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World War II: Sinking of Force Z

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World War II: Sinking of Force Z

HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse under air attack, December 10, 1941

Photograph Courtesy of the US Navy History & Heritage Command

Sinking of Force Z - Conflict & Dates:

Force Z was attacked by Japanese aircraft on December 10, 1941, during World War II (1939-1941).

Fleets & Commanders

Great Britain

  • Admiral Sir Tom Phillips
  • Captain John Leach
  • Captain William Tennant
  • 1 battleship, 1 battlecruiser, 4 destroyers

    Japan

  • Lieutenant Commander Niichi Nakanishi
  • Lieutenant Commander Shichizo Miyauchi
  • Lieutenant Hachiro Shoji
  • 88 aircraft

  • Sinking of Force Z - Background:

    As tensions with Japan began to rise in late 1941, Britain looked to bolster their position in the Far East. Already deeply embroiled on multiple fronts against Germany and Italy, the Royal Navy's options were limited in regard to available reinforcements. Though First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound argued that the key base at Singapore could only be held by diverting the bulk of the Royal Navy's capital ships to the region, Prime Minister Winston Churchill felt that the arrival of two or three capital ships would serve as a deterrent against Japanese expansionism. With the situation in Europe improving slightly, Churchill directed that the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, and the new carrier HMS Indomitable be sent to Singapore.

    Sinking of Force Z - Departure:

    Having clashed with Bismarck at the Battle of the Denmark Strait earlier that year, Prince of Wales was one of the Royal Navy's newest battleships. Conversely, Repulse had joined the fleet in 1916 and was a veteran of World War I. Like Prince of Wales, Indomitable was a new ship and entered commission in October 1941. Sailing for the Caribbean on its maiden voyage, it struck a reef near Jamaica on November 3. The grounding caused enough damage that the carrier was sent to Norfolk, VA for repairs. As result, Prince of Wales, Repulse, and four destroyers, collectively dubbed Force G, sailed for the Far East without it.

    En route, they passed the carrier HMS Hermes and some thought was given to having it replace Indomitable in Force G. This was quickly discarded as Hermes lacked sufficient speed to operate with the other capital ships. Reaching Singapore on December 2, 1941, Force G was redesignated Force Z and came under the direction of newly-appointed Eastern Fleet commander Admiral Sir Tom Phillips. Assessing the strategic situation, Phillips entered into contact with the American commanders in the Philippines, General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Thomas C. Hart, to discuss plans should war with Japan begin.

    Sinking of Force Z - Japanese Response:

    Aware of the arrival of Force Z from Churchill's public statements, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, directed that additional bombers be sent to occupied French Indochina. These saw thirty-six modern Mitsubishi G4M (Betty) bombers reinforce the Genzan, Kanoya, and Mihoro Air Groups which largely flew aging Mitsubishi G3Ms (Nell). In addition, Japanese air crews began training for strikes against maneuvering capital ships at sea. These aircraft were in place when the Japanese opened hostilities on December 7/8.

    Sinking of Force Z - Phillips' Response:

    Pressing forward, Japanese forces began landing at Kota Bharu shortly after midnight on December 8. This was followed by air attacks on Singapore that morning. During the raid, the ships of Force Z aided the anti-aircraft defense and escaped undamaged. Learning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Phillips soon concluded that the prewar Anglo-American plans, which called for joint action in the defense of the Philippines and Singapore, would be impossible. With the Japanese making swift gains on the Malayan Peninsula, Phillips looked for ways to aid in its defense. Though MacArthur and Hart had advised him that Prince of Wales and Repulse would be insufficient for halting the Japanese, he began planning an operation to strike at the Japanese invasion convoys.

    In making his plans, Phillips turned down offers of air cover from the Royal Air Force. This could have been provided by Flight Lieutenant Tim Vigors' No. 453 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force which was based at RAF Sembawang. This decision may have been influenced by Phillips' confidence in his ships' anti-aircraft defenses as well as the fact that no major capital ship had be ever been sunk at sea by aircraft alone. Learning of a Japanese convoy bound for Malaya, Phillips sailed with Prince of Wales, Repulse, and the destroyers HMS Electra, HMS Express, HMS Tenedos, and HMAS Vampire at 5:10 PM on December 8. Turning north, he hoped to attack the Japanese near Singora on December 10.

