes, and the Thanet , four. The Japanese overestimated the actual British strength, for the departure of the two destroyers was reported by Japanese naval intelligence as a departure of two cruisers. Moreover, the British submarines were reported to be in the area. Therefore, a relatively large attack group, made up of the light cruiser Sendai and the destroyers Fubuki, Hatsuyuki, Shirayuki, Yugiri,and Amagiri, was sent to intercept the British ships.

There ensued ab unequal but fierce little sea battle off Endau, in the darkness of early 27 January. In the exchange of gunfire and torpedoes, the Thanet was hit several times, she was then illuminated by the Shirayuki’s searchlights, and the Amagiri and Hatsuyuki finished her off at 0348. Fifty-seven of her sailors were rescued and became prisoners of war. The Vampire retired under smoke and returned to Singapore.

The end of the Malayan campaign was near, and thousands of people, including important officials, began to flee Singapore through the Malacca and Bangka straits, bound for Sumatra, Java or even Australia, using anything that would float. Few ships found any refuge, though. Admiral Ozawa’s Mobile Force, in the course of three days sank more than forty ships, with gunfire and bombs.

With South Sumatra, Borneo, and the Celebs in Japanese hands by the fall of Singapore, the Malaya boundary of the Netherlands East Indies had been broken. The surprisingly rapid capture of the Malayan Peninsula, in a little more than two months of war against major powers, caused the Japanese “Victory Fever” to shoot up several degrees.

Japanese losses were minimal in the Malayan campaign. An Australian bomber sank a Japanese transport in the Gulf of Siam. A Dutch submarine, O-XVI, attacked four loaded transports of Patani on 11 December but failed to sink any of them, and was herself lost when she hit a British Mine. Another Dutch submarine sank a loaded transport, while the submarine USS Swordfish sank an 8,600 toon Japanese merchant ship of Hainan on 16 December.

Hong Kong

Because the main assault on Hong Kong was overland by Japanese Troops, the Navy’s role in the city’s capture was slight. The light cruiser Isuzu of the Second china Expeditionary Fleet and two destroyers, the Ikazuchi and Inazuma, in the initial phase of the attack upon the Crown Colony, sank the gunboats HMS Cicada and HMS Robin and a number of junks of British registry, and captured enemy merchant ships in the harbor. They did not, however, assist the Army to any appreciable degree.

SOURCE: Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy 1941-45; BY: Paul S. Dull





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