Antisubmarine War WWI – Mediterranean 1916-17

Kaba departing Ryojun, 1925. She was deployed in the Mediterranean in WWI.

Japanese cruiser Akashi in drydock. Rear-Admiral Kōzō Satō commanded the “Second Special Squadron” with Akashi as flagship with the 10th and 11th Destroyer Units (eight destroyers) based at Malta from 13 April 1917. He was reinforced by the 15th Destroyer Unit with four more destroyers from 1 June 1917 to carry out on direct escort duties for Allied troop transports in the Mediterranean.

The Allies had abandoned exclusive use of patrolled routes in the Mediterranean shortly before the Germans adopted unrestricted submarine warfare. The Germans declared the great majority of the Mediterranean a Sperrgebiet (prohibited area) except for the extreme western portion off Spain, including the Balearics, and initially, the 20-mile-wide corridor to Greek waters. The Austrians promised to assist the Germans outside of the Adriatic. Their smaller submarines as they became available would now operate against Allied shipping between Malta and Cerigo. In the early part of 1917, the situation in the Mediterranean was deceptively favorable to the Allies, for in January the greater part of the Mediterranean U-boat flotilla was under repair and refit at Pola and Cattaro after the heavy demands of 1916. In January sinkings fell to 78,541 tons, only 24 percent of the total of 328,391 tons sunk in all theaters. It was the lull before the storm, for by 10 February the Germans had 10 U-boats at sea in the Mediterranean, along with an Austrian submarine, and that month submarines sank 105,670 tons of shipping. This, however, represented only 20.3 percent of the 520,412 tons sunk in all theaters, for with the introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare, the Mediterranean percentage of total sinkings inevitably declined. The successes of the Mediterranean U-boat flotilla declined again in March to 61,917 tons, just under 11 percent of the total of 564,497 tons in all theaters. April 1917 turned into a record month for the Mediterranean flotilla, just as it was a record month for U-boats in all theaters. The Germans had 14 U-boats at sea at the beginning of the month, joined by 2 Austrians. They sank in the Mediterranean 254,911 tons (3,724 tons by submarine-laid mines), or 29.6 percent of the 860,334 tons sunk in all theaters. The Austrians contributed another 23,037 tons.

The Admiralty were so alarmed by the heavy losses along the coast of Algeria, which they naturally attributed to the ineffectiveness of French patrols, that they ordered British shipping to abandon the coastal route in favor of hugging the Spanish coast from Gibraltar to Cape San Antonio and then use dispersed routes to Malta. The French, however, complained that they were using more than eighty patrol craft of all sorts on their patrolled routes in the western Mediterranean whereas the British were escorting all British troopships or ships with valuable cargoes and following routes entirely different from the French. Furthermore, the French charged that the British used their destroyers to escort troopships, leaving trawlers on the patrolled routes through British zones. These trawlers often lacked wireless receivers and could not be counted upon to divert ships from threatened areas. Admiral Gauchet, now French commander in chief, described the situation on the Malta-Cerigo route as “every man for himself.”

Allied merchant ships deliberately made use of Spanish territorial waters. This proved to be correct, if not very heroic, and it naturally added to the length and duration of a voyage. German U-boat commanders were ordered to observe the Spanish 3-mile limit, and, in fact, to avoid mistakes they were normally to observe a 4-mile limit unless there was a particularly valuable target in the fourth mile and they were quite sure of their position. On the whole, German U-boat commanders respected Spanish territorial waters and the Allies made extensive use of them. The Allies suspected the Germans were violating them, but careful analysis of sinkings generally established that the ships had strayed out of those waters when they were sunk. It was not hard to do; navigation so close to the coast could be difficult and hazardous, and merchant ship captains often were inclined to take a shortcut across the curve of a bay, which made them legitimate targets for the Germans. U-boat commanders were not angels; they obviously found more than enough targets in the Mediterranean without having to violate Spanish waters.

The Mediterranean situation could not be ignored by the Allied leaders by the spring of 1917. In early April General Sir William Robertson, chief of the imperial general staff, asked Jellicoe about a joint statement from the British naval leaders as to what reductions at Salonika would be necessary if the British were to continue the war in 1918. Jellicoe was a strong partisan of abandoning the Salonika expedition because of the strain on shipping and naval resources to support it. He recommended the immediate reduction or withdrawal of the British contingent, and he advocated a complete withdrawal if the cabinet expected the war to continue beyond 1917. This would then allow the British to recover a number of patrol craft for safeguarding commerce in home waters, free a large amount of shipping to build up a reserve of food and supply the French and Italians with coal and other necessities, and permit the British to give better protection to the sea communications with the army in Egypt. The French could be expected to strongly oppose what in their eyes was a British attempt to abandon the Salonika expedition, where France was preponderant, in favor of the pursuit of imperial gains in Palestine. An Allied conference with the Italians at St. Jean de Maurienne on 19 April took no decision on Jellicoe’s proposal, and one is inclined to believe that if the Allies did not succeed in mastering the submarine danger the issue was likely to be moot. It would then be a question of whether or not the British could continue the war.

The conflicting policies in the Mediterranean had made it obvious that another international conference was necessary. The Corfu conference took place during the crisis of the naval war. It was held in Gauchet’s flagship Provence at Corfu 28 April to 1 May. The Allies unanimously decided they would not return to the discredited system of patrolled routes created at Malta in 1916. They would navigate only by night and along coastal routes whenever possible, and those coastal routes would be patrolled along with certain strategic straits. The conference made a major change in procedure: on routes that ran far from the coast, ships would be protected by convoys and escorts following dispersed routes, that is, routes chosen by a routing officer at the port of departure according to the circumstances of the moment.

The Corfu conference had really created a hybrid system rather than one of general convoys or ships sailing independently. All ships entering the Mediterranean were now required to stop at Gibraltar for instructions and formation into convoys before proceeding to Oran, although the authorities sometimes allowed ships to navigate independently without escort if there was no submarine danger. Ships followed the patrolled coastal route between Oran and Bizerte, but they were not necessarily escorted in those waters. Ships were formed into convoys again at Bizerte for the remainder of their voyage eastward. Ships bound from Gibraltar to Marseille or Genoa continued to follow Spanish coastal waters as long as the Germans respected them.

The most important decision of the Corfu conference as far as its implications for the future were concerned was the establishment of a “Direction Générale” at Malta, which was composed of officers delegated by the different navies and was charged with the direction of everything concerning transport routes and their protection. The idea was proposed by Admiral Gauchet, but the British managed to turn it to their own advantage, for they proposed that, without modifying the present system of a French commander in chief for all the Mediterranean, all the British naval forces be placed under a single commander. The British commander in chief would have an officer of flag rank charged with protecting transport routes who would be the British representative on the Direction Générale that Gauchet had proposed. The effect of this would be to give the British the predominant role in the antisubmarine campaign. Gauchet remained the theoretical commander in chief with the largest number of dreadnoughts, seemingly preoccupied with preparing for that major naval encounter with the Austrian fleet.

The French and the Italians had by far the preponderance in capital ships, but the real action in the Mediterranean by this date was the antisubmarine war, and here the balance had quietly swung decisively toward the British. In May 1917 the total of patrol vessels of all sorts in the Mediterranean, from destroyers to sloops, from trawlers to small torpedo boats, was: British, 429; French, 302; Italian, 119; and Japanese, 8. The British had really learned that the Mediterranean was too important to be left to the French. British interests, whether they were shipping or overseas expeditions, were extensive, and they could not rely on others who, with the best will in the world, were apt to lack the resources to do the job. The British were forced to assume the leading part in the antisubmarine war.

