As the Allied admirals and their advisers gathered in the US Navy’s air-conditioned conference rooms in Manila to discuss their strategic options on the morning of Friday, 5 December, the Japanese were already stepping-up their activities and, throughout the day, groups of transports together with covering forces of warships sailed from various secret anchorages in Indo-China in accordance with Japan’s master plan – possibly the most complex and ambitious series of landing operations ever undertaken in modern history, embracing, as it did, virtually simultaneous attacks by land, sea, and air, on objectives situated along a perimeter of some 6,500 miles.
Before flying to Manila, Phillips had come under pressure from the Admiralty to disperse his capital ships and move them away from Singapore – the War Staff in London apparently feeling jittery about reports of Japanese submarines converging on the base which they feared might presage an orchestrated submerged attack on the big ships if they tried to leave harbour after war had broken out.
In deference to the Admiralty’s fears, the Repulse, escorted by the destroyers Vampire (RAN) and Tenedos, sailed from Singapore on 5 December with orders to proceed to Darwin – a trip which many on board hoped would lead to the ship continuing on to Sydney in time for Christmas. Although underwater ambushes rarely succeeded – Vice-Admiral Scheer’s U-boat dispositions before the Battle of Jutland and Japan’s cordon of submarines off Pearl Harbor being cases in point – the Admiralty’s concern at the possibility of a mass submarine attack was understandable. Phillips’ decision to send the battle-cruiser to Australia, however, seemed less explicable and appeared to be yet another example of a senior officer misjudging Japanese intentions. Bearing in mind the reason why the Repulse had been despatched to the Far East, it would have been more in keeping with her intended role as a visible deterrent to send the ship on a flag-showing tour of Sumatra, Java or perhaps Borneo – all of which would have kept her within steaming distance of Singapore in an emergency. But as usual the Admiral’s decisions and dispositions were subject to political considerations and his choice of Australia reflected a desire to impress the Dominion’s government with the Royal Navy’s on-the-spot presence and to persuade it to release the cruiser Hobart for service with the Eastern Fleet which, at that particular moment, possessed no operational modern cruisers whatsoever. The unfolding drama of the next 48 hours, however, was to prevent Phillips from putting his ploy into practice.
The calm atmosphere of the Manila talks was rudely interrupted on Saturday (6th) when news arrived that an Australian reconnaissance aircraft from Kota Bharu – a Malayan airfield close to the Siam border – had sighted a Japanese convoy of twenty-five transports escorted by a battleship (it was, in fact, the heavy cruiser Chokai), five cruisers and seven destroyers, steaming westwards through the Gulf of Siam. Whether it was heading for Malaya or Siam was impossible to determine at this stage, but it was clear that trouble was brewing and Hart responded by ordering his destroyer division at Balikpapan to raise steam and make for Singapore as a matter of urgency. The Eastern Fleet’s Chief of Staff, Rear-Admiral Palliser, who had remained behind when Phillips flew to Manila, showed similar initiative by immediately signalling Repulse: Return with all despatch – his prompt action being confirmed by Phillips’ similar instruction which arrived from Manila an hour or so later. And as the British C-in-C hurriedly boarded his flying-boat for the return flight to Singapore further sighting reports of Japanese troop convoys came in from the search aircraft winging through the gathering dusk of the rain-swept Gulf of Siam.
Two thousand miles to the east another Japanese invasion force had just set out from Palau – the islands that had witnessed Drake’s first historic landfall in 1579 – for the initial assault on the Philippines. And with equal stealth Nagumo’s Carrier Striking Force was approaching the unsuspecting Hawaiian Islands from the north with its torpedo-aircraft and dive-bombers ranged on the darkened flight-decks eagerly waiting to launch the attack on Pearl Harbor that would finally bring the United States into the war. That same night the submarines I-121 and I-122 laid a secret minefield off Singapore while two surface vessels, Tatsumiya Maru and Nagas, laid another across the entrance to the Gulf of Siam between Tioman and the Anambas Islands. This latter obstacle contained around 1,000 mines and was to claim the Dutch submarines 0-16 and K-XVII as its victims later in the month.
