Pacific War 4 – Sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse

Pacific War 4 – Sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse


According to the Japanese war plan, attack on Pearl Harbor was merely a side note – an attack whose main purpose was to enable the conquest of southeastern Asia. While the attack on Pearl Harbor was prepared in strict secrecy, preparations for the conquest of southeastern Asia were made out in the plain sight – both to help divert attention from preparations for attack on Pearl Harbor, but also because any possibility of serious resistence in the area was unlikely to the point of fantasy.

Yet these areas were extremely important due to raw resources they would provide to Japanese industry and war potential. Attack was to be executed in multiple areas and by multiple groups simultaneously, to deny enemy the time necessary for organizing resistence. Forces were thus split accordingly, and protection was provided by the Southern Fleet under command of vice admiral Nobutake Kondo. This fleet was divided into main group, group for Philippines, and group for Malaya. Independent of the fleet were small naval detachments meant for conquest of isolated US bases in the Western Pacific.

Main group of the southern fleet consisted of battleships Haruna and Kongo, aircraft carriers Ryujo and Sunyo (sic!; perhaps Junyo), heavy cruisers Atago and Chokai, as well as a destroyer flotilla. Philippines group consisted of seaplane carriers Noturo and Kumikawa Muru, heavy cruisers Ashigara, Haguro and Myoko, old cruisers Nagara and Kuma, and three destroyer flotillas. Malaya group consisted of four new heavy cruisers of Mogami class: Mogami, Mikuma, Suzuya, Kumano, a destroyer flotilla and three submarine flotillas. These forces were tasked with protecting extensive landing forces and auxilliaries. Groups also received extensive ground-based air support, with the Philippines group receiving 175 aircraft and Malaya group 550 aircraft. Navy also provided 300 aircraft for the Philippines group and 150 for the Malaya group. Navy also left 275 aircraft as a reserve in Japanese bases.

These large forces penetrated into Southeast Asia according to a very detailed plan, based around a series of simultaneous or quickly successive landings – just at Philippines, landings were made at nine different places. Normal pattern of Japanese amphibious landings was to choose a place within strike range of land-based air bases, so that carrier air wings could always be held in reserve for a potential naval battle. Invasion would open with massive air strikes against air bases, followed by naval and air bombardment of the landing area. Finally, landing would be undertaken, again with support of aircraft and ships. Ships used for shore bombardment were destroyers and light cruisers, with heavy cruisers being utilized only on occasion, and battleships never, so that the fleet was always ready for a potential naval battle. Each landing group had its own screening forces of cruisers and destroyers. In the rear was the majority of the southern fleet of admiral Kondo, consisting of fast carriers and fast battleships, in order to intercept any potential enemy fleet attacks against the landing area.

Naval Battle of Malaya

First to attack was a group for Malaya. After powerful air attacks, Japanese troops landed in area of Pattani and Songkhla on Thailand’s east coast, as well as Khota Bharu on Malaya’s northeast coast. Royal Air Force offered some resistance, but it quickly became clear that it was outclassed both qualitatively and quantitatively. Within 48 hours, half of the RAF’s aircraft were destroyed either in air combat or on the ground. Malaya landings were protected by the Malaya squadron of the Japanese navy, while majority of the Southern Fleet under admiral Kondo was located in Saigon, some 800 kilometers away.

News of Japanese landings had arrived to Singapore at morning of 8th of December. Singapore, also called Gibraltar of the East, was the strongest naval base available to Allies in the Far East. Many ships were located in Singapore, including a significant number of warships. Among those, largest and more powerful were two battleships: His Majesty’s Ships Prince of Wales and Repulse. Prince of Wales itself was a flagship of Admiral Tom Phillips, recently appointed Commander in Chief of the China Squadron. These ships had arrived to Signapore on December 2nd, along with destroyers Electra, Express, Encounter and Jupiter, partly in response to concerns of Australia and New Zealand who wanted such ships in the Aden-Singapore-Simonstown area, but was opposed by Sir John Tovey who was aware that new King George V class battleships were incapable of operating in tropical conditions. Original plans had called for a fleet of 7 capital ships, 1 aircraft carrier, 10 cruisers and 24 destroyers to be assembled in the Indian Ocean and then proceed to Singapore, but this plan could be implemented no earlier than March 1942. But both situation in Europe, and the political developments in the Far East, had made this plan impractical. Revised plan called for Prince of Wales, Repulse and the aircraft carrier Indomitable to be deployed instead, but the carrier had run aground on a coral reef near Jamaica, and her transfer to the Far East had been delayed by need for repairs at Norfolk Naval Yard. While repairs themselves were completed in the record time of 12 days, delay still meant that she was not available in Signapore in time. At any rate, the plan had also hinged on strong US force in Pearl Harbor to act as both a deterrent and additional threat vector – but as a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor, this force was no longer available, undoing the very foundations of the plan. Yet even if the Pearl Harbor had not been attacked, separation of the British and US fleets left a potential for the situation to deteriorate into a first-class disaster. Withdrawal of Phillips’ squadron from Singapore was considered, but the Japanese invaded Malaya before the plan could be put into effect. Under new circumstances, it was not possible to deny naval assistance to hard-pressed British forces in Malaya, and the plan to withdraw the squadron was abandoned.

