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Prince of Wales and Repulse: Churchill’s “Veiled Threat” Reconsidered

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CHURCHILL PROCEEDINGS, 2007

BARRY GOUGH

 

The author is Professor Emeritus of History at Wilfrid Laurier University, where he taught from 1972 to 2004. His next book is Titans at the Admiralty: Winston Churchill and Admiral Lord Fisher. This paper was delivered at the 2007 International Churchill Conference in Vancouver.

 

“I was opening my boxes,” Churchill wrote in his war memoirs,[1] “when the telephone at my bedside rang. It was the First Sea Lord [Admiral Sir Dudley Pound]. His voice sounded odd. He gave a sort of cough and gulp, and at first I could not hear quite clearly. ‘Prime Minister, I have to report to you that the Prince of Wales and the Repulse have both been sunk by the Japanese—we think by aircraft. [Vice Admiral] Tom Phillips is drowned.’ ‘Are you sure it’s true?’ ‘There is no doubt at all.’ So I put the telephone down. I was thankful to be alone. In all the war I never received a more direct shock. The reader of these pages will realise 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 except the American survivors of Pearl Harbour, who were hastening back to California. Over all this vast expanse of waters Japan was supreme, and we everywhere were weak and naked.”

No tragedy is so poignant in British naval history as the loss of these two capital ships and so many aboard them. They had been, Churchill wrote, the only weapon in British hands, meaning a weapon of deterrence. The command of every ocean had been lost except the Atlantic. Australia and New Zealand were open to attack.

Prince of Wales and Repulse had been sent to Singapore, he wrote, “to exercise that kind of vague menace which capital ships of the highest quality whose whereabouts is unknown can impose upon all hostile naval calculations. How should we use them now? Obviously they must go to sea and vanish among the innumerable islands. There was general agreement on that.” Churchill had thought they might sail across the Pacific to join the U.S. fleet, “a proud gesture at this moment,” knitting the English-speaking world together. The existence of such a fleet would be the best possible shield for the Pacific Dominions. “But as the hour was late we decided to sleep on it, and settle the next morning what to do with the Prince of Wales and Repulse.”

These were Churchill’s undoubted intentions. What is not so sure is the decision-making process that led to the ships’ deployment: Admiral Phillips’s “Force Z.” Churchill’s part in these matters has been a subject of debate among some of the best historians, including Arthur Marder, Stephen Roskill, Correlli Barnett, Christopher Bell, Martin Middlebrook and Patrick Mahoney. Most recently, a succinct history of these events was provided by Arthur Nicolson in Hostages to Fortune (Reviewed in FH 133:38, with subsequent debate by Messrs. Courts and Kimball, FH 136:4-5).

Even if we understand the decision-making process, nagging questions remain: What went wrong? Why did Tom Phillips ignore the air threat to his fleet? Why did he leave Singapore and go north at all, given the immense Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) strength in ships and aircraft? Why did he maintain wireless telegraphy silence after Force Z had left Singapore?

Force Z, created by the Defence Committee (Operations) of the British War Cabinet on 20 October 1941 and confirmed a month later, was a capital ship force consisting of HMS Prince of Wales (commissioned that year, in action against the Bismarck, and Churchill’s stout conveyance to meet Roosevelt at Argentia for the Atlantic Charter meeting); and the thrice-refurbished battlecruiser HMS Repulse, screened by four destroyers but no aircraft carrier (none was available; see below), to be dispatched forthwith to Singapore.

Its purpose was to deter Japan from entering the war or delay the outbreak of hostilities. The deployment was made for political reasons. Churchill contended that just as Tirpitz, Bismarck’s sister ship, had held down British naval units, so too these capital ships might deter the Japanese. On 4 November Churchill wrote to Stalin: “With the object of keeping Japan quiet we are sending our latest battleship, Prince of Wales, which can catch and kill any Japanese ship, into the Indian Ocean, and we are building up a powerful battle squadron there.”

Force Z arrived at Singapore on 2 December, but by then the international situation was deteriorating. On the 8th, Singapore time, Japanese troops swarmed ashore in Thailand and northern Malaya. Hong Kong, reinforced by two Canadian regiments, was under siege. Indo-China was overrun and the IJN occupied Saigon, with its handsome airbases so well suited for land-based naval aviation and coastal reconnaissance and operations.

