Force Z and the Death of the Battleship
On April 6, 1945, the Imperial Japan launched Operation Ten-Go, a desperate last-ditch naval attack against the Allied fleet supporting the invasion of Okinawa. Supported by the light cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers, the charge was led by the pride of the Imperial Japanese Navy, the mighty battleship Yamato. A quarter-kilometre long, displacing 65,000 tons, and armed with no fewer than nine 46-centimetre guns firing one-and-a-half-ton shells, Yamato was the largest and most powerful battleship ever built and considered by Japanese high command to be a nigh-unstoppable weapon. But the glorious last ride of the Imperial Navy was not to be; before the task force could even reach Okinawa, it was set upon by over 400 warplanes launched from American aircraft carriers. Less than five hours after first contact, Yahagi, four destroyers, and even the mighty Yamato had been sent to the bottom. More than 4,000 Japanese sailors died in the engagement, for the loss of only 12 U.S. airmen. It was Japan’s last major naval operation of the war, and marked the end of an era. The battleship, once the last word in naval firepower, no longer ruled the seas. In retrospect, the Japanese should have seen this coming, for they themselves had taught the British Royal Navy this same lesson nearly four years before. This is the tragic story of the sinking of Force Z.
After the First World War, the British Empire reached its greatest extent, encompassing more than 26% of the world’s land area and 23% of its population. However, by the 1930s what had long been Britain’s greatest strength was fast becoming its greatest liability. The Empire’s far-flung colonies could only be protected and held together by the Royal Navy, and with post-war budget cuts and the onset of the Great Depression even this mighty force found itself stretched dangerously thin. This made Britain’s overseas territories tempting targets for other up-and-coming imperial powers – including the Empire of Japan. Following their stunning victory over the Russian Empire in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese had come to see themselves as the natural masters of Asia and had pursued a policy of aggressive territorial expansion known euphemistically as the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. In 1910 the Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula, while in 1931 Japanese troops annexed the Chinese province of Manchuria and established the puppet state of Manchukuo. This was followed by a full-scale invasion of southern China in July 1937, while in September 1940 the Japanese captured the French colony of Indochina – today Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
The latter development particularly rattled the British, for it placed Japanese forces within easy striking distance of Hong Kong, British Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies – colonies rich in the rubber, tin, and oil the Japanese needed to feed their imperial war machine. Anticipating such an invasion, in 1919 the British had established a large naval base at Singapore and developed the so-called “Singapore Strategy” to deter Japanese aggression. This strategy, developed from a series of war plans over 20 years, was to be carried out in three phases. At the onset of a Japanese attack, the British garrison would man and defend “Fortress Singapore”, holding out while the British Home fleet sailed for the Far East via the Mediterranean, Suez Canal, and Ceylon – today Sri Lanka. On arrival, the fleet would retake Hong Kong and relieve Singapore before sailing on to blockade the Japanese Home Islands. Since the Royal Navy was still the most powerful naval force in the world, the British were confident the Japanese would not risk a direct confrontation and would quickly capitulate. The Singapore Strategy became the cornerstone of British defence strategy in the Far East, its effectiveness considered so assured that, as Royal Navy Captain Stephen Roskill wrote in 1937:
“…the concept of the ‘Main Fleet to Singapore’ had, perhaps through constant repetition, assumed something of the inviolability of Holy Writ”.
But while the Singapore Strategy was impressive on paper, a combination of poor planning, budgetary limitations, political interference, and plain hubris led the British to make a series of major strategic blunders. For example, planners believed that the monsoon season would prevent Japanese forces from crossing the Gulf of Thailand from Indochina to Malaya until at least February 1942. Consequently, most of the aircraft defending the peninsula were diverted for service in the Middle East and Russia. Racist attitudes towards the Japanese also led the British to underestimate the capability of their armed forces, leaving Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaya poorly garrisoned. As we shall see, this was to have disastrous consequences for the British Empire in the Far East.
There was also another major complicating factor: Nazi Germany. On September 3, 1939, the same day Britain declared war on Germany, the German navy launched a campaign of unrestricted submarine and surface warfare against British and Allied merchant shipping, hoping to starve the island nation into submission. Suddenly, nearly the entire Royal Navy was called upon to counter the Nazi threat, leaving few ships available to defend the Far East. In desperation, Britain called upon the U.S. Navy to contribute ships from its Pacific Fleet, based at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. But the United States, which was still officially neutral in the conflict, was hesitant to deploy its ships in defence of British colonial interests, and decided instead to focus its efforts on the Atlantic theatre once it entered the war. The British therefore developed a strategy of replacement, whereby American ships deployed into the Atlantic would free up British ships for deployment to the Far East. The full build-up of this Eastern Squadron was to be completed within 80 days after the entry of Japan and the United States into the war, which was anticipated to occur sometime in late 1941 or early 1942.
