The deployment of Force Z
This article was written and copyrighted by Tom Womack from Arlington, Texas. The webmaster has only changed layout etc. in order to match that of the website.On December 4, 1941 the military forces of Japan were on the move as clouds of war formed in virtually every corner of the Pacific Ocean. Off Hawaii, six heavy fleet carriers and their screening task force under the command of Vice-Admiral Choichi Nagumo, were turning southward so he could be in position to launch air attacks on Pearl Harbor on the morning of the 7th. This attack would signal the start of a massive thrust against western colonial powers in the Far East.
Simultaneously, a large troop convoy began moving south for the invasion of Malaya. Twenty eight transports left Hainan, Indochina carrying 26,640 troops of the 5th Infantry Division and 56th Infantry Regiment of the 18th Division. All were bound for landing points at Kota Bharoe, Patani and Singora in Malaya and neutral Siam. For close escort they had the heavy cruiser Chokai, one light cruiser and 13 destroyers; trailing behind were four additional light cruisers and three destroyers.
The Japanese expected a fight off Malaya after their intelligence reported the arrival of Force Z, a Royal Navy squadron consisting of the battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse, at Singapore on December 2. Already famous for her role in the effort to sink the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941, Prince of Wales was the most modern battleship in the Royal Navy. Having joined the Home Fleet only weeks before her engagement with Bismarck, she was also widely regarded as one of the most powerful warships in the world.
Although launched in 1916, Repulse had been extensively modernized during the interwar period and was considered a capable warship. But these upgrades still could not hide the fact that she was a relatively poorly protected battlecruiser whose design sacrificed armor for speed. The fleet carrier Indomitable should have escorted both capital ships to the Far East, but she ran aground off Jamaica and was forced into drydock. The only other Royal Navy carrier in the region was HMS Hermes at Ceylon, an elderly light carrier incapable of frontline duty.
To counter this potential threat, the Japanese provided the Malaya troop convoy with a distant covering force that consisted of the battleships Kongo, Haruna and two heavy cruisers with a screen of 10 destroyers. However, they still considered Kongo and Haruna substantially inferior to the British ships and deployed large numbers of bombers to southern Indochina to safeguard their convoy. They also deployed large numbers of submarines along the most likely routes Prince of Wales and Repulse would take to intercept the convoy.
On December 2, American reconnaissance planes from the Philippines sighted 12 Japanese submarines on the surface off Indochina moving south at full speed. It was correctly assumed that they were rushing to set up patrol lines around Singapore to interdict a British naval sortie. Once on station, they mined sea passages between Singapore and key points along the coast of Malaya. Additional reports put Japanese air strength in southern Indochina at 180 planes, including 90 bombers.
On December 4, the top British naval commander at Singapore - Admiral Sir Tom Phillips - flew to Manila with two staff members for a series of secret meetings with Admiral Thomas C. Hart USN and General Douglas MacArthur. They discussed how the British Far Eastern Fleet might join the United States Asiatic Fleet at Manila. Because of their northern position, the Philippines were considered ideal for forward operations against the Japanese. But no ships could leave Singapore until there were enough planes to protect Malaya in the air.
In the end, their only useful exchange was Hart's promise to dispatch the 57th Destroyer Division (Whipple, John D. Ford, Edsall and Alden) to Singapore to help screen Prince of Wales and Repulse. But he would only do so if the elderly Royal Navy destroyers Scout, Thanet and Thracian were transferred back to the main fleet at Singapore from local defense duties at Hong Kong. Phillips agreed and the orders were issued on both sides. Events would prove that it be the only concrete agreement reached during these meetings. As the meetings proceeded, the Japanese invasion force moved south under the cover of gale weather. It was a blessing to the Japanese, who banked on the element of surprise. However, 75 miles south of Saigon they sighted the Norwegian freighter Halldor on December 5. She was bound for Hong Kong from Bangkok when Japanese sailors from the destroyer Uranami boarded her and hurriedly destroyed the freighter's radio equipment before allowing her to continue. Halldor reached Hong Kong and was captured there in late December.
Despite the bad weather, Japanese luck broke on December 6 when an RAAF Hudson sighted the convoy; but after the initial report, it was lost again in the storm. A Royal Navy PBY from 205 Squadron at Singapore again picked up the convoy at noon the following day. This time the Japanese CAP was ready and the PBY only managed a quick position report before five Ki-27 "Nates" from the 1st Sentai shot it down. It was the first act of the Pacific War.
A USN officer brought Hart and Phillips the initial contact report. It confirmed that the Japanese convoy - first reported as three ships - was moving south. This figure was later revised to 27 transports, escorted by a battleship (actually Chokai), five cruisers and seven destroyers. Its position was well south of Saigon with a course to the west. The only destination could be Siam or Malaya.