Admiral Tom Phillips

Prince of Wales herself was under command of Captain John Leach. She was a completely new ship, launched in May 1939 and commissioned in January 1941. Prince of Wales was a member of the King George V class of fast battleships, and was thus classified as a battlecruiser in the Royal Navy terminology. While designed to treaty limit of 35 000 long tons, design changes and wartime modifications meant that displacement had increased to 36 727 tons (37 300 metric tons) standard load. She also had ten 14-inch (356 mm) guns in three turrets, in 4-2—4 configuration and 16 5,25-inch (133 mm) dual-purpose guns in eight turrets. Anti-aircraft defenses were provided by already mentioned dual-purpose guns, as well as 48 2-pounder Pom-Pom guns in six octuple mounts, single 40 mm Bofors and eight 20 mm Oerlikon guns. Armor weighted 14 000 tons, and main belt armor was 15 inches (381 mm) thick abreast magazines while machinery spaces were protected by 14 inch (356 mm) belt. Specifically, armor at magazines was provided by 14.7 inches thick (373 mm) cemented armor, laminated onto 1 inch (25.4 mm) of “composition material” (cement) and an additional 0.875 inch (22.2 mm) of Ducol steel hull plating, which would have resulted in effective armor thickness of around 15,2 inches. Deck armor was 5,88 inches (149 mm) thick over magazines and 4,9 in (124 mm) over machinery spaces, laminated to a single 0,5 inch (12,7 mm) D-plate, which would have increased effective thickness by 0,3 in (7 mm). Armor plate itself had 20% better resistance than US plate of equivalent thickness as used on new US battleships, which would make 15 inch main belt equal to 18 inches if US armor had been used. The entire length was covered by 1,2 inch (30,48 mm) weather deck which was sufficient to fuse incoming projectiles. Ship was manned by a crew of 1500.

Prince of Wales arrives to Singapore on December 4

Nearby was battlecruiser Repulse, commanded by Captain William Tennant. Launched in January 1916 and commissioned in August 1916, she had been modernized in 1918 – 1920, and 1933 – 1936. During latter reconstruction he had her deck armor completely replaced by plates of non-cemented steel, received a hangar for Fairey III spotter aircraft, her underwater torpedo tubes were removed and she had her anti-aircraft suite significantly strengthened. She displaced 34 600 long tons (35 200 metric tons) after reconstructions, with armament of six 15-inch (380 mm) guns in three turrets and nine 4-inch (102 mm) dual-purpose guns in three triple turrets, six 4-inch guns in single mounts, and sixteen 20 mm anti-aircraft guns in two octuple mounts. Belt was between 2 and 9 inches (51 – 229 mm) thick, with deck armor being 1 – 4 inches (25 – 102 mm) thick.

Upon receiving news of Japanese landings on Malaya, specifically in the Gulf of Siam, Admiral Phillips decided to find and destroy the Japanese transports. Admiral was unaware that Japanese battleships Kongo and Haruna, two aircraft carriers, seven heavy cruisers, a light cruiser, and twelve destroyers were nearby, with main part of this force being in Saigon. He also had no information on or indication of a strong naval air presence in the area, which at the time had numbered 99 bombers, 6 reconnaissance aircraft and 39 fighters. Admiral Phillips’ own intelligence estimated Japanese naval forces in the area to stand at a strength of 1 battleship, 7 cruisers and 20 destroyers. Strength and capabilities of the Japanese Naval and Air forces were also unknown, with the only information being based on observation of their performance in China. But as the China had no appreciable air force or navy, none of the Japanese more modern units had been used in these operations, and thus their strength and capabilities remained unknown. Based on this intelligence, and assuming fighter cover from land bases, Admiral Phillips determined that his force could smash the Japanese forces landing at Singora and Kota Bharu. This was a correct conclusion given what he did know. Prince of Wales and Repulse had both survived numerous Axis air attacks while operating in the North Sea and the Mediterranean, and intelligence gained from Japanese operations in China indicated that capabilities of Japanese aircraft and aviators were fairly unimpressive. Admiralty also believed that Japanese torpedo bombers were equal to British in capabilities, which meant that as long as Force Z stayed some 400 miles from Japanese air bases in southern Indo-China, the threat would be minimal. But as usual, it was what he did not know that proved important.