Thankfully, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt chose not to wait until the United States had officially entered the war to intervene in the Atlantic, meaning that by August 1941 there was sufficient U.S. Naval presence in the Atlantic for an Eastern Squadron to be deployed ahead of the anticipated Japanese invasion. The question now became: which ships to send? While Prime Minister Winston Churchill favoured sending the most advanced King George V-class battleships, First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound and Admiral of the Home Fleet Sir John Tovey disagreed, arguing that the class’s design made it unsuitable for operations in tropical climates. They also wished to keep the more powerful vessels in home waters to counter the German warships Tirpitz, Scharnhorst, and Gneisenau. In the end, however, circumstances decided the matter, for there were only six capital ships in a fit enough state to reach the Far East before the spring of 1942: the King George V-Class battleship HMS Prince of Wales, the Renown-class battlecruiser HMS Repulse, and the four Revenge-class battleships HMS Revenge, Resolution, Royal Sovereign, and Ramillies.
HMS Prince of Wales was the Royal Navy’s newest and most advanced battleship. Launched in May 1939, she was still being fitted out when on May 24, 1940 she was called out to face the German battleship Bismarck. With workmen from the Vickers engineering firm still aboard scrambling to get her radar and gun-laying systems online, she steamed into the Battle of the Denmark Strait, receiving seven direct hits including a 15 shell that ricocheted through her compass platform killing everyone except the Captain and a signalman. But she gave as good as she got, and managed to land two crippling hits that contributed to the Bismarck’s eventual destruction three days later. After being repaired, in August 1940 Prince Of Wales carried Prime Minister Churchill across the Atlantic to a secret conference with President Roosevelt, then in September was assigned to Force H, escorting supply convoys to the Mediterranean island of Malta.
HMS Repulse, on the other hand, was a much older ship. Launched in January 1916, she participated in the 1917 Battle of Heligoland Bight – her only action of the First World War – and in the 1930s escorted merchant ships during the Spanish Civil War. Due to lessons learned during the war her armour and guns were upgraded in 1918 and again in 1934 and 1940. She was scheduled to receive a further upgrade to her antiaircraft batteries, but her assignment to the Far East task force resulted in this plan being abandoned, leaving Repulse vulnerable to air attack.
The Revenge-class battleships were even older, having been launched between 1913 and 1914. Considered obsolete and no match for the latest Imperial Japanese Navy vessels, the battleships were instead assigned to the 3rd Battle Squadron based in Ceylon, arriving in September 1941.
Meanwhile, Prince of Wales, Repulse, and the escorting destroyers HMS Electra, Express, and Hesperus were organized into Force G, under the command of Admiral Sir Thomas Phillips. Prime Minister Churchill and his naval advisors continued to argue over the composition of the squadron, so in the end a compromise solution was reached. Force G was ordered to sail for Cape Town, South Africa, where it would anchor and await instructions. The Admiralty would then review the strategic situation and decide whether to send the ships on to Singapore or retain them for use in home waters. Repulse, which had just finished escorting a supply convoy around the Cape of Good Hope, was ordered to Ceylon to rendezvous with the rest of the force. While Churchill had recommended the force be escorted by an aircraft carrier, the only available ship, HMS Indomitable, had run aground in Jamaica and would not be ready to sail until November. So, with time of the essence, Force G set off for Singapore without air cover, sailing from Greenock in Scotland on October 25, 1941. Though a far cry from the massive fleet called for by the original Singapore Strategy, Churchill was confident that the “smallest number of the best ships” would be more than enough to deter the Japanese.
Force G arrived in Cape Town on November 16. Admiral Phillips expected to remain in South Africa for at least seven days, a week of social events and media coverage having been planned for propaganda and morale-boosting purposes. But before the Prince of Wales even reached Cape Town, Phillips received orders to depart as soon as possible and rendezvous with Repulse in Ceylon. The anticipated review of Force G’s mission was, in fact, a ruse meant to deceive Winston Churchill; the Admiralty had already committed to carrying out the Singapore Strategy in full.
