Sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse

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Sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse
Part of the Pacific War, World War II
HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse underway with a destroyer on 10 December 1941 (HU 2762).jpg
Prince of Wales (left, front) and Repulse (left, behind) under attack by Japanese aircraft. The destroyer Express in the foreground. [1]
Date10 December 1941
Result Decisive Japanese victory

Flag of the United Kingdom.svg  United Kingdom

Merchant flag of Japan (1870).svg  Japan

Commanders and leaders
Sir Tom Phillips  
John Leach  
William Tennant
Niichi Nakanishi
Shichizo Miyauchi
Hachiro Shoji
Units involved
Force Z Genzan Air Group
Kanoya Air Group
Mihoro Air Group
1 battleship
1 battlecruiser
4 destroyers
88 aircraft
(34 torpedo aircraft,
51 level bombers,
3 scouting aircraft)
Casualties and losses
1 battleship sunk
1 battlecruiser sunk
840 killed
15 aircraft destroyed
28 damaged [2]
2 seaplanes missing
49 killed [3]

The sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse was a naval engagement in the Second World War, part of the war in the Pacific, that took place off the east coast of present-day Malaysia, which was then known as Malaya, near Kuantan, Pahang, where the Royal Navy battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse were sunk by land-based bombers and torpedo bombers of the Imperial Japanese Navy on 10 December 1941. In Japanese, the engagement was referred to as the Naval Battle of Malaya(マレー沖海戦,Marē-oki kaisen).

Naval warfare Combat in and on seas, oceans, or any other major bodies of water

Naval warfare is human combat in and on the sea, the ocean, or any other battlespace involving a major body of water such as a large lake or wide river.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Pacific War Theater of World War II fought in the Pacific and Asia

The Pacific War, sometimes called the Asia–Pacific War, was the theater of World War II that was fought in the Pacific and Asia. It was fought over a vast area that included the Pacific Ocean and islands, the South West Pacific, South-East Asia, and in China.


The objective of Force Z, which consisted of one battleship, one battlecruiser and four destroyers, was to intercept the Japanese invasion fleet north of Malaya. The task force sailed without air support. Although the British had a close encounter with Japanese heavy surface units, the force failed to find and destroy the main convoy. On their return to Singapore they were attacked in open waters and sunk by long-range torpedo bombers. The commander of Force Z, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, elected to maintain radio silence and an alert was not sent (by the Repulse) until after the attack had begun.

Force Z Second World War British naval squadron

Force Z was a British naval squadron during the Second World War, consisting of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, the battlecruiser HMS Repulse and accompanying destroyers. Assembled in 1941, the purpose of the group was to reinforce the British colonial garrisons in the Far East and deter Japanese expansion into British possessions, particularly Malaya and Singapore. Lack of aircraft to protect Force Z, underestimation of the Japanese armed forces and the political rather than naval motive for its deployment, are blamed for the destruction of the force.

Destroyer Type of warship

In naval terminology, a destroyer is a fast, maneuverable, long-endurance warship intended to escort larger vessels in a fleet, convoy or battle group and defend them against smaller powerful short-range attackers. They were originally developed in the late 19th century by Fernando Villaamil for the Spanish Navy as a defense against torpedo boats, and by the time of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, these "torpedo boat destroyers" (TBDs) were "large, swift, and powerfully armed torpedo boats designed to destroy other torpedo boats". Although the term "destroyer" had been used interchangeably with "TBD" and "torpedo boat destroyer" by navies since 1892, the term "torpedo boat destroyer" had been generally shortened to simply "destroyer" by nearly all navies by the First World War.

Admiral (Royal Navy) senior rank of the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom

Admiral is a senior rank of the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom, which equates to the NATO rank code OF-9, outranked only by the rank of admiral of the fleet. Royal Navy officers holding the ranks of rear admiral, vice admiral and admiral of the fleet are sometimes considered generically to be admirals. The rank of admiral is currently the highest rank to which a serving officer in the Royal Navy can be promoted, admiral of the fleet being in abeyance except for honorary promotions of retired officers and members of the Royal Family.

