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"Another 80th Anniversary Today: Repulse and Prince of Wales" Topic

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Personal logo The Virtual Armchair General Sponsoring Member of TMP10 Dec 2021 11:12 a.m. PST

Murdered like bulls in the arena, it was on this date that the Death of The Battleship was sealed when waves of Imperial Japanese bombers sank "HMS Repulse" and "HMS Prince of Wales"
off the Malaysian Coast on December 10, 1941.

Pause a moment to remember the lost Sailors, and Churchill's greatest single shock of the war.


NWMike10 Dec 2021 11:55 a.m. PST

Sad indeed, and all the moreso as it could have been avoided.I'm not really the superstitious type,but I sometimes wonder if the Prince of Wales was cursed.

Maybe not. Like most British military disasters of WWII it was likely nothing more than over-confidence.

Wackmole910 Dec 2021 12:09 p.m. PST


try this y tube channel on repulse

YouTube link

microgeorge10 Dec 2021 3:54 p.m. PST

Air cover? Who needs that? What's that coming over the horizon?

microgeorge10 Dec 2021 3:57 p.m. PST

One would think that the fall of Singapore and/or Tobruk would have caused him more grief.

14th NJ Vol10 Dec 2021 5:05 p.m. PST

Agree Microgeorge

Murvihill11 Dec 2021 7:17 a.m. PST

It proved that integral air defense assets were needed for task forces, shore-based aircraft didn't cut it. Tough lesson though.

Nine pound round11 Dec 2021 12:16 p.m. PST

Stephen Roskill reproduces some interesting commentary on this in "Churchill and the Admirals," observing that Phillips (whom Roskill knew from his own service at the Admiralty) strongly believed that the ability of aircraft to overcome ships was exaggerated, and that all that was needed was nerve and a sufficient volume of AA fire. Roskill was critical in all his books of the efficiency of British AA fire at that stage of the war, which he attributed to the selection of a less sophisticated control system in the early 1930s, on grounds of cost. My recollection is that he believed a smoke screen would have better protected the ships, but Phillips would have been inclined to reject the idea so that his AA systems could better engage the Japanese.

Anyone reading it should note that Roskill does not appear to have a high opinion of Phillips, but the admirals he quotes didn't, either.

When you come right down to it, for all the hoopla about "the death of the battleship," POW was the only Allied post-treaty battleship lost during the war. Had "Oklahoma" and "Arizona" not been attacked in such a state of complete unreadiness, it's conceivable that no active US battleships would have been lost at all in WWII. Many of the British losses were of ships that had not been fully modernized: "Royal Oak," "Hood," "Repulse" and "Barham" fall into this category.

But perhaps there is something to the theory about luck. She was to have been named "King Edward VIII," but he (strangely) asked that she be named "Prince of Wales" instead. If anything might be grounds for a curse, that could!

ScottWashburn Sponsoring Member of TMP12 Dec 2021 6:16 p.m. PST

Yes, in many ways the sinking of PoW and Repulse was a greater shock to the "battleship admirals" than Pearl Harbor.

4th Cuirassier13 Dec 2021 6:24 a.m. PST

He may have thought he was out of range. He was certainly out of any British types' range.

On the evidence to December 1941, Phillips was justified in thinking that aircraft couldn't sink ships manoeuvring in the open sea.

Arguably he should have considered whether this still applied when the enemy were 60-plus strong and attacking entirely unharassed by fighters. For all we know, he did, but concluded that if he didn't sortie, he'd be blamed for anything bad that ensued and was damned whatever he did.

hindsTMP Supporting Member of TMP24 Dec 2021 12:00 p.m. PST

I agree with 4th Cuirassier on this. See the book "Scapegoat" for an alternative view on Phillips. Although the author goes a bit overboard on trying to make some of his points, there is a lot of good alternative perspective in it.


alexpainter25 Dec 2021 8:20 a.m. PST

Effectively, they shouldn't had send only two(!) warships in an ill-fated expedition, no destroyer escort, no air support either, in insight what kind of cover either FAA or RAF could've given? The land based aircraft had been (almost) wiped from the sky by the japan's air forces, and the navy had only these pathetic Fulmars, pratically dead meat against not only Zeroes or Ki-43 but also against the older A5m or KI-27.