If the Eastern Fleet had been able to sail immediately the sighting reports were received and had successfully intercepted the Japanese invasion force at sea there is a good chance that the enemy might have been persuaded to turn back, for the stakes were high and the Japanese had not anticipated being discovered quite so early in the game. Had such a gambit succeeded, Churchill’s concept of deterrence would have been justified. But it was not to be. Phillips was in Manila and the fleet remained leaderless until he returned to Singapore during the early hours of Sunday, 7 December. Moreover, 50% of the fleet’s main fighting strength, the battle-cruiser Repulse, was absent from its war station and en route to Australia. On this particular occasion the disarray was really nobody’s fault. But it was to have disastrous consequences over the course of the next few days.
Bad weather had curtailed air search activities during this critical period and although Japanese ships had been sighted for brief intervals such fleeting contacts in poor visibility made it impossible to determine their courses and probable destinations with any degree of accuracy. In growing desperation the RAF despatched two Catalina flying-boats to extend the search area further north towards the Indo-China coast. One machine returned empty-handed. The other was sighted by a Japanese fighter and shot down at midday on the 7th (0430 GMT) before it could transmit any signals. The RAF had suffered its first casualties of the Pacific war – nearly 14 hours before the first American serviceman was killed at Pearl Harbor!
But the situation was still uncertain and, despite a prodding request from the Admiralty asking‘… what action would be possible …’ if the Japanese landed in Malaya, there was little Phillips could do. He had already considered and ruled out the politically dangerous option of intercepting the invasion force before positive evidence of its destination was available. Now all he could do was to wait for events to unfold.
It is not generally realized that the Japanese landed in Malaya a clear ninety minutes before Nagumo’s dive-bombers swooped down on the anchored US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Based on Greenwich Mean Time the landings at Kota Bharu began at 1655 on 7 December (0025 on 8 December local time) while the first bombs fell on Pearl Harbor at 1825 on 7 December (0755 on 7 December local time).
In addition to carrying out a number of landings in Siam the Japanese intended to occupy Kota Bharu, where the RAF had recently constructed an airfield, during the first wave of attacks. Another objective was the Kra Isthmus which General Yamashita was anxious to seize at an early stage of the campaign in order to prevent British military reinforcements coming overland into Malaya from Burma via Siam. The Malayan operation was therefore planned as a series of separate assaults and, to this end, the invasion armada divided up into its component units at midday on the 7th. One transport proceeded to Prachuap, another to Bandon, two more to Jumbhorn and another three to Nakhon – Siamese harbours which it was necessary to seize if the Kra Isthmus was to be secured. The main force of seventeen transports, supported by minesweepers, assault ships and submarine-chasers, continued towards Singora and Pattani in southern Siam while the remaining three transports with the cruiser Sendai and the 19th Destroyer Division steered for Kota Bharu.
The Siamese offered no resistance at either Singora or Pattani and the Japanese troops disembarked in parade order with bands playing and flags flying. By contrast the Siamese army strongly resisted British attempts to cross their frontier and gain control of the strategically important north-south highway. Although caught by surprise when the Japanese landed, the Indian troops of the 3/17th Dogra Regiment who were defending Kota Bharu fought back fiercely, heavy casualties being sustained by both sides. And, hitting back with commendable speed, a group of Royal Australian Air Force Hudson bombers took off from the airfield in bright moonlight and attacked the Japanese invasion force as it lay off-shore – sinking a 9,749-ton transport and damaging two others. But the enemy soon gained a foothold and the vital airfield fell within hours when the demoralized RAF ground staff set fire to buildings and equipment and then, climbing aboard their lorries, evacuated the base without orders.