The Japanese contribution needs a word of explanation. The British had long been anxious for Japanese assistance. The Japanese had been reluctant to send forces to European waters, although they had, as we have seen, provided considerable assistance in the opening months of the war and later in the search for the German raiders. In mid-April Rear Admiral Kozo Sato arrived at Malta with the Tenth and Eleventh Japanese destroyer flotillas, eight 650-ton Kaba class. Sato flew his flag in the cruiser Akashi, which served as headquarters ship. In August 1917 the Fifteenth Flotilla arrived with four of the new 850-ton Momo class and the armored cruiser Idzumo, which relieved the Akashi. The Japanese were nominally independent, but actually carried out whatever orders they received from the British commander in chief at Malta. The Japanese in fact worked very closely with the British, particularly in escorting troopships. They soon gained an excellent reputation. Their ships were new and well-handled, and the British paid them the ultimate compliment by turning over two of their own H-class destroyers to be renamed and manned by Japanese crews for the duration of the war. This Japanese contribution of fourteen destroyers at a critical moment in the war against submarines has been largely forgotten, but under the circumstances it was far from negligible.

The decisions of the Corfu conference were only recommendations; they naturally had to be accepted by the respective governments. The Admiralty, however, acted fairly quickly, and the Malta-Alexandria convoy was introduced on 22 May with four ships escorted by four trawlers. It proved a success; only two ships were lost between 22 May and 16 July. The French on 18 June formally established a special directorate for the submarine war. The Direction générale de la guerre sous-marine was to a large extent the result of pressure from the French parliament, where there were strong suspicions that the French naval staff had been too tradition-bound and had not paid enough attention to submarine warfare.

Admiral the Honorable Sir Somerset Gough-Calthorpe, second son of the seventh Baron Calthorpe, was appointed British Mediterranean commander in chief. He had formerly commanded the Second Cruiser Squadron and had been second sea lord in 1916. Calthorpe was hardly one of the household names of the war and was deceptively mild mannered. He apparently had a certain amount of difficulty getting his authority accepted by the other commands, but he grew in assurance as time went on. He also possessed good judgment, although he was unfortunately somewhat backward about realizing the value of convoys. At the end of the war he was destined to play a considerable role in negotiating the armistice with the Turks and subsequently became high commissioner in Turkey and the Black Sea. One of his staff officers considered him a man who never sought greatness but had it thrust on him.

The introduction of convoys into the Mediterranean proved difficult. The route structure was complex and the entire Mediterranean was considered a danger area, unlike the situation in the Atlantic where only about 350 miles required special protection for convoys. The British Isles naturally received priority in the allocation of escorts, and the Admiralty added to their own difficulties by insisting that convoys must remain small. There was also the problem of dealing with Allies, notably the Italians. The Italians proved extremely recalcitrant about contributing destroyers and escorts to the common cause, that is, convoys from Gibraltar, and Calthorpe really had no authority over their antisubmarine operations. The Italians insisted they were the only one of the Allies close to the enemy battle fleet, for Pola was only a few hours steaming distance from Venice. They therefore had to retain a significant destroyer force for the protection of Venice and needed their other antisubmarine forces for the protection of Italian traffic in the Tyrrhenian or on the routes to and from Albania and Libya.


The Battle of Bronkhorstspruit

One of the lessons learned from the Zulu War by Britain’s enemies was that the British Army was not invincible. The British woes and defeats suffered during the war had been closely observed and so the Boers plotted and planned to seize the day and stand against the British. But Boer dissention was nothing new. The Transvaal Boers had been antagonistic towards the British ever since the Great Trek of 1838, when, in large numbers, they abandoned the Cape in protest at British rule and high taxation in order to seek self-government in the unknown lands to the north – later named the Transvaal (rough translation, ‘across the Vaal River’). The Boers had long memories and many were still smarting from the annexation of the Transvaal by Britain in 1877. Even though Britain partly went to war against the Zulus to facilitate Boer farming expansion into Zululand, the Boers refused to participate in action against the Zulus, with minor exceptions.

On the 11th November 1879, a public meeting of Boers took place at Potchefstroom to express anger at a fine levied by British officials against a local Boer farmer, Pieter Bezuidenhout. The farmer had earlier refused to pay a fine and the British decided to confiscate his wagon in lieu of payment of £27.5s.0d. After the wagon was removed it was immediately offered for sale, whereupon a crowd of Boer protesters seized the wagon and drove it off. The British Administrator in the Transvaal saw this as an act of aggression, which he felt required a firm hand; he sent a military detachment to Potchefstroom, which inflamed growing Boer resentment.

On the 5th December, two companies of the 94th, together with medical, commissariat staff and some families, set off to march to Pretoria. The total strength of the column was 262, commanded by Colonel Anstruther.

Secret meetings of Boers were held across the Transvaal and, on the 13th December, the leading Boers proclaimed the Transvaal a South African Republic. They decided to take immediate military action and despatched three commandos, one to intercept the 94th Regiment marching from its base at Lydenburg to strengthen the British garrison at Pretoria, where local Boer disaffection was growing. Another went to Potchefstroom and the third to the border to discourage any British attempt to send reinforcements from Natal.

Colonel Anstruther delayed his column’s advance from Lydenburg for a week while extra wagons were hired from local Boer farmers. Because there were no other available wagons, exorbitant rates were demanded, which Anstruther reckoned would cost £1,000 in total. Once the column had obtained the requisite wagons, the column could set off. Their progress was limited to about eight miles each day due to the condition of the track and numerous streams that had to be negotiated. On the 15th December, news reached the column that all companies of the regiment would be concentrating at Pretoria. Anstruther wrote that the whole move was due to the Boers agitating, although he noted that the Boer families along the route were ‘friendly and civil’ even if a regular comment was ‘if you don’t give us back the Transvaal we’ll fight like cats,’ which Anstruther took as friendly banter, commenting:

They have, I am sure, no intention of fighting though if we are firm with them, as I hope we will be, there might be one or two little disturbances.

By the 19th December the column was wet and weary, having had to cross the flooded Oliphants River. The following morning they paused at a Boer farm to purchase fresh provisions and make amends after some of the soldiers had stolen fruit from the farmer’s orchard. Little was made of the incident and the stolen fruit was paid for with an apology. At the time, Anstruther noticed an unaccountable number of horses corralled around the farm, all saddled and ready to depart. On the day following the battle, he recalled that he had overlooked the significance of the horses. Unbeknown to Anstruther, the farm was the rendezvous for the Boers detailed to intercept the column but, taken by surprise by the arriving British, the Boers had hidden themselves but had no option but to leave their horses in full view of the approaching British column. At about 10.00 am the column continued on its way with the intention of stopping for the night at a crossing point at the Bronkhorst stream just a few miles distant. The whole column of marching men and thirty-four wagons extended nearly one mile and blissfully continued on its way with the band playing. It was about two miles from the intended campsite when a rider approached the leading wagons showing a white flag of truce. The British were unsure what was happening but Anstruther had the presence of mind to give the order to close ranks. The order was passed down the column and the band stopped playing. The rider approached Anstruther and handed him a document, which was an ultimatum signed by a Boer leader, Piet Joubert, and was countersigned by Paul Kruger. The order instructed Anstruther not to continue over the river until certain diplomatic negotiations between the British and Boers were resolved. It warned that if the troops advanced beyond the stream the Boers would construe the movement as an act of war.

