The sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse

Alan Matthews

On December 10 1941 the Royal Navy suffered their greatest loss as a result of a single engagement, when the Capital ships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were sunk by Japanese warplanes, some 50 miles off the coast of Kuantan in Malaya, with the tragic loss of over 840 officers and men.

This battle was a ground breaking achievement for the Japanese, being the first time Capital ships had been sunk by aircraft whilst having the freedom of the open sea to manoeuvre in. During the course of discussing the actual sinking of the ships, and for means of depicting the battle from a personal perspective. I'll be relying on recollections gathered from men off both Repulse and Prince of Wales. In addition to recollections offered by two Japanese pilots who took part in the action.

The first of these is Lieutenant Haruki Iki of Kanoya Air Corp. I got to know him almost 3 years ago, whilst compiling my book entitled Sailors Tales, which covered the wartime experiences of six men who served onboard HMS Repulse.

The second account is from papers held in the Australian Archives referring to an interrogation in 1945 of Captain Sonokawa of the Genzan Air Corps.





When discussing the sinking of Repulse and Prince of Wales, initially we must ask the question, of what were they sent to defend? Was Singapore really an island citadel or rather just a bastion of colonialism? I have to say, much evidence points to the latter being the case, as from as early as 1925 knowledge of Singapore's vulnerability appears to have been appreciated by the higher echelons of the British military From the naval perspective problems surrounding any defence of the Colony are best exemplified in a 1939 COS Sub Committee Report known as (CAB 53/50.) Which stated, to effectively hold Singapore Britain would need to deploy at least 8 Capital ships for use against an estimated 9 Japanese Battleships & Battlecruisers which could be employed by them in any attempts to capture Singapore. Though such a British force would never be available if we were at war with Germany.

In this scenario it'd only be possible to send two capital ships to Singapore. And, if hostilities then erupted they'd have to retreat to a safer base. Furthermore, the COS deemed: if Singapore became invested by the Japanese it'd be futile to implement any attempts at recapturing it. Perhaps their own words best describe this . If the Japanese fleet moved southwards in force our Naval forces would have to retire westward. Leaving Singapore open to investment. We should then be faced with the necessity of sending a Fleet to relieve Singapore. This could only be done by denuding the Eastern Mediterranean, and taking certain further forces from Home Waters leaving only three Capital ships at Home. The latter is quite unacceptable.


Capabilities of Imperial Fleet


The Report shattered one other myth this being the inferiority of Japan's navy; in particular their Capital ships, which had all been modernised. Subsequent estimations of their combined speed as a fighting unit was now felt to being greater than that of a comparable fleet of Royal Naval warships. Taking a moment to conclude on issues surrounding the 1939 Report , It can't be questioned that more than 2 years before out break of war, our leaders must have been aware that unless sufficient naval forces where available to send to the Far East, Singapore could never be held. Secondly, the Imperial Fleet (Japanese Navy) was now up to date, and in all probability, a match for the Royal Navy. Though MOST IMPORTANTLY, the fact that Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty from the onset of WW11, implies that he must have been fully aware of the damming conclusions offered in this Report, soon after its compilation


The saga of SS Automedon (Click to view)


To diverse slightly, a little known issue which certainly hindered any future attempts to save Singapore, is also worthy of consideration in any Talk dealing with the build up to Far Eastern conflict. As war in Europe drew on, our ability to apply any defensive measures in support of Singapore & Malaya, obviously deteriorated. And in mid summer 1940, in response to the ever-growing Japanese threat, a further COS Far Eastern Appreciation was compiled. The contents of which, were equally as pessimistic as the earlier report. Nevertheless, in late September 1940, a copy of this Appreciation was sent to Singapore onboard the merchant-ship SS Automedon. However on November 11 disaster struck.

Automedon was steaming in the Indian Ocean some 300 miles off the Sumatran coast when the German Raider "Atlantis" attacked her. After a brief one-sided battle the Germans sent a boarding party onto Automedon, who soon located the report. Within two weeks it was in Germany. Where, after close scrutiny, and on Hitler's express orders, a copy was offered to Captain Yokai of the Japanese Embassy in Berlin. Furthermore, on December 12, 1940. The German Naval Attaché to Japan, Admiral Paul Wenneker, handed a copy of the Appreciation over to Vice Admiral Kondo of the Imperial Navy. To which Kondo is quoted as stating:

"Such a significant weakening of the British Empire could not have been identified from outward appearances".  

