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The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse 10 December 1941

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Bring Deeps
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The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse 10 December 1941

Postby Bring Deeps » 17 Jul 2020, 17:05

Launching an online discussion of this topic can be a bit like sending a fire ship into a harbour crowded with wooden ships of the line but it is an interesting topic.

In August 1941 Churchill was keen to deter Japanese aggression in the Far East and thought that sending some Royal Navy ships would achieve this end. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, was not keen on the idea. However, he could not resist the political pressure in the end HMS Prince of Wales, HMS Repulse and four destroyers were sent as Force Z, first to Cape Town and then to Singapore where they arrived on 2 December 1941.

Leaving on 8 December two days later they were sunk off the coast of Malaya by land based Japanese planes.
10 December 1941 has generally been taken as the date marking the beginning of the end of the battleship era as this was the first-time capital ships had been sunk whilst at sea.

There had been a plan to send a modern aircraft carrier, HMS Indomitable, with Force Z but she ran aground in the West Indies working up after refit in the USA and had to be repaired. Even if that hadn’t happened the ship couldn’t have made it to Singapore before the battleship and battlecruiser left on their last voyage. That was probably a good thing as with her inadequate (by Japanese standards) air wing she would probably have been no match for an enemy at the top of their game and also lost.

There have also been suggestions that Force Z could have been saved had there been better co-ordination with RAF forces in Malaya but that too is likely to be wishful thinking given that they were equipped with Brewster Buffalo fighters.

As with any disaster debate about the what went wrong and what should have been done differently has involved much bitter recrimination.

In addition to questions about the lack of cover from RAF and carrier support there has been debate over the following:

• When exactly was the decision to send the ships to Singapore taken and who was responsible? As is often the case in these situations there is an absence of written records.
• Churchill’s assessment of the threat posed by the Japanese and how likely it was that Force Z would deter them.
• To what extent was the commander of Force Z to blame? The reputation of Admiral Tom Phillips has not been helped by the fact that he had not seen action since 1917, had not held a sea going command since WWII began and is generally considered to have underestimated the risk of air attack. He was unable to defend his actions in person as he was killed in action.
• Given that the attack on Pearl Harbor took place on 7 December should Force Z have been withdrawn once it was known their attempt at deterrence had failed. I remember reading somewhere (but can’t find the reference) that Churchill said afterwards that when he heard about the Japanese attack on the US Pacific Fleet, he had considered sending the ships to help the Americans.

As ever there are the questions of what lessons can be learnt from the destruction of Force Z that are relevant to modern warfare.
Moving from fact to speculation (stop reading now if you don’t like that sort of thing) what might have happened if Force Z had been spared and had survived and ultimately joined the US fleet?

Neither HMS Prince of Wales nor HMS Repulse were well suited to fighting in the Pacific given the lack of fleet train support, relatively poor anti-aircraft weapons and absence of air-conditioning.

On the plus side HMS Repulse would have been quick enough to have kept up with the US carriers and the surviving King George V class ships served with the British Pacific Fleet towards the end of the war.

The main armament of the two capital ships would have been invaluable in surface fleet actions, useful for naval gunfire support and both were fitted with radar.

Used effectively the two ships might have had a significant role to play in the Battle of the Java Sea and the Guadalcanal campaign. On their own they wouldn’t have stemmed the Japanese advance but they might have dented it.

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Re: The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse 10 December 1941

Postby Scimitar54 » 17 Jul 2020, 20:26

Don’t forget that HMS Indomitable (Carrier) was supposed to be accompanying them, but at short notice was suddenly unable to! :mrgreen:

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Re: The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse 10 December 1941

Postby Zero Gravitas » 18 Jul 2020, 21:24

Reddit tells me that it was the first torpedo that did all the damage to PoW. The rest were insignificant in the sinking.

As the Japanese were operating at the edge of their range and running out of torpedoes PoW could well have made it home - with a bit more luck!

I have to say that my vague amateur understanding of WW2 naval engagements has detected an awful lot of engagements that experts believe came dow to luck!

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Re: The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse 10 December 1941

Postby Sunk at Narvik » 22 Jul 2020, 14:59

The shock was in part because the PoW in particular HAD the most modern and tested AA defences- not that they lacked them. My understanding is that tactics emplyed in the Med were tried- barrage fire, but failed to deter Japanese pilots who flew through it. Once PoW realised this the ship began turning head onto the torpedos but at this point was hit with the devastating blow that disrupted her prop shaft and opened up the hull.

Proximity fuses were not available in 41.

