Remembering the Prince of Wales Battleship
A British Naval Squadron
Force Z is a British naval squadron that consists of two capital ships, which are the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and a battlecruiser HMS Repulse and four accompanying destroyers: HMS Electra, HMS Express, HMS Encounter and the HMS Jupiter.
However, HMS Vampire and HMS Tenedos were the replacement for the HMS Encounter and HMS Jupiter due to a severe damage that needed to be repaired at Singapore. Even though, they look like a force to be reckoned with, there is lack of air protection. Initially, there was supposed to be an aircraft carrier to be included called the HMS Indomitable but was unable to join after running aground in the Caribbean during working up trials; and HMS Hermes was to be the replacement but it was too slow. Therefore, the Force Z was left with a lack of air cover.
Japan knew from its reliable intelligence sources that HMS, Prince of Wales and other British ships that were prepared to be ready in Singapore by then were not in their profitable condition. Prince of Wales and Repulse usually had never been released from the escort of the carrier ship Indomitable functioning to give the air protection or naval air cover, but by then Indomitable was docking for repair.
For Japan, particularly for Admiral Yamamoto as the thinker of maritime strategy, the backbone of a fleet relied on the carrier ship, since it was only a carrier ship, which was capable of providing good air cover, and at the same time using the fighter planes she carried to attack the enemy. Without the presence of a carrier ship, as experienced by the aforesaid British battle ships, put them in weak condition.
Seeing the weakness in the enemy’s side, Japan planned a landing in the Malay Peninsula in three different places. This plan had already been made since early November 1941, still far from the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor. And at the beginning of December 1941, the Japanese amphibian task force including 19 ships of LST (Landing Ship Tank) had been waiting and dropping the anchor at Samah waters, Hainan. It was planned that the aforesaid task force would pass through the Siamese Gulf to do the landing in Malay.
Japan had realized that its task force would face the risk of failure if they had to deal with HMS Princes of Wales, Repulse and some other British destroyer ships. Therefore, it was determined to have three places of landing. This was intended to attract all the British air power available in land from the three battle fields with the purpose that the movement of the British battle ships would get no air protection. On the other hand, Japan had already been ready to attack the British ships with its torpedo bomber fighter planes whose base was in Indochina.
Admiral Tom Philips who was on board the HMS Prince of Wales realized that his condition was weak since there was no carrier ship. He did not realize either that there was an air threat to his fleet if he moved Northwards. However, in the effort to prevent Japanese landing in Malaya, Sir Tom Phillips was bound by Navy tradition that the Navy could not keep silent and do nothing and let the Air Force and Army struggle alone to defend themselves. Therefore on December 8, Tom Phillips ordered his squadron to move out toward the Siamese Gulf. The squadron by then consisted of five ships, namely the Princes of Wales battleship, the cruiser Repulse and three destroyers.
The aforesaid ships were moving and maneuvering to look for the Japanese task forces with the goal to destroy them before reaching their landing places. Sir Tom Phillips took a very brave decision although he knew that all the fighter planes on land would be mobilized to hit the Japanese landing.
On December 8, Japan tried to land in Kota Bharu, Malay, but was stricken to retreat. When the Princes of Wales arrived in those waters, the Japanese task force had already been withdrawn backwards. This was not known by Sir Tom Phillips, so he continued his search Northwards.
On Dec 9, Sir Tom Phillips realized that the position of his ships had been 150 miles from South Indochina, and 250 miles East of the Malay Peninsula, had already been entering the radius of air raid that was possibly conducted by Japan from Indochina. Therefore, he ordered his squadron to turn their directions back, and in full speed returned to Singapore.
If Sir Tom Phillips moved directly to Singapore, the history would tell another story………..
Before midnight on Dec 9, he got an intelligence report that by then Japan had already landed in Kuantan, a place located in between Kota Bharu and Singapore. Sir Tom Philips thought that the condition would be very dangerous if Japan succeeded in landing in Kuantan. Therefore, he turned the direction of his fleet directly towards the Kuantan waters in order to destroy the Japanese task force. However, it was found out that such intelligence report was mistaken.
In the morning of Dec 10 when arriving in Kuantan waters, the Prince of Wales and Repulse were attacked in surprise by approximately 100 Japanese torpedo bomber fighter planes. These two ships were badly destroyed and got sunk together with Admiral Tom Phillips.
Regarding Phillips’ decision to proceed without air cover, naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote:
“Those who make the decisions in war are constantly weighing certain risks against possible gains. At the outset of hostilities Admiral Hart thought of sending his small striking force north of Luzon to challenge Japanese communications, but decided that the risk to his ships outweighed the possible gain because the enemy had won control of the air. Admiral Phillips had precisely the same problem in Malaya. Should he steam into the Gulf of Siam and expose his ships to air attack from Indochina in the hope of breaking enemy communications with their landing force? He decided to take the chance. With the Royal Air Force and the British Army fighting for their lives, the Royal Navy could not be true to its tradition by remaining idly at anchor.”
The books ‘Sun Tzu and Naval Strategy’ and ‘Other Views of Naval Battles’, by Gatot Soedarto, Amazon, 2012/2014.