Prince of Wales was one of five intended King George V class of battleships, displacing 35,000 tons, with ten 14-inch guns, and making over 30 knots. Jane’s Fighting Ships, 1940 stated that her “design will include enhanced defence against air attack, including an improved distribution of deck and side armour, more elaborate subdivision, and an improved system of under-water protection. Unofficial reports give weight of armour as over 14,000 tons, and water-line thickness as 16 inches.” She carried a complement of 1500.

By contrast, Repulse was a super-battlecruiser: displacement 32,000 tons, best speed 29 knots, with six 15-inch guns and secondary armament. She had a belt that gave additional protection about nine feet deep. These were among the best ships the Royal Navy had. The Admiralty naturally rued the naval restrictions of the Washington Treaty, which limited tonnage by classes, and the Treasury’s parsimony that curbed much intended new construction. Navies always have to manage with what the state affords, but in the case of the Royal Navy in the Second World War, the materials available were never sufficient to deal with the several simultaneous requirements, notably in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific Oceans.

It was not imperial over-reach that was the problem but lack of the means to assert influence, and to defend British interests in time of war. Indeed, during the Ethiopian crisis of 1935, when Italy had extended its empire into Abyssinia, the British could not assert their influence because, as Lord Chatfield, the First Sea Lord of that day put it, Britain could not face the possibility of waging war against Italy and Japan in combination.

But now, in late 1941 the possible horrors had become realities: Britain was at war with three nations, each with considerable naval assets. The first task was to deal with Germany, keeping merchant shipping flowing to the United Kingdom, or passing securely to north Russia, all the while deploying naval forces to gain command in the Mediterranean, invade North Africa in 1942, keep Egypt secure, and eventually invade Italy. The tragic scenario of Force Z and Singapore was played out against a much larger course of events—a quite complicated one, we need to remember. Force Z was puny, but it was the best available.

The C-in-C was acting Admiral Sir Tom Phillips—126 pounds, 5’ 2,” known as “Tom Thumb” or “Wee Tom,” pale and unhealthy in prospect. “All brain and no body” was the way one acquaintance described him. But Phillips was impressive in other ways: knowledgeable in naval matters, diligent and thorough, quick and decisive in attack. He had been raised in the Nelsonic tradition: “Engage the enemy more closely.”

On 8 December Phillips resolved on action. Almost to the last man, his bosses in Whitehall had not expected Japan to precipitate matters; they gave no guidance, except to send a signal on the 7th that they expected him to do something.

What does a task force do? It cannot defend a naval base except to command the sea, and it cannot long remain in harbour. It must go to sea and either seek out the enemy or avoid him. The latter was unthinkable, and for Phillips to lose his force in some archipelago was a figment of imagination. If a Japanese expedition was in the South China Sea, proceeding toward Thailand, Malaya, Borneo, or the Dutch East Indies, Phillips was obliged to respond. This meant seeking out Japanese transports or warships off the east coast, between Singora, the southern part of Thailand’s Kra Isthmus and Kota Bharu, northern Malaya. Phillips correctly opted to do this. If he could achieve surprise, and if he had air cover on arrival, he anticipated success.

Phillips sailed from Singapore into the red sunset. He asked for fighter cover off Singora at daylight on the 10th. Air Vice-Marshal Pulford, commanding the RAF in Malaya, replied just as Phillips was passing through the boom at the entrance to Johore Strait that fighter protection was impossible. Phillips’s reaction was a shrug of the shoulders: “Well, we must get on without it.”

He did hope that fighter cover would still materialize. Acting Chief of Staff Afloat, Captain L.H. Bell, later recounted: “The Admiral relied on the speed and surprise of the battleships’ attack to avoid damage to these ships sufficient to slow them down, believing that Japanese aircraft would not be carrying anti-ship bombs and torpedoes and that the Force on retirement would only have to deal with hastily organized long-range bombers from bases in Indo-China.”