The rider added that two minutes would be allowed for the column commander to decide his course of action. While Anstruther was considering his predicament and the two-minute ultimatum ticked away, the Boer commando, under the protection of the white flag, approached the column to within 200 yards of the wagons and positioned themselves behind rocks and trees. According to witnesses, Anstruther replied:

I have orders to proceed with all possible despatch to Pretoria and to Pretoria I am going, but tell the Commandant I have no wish to meet him in hostile spirit.

As Anstruther made his comment of non-cooperation, the rider holding the white flag turned his horse and made a signal to the Boers, who immediately opened fire on the helpless and unsuspecting column. The unprotected wagons and soldiers, many of whom were unarmed, were sitting targets for the Boer marksmen and within minutes Anstruther was shot and wounded six times and all the officers and most of the NCOs were killed or wounded, as were more than half the soldiers. To save the lives of the remainder, the seriously wounded Anstruther gave the order to cease firing and to hoist something white to signify their surrender. This done, firing ceased on both sides and the Boers closed in. They ordered the surviving soldiers to lay down their weapons, which they did. The Boers then collected up all available weapons and drove off the wagons containing arms and ammunition, and anything else they considered of use or value. The column conductor, Mr Egerton, received permission to ride to Pretoria to get medical assistance. Leaving the column under a Boer guard to fend for itself as best they could, the survivors began tending the wounded and burying their dead. The following day the fit survivors were marched off by the Boers to Heidelberg and the less serious casualties escorted to Pretoria. Boer losses were kept secret; British survivors’ reports of Boer casualties ranged from two to thirty killed.

As with a number of earlier engagements during the Zulu War, of which Anstruther had been an experienced commander, it is surprising that Anstruther blatantly ignored accurate intelligence of Boer unrest and warnings that something was amiss. On the 16th December, Anstruther had received a written warning that British relationships with the Boers were disintegrating and warned him to be fully on his guard and to deploy patrols before advancing his column. Anstruther seems to have ignored the warning as his scouting was casual, with only one man sent in advance of the column to observe the route and one scout to scan the hills. Only thirty rounds of ammunition were carried by each soldier instead of the usual seventy and reserve ammunition boxes remained sealed on the wagons, so it was clear that no one in the column was expecting to be attacked. From Boer reports, it is evident the Boers had tracked the column for several days. A makeshift British hospital was constructed at Bronkhorstspruit and it remained there for three further months before the remaining more seriously wounded were allowed to travel to Pretoria.

The Boer attack on the unsuspecting column was premeditated and shocking in its sudden and wilful execution. The objective was to cause the most serious damage as swiftly as possible in order to send a shock message to the procrastinating British to resolve Boer claims for independence. British losses were in the ratio of thirty-seven to one and it must be acknowledged that had Anstruther not disobeyed orders to expect resistance from the Boers and had he not been careless in the extreme by permitting only thirty rounds per soldier, his column might have fared better. Likewise, he had not considered it prudent to issue weapons or ammunition to the regimental band.

The 94th lost one officer (Lieutenant Harrison) and seventy-three men killed in the carnage of the attack. Another four officers and ninety men received wounds, of which three officers, Anstruther, Captain Nairne and Captain MacSwiney, and eighteen men later died. One officer and 105 men became prisoners of the Boers. The other six companies of the regiments spent the war besieged by the Boers; C, D and H at Standerton, E and G at Pretoria, B in Marabastad, and a small detachment of fifty men at Lydenburg.

At the conclusion of the war the 94th Regiment remained in the Transvaal until the final ratification of the peace convention with the Boers and then, on the 5th November 1881, they commenced their march back to Natal. After almost three eventful years, the end of the regiment’s service in southern Africa was in sight. Having encountered not only the Zulus, Pedi and Boers on the field of battle, they had faced the ravages of disease, the extremes of weather, the boredom of garrison duty and endured the claustrophobia of siege life – it was time to return home. On the 24th March 1882, seven companies embarked on the Dublin Castle and sailed for Queenstown, Cork, where they arrived on the 20th April.

At home, there were celebrations and campaign medals for the survivors. At Bronkhorstspruit, Colour Sergeant Maistre had been one of two NCOs carrying the regimental colours when the column was attacked by the Boers. To prevent the capture of the colours, Maistre hid them in the bedding of another NCO’s severely wounded wife. The next day the Boers permitted two volunteers to walk to Pretoria to seek medical help. Maistre wrapped the colours around his body and smuggled them out to safety. For his actions in saving the colours, Maistre was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

The 94th Regiment was entitled to the honour ‘South Africa 1879’ but when the awards were announced in 1882, the 94th had already amalgamated with the 88th Regiment and become the 2nd Battalion Connaught Rangers. Due to the previous service of the 88th in the Cape Frontier the honour was awarded as ‘South Africa 1877-78-79’. No battle honour, medal, clasp or bar was issued for the campaign against Sekhukhune in 1879 or for service against the Boers in 1881.


Bronkhorstspruit was another disaster for the British Army, especially in terms of the unnecessary loss of life construed at the time that it was coldblooded murder by the Boers. Yet, with all the disasters of the Zulu War still fresh in British commander’s memories, Colonel Anstruther adopted the identical tactic of ‘it won’t happen to me’. He failed to obey his orders relating to the size of the column and insisted on hiring extra wagons from the Boers, who deliberately procrastinated in order to allow their approaching troops to close with the column. He was then warned that relationships with the Boers were rapidly deteriorating and to make haste with his progress to Pretoria, which he did not. He was further advised that the Boers might take aggressive action against his column, which he ignored, and failed to issue his men with sufficient ammunition, and in the case of the band, no weapons. When he came face-to-face with an unaccountable number of Boers’ saddled horses at the farm stopover, he failed to realise their significance. He was certainly ‘taken in’ when allowing the heavily armed Boers to approach his wagons after the Boer messenger rode up to the column under the white flag of truce, which the Boers then disregarded by opening fire on the defenceless column.

Subsequently, there was considerable anger in the British press at the Boers’ disregard of their own flag of truce but, by the time the regiment returned home, the first Boer conflict was over and Bronkhorstspruit was rarely mentioned. Once again, the incident was widely considered to have been unnecessary and any investigation into the battle would have highlighted Anstruther’s many failings. For the Boers, their situation was identical to that of the Zulus a year earlier. They were the dominant population being controlled by a minor governing authority, the British, by being denied their right to run their own country – for which they rebelled. For the public at home, it all seemed to be an extension of the string of embarrassments following on from the Zulu War – and best forgotten.

And like many of the battlefields of the Zulu War, the location of the ambush at Bronkhorstspruit has long since vanished. The roadway where Anstruther’s column was ambushed has disappeared. The original road ran on an east/west line and has subsequently been reclaimed by nature. The new road cuts across where the ambush occurred, near where the monuments are, and runs north/south. The British gravestones are there to be found but they have been moved at some point as they are now set flat in the ground and are therefore difficult to find.

Neither side could be proud of the Boer rebellion. The British would not treat with the Boers, who became militant and, at Bronkhorstspruit, the Boers should have honoured the flag of truce and did not. There could be no pride attached to what had happened and both sides needed to move on. Bronkhorstspruit was soon forgotten.


