Phillips attended the Naval Staff College (1919–1920); served on the Permanent Advisory Commission for Naval, Military and Air Questions of the League of Nations (1920–1922); and was promoted to captain in June 1927. He ended a three-year tour on the operational staff of the Royal Navy Mediterranean command in May 1928. Phillips was assistant director of plans at the Admiralty from 1930 to 1932, served with the East Indies squadron from 1932 to 1935, and was director of plans at the Admiralty from 1935 to 1938. In April 1938, Phillips commanded the Home Fleet destroyer flotillas. He was promoted to rear admiral in January 1939 and served as deputy chief of the Naval Staff during 1939–1941.
First sea lord and chief of the Naval Staff Sir Dudley Pound selected Phillips as deputy chief over several more senior officers. At first, Phillips had the confidence of Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill, who recommended him for the rank of acting vice admiral in February 1940. The rapport between the two men gradually eroded, however. Phillips opposed Churchill's proposal in September 1940 for retaliatory bombings of German cities. He also opposed Churchill's preference in March 1941 to divert scarce forces from North Africa to bolster Greece. His personal contact with the prime minister practically ceased thereafter. An intelligent, hardworking officer, Phillips was also self-assured, lacked combat experience, and did not appreciate the need for air cover. He was a short man, nicknamed "Tom Thumb" by some.
Phillips was appointed commander in chief of the Eastern Fleet in May 1941, but he retained his duties as vice chief of the naval staff until October, when he took up his new command with the acting rank of admiral. He sailed for the Far East on 25 October in the new battleship Prince of Wales, which was joined en route by the old battle cruiser Repulse. Phillips arrived in Singapore on 2 December, only to face the Japanese attacks on Malaya on 8 December.
Phillips had a difficult choice. He could attempt to oppose the Japanese amphibious landings in Malaya, or he could remain in Singapore. Phillips gambled on the offensive, and his Force Z—the Prince of Wales, Repulse, and four old destroyers—sailed on 8 December with the hope that radio silence, bad weather, and the element of surprise might enable him to catch the Japanese transports. His plan had some merit, as the Prince of Wales was stronger than any Japanese ship. Phillips also knew that the Japanese had no aircraft carriers, and he observed that the Japanese were taking risks in pushing their troopships forward. An unknown factor remained the strength of Japanese land-based aircraft, their range from their recently captured airfields, and the availability of British air cover. On 9 December, Phillips was advised he would have no friendly air cover, but he elected to press on. Phillips had great faith in the antiaircraft armament of the Prince of Wales and did not believe land-based air power could sink underway capital ships. No capital ship had yet been sunk at sea by aircraft.
Discovered by reconnaissance aircraft on 9 December, Phillips finally opted to turn around, but his Force Z was attacked by a large formation of Japanese land-based naval aircraft on the morning of 10 December. Within two hours, both capital ships were sunk in what was Britain's worst single naval defeat of the war. Phillips went down with his ship. His decisions of 9–10 December to maintain radio silence and not to request air cover remain open to criticism and debate.
Jon D. Berlin
Great Britain, Ministry of Defense (Navy). War with Japan. Vol. 2, Defensive Phase. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1995.; Middlebrook, Martin, and Patrick Mahoney. Battleship: The Sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1979.; Roskill, Stephen. Churchill and the Admirals. New York: William Morrow, 1978.; Willmott, H. P. Empires in the Balance: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies to April 1942. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982.