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Subsequently, it can't be questioned, that this intelligence disaster resulted in the Japanese gaining first hand knowledge of Britain's untenable situation in Singapore. Though of more importance to my talk, indeed the entire issue of the debacle of Singapore, is that Commanders on the colony were never informed the report had been captured. Even though the British War Cabinet had firm evidence confirming this fact. Secondly, no replacement copy was ever sent to them, which meant a COS Far Eastern Appreciation was never discussed by the men responsible for implementing a defence of the colony. Yet, their future enemy read its full contents more than 12 months before onset of conflict. To this day the incident remains shrouded in mystery, as successive British governments have never formally disclosed that the disaster took place.




Moving on to the deployment of Repulse and Prince of Wales; in the first instance, its important to understand the official explanations as to why, we are to believe the ships were sent to the colony, before discussing the manner in which they were lost. Particularly, as I dispute Whitehall's reasons for the alleged emergence of Force Z.

To begin with, in mid-August 1941, official accounts would have us believe that the Admiralty decided to form a Far Eastern Fleet. Which, by early 1942 would comprise of 7 Battleships and the recently modernised Battlecruiser HMS Renown, However, the emergence of such a fleet was only deemed possible, if the Americans increased their present force of 3 B/Ships in the Atlantic as a safeguard to convoys against the threat of the German Battleship, Tirpitz. Furthermore, if and when, Britain's Far Eastern fleet came to being, it was to operate primarily in the Indian Ocean.

On August 20, in support of the choice of ships deemed necessary to fulfill this task, the First Sea Lord Dudley Pound, stated there was no use in sending a fleet to Singapore, unless it was of sufficient strength to wage effective war against the Imperial Navy, Though if present world situations made this impossible. Pound felt it imperative for any F/E fleet to be based at the more secure location of Trincomalee to offer protection to vital trade routes.

In less than two weeks, Churchill issued a long memorandum informing the Admiralty that he wouldn't approve the despatching of such a large Fleet. He deemed it more appropriate, to use a small number of the best ships to cope with a superior hostile force, we're also led to believe that Churchill envisaged these warships serving as an immediate deterrent against Japanese aggression, operating in an area encompassing the triangle of, Simonstown, Singapore and Aden, forming a fast raiding squadron capable (in his opinion) of inflicting a paralysing effect on the Imperial Fleet, comparable to that yielded by the Tirpitz on the Royal Navy in the Atlantic.

He also stated as and when deemed appropriate "4, 'R' Class Battleships should be sent to the Far East, primarily as convoy escorts" Without going into too great a detail that just about sums up the official reasons for the emergence of Force Z. But, is there an alternative theory behind the deployment of the two capital ships?

I feel there is, and would therefore like to take time in offering, what I feel to be, a far more plausible reason as to why this totally inadequate force was quickly gathered and sent to its doom. I won't be concerning myself with any deterrent factors or threats of intent towards Japan. Rather, my theory hinges on an undoubted political pledge to America contained within an agreement that'd been in force for almost 12 months beforehand.


Rethinking History


I wish to discuss what's known as the ADB's, which were a series of American-Dutch & British Staff Talks, running throughout late 1940 till mid 1941 period, which had their origins in a meeting between representatives from the Dutch East Indies and British military Commanders at Singapore between the 26-20 of November 1940. Although little is said of this fact, we have to remember the Americans were also present, though officially they were apparently merely observers. Which is a rather peculiar explanation particularly as their representatives where allowed unlimited access to all issues under discussion. Perhaps this official explanation was nothing more than a clever ruse designed to hide the truth behind US involvement at this inaugural meeting. As at the time it'd be important for their attendance to be noted in such a way; with President Roosevelt only days into his third term of office, any disclosure regarding attempts at implementing an agreement with Britain on a Far Eastern mutual defence pact may have been most damaging to his prestige?

Later events surrounding first meeting. Very little is mentioned within official records of this first meeting. Nevertheless, by February 13 1941 the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Dudley Pound appeared to have placed great faith in future American participation in Far Eastern defence matters when stating: 

"The arrival timetable as well as the choice of ships for the Eastern Fleet was now at the discretion of the Americans "

There's no denying this was a sweeping statement. So, we must ask, would Pound dared to have placed British warships under direct control of another country, without a prior pledge of military assistance from them, should Singapore be attacked? Further signs of future US co-operation in Far Eastern matters surfaced at the Australian, British & Dutch Staff Talks in Singapore (ADA) some two weeks later. When Captain W.R. Purnell, (representing Admiral Hart of the US Asiatic Fleet), appears to have offered one of the first documented commitments to his British counterparts, when stating:

"The Asiatic Fleet was ready to serve under British leadership in a unified command structure"

Moving on, by early April 1941, the ADB' s received official recognition, when an agenda was drawn up for a forthcoming meeting at Singapore, from April 21-27, revolving around the need to find a joint operating plan acceptable to all parties. The meeting was chaired by CinC Far East, Sir Robert Brooke Popham, and representatives from the USA, CinC China, CinC East Indies, and military commanders from the Dutch East Indies and Delegates from the Australian Chiefs of Staff, were also present.

