On Dec. 10, 1941, the Japanese sank the British battleships HMS Prince of Wales, the British battle cruiser HMS Repulse, and their escort destroyers. The destruction of Force Z, as it was called, proved catastrophic for the Allied war effort.
On Dec. 10, 1941, the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales was sunk in the South China Sea, along with HMS Repulse, a battle cruiser. The attack occurred just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and denuded the Indian and western Pacific Oceans of Allied capital ships.
Commissioned in January 1941 and under the command of Captain John Leach, the 35,000-ton Prince of Wales played an important part in the action against the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941. Ironically, the ship's motto was the same as that found on the actual Prince of Wales' heraldic badge — “Ich Dien,” German for “I serve.”
In August of 1941, the very first wartime meeting between U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill took place aboard the Prince of Wales, off the coast of Canada. One Sunday during the conference, worship services were held on its deck. Churchill, attempting to promote Christian solidarity between the U.S. and U.K., chose the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers.” While the entire crew stood and sang, Churchill remained seated next to Roosevelt, who could not stand, further demonstrating solidarity.
In October, Churchill and the British naval high command ordered the creation of Force Z, a naval task force to be based in the British port at Singapore with the intention of warning the Japanese away from aggressive behavior. Force Z consisted of the Prince of Wales and the 26,500-ton HMS Repulse, two powerful warships, and their attendant fleet of destroyers. The task force was put under the command of Vice Admiral Tom Phillips, one of Britain's youngest senior officers.
After Pearl Harbor was hit on Dec. 7, the task force went into high alert. In addition to attacking Hawaii, within days the Japanese launched attacks upon the Philippines, Hong Kong, Malaya and various other targets throughout the Pacific.
Despite the initial successes of the Japanese military, many of Force Z's sailors were quite contemptuous of their enemies. In the book “War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War,” historian John W. Dower quotes American journalist Cecil Brown, who had been invited to be an observer on board the Repulse. His observations highlight the race-based disdain most of the British had for the Japanese.
The crews also had faith in their ships. Prior to Pearl Harbor, no battleship had ever been sunk in wartime by aircraft alone. Even after the demonstration of Japanese air power at Hawaii, the crew of the Prince of Wales had faith in their modern vessel, equipped with roughly 40 radar-controlled anti-aircraft guns. The Royal Air Force bases in Singapore fielded around 180 aircraft, though that was far fewer than the total number of Japanese planes in the area.
As soon as the Prince of Wales and Repulse had been dispatched to the Far East, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had made preparations to deal with them. For Yamamoto, the appearance of the British task force was an opportunity and but one more dimension of the finely calculated Japanese strike against the West. Three dozen Mitsubishi bomber aircraft were sent to airbases in south Indo-China to join the air groups already stationed there. The Japanese were taking no chances.
On Dec. 8, Force Z departed Singapore and moved to intercept Japanese troop transports. As the task force sailed northward, it was spotted by Japanese planes on the evening of Dec. 9. During the evening, a tense game of cat and mouse occurred, as the Japanese tried to pinpoint the British ships by dropping flares and hoping to get lucky. Phillips apparently ordered the task force back to Singapore as a ruse, then turned around to hunt for Japanese transports.
The next morning, Dec. 10, the task force was spotted again, and the Japanese began to furiously attack the British ships. Eighty-eight Japanese planes began their assault around 11 a.m. The Mitsubishi aircraft relentlessly hit the ships with torpedoes and bombs, causing grisly carnage not only upon the Prince of Wales and the Repulse but also upon their destroyer escorts.
In the book, “The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War,” historian Andrew Roberts quoted a survivor from the Prince of Wales who described the horrific event: “The Prince of Wales is barely distinguishable in smoke and flame. I can see one plane release a torpedo. ... It explodes against her bows. A couple of seconds later another explodes amidships and astern.”
Hanging on as long as she could under the relentless attack, the Repulse finally sank at 12:33 p.m.At 1:15 p.m. Leach gave the order to abandon the Prince of Wales, and five minutes later that ship, too, went the bottom. Both Leach and Phillips remained at their posts and died doing their duty. Phillips ultimately proved to be the most senior Allied officer to die in battle during World War II.
With the loss of Force Z, the Japanese had an open road to victory in the Pacific. Invading from north of the Malaya Peninsula, the Japanese army was able to take Singapore from behind. British prewar planners had expected any attack to come from sea and had prepared the port's defenses with outward facing guns. Without adequate protection to the north, the strategic naval base fell to the Japanese the following February. Their supply ships and troop transports operated without fear of Royal Navy attacks.
In his memoirs of World War II, Winston Churchill noted his reaction to the loss of the two great warships. Not long after the ships were sunk in the South China Sea he received a phone call from the first sea lord, Sir Dudley Pound, who told him the news in a soft voice after a hesitating, gulping opening. Churchill wrote of his feelings after the call:
“In all the war I never received a more direct shock. The reader of these pages will realize how many efforts, hopes, and plans foundered with these two ships. As I turned over and twisted in bed, the full horror of the news sank in upon me. There were no British or American capital ships in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific. … Over all this vast expanse of waters Japan was supreme, and we everywhere were weak and naked.”