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 Pound represented that Singapore could only be adequately defended if the Royal Navy sent the majority of its capital ships there, 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 these would 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 battleship HMS 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, Encounter and Jupiter. The heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, Dutch light cruiser 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 Repulse responded 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.
That night, one of the Japanese seaplanes dropped a flare over the Japanese heavy cruiser Chōkai, having mistaken her for Prince of Wales. After this, the Japanese force of six cruisers and several destroyers turned away to the northeast. The flare was also seen by the British force, which feared they had been identified and then turned away to the southeast. At this point, the forces were approximately 5 miles (9 km) apart, but did not sight each other, and the Japanese force was not picked up on the radar of the Prince of Wales. At 2055, Admiral Philips cancelled the operation, saying that they had lost the element of surprise, and ordered the force to return to Singapore.
On the way back, they were spotted and reported by the Japanese submarine I-58 at 0340. I-58 reported that she had fired five torpedoes and missed, and then lost sight of the force three hours later. The British force did not see the torpedoes, and never knew they had been attacked. The report from I-58 reached 22nd Air Flotilla Headquarters at 0315, and ten bombers of the Genzan Air Group were dispatched at 0600 to conduct a sector search for the ships. Many more planes, some armed with bombs and some with torpedoes, soon followed. The Genzan Air Group took off at 0755, the Kanoya Air Group at 0814, and the Mihoro Air Group at 0820. They were ordered to proceed to the best estimated position of the ships.
At 0050 that same morning, 10 December, Phillips had received a report from Palliser of Japanese landings at Kuantan, on the east coast of Malaya, halfway between Singapore and Kota Bharu; Phillips headed in that general direction, without however signalling Palliser his intentions (which would have revealed his position). Palliser failed to anticipate this and request air cover over Kuantan from Sembawang's F2As. As it turned out, not until a radio message was sent by Repulse an hour after the first Japanese attack were RAF aircraft dispatched. At 0515, objects were spotted on the horizon; thinking they were the invasion force, Force Z turned towards them. It turned out to be a trawler towing barges. At 0630, Repulse reported seeing an aircraft shadowing the ships. At 0718, Prince of Wales catapulted off a Supermarine Walrus reconnaissance aircraft; it flew to Kuantan, saw nothing, reported back to Prince of Wales, and flew to Singapore. Express was sent to investigate the area, finding nothing. Phillips was unaware that a large force of Japanese land-based bombers were looking for his ships, but not having anticipated his detour to Kuantan were searching much farther south. At around 1000 Tenedos, having been detached from the main force the previous day and now about 140 miles southeast of Force Z, began signalling she was being attacked by Japanese aircraft. The attack was carried out by nine Mitsubishi G3M 'Nell' twin-engine medium bombers from the Genzan Air Corps, 22nd Air Flotilla, based at Saigon, each armed with one 500 kg (1,100 lb) armour-piercing bomb. They mistook the destroyer for a battleship and wasted their ordnance without scoring a hit. At 1015, a scout plane to the north of most of the Japanese aircraft piloted by Ensign Masato Hoashi spotted Force Z and sent out a message detailing their exact position.
The remaining Japanese planes converged upon the retreating British task force. The planes had spread out to search for the British warships, so they arrived over the target in small groups. With fuel running short, the Japanese attacked as they arrived rather than forming into a large force for a co-ordinated strike. The first wave of Japanese planes, comprising eight Nell bombers from the Mihoro Air Corps, attacked at 1113, concentrating solely on Repulse. Besides seven near misses by 250 kg (550 lb) bombs, they scored just one hit, which penetrated the hangar and the upper deck and exploded in the marine mess area. The bomb caused no serious damage and relatively few casualties, and Repulse continued on at 25 kts (46 km/h, 29 mph), still in fighting trim. Five of the eight bombers were damaged by anti-aircraft fire, and two were forced to return to base.
At around 1140, 17 Nell torpedo bombers (two squadrons from the Genzan Air Group) approached the two capital ships. Eight concentrated on Repulse, while nine attacked Prince of Wales, sending eight torpedoes speeding towards the flagship (one plane aborted its run on Prince of Wales and peeled off and attacked Repulse). One Nell was shot down and three more were damaged by the Prince of Wales anti-aircraft fire during this attack. This first wave of torpedo attackers however managed only one, ultimately catastrophic, torpedo hit on Prince of Wales (and none on Repulse), right where her outer port propeller shaft exited the hull (some historical accounts state there were two hits in this attack, but an extensive 2007 survey of the hull of the wreck by divers proved there was only one). Turning at maximum revolutions, the shaft twisted and ruptured the glands that prevented sea water entering the ship via the broad shaft tunnel's interior bulkheads. The flagship promptly took in 2,400 tons of water and her speed dropped to 16 kts (30 km/h, 18 mph). Testimony from Lt Wildish, in command of 'B' Engine Room, indicated the shaft was stopped successfully, but upon restarting the shaft, water rushed in through the damaged shaft passage, flooding B Engine Room and forcing its evacuation. Also flooded from this hit were the long shaft passage itself, 'Y' Action Machinery Room, the port Diesel Dynamo Room, 'Y' Boiler Room, the Central Auxiliary Machinery Room, and a number of other compartments aft.