Perhaps one of the most significant issues to be clarified at this meeting is best described by Admiral Geoffrey Layton, within his draft account on Far Eastern operations drawn up shortly after the fall of Singapore. Layton states with regards to this meeting that:

"The US Asiatic Fleet, if USA entered the war, would retire on Singapore when the Philippines were invested, and would therefore be available to us in the defence of Singapore"

However, just over a month after these Talks, the earlier US pledge of far eastern military assistance approached stony ground for on reading minutes of the meeting the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, immediately objected to British suggestions on the future deployment of their forces. In coming months this resentment grew.

Basically the Americans felt the defence of Singapore and the Malay Barrier, was being placed directly in their hands; which was deemed as totally unacceptable. Subsequently, on August 6 , which I remind you is almost two weeks before we are led to believe British discussions on the gathering of Far Eastern fleet took shape, America issued formal notification of their objections to ADB 1 in an extremely forthright manner; within a joint letter from Admiral Ghormley and General Chaney:

"Since the eventual despatch of a strong British Fleet to the Far East is considered problematical the US Chief of Naval Operations and Chief of Staff advise you. that until such time as a plan is evolved whereby British Naval Forces take a predominant part in the defence of the British position in the Far East area they will be constrained to withdraw their agreement to permit the United States Asiatic Fleet to operate under British strategic direction in that area".

The British response


Whilst these events unfolded, Churchill was at Placentia Bay for his well-documented meeting with Roosevelt. But this didn't stop discussions in Britain regarding the Japanese threat. As on August , at a meeting of the War Cabinet the soon to be leader of Force Z' Vice Admiral Tom Philips let it be known just how much Britain relied on American involvement in Far Eastern issues., in particular the futility of issuing any British deterrent measures against the Japanese. Without firm US backing !!!Philips Quote!!!!:

"The Japanese would not be deterred by any warnings which were not backed by the United States" , "The only factors which would deter them in their southward move would be uncertainty as to which side was winning the war and the fear of being involved in war with America"

The following day the Joint Planners set about compiling an amended ABD Agreement known as (ADB2), Which would also incorporate the gathering of a Far Eastern fleet thereby promising greater British commitment to the region. Obviously in an attempt to satisfy Americans anxieties. Though by mid September the US decided to carry out their earlier threats when rejecting this latest proposal. An action which effectively ended the ADB Agreement.

A matter of days afterwards, Admiral Hart leader of the Asiatic Fleet was instructed by his superiors that he was free of all constraints within the ADB", subsequently he was once again in full control of his command. To which he commented:

"I'm no longer tied in to our prospective allies by any instructions and am absolutely the boss of all my own forces again"

Surely this comment implies prior to American rejection of ADB's 1 & 2 their Asiatic fleet was in some way committed to act in conjunction with elements of the Royal Navy in Far Eastern waters? However the War Cabinet persisted and by October 11, the British Admiralty Delegation in Washington (BAD). suggested a meeting to crystallise US objections to ADB 2.

I must admit to being convinced the sole reason why Repulse and Prince of Wales were sent to the Far East hinged on the contents of this document in particular paragraph 5, sub section (b) which simply stated with respect to ADB 2, that they planned: "To discuss possible means of overcoming US objections" to their later proposal

The reason I place so much significance on this document is that within a matter of weeks a further proposal must have been accepted by the US as both theirs & British Far Eastern policy appeared to have turned full circle , From the British perspective this can be traced to a comment by Admiral Harwood dated October 29 1941 regarding the ADB's, In which he said:

"I quite agree that our Eastern Fleet when it is established at Singapore should look upon Manila as its advance base and probably operate from there, The questions have been discussed during the past few weeks particularly with C. Eastern Fleet and we have been into various anchorages that might be suitable, Very briefly, since we put up ADB 1 and ADB 2 ,we have completely changed our outlook, and come to the American viewpoint, i.e. to operate our ships north of the Malay Barrier"

This noticeable change in British attitude appears to have been warmly received by the United States as on November 3, 1941 at a meeting of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Admiral Stark proclaimed: 

"In the case of a Japanese attack against either the Philippines or British or Dutch possessions the United States should resist the attack"  

I'm sure you'll agree such comments show a marked change in both parties earlier viewpoints, so we must ask what brought this about? Well the only noticeable difference in British policy appears to have been the deployment of Repulse and Prince of Wales. So can we assume the sending of our two Capital ships to Far Eastern waters was responsible for the US apparently being prepared to take offensive action in defence of Britain's colonial territories?


