Sunday, 8 December 2013

Lightning Strikes Twice – The Sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse

This week we generally remember the events of 7th December 1941 when aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy fell upon the US naval base at Pearl Harbour and the Second World War went global.

10th December 1941
It remains one of the most audacious military operations of all time and was followed up by attacks the following day on the British possessions of Malaya and Hong Kong and on the American held island of Guam. Having dealt their tremendous blow to the US Pacific fleet, the Japanese actions of 8th December were launched with a confidence in their success which may have been owed in great measure to a critical British intelligence blunder of over a year before. A heavy price was paid two  days later on 10th December with the loss of the capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse.
On 11th November 1940 the Blue Funnel steamer SS Automedon had been steaming towards Singapore, 250 miles off the western tip of Sumatra when she was intercepted by the German surface raider Atlantis. This most successful German armed merchantman of the war had been terrorising allied shipping in the Atlantic, Indian Ocean and Pacific. Under her swashbuckling captain Bernhard Rogge (pictured below) the ship was a master of disguise, concealing her six inch guns beneath false canvas deck structures and side flaps, altering her silhouette with false masts and funnels and sailing under Soviet, Japanese, British, Dutch and Norwegian colours.

By the time she crossed the path of the Automedon, Atlantis had accounted for a dozen allied merchantmen in the past six months, sinking nine and capturing three as well as laying a minefield off of Cape Agulhas. The Automedon however was a prize of a different magnitude. Having raked Automedon with gunfire and left her a listing wreck with six of her crew dead, the crew of the Atlantis boarded the stricken ship.

On board they discovered bags full of secret mail, decoding tables and classified naval documents and the greatest prize of all was found inside a green bag marked ‘highly confidential – to be destroyed'. It was nothing less than a copy of the Chiefs of Staff Far Eastern Appraisal, intended for the eyes of the new Commander in Chief for the Far East ,Sir Robert Brooke Popham. This document which listed air, naval and troop strengths in the region also carried a gloomy assessment of the British position in the Far East, the vulnerability of Singapore, the inadequacy of its defences, the lack of available warships which could be sent to defend it, given the present state of war with Germany and the frank dismissal of the chances of any attempts to relieve or retake the colony in the event of its capture by the Japanese.
It was  intelligence dynamite and Rogge could hardly believe that such a sensitive document had been sent by such an insecure means. Popham would never see the document, instead within a month it was on the desk of the Japanese naval attaché in Berlin. The rest as they say is history.

SS Automedon
On 4th December 1941 the battleships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse sailed into Singapore harbour, their mission to deter Japanese ambitions in the region. Far from deterred, the Japanese had made their preparations in the knowledge that these ships represented the full extent of the British commitment to the protection of their far eastern colonies and that they were depending on reinforcement by the US Pacific fleet in the event of war. In July 1941 Japanese forces had moved to extend their occupation of Vichy French Indochina, securing key naval and air bases, fully aware from the captured appraisal that such a move would not precipitate any military action against them by the British.
The bulk of the Japanese carrier force was available for the fateful attack on Pearl Harbour on 7th December, with the attack having been planned on the understanding that no substantial British fleet would be sent to the Pacific theatre. On the following day Japanese aircraft began to bomb Hong Kong and troops began landing at Kota Bharu in northern Malaya.
HMS Prince of Wales
In the early hours of Tuesday 9th December 1941 Force Z comprising the new battleship Prince of Wales, the veteran battle cruiser Repulse which had seen action in WW1 and the destroyers Electra, Express, Tenedos and Vampire sailed from Singapore in order to attack the Japanese transports supplying the landings at Kota Bharu and perhaps seeking an encounter with the battleship Kongo, which was known to be in the area.
The Prince of Wales, serving as the flag ship of Force Z commander Vice-Admiral Tom Phillips, had been commissioned for less than a year but had already born witness to one British naval disaster. In May 1941 she had fought in the engagement with the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait which led to the sinking of HMS Hood. Having survived this encounter, Prince of Wales had transported Churchill to his meeting with Roosevelt in Newfoundland in August before being redeployed to the Pacific.
Steaming north 250 miles off the Malayan coast Force Z was spotted by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft. Fatefully the carrier HMS Indomitable which had been intended to join Force Z in the Pacific had been damaged by running aground on her maiden voyage and thus the British force was proceeding without air cover. Phillips had a dismissive attitude towards the threat posed towards capital ships at sea by aircraft and had refused offers of air cover from Australian and New Zealand Air Force units stationed in Malaya. It was a view shared by many senior naval officers and one which would be substantially revised within the next 24 hours. Nevertheless Phillips (pictured right) appreciated that he had lost the element of surprise and decided to reverse his course and steam back to Singapore. During the night in poor conditions a Japanese bomber strike sent out against force Z instead attacked their own cruiser Chokai which was at the time just five miles to the north of the British ships.
At midnight a false report came through of new Japanese landings at Kuantan, midway between Kota Bharu and Singapore. Phillips took the fateful decision to sail towards Kuantan, where at dawn on 10th December, sixty miles from the Malayan coast, Force Z was once more spotted by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft.