Meanwhile, Repulse was in Durban, South Africa, preparing to sail to Ceylon. There, her crew received a disturbing portent of things to come as South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts came aboard and delivered an address. While no official record of this speech survives, Able Seaman Ted Matthews later recalled the sobering tone:
“From the onset he shattered our conceptions of the Japanese military stating in clear terms that if hostilities erupted we weren’t going to be confronted by a race of inferiors. To the contrary he felt the Japs weren’t in the least concerned by the possibility of conflict with Britain. He also made it clear despite what we’d been told in the past that they possessed a fully modern airforce. Though the one comment that’s never left me were the fatalistic words he feared many of us wouldn’t be returning from this mission and he’d pray for our safety during the troubled times ahead. None of us could possibly have imagined the accuracy of this prophecy.”
Prince of Wales and her escorts remained in Cape Town for only two days, departing on the afternoon of November 18. On November 29, Force G reached Ceylon, where it was joined by Repulse and the destroyers HMS Encounter and HMS Jupiter. Hesperus had already departed before the force reached Cape Town. Admiral Phillips disembarked and flew on to Singapore and the Philippines to meet with Allied commanders, while the fleet sailed on without him, finally reaching Singapore on December 2. On arrival, the destroyers Encounter and Jupiter were found to be suffering from mechanical faults and were replaced by the First World War-vintage destroyers HMAS Vampire and HMS Tenedos. Prince of Wales then entered the dry dock at the Singapore naval base and underwent a thorough cleaning of her hull and boilers.
Then, less than a week later, the long-expected attack finally came.
The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbour on the morning of December 7, 1941 was merely the opening move in a massive, coordinated series of invasions all across Southeast Asia. Indeed, even before the Imperial Navy’s aircraft had even reached Hawaii, Japanese troops landed in Malaya, Hong Kong, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island. As these locations were across the International Date Line from Hawaii, the attacks were recorded as taking place on December 8. That same day, Japanese aircraft based in Indochina bombed Singapore. Force G – now redesigned Force Z – fired at the attacking aircraft while sitting at anchor, but made and received no hits. Once news of the attack reached Britain, Admiral Phillips was ordered to weigh anchor and intercept Japanese invasion convoys steaming across the Gulf of Thailand. Phillips hesitated, for the only Allied aircraft available to protect the fleet were the 10 slow and outdated Brewster Buffalo fighters of No. 453 Squadron RAAF stationed at Sembawang. Admiral Tovey’s misgivings about the ship had also proven correct: the hot, humid climate of Singapore had rendered Prince of Wales’s gun control radars inoperative and degraded her anti-aircraft ammunition, while the ship’s lack of air conditioning had led to increased crew fatigue. Nonetheless, Phillips elected to proceed, believing that Japanese aircraft could not operate so far from land and that Prince of Wales was all but impervious to aerial attack. After all, at that point no capital ship had ever been sunk by aircraft on the open sea. It was a gamble which was to cost him dearly.
Force Z departed Singapore at 17:00 hours on December 8 and sailed north to intercept Japanese forces landing at Khota Bahru on the northeast coast of Malaya. The following day at around 14:00, they were spotted by the Japanese submarine I-65, which shadowed the squadron for 5 hours, reporting their positions. This report soon reached the headquarters of the Japanese Navy’s 22nd Air Flotilla, which had just arrived at airfields in Indochina. At the time, 22nd’s aircraft were loading up with bombs for an attack on Singapore, but upon receiving news of Force Z’s sailing they immediately switched over to torpedoes. However, by the time the aircraft were ready, the sun was beginning to set, and the attack was postponed until the following morning. Meanwhile the Japanese 2nd Fleet was dispatched south from Indochina to intercept Force Z. While the two fleets never spotted each other, just before sunset Force Z was spotted by three seaplanes launched by Japanese convoy escorts. Realizing he had lost the element of surprise, Phillips abandoned his attack on Khota Bharu and turned back towards Singapore.
Just before 1:00 the following morning, Phillips received a radio message indicating that Japanese troops were landing at Kuantan on the east coast of Malaya. At around 7:00 hours Force Z reached the area and Prince of Wales launched a reconnaissance aircraft to investigate. When neither it nor the destroyer Express found anything, Phillips carried on towards Singapore. Little did he know, however, that he had been spotted by the submarine I-58, and that 34 Mitsubishi G3M “Nell” torpedo bombers and 51 G4M “Betty” high-level bombers of the 22nd Air Flotilla were on their way to intercept him.
The first ship the bombers spotted was not, however, the Prince of Wales or the Repulse, but the destroyer Tenedos, which had sailed for Singapore the day before refuel and was now 300 kilometres south of Force Z. Mistaking the destroyer for a battleship, at 10:00 the aircraft dropped several armour piercing bombs on the ship before realizing their mistake and breaking off. Minutes later a Japanese scout aircraft spotted Force Z and called in the rest of the bomber force on its position. The attack had begun.