Phillips made plans to leave immediately. As he boarded his plane, Hart's last words were "I HAVE JUST ORDERED THE DESTROYERS AT BALIKPAPAN TO PROCEED TO BATAVIA ON THE PRETEXT OF REST AND LEAVE. ACTUALLY, THEY WILL JOIN YOUR FORCE." With that, Phillips was airborne and away from Manila within the hour. His plane left so quickly, that a crewman was left behind and had to follow later.
He received additional signals in the air reporting three more convoys totaling 29 transports and multiple escorts. Although Phillips was desperate for more information, bad weather over the South China Sea kept additional patrols from Singapore and Malaya from obtaining any more information. Although the convoy held a course for Bangkok, Singapore correctly plotted its real destination as Malaya.
But there was still no declaration of war and the British and Dutch were unwilling to initiate hostilities. Britain was fighting for its life with Nazi Germany. With her forces stretched then she could not afford to initiate a war with Japan - no matter how strong the evidence pointed to an imminent attack. At the same time, the Dutch were far too weak to defend themselves without strong British and American support and were also unwilling to initiate a fight they could not win alone.
Both the British and Dutch valued their sizeable submarine force as a first-strike force, but knew early detection would severely hamper future operations. Thus, no less than eight Dutch boats were redeployed off Siam and Malaya. The most likely invasion points were considered to be Singapore, Patani and Kota Bharoe. Accordingly, K-XII and O-16 lay off eastern Malaya, while K-XI, K-XIII and O-19 patrolled the Karimata Strait. To interdict landings on Western Borneo, K-XIV, K-XV and K-XVII lay off Kuching.
Thus, it fell to the Japanese, who opened hostilities by sinking a number of Allied gunboats at Shanghai on the morning of December 8. The light cruiser Izumo, escorted by the destroyers Ikazuchi and Inazuma, entered the harbor before dawn. Although elderly, Izumo was more than enough to overwhelm and sink the British gunboats Cicada and Robin in a brief firefight. A detachment of Japanese troops then boarded the gunboat Peterel; they were met by her captain, who ordered them off at gunpoint. Izumo then moved up and sank her at point-blank range.
The American gunboat Wake lay moored to the dock a short distance away. Her crew had already been evacuated to the Philippines; all that remained aboard were a small number of reservists who manned the radio equipment. They were asleep and did not even know war had started when the ship was boarded by Japanese troops. Outnumbered and unarmed, the crewmen had no choice but to surrender the Wake.
Meanwhile, as the Japanese neared the coast, they sighted a second Norwegian merchant ship 120 miles north of Khota Bharu. Uranami stopped and boarded the ship, which turned out to be the 1,350 ton Hafthor. This time, the Japanese apparently thought the ship was too close to Allied territory to let her go, so her crew of four Norwegian officers and 47 Chinese crewmen were put into the lifeboats and left to fend for themselves. A skeleton prize crew brought Hafthor into Hainan several days later.
Two other Norwegian freighters also encountered the Japanese off Khota Bharu that day. The freighter Hai Tung is believed to have been sunk with all hands by a submarine while en route to Singapore from Bangkok with a cargo of rice. The Ngow Hock was intercepted at sea and taken as a prize. Her crew was later released.
At Singapore, Admiral Phillips ordered Prince of Wales and Repulse to be ready to put to sea at short notice. If the American destroyers did not arrive in time, he would sortie without them. At this time, virtually all units of the Asiatic Fleet were already moving south into the Dutch East Indies. The light cruiser Marblehead and 58th Destroyer Division (Paul Jones, Stewart, Bulmer, Barker and Parrot) were fueling at Tarakan. They left Balikpapan on the 9th, where all but two destroyers put into port.
Taking on fuel at Balikpapan, was the destroyer tender Blackhawk and 57th Destroyer Division with Whipple, John D. Edwards, Alden and Edsall. Blackhawk left for Soerabaja alone on the 7th. The destroyers left a short time later for Singapore, but arrived after Admiral Phillips had sortied without them.
The Japanese landings forced him to sail with a much-reduced force. A surprising lack of prewar planning left the Royal Navy in a pinch when it came time for Force Z, as the strike force was designated, to sortie. Although the heavy cruiser Exeter was ordered to Singapore from the Bay of Bengal, she would not arrive for 36 hours at top speed. The light cruisers Durban, Danae and Dragon were already at Singapore. Although each had the speed to keep up with Force Z, they were old and built for scouting, not fleet action. Of the three, only Durban was ready to sail immediately, and Phillips left her behind due to age.
A fourth cruiser was more modern, but the Mauritius was refitting and her engines were torn down. According to the prewar agreements, Java was coming north to join the RN at Singapore from patrol duty in the Indian Ocean. But her arrival would also take valuable time. The outlook on destroyers was little better.
