The humiliating mistake that destroyed the two armored colossi of the Royal Navy in World War II

Updated:10/09/2021 00:28h


Winston ChurchillHe, who needs little presentation, was organizing some drawers on December 10, 1941 when he received a call that changed the course of World War II. «It was the admiral Dudley Pound. His voice sounded strange. He coughed and swallowed. At first he cannot clearly hear what he was saying to me, but then he raised his voice, “he wrote in his memoirs. His interlocutor, the First Lord of the Sea, finally found the words: “I have to inform you that the ‘Prince of Wales‘ and the ‘Repulse‘they have been sunk by the Japanese’. The ‘premier’ hung up abruptly. «I was grateful to be alone, in all the war I never received such painful news. It implied that Japan was now the master of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific and that we were naked. ‘

The words of the British politician are valid to demonstrate the hard blow that the loss of these two ships caused to Great Britain. Its two flagships, as ABC explained just a day later: «Yesterday, the news with the greatest resonance was the sinking of two British battleships: the ‘Prince of Wales’, a very modern unit of 35,000 tons, launched on May 3, 1939, and the ‘Repulse’, from 32.000, older, but modernized to give you more protection. The event represents a very severe loss of the Pacific Fleet». Five attacks by the Japanese aviation were enough to end them as the world prepared to celebrate Christmas. Just over fifty aircraft to put an end to the call ‘Z force‘, the English navy of Southeast Asia.

Although the most painful thing for the English was knowing that the fault of that debacle had been the admiral Thomas Phillips, commanding the ‘Z Force’. An officer who underestimated the importance of airplanes in naval battles and who went to sea without the necessary support to reject the Japanese Mitsubishi. “This officer made a serious mistake in underestimating the threat of air power on large warships. The loss confirmed it, just as it served to enhance the role of aircraft carriers for their ability to provide cover and attack hostile forces at great distances, “explains the historical popularizer. Michael Coffey on ‘Days of infamy‘. For him, as for many other experts, the last battle of the ‘Prince of Wales’ and the ‘Repulse’ was the beginning of a new era.

His mistake was recognized by officials of the time such as Captain L.H. Bell, Chief of the English General Staff. He went on to point out that Phillips sinned in believing that the power of his antiaircraft guns would give a good account of the Japanese aircraft in the South China Sea: «The admiral relied on the speed and surprise of the attack of his battleships. He believed that nothing could stop them and was convinced that the Japanese planes would not be armed with bombs or torpedoes. I thought ‘Force Z’ would only have to deal with long-range bombers sent at full speed from Indochina. ” The failure cost him disaster a la
‘Royal Navy’ and life to himWell, he died that December 10, during the attack.

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Distress Japan

The ‘Z Force’ was not born out of nowhere. It was the British Admiralty’s response to the escalating tension with an increasingly conflictual Japan. With the tension of the war on his neck, Churchill decided to send the ‘Prince of Wales’ and the ‘Repulse’ to Singapore in October to distress the Japanese giant. As the Prime Minister wrote: “The idea was to exert that kind of vague threat that large ships, whose whereabouts are unknown, can impose on all hostile navies. We proposed using them by making them go out to sea and disappearing among the innumerable islands to generate confusion. What was overlooked by both the high command and Phillips is that the enemy navy had more aircraft carriers than any other country, and that they could destroy their ships.

Destruction of the 'Z Force'
Destruction of ‘Force Z’ – ABC

After learning of the arrival of the ‘Force Z’ – formed by the two great British ships plus four destroyers – the Japanese increased their already large air forces in Thailand and went hunting. On the 7th, after bombardeo de Pearl Harbour, the Emperor finally demonstrated his intentions. A few hours later his army was already on its way to Khota Bharu, on Thailand. “Phillips decided that ‘Force Z’ had to attack the ships located in that position, but by then news came of new landings in Singora, Come in Thailand and Malaya», Adds the historical popularizer. These were considered more serious and the admiral turned the wheel there. The problem is that the Japanese airplanes had destroyed the air support that the RAF could offer him in the area. So I was alone. He did not care and, instead of returning, he continued on his way without knowing that he was facing his destination.