The first wave of eight bombers attacked around 11:15, focusing exclusively on Repulse. The old battlecruiser proved surprisingly nimble, however, and managed to dodge most of the bombs, suffering only one minor hit to her seaplane hangar. In return, her anti-aircraft gunners damaged five of the attacking aircraft. The next wave arrived at 11:40, dropping eight torpedoes at the two ships. Only one struck home, hitting Prince of Wales’s outer port propeller shaft. The shaft, rotating at full speed, twisted and ripped through the bulkheads, sending 2,400 tons of water pouring into the ship’s engineering compartments. The explosion set off a chain of failures, jamming the ship’s steering, shorting out her electric generators, knocking out her bilge pumps, and preventing her electrically-driven antiaircraft guns from being trained. Fatally crippled, Prince of Wales steamed helplessly northwards and was struck by four more torpedoes and one bomb. Around 13:00, Phillips gave the order to abandon ship.
Meanwhile, Repulse fought on, successfully dodging 19 torpedoes and shooting down three aircraft. At 12:23, however, she, too, was struck by four torpedoes. The ship listed 65 degrees to port, hung on for several moments, then rolled over and sank. Less than an hour later at 13:18, Prince of Wales, pride of the Royal Navy, also capsized and slipped beneath the waves. From start to finish, the attack had taken little more than two hours.
Electra, Vampire, and Express moved in to rescue the survivors. In all, 840 British sailors lost their lives that day – 327 aboard Prince of Wales and 513 aboard Repulse, which had capsized before the order to abandon ship could be given. Of the senior officers, Admiral Phillips and Captain John Leach of the Prince of Wales chose to go down with their ship, while Captain William Tennant of the Repulse was among the survivors. Ironically, while it was Admiral Phillips’s brash decision to sail from Singapore which placed Force Z in the path of the Japanese bombers, it was his caution which sealed the squadron’s fate, for throughout the operation Phillips maintained complete radio silence so as not to give up his position. Indeed, it was not until an hour into the Japanese attack that the first radio signal was sent calling for air support. By this time, however, it was far too late, the aircraft of No. 453 Squadron arriving on the scene just as the Prince of Wales went under. As the squadron’s commander, Flight Lieutenant Tim Vigors later lamented:
“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.”
Back in Britain, Prime Minister Churchill was woken in the middle of the night by news of the sinking, later writing:
“In all the war, I never received a more direct shock… As I turned over and twisted in bed the full horror of the news sank in upon me. There were no British or American ships in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific except the American survivors of Pearl Harbor, who were hastening back to California. Across this vast expanse of waters, Japan was supreme, and we everywhere were weak and naked.”
But the worst was yet to come. Hong Kong fell on December 25 after 17 days of fighting. In Malaya, invading Japanese troops moved with terrifying speed, aided by excellent British-built roads, the inexperience and disorganization of the defending garrison, and an deceptively simple piece of technology: the bicycle – and for more on that, please check out our previous video How Bicycles Caused the Downfall of the British Empire. By January 31, 1942, the defending Commonwealth troops had been pushed off the peninsula and retreated to the island of Singapore, blowing up the Johore causeway behind them. The 85,000-strong garrison fought on for another two weeks, finally surrendering on February 15. Some 140,000 British, Australian, New Zealand, and Indian troops marched into Japanese captivity – the single greatest defeat in British military history. Within months the Japanese Empire controlled a huge swath of Asia and the Pacific stretching from northern Manchuria to the Solomon Islands. It would not be until the Battle of Midway in June 1942 that the tide finally turned and the Allies began the long, bloody island-hopping campaign that would take them from the island of Guadalcanal to Japan’s very doorstep.
By that time, however, the Allies had learned the hard lesson taught them by the tragic loss of Repulse and Prince of Wales. Never again would an allied capital ship operate without a protective screen of aircraft. For as the sinking of the Yamato proved beyond a doubt, the age of the battleship was over. The seas now belonged to the aeroplane.
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Keegan, John (ed.), World War II: a Visual Encyclopedia, PRC Publishing Ltd, 1999
Klemen, L, “Seventy Minutes Before Pearl Harbor” – The Landing at Kota Bahru, Malaya, on December 7, 1941, The Netherlands East Indies 1941-1942, https://warfare.gq/dutcheastindies/kota_bharu.html
Garzke et al, Death of a Battleship: The Loss of HMS Prince of Wales, December 10, 1941, https://pacificwrecks.com/ships/hms/prince_of_wales/death-of-a-battleship-2012-update.pdf
Sinking of the HMS Repulse, History of Diving Museum, https://divingmuseum.org/indepth/repulse/
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