Nine pound round27 Dec 2021 7:11 a.m. PST

Phillips sortied because of a report of Japanese landings in northern Malaya and Thailand. Under the circumstances, it is hard to see what else he could have done, but his underrating of his ships' vulnerability probably contributed to the disaster that befell them.

Roskill's book asserts pretty plainly that the vulnerability of ships to air attack (and the problems with the AA direction) were known as early as Norway. He says in "Churchill and the Admirals," "I had a stormy interview with Phillips on this matter when I brought back to the Admiralty first-hand reports of the effect of bombing off Norway in April 1940. Phillips would not (those two words italicized) accept that it was suicidal to send warships to operate off an enemy-held coast without air cover." He says in the same place that Admiral Forbes was "very critical about the ineffectiveness of his ships' A-A gunnery," and goes on to note that Phillips "insisted that all that was needed to deal with them effectively was greater courage and resolution."

hindsTMP Supporting Member of TMP27 Dec 2021 9:47 p.m. PST

WRT the Roskill quotation above, here's another Roskill quotation, from the above-mentioned book "Scapegoat", page 32:

"I have no doubt at all that your father changed his views – certainly by 1941`, and perhaps earlier … By the time your father got to Singapore I am sure he was fully alive to the realities of the air threat.".

And another from Marder in "Old Friends, New Enemies. The Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy …":

"The Tom Phillips of the autumn of 1941 was therefore not the Tom Phillips who had made light of the air danger in the Norwegian campaign a year and a half earlier. He was certainly alive to the threat imposed by dive-bombers and torpedo-bombers in particular. The legend, nevertheless, persists, as legends will, that Phillips had undergone no change in his views on the threat from the air."

And another quotation, relating a comment made to Admiral Hart in Manila shortly before sailing with Force Z: "With the Navy what it really comes down to when you are within range, if you have the fighters you can do your job. And if you haven't it is, as at Crete – none too good".

Etc. etc.

Nine pound round28 Dec 2021 7:08 a.m. PST

Roskill never put all of the blame for the disaster on Phillips- he believed the ultimate responsibility lay with Churchill, and he spends quite a bit of time in "Churchill and the Admirals" disassembling Churchill's rather shabby attempt to lay the blame for the disaster on the admiral himself. That being said, a comment like the one you quote is hard to reconcile with an opinion that is expressed as strongly as he expresses it in "Churchill and the Admirals." It sounds as if he was employing a degree of tact with a relative, which is understandable. But the fact remains that Phillips followed exactly the course of action that was consistent with his previously expressed opinions to Roskill, which was relying on an AA armament that he had been told was deficient.

Roskill does not simply rely on his own personal experiences with Phillips, though- he also cites and quotes some of the other admirals of the time as confirming authorities in his presentation of Phillips' views on air attack, including both the Cunninghams and Somerville.

As far as the Marder quote goes, I think it has to be taken in the context of the feud between Roskill and Marder. Their feud was notorious enough to warrant a book of its own.

hindsTMP Supporting Member of TMP28 Dec 2021 6:49 p.m. PST


The aforementioned book "Scapegoat" also discusses the comments by "some of the other admirals", as well a a lot of interesting detail on events immediately preceding the sortie. It convinced me that Phillips has gotten a bad rap by traditional historians (kind of like Admiral Fletcher, pre-Lundstrom).


Personal logo Legion 4 Supporting Member of TMP05 Jun 2022 5:04 p.m. PST

Well my take away is Ships without air cover are vulnerable. As we see Battleships are long gone. But Aircraft Carriers are still around.