G3M 'Nell' torpedo bomber
The fate of Prince of Wales and Repulse was sealed. From airfields established in former French Indo-China waves of G3M ‘Nell’ bombers were sent to engage the British ships. The first wave mistook the destroyer Tenedos for a capital ship and wasted their bombs in an unsuccessful attack upon her. Successive waves of Nells then came upon the main force. The first wave of eight aircraft carried 500lb bombs which they dropped on Repulse, with only one hit which penetrated to the hanger deck but did no significant damage. This first wave were seen off with AA fire but another seventeen Nell bombers approached carrying torpedoes; splitting into two formations and attacking both ships at once. Prince of Wales was hit by two torpedoes on the stern and aft port quarter which inflicted crippling damage and flooding and caused her to slow and list.
At this point Repulse, relatively undamaged, radioed for air cover but the squadron of Australian Brewster Buffalo fighters that were scrambled would arrive too late to save the battleships. Another wave of 26 Japanese bombers, G4M ‘Bettys’ now closed in and split to attack both ships once more. Prince of Wales was hit by four torpedoes on the starboard side which destroyed her remaining good propeller shaft and caused further catastrophic flooding.

HMS Repulse
Twenty Bettys along with the surviving G3M bombers from the very first wave now concentrated on Repulse which manoeuvred frantically to avoid their torpedo and bomb attacks but was unable to evade attacks coming simultaneously from port and starboard. Four torpedo strikes did fatal damage and the order was given to abandon ship. Just eleven minutes after the first torpedo hit, Repulse sank. A final attack by eight aircraft carrying 1000lb bombs scored a single hit on Prince of Wales, bringing her to a halt. As the destroyer Express came alongside to assist, Phillips persisted in doomed attempts to save the ship and ordered them away. The order to abandon ship came 35 minutes after the final fatal bomb attack and Prince of Wales capsized and sank eight minutes later.
Admiral Phillips and Captain Leech of the Prince of Wales went down with the ship along with 325 of her crew. Captain Tennant of the Repulse was rescued but 513 men went down with the stricken cruiser. 2081 survivors were taken off or rescued from the water by the destroyers. Just two minutes after the Prince of Wales sank the air cover arrived, too late to do anything but chase off the remaining bombers. Japanese losses amounted to just four aircraft, with seventeen men killed. Phillips has been widely condemned for his failure to call for air support at any point during the attack.
Brewster Buffalo aircraft of the Australian 453 Squadron were called in too late
Singapore fell on February 15th 1942. Many of those who had survived the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse were killed during the evacuation or taken prisoner. See links below for a personal account from one survivor.
The raider Atlantis was sunk by HMS Devonshire in October 1942. Her commander Bernhard Rogge survived the war having received the knights cross for his efforts as well as being presented with a ceremonial samurai sword by the Japanese for his actions in the capture of the Automedon. This extremely rare honour for a foreigner is telling as to the significance of the ship’s capture to the success of future Japanese plans.

The raider Atlantis
Footage of the sinking
Discussion of the significance of the capture of Automedon

Force Z in detail

More naval warfare posts from Slings and Arrows

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