Imperial Japanese Navy Sinks Two British Warships (1941)
Sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse
The sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse was a naval engagement in the Second World War, part of the war in the Pacific, that took place north of Singapore, off the east coast of Malaya, near Kuantan, Pahang, wherethe Royal Navy battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse were sunk by land-based bombers and torpedo bombersof the Imperial Japanese Navy on 10 December 1941. In Japanese, the engagement was referred to as the Naval Battle of Malaya (マレー沖海戦 Marē-oki kaisen).
The objective of Force Z, which consisted of one battleship, one battlecruiser and four destroyers, was to intercept the Japanese invasion fleet north of Malaya. The task force sailed without air support. Although the British had a close encounter with Japanese heavy surface units, the force failed to find and destroy the main convoy. On their return to Singapore they were attacked in open waters and sunk by long-range torpedo bombers. The commander of Force Z, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, failed to call for air support in favour of maintaining radio silence.
With the attack on Pearl Harbor only a few days earlier, the Malayan engagement illustrated the effectiveness of aerial attacks against even the heaviest of naval assets if they were without air cover. This added to the importance for the Alliesof the four USN aircraft carriers in the Pacific. The sinking of the two ships severely weakened the British Eastern Fleet in Singapore, and the Japanese invasion fleet was only engaged by submarines until the Battle off Endau on 27 January 1942.
In December 1941, as a deterrent to Japanese territorial expansion which was recently demonstrated by the invasion of French Indochina, it was proposed that a force of Royal Navy warships be dispatched to the Far East with a view to providing reinforcement for Britain’s possessions there, most notably Singapore. First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Poundrepresented that Singapore could only be adequately defended if the Royal Navy sent the majority of its capital shipsthere, to achieve parity with an estimated force of nine Japanese battleships. However, dispatching such a large British force was impractical as the British were at war with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Winston Churchill appeared optimistic about the improving situation in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean; he advocated sending two capital ships along with an aircraft carrier to defend Malaya, Borneo and the Straits Settlements.
Churchill has been criticised for showing “considerable ignorance” and holding an “exaggerated belief in the power of the battleship,” along with “a tendency to interfere in naval matters.” This may have led him to propose a squadron of three modern ships: one battleship, one battlecruiser, and one carrier. His view was that using the Ultra decrypts that would give Japanese ship locations to the British, they could then use their own ships to form a “fleet in being” to deter Japanese action, as the German battleship Tirpitz, sister to the lost Bismarck, was in the North Sea. However, there was no firm plan for such a task. The original British proposal allocated the new King George V-class battleshipHMS Prince of Wales, the veteran Renown-class battlecruiser HMS Repulse, and the Illustrious-class aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable for air cover, though the plan had to be revised when Indomitable ran aground in the Caribbean Sea.
The dispatch of capital ships to Singapore had been part of the Admiralty’s strategic planning since the naval base had been expanded and fortified beginning in the early 1920s. The scale of this planned deployment had been reduced during the 1930s, since Germany and Italy presented new threats to British interests in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Nevertheless, it was still assumed that a significant force of capital ships would deter Japanese expansion. Churchill’s plan presumed that the United States would agree to send its Pacific Fleet, including eight battleships, to Singapore in the event of hostilities with Japan, or that the British force would add to the deterrent value of the US fleet, should it stay at Pearl Harbor.
Force G, consisting of the modern battleship Prince of Wales, the First World War era battlecruiser Repulse, and the four destroyers HMS Electra, Express, Encounter and Jupiter, arrived at Singapore on 2 December 1941. They were then re-designated Force Z.
The new aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable was allocated to Force G, but whilst working up off Jamaica, she had run aground in the entrance to Kingston harbour on 3 November 1941. Indomitable required 12 days of dry dock repairs in Norfolk, Virginia, and was not able to take part in the action. Indomitable carried one squadron each of Fairey Fulmars and Hawker Sea Hurricanes. Another aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes (which was with Prince of Wales at Cape Town), was on passage to Singapore to join Force Z, but was not deployed due to lack of speed.