Encounter suffered minor problems and would be ready for sea in three days, while Jupiter required three weeks of repairs. This left Phillips with only two modern destroyers, Electra and Express. He also had the old destroyers Tenedos, Stronghold and HMAS Vampire, although they were incapable of sustained fleet or combat operations. In two days he would have the 57th Destroyer Division and two of three destroyers at Hong Kong. Scout and Thanet were en route, but Thracian remained in Hong Kong with engine problems and would follow later. But time was of the essence and Admiral Phillips had none to spare.
A full 70 minutes before Admiral Nagumo's air strike on Pearl Harbor, Japanese troops began landing in force at five locations throughout Malaya and neutral Siam. In Siam, one transport landed troops at Prachaub while two more landed troops at Jumbhorn. Three more lay off Nakhorn and Kota Bharoe respectively; 18 transports landed the main body at Singora and Patani.
At Khota Bharoe, rough seas hampered the landings, as did stiff resistance from Indian troops of the 8th Brigade, who were well-supported by artillery. Offshore, the light cruiser Sendai, screened by the 19th Destroyer Division (Isonami, Uranami, Shikinami and Ayanami) and the minesweepers Sokaitei, W.2 and W.3 with several submarine chasers provided cover.
Off Singora, the destroyer Sagiri (headquarters ship for all invasion points) and 20th Destroyer Division (Amagiri, Asagiri and Yugiri) covered the landing operations there. The first wave of Japanese troops moved ashore at 2400, meeting only weak resistance from Thai police and military units. As troops moved inland, the transports withdrew north and the destroyers moved to join the escort off Khota Bharoe.
Sixty-five miles to the south, at Patani and Tepoh, the 12th Destroyer Division's Shirakumo, Shinonome and Murakumo covered troops landing at Patani. At Patani, troops of the 42nd Infantry Regiment initially met heavy resistance on the beach from troops of the Royal Thai Army. This was soon overcome and the destroyers withdrew to Khota Bharoe once the landings were complete.
Off Nakhorn, three transports landed troops with the patrol boat Shimushu as escort and the light cruiser Kashii provided cover for another off Bandon. One transport landed troops at Prachuab and two more at Jumbhorn without escort. None encountered any resistance and the transports withdrew north and the warships to Khota Bharoe upon completion of the landings.
As the Japanese pushed into Thailand, nine Ki-30 "Ann" light bombers of the 31st Sentai escorted by 11 Ki-27s of the 77th Sentai made a demonstration flight over Bangkok. As the formation neared the city, three Curtis Hawk III biplanes from the Royal Thai Air Force's Fighter Squadron 43 scrambled from Watana Nakorn Airfield. However, the Thais were not up to the task and the better trained Japanese downed all three Hawks in minutes.
With the Japanese ashore in force, Admiral Phillips could now no longer wait for reinforcements - even if he wanted to. He was forced into action not only by his enemy, but also by tradition. To let the Japanese land uncontested while the Royal Navy sat complacently in port with two powerful capital ships was unacceptable. So in the end, he sailed with Prince of Wales, Repulse, Express, Electra, Tenedos and Vampire. His plan was for Force Z to enter the Gulf of Siam on the afternoon of the 10th and clear it of Japanese shipping. The Japanese could not allow Force Z to interfere with their operations and made provisions to deal with it. At the last moment, they made three amendments to their plans. The first was to mine the narrow strait separating Tioman Island and the Anambas Islands as it was the most direct route from Singapore to the landing areas. Forty-eight hours before war started, the minelayers Tatsumiya Maru and Nagasa laid 1,000 mines on the night of December 6-7.
The second alteration was the submarines sighted by the American reconnaissance planes off Indochina. Every available submarine was ordered south from Japan. In late November 10 boats sailed from Hiroshima and Sasebo. By December 2 they were hastily organized into three patrol lines north of the minefield laid by Tatsumiya Maru and Nagasa. Two more were deployed near the approaches to Singapore and four more boats arrived on the 8th.
And finally, as the Imperial Japanese Navy had little confidence in the Imperial Japanese Army's ability to provide air cover for the convoy, it moved Rear-Admiral Sadaichi Matsunaga's 22nd Air Flotilla from Formosa to southern Indochina. The Genzan Air Corps flew into Saigon with 36 Type 96 "Nell" bombers while the Mihoro Air Corps operated 36 "Nells" from Tu Duam Airfield north of Saigon. At Soc Trang, south of Saigon, the IJN deployed an additional 36 fighters and six reconnaissance planes.
The arrival of Prince of Wales and Repulse on December 2 posed a severe threat to the invasion of Malaya. So the Japanese decided to further reinforce the Indochina air units. They quickly moved the Kanoya Air Corps of the 21st Air Flotilla to Saigon from Formosa. The unit's 27 G4M1 "Betty" bombers were the most modern in the IJN's arsenal and their arrival gave Admiral Matsunaga a formidable force of 99 bombers and 36 fighters.