British battleships departed in Monday, 8th December at 17:35 with the escort of four destroyers – Electra, Express, Vampire and Tenedos. Reason for the evening departure was to use the nighttime to avoid patrolling Japanese submarines, which was successful. In the morning, ships were far out on the sea, steaming north at high speed while following the coastline at distance of 150 miles. The squadron had no air cover. Intent was for the ground-based aircraft to provide air cover, but this was cancelled as aircraft had to be sent to support the land campaign. Fleet was informed of unavailability of air cover at 9th of December on 01:25 as fighters had been sent to the ground front. Message also added that the Japanese had large bomber forces in southern Indo-China and possibly Thailand and that the request had been made to General MacArthur to attack the Indo-China airfields with long-range bombers. Lastly, it informed the Admiral that Khota Bharu airfield had been evacuated and that other northern airfields were also in danger. Despite this, Admiral Phillips decided to continue the operation, provided that he was not sighted by enemy aircraft during the 9th December. This was based on his belief that the fleet would only have to deal with long-range high-altitude bombers from Indochina.

Weather was cloudy but calm. Clouds were low, and the visibility was not very good, which meant that conditions were good for the British squadron. Yet Admiral Phillips failed to carry out even the most basic of precautions: Prince of Wales and Repulse had eight floatplanes between them, yet none were launched, despite Prince of Wales’ radar set being inoperative. Squadron was noticed by Japanese submarine I-65 in the afternoon of 9th December, at approximately 13:45, but its message was not received due to bad connection and the submarine was unable to shadow the ships for long as a result of the worsening weather.

Japanese submarine I-65

That evening however the squadron was noticed by the Japanese aircraft dispatched for that purpose. Aircraft were noticed, and Admiral Phillips realized that he had no more hope of surprising the convoy. At 20:55, British squadron turned back towards Singapore, using gathering darkness to evade enemy search. This caused the Japanese to lose track of the British force for several hours, and the British ships might have gotten away had they not been noticed by submarine I-58 at 23:52. While attempted torpedo attack failed miserably – submarine was not able to even launch a single torpedo, let alone hit anything – Japanese command was now aware of the position, heading and speed of the British force. This report was confirmed by another submarine at 3:15 on December 10th. Admiral Phillips meanwhile had received reports of the possible presence of aircraft carriers in Saigon, and of the enemy bombers “in force and undisturbed” in south Indo-China.

Early in the morning, British squadron received reports of landing at Kuantan. This was over 150 miles to the southwest of Kota Bharu, and it was likely that the Japanese will not expect Force Z to be present in the area. Kuantan was not far off the return track to Singapore and was 400 miles from the Japanese airfields in French Indo-China, which – according to Admiral Phillips’ information – will have placed it beyond the reach of Japanese aircraft. Taking up combat formation of a line order, the squadron changed course towards the coast. Both capital ships launched a floatplane each, but the reports of landings proved false. Ships remained in the area for 90 minutes, a delay which would prove fatal.

Japanese now launched their strike groups. These belonged to 22nd Air Flotilla, specially trained in torpedo and bombing attacks against warships. At 6:00, ten bombers armed with 60 kg bombs were launched to conduct a sector search. An hour later, main strike force of 27 bombers and 61 torpedo planes organized in 9 plane flights was ordered to proceed to the estimated position of the enemy ships. Search remained unsuccessful for hours, but at around 10:20 one of scouts spotted the warships through a hole in the clouds.