The victorious General Allenby dismounted, enters Jerusalem on foot out of respect for the Holy City, 11 December 1917.

General Archibald Murray’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force [EEF] was then ordered into Palestine where it fought two battles at Gaza (March 26, 1917, and April 17–19, 1917). However, both battles found Allied forces facing stiff resistance, and the attacks failed in the objective of seizing Gaza and driving the Central Powers’ forces out of the region. Nonetheless, with additional resources garnered and delivered by the new British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, London was soon able to generate new life into the EEF, including a change in leadership. Following Murray’s unsuccessful attempts at seizing Gaza in the spring of 1917, the British War Cabinet opted to replace him with General Sir Edmund Allenby, known as the “Bloody Bull,” who arrived in Egypt in June 1917.

Empowered with new resources and new staff, Allenby set about reinvigorating EEF troop morale before recommencing operations against enemy positions in Sinai and Palestine. Concerned with reports that Britain was preparing to commit additional resources and renewed focus in the Middle Eastern theater, including Mesopotamia and Palestine, at the end of April 1917, Germany dispatched a military delegation headed by General Erich von Falkenhayn to Turkey arriving in May. The initial concern of the German military delegation was the British occupation of Baghdad, and it advised that a new army should be constituted to address this threat. Consequently, the new Seventh Army was established and based in Aleppo to counter British moves in Mesopotamia (Iraq). However, by September 1917, the greater concern was for the Ottoman presence in Gaza and Palestine, as the EEF was making preparations for getting underway. As a result, operations by the Seventh Army against the British in Mesopotamia were cancelled as Falkenhayn advised for a rapid redeployment of the army from Aleppo to Beersheba in Palestine. While the theory was sound, the practical application of the plan proved problematic as the limited Turkish rail network hindered its implementation. As such, very few of the Seventh Army’s troops were in position before the British attacked during the Battle of Beersheba (October 31, 1917) and the Third Battle of Gaza (November 1–7, 1917).

Allenby brought a different style of leadership to Egyptian-Palestinian theater of operations than his predecessor. Unlike Murray, who had commanded the EEF from Cairo, Allenby frequently visited front line units and moved the Force’s headquarters from Cairo to Rafah nearer to the front lines at Gaza. Allenby also reorganized the Force into a three, primary corps order of battle: XX, XI, and the Desert Mounted Corps. He was also convinced by the Arab Bureau of Britain’s Foreign Office to utilize the Arab forces that had risen in revolt against the Ottomans and were then operating within Arabia. A remarkable British army officer detached to the Arab Bureau (British Intelligence), Major T. E. Lawrence, had found considerable success in working with Arab leaders in fomenting irregular operations, which ultimately caused the Ottoman and German leadership to station forces in response—forces which were badly needed elsewhere in the Middle East.

The Ottomans had called for jihad against the Entente Cordiale in the fall of 1914 in hopes of rousing support for the defense of the empire. Germany attempted to assist the Ottomans in this endeavor as it sent Kress von Kressenstein to Palestine, Oskar von Niedermayer to Afghanistan, Liman von Sanders to Turkey, and Wilhelm Wassmuss to southern Persia. Wassmuss, often referred to as the “German Lawrence,” incited tribes to attack British interests, particularly its Persian oil pipeline, northwest of Ahwaz.

The British government, ever mindful of the power this campaign might have should it be allowed to successfully proliferate, sought the help of the Sharif of Mecca, Emir Abdullah Hussein, in countering the Ottoman call for jihad. The tribe that Hussein led, the Hashemites, was relatively weak, particularly in relation to Ottoman forces. But the alliance with Hussein was much more than a military-oriented alliance. The Hashemites were politically important within the Middle East for a number of reasons, including the fact that Hussein was seen as a descendent of the prophet Muhammad and regarded as the guardian or custodian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Allenby was facing two defensive lines in Palestine, which were vital to the Ottoman defense of Gaza and Jerusalem. The first included entrenchments that stretched 30 miles from Gaza to Beersheba. The Gaza-Beersheba line was complemented by the Jaffa-Jerusalem line that extended more than 50 miles. Thus, rather than attacking Gaza in frontal assault, as had been the focus of operations by the EEF under Murray, Allenby, the old cavalry officer that he was, sought to maneuver for position through flanking attacks. Thus, he saw the key to taking Gaza would be to first feign a direct attack and draw the forces and attention of the defenders’ leaders at Gaza while sending a force in a flanking attack at unsuspecting Ottoman defenders that manned the lines in defense of Beersheba. Once Beersheba was in Allenby’s hands, he was then positioned to threaten the left flank of the Ottomans’ defensive line protecting its positions within Gaza. Once in such a position, Allenby could then move in three directions against Gaza itself.

Rumors circulated that the British were intent on attacking Gaza once again, but this time the operation would be centered on a naval amphibious landing north of Gaza and then descending down behind defenses. Additionally, British patrols routinely approached Beersheba every couple of weeks, expecting that when the actual attack was commenced, the Ottomans would at first believe it to be another scouting operation. Allenby wrote the following:

When I took command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Forces at the end of June, 1917, I received instructions to report on the conditions in which offensive operations against the Turkish Army on the Palestine front might be undertaken in the autumn or winter of 1917 … The main features of the situation in Palestine were as follows: The Turkish Army in Southern Palestine held a strong position extending from the sea at Gaza, roughly along the Gaza-Beersheba Road to Beersheba. Gaza had been made into a strong modern fortress, heavily entrenched and wired, offering facility for protracted defense … I decided to strike the main blow against the left flank of the main Turkish position, Hareira and Sheria. The capture of Beersheba was a necessary preliminary to this operation, in order to secure the water supplies at that place and to give room for the deployment of the attacking force on the high ground to the north and north-west of Beersheba. It was, however, important in order to keep the enemy in doubt up to the last moment as to the real point of attack, and that an attack should also be made on the enemy’s right at Gaza in conjunction with the main operations.

The Ottomans had positioned nine infantry divisions and one cavalry division in the line protecting Gaza with a total force level of between 35,000 and 45,000 infantry, 1,500 cavalry, and 500 artillery guns. The British force was divided into three elements: the strike wing consisted of the Desert Mounted Corps, containing the Anzac and Australian Mounted Divisions and the 7th Mounted Brigade and XX Corps, with four infantry divisions and the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade. In total, it was a force of 47,500 infantry, 11,000 cavalry, and 242 guns. On the left of this striking wing was the British XXI Corps, containing three infantry divisions and two brigades for a total of 35,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry, and 218 guns. Between the two main bodies of the EEF and protecting the gap between them was the Yeomanry Mounted Division consisting of some 5,000 cavalry troopers.

In order to facilitate the deception, an artillery bombardment of Gaza began on October 27, four days before the actual attack at Beersheba was scheduled to occur. The bombardment would last for six days, which included naval gunfire and was the largest artillery barrage of World War I, outside of France. On October 31, the British commenced the actual attack as two infantry divisions moved against the well-entrenched and well-defended southwest defenses of the town. The key to the attack, however, was in the flanking maneuver conducted by the 4th Australian Light Horse led by General W. Grant, who, in dramatic fashion, conducted one of the last successful cavalry attacks in the modern warfare. By November 7, Gaza was under British control.