With their convoy safe, the landings proceeded. Their first objective was the airfield at Kota Bharoe on the 8th. It was home of 36 Squadron (RAF) with 12 obsolete Vildebeeste torpedo bombers and 1 Squadron (RAAF) with 13 Hudson bombers. Both responded with heavy attacks at first light. They made repeated attacks throughout the day, hitting all three transports and sinking several landing craft. But the raw Indian Dogras could not keep the Japanese on the beach and they captured Kota Bharoe in just 24 hours.
With the Japanese ashore, Admiral Phillips and Force Z sortied flying the red cross of Saint George, signaling a full admiral at sea. Correctly fearful of mines, he chose a course around the Japanese minefield between Tioman Island and the Andamans. He then made a sudden change of course to the north to avoid detection by Japanese aircraft flying from captured airfields on Malaya.
But unknown to him, this course change also took him over the still incomplete Japanese submarine patrol lines. I-65 of the 30th Submarine Flotilla was the first to make contact. Her captain sighted the force and made a report, but could not close the range to attack. Lieutenant-Commander Hakue Harada struggled to maintain visual contact, but Force Z entered a squall and disappeared. I-65 sighted it again in the distance an hour later, but was forced submerge by an approaching plane which proved friendly. When she surfaced, the British ships were gone.
Japanese reaction was swift. In response to the submarine's signal Chokai, the heavy cruisers of the 7th Cruiser Squadron (Mogami, Mikuma, Kumano and Suzuya) and the light cruiser Kinu launched floatplanes to find Force Z. All warships in the area were notified and ordered to intercept, but Kongo and Haruna would not arrive until the following morning. The transports were ordered to stop unloading and scatter north. In an unrewarded effort to draw the British force into battle, the Japanese made extensive use of their radios in the clear.
By this time the fuel situation for the destroyers of Force Z was pressing. Phillips would either have to spend three vital hours fueling at sea or release them to return to Singapore. He chose the latter, and after sunset on the 9th, Tenedos became the first to turn for home. Her captain carried orders for all possible destroyers, including the American 57th Destroyer Division, to come out and meet Force Z north of Anambas Island at dawn of the 11th.
All through the rest of the night both sides groped for each other in the darkness. The Japanese blindly based on an hours old sighting from a cruiser floatplane; Force Z with the questionable aid of radar. It was almost disastrous for the Japanese, who threw 53 torpedo bombers into the search. In the dark, they found a large ship and dropped a flare while setting up an attack. Below, on the bridge of Chokai, the flare burned brightly as her radio operator sent a frantic signal to Saigon: "THERE ARE THREE ATTACKING PLANES OVER CHOKAI. IT IS CHOKAI UNDER THE FLARE." Rear-Admiral Matsunaga read the message and prudently recalled his bombers until daylight.
Five miles south, Electra sighted the flare and notified Prince of Wales. Phillips thought long and hard before ordering his force to turn away. Although both his capital ships had radar, neither was picking up the enemy force of six cruisers and their escorting destroyers. Since he did not know the strength of his opponent, he was unwilling to risk battle for several reasons.
Phillips' objective was to win a strategic victory; he knew the landings were complete and that Force Z was too late to affect the issue. He also realized there was little chance of finding transports in the area, since he believed his presence was already known. While a victory over warships would achieve a tactical advantage, strategic victory could only be won by destroying loaded transports. And this he could no longer do. Thus, Admiral Phillips turned away with the thought of saving his ships for another chance on another day. To the north, the Japanese were badly shaken by their near attack on Chokai. They decided to withdraw north until dawn. This would give Kongo and Haruna time to join up and allow the destroyers time to refuel for a prolonged day action. With both sides withdrawing, the opportunity for a surface action was lost.
Had they encountered each other that night, the battle would have been interesting. With 14" and 15" guns, Force Z possessed a preponderance of firepower over the Japanese with their five 8" gun heavy cruisers and one 6" gun light cruiser. More important, the British possessed radar on a dark night hampered by rain squalls and low clouds. However, one can question its effectiveness after failing to detect the Japanese force at a range of only five miles. Although early models, the sets had a range of 25 miles; they next morning they worked perfectly.
The IJN was also the best in the world when it came to night actions. Superior weaponry and training let it remain competitive at night long after radar was commonplace. With their 24-inch "Long Lance" torpedo, the larger numbers of Japanese destroyers had great potential to cause serious damage to the British force. Also, the British destroyers had never worked together before. Even so, the RN was a capable, well-trained force with excellent officers and crewmen who had nearly three years of combat experience to draw on.
In the end, none of these factors came into play as both sides turned away. Admiral Phillips sought to cover as much ground as possible during the night so he would be out of range of air attack at dawn. The Japanese were equally determined to strike by air if they were denied a surface engagement. But they still had to find Force Z.