Japanese aircraft were directed to position of the British ships, and at 11:18 a group of nine “Nell” bombers (Mitsubishi G3M) approached the capital ships. They were soon noticed, flying at 21 000 feet (6 400 m). Their target was the Repulse, which suffered eight near-misses before a bomb hit the port hangar at 11:22. Efficency and accuracy of the attack was completely unlike anything the ships had experienced previously at the hands of the German Luftwaffe, and it was just the beginning. Five of the eight Nells were damaged by British anti-aircraft fire.

Japanese Nell bomber

After some 15 minutes, more planes appeared low on the horizon. It was immediately obvious these were the torpedo bombers, carrying torpedoes with 330 lbs warheads. Nine torpedo bombers attacked Prince of Wales while eight attacked Repulse. Almost skimming the waves, torpedo bombers approached the ships in tight formations, flying under most of the anti-aircraft fire and even the 14-inch fire from Prince of Wales. Both ships turned to avoid torpedo attacks. Repulse, turning to starboard, managed to avoid all initial torpedoes. Prince of Wales turned to port and avoided seven torpedoes, but eighth torpedo hit at the far aft of the starboard side, damaging the steering gear and the shafts. It is also probable that she was hit simultaneously by another torpedo abaft “Y” turret. Battleship fell out of formation, unable to keep heading while its speed fell to 15 knots and it rapidly developed an 11-degree list. By 12:10 an “out-of-control” signal had been hoisted. Hit also disabled power systems to 5,25-inch guns. Damaged propeller shaft was bent, and started vibrating and drilling holes through watertight bulkheads. It was not long before Prince of Wales was hit by two more torpedoes.

But it was Repulse that was now the main target of the Japanese aircraft. At 11:56, eight torpedo bombers attacked the battlecruiser, but Captain Tennant was able to avoid all torpedoes – nineteen in total. But the Japanese attacks did not subside, and pom-poms started jamming from intensity of the defensive anti-aircraft fire they were forced to provide. Soon, Repulse was hit with a torpedo to bow.

Next wave of Japanese bombers split into two groups, one attacking the nearly helpless Prince of Wales while other concentrated on the Repulse. Prince of Wales received three more torpedoes, while Repulse was caught in a pincer attack and also hit by three torpedoes. She was now dead in the water and rapidly sinking, and crew was ordered to abandon ship. Fifth torpedo hit on Repulse was simply overkill, and the ship sank rapidly. Admiral Phillips ordered Vampire and Electra to carry out the rescue work, and destroyers succeeded in rescuing 42 out of 69 officers and 754 out of 1 240 ratings. Several formations of enemy aircraft were in the vicinity, but no attempts were made to interfere with the rescue work.

Prince of Wales meanwhile had been sailing south-east at about 5 to 6 knots. She had at least six or seven torpedo hits, possibly even twelve, and was steadily sinking. Japanese had spent all their torpedoes, and attack was continued with heavy bombs. She was hit by at least three if not five heavy bombs in short order, and it was clear that she was beyond saving. Captain Leach thus gave the order to abandon ship, and Prince of Wales sank shortly after, some 20 minutes after Repulse. Few minutes after the Prince of Wales had sunk, a squadron of Brewster Buffalos flew over the scene, too late to do anything. After several hours of pulling survivors out of water, destroyers set course back to Singapore. From Repulse, 513 men were lost and 796 rescued; from Prince of Wales, 327 men were lost and 1258 rescued. Japanese had lost three aircraft and 21 airmen, and had another 27 aircraft damaged.

Brewster Buffalo

After the battle, on December 11th, Lt. Iki (one of Japanese pilots) flew over the area, dropping two wreaths. One of them was for fellow members of Kanoya air corps that had perished in the battle, with others being for British sailors. As Alan Matthews wrote: “In one of our correspondences, he stated his task was to destroy either Repulse or Prince of Wales. Once completed his mission was deemed as over. Though it must be noted, Iki soon returned to the sight of the sinking, but for purely personal reasons. On December 11 1941, he flew over the sight of the previous days battle, dropping two wreaths. I asked what prompted this show of respect. His reply shocked, when informing me that one was for the fellow members of his ‘Kanoya’ Air Corps who had perished at the hands of British gunfire. Though, the other was for all British sailors who had died in the battle. He added their display of bravery in defence of the ships had gained them the utmost admiration from all pilots in his squadron.”.

Why and How Prince of Wales Sank

Fatal Torpedo Hit

While lack of air cover was a major mistake, it is not clear that its presence will have saved the battleships. Had fighters been present, and managed to beat off one or more of the attacks, any following attacks will have been accompanied by Zero fighters which will have wiped out any fighters that British had available in Malaya. Even an aircraft carrier may not have helped, as Fleet Air Arm fighters were likewise outdated, and would have been outnumbered by the Japanese land-based aircraft in any case.

