On today’s date, December 10, in 1941 the battleship HMS Prince of Wales (above) was sunk in the Gulf of Siam after a severe mauling by Japanese land-based aircraft flying from Indochina to intercept her. The cruiser HMS Repulse, which was with her at the time was also lost that day. The loss of two such important capitol ships, coming as it did just days after the attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, dealt a second consecutive hammer blow to Allied morale right at the beginning of long and bloody struggle to defeat Imperial Japan. Moreover, it ended the long rule of big-gun line of battle ships over the seas. That reign which had begun with the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, was shattered in just a few short hours. Air power – naval air power – the kind that could project a nation’s power into distant places.. such as Osama Bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan – was the way of the future.
The Big Gun Ships Slug it Out….
For over a century, it had been a pillar of Naval thought that the biggest ships with the biggest guns would rule the waves. And since the days of sail this thought had dominated the defensive plans of sea faring nations such as the United States, Great Britain, and Japan, and also Germany. The Battle of Tsushima in which Japan smashed a Russian fleet in 1905, and the Battle of Jutland in 1915 in which Britain out-dueled Germany seemed to bear this out. But the advent of Naval air power with which squadrons of small planes could swarm all over these big ships like a cloud of angry bees and bring them to heel was close at hand in 1941. The action between this very ship, the new and very powerful HMS Prince of Wales and the mighty German Battleship Bismarck in May of 1941 had made that clear enough: the big ships slugged it out for hours, but in the end it was British torpedo planes launched from an aircraft carrier that finished Bismarck by destroying her rudder. And then at Pearl Harbor, American battleships had all been vanquished by carrier-based Japanese aircraft.
But Aircraft Wins in the End
So it was that the British admiralty ordered a flotilla consisting of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales (35,000 tons), the heavy cruiser HMS Repulse (32,000 tons) and four destroyers to intercept and destroy Japanese troop transports ferrying troops into Malaya and towards Singapore. Admiral Sir Thomas Phillips, commanding this group did not appear to realize how vulnerable his big ships were to land-based Japanese aircraft flying out of bases in Japanese-occupied French Indochina. But on December 10 his mighty big gun, heavily armored ships came under attack by Japanese bombers from the land-based 22nd Air Flotilla (The Map above can be enlarged by clicking on it twice). The result was the death of both ships from waves of bombs and torpedoes from more modern versions of the very same low flying torpedo planes which had doomed the Bismarck and the American battleships at Pearl Harbor. These attacks were from land-based bombers, but they made it clear that the big battle ships were hopeless sitting ducks unless they were protected by naval air cover, the very type whose absence had doomed the Bismarck, the American fleet at Pearl Harbor just three days earlier, and now the Brits.
“Gracefully, but tragically…”
One account of the last moments of this mighty battlewagon was given by a survivor, R.V. Ward:
“Now the ship was sinking lower and the list increasing, so the Commander ordered us to get out on deck — he stayed behind and was lost. We left through the escape ‘tube’, inside which were small footholds, but the tube was too narrow for us to enter it without first removing our life jackets — obviously an unwise, though inevitable thing to do, considering our prospects for the next few minutes. A young sub-lieutenant was ahead of me and part way up the tube he declared he could go no further, at which I gave his bottom a huge shove so that he struggled to the hatch at the top (fortunately it was not clipped shut) and we were out on deck seeing the damage for the first time. HMS Express was alongside; men boarding her along ropes, jumping from P.O.W. Some missing the deck and being caught between the two ships. Some wounded were successfully transferred to safety. Because the rising keel of the P.O.W. was threatening the stability of Express, she withdrew to a safer position.
“I slid down the starboard side of the ship as far as the armoured layer and then jumped clear into the oily sea and put a fair distance — say 5 yards between me and the fated ship. Non swimmers were going under and I could hear the crashing of heavy items below decks, falling from deck to deck head (floor to ceiling). In the water there were several large baulks of timber, which had been stored on deck, presumably for emergency repair work during the voyage. I swam to one of these and helped about ten men to join me, showing them how to do a clumsy breast stroke to keep afloat. There were some carley floats around but they were all more than full. We swam for a total of one and a half hours and then Express returned, P.O.W. having gone under — gracefully but tragically — so we swam towards her and safety”
Prime Minister Churchill remembered his feelings after being told:
“In all the war, I never received a more direct shock… As I turned over and twisted in bed the full horror of the news sank in upon me. There were no British or American ships in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific except the American survivors of Pearl Harbor, who were hastening back to California. Over all this vast expanse of waters Japan was supreme, and we everywhere were weak and naked.”
“The American Heritage History of World War II” by C.L. Sulzberger, American Heritage Publ. Co., New York, 1966.