Naval Battle of Malaya, 1941

Prince of Wales (top) and Repulse (bottom) maneuver under air attack on 10 December, 1941. Repulse has just been hit by a bomb, but neither ship has been crippled yet. Imperial Japanese Navy photo, in the collection of the US Navy History & Heritage Command.

Location South China Sea, Coast of Malaya

In late 1941, war clouds were looming in the Pacific. Unfortunately for the Royal Navy, this was a major problem, because they already had their hands full with the Kriegsmarine and Regia Marina in Europe, so few ships could be spared to reinforce the region. The battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse were dispatched to Singapore as a deterrent force in November, and the new carrier HMS Indomitable was scheduled to follow along later, though she was further delayed when she ran aground in the Mediterranean in October. Admiral Sir Thomas Phillips was selected to lead the new Force Z, which included cruisers and destroyers already based in Singapore. In response to Churchill's public announcement of the deployment, Admiral Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese Navy, reinforced the squadrons allocated to the invasion of Malaya, and began training them as specialized anti-shipping squadrons. While aircraft had had some success in attacking them, no capital ship had been sunk by aircraft under combat conditions. This gave the British some confidence in being able to defend their ships without a carrier to provide air cover. Shore-based squadrons were available to provide air cover, but were not kept appraised of Force Z's movements. News of a Japanese troop convoy reached Phillips on 8 December, just after an ineffective bombing attack on the ships in Singapore preceded word of the Attack on Pearl Harbor. With Japanese troops ashore, Phillips deployed Prince of Wales and Repulse, escorted by four destroyers. Force Z was unable to locate the convoy, but was spotted by submarine I-65. On 10 December, 1941, Force Z was attacked by several waves of G3M and G4M bombers equipped with bombs and torpedoes. Prince of Wales advanced fire control system had proven highly effective in the Mediterranean, but the humidity in Malaya had put the radar out of action. Worse, it had also ruined much of her 2-pounder ammunition. Even so, Phillips, for some reason, did not request air cover. Repulse's captain finally made a call an hour after the attacks began, but the RAAF fighters couldn't hope to get there in time. The second wave of attackers managed to plant a torpedo right on Prince of Wales' port shaft, cutting her speed nearly in half, and disabling power to half her heavy AA guns, making her a sitting duck. Repulse, meanwhile, was showing her crew's skill, handily dodging every torpedo thrown her way. Prince of Wales was further crippled by three more torpedoes forty minutes later, and Repulse was finally caught by a pincer attack, that resulted in four hits. Lacking anti-torpedo bulges and full water-tight compartmentalization, Repulse quickly rolled over and sank. Prince of Wales followed her down forty-five minutes later, just as the fighter cover arrived on the scene. In all, 840 Royal Navy sailors lost their lives, including Admiral Phillips, to the loss of four aircraft downed, and eighteen dead Japanese aviators. What the Japanese called the Naval Battle of Malaya resulted in Singapore effectively being reduced to useless, and the withdrawal of Allied ships to the Indian Ocean and the Dutch East Indies.


Fun Fact: Some of the Japanese bombers dropped life rafts to the survivors in the water, and a wreath was dropped over the site the next day to commemorate the bravery of the crews in defending their ships.