Tuesday, October 25, 2011

British Navy "Force Z" is destroyed by Japanese air attack on 10 December, 1941.

Force Z under air attack on the morning of
December 10, 1941.  Either the destroyer
H.M.S. Electra or H.M.S. Express is in the
foreground, with battleship H.M.S. Prince of Wales
leading battlecruiser H.M.S. Repulse in the background.


     On December 10, 1941, just three days after the Japanese sneak attack on the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, two capital ships of the British naval force known as "Force Z" were destroyed by Japanese air attack off the coast of the peninsula of Malaya.  The Battleship H.M.S. Prince of Wales and Battlecruiser H.M.S. Repulse were overwhelmed by land based bomber and torpedo planes of the Imperial Japanese Navy's 22nd Air Flotilla and plunged to the bottom with heavy loss of life.

Overhead photo taken during the
attack, showing H.M.S. Repulse bottom left
and H.M.S. Prince of Wales top right.

     This catastrophic event and tremendous blow to British prestige was set into motion when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided in October, 1941 to dispatch a powerful British naval squadron to the British fortress of Singapore as a show of force and strength in hopes of deterring anticipated Japanese aggression.  These vessels, later formed into "Force Z", were to have included not only H.M.S. Prince of Wales and H.M.S. Repulse, but also the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Indomitable.   The Indomitable was delayed for repairs after she ran aground in the Caribbean sea and was thus not present during the fateful morning of December 10th.  In any event, H.M.S. Indomitable carried only a small complement of mostly obsolescent aircraft.  It is doubtful her presence with "Force Z"  and her air component would have thwarted the Japanese attackers, and she may well have joined the other British capital ships at the bottom of the sea had she been present and come under a determined and concentrated air attack. 

     Since the primary purpose of sending these capital ships to Singapore was deterrence, the British made no secret of their plan to deploy these vessels.  The Japanese were well aware of the impending arrival of the British ships at Singapore.  Prime Minister Churchill has been criticized by many researchers for his decision in sending these capital ships to Singapore because of the power and might of Japanese air power in the region that made the ships particularly vulnerable.  Even though Churchill did not really have a clear cut plan as to the use or mission of these ships, I do not share that view.  The immense power of the Japanese air armadas was not fully realized and appreciated by allied forces at this very early stage of the war in the Pacific.  The battleships of United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor had been at anchor, unable to manuever, when attacked, with guns unmanned and crews on relaxed status when the surprise attack commenced.  The same held true for the Italian battleships at Taranto harbor when attacked by British carrier based aircraft in November, 1940.  The British had been fighting against the Germans since September, 1939 and against the Italians since June, 1940.  To this point in the war, no capital ship manuevering at sea had ever been sunk or even seriously damaged by air attack.  British commanders were at least optimistic that the antiaircraft armaments on their capital ships would be significantly effective against attacking aircraft, and that land-based fighter protection could be obtained from the Royal Air Force squadrons operating in Malaya and Singapore.  Their optimism would be a contributing factor in the ultimate fate of H.M.S. Prince of Wales and H.M.S. Repulse, but that could not have been realized on 10 December, 1941.  I will not place fault with the British actions here.

     H.M.S. Repulse was a battlecruiser of World War I origins.  She was fast (30 knots), but not heavily armored.  She carried a main battery of six (6) fifteen inch guns for use against surface and shore targets.  Her anti-aircraft batteries consisted of the standard British 4 inch weapon fitted to many warships, as well as 2 pounder pom poms, and several automatic weapons of smaller calibers, including probably a few .20 mm oerlikon cannons that became so plentiful aboard ships later in the war.  H.M.S. Repulse was given a thorough refit and upgrade to some of her equipment in 1936, but was not reconstructed and modernized on the same scale as her only sister ship, H.M.S. Renown.  She carried an early form of radar at the time of her destruction.  H.M.S. Repulse had served in the Royal Navy with distinction and had been used in many theaters of operation.