With the attack on Pearl Harbor only a few days earlier, the Malayan engagement illustrated the effectiveness of aerial attacks against even the heaviest of naval assets if they were without air cover. This added to the importance for the Allies of the four USN aircraft carriers in the Pacific. The sinking of the two ships severely weakened the British Eastern Fleet in Singapore, and the Japanese invasion fleet was only engaged by submarines until the Battle off Endau on 27 January 1942.

Attack on Pearl Harbor Surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy on the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii

The Attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise military strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service upon the United States against the naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. The attack led to the United States' formal entry into World War II the next day. The Japanese military leadership referred to the attack as the Hawaii Operation and Operation AI, and as Operation Z during its planning.

Aerial warfare is the battlespace use of military aircraft and other flying machines in warfare. Aerial warfare includes bombers attacking enemy installations or a concentration of enemy troops or strategic targets; fighter aircraft battling for control of airspace; attack aircraft engaging in close air support against ground targets; naval aviation flying against sea and nearby land targets; gliders, helicopters and other aircraft to carry airborne forces such as paratroopers; aerial refueling tankers to extend operation time or range; and military transport aircraft to move cargo and personnel. Historically, military aircraft have included lighter-than-air balloons carrying artillery observers; lighter-than-air airships for bombing cities; various sorts of reconnaissance, surveillance and early warning aircraft carrying observers, cameras and radar equipment; torpedo bombers to attack enemy shipping; and military air-sea rescue aircraft for saving downed airmen. Modern aerial warfare includes missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. Surface forces are likely to respond to enemy air activity with anti-aircraft warfare.

Navy Military branch of service primarily concerned with naval warfare

A navy or maritime force is the branch of a nation's armed forces principally designated for naval and amphibious warfare; namely, lake-borne, riverine, littoral, or ocean-borne combat operations and related functions. It includes anything conducted by surface ships, amphibious ships, submarines, and seaborne aviation, as well as ancillary support, communications, training, and other fields. The strategic offensive role of a navy is projection of force into areas beyond a country's shores. The strategic defensive purpose of a navy is to frustrate seaborne projection-of-force by enemies. The strategic task of the navy also may incorporate nuclear deterrence by use of submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Naval operations can be broadly divided between riverine and littoral applications, open-ocean applications, and something in between, although these distinctions are more about strategic scope than tactical or operational division.


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.

Royal Navy Maritime warfare branch of the United Kingdoms military

The Royal Navy (RN) is the United Kingdom's naval warfare force. Although warships were used by the English kings from the early medieval period, the first major maritime engagements were fought in the Hundred Years' War against the Kingdom of France. The modern Royal Navy traces its origins to the early 16th century; the oldest of the UK's armed services, it is known as the Senior Service.

Dudley Pound Royal Navy admiral of the fleet

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Alfred Dudley Pickman Rogers Pound, was a senior officer of the Royal Navy. He served in the First World War as a battleship commander, taking part in the Battle of Jutland with notable success, contributing to the sinking of the German cruiser Wiesbaden. He served as First Sea Lord, the professional head of the Royal Navy, for the first four years of the Second World War. In that role his greatest achievement was his successful campaign against the German U-boats and the winning of the Battle of the Atlantic but his judgment has been questioned over the failed Norwegian Campaign in 1940, his dismissal of Admiral Dudley North in 1940, Japan's sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse in late 1941. His order in July 1942 to disperse Convoy PQ 17 and withdraw its covering forces, to counter a non-existent threat from heavy German surface ships, led to its destruction by submarines and aircraft. His health failed in 1943 and he resigned, dying shortly thereafter.

Capital ship leading or primary ship in a naval fleet

The capital ships of a navy are its most important warships; they are generally the larger ships when compared to other warships in their respective fleet. A capital ship is generally a leading or a primary ship in a naval fleet.