Phillips accepted Japanese high-level bombing as an acceptable risk, and believed it unlikely to inflict vital damage to modern capital ships in the face of intense AA fire. To date in the history of warfare, no torpedo-bombers had been delivered at a greater range than 200 miles. Singora was believed to be over 300 miles, and Kota Bharu, his other option, nearly the same distance from the nearest Indo-China bases. In fact, the nearest bases were 475 miles from Singora and 425 from Kota Bharu. Such assumptions were based on British, German and Italian combat experience. Not known in Singapore, or other places where British naval intelligence operated, was that Japanese torpedo-bombers had an operational radius of 700 to 750 nautical miles.

Contrary to his critics, Phillips was not unmindful of the threat of enemy air power. But he did hold, on the basis of the sad experience in Norway, that gunners manning AA installations had to be better trained and more resolute at their weapons. He believed that ship mobility could stave off the attack, and that a battleship had a reasonable degree of success in the circumstances. No commanding officer would say his ship was unsinkable, save for Admiral Lutjens commanding Bismarck and Prinz Eugen. But Phillips, like many naval officers of his time, was a believer in capital ships, and a battleship was to an admiral as a cathedral was to a bishop, as strategist and historian Sir Basil Liddell Hart put it. (The sinking of the two ships did not change Admiralty opinion on this for some time.)2

Officers of Phillips’s generation contended that the threat of high-level and dive-bombing was exaggerated, though aerial torpedo attack was taken more seriously. Such attacks were likely to occur in narrow seas or in range of shore-based aircraft (whose range was thought to be limited). Phillips was a true believer that AA fire could fend off enemy attack or put pilots off their aim. No naval experience had occurred in these matters as regards planes versus battleships in open waters. The loss of the Prince of Wales and Repulse was the first sinking by air attack of capital ships at sea (the U.S. battleships at Pearl Harbor had been at moorings or at quayside).

Phillips’s arrival at Singapore without the carrier Indomitable (which had gone aground on a sandbar in the West Indies) meant that he was devoid of fighter protection, though he did have the possibilities of aerial reconnaissance, seaplanes launched from capital ships, which were not used in the circumstances.

Even had Indomitable been available, the Navy had very rudimentary carrier-based fighters. The Japanese, as the Americans discovered, had a marked superiority at that time. A carrier would have provided greater certainty of the existence and location of enemy forces, but in terms of engagement would have meant very little. Perhaps its Swordfish aircraft could have posed a minor threat to enemy surface vessels, if found; but that is the extent of wishful thinking. If it had been there, Indomitable probably would have been sunk too. The Japanese had studied carefully the Royal Navy’s attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto in November 1940 and had planned Pearl Harbor with this knowledge. (See Greg Hughes’ comments in following article. —Ed.)

Two types of Japanese naval aircraft figure in our story: the Mitsubishi G4M, called “Betty” by the Americans, a long-range medium bomber operational throughout the Japanese war. With speed of 276 mph, a range of 3,450 miles, extraordinary climbing ability (ground to 26,245 feet in 32.4 minutes) the G4M had first been deployed against China in mid-1941, and then moved south to Saigon and other Indo-China bases.

The Mitsubishi G3M2, aka “Nell,” was a land-based reconnaissance plane developed into a bomber, first used in 1937 in China and deployed against American forces at Wake Island, the Philippines and Marianas. Essentially a torpedo-bomber, she was used in all kinds of maritime operations, a workhorse of the IJN. The Betty and Nell bombers carried torpedoes of a type first manufactured in 1931 but improved and first delivered in April 1941. The specifics need not concern us here except to say that Modification 2, as delivered by the Betty, was 1841 pounds with an explosive charge of 452 pounds. Maximum launch speed was about 260 knots, range 2200 yards, speed 41 knots.

Nor were aircraft the only threat. The Japanese had twenty-eight transports, with troops embarked, for the landings in Malaya and Siam; two battlecruisers; three cruisers; twenty-four destroyers and twelve submarines disposed as close escort and covering forces of their Southern Command. The bombers, fighters and reconnaissance aircraft at Saigon were part of the force.

