The two ships arrived at Singapore just before Japan began the Pacific War. On 7 December, the day of the Pearl Harbor Raid on the other side of the International Date Line, the Japanese landed in northern Malaya. As soon as hostilities commenced, both steamed northwards to intercept a reported invasion force. Prince of Wales, Repulse and four destroyers were sent to attack the invasion force. After finding no targets, the British ships were returning to Singapore when, late in the morning of 10 December, they were attacked by a strong force of Japanese high-level bombers and torpedo planes. With no friendly planes to protect them, both heavy ships were hit several times. Repulse was moderately damaged by bombs early in the action and was later hit by several torpedoes. After receiving this heavy underwater damage, she sank rapidly. Repulse sank at about 12:30. Prince of Wales capsized and followed her to the bottom less than an hour later. The first capital ships to be sunk by air attack while operating on the high seas, their loss further shocked a naval world already stunned by the events at Pearl Harbor only a few days earlier.
Details of history:
Japanese troop convoys were sighted on 6 and 8 December 1941 by RAAF and RAF Hudson and Catalina Aircrews and Singapore was raided by Japanese aircraft within hours of the Invasion of Malaya commencing.
In response HMS Prince of Wales's anti aircraft batteries opened fire but scored no hits and had no effect on the Japanese aircraft. A signal was received from the Admiralty in London ordering the British squadron to commence hostilities and that evening, confident that a protective air umbrella would be provided by the RAAF/RAF presence in the region, Admiral Phillips set sail.
Force Z at this time comprised the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, the battlecruiser HMS Repulse and the destroyers HM Ships Electra, Express, Tenedos and HMAS Vampire. The object of the sortie was to attack Japanese transports belived to be at Kota Bharu but in the afternoon of 9 December 1941 a Japanese submarine spotted the Fleet and in the evening they were detected by Japanese aerial reconnaissance.
By this time it had been made clear that NO Fighter support would be forthcoming. At midnight a signal was received that Japanese forces were landing at Kuantan in Malaya. Force Z was diverted to investigate.
At 02:11 on 10 December 1941 the force was again sighted by a Japanese submarine and at 0800 arrived off Kuantan, only to discover that the reported landings were in fact a diversion from the main invasion zones in Thailand.
At 11:00 that morning the first Japanese air attack began. Eight Type 96 "Nell" bombers dropped their bombs close to HMS Repulse, one passing through the hanger roof and exploding on the 1 inch plating of the main deck below.
The second attack force, comprising seventeen "Nells" armed with torpedoes, arrived at 1130 and then to divide the AA fire divided into two separate attack formations.
Despite some reports to the contrary HMS Prince of Wales was struck by only one torpedo, although this was to eventually prove fatal, while HMS Repulse managed to avoid the seven torpedoes aimed at her, as well as bombs dropped minutes later by a further formation of six "Nells".
The torpedo that struck HMS Prince of Wales hit on the port side aft, abaft of Y Turret, wrecking the outer propeller shaft on that side and destroying bulkheads to one degree or another along the shaft all the way through to B Engine Room. This turn caused rapid uncontrollable flooding and put the entire electrical system in the aft part of the ship out of action.
Lacking effective damage control, she immediately took on a heavy list. A third torpedo attack developed against HMS Repulse at this time and once again she succeeded in avoiding any hits, but it was to be only a temporay reprive.
A Fourth Attack developed and took place and it was during this one that She was hit several times by torpedo carrying Type 1 "Bettys".
At 12:33 HMS Repulse slid below the waves forever. Six aircraft from this wave then attacked HMS Prince of Wales, hitting her with three torpedoes within a matter of minutes of each other. These hits caused even further damage, and resulted in even more serious flooding. Finally, a single 1100 lb bomb hit the catapult deck, penetrated through to the main deck and then exploded, causing many casualties in the makeshift aid centre in the Cinema Flat.
Several other bombs from this attack were all very 'near misses', indenting the Ships hull, and then popping the hulls rivets. This caused hull plates to ‘split’ along the weld seams and as a direct result the flooding at this point became impossible to contain. At 1315 the order to abandon ship was given and at 1320 HMS Prince of Wales capsized and was gone.
Vice Admiral Phillips and Captain Leach were among the 327 Crewmen that failed to survive her Loss.
HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were the first capital ships to be sunk solely by airpower on the open sea (albeit by land based rather than carrier based aircraft), a harbinger of the diminishing role this class of ships was to play in naval warfare thereafter.
It is often pointed out however, that a contributing factor to the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales was her surface scanning radar was at the time inoperable, depriving Force Z of one of its most potent early warning devices and the early critical damage she sustained from that first crippling torpedo.
Another factor which led to HMS Prince of Wales's demise was the additional loss of dynamos depriving HMS Prince of Wales of many of her Emergency pumps. Further electrical failures left parts of the ship in total darkness and added to the difficulties of her damage repair parties ten fold as they attempted to counter the rapidly increasing flooding.
The British Director of Naval Construction's report on the sinking also claimed that the ship's anti aircraft guns could have "inflicted heavy casualties before torpedoes were dropped, if not preventing the successful conclusion of attack had crews been more adequately trained in their operation".
- RAN V/W Class Destroyer HMAS Vampire removing crew members from the sinking battleship Prince of Wales, December 10th 1941. She brought home 225 off by closing right up to the side of HMS Prince of Wales, while the CAP was provided by the RAAF Buffalo Squadrons who turned up right as HMS Repulse was siding under the waves for good.
- Photograph taken from a Japanese aircraft during the initial high-level bombing attack. Repulse, near the bottom of the view, has just been hit by one bomb and near-missed by several more. Prince of Wales is near the top of the image, generating a considerable amount of smoke. Japanese writing in the lower right states that the photograph was reproduced by authorization of the Navy Ministry.
- Photograph taken from a Japanese plane, with Prince of Wales at far left and Repulse beyond her. A destroyer, either Express or Electra, is maneuvering in the foreground. Dulin and Garzke's "Allied Battleships in World War II", page 199, states that this photograph was taken "after the first torpedo attack, during which the Prince of Wales sustained heavy torpedo damage."