Almost everybody recognizes the date December 7, 1941. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on that day is known in the history books as the Day of Infamy, a phrase used by President Roosevelt during his address to Congress asking for a Declaration of War. What most people don’t know is that our staunchest ally, Great Britain, had its own day of infamy three days later.
As the Pearl Harbor raiders were recovering on board their carriers, an equally calamitous event was unfolding in the western pacific. The Japanese Imperial Army was landing in southern Thailand and northern Malaya, while sending bombers to strike the crown jewel of the British empire – Singapore.
The landings and bombings on the 8th kicked off a two month campaign that would end in the surrender of Singapore, the destruction of the city and the largest defeat in British military history. Despite the clear and present danger posed by the Japanese aggression, the people of Singapore didn’t take much notice. Singapore had a worldwide reputation as an island fortress that rivaled the Rock Of Gibraltar. They were convinced that their island city was impregnable and that the Japanese wouldn’t dare attack it. Besides, they had an ace up their sleeve. The Royal Navy was in town, led by the pride of the fleet – the HMS Prince of Wales.
The HMS Prince of Wales was Britain’s newest, fastest and most heavily armed warship. Packing 10 x 14 inch guns, she could also fill the sky with flak from her secondary batteries and put up thousands of rounds of anti-aircraft fire per minute. She entered service in May 1941 and had her baptism of fire one week later when she traded salvos with the Bismark. During that running fight, she absorbed four hits from German 15 inch rounds – including a direct hit on the bridge – and kept fighting. Three months later, she carried Prime Minister Winston Churchill across the Atlantic to Newfoundland. There, he hosted on board his first council of war with President Franklin Roosevelt. She was a personal favorite of Churchill’s and considered invulnerable. Somebody forgot to tell the Japanese.
The fleet had arrived on December 2, sent by Winston Churchill in response to Japanese provocations in the region. Their timely arrival was a coincidence, but considerably lessened the impact of events on the 8th. British leaders were confident that the task force would deter the Japanese from attacking or make short work of them if they did.
As the Japanese prepared to attack south on the 8th, Task Force Z, under the command of Admiral Tom Phillips, sortied out of Sembawang Naval Base in northeast Singapore. It consisted of the HMS Prince of Wales, the HMS Repulse and four destroyers. Their mission was to find and destroy the Japanese invasion fleet. Comprising 28 troop carriers and two aging battleships, it was turning circles somewhere off the coast of Malaya. The mission to blast enemy ships out of the water was a dream come true for a battleship skipper and promised to be easy pickings for the Royal Navy.
The HMS Repulse was a WW1-era heavy cruiser that was completely re-fitted just before the war. A veteran of Atlantic surface actions in both wars, she was still a capable fighter. However, her construction would do her in. Cruisers built in her era were designed for speed and agility. To get that, armor protection and watertight integrity were sacrificed. During the attack, the Repulse dodged 19 torpedoes. The Japanese finally caught her by coming in from both sides at once. She sank six minutes after the first hit.
Singapore was thoroughly infiltrated with Japanese spies and they knew the moment the ships slipped the harbor. Soon, every air and naval unit in the region was hunting for them and the invasion fleet was withdrawn to Indo-China. The British task force was oblivious to these developments, had no hard intelligence and no air cover. Additionally, all their new electronics, such as radars and fire control systems, started failing in the salty humid air of the tropics as soon as they arrived. None of it had been fixed. They were sailing deaf, dumb and blind. Still, Task Force Z kept searching. Finally on December 10, they found the Japanese but not the ones they were looking for.
An unknown Japanese artist’s depiction of the attack on the HMS Prince of Wales. A Mitsubishi G3M “Nell” bomber is dropping a Type-91 aerial torpedo. Japanese torpedoes were the best in the world and exceptionally lethal. The Type 91 was fast, accurate and packed a 500 pound warhead. The first torpedo hit on the ship was back by the propellers and would have been fatal all by itself. It tore out the port side propeller shaft from its sealed passage into the hull, creating a breach that couldn’t be stopped. The ship lost speed and power and developed an immediate list to aft and port. The Japanese continued to pour it on until it disappeared beneath the waves of the South China Sea. In all, it took four torpedo hits and at least two direct hits from 500 pound bombs.
Scout planes and a submarine found the task force early in the morning on the 10th about 50 miles out from the Malayan port city of Kuantan. While they tracked the British ships, every Japanese aircraft between Malaya and Saigon scrambled and went after them. The air attacks began around 1100. Over 90 aircraft took part. There wasn’t enough time or fuel to coordinate strikes so groups attacked on arrival as soon as they found the targets. The Repulse and the Prince of Wales both took multiple hits from torpedoes and bombs. The Repulse sank at 1230. The Prince of Wales went a little after 1300. Admiral Phillips and almost 1,000 crew members went with them. The destroyers were untouched and rescued hundreds out of the water despite the threat of lurking submarines and more air attacks. The Japanese lost three aircraft and their crews.
The destroyer HMS Express rescues survivors from the badly listing HMS Prince of Wales. The attack is still under way. When the battleship rolled over in her death dive, she almost took the Express with her. As she rolled, her bilge keel along the bottom of the ship came up under the Express and gave her a 40,000 ton wallop. Fortunately, the destroyer was able to ride it out. Unlike the Repulse, which sank in minutes, the Prince of Wales took almost two hours of constant pounding before she went under.
This was the first time in military history that major surface combatants were sunk in the open ocean by hostile aircraft alone. It was a harbinger of what lay ahead. The battles of Coral Sea and Midway were just around the corner and they would change naval warfare forever. From now on, carriers and their aircraft would take the fight to the enemy with the ships 100 miles apart or more. There would still be surface battles in the years to come, but the heyday of the battleship was over.
The sinking of two of England’s finest warships sent shock waves all the way to London. Churchill later wrote in his memoirs, “…in all the war, I never received a more direct shock.” The losses left the Allies with no capital warships west of Hawaii. The western Pacific was now a Japanese lake. It didn’t last long. Four months later, the Japanese navy was smashed at Midway and they spent the rest of the war on the defensive.
The wrecks of the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales were found after the war, in 183 feet and 223 feet of water respectively. They are about eight miles apart. The Repulse rests semi-upright with a sharp list to port. The Prince of Wales is completely upside down with much of her superstructure buried in the mud. In 2007, her ship’s bell was removed by British divers to prevent it from being stolen. It now sits in a maritime museum in Liverpool, England. Both ships are Crown property however, they are legal to SCUBA dive on and there are dive shops that make the trip regularly. The Repulse is the better target being much shallower and with a lot more to see. Both are deep decompression dives and not for beginners.
If you like to explore underwater, Singapore and Malaysia offer some top notch SCUBA diving. There are a lot of wrecks in the surrounding area including the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales. There are many others and dive shops make regular trips, with destinations for divers of all experience and ability levels. The South China Sea has excellent visibility most of the time and is warm as bath water in the shallower depths. If you’re a diver in Singapore, it’s worth checking out.
That’s all for now … Boris and Natasha