I-58 was next to make contact when she was nearly run down on the surface just before midnight on the 9th. Force Z never saw the submarine dive just 1,800 yards away. Once again radar failed the British, as did ASDIC aboard the three remaining destroyers. They also missed the five torpedoes I-58 fired at Repulse. All just missed her stern and I-58 was left behind as Force Z plowed into the night, completely oblivious to its narrow escape. All Lieutenant-Commander Sohichi Kitamura could do was make another sighting report. Admiral Phillips should have been out of range of Japanese bombers by dawn of December 10. However, he received word of an invasion landing at Kuantan and sent a floatplane to investigate, which reported only a Japanese trawler towing four small fishing boats. So instead of distancing himself from prowling Japanese bombers, Force Z was still off Kuantan when a Japanese reconnaissance plane found it again at 1015. At about the same time, a jolting report came in from Tenedos, well to the south, that she was under air attack.
Not wanting to let the British squadron slip away, the Japanese launched their initial air strikes quickly. It was only hours before the first wave appeared over Force Z, which steamed southward without air cover. Eight high-level "Nells" of the Mihoro Air Corps closed formation at 1113 and turned on Repulse, which they knew to have thinner armor protection.
It was a clear day and the radar sets aboard Prince of Wales and Repulse were functioning perfectly and had been tracking the Japanese for some time. Initial AA salvos were ragged until controlled fire took over. Prince of Wales' modern 5.25" AA guns opened long-range fire at 1100 and were joined by Repulse's older 4" AA guns as the range closed. Admiral Phillips was in combat for the first time since 1915.
The bombers closed with no apparent regard. They ignored Prince of Wales and swept low over her deck with a thundering roar. Repulse could not avoid this quick attack and left her fate to the skill of the lead bombardier. One bomb fell to starboard and six more to port, throwing up huge splashes. Only one hit, penetrating the unprotected aircraft hanger and Marine mess deck before exploding on the armored deck above the boiler room. Had it been armor piercing the bomb probably would have penetrated to cause more extensive damage.
Each plane carried two 500lb bombs and planned to make two separate attacks. But the defensive fire from Force Z was intense and damaged five of the eight planes in their first pass. Two were hit so hard that they barely staggered home. The remaining six circled away to await more "Nells" of the Genzan Air Corps that were coming up fast. At 1140 two additional formations joined the fight. Each carried torpedoes and maneuvered to attack from different directions and split the AA fire. The first section formed an extended arc and bore in on Prince of Wales, dropping their torpedoes from about 100 feet.
At 1144 a heavy explosion thumped aft of the bridge on the port side and a 200-foot column of water drenched gun crews. Speed quickly fell from 25 to 15 knots and Prince of Wales began vibrating due to propeller shaft damage. She took an immediate 11½ degree list and the stern was only two feet above water, instead of the normal 24 feet. Power and lights to the aft 5.25" AA guns also failed.
In seconds, a single torpedo had crippled the most modern ship in the world. But the blast and water column actually did little damage when it struck the armored belt. In reality, it concealed a second hit that caused serious damage. Not until after the war did divers discover a 12-foot hole in her stern, caused by a torpedo which hit simultaneously and produced little shock and no water column. In return, the battleship shot down a paltry one bomber and lightly damaged three others.
The second wave of seven torpedo bombers attacked late. They were confused by the configuration of Repulse and thought they might actually be attacking their own battleship Kongo instead. The section commander was well aware of the Chokai incident the previous night and retired into the clouds for 12 minutes to make sure. Only when he was sure about the identify of the ships did the formation attack.
Repulse was their target this time and she turned hard to starboard to comb the torpedoes as the "Nells" bore in. It was here that the battlecruiser's age began to manifest itself. Her AA armament was outdated and weak in numbers; some guns could not elevate high enough initially, while others could not depress low enough to reach the bombers during their final torpedo run.
As the range closed, the battlecruiser's two pompom mounts opened fire. But as on Prince of Wales, one mount immediately suffered jams in six of eight barrels due to ammunition separating in the belts as it entered the guns. The second mount's electric motor had been damaged by the bomb hit and was still trying to go to local control. Repulse was now all but defenseless at close range, as her 20mm Oerlikons were too small to seriously damage the bombers.
As they closed in, eight torpedo-armed "Nells," which Repulse never noticed in the confusion joined them. Captain W.G. Tennant was brilliant in his maneuvers, as he combed up to 12 torpedo tracks. He also evaded six bombs from the remaining bombers of the first wave, which coordinated their attack with the torpedo bombers.
This ended the first wave of attacks on Force Z. In exchange for a minor bomb hit on Repulse and the two strikes on Prince of Wales, the Japanese lost one bomber, two heavily damaged and 10 more lightly damaged out of 25 torpedo bombers and eight high-level bombers. They claimed seven torpedo hits on Repulse.