H.M.S. Repulse underway with forward
turrets trained to starboard

H.M.S. Repulse firing main battery to port

H.M.S. Repulse after her 1936 refit

     The battleship H.M.S. Prince of Wales was one of the five ships of the King George V class, the construction of which began during the late 1930s, just prior to the start of the Second World War.  Their construction adhered to the tonnage restrictions of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 and the London Naval Treaty of 1930 and were thus not a fully balanced design.  The Prince of Wales was nonetheless a modern warship, carrying a main armament of ten (10) fourteen inch guns for use against naval surface ships and targets ashore.  She also carried sixteen (16) of the new 5.25 dual purpose weapons, which provided a heavy long range anti-aircraft defense, numerous 2 pounder pom poms, and numerous smaller automatic weapons.  She carried early examples of both surface search and air warning radar. The Prince of Wales was not quite as fast (27 knots) as the older Repulse, but had much better armor protection against both aerial bombs and torpedoes.    H.M.S. Prince of Wales had already gained fame as a result of her encounter with the large, new, and powerful German battleship Bismarck during the Battle of the Denmark Strait in May, 1941.  The Prince of Wales was damaged by several shell hits during this engagement and withdrew.  This battle with the Bismarck also saw the destruction of the large British battlecruiser H.M.S. Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy, which was attacking jointly with Prince of Wales during this battle. 

H.M.S. Prince of Wales at anchor


H.M.S. Prince of Wales as seen in
August, 1941, prior to her departure for Singapore

     The Prince of Wales and Repulse arrived in Singapore on December 2, 1941.  Force Z was formed under command of Sir Tom Phillips, newly promoted to the rank of full Admiral.  In addition to H.M.S. Prince of Wales and H.M.S. Repulse, Force Z would ultimately include available escort vessels stationed in the area.  These were  destroyers H.M.S. Tenedos, H.M.S. Electra, H.M.S. Express, and the Australian destroyer H.M.A.S. Vampire.  A small detachment of elderly United States destroyers was in the area, as well as two additional British destroyers, three elderly British light cruisers of the Danae class (H.M.S. Danae, H.M.S. Durban, and H.M.S. Dragon), and modern colony class light cruiser H.M.S. Mauritius, but none of these warships ultimately joined up to commence operations with Force Z.  Some were under repair and thus non-operational at the time.

H.M.A.S Vampire, escorting Australian Destroyer

H.M.S. Electra

H.M.S. Express

H.M.S. Tenedos

     The Japanese commenced hostilities against British Singapore on the evening of December 7, 1941 when a group of seventeen Japanese aircraft bombed Singapore.  Both British capital ships used their heavy anti-aircraft armaments against the attacking aircraft with no known success.  At the same time, Japanese troops landed on the coast of Malaya.  Intelligence reports gave Admiral Phillips at least some indication of the strength and number of Japanese naval forces operating off the Malayan coast. 


H.M.S. Prince of Wales departing Singapore

H.M.S. Repulse departing Singapore with Force Z

     At 5:35 PM on December 8th, Admiral Phillips and Force Z departed Singapore with the intent of breaking up Japanese landing forces reported to be near Singora, despite his having no firm commitment of air cover from the Royal Air Force.  Early on the morning of December 9th, the destroyer H.M.A.S. Vampire reported to Admiral Phillips aboard the flagship H.M.S. Prince of Wales that Japanese aircraft had been sighted.  This did not at the time cause Admiral Phillips to alter his plans.  Then, at approximately 1:45 PM on December 9th, the Japanese submarine I-65 sighted Force Z and signalled a contact report to Japanese Light Cruiser Yura that said, "Two Repulse type enemy battleships spotted course 340 degrees speed 14 knots."  The British did not detect the submarine.

     At 8:55 PM on December 9th,  Admiral Phillips decided to cancel the operation and return to Singapore.  He signalled to his commanders that he was aborting the mission due to the fact that Force Z had been spotted by the Japanese, that surprise was lost, that the enemy landing forces would most likely have left by morning, and that Japanese warhips in the area would be fully alerted to watch for Force Z.  In fact, it was learned after the war that a powerful Japanese cruiser force was already at sea actively searching for Force Z. 

     On the morning of December 10th, Admiral Phillips decided to alter course yet again to investigate a report of Japanese troop landings near Kuantan.  This decision to cancel the return to Singapore would shortly bring Force Z under intense air attack by Japanese bombers.  Shortly after breakfast on December 10th, Admiral Phillips detached H.M.S. Express to reconnoiter Kuantan and also launched  Walrus seaplanes from Prince of Wales to search ahead of Force Z.  H.M.S. Express returned to report she had found no enemy activity at Kuantan.  Admiral Phillips then detached elderly destroyer H.M.S. Tenedos to allow her to return to Singapore to re-fuel.  Before 11:00 AM, destroyer Tenedos came under Japanese air attack.  Through the skillful manuevering of her commanding officer, the Tenedos survived the attacks while urgently transmitting to Admiral Phillips that she was under air attack.  Admiral Phillips realized the remainder of Force Z would undoubtedly soon come under attack as well.