Phillips’s objective was Khota Baru, not Singora, for attack on the latter would have involved 120 miles further steaming on the return passage, well within enemy range in daylight hours, without air cover. He sought to minimize risk. But on the early evening of the 9th, despite miserable weather, Japanese reconnaissance planes spotted him, forcing Phillips to shape a course for Singapore. His staff and captains agreed with his decision, based on prudence.

Three hours later, towards midnight on the 9th/10th, Phillips received a signal from his Chief of Staff in Singapore, reporting that a Japanese landing was taking place at Kuantan, midway up the Malayan coast and only 120 miles from Force Z’s position, and not far off the track to Singapore. Its military position was significant to British interests, and it was vital to keep the enemy out of Kuantan, from which the Japanese could isolate all British forces to the north.

Phillips altered course for Kuantan, failing to notify Singapore; nor did he ask for fighter cover. He wished to keep radio silence and to deny the enemy knowledge of his exact position. Alas, unknown to Phillips, the Japanese submarine I.65 had spotted the British force at about 4pm on the 9th, and had reported it to Saigon.

Admiral Kondo, the Japanese Commander in Chief, aware of the movements of Force Z, detached cruisers to seek it out. His plan was to attack at dawn with all available naval aircraft and to complete the destruction with his battle fleet, then steaming south at best speed. A second submarine, I.58, spotted Force Z at 2:30am and released five torpedoes, all of which missed.

At eight o’clock in the morning of the 10th, Force Z was off Kuantan, the enemy nowhere in sight, and the landing report unsubstantiated. The weather was fine and clear, a light breeze, with no monsoon, as might be expected in that season. At 8:45 Force Z stood out to seaward to examine some barges and a tug sighted earlier. Around 10:15 it was spotted by a Japanese aircraft, and an hour later Japanese bombers and torpedo-bombers were converging on it.

Still there was no signal to the base for air protection—not even when the attack commenced. But messages were received in the War Room at Singapore by early afternoon, and tell the tragic story in a shattering crescendo of disaster:

12:04, from Repulse: “Enemy aircraft bombing.”

12:40, “Emergency. Have been struck by a torpedo on port side Repulse hit by 1 torpedo. Send destroyers.”

Soon thereafter: “Send all available tugs.” Within an hour Repulse had disappeared beneath the waves.

13:21, from fleet destroyer Electra: “HMS Prince of Wales sunk.”

The Japanese attack force (IJN’s 22nd Air Flotilla) in three squadrons—Genzan, Mikoro and Kanaya—consisted of thirty-four high-level bombers and fifty-one torpedo-bombers newly-based in Saigon. Abandoning its intended raid on Singapore to attack Force Z, it found the British ships about half an hour after leaving Saigon. The tactics employed during the attack, the German naval attaché in Tokyo, Vice Admiral Wenneker, shortly reported to Berlin, were first a wave of bombers to tie down the flak, then, shortly after, torpedo aircraft approaching from east and west. At 11:15 HMS Repulse was hit by a bomb dropped from a high level (11,000 feet); torpedo-carrying planes then made their low-level approach. Genzan force fired seven torpedoes at the Repulse, of which four hit their targets. Mikoro and Kanaya had similar success, as did Genzan, turning on Prince of Wales.

 

A direct hit was scored on Repulse with a 250 kg bomb, starting fires but not slowing her speed. A wave of low-flying torpedo craft attacked from a height of 20 to 100 meters, releasing at targets from 400 to 100 meters. Two direct hits were scored on each ship. Repulse slowed to five or six knots. Next came a second wave, with four torpedo hits on Repulse; then a third, which reduced Prince of Wales to a similar speed. Another attack made by bombers scored two hits with 500 kg bombs. In all, thirty-four torpedoes were dropped, with 50 percent success, and twenty-one bombs, of which only three were direct hits.

The existence of a trained, effective naval air arm—ironically a concept Churchill had originated in World War I—was the prime factor in the Japanese victory. The German war diary: “Nothing could more fully justify the existence of such an organization than a victory of this magnitude.” In Berlin, naval authorities were cheered: the Bismarck had been avenged.