A lull followed as the Japanese retired to the north. The two capital ships were now about three miles apart. While Repulse was almost undamaged, Prince of Wales was in serious trouble as she wallowed at 15 knots. In the first four minutes following the torpedo hit(s), she took on 2,400 tons of water and more entered the punctured hull every minute. With half her dynamos flooded the pumps also failed, leaving no way to save the ship if they could not be restarted.
Her B Engine Room flooded immediately, as did the port Dynamo Diesel Room and the aft turret's Action Machinery Room. The aft 5.25" magazine was flooding, as was Y Boiler Room, which in turn, caused its engine room to also lose power. In the Harbor Machinery Room, only one dynamo still worked amid an electrical fire; the other had flooded and failed.
The blast also bent a propeller shaft, causing severe vibrations as the 240-foot shaft turned, causing its propeller to work loose and eventually drop off. Although the rudder remained undamaged, both electric steering engines lost power and were useless. Emergency efforts were immediately made to connect auxiliary steam engines, but they were not successful before more attacks came.
Captain J.C. Leach now counter-flooded Prince of Wales so that her 5.25" guns could train. He managed to bring the list down to 10 degrees, but that was all. All four aft mounts were without power, while two of the forward mounts suffered intermittent power failures, as did some of the pom-poms. The latter still had barrels jammed from the separated ammunition and the gun crews could not remedy the problem in the time at hand.
All the while, communications with the aft section of the ship were out and the captain was having great difficulty getting damage reports. Ventilation in her engine rooms then failed and black gang crews began passing out from the extreme heat. By 1210, Captain Leach was forced to raise two black balls, signaling that Prince of Wales was "NOT UNDER CONTROL." All of this had been caused by the single torpedo no one had noticed. The torpedo causing the huge explosion and water column had only buckled a few plates and allowed minor flooding into the port bulge.
Aboard Repulse, Captain Tennant was astonished to learn that Admiral Phillips had not sent any messages to Singapore requesting air cover. Now at 1158, he took the liberty of transmitting, "FROM REPULSE TO ANY BRITISH MAN OF WAR, ENEMY AIRCRAFT BOMBING. MY POSITION 134NYTW22X09." It was the first radio message Force Z had sent since leaving Singapore two days earlier. It was also the first indication naval headquarters there had that Force Z was in trouble.
Within 22 minutes air cover was on the way as 453 Squadron (RAAF) at Sembawang Airfield scrambled. The squadron had been assigned to fly air cover for Force Z from the time it left Singapore. But during his days at sea in early December, Phillips never once called upon the Buffalo fighters. Now, despite being only an hour's flying time away from the two ships, the Australian pilots of 453 Squadron could do nothing to help.
The lull lasted 20 minutes before the next wave found Force Z. At 1220 the Kanoya Air Corps with 26 "Betty" bombers dropped out of the clouds. They carried 450lb torpedoes, but were low on fuel after a prolonged search and could not spend much time developing an attack.
They split into two groups and immediately pressed the attack. Seventeen bore in on Prince of Wales, which could do little to defend herself and no bombers were shot down during this attack. The only two 5.25" mounts with power could not depress low enough to interdict the low-flying bombers. Pompoms opened fire as the range closed, but began jamming again almost immediately, leaving only the 20mm Oerlikons which again proved too small in caliber.
Against this weak show of AA fire, the first six bombers closed to 550 yards before releasing their torpedoes in a crushing attack. Four ran true and exploded against the crippled battleship's starboard hull. The first blew a huge hole through the stern allowing more flooding and the second struck just forward of the bridge and ruptured a fuel tank. The last two were the most damaging, as they hit where the damage was already worst. The third exploded alongside Y Turret. The fourth crumpled the remaining propeller shaft, stopping the turbines in A Engine Room. By now, the 42,000 ton battleship had taken on approximately 18,000 tons of water. On the plus side, the hits remedied her list to port, but further reduced speed to 8 knots.
Prince of Wales was all but finished, so the remaining 20 "Bettys" turned their attention toward Repulse. But their attack was loose and ragged due to the fuel situation. Two miles away, the battlecruiser still remained untouched except for the lone bomb hit. As the bombers closed, Captain Tennant worked Repulse up to 27½ knots and began turning to starboard to comb the attack.
Seventeen planes started the initial attack from varying angles attempting to box in Repulse. They did not press home the attack and dropped their torpedoes from 2,500 yards out, mostly to starboard. As Repulse committed to avoiding these torpedoes, three planes feinting toward Prince of Wales suddenly made a hard turn and bore in close on the port side. There was nothing Repulse could do to avoid all the torpedoes. Captain Tennant's violent maneuvers caused the first eight to miss, but the feint worked to perfection. Crewmen watched a torpedo intersect for 90 seconds before it struck her port bulge. A second struck at an odd angle and did not explode. Repulse absorbed her initial torpedo hit very well and suffered little damage with no reduction in speed. Nine torpedo planes now closed in the most skillful attack of the day. Six circled in from starboard, while the remaining three came in on the port side. Once again Repulse was in danger of boxed in.