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." [4] This may have led him to propose a squadron of three modern ships: one battleship, one battlecruiser, and one carrier. [5] His view was that using the Ultra decrypts that would give Japanese ship locations to the British, they could then use their own ships to form a "fleet in being" to deter Japanese action, as the German battleship Tirpitz , sister to the lost Bismarck , was in the North Sea. [5] However, there was no firm plan for such a task. [6] The original British proposal allocated the new King George V-class battleship HMS Prince of Wales, the veteran Renown-classbattlecruiser HMS Repulse, and the Illustrious-classaircraft carrier HMS Indomitable for air cover, though the plan had to be revised when Indomitable ran aground in the Caribbean Sea. [7]

Ultra designation adopted by British military intelligence in June 1941

Ultra was the designation adopted by British military intelligence in June 1941 for wartime signals intelligence obtained by breaking high-level encrypted enemy radio and teleprinter communications at the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park. Ultra eventually became the standard designation among the western Allies for all such intelligence. The name arose because the intelligence thus obtained was considered more important than that designated by the highest British security classification then used and so was regarded as being Ultra secret. Several other cryptonyms had been used for such intelligence.

Fleet in being

In naval warfare, a "fleet in being" is a naval force that extends a controlling influence without ever leaving port. Were the fleet to leave port and face the enemy, it might lose in battle and no longer influence the enemy's actions, but while it remains safely in port, the enemy is forced to continually deploy forces to guard against it. A "fleet in being" can be part of a sea denial doctrine, but not one of sea control.

German battleship <i>Tirpitz</i> Bismarck-class battleship

Tirpitz was the second of two Bismarck-class battleships built for Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine (navy) during World War II. Named after Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of the Kaiserliche Marine, the ship was laid down at the Kriegsmarinewerft Wilhelmshaven in November 1936 and her hull was launched two and a half years later. Work was completed in February 1941, when she was commissioned into the German fleet. Like her sister ship Bismarck, Tirpitz was armed with a main battery of eight 38-centimetre (15 in) guns in four twin turrets. After a series of wartime modifications she was 2000 tonnes heavier than Bismarck, making her the heaviest battleship ever built by a European navy.

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 [8] 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. [9]

United States Pacific Fleet Pacific Ocean theater-level component command of the United States Navy

The United States Pacific Fleet (USPACFLT) is a Pacific Ocean theater-level component command of the United States Navy that provides naval forces to the United States Indo-Pacific Command. Fleet headquarters is at Pearl Harbor Naval Station, Hawaii, with large secondary facilities at North Island, San Diego Bay on the Mainland.

Pearl Harbor Harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii

Pearl Harbor is a lagoon harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, west of Honolulu. It has been long visited by the Naval fleet of the United States, before it was acquired from the Hawaiian Kingdom by the U.S. with the signing of the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875. Much of the harbor and surrounding lands is now a United States Navy deep-water naval base. It is also the headquarters of the United States Pacific Fleet. The U.S. government first obtained exclusive use of the inlet and the right to maintain a repair and coaling station for ships here in 1887. The attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan on December 7, 1941, was the immediate cause of the United States' entry into World War II.


Admiral Sir Tom Phillips (right), commander of Force Z, and his deputy, Rear Admiral Arthur Palliser, on the quayside at Singapore naval base, 2 December 1941. IWM FE 487 Admirals Phillips and Palliser.jpg
Admiral Sir Tom Phillips (right), commander of Force Z, and his deputy, Rear Admiral Arthur Palliser, on the quayside at Singapore naval base, 2 December 1941.

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. [10] 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. [11]

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. [12]

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 HNLMS 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 Phillips 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.