The single torpedo hit had devastating further effects. First, it caused an 11.5-degree list to port, resulting in the starboard 5.25-inch anti-aircraft turrets being unable to depress low enough to engage the attackers. Furthermore, power to Prince of Wales' aft 5.25 inch dual-purpose turrets was cut, leaving her unable to effectively counter further attacks. Power loss to her pumps meant an inability to pump out the in-rushing flood water faster than it was entering the breached hull. The torpedo damage also denied her much of her auxiliary electrical power, vital for internal communications, ventilation, steering gear, and pumps, and for training and elevation of the 5.25-inch and 2-pounder gun mounts. All but S1 and S2 5.25 inch turrets were almost unmanageable, a factor compounded by the list, rendering their crews unable even to drag them round manually using chains. The crews also had difficulty bringing the heavy 2-pounder mountings into manual operation. The extensive internal flooding and shaft damage caused the shutting down of the inboard port propeller shaft, leaving the ship under the power of only the starboard engines and able to make just 15 knots at best. With her electric steering unresponsive, the ship was virtually unmanageable.
Another torpedo attack was carried out by 26 Betty bombers of the Kanoya Air Group at approximately 1220, and Prince of Wales was hit by another three torpedoes on her starboard side (some historical accounts state four hits, but the 2007 survey of the hull showed there had been only three); one at the very bow, one opposite B main gun turret, and one abaft Y turret which not only punctured the hull but bent the outer starboard propeller shaft inboard and over the inner shaft, stopping it instantly.
At the same time as this last torpedo attack developed against Prince of Wales, planes from the Kanoya Air Group also attacked Repulse from both starboard and port. Repulse, which had dodged 19 torpedoes so far, was caught in this Japanese pincer attack and was hit on the port side by one torpedo. Within minutes, further attacks resulted in at least three more torpedoes striking Repulse. Repulse did not have the anti-torpedo blisters her sister Renown had received, and also did not have a modern battleship's internal waterproof compartmentalisation and subdivision. She had been hit seriously then, and Captain William Tennant soon ordered the crew overboard; Repulse listed heavily to port over a period of about six minutes and finally rolled over, settled by the head, and sank at 1233 with heavy casualties.
Prince of Wales was now under power by only one propeller shaft but was still able to fire at a high level bombing attack which developed at 1241 hours, although only with S1 and S2 5.25 inch turrets. Although most of the bombs straddled her, one bomb penetrated her deck amidships. This bomb penetrated the upper deck and exploded amongst the wounded gathered in the Cinema Flat beneath, causing extensive casualties. Soon Prince of Wales started to capsize to port (even though she had taken more torpedo hits to starboard) and HMS Express came alongside to take off the wounded and non-fighting crew. The order to abandon ship was then given and soon after Prince of Wales rolled over to port, settled by the head, and sank at 1318. As she rolled over, she scraped Express, lying close alongside taking off survivors, with her bilge keel, and very nearly took the destroyer down with her. The rumbling sound of the attacks was heard in Singapore.
The Japanese had achieved eight torpedo hits, four each on Prince of Wales and Repulse, out of 49 torpedoes, while losing only three aircraft during the attack itself (one Nell torpedo bomber from the Genzan Air Group and two Betty torpedo bombers from the Kanoya Air Group) and a fourth plane was so badly damaged that it crashed on landing. A recent survey of the two wrecks confirmed that there were only four torpedo hits on Prince of Wales; and could only confirm two hits on Repulse, as the amidships area where the other two hits were reported was buried beneath the seabed. The Explorer's Club ‘Expedition "Job 74", an underwater survey by divers, was completed on 11 June 2007 (see external link below).
The air cover assigned to Force Z, ten Buffalo fighters of No. 453 Squadron RAAF, arrived over the battlefield at 1318, just as Prince of Wales sank. They encountered a scouting aircraft piloted by Ensign Masato Hoashi, who had discovered Force Z earlier, but it managed to escape the Buffaloes and returned to confirm the sinkings. Had it been shot down, the Japanese might have assumed that the two ships had survived the attack, and struck again.