The first six planes did not close and dropped their torpedoes at fairly long range. But the three bombers of the second section closed to 600 yards before dropping their weapons. Two could not turn away fast enough and had to fly directly over Repulse at low altitude. The combined weight of her AA fire was extremely vicious at such close range and both were shot down almost immediately.
But despite effective AA fire, all three torpedoes struck home. The first exploded near the Aft Engine Room and the second abreast Y Turret. The third struck the stern and sounded Repulse's death knell. It jammed her rudder hard to starboard so that she could only steer in a wide circle. One of the remaining torpedoes also hit starboard in E Engine Room.
The attack lasted just four minutes but was enough to kill Repulse. Captain Tennant knew her compartmentation was old and not designed to withstand multiple torpedo hits. The list quickly increased from seven to nine degrees; when it reached 12 points, he gave the order to abandon ship. As the crew went over the side, Vampire and Express came up to assist. At 1235, 11 minutes after the first torpedo hit, Repulse's red-colored hull turned up and she disappeared from sight.
There were still two more Japanese squadrons left to attack. The first started its run at 1233 in pattern formation, but the lead bombardier accidentally dropped his 1,000lb bomb far from the ships, and the other eight planes followed suit. The bombs fell on the horizon and the British crews thought a damaged bomber was jettisoning its bomb load. At 1220, Admiral Phillips finally broke radio silence - 22 minutes after Captain Tennant had first notified Singapore, and a full 80 minutes after the first attack began. He signaled "EMERGENCY . . . HAVE BEEN STRUCK BY A TORPEDO ON PORT SIDE. NYTW022R06. 4 TORPEDOES. REPULSE HIT BY 1 TORPEDO. SEND DESTROYERS. He still did not ask for air cover, even though Sembawang Airfield was only 75 miles away.
At 1241 the last eight Japanese bombers arrived over Prince of Wales at 9,000 feet. By now, only three 5.25" turrets could fire and one was soon forced to stop due to a hydraulic leak. The other two were severely hampered by a wounded rangefinder. Though out of range and still prone to jamming, the pompoms and other short-range weapons also joined in.
One bomber's release mechanism failed, so only seven bombs 1,000lb bombs fell in the final attack. One penetrated the catapult deck and exploded near X Boiler Room. It contained the last boiler that was still operable, which the resulting blast put out of action. Prince of Wales now had no power of any kind. Two more near-misses caused extensive hull damage and additional flooding aft.
The battleship's engines stopped as the bombers flew away. Despite their weak fire, the AA guns had damaged five of the planes. They signaled Saigon that both capital ships were sinking so no more attacks would be dispatched. It was fortunate, as the attacks had used every last aerial torpedo in southern Indochina. As Prince of Wales settled deeper, the admiral signaled Singapore several times. One transmission asked that all available tugs to be dispatched and another was so badly garbled that Singapore could not understand it. None of his messages revealed that Repulse had already sunk. Even more revealing was the fact that not one of his nine messages sent that day ever mentioned a request for air cover.
Captain Leach refused to give up on Prince of Wales and officers went through the crew asking for volunteers to stay aboard and try to save her. Crewmen were going over the side when Lieutenant-Commander F.J. Cartwright brought Express alongside to take them off. As he did though, a rather tart signal flashed down from the battleship's bridge, "WHAT HAVE YOU COME ALONGSIDE FOR?" Cartwright answered, "IT LOOKS AS THOUGH YOU REQUIRE ASSISTANCE." He managed to take off much of her crew before being forced to back off by the capsizing battleship's keel.
Despite dramatic last minute efforts to save her, Prince of Wales took a turn for the worst at 1315. Her list sharply increased and the doomed battleship clearly began going down. Just 90 minutes after her initial torpedo hit, Captain Leach gave the order to abandon ship. By 1323 Prince of Wales had completely disappeared from sight, leaving more than 1,000 British seamen struggling in the water.
Electra had been broadcasting signals for the flagship after her transmitter faded at 1300. At 1318 Commander C.W. May sent a message that shook Singapore and 10 Downing Street down to the foundation, "MOST IMMEDIATE . . . HMS PRINCE OF WALES SUNK." Exactly two minutes later the fighters of 453 Squadron belatedly arrived in response to the signal sent by Captain Tennant an hour earlier. All they could do was watch Prince of Wales sink and chase off several Japanese reconnaissance planes monitoring the situation from a distance.