By November 14, the British took Junction Station, which effectively cut the Ottoman rail line into Palestine. From that point, the 75th Division—the last one formed during the war and consisting of Indian Gurkhas and British personnel from India—captured the road from Jerusalem to Jaffa. The key military geographic objective for the defense of Jerusalem, throughout history, has been the vital hill of Nebi Samwil, which from either defenders’ or attackers’ perspective was the key to the city. On November 21, the 75th captured Nebi Samwil, which then provided Allenby and the EEF the position from which the city of Jerusalem could be taken.


On December 8, 1917, Allenby dispatched the XX Corps for the final assault on Jerusalem. The following day, December 9, the Turkish army withdrew from Jerusalem and 400 years of Ottoman rule had come to an end. On December 11, Allenby made a dramatic and well-photographed entry into Jerusalem, choosing to walk instead of ride into the city through the Jaffa Gate. It was the first time since 1187 CE that Western forces controlled the historic city.

By the fall of 1918, the Ottomans fielded three armies with a total of 34,000 men defending a defensive line from the Eastern Mediterranean coast across the Judean Hills, the Jordan Valley, and to the Hejaz Railway. German General Liman von Sanders had replaced Falkenhayn and was in overall command. Under Allenby in Palestine were 69,000 men (57,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry). The Turkish front line defenses were 3,000 yards deep, well-constructed, and protected by thin, barbed wire. The second line three miles to the rear was less prepared and consisted of strongpoints but not adequately connected in a consistent defensive line and unprotected by wire.

The Battle of Megiddo, September 19–25, 1918, was the climactic battle of British operations in Egypt and Palestine against German-led Ottoman forces during World War I. The name applied to Allenby’s final offensive in Palestine was of course chosen for symbolic purposes, as scant fighting relative to other regions actually occurred in the vicinity of Megiddo. Symbolic, figurative, or literal, Allenby’s cavalry did in fact advance past the ancient site of Megiddo, which served as the first battle in recorded history (1457 BCE).

Arrayed in front of Allenby were the Ottoman Eighth, Seventh, and Fourth Armies, with the Eighth nearest the Mediterranean coast, the Seventh in the middle of the Ottoman order of battle, and the Fourth on Allenby’s right flank. Allenby’s main focus was on the Seventh and Eighth Armies, commanded by Mustafa Kemal Pasha and Jeved Pasha, respectively. Once again, Allenby’s ability to keep the enemy from ascertaining his striking plans forced Sanders to defend across the entire front, which left scant few troops in reserve.

By mid-September 1918, Allenby had positioned 35,000 infantry, 9,000 cavalry, and 383 guns on the western fifteen miles of the front line facing 8,000 infantry and 130 guns of the Ottoman Seventh Army. On the remaining 45 miles of the front, the British had 22,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, and 157 guns facing 24,000 men and 270 guns of the Eight and Fourth Ottoman Armies. However, 11,000 of those in the Fourth Army were east of the Jordan Valley, which when actual combat began effectively removed them from making effective contributions. Sanders had placed them guarding his left flank knowing that the “Bloody Bull” had a penchant for sweeping flanking maneuvers and often using his swift moving cavalry. Sanders, who had calculated so well in ascertaining British landing intentions during the Gallipoli campaign, now, with limited forces holding weaker positions, was a victim of British deception as to the actual plans of attack.

Allenby’s battle plan was for his XXI Corps of five divisions to attack along the Mediterranean coast and force Jeved Pasha’s Eighth Army to pull back along the line of the railway north to Tul Keram, followed by a move east to Messudieh Junction. Once this was accomplished, a gap would have been opened up along the coast through which Allenby planned on sending his Desert Mounted Corps. Once past the Ottoman lines it became incumbent upon them to ride north past the Judean Hills and arrive at the Plain of Esdraelon. Their objective was the capture of the Beisan and El Afule, which were key to controlling access to the rail link.

Once in control of Beisan and El Afule, the Desert Mounted Corps would have effectively blocked the escape route via rail for the Seventh and Eighth Ottoman Armies, at which point, the only alternative for retreat open to the Ottoman forces would have been east through the Jordan Valley. XX Corps was assigned the task of advancing parallel to the hills toward Nablus and in blocking the best passes into the Jordan Valley, thereby catching the retreating Ottoman units in a trap.

Allenby benefited from the British Air Corps’ ability to maintain air superiority and in keeping German aircraft from conducting scouting missions. In a preliminary operation, the Air Corps dropped ordnance on Ottoman positions in Deraa (city in present-day Syria), which lent weight to Sander’s opinion that Allied forces would conduct its main attack inland. Simultaneous to the air raid, Arab insurgent forces—among them T. E. Lawrence—cut the rail lines north, south, and west from Deraa, at which time Sanders transferred additional reserves east to address the rising threat. A second preliminary move occurred when the 53rd Division of XX Corps moved to engage Ottoman units east of the Judean Hills. This attack was to place the 53rd in position to maneuver once the actual main attack opened nearer the Mediterranean coast.

The main attack commenced at 4:30 a.m. on September 19, as Allied artillery opened fire for a brief, 15-minute barrage. The following infantry assault overwhelmed the outnumbered Ottomans in the first line. The 60th Division moving on the left of Allied advance gained 7,000 yards, nearly four miles, in the first two and a half hours shattering the first and second defensive lines and taking control of a bridge over the Nahr el Falik. The control of the bridgehead then allowed the cavalry to move forward.By the end of the first day’s operations, XXI Corps had managed to seize most of the railway north of Tul Keram. As the Ottoman Eighth Army was attempting to withdraw through Tul Keram, it was struck from the air and engaged by the rapidly advancing 5th Australian Light Horse as well as the 60th Division, which had pushed forward 17 miles and secured Tul Keram. All cavalry units had met their expected objectives for the first day’s operations and reached the outer perimeter of the Plain of Esdraelon and, by 2:30 a.m. on September 20, were advancing into the valley. The key objectives of El Afule and Beisan were captured later on September 20, securing the railroad in each region. Moreover, as the Allied cavalry swiftly advanced, it nearly succeeded in capturing General Sanders who had made his headquarters at Nazareth.

By close of the second day, the Turkish Eighth Army had essentially been destroyed and the Seventh was near collapse. With the railway blocked, its only chance of escape was east from Nablus down a road leading from Wadi Fara into the Jordan Valley. This position, however, was the objective of the Allied XX Corps, which had not enjoyed the same success as other Allied units. Thus, it was not where Allenby planned for it to be on the night of September 20 and morning of September 21, and the Ottomans began a successful evacuation from Nablus. However, they were then stopped by Allied airpower as Allenby’s aircraft caught Ottoman forces on the road east of Nablus at a gorge. Bombing soon served to block the Ottoman passage through the gorge, and survivors scattered into the surrounding countryside only to be captured piecemeal in follow-on operations. Advancing Allied forces captured over 1,000 vehicles and 90 guns, which had been abandoned along the road.

Allied forces took 25,000 prisoners during and following the Battle of Megiddo. Less than 10,000 Turkish and German soldiers escaped and made their retreat north. British and Allied forces pressed the advantage and continued the pursuit of the retreating Central Power troops through the month of October. The EEF moved north toward the ancient city of Damascus (in present-day Syria). Sanders had placed Ali Riza Pasha Rehabi, an Arab general serving in the Ottoman army, in command of Damascus. Unbeknownst to Sanders, Ali was also the serving president of the Syrian branch of the Arab Secret Society and had been in contact with T. E. Lawrence.


Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel commanding Desert Mounted Corps leads his corps through Damascus on 2 October 1918.

Prince Feisal leaving Chauvel’s Desert Mounted Corps Headquarters in Damascus.

With the Ottoman military position in Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia collapsing at late autumn of 1918, the Arab Secret Society seized control in Damascus. On October 1, in a sequence preplanned by the commander of the EEF, the first troops of the Arab Revolt rode into the city followed on October 2 by Allenby’s forces. During the month of October, Allied forces under Allenby seized Beirut (present-day Lebanon) on October 8; Tripoli on October 18, and the great trading city of northern Syria, Aleppo, on October 25. On October 30, 1918, with all lands outside of Anatolia (present-day Turkey) essentially lost in terms of the Middle East, Istanbul sued for peace and asked for an armistice. The Battle of Megiddo was certainly one of the best planned and executed British battles of the First World War and most certainly that which followed in the aftermath was historic in scale as Britain and France took positions of prominence across the Middle East in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.


Reforming the Ottoman military had been a pressing issue for successive Sultans for at least two centuries in the early modern era and in the lead-up to the First World War. An entrenched bureaucracy, backed by the powerful Janissaries and elite merchants who were quite content with the Ottoman status quo, successfully hindered the necessary reforms. Yet, the reforms needed for successful military operations in the modern, industrialized world went beyond the need to reorganize army units and train their leaders.

As was the case in many of the battles that took place during World War I, in any theater, battle communications with the front were generally broken in short order. Since nearly no battle plan survives, first contact with the enemy fully intact, those in the front lines are unable to receive new orders or benefit from new intelligence other than what they are generating on their own. Accordingly, while brilliant generals and field marshals construct plans that come from a career of experience and study, the original plan most often needs to be adjusted in the face of enemy action.

If, as was widely the case during the war, those at the front cannot communicate with the brilliance in the rear, they are then left to fend for themselves. It is the ability of these officers and men to adapt, adjust, and overcome. Conversely, it is their inability to do so that often factored significantly into the outcome of battle. It was, therefore, the intent of the Ottoman leadership to allow Germany to help develop Auftragstaktik at the general officer level and where appropriate, within its mid-level officer ranks. In the drill regulations of the infantry 1888, German commanders were told to tell subordinates what to do without insisting on how they did it. Due to the increased lethality of modern weapons, it was expected that greater force dispersion would be required. Given this, captains and lieutenants would often find themselves required to direct their units without orders from central command. As such, the nature of the decentralization of the modern battlefield created the necessity of developing initiative, critical thinking, and independent judgment at all levels.

Yet, the ability to think independently, critically, and accurately in the midst of uncertainty, chaos, violence, and danger requires a culture that fosters, over a lifetime, a culture of innovative and courageous behavior. Accordingly, in order to be successful militarily in modern battle-space, traditional and authoritarian societies are faced with a dilemma: continue insisting on a compliant and submissive population producing military leaders incapable of fast and independent thinking or launch societal-wide reforms in the nature of education, socialization, and training, which will empower their commanders and decision makers to adjust quickly and effectively in the heat of modern-era battle.

In essence, the centralized power of the typical autocratic political regime within the Middle East will not simply have to reform in order to create modern democratic societies, rather, and perhaps more importantly, it will have to embrace change in order to defend itself in the modern battle-space. The centralized command structure with initiative and independent thinking suppressed in many of the armies within the modern Middle East will have to be overcome in order to prosecute effective military campaigns in the modern era. The need for military security will require changes in traditional society, which will, in turn, create the conditions leading ultimately toward greater political participation and greater democratization across the region.

This is not to suggest that Ottoman officers, had they been better at operating independently, would have prevailed over Allenby’s forces during the campaign in Palestine during the First World War. It does suggest that given the realities of modern warfare, successful military officers will be forced to think in new and different ways and will benefit from being schooled in the science and art of critical and innovative thinking. The plight of the Mamluks in the face of a rising and technically proficient Ottoman army and their subsequent refusal to adapt to new weaponry and doctrine serve to illustrate the gravity of the situation for Middle Eastern cultures as the twenty-first century unfolds. Allenby’s Middle East operations were instrumental in driving Ottoman and German forces from the Levant, the liberation of Arab lands from Turkish rule, as well as laying the foundation for the arrival of the Jewish people and the ultimate establishment of the state of Israel. As such, Allenby, the EEF, and the Cairo-based Arab Bureau’s contributions to the creation of the modern Middle East are substantial.


In order to conduct modern, industrialized warfare at the great power level, the ability to generate and sustain strategic endurance had become, by the First World War, a prerequisite for success. Accordingly, the great powers, particularly Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the Ottoman Empire, maneuvered for control of those elements that contributed to strategic endurance: people, resources, markets, and trade routes. These crucial elements or components of aggregated power and the direction of that power for the obtainment of political objectives were certainly not new or unique to the modern world having animated world politics for centuries. What was new were the nature of energy, electricity, machining, and mass production, coupled with an exponential rise in the levels of lethality, range, and accuracy of rapid fire small arms and large bore artillery.

Long lasting wars between great power coalitions in the modern age have been won by the side with the largest economic staying power and productive resources. In every economic category, the Anglo-American-French coalition was between two and three times as strong as Germany and Austria-Hungary combined—a fact confirmed by further statistics of the war expenditures of each side between 1914 and 1919: 60.4 billion dollars spent by the German-Austrian alliance as opposed to 114 billion spent by the British Empire, France and the United States together (and 145 billion if Italy and Russia’s expenditures are included).

Given the militarization of the various industrialized economies, as well as the mobilization of the entire populations for prolonged periods, the First World War came to be referred to as a “total war.”

The militarization of societies, economies, and politics was the consequence. In the end, the war proved a contest of productive capacities; and the Allied victory was due to their material superiority, which by 1918 was insuperable.

In order to form sufficient levels of aggregated power that would lead to a war-winning level of strategic endurance, Britain needed to borrow heavily (particularly from the United States and the banking syndicates in Europe) and was forced to make promises that were eventually difficult to honor. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and its Central Powers’ allies, the promises that Britain had made in order to cobble together the winning coalition were, by 1919, beginning to color its postwar Middle East policy. Sharif Ali Hussein and his sons, Faisal and Abdullah, called for the promises made during the Hussein-McMahon correspondences to be honored by establishing an independent Arab state and to be placed under Hussein’s control.

Bomber Command: To war

At the outbreak of war in September 1939, Bomber Command had an average daily availability of 500 aircraft (total aircraft establishment was 920 aircraft) organised in fifty-five squadrons controlled by five operational Groups. No. 1 and No. 2 Groups were equipped with light bombers – Fairey Battles and Bristol Blenheims respectively – and the other three Groups (3, 4 and 5) with twin-engined ‘strategic bombers’ – Handley Page Hampdens, Armstrong-Whitworth Whitleys and Vickers-Armstrongs Wellingtons respectively.

On 2 September all aircraft of the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF) were ordered to deploy to France, the Battles of No. 1 Group duly crossed the Channel, one ditching en route but with the crew being rescued There were effectively four operational Groups left in the UK – Nos 2, 3, 4 and 5 – with No. 6 Group taking on the training role to administer the Group Pool squadrons. These latter units were squadrons within each Group which were given the task of training the crews arriving from Flying Training Schools to a standard whereby they were fit to join operational squadrons and of providing a pool of replacement crews. Any expansion of Bomber Command was faced with a number of hurdles, the most important of which were availability of aircraft, crews and airfields. Each of these aspects was to cause major problems in the early years of the war and in almost every instance the solution was, in some respects, a compromise. The overriding consideration throughout the expansion of the Command was that of maintaining the attack on Germany. Lead times required for new aircraft, airfield construction and the training of aircrew had an effect on the speed with which the expansion progressed.