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Re: The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse 10 December 1941

Postby Bring Deeps » 22 Jul 2020, 18:03

I did read recently that the 5.25 guns on the KGV class and cruisers were not considered particularly effective AA weapons (albeit useful for creating a barrage) and that the 4.5 or 4 guns were considered better. I think it was something about elevation and firing rate but it could have been fire control.

The pompom was, I believe, pretty hopeless at anything other than short range and by the end of the war RN ships in the Pacific had become forests of Oerlikons and Bofors.

Given the experience of the RN during the evacuations from Greece and Crete in May 1941 it should have been obvious to all concerned that the only truly effective protection against the Japanese air force could have been provided by RN, RAF or allied air cover. That is perhaps where the criticisms of Tom Phillips begin to hit home.

Vice Admiral E King (the English one not the American one) commanded the 15th Cruiser Squadron in the Mediterranean through this period and maybe history would have been different if he had been appointed to command Force Z instead of Phillips.

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Re: The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse 10 December 1941

Postby abc123 » 23 Jul 2020, 06:37

Captain Philips had been given a really bad hand, so I don't think that either a other captain or a few fighters from Malaya could change anything. And even if they could, once when Kido Butai returns from Hawaii, they would be sent to the bottom of the sea anyway.
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What's her position about heavily armed, well prepared and overmanned armies?
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Re: The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse 10 December 1941

Postby swoop » 23 Jul 2020, 09:04

Bring Deeps wrote:... in May 1941 it should have been obvious to all concerned that the only truly effective protection against the Japanese air force could have been provided by RN, RAF or allied air cover.

At that early a stage of the conflict, the tactics for dealing with Japanese Zeroes had not been developed, so would have had minimal effect. Trying to conduct conventional dogfighting (by Brit standards) would result in a rapid loss of aircraft.

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Re: The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse 10 December 1941

Postby Bring Deeps » 01 Aug 2020, 15:34

An article referencing the fate of Force Z that ends just as it is getting interesting but worth a read in the context of the possible deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth to the South China Sea next year.

https://www.thearticle.com/do-we-risk-e ... of-force-z

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Re: The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse 10 December 1941

Postby Blackstone » 01 Aug 2020, 19:43

The decision to send a Froce to Singapore was reasonable in the pre-December 7th world, but it's important to remember the limits of what deterrence can achieve when up against someone sufficiently determined to act. The RN could have put more ships in the East, the Dutch could have built their battlecruisers, the USN could have forward-deployed a battlefleet, and odds are Imperial Japan would still have attacked. It's just a matter of slowing them down, complicating their plans, and creating opportunities to exploit. Force Z did complicate their plans, but failed on the other 2 counts mostly due to how it was used.

I drop a lot of blame at the feet of Rear Admiral Phillips. Firstly, the "the Royal Navy had to fight" line of reasoning to support his sortie is dumb. Preserving his fleet in being was the single most important contribution Phillips could make to defending Singapore, and charging off with no air cover, his flagship's AA guns in bad shape, a minimal escort, plus inadequate scouting/intel demonstrates that he either didn't know that or didn't know how to go about it.

Second is that his "plan" was questionable at best. Even if he'd left a day earlier and lucked into a turkeyshoot with some transports with Japanese bombers not yet arrived, they still would have been empty before he got to them. So he was risking a major portion of RN seapower to sink some empty transports.

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Re: The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse 10 December 1941

Postby abc123 » 01 Aug 2020, 20:05

Blackstone wrote:The decision to send a Froce to Singapore was reasonable in the pre-December 7th world, but it's important to remember the limits of what deterrence can achieve when up against someone sufficiently determined to act. The RN could have put more ships in the East, the Dutch could have built their battlecruisers, the USN could have forward-deployed a battlefleet, and odds are Imperial Japan would still have attacked. It's just a matter of slowing them down, complicating their plans, and creating opportunities to exploit. Force Z did complicate their plans, but failed on the other 2 counts mostly due to how it was used.

I drop a lot of blame at the feet of Rear Admiral Phillips. Firstly, the "the Royal Navy had to fight" line of reasoning to support his sortie is dumb. Preserving his fleet in being was the single most important contribution Phillips could make to defending Singapore, and charging off with no air cover, his flagship's AA guns in bad shape, a minimal escort, plus inadequate scouting/intel demonstrates that he either didn't know that or didn't know how to go about it.

Second is that his "plan" was questionable at best. Even if he'd left a day earlier and lucked into a turkeyshoot with some transports with Japanese bombers not yet arrived, they still would have been empty before he got to them. So he was risking a major portion of RN seapower to sink some empty transports.


I disagree. Philips had really bad hand, but tried to do something, his choice wasn't perfect, but he at least tried to do something useful, instead of just running away or surrendering to a less numerous force like Singapore did, without allmost a serious fight. If anybody is to be blaimed, then Churchill should, for even sending them there, to serve as more tripwire than deterrence.

