Before the Sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse I

Admiral Sir Tom Phillips (centre)

William G. Tennant of Repulse, shown later as a Vice Admiral. (Imperial War Museum)

Three days after Rear-Admiral Sir Tom Phillips arrived in Singapore to begin talks with Air Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, the C-in-C Far East, and the Army’s GOC, Lt-General Arthur Percival, the Prince of Wales and Repulse entered the Johore Strait and proceeded towards their berths in the new dockyard. The fact that the two capital ships had passed down the potentially dangerous Malacca Strait without fighter protection from shore-based squadrons in western Malaya did not appear to disturb the Admiral’s equanimity, although both Captain Tennant of Repulse and, somewhat surprisingly, the Army’s General Percival had some scathing remarks to make about the RAF’s failure to provide even routine air cover.

Phillips’ apparent lack of concern reflected his deeply held conviction that ships’ guns alone would defend the fleet from even the most determined air attack. In addition he shared Churchill’s low opinion of Japanese air power and had, some months earlier, expressed the view that ‘the Japanese air forces, both naval and military, were of much the same quality as the Italian and markedly inferior to the Luftwaffe’. For a man without first-hand experience of attack by either of the latter and who was, in common with everyone else, totally ignorant of the capabilitites of the former, it was a somewhat rash statement.

The arrival of the two capital ships meant that the Eastern Fleet – a grandiloquent mockery so far as the title was concerned – could now be constituted as planned. But even on paper it was a less than impressive force. Prince of Wales was not yet fully worked-up; Repulse, although a crack fighting ship in her own right, was, nevertheless, a First World War veteran and had only been partially modernized; the vintage cruisers Danae, Dragon and Durban were slow and woefully lacking in anti-aircraft defences, while the more recently built Mauritius was undergoing a refit; and of the Fleet’s eight destroyers: Vampire (RAN), Tenedos, Electra, Express, Encounter, Jupiter, Stronghold and Vendetta (RAN), the four last-named ships were out of service refitting or under repair. Simultaneously with the creation of the new fleet, and in accordance with the decision already made in London some months earlier, Phillips was promoted to the rank of Acting Admiral to give him the necessary precedence over Vice-Admiral Layton whose China Squadron headquarters had been transferred from Hong Kong to Singapore on 12 September.

At the opposite end of the social scale few of the sailors manning the Repulse showed any interest in the pecking order of their superiors. But they continued to be concerned by their own apparent anonymity. For, once again, the Repulse had not been named in the Admiralty’s latest communique and the announcement of the squadron’s arrival in Singapore referred only to ‘Prince of Wales and other heavy units’ – an unnecessary zeal for secrecy that could have easily affected morale aboard the battle-cruiser had she been commanded by a less understanding and persuasive officer than Captain William Tennant.

In the course of his whirlwind round of talks and conferences, and following a meeting with the AOC Malaya, Air Vice-Marshal Pulford, Phillips had discovered a number of disquieting and unpalatable facts about the Colony’s air defence. The RAF, he learned, had only forty-three Brewster Buffalo fighters – a machine obsolete by European standards – together with thirty-four obsolescent early marks of the Bristol Blenheim bomber, twenty-seven antiquated Vickers Vildebeeste torpedo-bombers, and a handful of Australian Lockheed Hudsons, with which to defend the whole of British Malaya. Of these a full squadron of Buffalo fighters was being held back for the specific defence of the island and city of Singapore, while most of the remainder had been dispersed up-country to recently constructed jungle airfields with few facilities and inadequate, often non-existent, ground defences.

Nevertheless at dinner that night Pulford assured Captain Tennant that he would be able to provide the Fleet with adequate air cover should a Japanese attack take place. Unfortunately he did not make use of the opportunity to correct Phillips’ mistaken view that, providing he kept his ships more than 200 miles from Japan’s newly-built airfields in Indo-China, his fleet would be safe from attack.

