Second World War at Sea: Java Sea
The Loss of Force Z, Part Two
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
On 4 December, Phillips flew to Manila to meet with Hart. Both American and British intelligence now showed unmistakable signs of a pending Japanese offensive. Phillips faced a series of unpleasant options. He needed to show resolve in front of Hart, that the British would follow through on their promises to defend the Malay Barrier, lest the Americans pull back their own ships. That ruled out a retreat to Ceylon or move to Darwin in northern Australia. He could move his ships to a Dutch port, as Hart had done, but those close enough to the possible combat zone had no facilities beyond fuel depots. Also, the Americans and British had no common defense agreement with the Dutch, but that was not seen as a problem – Hart had instructed his captains to ignore any Dutch complaints.
After her journey halfway around the world, Prince of Wales, always a notoriously difficult ship, needed minor repairs. Only Singapore had a drydock capable of effecting those. Phillips decided to remain in Singapore, apparently unaware that the buildup of Japanese aircraft in French Indochina included the highly-trained land-based torpedo bomber squadrons of the Imperial Navy’s air force. And once Churchill announced the arrival of the two big ships in Singapore, the torpedo squadrons began rather specific practice to attack large enemy ships in the open sea.
After Phillips left Manila, decoded radio traffic showed large Japanese convoys entering the Gulf of Siam, giving Hart a change of heart. Hart ordered four American destroyers then at Balikpapan in Dutch Borneo to steam for Singapore to support Phillips; the Dutch would send a light cruiser as well.
Prince of Wales (top) makes smoke as Repulse (bottom) is under bombing attack.
Radio intercepts received at 2300 on 7 December revealed that hostilities were imminent, and two hours later came word that the Japanese had begun landing troops in northern Malaya. The British military leaders of Singapore met at 0330 and Air Vice Marshal Conway Pulford informed Phillips, apparently for the first time, that his pilots were not trained to fly over water and could not be expected to give fighter cover to Force Z. At 0415 Japanese bombers struck Singapore, finding the city fully lit and its anti-aircraft batteries unmanned, but they did little damage.
Phillips, having implicitly accused two other admirals of cowardice in the face of the enemy, could not back down now. Boiler repairs to Prince of Wales delayed her sailing, but Royal Air Force technicians sent aboard could not repair her sophisticated anti-aircraft fire control system, rendered inoperable by the Malayan heat and humidity.
Phillips took Force Z to sea at 1700 on 8 December, timing his journey to reach the Japanese beachhead at first light on the 10th. Pulford agreed to provide fighters over the landing zone, since they could not cover the ships at sea. All of Phillips’s captains agreed with the plan. Soon after the ships had sailed, Pulford radioed that there would be no fighter cover at all.
A Japanese submarine spotted the British force in the early afternoon of 9 December, and a Japanese floatplane made contact a few hours later. The Japanese plan called for Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo’s Second Fleet to intercept them in the South China Sea, with a surface action group built around the fast battleships Kongo and Haruna.
That would not be necessary. Spotters aboard Prince of Wales sighted the floatplane, and with surprise lost Phillips ordered Force Z back to Singapore. At dawn on the 10th one of the two escorting destroyers scouted one of the possible landing beaches, finding northing. Based on an overnight sighting by a Japanese submarine, the Japanese surface forces broke off their pursuit of Force Z, as they could no longer catch the British, while between 0755 ands 0820 the Naval Air Force put 27 level and 61 torpedo bombers into the air from fields around Saigon.
The crew of Prince of Wales abandons ship.
A Japanese scout plane spotted the British force at 1015, and the British in turn saw the plane. Phillips ordered Action Stations, and both heavy ships broke out the White Ensign. The Japanese made their first run at 1113, eight level bombers that attacked Repulse but scored no serious damage. Then came the torpedo planes.
With their aircraft running close to bingo fuel, the Japanese came at Force Z as they arrived, in piecemeal fashion. Nine planes attacked Prince of Wales, and seven went after Repulse. Two torpedoes meant for Prince of Wales either exploded on contact with the water or dove too deep. Leach, her captain, successfully combed the wakes of six more, expertly turning his ship to avoid the deadly fish. At 1144, the seventh torpedo struck her outboard of her port outer propeller shaft.
Catastrophic damage now cascaded through the engine rooms as the propeller shaft spun wildly before it could be shut down, and over 2,000 tons of water poured into the ship. Electric power went out, shutting down her anti-aircraft defenses, and she lost maneuverability, pumps, and internal communications. Counter-flooding only corrected part of the list, speed dropped to 15 knots, and Prince of Wales signaled “Not Under Control” to Repulse.
Aboard Repulse, Captain William “Dunkirk Joe” Tennant, the last man off the beaches of Dunkirk in June 1940, stood silently watching the Japanese planes approach. Tennant had served as navigator aboard both Repulse and her sister Renown during the 1920’s, and claimed an instinctive feel for the ship’s movements. He spoke no orders, instead indicating with his hands where he wished his helmsmen to turn. Considered the Royal Navy’s finest handler of large ships, Tennant would successfully evade nineteen torpedoes meant for his ship.
The planes returned at 1220, 26 more torpedo bombers. Six of them targeted the helpless Prince of Wales, hitting her four times. Eleven more went after Repulse in a ‘hammer and anvil” attack, but once again Tennant’s superb seamanship saved his battle cruiser; the lone torpedo to hit Repulse struck her torpedo blister, inflicting minimal damage, but the remaining nine planes then conducted another hammer-and-anvil strike.
This time Tennant’s luck ran out. Three more torpedoes struck, and the captain ordered his crew to abandon ship as she heeled over to port. Within minutes she capsized and sank.
“She went down quite peacefully,” one sailor recalled, “as though glad it was over.”
At 1241 a final flight of level bombers came after Prince of Wales, now staggering along at 8 knots and having taken on at least 18,000 tons of water. Only one hit, destroying the first-aid station, but six more near-misses put the last propeller out of action and brought even more flooding. Sometime after 1300 – it’s not clear exactly – Leach ordered his crew to abandon ship. Phillips went down with the ship, possibly intentionally, while Leach appears to have struck his head while leaving the battleship and drowned. The American destroyers arrived on the scene just as the three remaining British boats departed, their decks crammed with survivors.
It had been an utter disaster for the Royal Navy, as 840 men died including both Phillips and Leach. The Japanese lost 18 aircrew to British anti-aircraft fire, with four planes downed and 28 damaged.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and new puppy. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold.
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