Bomber Command was in action on day one of the war, a number of Blenheim reconnaissance sorties later followed by a Hampden/Wellington force in search of German shipping were conducted, whilst on the first night of the war Whitleys flew over the Ruhr dropping propaganda leaflets. The Ruhr was a most appropriate destination in Germany for this first, albeit only with paper, visit by Bomber Command as it was the Ruhr that was to receive a great deal of the Command’s effort once the bombing offensive was launched.

This pattern of activity of daylight searches for shipping and night leaflet dropping was to be the focus of Bomber Command’s war for the next few weeks; only small numbers of aircraft were involved and little action took place, although there were early indications of bomber vulnerability such as the loss of five Hampdens on a shipping sortie on 29 September. There appears to have been little reaction to this high level of losses from an attack with no result in terms of damage to the enemy. October and November were quiet months although in addition to limited operational flying a number of exercises were flown, such as that on 22 November to, ‘Investigate the factors of time and concentration of aircraft in attacks on targets situated in a relatively small area’ and that on 28 November on ships in the Belfast area to, ‘Give training and experience in the delivery of concentrated and rapid attack upon warships located in or near harbours.’ The latter exercise involved sixty aircraft from Nos 3 and 5 Groups. Despite losses and lack of success to date, the general opinion was still that aircraft could find and hit their targets and that they would be able to defend themselves. Indeed, the report on an attack on 3 December appeared to confirm this view: ‘Twenty-four Wellingtons carried out an attack upon enemy warships anchored in the vicinity of Heligoland. A total of sixty-three 500 lb semi armour piercing (SAP) bombs were dropped; a direct hit was obtained on a cruiser and probably on a second. At least three bombs were dropped so close to enemy warships as to make it likely that damage was caused and casualties were sustained. Heavy anti-aircraft fire was encountered and some twenty enemy aircraft, including Me 110s, were seen, some of which attacked. One Me 109 was shot down and one appeared to have been hit. Three of our aircraft were hit but all returned safely to their bases.’ This report would seem to suggest that all was well and later that week the Air Ministry ordered attacks on naval forces in German estuaries ‘as soon as possible.’ On 14 December twelve Wellingtons from 99 Squadron were sent to patrol the Elbe Estuary and the Frisian Islands to attack shipping – and it was a disaster. Under fighter attack and in the face of heavy flak half of the attacking formation became casualties; not a promising start to the new campaign. Two days later the Commander-in-Chief presided over a conference of his Group commanders and senior staff to, ‘Examine the existing operating procedures with a view to making such modifications as might be considered desirable in the light of the experience gained in war conditions.’ The ink was hardly dry on the minutes of this meeting, which had reached no firm conclusions, when a second disastrous operation took place. On 18 December No. 3 Group sent twenty-four Wellingtons from three squadrons to patrol the Schillig Roads and Wilhelmshaven to report upon any enemy naval forces. ‘In Wilhelmshaven a battleship, two cruisers and four destroyers were seen in the harbour and alongside. They were not therefore attacked. There was heavy anti-aircraft fire and some twenty-five Me 109s and Me 40s (sic) attacked – at least twelve of which were shot down. Twelve of our aircraft failed to return, of these two are known to have descended into the North Sea on the way home.’ One initial reaction to this disaster was an Air Ministry order suspending attacks on naval forces until the armouring of the Wellington’s fuel tanks had been completed.

So with new aircraft types promised and a major growth in numbers, Bomber Command entered the first winter of the war. With a political injunction against attacks on land targets, the rationale for the strategic bombers had disappeared. The doctrine of bombing the enemy heartland and destroying his industrial capability had been removed at a stroke by the politicians. This was not so much on humanitarian grounds, although the American President had requested both sides to refrain from unrestrained bombing, but more because of a belief that the German bomb lift, i.e. weight of bombs to a target, was greater than that of the RAF.


Whilst the Wellingtons endeavoured to find and attack German shipping, the Whitleys were operating over Germany at night – but only dropping leaflets. This propaganda leaflet-dropping campaign (nickelling as it was called by Bomber Command) continued throughout the war. The first real test for the daylight bombing campaign came in December 1939 when, on a number of occasions, formations of Wellingtons were intercepted by fighters and suffered heavy losses. Another pillar of doctrine, that bombers flying in close formation using mutually supportive fire from their gun turrets could defeat fighter attack, was shattered. The number of sorties had been small and taken overall the losses were still seen as acceptable – and by no means an indicator that an offensive over the Ruhr would not succeed. Nevertheless, from January the Wellingtons and Hampdens joined the night leaflet campaign as there were no suitable bombing targets and it was an excellent way of giving crews practice in night operations. Losses from these sorties were low, as the Germans had not yet developed a night defence system.

One of the major dangers faced by the bomber crews was severe weather, icing being a particular hazard. The Whitley was prone to wing icing and, despite the use of anti-icing aids such as Kilfrost paste, the only real solution was to avoid the icing layers in the cloud. Given the poor performance of the aircraft and the often inadequate Met forecast this was easier said than done – once icing had been detected the only option was a descent in search of warmer air.

April/May 1940 brought a number of developments. The German invasion of Denmark and Norway in April gave Bomber Command a new set of targets, and on 11 April a small force of Wellingtons attacked the airfield at Stavanger in Norway – the first intentional bombing attack on a land target in Europe. The same month saw Hampdens fly the first of a new type of mission: minelaying. Gardening, as these sorties were code-named, was to become a major part of the Command’s work over the next five years. Finally, the German invasion of France in May led to a dramatic and short-lived tactical employment of the AASF Fairey Battles in attempting to stem the enemy armoured columns – with much heroism, and crippling losses among aircraft and aircrew.

The Blenheim squadrons were also heavily tasked in this period; indeed between 10 May (the date of the German invasion) and 25 June, the Blenheims operated on all but four days – flying 1,616 sorties for the loss of 104 aircraft.

By early June the battered remnants of the Bomber Command light bomber force had left France and returned to airfields in England; No. 1 Group had effectively ceased to exist.

The most significant event in May was the lifting of the ban on attacking targets in Germany; the first attack took place on the night of 15 May on oil and rail targets in the Ruhr area – the strategic offensive had started. As major industrial towns were concentrated in the relatively small geographic area of the Ruhr, this part of Germany was to be the focus of much of the bomber effort until the last months of the war. Italy’s entry into the war in June provided additional targets for the bombers.

With the launch of bombing raids on Germany the focus of attack on industrial centres was intended to, ‘Cause the continuous interruption and dislocation of industry, particularly where the German aircraft industry is concentrated.’ On 4 June a new directive had been issued to Bomber Command but with the rider that: ‘The initiative lies with the enemy; our strategic policy is liable to be deflected by the turn of events from the course we should like to follow. The Command was instructed to pursue its campaign against German industry but to be ready to assist in countering any invasion.