It was an equally hectic night in Singapore and, while senior officers tried to make sense of the garbled reports filtering into the capital from up-country, a stream of radio signals and news broadcasts from around the world revealed the extent of the Japanese offensive. Pearl Harbor had been bombed at 0155 Singapore time and the entire US Pacific Fleet incapacitated – some reports said annihilated – and at 0430 came news that the British Concession in Shanghai had been occupied. Then, at 0800, came the first reports of air raids on Hong Kong and, an hour and a half later, the bemused staff officers learned that the Japanese had attacked the Philippines. It was like some horrendous nightmare. And the pressures on the harassed Singapore Staffs were not made easier when seventeen bombers of the Mihoro Air Corps raided the city soon after 0400 in an attack that destroyed three Blenheim aircraft on the ground, caused considerable structural damage to buildings, and inflicted some 200 civilian casualties. The raid, however, gave the Prince of Wales her first taste of action against the new enemy when her high-angle 5.25-inch guns were used to strengthen the dockyard’s anti-aircraft batteries. But the Japanese suffered no losses and the Mihoro Air Corps machines returned to their Indo-China bases unharmed.
In addition to the Main Fleet at Singapore the Royal Navy had another small group of ships, the East Indies Squadron under the command of Vice-Admiral G.S. Arbuthnot at Ceylon. This force, which included the carrier Hermes refitting at Durban, was mainly engaged on trade protection duties in the Indian Ocean. Although the heavy cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire were left on station to cover the transit of troop reinforcement convoys from Colombo to Singapore the Admiralty decided to transfer the third cruiser, the 8-inch gunned Exeter, to the Eastern Fleet and in the early hours of 8 December, Captain Gordon was ordered to leave the convoy he was escorting and to make post-haste for Singapore where he was to join Sir Tom Phillips’ flag. Gordon obeyed the order with alacrity and, leaving the convoy to make for Rangoon, he headed towards the Malacca Straits at 26 knots. He was, however, already too late to save Phillips and the two big ships of the Eastern Fleet.
Further to the south, and despite the earlier decision to give the ANZAC Squadron responsibility for protecting the Australasian trade routes, only two of the ships, Canberra and Perth, were sailing in company. The light cruiser Achilles – which had fought alongside Exeter during the Battle of the River Plate in December, 1939 – was at Auckland when news of the Japanese landings came through and although she was promptly ordered to join the Eastern Fleet at Singapore she was first given the task of escorting a contingent of New Zealand troops to Suva in the Fiji Islands. These islands of Melanesia formed part of Australia’s defensive perimeter the northern segment of which – New Guinea and the Solomons – was to become a fiercely contested battle-gound when Japan later tried to gain control of the Coral Sea and sever sea communications between the United States and the Australasian continent. Achilles’ departure and her unexpected allocation to the Eastern Fleet hardly augured well for the continued cohesion of the ANZAC squadron.
Phillips summoned a conference of staff officers and senior captains aboard the Prince of Wales on the morning of 8 December and, as bad news continued to flood in from all quarters of the Far East, they began to discuss how the Eastern Fleet should react to the events of the previous night. At an early stage in the proceedings the Admiral sent a written request to Pulford asking him to make reconnaissance machines available on the 9th and 10th and, most importantly, to provide fighter cover for the fleet off Singora at daylight on the 10th. Pulford did not reply until the late afternoon by which time he knew that the airfield at Kota Bharu was likely to be abandoned within hours and although he promised Phillips that air reconnaissance units could be provided as requested he was unable to guarantee fighter cover for the 10th.
It was cold comfort for the Admiral, but, still convinced that the Fleet’s guns could ward off an air attack and satisfied that if he remained more than 200 miles from the coast of Indo-China he would be beyond range of Japanese aircraft, Phillips went ahead. According to one officer, Phillips told the assembled meeting: ‘I feel we have got to do something.’ Another recalled: ‘Admiral Phillips summed up in words something like this – “We can stay in Singapore. We can sail away to the East – Australia. Or we can go out and fight. Gentlemen, we sail at five o’clock.”’
The Prince of Wales and Repulse, escorted by the destroyers Express, Electra, Vampire (RAN) and Tenedos, cleared the dockyard boom at 1735 that evening and slowly increased speed to a steady 17 knots. Now identified by the code-name Force Z the squadron was headed by the flagship with the Repulse following 4 cables astern, and the ruddy glow of a spectacular tropical sunset painted a lurid backcloth above the port horizon as the ships altered course north-eastwards.