As the first message from Repulse was received in Singapore, fighters were sent. They were too late. The first arrived on the scene as Prince of Wales rolled over and sank. They flew over the destroyers making the rescue. Of Repulse’s total complement of 1309, forty-two officers including Captain W.G. Tennant and 754 men were picked up; from the Prince of Wales’s complement of 1612, ninety officers and 1195 ratings were rescued. Tom Phillips was lost along with Prince of Wales Captain, John Leach, a fine officer who might have gone to the top, as did later his son, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach—who was well aware of the threat of Argentine land-based fighters and tactical bombers during the Falklands war in 1982.

One of the fighter pilots, Flight-Lieutenant T.A. (Tim) Vigors, in one of the first aircraft to reach the surviving crews, reported: “…never before have I seen anything comparable with what I saw yesterday. I passed over thousands who had been through an ordeal the greatness of which they alone can understand, for it is impossible to pass on one’s feelings in disaster to others….I had seen many men in dire danger waving, cheering, and joking as if they were holiday-makers at Brighton waving at a low-flying aircraft. It shook me, for here was something above human nature. I take my hat off to them, for in them I saw the spirit which wins wars.”

The entire attack had lasted two hours. Anyone who had doubted Japanese efficiency in the air had been given an answer. Within three days the IJN had not only mauled the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, but had sunk two capital ships at sea some 400 miles from their bases. With the loss of only three aircraft, the Japanese had shattered British sea power in the Far East, isolated Hong Kong, exposed Singapore, imperiled the Pacific Dominions and unraveled an empire. The Indian Ocean lay open, the Philippines and Dutch East Indies seemed doomed, and Australia, New Zealand, Burma and India were threatened. All these results flowed from the catastrophe of 10 December 1941.

 

The Aftermath

In his war memoirs Churchill wrote that Chance played a fatal part in the tragedy of these ships. Reviewing the evidence Stephen Roskill, the official historian writing the Cabinet Office’s Military History, The War at Sea, vol. 1, 567, was not so sure:

 

Though chance may have played a part in guiding the homeward-bound enemy striking force to the squadron’s position, it had several times been reported by submarines and aircraft. It therefore seems unlikely that, even had Admiral Phillips not gone to Kuantan in search of a non-existent landing force, it would have escaped attack.

 

There was also the large Japanese surface force descending from the north on Force Z’s reported position. Even had Prince of Wales and Repulse fought off the 22nd Air Force flotilla, they would have been engaged by that superior surface force.

Discussion of the fighting efficiency of the Prince of Wales invariably arises. Phillips was well aware that the long sea voyage to the Far East and the lack of aids, such as targets for improving firing accuracy, made her less than fully efficient. “Even a fully efficient ship, however, could hardly have warded off the fate which overtook the battleship,” Roskill wrote, “though her unsatisfactory condition is a minor issue compared with the strategic policy which placed her where she met her end….” As to the Repulse, an ancient vessel (1916) built for speed rather than strength, he had equally poignant comments:

 

It was hardly to be expected that such a ship could successfully withstand blows of a far more lethal power, and of a totally different type from those which she had been designed a quarter of a century earlier to resist. The lessons driven home by the tragedy of the Hood are partly applicable to this second disaster to a British battle cruiser. Parsimony towards the services in peace time will always bring such nemesis in war.

 

When it came time to write the Cabinet Office Official Military Histories, Roskill, a serious Churchill critic, was determined to get to the reasoning behind Churchill’s “veiled threat.” Tracking Churchill’s thought that the capital ships would lose themselves in some distant archipelago, he searched unsuccessfully for evidence of an order dispatching an oiler or tanker to such a location. But Churchill was transfixed on the idea that capital ships, such as Tirpitz, had pinned down Royal Navy assets, and certainly thought that Prince of Wales and Repulse would do likewise to the Japanese.

That assumption perhaps underestimated the enemy. It may be wondered indeed if anything could have been a deterrent, military or diplomatic, at that time. (See Ian Kershaw’s Fateful Choices on how Japan went to war, reviewed last issue. —Ed.) True, the British had withdrawn much of their gunboat force from Chinese rivers to appease Japan, and the garrisons of Singapore and Hong Kong had been increased in strength. It is important to meet the mindset of the enemy if the odds are even, but in this case it was perhaps a delusion to imagine that anything would transfix the Japanese by that time.