Rigged out in their regulation tropical uniforms with knee-length shorts and long white socks, Admiral Phillips and senior members of his Staff boarded an RAF Sunderland flying-boat in Johore Strait on Thursday, 4 December, to fly to Manila for a conference with General Douglas MacArthur and the C-in-C of America’s Asiatic Fleet, Admiral Thomas Hart. Talks between Britain and the United States on the subject of naval co-operation in the Far East had been first held in January, 1938, when it was agreed that, in the event of war, the US Pacific Fleet would operate from Pearl Harbor while the British Eastern Fleet – that beloved myth of the politicians – would concentrate at Singapore.

In May, 1939, however, the Admiralty warned the Americans that Britain could no longer guarantee the despatch of a full-scale fleet to the Far East if hostilities broke out and suggested that the United States should assume responsibility for the sea-defence of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Although the Americans made no comment on this unsubtle piece of kite-flying, the Pentagon prudently began drawing up an entirely new war plan – Rainbow One – which was based on the assumption that there would be no Royal Navy battle-fleet in Asian waters. It proved to be a realistic forecast.

Further staff conversations took place in London 15 months later and these were followed, in January, 1941, by formal talks in Washington. It was at this meeting that Britain came out into the open and urged the United States to divide its fleet and take over the defence of Singapore – a proposal which held little appeal for the Americans who viewed the so-called ‘island fortress’ as an outmoded bastion of Colonial power which was, in any case, indefensible. In the end it was agreed that a joint Australian and New Zealand naval force would protect the vital Australasian trade routes and that Britain would send six battleships to Singapore if the United States would provide assistance in the Mediterranean – a highly unlikely scenario as America was still neutral and was showing a marked reluctance to become involved in a European war.

By contrast, Anglo-Dutch talks at local level proved to be decidedly more fruitful, particularly after Hitler’s occupation of the Low Countries in May, 1940. And by February, 1941, the Dutch had agreed that, in the event of a Japanese attack, they would provide naval forces to help hold Malaya until the Royal Navy could despatch reinforcements. Finally, and not before time, British, Dutch and American discussions – known as the ADB Conference – were held in Singapore from 21 to 27 April, 1941.

This latter meeting was bedevilled by political uncertainties, for none of the participants knew the intentions of their respective governments should Japan assault only one of them in isolation. And while Churchill had pledged British support if the United States or its possessions were attacked by the Japanese there had been no reciprocal commitment from the American side. In fact many senior United States officers including Admiral Stark and General Marshall strenuously opposed the joint plan that emerged from the ABD Conference because its focal point was Singapore. And so great was American opposition that, at one point, the permission granted earlier to Admiral Hart to place his Asiatic Fleet under British strategic direction if the Philippines became untenable was withdrawn. Fortunately, the Dutch stuck loyally by their part of the bargain agreed in February and on 1 December, 1941, submarines of the Royal Netherlands Navy began operating under British control. It was a small but significant step towards the concept of a unified command structure. Nevertheless, such was the disarray of the three potential allies that they did not even share a common signal book – the first requirement for any successful joint operation.

The Manila talks opened on 5 December, 1941, and got off to a good start. The two Admirals quickly became friends and, somewhat to their surprise, found that they saw eye-to-eye on many aspects of Far Eastern strategy. Phillips, for example, agreed with Hart’s view that Singapore was indefensible and that Manila would be a more suitable base for fleet operations. Each, however, accepted that, as the British squadron had been sent to the Far East to protect Singapore, it must, for political reasons and at least for the time being, remain in Malayan waters. Both men also recognized that Manila could not be regarded as a viable alternative base until the air defences of Malaya were strengthened and the RAF could take over the Navy’s seaward defence role.

Admiral Hart entertained no illusions about the current situation in South-East Asia and, aware of the vulnerability of the Philippines, had already begun dispersing his forces. The destroyers Whipple, Alden, John D. Edwards and Edsall were despatched to Balikpapan on the east coast of British North Borneo on 24 November, while another group of four destroyers, led by the cruiser Marblehead, had been ordered even further south to Tarakan. During his talks with Phillips at Manila, Hart agreed to send the Balikpapan force to Singapore as a much-needed reinforcement for the British fleet, although he insisted, as a quid pro quo, that Phillips should recall the three old destroyers, Scout, Thanet and Thracian from Hong Kong – a bargain to which Phillips readily assented for the presence of American warships in Singapore would almost certainly lead to the involvement of the United States if the Japanese attacked. The years he had spent in the corridors of power at the Admiralty had made Tom Phillips very much aware of such political considerations and was, indeed, one of the more cogent reasons why he had been picked to command the Eastern Fleet.

