Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Prince of Wales and Repulse (10 December 1941)

Following World War I, British authorities decided to develop Singapore as the most important naval base in the Far East to concentrate British forces to protect the vast British imperial and commercial interests in the region. During the interwar period, a major base was created somewhat haphazardly, including land defenses and provisions for air support. Part of the plan involved deploying a large naval force to Singapore, a force as large as or larger than the Japanese battle fleet. The doctrine was called "Main Fleet to Singapore." However, by the late 1930s, naval commitments in home waters and in the Mediterranean Sea reflected increased threats from Germany and Italy, so that at the beginning of World War II, the Royal Navy battle fleet was spread thinly. Finally, in October 1941, Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill decided to deploy a squadron of capital ships to Singapore under new Eastern Fleet commander Admiral Sir Tom Phillips. Some viewed this as the Main Fleet to Singapore force designed to overawe the Japanese from the seemingly impregnable base at Singapore.

Phillips flew his flag in the Prince of Wales, a George V–class battleship that was completed in March 1941. Britain's newest capital ship, she had fought the German battleship Bismarck and carried Churchill to meet with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. She mounted a main armament of 10 x 14-inch guns in two quadruple and one double turret, along with 16 x 5.25-inch quick-firing guns. She also was armed with 64 x 2-pounder pompoms, 8 x 40-mm Bofors, and 25 x 20-mm Oerlikon antiaircraft guns. The battle cruiser Repulse, completed in 1916 during World War I, accompanied her. She mounted 6 x 15-inch and 15 x 4-inch guns plus 4 x 4-inch quick-firing antiaircraft guns. The aircraft carrier Indomitable, which was to have accompanied these two capital ships, had been run aground off Jamaica and was undergoing repairs. The decision to send the two capital ships to the Far East without air cover was fateful, as it deprived the squadron of the means to defend against Japanese air attack. Land-based air forces at Singapore were also inadequate. Churchill, however, believed that capital ships could not be sunk by aircraft while the ships were under way and defending themselves with antiaircraft guns.

The Prince of Wales and Repulse arrived at Singapore on 2 December. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the two were the only Allied capital ships on station between Hawaii and the Mediterranean. On 8 December, the Japanese invaded Malaya, and Phillips immediately took his ships to sea to intercept a Japanese convoy off of the Kra Isthmus of Malaya. His Force Z consisted of the two capital ships and the destroyers Vampire, Tenedos, Electra, and Express.

With no British air cover available and all hope lost of surprising the Japanese naval units, Phillips ordered his ships to return to Singapore. At this point, Phillips received a report of another Japanese landing at Kuantan, closer to his position. He headed there but maintained radio silence so as to not alert the Japanese. This prevented the dispatch of British land-based aviation, which Phillips assumed would be forthcoming.

The British ships had been sighted by a Japanese submarine, and on the morning of 10 December, the Japanese launched massive air attacks against the British ships. The Japanese force consisted of 86 twin-engine bombers, 18 high-level bombers, and 25 torpedo bombers of the First Air Fleet at land bases in Indochina. The attacks began at 11:15 a.m. Force Z was then about 50 miles off the east coast of Malaya. The Repulse was sunk first, then the Prince of Wales. Both ships were victims of air-launched torpedoes. The Repulse went down with 327 of her crew of 960; the Prince of Wales was struck by one or two 1,100-pound bombs and as many as 6 torpedoes. Of her 1,612 crew members, the destroyers rescued 1,285. Neither Admiral Phillips nor Captain J. Leach, captain of the Prince of Wales, were among the survivors. The Japanese lost only 3 aircraft in the battle.

The destruction of Force Z came as a great shock to the Royal Navy and British government and public. It has been characterized as a sign of the end of the battleship era. No longer could capital ships operate alone without air and subsurface protection. The associated surrender of Singapore to inferior numbers of Japanese forces in February 1942, the greatest defeat suffered by Britain in its modern history, was seen as the end of British, even western, dominance in East Asia.

Eugene L. Rasor and Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Ash, Bernard. Someone Had Blundered: The Story of the Repulse and Prince of Wales. New York: Doubleday, 1960.; Bell, Christopher M. The Royal Navy, Seapower and Strategy between the Wars. London: Macmillan, 2000.; Bennett, Geoffrey M. Loss of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1973.; Franklin, A. G. C., and Gordon Franklin. One Year of Life: The Story of HMS Prince of Wales. London: Blackwood, 1944.; Grenfell, Russell. Main Fleet to Singapore. New York: Macmillan, 1952.; Hough, Richard. The Hunting of Force Z: The Sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. London: Cassell, 1999.; Middlebrook, Martin, and Patrick Mahoney. Battleship: The Loss of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. New York: Scribner, 1977.
 

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