We do not know what effect a larger naval force might have had. What we do know is that Churchill and Eden, his Foreign Secretary, were naturally keen to answer the appeals of Australia and New Zealand for long-promised support: that was the premise of the Singapore naval base. We seek explanations sometimes in places and circumstances in which they cannot be found. Force Z was caught in the jaws of fate. It was the great misfortune of those lost to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It is hard to blame the Admiralty. “We…were solidly against sending out Prince of Wales to the Far East [and] dispatching a wholly unbalanced force into an area where we did not know the strengths…of the potential enemy,” wrote Captain (later Admiral Sir) William Davis, Deputy Director of Plans in the Admiralty, 1941: “…such action would make Prince of Wales a hostage to fortune.” They were overruled by the Defence Committee.

As late as 5 November, Churchill was still reviewing the plan. Even at that late date, his private secretary Jock Colville found, when reviewing the files twelve years later, it was not decided that the ships should sail on to Singapore, though it seemed likely.

Also at the Admiralty, the First Lord, A.V. Alexander, and Admiral Sir Dudley Pound were against sending a battle squadron without a carrier: “We had great arguments with the P.M. about air cover,” Alexander wrote later.

Sir Leslie Rowan, in the Prime Minister’s inner circle, recalled that there was much going to and fro in the matter, but that it would have been entirely contrary to the Prime Minister’s habits and methods of work for him to take a decision on a matter of that sort against the expressed and maintained opposition of the Chiefs of Staff or of the Naval Staff of the Admiralty.

Rowan contended that Churchill never overrode his professional naval, military or air authorities. He might on occasion have induced them to acquiesce in a decision against their better judgment.

This was the opinion of the distinguished American historian of the Royal Navy, Arthur Marder, who in his long-running battle with Roskill contended that Churchill was very careful not to override his professional service heads. We therefore come back to the Defence Committee’s decision—the most likely source of the unraveling story and catastrophe.

Like many a tragedy, the loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse is a story without end. Montagues and Capulets abound, and are likely to remain so in the future. But make no mistake: Admiral Phillips was a gallant seaman, trained in a fine naval service. He took his small fleet into danger and paid the ultimate price. The odds were long of success. The enemy had superior force at sea and in the air. Desmond Morton perhaps put it best:

 

Of course a historian writing later than the event described may demonstrate how much better it can now be seen that some other course would have succeeded in all probability than that chosen at the time. But in no circumstance can he criticize the actors for reaching the conclusions they did at the time, unless he can demonstrate that they disregarded facts known to them, acted with duplicity or malice or were demonstrably unfit for the positions they held….Democracy judges solely by results. Historians must never do so.3

 

There will always be a school of historical thought in the field of military studies that is wise after the event. But it already has far too many adherents.

 

ENDNOTES

1. Winston S. Churchill, The Grand Alliance (London: Cassell, 1950), 551. Throughout I have relied on Arthur Marder’s Old Friends, New Enemies: The Royal Japanese Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy, Strategic Illusions, 1936-1941 (Oxford University Press, 1981) and on his notes, some which are in my possession; and on the papers (in Churchill Archives Centre) of Stephen Roskill, author of The War at Sea (London: HMSO, 3 vols., 1954-61), the first volume of which contains his account of this episode. The present essay derives from my double biography, in progress, of Marder and Roskill. I thank Bernie Webber, Edward J. Anderson and Jan Drent for information and advice.

2. After I presented this paper David Ramsay, the biographer of Admiral Reginald “Blinker” Hall, passed me a note from Hall to a friend on 11 December 1941: “Well, if we won’t learn the lessons we paid so dearly for at Crete and Greece we shall go on losing ships....we do pay dearly for our lessons and the fools who will not learn them. I refer to the powers at the top; though I shall never understand how Tom Phillips came to go out into air controlled waters without air support.”

3. R.W. Thompson, Churchill and Morton: The Quest for Insight in the Correspondence of Major Sir Desmond Morton and the Author (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1976, 100.                                              ✌