The two Admirals also confirmed the decision taken at the ABD Conference eight months earlier that the defence of the antipodean trade routes should be left in the hands of a combined Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) squadron. This particular unit, under the command of the Australian Rear-Admiral John Crace, had been originally formed to combat German surface raiders and it was both suitably placed and adequately armed to protect the seaward frontiers of the Australian continent. It was a powerful force comprising the 8-inch gunned cruiser Canberra, acting as flagship, plus four 6-inch gunned ships – the New Zealand Navy’s Achilles and Leander and the Australian Perth and Adelaide – together with three destroyers: the Free French Le Triomphant and the Australian Stuart and Voyager, although these two latter ships were refitting and out of service. Three sloops, Swan, Warrego and the French Chevreuil, completed the squadron. Had these well-armed and modern vessels been sent to join Phillips at Singapore the Eastern Fleet, together with the four US destroyers from Balikpapan, would have been a formidable surface fighting force capable of smashing the Japanese invasion armada at sea although the absence of an aircraft carrier must cast considerable doubt on its ultimate effectiveness in the face of Japan’s air power.

But despite the spirit of friendly co-operation engendered at Manila the inability of the politicians to act in similar harmony meant that the uncertainties remained. And, unable to pledge themselves to support each other until such time as their respective governments undertook formal treaty obligations, it was impossible to appoint an overall commander capable of welding the three navies – British, American and Dutch – into a single cohesive unit. It was a failure that was to dog the Allies throughout the first six months of the Pacific war.

Even before Phillips had arrived in Manila the military situation in South-East Asia was a cause of increasing concern to the Western powers. The number of Japanese troops, ships and aircraft arriving in Indo-China had been building up steadily for several weeks and it was clear that some form of attack was imminent. The only element of doubt was its likely objective – the choice resting primarily between Siam, Malaya, or the islands of the Dutch East Indies. And even when the main landing force of 26,640 troops aboard eighteen transports and accompanied by Vice-Admiral Ozawa’s close escort of two cruisers and twelve destroyers left Hainan on the morning of 4 December its ultimate destination remained obscure.

The concentration of aircraft in Indo-China should have warned the authorities that Japan was contemplating something considerably more ambitious than the invasion of a ‘soft’ target such as Siam. Indeed all the evidence pointed to a major assault on a far more formidable objective. And the arrival in Saigon of Rear-Admiral Sadaichi Matsunaga’s 22nd Air Flotilla, or Koku Sentai, was clear confirmation that the Japanese were preparing for an important operation.

The 22nd Air Flotilla, as originally constituted, comprised the Genzan Kokutai with thirty-six twin-engined Mitsubishi Navy Type 96 G3M2 (Nell) bombers which had flown to Saigon from Formosa; the Mihoro Kokutai with a further thirty-six Mitsubishi Navy Type 96 machines, also from Formosa, and which was now based at Tu Duam, an airfield to the north of the capital; and a further thirty-six fighter aircraft and six reconnaissance machines at Soc Trang south of Saigon. The Japanese evaluation of the threat posed by the Prince of Wales and Repulse is apparent from the fact that the arrival of the two ships in Singapore led to the 22nd Air Flotilla being reinforced by twenty-seven Mitsubishi Navy Type 1 G4M1 (Betty) bombers from the Kanoya Kokutai – a unit forming part of the 21st Air Flotilla in Formosa previously ear-marked for operations in support of the invasion of the Philippines. Yamamoto thus contemptuously rated Britain’s two capital ships – Churchill’s much-vaunted deterrent – as being worth no more than twenty-seven extra aircraft – an increase of only 25% in the original number of machines allocated to the assault on Siam and Malaya. It was a piece of arithmetic that Phillips would have dismissed out of hand.

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