Japanese "Betty" bomber or torpedo aircraft

Japanese "Nell" bomber aircraft

     Finally, at 11:18 AM on the morning of December 10, 1941, Force Z came under air attack by a group of Japanese twin-engined bombers code named "Nells" by the allies.  These bombers concentrated their attack on H.M.S. Repulse.  The Repulse and her escorts responded with intense anti-aircraft fire.  H.M.S. Repulse sustained one hit from a 250 kg aerial bomb, which penetrated the deck and cause serious casualties, although it did little to hinder her fighting capability.  Now it was Prince of Wales' turn.  She was presently attacked from multiple angles by nine Japanese torpedo bombers code named "Bettys" by the allies.  The British had not yet experienced the devastating effects of the Japanese 24 inch "long lance" torpedoes, which carried large wareheads and could travel at speeds of 41 knots, but they were about to. 

An artist's depiction of the attack on Force Z

Force Z under heavy air attack

Artist rendering of H.M.S. Repulse being attacked

Another depiction of the attack on H.M.S. Repulse

     Although Prince of Wales put up heavy anti-aircraft fire, it was not enough.  H.M.S. Prince of Wales sustained two serious torpedo hits in this attack, one of which severely damaged her stern, propellers, and propulsion system.  Power to operate the 5.25 inch gun turrets was lost, and her anti-aircraft fire slackened.  Captain Tennant aboard H.M.S. Repulse moved toward Prince of Wales to offer assistance, but his own ship soon came under concentrated air attack once again, as did Prince of Wales.   Captain Tennant skillfully avoided nineteen torpedoes, but his ship was eventually struck by at least five torpedoes and quickly succumbed to the sea.  H.M.S. Prince of Wales, unable to manuever and with most power lost, soon sustained many more devastating hits, although she survived awhile longer since she had better armor protection than H.M.S. Repulse. 

H.M.S. Prince of Wales sinking.  Note the
5.25 inch secondary battery turret in the foreground.

The crew of H.M.S. Prince of Wales abandons
ship as the battleship lists to port after being heavily damaged.

H.M.S. Prince of Wales after being heavily damaged

     Admiral Phillips dispatched urgent signals to Singapore requesting air support and additional destroyers to be sent, advising Singapore that his ship was not under control.  H.M.S. Prince of Wales lasted less than an hour longer than her consort before sliding into the abyss with heavy loss of life.  Destroyers Electra, Express, and Vampire were not specifically targeted to any degree and sustained little or no damage. 

Destroyers picking up survivors in the water

     H.M.S. Repulse sank at approximately 12:35 PM losing 515 members of her crew.  Captain Tennant was one of the survivors.  H.M.S. Prince of Wales went down with 327 members of her crew killed.  Neither Admiral Sir Tom Phillips nor the ships' captain, John C. Leach, were among the survivors.  The escorting destroyers picked up survivors from the water and transported them back to Singapore.  Only after both capital ships had already gone down did several obsolescent Brewster Buffalo fighter planes of the Royal Air Force appear over the site of the battle, but they were too late to offer any protection. 

An artist's rendering of the wreck of H.M.S. Repulse
on the ocean floor

A drawing of the wreck of the
H.M.S. Prince of Wales at the bottom of the ocean
off the coast of Malaya

     Prime Minister Winston Churchill was awakened by his aide in the middle of the night to be told that both Prince of Wales and Repulse were lost and that Tom Phillips was dead.  Within weeks, Singapore and Malaya would fall to the Japanese.  The remaning British naval forces would withdraw to Ceylon, where they would encounter the Japanese naval air forces again in April, 1942 and suffer additional losses of ships and men, including the loss of destroyers H.M.S. Tenedos and H.M.A.S. Vampire, survivors of Force Z.  Not until 1944 would the British Royal Navy again undertake limited offensive actions against Japanese garrisons and strongholds in Southeast Asia.  By then, the Royal Navy's offensive power would be substantially enhanced with additional modern warships, including the all important aircraft carriers, now equipped with modern aircraft.  The Royal Navy would continue striking Japanese targets until the formal Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945.  Still yet, the loss of H.M.S. Prince of Wales and H.M.S. Repulse is remembered as one of the worst tragedies in British naval history.