From Samuel Eliot Morison's "History of US Naval Operations in World War Two"
Admiral Sir Tom Phillips's battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse were the core of a strong but unbalanced task force based on Singapore. It should have included HM carrier Indomitable, but she ran aground and left the capital ships without naval air cover. The Japanese, by striking at three points almost simultaneously, hoped to attract all available land-based fighters of the Royal Air Force and leave Phillips without air cover when they were ready for him; and he steamed right into this trap.
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.
So Prince of Wales and Repulse, escorted by destroyers Electra, Express, Vampire and Tenedos, sailed from Singapore at 1735 December 8. Admiral Phillips left his chief of staff at the command post ashore and flew his flag in Prince of Wales. Shortly after midnight
Shortly after midnight the chief of staff radioed that the Royal Air Force was so pressed by giving ground support to land operations that the Admiral could expect no air cover off Singora; that Japanese heavy bombers were already in southern Indochina; and that General MacArthur had been asked to send Brereton's Flying Fortresses to attack their bases. Little did he know that the United States Army Air Forces of the Far East were in a desperate situation. The Japanese invasion force was already well established in the peninsular section of Thailand, a country that had promptly surrendered. At Kota Bharu within British Malaya there was bitter fighting in a series of rear guard actions fought desperately by British and native troops. But by the time the British warships arrived, their opportunity had passed; the vulnerable transports were already returning to base. Admiral Phillips did not realize this.
He steamed north, leaving the Anambas Islands to port, and at 0629 December 9 received word that destroyer Vampire had sighted an enemy plane.
Phillips was entering the Japanese air radius without air cover, but he still hoped to surprise a Japanese convoy at Singora. So on he sped to a position some 150 miles south of Indochina and 250 miles east of the Malay Peninsula. At 1830, when the weather cleared and three Japanese naval reconnaissance planes were sighted from the flagship, he realized that his position was precarious and untenable. Reluctantly he reversed course to return to Singapore at high speed. It would have been a happy ending had he persisted in this resolve.
As he steamed south, dispatches from Singapore portrayed impending doom on the shores of Malaya. The British Army was falling back fast. Shortly before midnight 9 December word came through of an enemy landing at Kuantan, halfway between Kota Bharu and Singapore. Admiral Phillips, in view of the imminent danger to Singapore, decided to risk his force in a strike on Kuantan. But the report was false, and his brave reaction to it proved fatal.
At dawn 10 December an unidentified plane was sighted about 60 miles off Kuantan.The Admiral continued on his course but launched a reconnaissance plane from Prince of Wales.It found no evidence of the enemy. Destroyer Express steamed ahead to reconnoitre the harbor of Kuantan, found it deserted, and closed the flagship again at 0835. Not yet suspecting that his intelligence from Singapore was faulty, the Admiral continued to search for a nonexistent surface enemy, first to the northward and then to the eastward. At about 1020 December 10 an enemy plane was sighted shadowing Prince of Wales. The crews immediately assumed anti-aircraft stations. Shortly after noon the ships were attacked by nine enemy bombers. More and more came out, high-level and Navy torpedo-bombers, almost 100 in number, all shore-based.
They inflicted lethal wounds on both capital ships. Repulse rolled over at 1233; Prince of Wales turned turtle and sank within an hour,hitting Express as she went down. Many survivors were picked up by the destroyers, but neither Admiral Phillips nor the captain of the Prince was among them.
The effect of this action was, literally, terrific. Our battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor had been "sitting ducks," but no free-moving battleship had yet been sunk by air power.
The stock of the battlewagon went down, air power advocates were jubilant, and the half-truth "Capital ships cannot withstand land-based air power" became elevated to the dignity of a tactical principle that none dared take the risk to disprove. And the Japanese had disposed of the only Allied battleship and battle cruiser in the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii. The Allies lost face throughout the Orient and began to lose confidence in themselves.
Methodically and relentlessly the Japanese forces drove down the Malay Peninsula.British, Australian and native troops fought valiantly but, as at Bataan, with the increasing knowledge that theirs was a lost cause . . .
[ From S.E. Morison "History of United States
Naval Operations in World War II"
Volume III "The Rising Sun in the Pacific" pages 188-190
( published by Little, Brown & Company, Boston September 1948 )]
Other Accounts of the Battle
Captain Stephen Roskill RN - from "The Navy at War 1939-45"
Barnett - from "Engage the Enemy More Closely"
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