The loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse

By MSW Add a Comment 11 Min Read

HMS Repulse by Jaap Pluimgraaff

Prince of Wales under Attack

The Japanese strategists had a single-mindedness that included the assumption that the enemy would respond the way they, themselves would. The blunting of the American battlefleet at Pearl was considered in the plans as protecting the left flank of the overall assault. The right flank was to hold on, if the British fleet threatened the right, until the striking forces from Kido Butai were able to reinforce.

The sinking of the H.M.S. Prince of Wales and H.M.S. Repulse was as much a pleasant surprise to the Japanese as it was a shock to the British. As far as the strategic plans, it was a bit of opportunism. The drive through the center, into Java, Sumatra, and New Guinea, could now proceed unimpeded.

The newest RN battleships of World War II were the King George V class (King George V, Prince of Wales, Duke of York, Anson, and Howe, not to be confused with the King George V class of 1911–1912). Again, one unit of this class, Prince of Wales, was lost during the war, this time to aerial attack by the Japanese in December 1941. The class was severely criticized for its 14-inch main guns. This retrograde decision (after all, the considerably older Nelson and Rodney boasted 16- inch guns) was made in order to get at least the first two units of the class completed in 1940, by which date conflict with Germany was expected. As it was, only King George V was ready for service in 1940. Like the Nelson class, the King George V class had significant main gun mounting problems. Nonetheless, the Royal Navy generally felt that the class gave good value for the money.

Within days after Pearl Harbor, the Royal Navy suffered a worse disaster with the loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse. Admiral Sir Tom Philips, RN commander of the British Pacific Fleet, was convinced (as was Winston Churchill, apparently) that a well-handled battleship could fight off aerial attackers. Admiral Philips learned the hard way how wrong he was. Japanese aerial torpedoes on 10 December sank Prince of Wales, along with Repulse, off the Malay coast in less than two hours. Admiral Philips was not among the survivors.

The loss of these warships was a greater blow to the British than Pearl Harbor was to the Americans. Although the Pearl Harbor united Americans in their resolve to crush the Japanese, the Malayan disaster unnerved the British. They handed over Malaya-Singapore without effective resistance, even though they well outnumbered the Japanese. In the long run, the loss of the Singapore bastion signaled the end of European colonialism in Asia. Anyone could see that Asians had badly beaten Europeans with their own modern weapons.


Wargame Scenario

The Prince of Wales and Repulse sailed from Singapore in early Dec 1941 looking for the Japanese invasion fleet (heading for Northern Malaya, Southern Thailand).

Seems like an interesting scenario if the British came upon the Japanese either in day or night.

The DD were Electra, Express, Vampire and Tenedos; this last was detached to refuel at one point.

Japanese Forces

A heavy cruiser, 10 destroyers, and a handful of smaller craft escorted the Japanese transports. The covering force consisted of four cruisers and four destroyers. 12 subs were deployed in the Gulf of Thailand, and a distant covering force of Haruna, Kongo, two CAs and 10 destroyers were in the area also. The British had 13 Buffalo fighters, the Japanese had 39 Zeros and 6 recon planes at Soktran, and 72 Nell bombers, 28 Betty bombers and 12 Claude fighters near Saigon. All the Japanese pilots were very experienced thanks to war service in China.

That’s a total of 157 aircraft, 24 destroyers, 7 cruisers, and two battleships Versus 2 one battleship, one battlecruiser, and three destroyers (one being sent off to get fuel).

Not good odds for the British, any way you look at it. Churchill and the Admiralty knew it too. They had no idea that Force Z had sailed, and as it was being sunk Churchill was meeting with his advisors trying to decide where he should have Repulse and Prince of Wales retreat to so that they would be out of harm’s way. When he found out they had sailed and were sunk, he claimed he was more shaken than at any other time in his life.


Masanori Ito quotes 15 torpedoes launched at Prince of Wales, and 34 dropped on Repulse.

He credits the British with rather well aimed, if light, AA fire. He quotes three planes shot down, one crashing on landing, two others heavily damaged but landing safely, and 25 more slightly damaged. Prince of Wales was the more effective of the two throughout the battle, hitting 8 of the planes in the first attack and even after being mortally wounded hitting 5 out of 8 planes of the Takeda Group in the last attack.

The cruisers were Chokai, Kumano, Suzuya, Mikuma, and Mogami. Mogami was with the transports, the rest were with the covering force. I-59 was the sub that first spotted force Z.

The Prince of Wales had a Type 281search radar installed in January of 1941, which could detect a battleship-sized object at 10 miles. It could not, however, be used for main gunnery control. Before sailing to Singapore, Type 272 radar was fitted to the two main battery directors and Type 285 fire-control radar was fitted for the 5.25 inch guns. Finally, the four pom-poms were fitted with Type 282 radar. However, the crews were poorly and very briefly trained, and when she was lost many of these sets were not operational. I’m not sure that the British radar would be a decisive factor like it was a North Cape, where Duke of York had newer sets and highly trained crews.

With that said, the Kongos were some of the weakest battleships of the war (second only to the good looking but inadequately armed and protected Italian rebuilds). Prince of Wales’s 14” guns can slice into a Kongo’s vitals at any range under 25000 yards, which is the maximum you are going to hit anything at anyway. Even the best protected part of a rebuild Kongo, the 10″ thick barbettes, offer no protection inside 23000 yards. Repulse’s 15” guns penetrate even better than the 14″ at longer ranges. The Kongos will not last long under fire.

Repulse has no hope of stopping an incoming shell either, but Prince of Wales has a nice immunity zone. Combined with the radar, these factors add up to a victory in a two on two for the British. The Japanese knew it too, that’s why the 2 Kongos were a distant covering force, cruisers and destroyers covered the landing, and aircraft were used for the attack.

The problem is that this is NOT going to be a two on two if the aircraft are removed from the fight. The Allies had no clue that the Long Lance torpedo had the range that it did until well into the war. In the early battles in the Java Sea, Allied crews thought they had stumbled into a minefield when the torpedoes started striking, as they never even imagined a torpedo could have made it that far. The Japanese were not shy about using them either, as they launched them in mass attacks of up to 45 at a time. With 5 heavy cruisers and 14 destroyers carrying dozens of these weapons (plus reloads), the Japanese are going to flood the waters with torpedoes. Repulse has pitiful underwater protection, and Prince of Wales’s did not even hold up to the much smaller air-launched torpedoes, so the British ships will not last long. The British radar might not even detect the launching destroyers and cruisers, so the British will not even know that they are under attack until the Long Lances strike home. One or two should kill Repulse, and 3 should end it for Prince of Wales.

Force Z did not have much of a chance. Churchill was right: the only thing that could have save these two ships was having them fall back to Ceylon.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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