Nine pound round05 Jun 2022 7:17 p.m. PST

Interesting piece on the problems the British had early in the war with their "High Angle Control System" and the development of a replacement during the war:
PDF link

The events of 1940-1942 have left people with the impression the surface ships (and particularly battleships) couldn't survive in the face of determined air attack. That certainly became conventional wisdom- but the fact is that no Allied battleships were lost to air attack after the Khota Baru disaster, and the "Prince of Wales" was the sole modern allied battleship lost to air attack during the war.

The year 1942 represents a real turning point for the Allies: radar, better fire direction, and better rapid-firing AA armaments improved the situation from (from the sailor's point of view) dramatically, and the introduction of the proximity fuze transformed it.

Personal logo Legion 4 Supporting Member of TMP07 Jun 2022 9:12 a.m. PST

Good information … Thanks …

hindsTMP Supporting Member of TMP10 Jun 2022 7:01 p.m. PST

…no Allied battleships were lost to air attack after the Khota Baru disaster, and the "Prince of Wales" was the sole modern allied battleship lost to air attack during the war…

SFAIK, no other Allied battleship was subjected to massive,continuous torpedo plane attacks without air cover, either. The tactical context had a lot to do with it, and I repeat Adm. Phillips comment to Adm. Hart, from above: "With the Navy what it really comes down to when you are within range, if you have the fighters you can do your job. And if you haven't it is, as at Crete – none too good".

4th Cuirassier13 Jun 2022 6:51 a.m. PST

Do we know that Phillips knew that Force Z was within range of land-based Japanese torpedo bombers?

He was never closer to the nearest extremity of south-west Vietnam than 300 miles away. He was over 500 miles from the Saigon bases from which the Japanese actually flew. Did he know the Japanese had aircraft types capable of reaching him over those ranges, and that they were deployed in strength to Saigon?

Yes, Singapore was bombed from Vietnam the night the ships sailed. But there's a difference between aircraft flying between fixed points, with a lightened bomb-load, to make a noisy but ineffective high-altitude demonstration; and similar aircraft having the range to search for and attack a target off Kuantan while lugging a torpedo.

Bismarck was disastrously torpedoed by Swordfish because Lutjens didn't know there was a carrier about, didn't realise Swordfish could operate in that weather and didn't realise that his ships' AA could not hit them because they flew too slowly. I wonder how much of that was also true of Phillips. From accounts on the website, the range of Japanese carrier aircraft was still giving the RN at Trincomalee nasty surprises in April.

hindsTMP Supporting Member of TMP13 Jun 2022 8:50 a.m. PST

Do we know that Phillips knew that Force Z was within range of land-based Japanese torpedo bombers?

Based on what I've read, the British believed that the effective range of Japanese torpedo bombers was inadequate to reach Force Z, at the point where it was destroyed. However, these things are usually not cut and dried, and when he sortied, he presumably had a whole range of risks he was prepared to take, depending on the situation, and presumably some of those options were expected to put Force Z in harms way WRT land based aircraft.

"Kuantan was of vital strategic significance, and its capture would allow the Japanese to cut British forces in half. It was in effect on Force A's way home to Singapore and 400 miles away from the Japanese air bases, a distance at which Admiral Phillips had every reason to believe, on the Intelligence of the day, he was out of range. It also put Force Z clearly out of range of the two Japanese carriers, which Phillips had been told were off Saigon." ("Scapegoat", page 164).

Blutarski20 Jun 2022 6:29 p.m. PST

Nine Pound Round wrote -
"Interesting piece on the problems the British had early in the war with their "High Angle Control System" and the development of a replacement during the war." (See original post for working PDF Link).

Anyone at all interested in the HACS melodrama should D/L and read this eye-opening document about the career of Ordnance Officer Iville Porteous written by his son, Commander Roger Porteous RN – a short but very pithy work about his father's deep involvement in salvaging British HACS FC development during the war and his almost single-handed responsibility for development of "Flyplane". The book is edited by Peter Marland, a professional fire control technologist and author of an excellent related article on HACS ("Debacle or Just in Time?") published in the Warship Annual of 2017.

The author, Commander Roger Porteous, sadly passed away last year. May he rest in peace.


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