And no, the RN couldn't send some stronger force there, but just a paltry force of two BBs, not stronger enough neither for fighting or deterrence.

Something that will likely happen to the UK CVBG when they enter SCS againt China...
Fortune favors brave sir, said Carrot cheerfully.
What's her position about heavily armed, well prepared and overmanned armies?
Oh, noone's ever heard of Fortune favoring them, sir.
According to General Tacticus, it's because they favor themselves…

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Re: The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse 10 December 1941

Postby Halidon » 02 Aug 2020, 00:00

If he was interested in "doing something," he needed to do it properly. Don't leave 453 squadron in the dark, don't leave all the cruisers in Singapore, don't neglect the allied ships that were soon to arrive, don't charge about chasing contact reports rather than have proper scouting find the enemy, don't make the decision to retreat after you've been spotted and then decide "nevermind, let's have another crack at 'em" hours later.

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Re: The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse 10 December 1941

Postby Bring Deeps » 07 Aug 2020, 19:48

Blackstone wrote:
I drop a lot of blame at the feet of Rear Admiral Phillips. Firstly, the "the Royal Navy had to fight" line of reasoning to support his sortie is dumb. Preserving his fleet in being was the single most important contribution Phillips could make to defending Singapore, and charging off with no air cover, his flagship's AA guns in bad shape, a minimal escort, plus inadequate scouting/intel demonstrates that he either didn't know that or didn't know how to go about it.


That's a really interesting point. You can compare and contrast with what Jellicoe did at Jutland. Utterly professional Jellicoe stuck to his stated principles and avoided actions that he considered unduly risky.

However, for doing that he was blamed for not leading the RN to a second Trafalgar. Of course strategically he made absolutely the right call. The RN had far more to lose from a defeat than it would have gained from a total annihilation of the High Seas Fleet.

What was it in Phillips that made him take the decisions he did in December 1941? Was he trying to avoid similar recriminations to those that followed Jutland?

Unless someone knows better I don't think there is a biography of him. It would make fascinating reading.

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Re: The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse 10 December 1941

Postby Bring Deeps » 07 Aug 2020, 20:00

abc123 wrote:
Blackstone wrote:
I disagree. Philips had really bad hand, but tried to do something, his choice wasn't perfect, but he at least tried to do something useful, instead of just running away or surrendering to a less numerous force like Singapore did, without allmost a serious fight. If anybody is to be blaimed, then Churchill should, for even sending them there, to serve as more tripwire than deterrence.

And no, the RN couldn't send some stronger force there, but just a paltry force of two BBs, not stronger enough neither for fighting or deterrence.

Something that will likely happen to the UK CVBG when they enter SCS againt China...


I absolutely agree that Churchill has to be most culpable as he overrode the professional advice not to send the ships. No doubt Admiral Pound took the view that you either did the job properly or not at all. Is that what Halidon was saying?

Churchill should have realised that he had completely underestimated the Japanese after Pearl Harbor and ordered a withdrawal but maybe he was too distracted by the thought of the USA entering the war or too proud to change his mind.

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Re: The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse 10 December 1941

Postby Lord Jim » 07 Aug 2020, 23:11

For all his good points like boosting the country's morale etc. he had a history of making some serious mistakes. In WW2 Greece was another case in point. Yes we had to be seen supporting our allies, but it cost us an early victory in North Africa and made it far easier for Rommel to role us back.

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Re: The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse 10 December 1941

Postby abc123 » 12 Aug 2020, 09:29

Bring Deeps wrote:
Blackstone wrote:
I drop a lot of blame at the feet of Rear Admiral Phillips. Firstly, the "the Royal Navy had to fight" line of reasoning to support his sortie is dumb. Preserving his fleet in being was the single most important contribution Phillips could make to defending Singapore, and charging off with no air cover, his flagship's AA guns in bad shape, a minimal escort, plus inadequate scouting/intel demonstrates that he either didn't know that or didn't know how to go about it.




What was it in Phillips that made him take the decisions he did in December 1941? Was he trying to avoid similar recriminations to those that followed Jutland?

Unless someone knows better I don't think there is a biography of him. It would make fascinating reading.


Probably the same that was in Karel Doorman in battle of Java Sea, he had to do something, as Churchill said, wars aren't won by evacuations... National honour and prestigne was at stake. It takes 3 years to build a ship, but 300 years to build a tradition.
Fortune favors brave sir, said Carrot cheerfully.
What's her position about heavily armed, well prepared and overmanned armies?
Oh, noone's ever heard of Fortune favoring them, sir.
According to General Tacticus, it's because they favor themselves…


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