Japanese preparations

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. [13] 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. [14]

Hostilities commence

Mitsubishi G4M Betty/"葉巻" Hamaki (Cigar) bombers of Kanoya Air Group
G3M Type 96 Attack Bomber Nell G3M-8s.jpg
Mitsubishi G3M Nell of Genzan Air Group. The type was also operated by Mihoro Air Group

On 8 December 1941, [15] early in the morning, bombers of Mihoro Air Group attacked Singapore. [14] 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. [9] 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 aging fighters. One squadron, No. 453 Squadron RAAF with Brewster Buffalos standing by at RAF Sembawang, was available to provide close cover. [16] They were designated the Fleet Defence Squadron for this task, with Flight Lieutenant Tim Vigors given the radio procedures used by Force Z. [17]

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, [16] and like many RN officers, Phillips underestimated the fighting abilities of the Japanese. [4] 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. [18]

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. [19] However, the extreme heat and humidity in Malayan waters rendered her AA FC radars unserviceable and her 2 pounder ammunition had deteriorated as well. [20] 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. [9]

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. [17] 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." [21] 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. [22]

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. [23]


HMS Prince of Wales Singapore (041562).jpg
HMS Repulse leaving Singapore.jpg
Prince of Wales (left) and Repulse (right) departing Singapore on 8 December 1941

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. [8]

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, [4] 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 had been tracked. 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. [24] 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. [25] They were joined by four Mogami-class cruisers of Cruiser Division 7 and one light cruiser, four destroyers of Destroyer Squadron 3. [26] The cruiser Chōkai, flagship of Vice Admiral Ozawa, was also ordered south to find Force Z. [27]

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. [28] 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, [29] 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. [29] 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, [24] but bad weather prevented them from finding the ships and they returned to their airfields at Thủ Dầu Một and Saigon about midnight. [30]

Return to Singapore

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. [28] 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. [24] 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. [28] They were ordered to proceed to the best-estimated position of the ships. [24]

The Japanese air attack

Japanese aerial photo of the initial attack on Prince of Wales (top) and Repulse. A short, thick plume of black smoke can be seen emanating from Repulse, which has just been hit by a bomb and surrounded by at least six near misses. Prince of Wales can be seen to be manoeuvring. The white smoke is from the funnels as the ships attempt to increase speed. Japanese high-level bombing attack on HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse 1941-12-10.jpg
Japanese aerial photo of the initial attack on Prince of Wales (top) and Repulse. A short, thick plume of black smoke can be seen emanating from Repulse, which has just been hit by a bomb and surrounded by at least six near misses. Prince of Wales can be seen to be manoeuvring. The white smoke is from the funnels as the ships attempt to increase speed.

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). [16] Palliser failed to anticipate this and request air cover over Kuantan from Sembawang's F2As. [16] 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. [31] 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. [32]

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, [33] they scored just one hit, which penetrated the hangar and the upper deck and exploded in the marine mess area. [34] 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. [35] 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). [36] 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 [37] 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). [38] 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). [35] Testimony from Lt Wildish, [39] 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. [40]

The crew of the sinking Prince of Wales abandoning ship to the destroyer Express. Moments later, the list on Prince of Wales suddenly increased and Express had to withdraw. Observe the barrels of the 5.25 in guns, which were unable to depress low enough to engage attackers due to the list. The Sinking of HMS Prince of Wales by Japanese Aircraft Off Malaya, December 1941 HU2675.jpg
The crew of the sinking Prince of Wales abandoning ship to the destroyer Express. Moments later, the list on Prince of Wales suddenly increased and Express had to withdraw. Observe the barrels of the 5.25 in guns, which were unable to depress low enough to engage attackers due to the list.

The single torpedo hit had devastating further effects. First, it caused an 11.5-degree list to port, [35] 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 [35] 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.

A schematic of the torpedo damage to the stern of HMS Prince of Wales, 10 December 1941 is shown as if the ship was upright (that is, the wreck is upside down and this image is sometimes seen 'reversed'). PoW stern upright by K Denlay COPYRIGHT Expedition Job 74.jpg
A schematic of the torpedo damage to the stern of HMS Prince of Wales, 10 December 1941 is shown as if the ship was upright (that is, the wreck is upside down and this image is sometimes seen 'reversed').