On 1 December, it was announced that Sir Thomas Phillips had been promoted to full admiral and appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Fleet. A few days later, Repulse left for Australia with HMAS Vampire and HMS Tenedos, but the force was recalled to Singapore to assemble for possible operations against the Japanese.
Also at Singapore were the light cruisers HMS Durban, Danae, Dragon and Mauritius, and the destroyers HMS Stronghold, Encounterand Jupiter. The heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, Dutch light cruiser HNLMS Java, two more British destroyers (Scout and Thanet), and four United States Navy destroyers (Whipple, John D. Edwards, Edsall and Alden) would be there within three days.
Though Durban and Stronghold were available, Admiral Philips decided to leave them at Singapore because they were not as fast as the other units. Additionally, Danae, Dragon, Mauritius, Encounter and Jupiter were also at Singapore, but were under repair and not ready to sail.
Churchill publicly announced Prince of Wales and Repulse were being sent to Singapore to deter the Japanese. In response, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto sent 36 Mitsubishi G4M bombers to reinforce the existing Mitsubishi G3M-equipped Kanoya Air Group and Genzan Air Group, whose pilots began training for an attack on the two capital ships. Genzan Air Group was commanded by Lt Cdr Niichi Nakanishi, Kanoya Air Group by Lt Cdr Shichizo Miyauchi and Mihoro Air Group by Lt Hachiro Shoji.
On 8 December 1941, early in the morning, bombers of Mihoro Air Group attacked Singapore. Prince of Wales and Repulseresponded with anti-aircraft fire; no planes were shot down, and the ships sustained no damage. The Japanese made landings on Kota Bharu, Malaya, on 8 December (local time), and the British land forces were hard pressed.
Around that time, news came that Pearl Harbor had been attacked and eight US battleships had been sunk or disabled. Pre-war planning had presumed that the US Pacific Fleet would have moved to Singapore to reinforce the British when war broke out. That was now impossible. Philips had concluded in an earlier discussion with US General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Thomas C. Hart that his two capital ships were of insufficient strength to confront the Japanese. However, with the Japanese threatening to overrun Malaya, Philips was pressed to use his ships in an offensive role; he assembled his flotilla to try to intercept and destroy Japanese invasion convoys in the South China Sea.
Admiral Philips believed the Royal Air Force could not guarantee air cover for his ships, as they were equipped with limited numbers of ageing fighters. One squadron, No. 453 Squadron RAAF with Brewster Buffalos standing by at RAF Sembawang, was available to provide close cover. They were designated the Fleet Defence Squadron for this task, with Flight Lieutenant Tim Vigors given the radio procedures used by Force Z.
Regardless, Phillips elected to proceed. It is believed that four factors entered into his decision: he thought that Japanese planes could not operate so far from land, he thought that his ships were relatively immune from fatal damage via air attack, he was unaware of the quality of Japanese bombing and torpedo aircraft, and like many RN officers, Phillips underestimated the fighting abilities of the Japanese. Up to that point, no capital ship at sea had been sunk by air attack. The Italian heavy cruiser Pola had been disabled by a torpedo from a Fleet Air Arm Fairey Swordfish at the Battle of Cape Matapan on 29 March 1941, and was later sunk by a torpedo from the destroyer HMS Jervis.
His flagship, the Prince of Wales, had one of the most advanced naval anti-aircraft systems of the time, the High Angle Control System, which demonstrated accurate long-range radar-directed AA fire during Operation Halberd in August and September 1941. However, the extreme heat and humidity in Malayan waters rendered her AA FC radars unserviceable and her 2 pounder ammunition had deteriorated as well. Royal Air Force technicians were called in to examine the Prince’s radars but needed a week to effect repairs, and Force Z would be underway in a few days.