A survey of the wreck sheds some light on causes and the progress of Prince of Wales‘ sinking. Initial torpedo hit was also a fatal one. Prince of Wales was equipped with four engine rooms containing four turbines, which in turn powered four propeller shafts. The line shafts were supported by bearings, which had watertight glands fitted where they pierced watertight bulkheads. A shaft strut supported the exposed shafting and propeller on all four shafts.

The torpedo detonated forward of the port strut, in close proximity to the stert tube of the outboard shaft. Torpedo detonation under the stern would have forced the stern upwards, causing deformation of the hull as the armoured area of the aft citadel and the heavy X turret assembly resisted the upward momentum. The outboard port shaft strut arms were weakened by the force of the explosion, hole four meters high and six meters wide torn in the hull plating, and shaft itself damaged, as was the stern tube. Propeller itself continued to rotate at high speed, wobbling and vibrating due to misalignment, thus placing additional stress on an already weakened strut. Disruption in communications meant that LT Wildish, in charge of the turbine, had no idea what was going on.

Initial torpedo hit

Outer port shaft, which was the shaft for B engine room, immediately began to encounter serious trouble. LT Wildish, hearing the explosion and feeling the shock, cut off the power to stop the turbines to an apparently (and actually) damaged shaft. But with the ship moving forward at 25 knots, flow of the water would cause the propeller and the shaft to continue to “windmill” anyway. And ship needed propulsion to avoid future attacks, so, finding no obvious problems with the shaft, he had it restarted.

Just before 11:51, LT Wildish went to inspect the shaft, and its sleeve in the aft bulkhead of the B engine room, in person. Arriving at the aft bulkhead, he found that the bulkhead stuffing gland was wrecked and water was freely pouring in through the gland, with shaft itself running seriously off-center. This eccentric running was destroying watertight integrity along the whole length of the shaft. But there was nothing to be done, and he returned to the control platform.

Water was rising fast in Engine Room’s bilges, and all countermeasures proved unsuccessful. Wildish ordered the space to be evacuated, leaving the turbines in operation with machinery prepared to run underwater. Turbo-generator in Y Action Machinery Room had its steam supply cut off immediately after the torpedo hit, and lights in Y Boiler Room failed. LT Watson, engineering officer of Y Engine Room, did not restart the shaft for fear of additional damage and it trailed at 12 revolutions. Crashing noises that forced shut down of Y turbine were likely consequence of damage caused by debris from outboard (B) propeller and damaged plating. The failure progressed forward, and soon both port shafts were out of action, forcing the ship to slow down to 15 knots. With steering not functional, ship began a slow port turn.

This torpedo hit caused a shock response, which in turn caused numerous failures to the electrical system. Aft 5,25 inch gun turrets were rendered inoperative, as were ship’s radars, steering gear and lighting. Ventilation and communication systems were also seriously affected. Damage control teams did manage to establish a flooding boundary, and Captain Leach ordered flooding of the starboard torpedo defense system, reducing the port list. Due to shaft rotating out of center and consequent vibrations, watertight glands in wateright bulkheads along the shaft were wrecked, completely compromising wateright integrity of the bulkheads. Resultant progressive flooding finally flooded all the way up to the B engine room.

There were multiple factors which contributed to this course of events:

  1. While fitting out in August 1940., Prince of Wales was damaged by a near-miss from a bomb, which caused dramatic buckling of shell plating to occur over length of cca 25 feet. Permanent structural repairs of the damage were completed, but reports make no mention of any inspection or repairs of machinery in the vicinity, which includes port side propeller shafting and connections of the port bearings housing. This hit is also likely to have damaged a number of bolts in shafting flanged joints on the port side, which will not have been noticed at the time.
  2. Torpedo detonation occured under the far aft port side of the hull. This meant that, confined by the overhand of the stern structure, it will have created shockwave that will have lifted the stern. Resultant low-pressure bubble will have then collapsed, dragging onto the nearby structure. Such behaviour is used deliberately by modern proximity-fuzed torpedoes, which detonate under the targets, using their weight against them. Further, heavy weight of the armoured aft quadruple 14-inch turret, armoured belt and deck will have resisted such movement, causing localited structural failures and thus increasing probability of progressive flooding.
  3. Above-described motion, shock impulse of torpedo detonation and vibration caused by the wrecked propeller shafting will have combined to weaken the bolts holding flanged joints together. Vibration caused by the wrecked propeller shafting will have contributed to the destruction.
  4. Continued forward motion of the battleship caused the wrecked shaft to “windmill”, leading to further damage, essentially drilling through the watertight bulkheads.