Compared to Repulse's swift demise, Prince of Wales sank slowly, although loss of life was still high. Of 1,612 crewmen aboard Prince of Wales, 327 were lost; the number was even higher aboard Repulse, where 513 of 1,309 aboard perished. Both Admiral Phillips and Captain Leach were lost, but Vampire rescued Captain Tennant. There is debate as to whether the first two chose to go down with Prince of Wales or tried to get off at the last minute.
Japanese losses were negligible. Of 51 torpedo-bombers and 34 level bombers deployed, they scored 11 torpedo and two bomb hits while losing only three torpedo bombers. They suffered light damage to 17 torpedo-bombers and 11 level bombers. One plane crashed on return to base, bringing total Japanese losses to four aircraft; all but three of the damaged planes were repaired locally. Personnel losses totaled 18 crewmen aboard the aircraft lost.
All that remained now was to return the survivors to Singapore. As Electra, Express and Vampire retired they met the destroyer reinforcements Admiral Phillips had requested. These included the 57th Destroyer Division, which had reached Singapore after Force Z sailed, and Stronghold.
Stronghold joined the retiring destroyers while the Americans continued on. They swept the scene of action that afternoon to ensure no survivors remained, but found only oil slicks, debris and dead bodies. As they retired, Edsall boarded the Japanese fishing trawler Shofu Fu Maru as she towed her four small boats off Kuantan and took them into Singapore. Three days later Admiral Hart recalled Destroyer Division 57, officially ending the first attempt at a combined Anglo-American naval operation of the war.
The loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse was a crushing blow. The most powerful remaining allied ships were now the heavy cruisers HMS Exeter and USS Houston. Although supported by a host of light cruisers and destroyers, they were no match for the powerful Japanese units facing them. The situation worsened on December 12 when the British Admiralty all but ruled out any future offensive action. The remaining RN ships would be used primarily for convoy duties between Singapore and the Indian Ocean.
The primary surviving Royal Navy ships at Singapore included the cruisers Dragon, Durban, Danae and Java with the destroyers Encounter, Electra, Express, Jupiter, Stronghold, Tenedos, Vampire, Scout, Thanet and Evertsen. The Royal Australian Navy corvettes Burnie, Goulburn, Bendigo and Maryborough and armed merchant cruiser Manoora were also in harbor; the armed merchant cruiser Kanimbla was en route from Penang. The destroyer Isis, from the Mediterranean Fleet, was refitting as was the Australian destroyer Vendetta. On December 23, the RN announced its permanent plans following the loss of Force Z. The old "R Class" battleships Revenge and Royal Sovereign - then based at Ceylon in the Indian Ocean - together with Dragon, Durban, Danae, Jupiter, Encounter, Electra, Express and Vampire would form part of the Eastern Fleet surface forces at Singapore. The very cruisers Admiral Phillips had declined to take to sea because of advanced age would now replace Prince of Wales and Repulse. But despite their attachment, Revenge and Royal Sovereign never moved to Singapore and remained with the main fleet at Ceylon.
It was clear, for the time being at least, that no reinforcements were coming from Europe or elsewhere, which created rifts in the Anglo command. In the 1930s, the Admiralty promised to replace any Dominion ships sent to reinforce Singapore with those from the Royal Navy. Now, despite these assurances, New Zealand and Australia refused to surrender strategic control of their ships to the British.
This was because since the start of war in 1939, the RN had suffered grievous losses. War losses included no less than three battleships, three aircraft carriers, nine cruisers, 56 destroyers, 31 submarines, 23 small warships and 14 auxiliaries. The total was even higher when one counted the hundreds of small auxiliaries that had also been lost. Saddled with these huge losses, the RN could barely meet its own needs; much less fend for the Dominions.
Amid this strained naval situation, and the loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse, the Australians correctly doubted the British ability to replace their ships sent to reinforce Singapore. Reluctant to leave its mainland unprotected to guard distant Singapore, the Australian Government elected to hold its ships in territorial waters. Although not widely recognized at the time, this signaled the start of a permanent fracture in Anglo-Australian relations that would last throughout the Pacific War.
The Admiralty had made similar promises to New Zealand. But like Australia, this country's government also had reservations about releasing any ships. But as a show of support, they did order the light cruiser HMNZS Achilles from Northern New Zealand to Singapore. But it was not until mid February, 1942 when the United States Navy agreed to form a joint task force to replace dominion ships, did the Australians release any major surface units to reinforce Singapore.
By then, Malaya and the naval base at Singapore were lost. The Philippines and Netherlands East Indies quickly followed them, putting the Japanese on the very steps of Australia. It would be another three months before an American carrier task force would stop Japan's southern advance in the Coral Sea and effectively end the threat of invasion to Australia. And more importantly, this battle further reinforced the fact that the day of the battleship - of Prince of Wales and Repulse - had been eclipsed once and for all by the dawn of naval airpower.