Commander in Chief Far East, Sir Robert Brook-Popham


Before concluding with my theory on the ADB's I feel it imperative to briefly show just how closely US & British leaders were co-operating in the Far East during the pre Pearl Harbor period. It is best portrayed within a personal letter from the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound to Admiral Stark dated November 17, 1941. a copy of which also appears to have been offered to Admiral Hart.

Its contents are very interesting. for two reasons, the first of which is a disclosure by Pound, concerning the reasons why Brooke Popham, was about to be relieved of his command as CinC Far East in which he said:

"By the time you get this I expect it will be common knowledge that Brooke-Popham who is, as you know, CinC Far East is being relieved by a soldier who has been in service in France and Norway. I know this will be a relief to some of your people as not having an independent air force of your own. you have found some difficulty at conferences which have been presided over by Brooke Popham. It was very largely to ease this situation for your people that it was decided to send a soldier rather than an airman to relieve Brooke-Popham "

In the first instance. I'm sure you'll agree that if as many historians claim there was no pre-Pearl Harbor pact in place between America and Britain, why should the British War Cabinet have been in any way concerned at US anxieties over having to deal with Brooke Popham in his post as CinC Far East?

Though, more importantly on the issue of the rekindled ADB Agreement. Pound commented:

"It was very satisfactory that we should both have had the same feeling about the ADB papers now that we are able to send ships to Eastern waters , I have no intention of raising it officially but I think you know, I have never been convinced that the present dispositions in the Pacific are correct. If we had a strong Anglo-American fleet at Singapore with advance forces in the Philippines I do not believe there would be any question of the Japanese making a move southward"

The term ships to Eastern waters can only refer to the deployment of Repulse and Prince of Wales, So does Pound's comment infer our two Capital ships were to be part of a combined US-British deterrent force operating in Asiatic waters? If so, we must accept the reason for their deployment was a political act performed by the British Government to conform with the ADB Agreement and had nothing to do with Churchill' s reported vision of them being a deterrent against the Japanese, Rather they were sent because the Americans "demanded British participation in Far Eastern defence measures".

I feel this theory's confirmed by a paragraph within Brooke Pophams despatch in the London Gazette of 1948 regarding the devastating effect. Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor had on issues within the ADB Agreement, though indirectly his words are also of great significance to the sinking of Repulse and Prince of Wales. As it clearly shows the destruction of the US Pacific Fleet effectively left the two British ships alone, to face whatever the Japanese could throw at them. As Popham stated:

"An indirect result of the Pearl Harbor attack was to prevent the surface ships of the Asiatic Fleet from Manila co-operating with British and Dutch ships in the Java and South China Seas in accordance with the ADB agreement"

Layton also offers a most relevant comment on this same issue: 

"There was nothing, before the outbreak of hostilities to indicate that the US Asiatic Fleet would retire elsewhere other than Singapore, which was the fundamental basis of naval planning"

So could it be the true reason why Repulse & Prince of Wales were left in such an untenable post Pearl Harbor situation, was purely down to lack of US support. Perhaps so but I'm also convinced our War Cabinet never envisaged the two ships being left in a situation of resisting the Japanese onslaught unaided and alone rather I feel they imagined them forming the spearhead of a force of US & British warships, with the sole purpose in mind of devastating the Imperial Navy. So, perhaps the fighting qualities of the Japanese navy where the only area where it'd be fair to say , Churchill and his Cabinet were guilty of underestimating their future adversaries?


Final War Cabinet Discussions


We now follow the final emergence of Force Z. On October 20, 1941 Winston Churchill scored a personal victory over his War Cabinet when they finally conceded to his wishes by allowing. Prince of Wales & Repulse to form the basis of his alleged deterrent squadron in the Indian Ocean. For air-cover they'd be accompanied by the new Carrier 'Indomitable'. Once she'd completed working up trials though due to unforeseen circumstances this was never to unfold. Subsequently, in the early afternoon of October 25, 1941 Prince of Wales in company with the destroyers Electra, Express and Hesperus left Greenock naval base destined for the Far East.

Onboard that day was Royal Marine Maurice Edwards he briefly recalls the final time Prince of Wales left British shores:

"It wasn't made clear to us that we'd be going to Singapore and the first place I recall stopping at was Freetown, You must remember the lower decks weren't very well informed on what was going on. And I suppose the same could be said for all the highest ranking of officers"


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"The War Ships, the sinking of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales"
are the sole responsibility of myself Alan Matthews.