Flooding, while initially slow enough to allow personnel to escape, took “Y” Action Machinery Room and No.6 Diesel Dynamo Room, aft of the “B” Engine Room. No.8 Diesel Dynamo and No.6 Diesel Dynamo were eventually stopped by flooding, and flooding continued upwards and inboard through a number of insufficiently secured watertight hatches. Water also flooded the middle deck in compartments forward of the aft main battery turret.

The initial torpedo hit was the only port side torpedo hit, but as seen, its consequences were devastating. And it got worse. By 12:02, both port shafts were no longer operating, communications were limited, and ventillation system that relied on electrically-driven fans had also failed, turning inside of a ship into an oven. Most antiaircraft guns were not operational. Port side flooding resulted in a list of 11,5 degrees and stern trim of 5 feet (1,5 meters). This was reduced to 9 degrees by counterflooding, but this list was still enough to affect the operation of few remaining functional anti-aircraft guns. Stern area had also lost nearly all electrical power, which led to failure of lighting and also affected damage control efforts.

Shaft itself had broken in the “Y” Action Machinery Room, causing the shaft strut, propeller, 17-meter portion of shafting and corresponding stern tube to be ripped out of the hull. Debris from this failure in turn damaged the inner port propeller. Believing noise of breaking shaft to be another torpedo hit, and unable to actually ask what was going on, crews of the port aft 5,25 inch turrets flooded the magazines, which contributed to the initial 11,5 degree list. Power loss also affected training and elevation of both 5,25 inch turrets and Pom-Pom anti-aircraft guns, as well as internal communications, ventilation and steering gear. Most critically, it affected the pumps and meant that water could not be pumped out quickly enough to counter the progressive flooding. Only S1 and S2 (forward starboard) 5,25 inch gun turrets were still manageable and able to fire on high-altitude bombers. Port shaft damage meant that ship could use only starboard-side engines, and was able to make no more than 15 knots of speed but with steering unresponsive she was not able to control the course.

By the time of the second torpedo attack, only three out of eight power generators were operational. As this affected Prince of Wales’ entire anti-aircraft suite (radars, 5,25 inch turrets and Pom-Poms), ship had effectively no anti-aircraft protection by this time. Breakage of the shaft had ripped large holes not just in the hull, but also in transverse bulkheads, beyond the damage that had already been caused by the off-the-center rotation.

Second Torpedo Attack

After Prince of Wales had hoisted an “out of control” signal at 12:10, Captain William Tennant decided to sail Repulse in close with the flagship. At 12:19, Repulse was some 825 meters away from Prince of Wales and attempting to render assistance to the flagship, but attack of ten torpedo bombers left Prince of Wales even more damaged and Repulse dead in the water and rapidly sinking.

Prince of Wales, being immobile, was quickly hit by three torpedoes along her starboard side. These torpedoes – larger than the first one – struck her in the bow, at B turret, and abaft of Y turret. Bow hit resulted in a large hole, but without damage to anything important. Other two hits were far more problematic. As voids in the starboard torpedo defense system had been flooded to counteract the list resulting from the first torpedo hit (one to the shaft), these hits resulted in heavy damage. Most devastating of these hits happened abaft “Y” turret, leaving an 11 by 4 meter hole and jamming the starboard outer shaft, causing a stoppage of turbines in the “A” engine room. Only inner starboard shaft was now operational, and the stern hit had negated all efforts to set a flooding boundary against the first stern hit. Combination of uncontrolled flooding and damage to shafts cut ship’s speed to 8 knots.

Ship’s fate was eventually sealed with a bomb attack by eight Nell bombers at 12:44. Planes dropped seven 500-kg bombs (one plane suffering from a release failure) from 2 560 meters. One of these bombs hit and penetrated the upper deck near the catapult mechanism amidships, exploding on the armour of the main deck in cinema flat. Fragments riddled the ship’s sides and air intakes, causing additional flooding and further reducing the stability of the ship, as well as causing heavy casualties among some 200 to 300 men being treated in an emergency first aid station that had been set up in the cinema flat. Damage caused to uptakes and intakes of the “X” Boiler Room forced its shutdown and evacuation, and steam feed had to be crossconnected from “A” Boiler Room to “X” Engine Room. Eventually, Prince of Wales drifted to a stop. The other six bombs exploded close to Prince of Wales, causing splinter and pressure (water hammer) damage, indenting the hull in long segments just below the side armour belt (65 meters on starboard and 70 meters on port side).