    Sinking of Force Z - Moving North:

    At 2:00 PM on December 9, the Japanese submarine I-65 spotted Force Z and began shadowing the British ships. Reporting their position, it lost contact after five hours. Alerted to Phillips' movement, Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa directed his warships to escort the invasion fleet back to Cam Ranh Bay. Around 5:30 PM, two Japanese scout planes again located Force Z and reported its position. Ashore, the Japanese air groups began preparing to mount an attack as there was concern that the British would locate the invasion convoy. Electing to abandon the attack on Singora, Phillips turned south at 8:15 PM. Launching after dark, the Japanese aircraft failed to locate the British ships.

    A short time later, a Japanese scout aircraft accidently dropped a flare over the heavy cruiser Chokai which was serving as a convoy escort. This was seen by Phillips whose force was five miles away. Believing his ships had been detected as the Japanese were not visible on Prince of Wales' radar, he ordered Force Z to return to Singapore at 8:55 PM. After midnight, Phillips received a false report of enemy landings at Kuantan and turned in that direction. At 3:40 AM on December 10, the submarine I-58 spotted the British and reported their position. Having armed their aircraft with bombs and torpedoes, the three Japanese air groups began launching at 7:55 AM.

    Sinking of Force Z - The Japanese Attack:

    Around 10:00 AM, Phillips began getting reports from Tenedos, which had been detached earlier, that it was under attack. Mistaking the destroyer for one of the larger ships, nine G3Ms from the Genzan Air Group had begun bombing it. Fifteen minutes later, Force Z was spotted by a Japanese scout plane which reported its precise position. Converging on the location, the Japanese bombers began attacking in small groups. The first wave, consisting of eight G3Ms, arrived at 11:13 AM and attacked Repulse with bombs, scoring one hit which did minor damage. Around 11:40 AM, seventeen torpedo-equipped G3Ms arrived with nine attacking Prince of Wales and eight attacking Repulse. While the latter ship survived unscathed, Prince of Wales sustained a hit where its outer port propeller shaft exited the hull. Causing severe flooding, the damage also slowed the ship to 16 knots and led to an 11.5 degree list. The hit also cut electrical power which left pumps inoperable and many anti-aircraft mounts unable to traverse.

    At 12:20 PM, Prince of Wales took three torpedo hits to its starboard side from G4Ms flown by the Kanoya Air Group. Kanoya aircraft also struck at Repulse and attacked both sides of the ship. Bracketed, it was hit by four torpedoes. Lacking anti-torpedo blisters, Repulse quickly began to flood and Captain William Tennant ordered abandon ship. Capsizing, it sank at 12:33 PM. Clinging to life and limping along on one propeller, Prince of Wales came under a bomb attack eight minutes later. Taking one hit, it slowly began rolling to port. Coming alongside, Express began removing the ship's crew. At 1:18 PM, Prince of Wales capsized and hit the destroyer as it sank. Though taking minor damage, Express survived.

    Sinking of Force Z - Aftermath

    As the battleship sank, No. 453 Squadron arrived in area. Their assistance had been requested by Repulse approximately an hour after the attacks began. As the Japanese bombers were gone, they remained to cover the destroyers as they picked up survivors. In the sinking of Force Z, the Royal Navy lost a battleship, a battlecruiser, and 840 sailors killed, including Phillips. Japanese losses amounted to three aircraft and 18 dead. Learning of the loss of the two ships, Churchill later commented, "In all the war, I never received a more direct shock." The loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse left the Allies with only three operational capital ships in the Pacific (the carriers USS Enterprise, USS Lexington, and USS Saratoga). Though Force Z had been destroyed, British forces continued to fight along the Malayan Peninsula until finally being defeated at the Battle of Singapore on February 15, 1942.

    Selected Source

  • Force Z & Singapore
  • BBC: Loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse

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