Destroyers Electra and Vampire moved in to rescue survivors of Repulse, while Express rescued those from the Prince of Wales. 840 sailors were lost: 513 in Repulse and 327 in Prince Of Wales. After they were rescued, some survivors of the Repulse manned action stations to free Electra sailors to rescue more survivors. In particular, Repulse gunners manned 'X' and 'Y' 4.7-inch (120 mm) mounts, and Repulse's dentist assisted Electra's medical teams with the wounded. In total nearly 1,000 survivors of Repulse were rescued, 571 by Electra. Vampire picked up nine officers, 213 ratings, and one civilian war correspondent from Repulse, and two sailors from Prince of Wales.
Of the high-ranking officers on Prince of Wales, Admiral Phillips and Captain John Leach chose to go down with their ship, and the senior survivor was Lt Cdr A. G. Skipwith, the ship's First Lieutenant, who was rescued by Express. Captain William Tennant of Repulse was rescued by Vampire.
According to the London Gazette report by Flt Lt Vigors:
On the way back to Singapore with the survivors, Express passed Stronghold and the four American destroyers heading north. Express signalled the action was over, but the ships proceeded to search the area for more survivors. None were found. While returning to Singapore from this search, Edsall boarded the fishing trawler sighted by Force Z that morning. The trawler was identified as Shofu Fu Maru, and was taken to Singapore, where the Japanese crew was interned.
While the Japanese bombers were returning to their airfields in French Indochina, a second wave was being prepared for another attack on Force Z. They had not been given accurate information on the progress of the battle. The attack was called off as soon as they received confirmed reports of the sinkings from Ensign Hoashi.
The next day, Lt Haruki Iki flew to the site of the battle, dropping two wreaths of flowers into the sea to honour combatants from both sides who had died in the battle. One was for the fellow members of his Kanoya Air Group, while the other was for the British sailors whose display of bravery in defence of the ships had gained them the utmost admiration from all pilots in his squadron.
The morning after the battle, Prime Minister Winston Churchill received a phone call at his bedside from Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord.
Churchill delivered news of the sinking to the House of Commons before noon on 11 December, which was followed by a full review of the situation in Malaya the next day. Singapore had essentially been reduced to a land base after both capital ships were lost. The Eastern Fleet would spend the remainder of the invasion withdrawing their vessels to Ceylon and the Dutch East Indies. They were not reinforced by battleships until March 1942, with the arrival of HMS Warspite and four Revenge-class battleships. Although all five battleships survived the Indian Ocean raid, their service in the Pacific was uneventful and they were later withdrawn to East Africa and the Mediterranean.
The Prince of Wales and Repulse were the first capital ships actively defending themselves to be sunk solely by air power while steaming in the open sea. Both of them were relatively fast ships compared to the slower US battleships that were caught at anchor at Pearl Harbor. Furthermore, Prince of Wales was a new battleship with passive and active anti-aircraft defences against contemporary aircraft, being equipped with the advanced High Angle Control System although it was largely inoperable during the battle.
Combined with the earlier raid on Pearl Harbor, this left the Allies with only four operational capital ships in the Pacific Theatre: three aircraft carriers, USS Enterprise, USS Lexington, and USS Saratoga, and one operational battleship, USS Colorado. However, these events did prompt the Allies and the US Navy in particular to realise the potency of aircraft, and their carriers would be instrumental in the counterattack. The Genzan Air Groups would attempt a torpedo attack on USS Lexington on 20 February 1942, losing seventeen aircraft to the carrier's combat air patrol and anti-aircraft guns.
The wrecks of the two ships were found after the war, Repulse in 183 feet (56 m) of water, and Prince of Wales in 223 feet (68 m). Both are in a nearly upside-down position. Buoys were attached to the propeller shafts, and flags of the Royal Navy are attached to the lines and are regularly changed by divers. These Royal Navy wrecks are Crown property. Prince of Wales' bell was removed from the wreck in 2002 by an authorised team of Royal Navy and British civilian divers in response to fears it would be stolen by unauthorised divers. The bell is now on display at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool. It is currently traditional for every passing Royal Navy ship to perform a remembrance service over the site of the wrecks.
In May 2007, Expedition 'Job 74', a dedicated survey of the exterior hull of both Prince of Wales and Repulse, was conducted. The expedition's findings sparked considerable interest among naval architects and marine engineers around the world; as they detailed the exact nature of the damage to Prince of Wales and the exact location and number of torpedo hits for the first time. Consequently, the findings contained in the initial expedition report and later supplementary reports were analysed by the SNAME (Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers) Marine Forensics Committee and a resultant paper was drawn up entitled "Death of a Battleship: A Reanalysis of the Tragic Loss of HMS Prince of Wales". This paper was subsequently presented at a meeting of RINA (Royal Institution of Naval Architects) and IMarEST (Institute of Marine Engineering, Science & Technology) members in London by Mr. William Garzke.
In October 2014, the Daily Telegraph reported that both Prince of Wales and Repulse were being "extensively damaged" with explosives by scrap-metal dealers.