A Futile Sacrifice: The Sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Throughout history there have been times that commanders have sacrificed themselves and the forces under their command for no good reason. One of the most futile of these instances occurred on December 10th 1941 when Force Z, commanded by Admiral Tom Phillips went into action against Japanese Air Forces off the Malay coast.

HMS Repulse (above) and HMS Prince of Wales (below)

The task force, composed of the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales, and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse had only recently arrived in the Far East. They had been ordered there by Winston Churchill, against the advice of the Admiralty, and other leaders of the Commonwealth. They were to be accompanied by the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable. However, the new carrier had been damaged by grounding at Jamaica in November 1941. Even without the grounding incident it is unlikely that Indomitable could have reached Singapore in time to join the task force and provide it with the air cover necessary for its survival.

Admiral Tom Phillips (R) at Singapore

The Commander of Force Z, Admiral Phillips was considered by many in the Royal Navy to be a “desk Admiral.” He had held few sea commands and never commanded a surface force in combat. However, he had served as Naval Advisor to King George VI, and had gained the attention and favor of Winston Churchill while serving as Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff. Churchill had him appointed as Acting Vice Admiral and later Acting Admiral to command what would become known as Force Z.

His task force arrived at Singapore on December 2nd 1941. When the Japanese attacked on December 8th (to Americans December 7th due to the International Date Line) Phillips decided to sortie to intercept and sink Japanese transports and their escorts. In doing so Phillips fell into a Japanese trap and made it worse by valuing radio silence over air support. He refused to contact or coordinate his moments with the one fighter squadron assigned to support him, No. 453 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force.

No. 453 Squadron (RAAF) Brewster Buffaloes

Disregarding the experience of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, Phillips held air power in contempt, believing it not to be a threat to surface forces, and committed his task force to battle without air support. The result was predictable. Both Prince of Wales and Repulse were sent to the bottom of the ocean in under two hours. Hundreds of sailors lost their lives, including Admiral Phillips. They sank no enemy transports, no enemy warships, and downed no enemy aircraft. But even with the support of the 10 Brewster Buffaloes of 453 Squadron, it is highly unlikely that the ships could have survived the Japanese onslaught; Phillips’s decision to sail into harm’s way doomed the fleet, just as much as Churchill’s decision to send it to Singapore did.

It was a complete waste of lives and two fine fast Battleships which could have provided excellent service with Aircraft Carriers of the U. S. Pacific Fleet, had they been sent to Australia and then on to the South Pacific rather than Singapore. But Churchill could not see this, and Phillips was even more myopic. Phillips had never served in combat and his task for would have been better served by a commander like Admiral James Somerville who had commanded a force of carriers, fast Battleships, and cruisers in combat against an enemy who often had air supremacy.

HMS Prince of Wales being Abandoned

Phillips, to be sure was a gallant an honorable man, but he was not up to the task that he was appointed by Churchill to accomplish. As a result, the Royal Navy lost both the Prince of Wales and Repulse, as well as hundreds of gallant and experienced sailors.

As for me, a historian and Naval Officer, it is one of the few operations of the Second World War that brings my anger to a boiling point every time that I think about it. There was no strategic, operational, or tactical benefit to it. Churchill would have been better off to keep the ships in the Atlantic or the Western Indian Ocean. He might have received some political criticism, but what would have that been to the loss of these ships for no strategic, operational, or tactical gain?

So, with that in mind and with the possibility that the Chinese Navy could surprise the United States Navy in the South China Sea, I bid you an unsettled night.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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4 Comments

Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, World War II at Sea

4 responses to “A Futile Sacrifice: The Sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse

  1. David W. Harris

    I agree with you that these great ships would have been better employed with the U.S.Pacific Fleet however there are a number of reasons why this could not have happened. Although Britain is now America’s intern in 1940/1 we were dependent upon the U.S. for industrial support and credit but our politics were very distant and the long term policy of Britain was to support the Empire from New Zealand to Hong Kong by holding fortress Singapore until a strong fleet could arrive to restore the situation. This made sense until war with Germany occurred. Rigid political thinking and rigid military thinking prevented a change of policy. Britain had fought on alone and had to decide policy and strategy independently. Even though the our newest aircraft carrier was to join the two great ships I cannot believe that Churchill true.y believed this small fleet would defeat or dissuade the Japanese to abandon their plan of conquest. Churchill would have known that if he did not support the Empire countries on the far side of the world their governments would have lost all trust and support for Britain. This would have led to an immediate removal of Empire military forces fro the home and Mediterranean theatres of operations to defend their home lands, there was some recall of Empire Forces and this caused some shortages and difficulties.
    The resultant Axis control of the Middle East might have lost or prolonged the war for years. Like you I think Admiral Phillips was entirely wrong for the job, which was a poisoned chalice indeed but what British admiral could have gathered the fleet and sailed it to a base remote fron Singapore ? Perhaps to lose Phillips did less harm to our war effort than the loss of Somerville, Cunningham or an accelerated Fraser or Burnett. Remember the fate of Admiral Bing when he failed to capture Minorca, I bet no British admiral forgot it, Nelson is the great icon of the Royal Navy. I never forget the sinking of Repulse not just for her beauty and speed but because my mother’s cousin was one of the men that built her. Regards.

    • padresteve

      David,

      I totally agree with your assessment. I think the strategy of ensuring the empire countries remained in the could have been better fulfilled by stationing them in Australia where they could have operated with the Australian and New Zealand Navies and also had the support of the U.S. Navy.

      • Tony

        I’ve just discovered that my grandad’s brother was onboard HMS Repulse and hence found this article after searching on google. His name was David Leslie Price and he was a radio operator, unfortunately, he died that day along with the many others onboard the two ships. Such a waste of life

      • padresteve

        Tony,
        That is amazing. She was a fine ship with a fine crew. Such a tragic waste of lives.
        Many blessings,
        Steve+

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