With the launch of the bombing offensive the Command endeavoured to attack industrial targets in the Ruhr, this being deemed the area most likely to produce results as it was a major industrial area, often referred to as the ‘weapon smithy’ of the Reich. It was a major mining centre for coal and produced large quantities of coke to feed its own industries and those of other areas. It was home to major industrial towns such as Bochum, Dortmund, Duisburg and Essen, the latter being home to the massive Krupps works. However, the very nature of this industrial centre meant that it had a permanent haze, which made it very difficult for bombers find targets visually. All of these places became regular targets for the Command, as did places such as Gelsenkirchen where the two hydrogenation plants of Gelsenberg-Benzin and Hydrierwerke-Scholvern between them produced 575,000 tons of aviation fuel a year. In addition to the actual industrial targets great importance was attached to the comprehensive rail and canal network that linked Germany’s industrial centres. Indeed, the importance of the rail network became one of the Command’s justifications for its area bombing of cities.

A new directive was issued on 13 July, which stated that the primary aim was to, ‘Reduce the scale of air attack on this country with the aircraft and oil industries being the priority targets’. The Air Staff directive also recommended concentration of effort against a limited number of targets rather than the widespread attacks that had been made so far. It listed ten aircraft factories and five oil installations as the main targets, and it also estimated that bombers would have to hit an aircraft factory with 140 of the standard 500 lb bombs in order to have any effect. Secondary targets included communications centres. However, Portal as AOC-in-C considered the directive too restrictive and sought, and received, authority to be more flexible in his choice of targets. A new target category was added on 30 July with the Command ordered to attack power stations, the experts having decided that these were key targets that if destroyed would seriously disrupt German industry. Power stations featured in the summary of operations over the next few years, some as daylight attacks by the light and medium bombers, others as an aiming point within an area attack on a city. A summary in August showed that the Command had expended 41 per cent of its effort, in terms of bomb tonnage, against Luftwaffe-related targets and a further 21 per cent against oil targets.

The decision to include Operational Training Unit aircraft on ops was in part based on the desire to increase the number of aircraft operating each night but more particularly to provide trainee crews in the latter stages of their course with easy and relatively risk-free operational experience, the favoured mission being night leaflet-dropping over France. The first such op was flown by three OTU aircraft on the night of 18/19 July.

The increased threat from U-boats brought Bomber Command into this aspect of the maritime war, the first specific attack being made against the U-boat pens at Lorient on 2/3 September by thirty-nine Hampdens. A directive of 21 September instructed the Command to allocate three squadrons employed on minelaying to be transferred to attacks on U-boat targets. The same directive dictated a continued focus on the oil industry and also mentioned Berlin: ‘Although there are no objectives in Berlin of importance to our major plans, it is the intention that attacks on the city and its environs should be continued from time to time when favourable weather conditions permit. The primary aim of these attacks will be to cause the greatest possible disturbance and dislocation both to the industrial activities and civilian population generally.’ By the end of September the immediate threat of invasion had receded and the bomber effort was able to focus once more on the strategic offensive, with the light bombers of No. 2 Group contributing to the night attacks, although Blenheims also flew cloud-cover and anti-shipping operations.

The weather in October frustrated the attempt to return to the offensive over Germany, although it was fog at the home airfields that caused the greatest number of losses. On a bad night the Command could lose 10–20 per cent of the bombers to crashes in England; of seventy-three bombers that operated on the night of 16/17 October, fourteen crashed because of fog over their bases (and only three were lost over enemy territory). There had been a similar situation the previous month, as recounted by Ken Wallis (103 Squadron Wellington L7586): ‘At this stage of the war we had orders only to drop bombs if we could identify a military target and so we brought ours back until we could drop them on a harbour target in Holland. This meant of course that we had used more fuel than planned. As we flew over the North Sea we received a message that all aircraft were being diverted to Scotland – not an option for us, we didn’t have the fuel. Using the Darkie system we eventually persuaded someone that we had to try to land at an airfield on the east coast and so made for Binbrook, not that far from our own base. The fog was extensive and despite pass after pass over the airfield, during which we could dimly see the Chance Light, a landing was impossible and each time I just glimpsed a building or obstruction at the last moment and put the Wellington into a steep climb. The petrol gauges had been reading empty for some time and I requested permission to bale out the crew. I was told to fly a little further north – at which point both engines stopped. All the crew were able to get out but I was pretty low when I jumped. It was impossible to see where you were going to come down and I landed heavily and was knocked out, also damaging my back.’ So much for the crash: the subsequent few hours are also worth recounting: ‘When I came to I was near a hedge and had no idea where I was, the fog was still thick and moisture was dripping off the hedge. A few shots from the Mauser pistol that I always carried with me and a Policeman found me. He took me to a nearby large house and the owner was persuaded, with some reluctance, to take pity on a poor pilot. The owner was making tea as he couldn’t sleep and he grudgingly offered me a cup. When I asked to use his phone to call my base and check on my crew he was less than happy – until I offered to reverse the charges. At 6.00 am the next morning the maid arrived and I was looking forward to a good breakfast, especially after I gave her the chocolate and orange I had not eaten from my flying rations. No such luck. The Squadron Commander picked me up in his car at 8.00 am and we then picked up the rest of the crew from some cottages – they had done somewhat better than I had and had been plied with brandy for much of the night!’ They went to the crash site but little survived of the aircraft except the tail, Ken acquired the fabric from the part of the fin with the mission marks painted on it and this now hangs in the hall of his house. After this incident he was given 10 days leave and then it was back to operational flying.

October was a quiet month for the Command because of bad weather but on the 24th it acquired a new commander when Portal moved up to become Chief of the Air Staff, his place being taken by Air Marshal Sir Richard Peirse. The strategy for the winter offensive was laid out in a directive of 30 October; it was not new in that oil was to be the priority target, followed by aircraft component and aluminium factories. However, the overall stated aim was for, ‘Regular concentrated attacks on objectives in large towns and centres of industry, with the primary aim of causing very heavy material destruction, which will demonstrate to the enemy the power and severity of air bombardment and the hardship and dislocation which will result from it.’ This core doctrine remained with Bomber Command to the end of the war, although it is interesting to note that oil and the aircraft industry became the focus of the USAAF’s daylight bombing offensive from 1942 onwards, whilst Bomber Command concentrated on area bombing of cities of industrial and communications importance. The directive also called on the Command to continue its contribution to the maritime war; indeed it could only reduce this involvement with prior agreement from the Admiralty. Agreement was reached to reduce the minelaying force to one dedicated squadron.

It must be remembered that at this stage of the war Bomber Command’s nightly aircraft availability was limited, and a night when around 100 bombers operated was close to a maximum effort. The attack on Hamburg (16/17 November) was the largest to date but only comprised 130 aircraft; the raid was mounted in retaliation for the attack on Coventry the previous night. Only half the crews reported bombing the target and it is likely that if night photographs had been available from all of them that the true percentage would have been far lower. Evidence was beginning to mount that the bomber offensive was failing to have any major effect as bombers were unable to find or hit targets. Other developments in this first full year of war included consideration of tour length for aircrew – and the introduction to service of new bomber types. Discussions on tour lengths had been prompted by concern over the strain of continual operational flying; the ‘squadron commander’s discretion’ policy was gradually replaced by a fixed tour of 200 operational hours, which equated to thirty to thirty-five ops, the policy being circulated to Group commanders on 29 November. Although this calculation changed at various times during the war the basic tour length was generally around thirty ops, more for Pathfinder crews and with some targets only counting as half an operation.

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.

Before the Sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse II

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.