No. 453 Squadron RAAF, which was to provide air cover for Force Z, was not kept informed of the ships’ position. No radio request for air cover was sent until one was sent by the commander of Repulse an hour after the Japanese attack began. Flight Lieutenant Tim Vigors proposed a plan to keep six aircraft over Force Z during daylight, but this was declined by Phillips. After the war, Vigors remained bitter towards him for his failure to call for air support on time. He later commented, “I reckon this must have been the last battle in which the Navy reckoned they could get along without the RAF. A pretty damned costly way of learning. Phillips had known that he was being shadowed the night before, and also at dawn that day. He did not call for air support. He was attacked and still did not call for help.” Daytime air cover off the coast was also offered by Wing Commander Wilfred Clouston of No. 488 Squadron RNZAF, but his plan, “Operation Mobile”, was also rejected.
Regarding Phillips’ decision to proceed without air cover, naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote:
Those who make the decisions in war are constantly weighing certain risks against possible gains. At the outset of hostilities [U.S.] Admiral Hart thought of sending his small striking force north of Luzon to challenge Japanese communications, but decided that the risk to his ships outweighed the possible gain because the enemy had won control of the air. Admiral Phillips had precisely the same problem in Malaya. Should he steam into the Gulf of Siam and expose his ships to air attack from Indochina in the hope of breaking enemy communications with their landing force? He decided to take the chance. With the Royal Air Force and the British Army fighting for their lives, the Royal Navy could not be true to its tradition by remaining idly at anchor.
After receiving word of a Japanese convoy bound for Malaya, Force Z, consisting of Prince of Wales, Repulse, Electra, Express, Vampire and Tenedos, sailed from Singapore at 1710 on 8 December. Phillips hoped to attack off Singora on 10 December; had he departed one day sooner, he might have achieved his objective without coming under air attack at all, for the Japanese squadrons had not yet arrived.
At 0713 on 9 December, Force Z passed the Anambas Islands to the east, and turned to a new course of 330 degrees, later changing to 345 degrees. Force Z was overflown by two Japanese reconnaissance aircraft, but not reported, before being spotted by Japanese submarine I-65 at 1400 on 9 December, which shadowed the British ships for five hours, radioing their positions. Phillips was unaware he was being shadowed by the submarine. After this report, Vice Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa, in command of the invasion force, ordered most of his warships to escort the empty transports back to Cam Ranh Bay in southern Vietnam.
I-65‘s amplifying report, confirming the presence of British battleships, reached 22nd Air Flotilla headquarters two hours later. At that time, their aircraft were in the process of loading bombs for an attack on Singapore Harbour, but they immediately switched to torpedoes. The bombers were not ready until 1800 hours. The report also prompted the Japanese 2nd Fleet, Southern (Malay) Force’s Main Body, to sortie south from Indochina to intercept Force Z. The fleet consisted of the battleships Kongō, Haruna, three Takao-class cruisers and eight destroyers. They were joined by four Mogami-class cruisers of Cruiser Division 7 and one light cruiser, four destroyers of Destroyer Squadron 3. The cruiser Chōkai, flagship of Vice Admiral Ozawa, was also ordered south to find Force Z.
About 1730, just a half-hour before sunset, the force was spotted by three Aichi E13A seaplanes, which had been catapulted off the Japanese cruisers Yura, Kinu and Kumano, which were escorting the transports. These aircraft continued shadowing. At about 1830, Tenedos was detached to return to Singapore, because she was running low on fuel, with instructions to contact Rear Admiral Arthur Palliser, detailed to act as liaison to RAF in Malaya, Phillips’ intention was no longer to attack Singora, though Phillips changed course at 1900 toward Singora, to deceive the shadowing aircraft, then south toward Singapore at 2015, when darkness covered him. Tenedos dutifully reported at 2000, thereby preserving the secrecy of Phillips’ position.
A night air attack was attempted by the Japanese because they feared that the British would find the convoy, but bad weather prevented them from finding the ships and they returned to their airfields at Thủ Dầu Một and Saigon about midnight.