By 12:50, Prince of Wales had taken on some 18 000 tons of water, and was still undergoing catastrophic flooding from bomb near-misses. Evacuation of personell started after the destroyer Express came alongside, and at 13:24 the battleship suddenly capsized, almost taking the Express down with her.

Evacuation of people from HMS Prince of Wales


While there was a lot of luck involved in sinking of Prince of Wales in particular, fate of the British squadron had shown the vulnerability of surface ships to a determined air attack. It thus helped secure the tactical and strategic ascendance of the aircraft carrier as a new capital ship, though battleships still remained a valuable and important part of the fleet. This fact will be further confirmed by sinking of the Japanese battleship Musashi late in the war.

Prince of Wales did have a number of serious design flaws. Issues the ship had with ventilation in the tropical conditions will have made any tasks, including damage control, more difficult from the outset. The failure of the internal communications after the first torpedo hit also negated much of the skill and training of the crew in limiting the damage and keeping the ship afloat. Incorporation of centerline bulkhead, especially centerline machinery space bulkhead, also significantly decreased ship’s survivability by leading to off-center flooding, with devastating list as a consequence. Fire-control of the anti-aircraft guns and guns themselves also proved inadequate. Overall, the only aspect of the design that did serve as intended was the torpedo defense system.

Despite all of this, the decision to deploy as was done was not stupid, crazy or suicidal. The Royal Navy had been operating for over two years under constant threat of and attacks by land-based aircraft, both in the English Channel and the Mediterranean. Ordinary land-based bombers, and high-altitude bombers in particular, had shown themselves to be almost wholly incapable of sinking ships that were underway – and had this been the only air threat the battleships had been facing, it is entirely possible their mission will have been a success. But the Japanese bombers in Indo-China were in fact a formation trained and equipped specifically for the task of ship-killing. After the loss of the battleships, war will time and again prove the value of such trained formations – and that formations not trained in attacks against ships were not much of a threat to the latter.

Further details available at:

A Re-Analysis of the Tragic Loss of HMS Prince of Wales (

pow-stern-damage.pdf (

Battle_Summary_No_14_(Revised).pdf (


4 thoughts on “Pacific War 4 – Sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse

  1. Reblogged this on battleoftheatlantic19391945 and commented:
    “WARSHIP WEDNESDAY, March 2, 2022-FEATURED AMONG SEVERAL OTHERS, on WARSHIP WEDNESDAY; IS H.M.SHIPS…HIS MAJESTY’S SHIPS, REPULSE, and PRINCE OF WALES …DURING THE BATTLE for the PACIFIC/1941-1945!!! Great Blog and Posting; AND here is SOME OTHER RESEARCH is the REWARD FOR Y’ALL, CONCERNING THE TWO H.M.SHIPS MENTIONED….Wikipedia Naval-History.Net and Google Search, and ALL etc. In REGARDS to HIS MAJESTY’S SHIPS REPULSE and PRINCE OF WALES; Still stands thine ancient sacrifice, a humble and a contrite heart; Lord God of Hosts be with us yet, LEST WE FORGET, LEST WE FORGET!!! Poem by Rudyard Kipling. At the going down of the SUN, and in the MORNING; WE WILL REMEMBER THEM, WE WILL REMEMBER THEM!!! Still TRUE TO THE IDEALS, WHEN as YOUNG MEN, THEY SAILED to MEET the FOE AGAIN, THEIR NAMES ENROLLED in HONOUR’S COURT, THEY ARE RIDING ANCHOR-ON THE HIGH SEAS, NOT IN HOME PORT!!! YOU ALL ARE NOT FORGOTTEN, WE REMEMBER; LOVE YOU ALL…Thank you for OUR FREEDOMS/1945 TO 2022…Yours Aye-Brian CANUCK Murza…Killick Vison, W.W.II Naval Researcher-Published Author, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. ON ALL THE OCEANS THE WHITE CAPS FLOW!!! Blog credit-Pacific War 4

    Liked by 1 person

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