During the night, the ‘Force Z’ sailed alone. For Phillips, the combined strength of her army made her indestructible. The ‘Prince of Wales‘, the ‘Repulse‘, the ‘Electra‘, the ‘Express‘, the ‘Tenedos‘ and the ‘Vampire‘served as a gigantic fortress on the waters. It seemed impossible that someone could kill those sea colossi. In their favor, or so the admiral believed, they had a shocking firepower and an enviable antiaircraft defense formed by the famous 2 pound cannons, nicknamed ‘Pom-pom‘because of the characteristic sound they made when shooting. On December 10, the flagships were sailing together, while the rest had taken positions to detect possible submarine threats sent by the Japanese.

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Goodbye to ‘Force Z’

Early in the morning the requiem began to sound. There was a nice breeze. The sky was clear. A wonderful day … that was going to end in disaster. At ten o’clock, the ‘Tenedos’, which had separated somewhat from the main force, reported that it had been bombed and the presence of hostile aircraft. Phillips played zafarrancho. “At 10:15, the commander-in-chief ordered the anti-aircraft guns to be prepared at a high angle,” explained, in a report sent on December 14, 1941, the captain of the ‘Repulse’, William Tennant. He did well. Just over half an hour later, a Japanese plane entered the scene. The enemy had found them.

Immediately, they left Thailand 34 bombers land-based and 51 torpederos towards ‘Force Z’. The Japanese air power that arrived in the area was shocking and its airmen began a symphony of up to five attacks on the ‘Prince of Wales’ and the ‘Repulse’, their main targets. “The first one took place shortly after 11 am. Nine planes dropped bombs with great precision on the ‘Repulse’. The starboard turret was damaged and the port hangar exploded ”, confirmed the officer in his report. It was soon clear that the air defenses could not stop the debacle. After twenty minutes the second wave arrived. «The attack focused on the two large ships and it was carried out by torpedo planes. I don’t know how many there were, but they looked like machines similar to Mitsubishi 86 u 88“Added the officer.

The situation escalated in tension. At sea, the English colossi darkened the clouds with smoke from anti-aircraft fire. From the bridge of the ‘Repulse’ – the most affected of the two – the officers made efforts to signal the enemy bombers and try to dodge their projectiles. They were an easy target because damage to the rudder had forced them to circle. The same thing happened to the ‘Prince of Wales’. The impacts received forced him to slow down and turned him into a buoy on which the Japanese unleashed their bombs and fury. In these the third attack took place, after which Tennant asked his superior about the damage to the battleship. There was no answer: «It seemed to be badly damaged on the port side. I slowed down to assess their situation, but then they hit again.

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Sinking of both ships on December 10, 1941
Sinking of both ships on December 10, 1941 – ABC

The penultimate assault was carried out by a dozen aircraft. All the enemy attacks were carried out magnificently. The high-level bombers held a tight formation. The torpedoes that fired they followed a perfect path towards us. It was very easy to see how they reached the boats in those calm waters, “explained the soldier. It is curious, but in his report he repeated over and over again the anguish that caused him to see how the explosives fell from the sky, touched the sea and slowly headed towards the ‘Repulse’ and the ‘Prince of Wales’ without them being able to do nothing to avoid it. By then, Phillips was trying to keep his battleship afloat, which had already begun to sink. An impossible task.

The last attack occurred after noon and was the last straw. Vice admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, in front of the Eastern Fleet, He described it this way in a report drawn up days later: ‘The bombers attacked the’ Prince of Wales’. A bomb hit the deck squarely. The ship capsized to port and sank at 1:20 p.m. In the end, he had been hit by four or five torpedoes and that bomb. The ‘Repulse’ sped up and disappeared underwater at 12:33 am due to the impacts. He did so shortly after Tennant gave a heartfelt harangue to his men. «I told them from the bridge how well they had fought and I wished them good luck. The ship stayed afloat for a minute and a half, then capsized and sank, ”the officer described.

The disaster had materialized and had cost a minimum of 840 lives. All from British sailors from the ‘Prince of Wales’ and the ‘Repulse’. Admiral Phillips also left this world because of the bombs, the same one who had condemned ‘Force Z’ with his mistakes. “The failure of the belief that ships could operate in a hostile environment without air cover was demonstrated. The tragedy also demonstrated that the power of aviation had become decisive in the war at sea. The aircraft carrier, and not the battleship, was now the main surface weapon, as the Japanese themselves would discover at the Battle of Midway, “says the popularizer.

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