As tensions rose with Japan in the fall of 1941, Britain strained to enhance its defenses in the Far-East. The British strategy hinged on the entire main fleet arriving from England to assist in the defense of Singapore, but unfortunately, these plans ignored the possibility that the fleet might be busy elsewhere when needed.
Britain faced just this problem in the summer of 1941. Battles in the Atlantic and Mediterranean stretched available modern ships to the limit, with little to spare for Singapore. After much debate with the Admiralty, Prime Minister Winston Churchill dispatched Prince of Wales and Repulse, escorted by some destroyers, to the Far-East. This little fleet, known as Force “Z”, would have been escorted by the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable .
Unfortunately, she ran aground off Jamaica on November 3, 1941 and was forced to turn north to a shipyard in Virginia, US, for repairs. Thus, Force “Z” was deprived of the protective cover her 22 Sea Hurricanes and 12 Grumman Martlets (F4F’s) could have provided..
Force “Z”, under the command of the former Vice Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Sir Thomas S. (“Tom”) Phillips, had a dual mission; to defend Singapore and also give the Japanese second thoughts about attacking. Churchill said Force “Z” was intended to be a “vague menace“
On December 2, 1941, Japanese intelligence reported the arrival of the ships at Singapore. But despite this, twenty eight transports left Hainan, Indochina two days later, carrying an invasion force of 26,640 troops of the 5th Infantry Division and 56th Infantry Regiment of the 18th Division. The Japanese ships were heading for landing points at Kota Bahru in Malaya and Patani and Singora in neutral Thailand (Siam at that time), escorted by a cruiser, a light cruiser and 13 destroyers, with four additional light cruisers and three destroyers acting as rear-guard.
The Japanese fleet moved south and west under the cover of monsoon gales and remained undetected. The neutral Norwegian ships they encountered were either sunk or captured or sent on with disabled radio equipment. But on December 6, the Japanese luck broke. A Royal Navy Catalina from 205 Squadron at Singapore picked up the convoy at noon. The Cat only managed a quick position report before five Ki-27 “Nates” from the 1st Sentai shot it down. It was the first hostile act of the Pacific War.
Receiving this report, Admiral Phillips ordered Prince of Wales and Repulse to be ready to put to sea at short notice. Admiral Hart (US Navy) had promised to dispatch the 57th Destroyer Division to Singapore, Phillips had decided to sail if the destroyers did not arrive in time. However, any hopes nurtured by Philips that his Capital ships could immediately steam from Singapore were soon dashed. The Prince of Wales was incapable of operating at full capacity because one of her boilers was undergoing repairs.
And, worst of all, her ultra-modern surface scanning Radar was down and could not be repaired in time.
Japanese troops began landing in force at five locations throughout Malaya and neutral Siam, a full 70 minutes before Admiral Nagumo’s air strike on Pearl Harbor. 18 transports landed the main body at Singora and Patani in Siam, three more lay off Nakhorn and Kota Bahru in Malaya, one transport landed troops at Prachaub while two more landed troops at Jumbhorn.
With the Japanese ashore in force, Admiral Phillips could now no longer wait for reinforcements – even if he wanted to. He was forced into action not only by his enemy, but also by tradition. To let the Japanese land uncontested while the Royal Navy sat complacently in port with two powerful capital ships was unacceptable. So in the end, he sailed with Prince of Wales, Repulse, Express, Electra, Tenedos and Vampire.
All night Force “Z” vainly groped in the darkness for the Japanese fleet. As shadowing submarines had forced them to make frequent radical course changes, the destroyer escorts had run low on fuel and Phillips sent them back to base. He was on the verge of ordering Prince of Wales and Repulse to return to Singapore when a message came in; ‘Japanese troopships plus naval units reported off Kuantan; evaluated as invasion attempt’.
Phillips ordered Force “Z”, now reduced to the two capital ships, to make a high speed run for the coast. But two hours later the message proved to be a false alarm. There was no enemy shipping near Kuantan and Phillips changed course again. By that time he had been detected by the Japanese and Mitsubishi G3M “Nells” of the Mihoro Air Corps arrived over the ships at 1113 and turned on Repulse, which they knew to have thinner armor protection. Both ships put up a furious AA barrage and escaped the bombs by radical course changes. Only Repulse was hit by a single bomb that did relatively minor damage.