Another torpedo attack was carried out by 26 Betty bombers of the Kanoya Air Group at approximately 1220, [41] and Prince of Wales was hit by another three torpedoes on her starboard side (some historical accounts [37] 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. [42]

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. [43] 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 [44] and finally rolled over, settled by the head, and sank at 1233 with heavy casualties. [45]

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. [46] The rumbling sound of the attacks was heard in Singapore. [47]

Survivors from Prince of Wales and Repulse in the water as a destroyer moves in for the rescue. Survivors in water.jpg
Survivors from Prince of Wales and Repulse in the water as a destroyer moves in for the rescue.

The Japanese had achieved eight torpedo hits, four each on Prince of Wales [48] and Repulse, [49] [50] 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 [51] '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, [24] arrived over the battlefield at 1318, [46] just as Prince of Wales sank. They encountered a scouting aircraft piloted by Ensign Masato Hoashi, who had discovered Force Z earlier, [52] but it managed to escape the Buffaloes and returned to confirm the sinkings. [24] Had it been shot down, the Japanese might have assumed that the two ships had survived the attack, and struck again. [14]

After the action

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. [14]

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. [9]

Effects of the sinking

The bell raised from Prince of Wales HMS POW Bell.jpg
The bell raised from Prince of Wales

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. [54] Singapore had essentially been reduced to a land base after both capital ships were lost, being turned into a land fortress, something it had never been intended to be, rather than a base from which to project naval power. The Eastern Fleet would spend the remainder of the invasion withdrawing their vessels to Ceylon and the Dutch East Indies. [2] They were not reinforced by battleships until March 1942, with the arrival of HMS Warspite and four Revenge-class battleships. [55] 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. [56]

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. [9] [19] [20]

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. [57] 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 ships today

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. [58]

In May 2007, a survey of the exterior hull of both Prince of Wales and Repulse, was conducted. [59] 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 [60] and later supplementary reports [61] [62] 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". [63] 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. [64]


The ships memorial at Alrewas National Memorial to the Prince of Wales and Repulse.jpg
The ships memorial at Alrewas

A memorial was dedicated on 10 December 2011 at The National Memorial Arboretum the UK's national site of remembrance at Alrewas, near Lichfield, Staffordshire, United Kingdom. The memorial was dedicated in the presence of the few surviving former crews of the ships.


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  2. 1 2 Paul S. Dull (2007), page 40
  3. 3 aircraft were shot down in the attack, 1 crash-landed later, and 2 scout aircraft failed to return from their missions.
  4. 1 2 3 Stephen, p. 102.
  5. 1 2 Stephen, p. 104.
  6. Alan Matthews, "The Sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse", Force 'Z' Survivors Website.
  7. Stephen, p. 107.
  8. 1 2 Willmott, H. P. Barrier and the Javelin (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1983).
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  15. 7 December in Britain and the US
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  20. 1 2 Battleship: The Loss of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, Middlebrook.
  21. Bloody Shambles Volume One, page 125; by Christopher Shores & Brian Cull with Yasuho Izawa (Grub Street, London, 1992) ISBN   0-948817-50-X.
  22. Clayton, Graham. Last Stand in Singapore (Auckland: Random House, 2008).
  23. Samuel Eliot Morison (September 1948). ""The Rising Sun in the Pacific" pages 188–190". History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War Two, Volume III. Little, Brown & Company . Retrieved 4 May 2010.
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  35. 1 2 3 4 Stephen, p. 109.
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  37. 1 2 Garzke & Dulin, Allied Battleships, p. 196.
  38. The Explorers Club Expedition ‘Job 74’ survey report 2007, pp. 9–10–11.
  39. Middlebrook and Mahoney, Battleship, p. 201.
  40. Death of a Battleship: A Re-Analysis of the Tragic Loss of HMS Prince of Wales. William Garzke, Robert Dulin, Kevin Denlay and members of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers Marine Forensic Committee. A 2012 marine forensics analysis of the loss of HMS Prince of Wales taking all of the most recent information into account. , p. 7–20.
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  51. The Explorers Club
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Coordinates: 3°34′N104°26′E / 3.567°N 104.433°E / 3.567; 104.433