Then, at 1140, the Genzan Air Corps joined the fight with two formations of Mitsubishi G4M torpedo carrying “Bettys”, a type no one had seen before. Forming an extended arc to split the AA fire, they attacked from different directions and bore in on Prince of Wales, dropping their torpedoes from about 100 feet.
Seconds later, an enormous explosion that threw up a two-hundred-foot water column on the port side shook Prince of Wales from stem to stern. Her speed immediately fell from twenty-five to fifteen knots. Bent and damaged by the torpedo blast, her port outer propeller shaft started to vibrate with increasing violence. A few minutes later the whole 240-foot shaft worked loose and came apart, tearing away from the hull, together with its massive propeller. The runaway shaft damaged the port inner-propeller that had to be shut down and ruptured the hull. Hundreds of tons of water rushed in, swamping her engineering spaces, flooding her dynamo rooms and cutting the power supply to the pumps and to both steering engines. With both port propellers out of action, no steering and the ship listing eleven and a half degrees, the only thing Captain Leach could do was to raise the two black balls on the yardarm, signalling that Prince of Wales was not under control.
Astonished that Admiral Phillips still had not sent any messages to Singapore requesting air cover, Captain Tennant of Repulse took independent action at 11.58.
“FROM REPULSE TO ANY BRITISH MAN OF WAR, ENEMY AIRCRAFT BOMBING. MY POSITION 134NYTW22X09.”
22 minutes later, Prince of Wales signalled:
“EMERGENCY. HAVE BEEN STRUCK BY A TORPEDO ON PORT SIDE. NYTW022R06. REPULSE HIT BY 1 TORPEDO. SEND DESTROYERS.”
At 1220 the Kanoya Air Corps with 26 “Betty” bombers dropped out of the clouds. They were low on fuel after a prolonged search and could not spend much time developing an attack so they split their forces to go after both ships.
The first six released their torpedoes at the crippled Prince of Wales and three of them found their mark, more or less evenly spaced from bow to stern. The stern hit crumbled the outer starboard propeller shaft, leaving the ship practically dead in the water. The rest of the “Bettys” went after Repulse, still untouched except for a single bomb hit. In a desperate effort to avoid being boxed in, Captain Tennant worked his ship up to its maximum speed of twenty-seven and a half knots and ordered an intense AA barrage.
Twice the bombers launched their torpedoes at Repulse. She combed the tracks of the first wave but during the second attack, a single Japanese torpedo struck her stern. With her rudder jammed hard to starboard she could only steam uncontrollably in a wide circle. The ship started list badly and turned over and sank at 12.35.
Captain Tennant had decided to stay with his ship but a crowd of sailors grabbed him and threw him overboard.
Japanese high-level bombers now concentrated on the already mortally wounded Prince of Wales, closing in for the kill. One bomb hit the last functioning boiler room, near misses ruptured her skin and by 13.23 she disappeared under the waves.
Though Prince of Wales sank slowly, loss of life was still high. Of the 1,612 crewmen aboard, 327 were lost. This number was even higher aboard Repulse, where 513 of 1,309 aboard perished. Both Admiral Phillips and Captain Leach were lost, but Vampire rescued Captain Tennant.
Japanese losses were negligible. Of 51 torpedo-bombers and 34 level bombers deployed, they scored 11 torpedo and two bomb hits for the loss of only three torpedo bombers. They suffered light damage to 17 “Bettys” and 11 “Nells”. One plane crashed on return to base, bringing the total Japanese losses to four aircraft, with 18 crewmen lost aboard. And all but three of the damaged planes were repaired locally
The impact of the sinking of Force “Z” was enormous. To the morale and prestige of the British, the loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse was a crushing blow. To the naval balance of power, it meant the Japanese could dominate the seas of the Far-East.
The most powerful remaining allied ships were now the heavy cruisers HMS Exeter and USS Houston. Although supported by a host of light cruisers and destroyers, they were no match for the powerful Japanese units facing them. The situation worsened on December 12 when the British Admiralty ordered all remaining RN ships to be used primarily for convoy duties between Singapore and the Indian Ocean and thus all but ruled out any future offensive action. The only forces now left to defend the “Malayan Barrier” against the massive Japanese fleet were some cruisers and destroyers under Dutch command. Known as the “Combined Striking Fleet”, it would meet its destiny two months later in the Battle of the Java Sea.
Updated Dec 21, 2016