The loss of Force Z – New Zealand’s Pearl Harbor

The Pacific War is usually held to have begun at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, when Japanese naval aircraft launched a surprise attack that crippled the US Pacific Fleet. The attack turned what had been a European conflict, with some side-wars in other theatres, into a full global struggle between the world’s major industrialised nations.

HMS Prince of Wales arriving in Singapore, 2 December 1941. She was less than nine months in commission. (Public domain, HM Government pre-1957).
HMS Prince of Wales arriving in Singapore, 2 December 1941. She was barely nine months in commission at this stage. (Public domain, HM Government pre-1957).

Less well remembered is the fact that Japan attacked the British Empire at the same time, sending forces towards Malaya and Singapore. It was 8 December on the other side of the international date line.

British defence plans revolved around sending a fleet to Singapore. In the event, the European war made it too risky. There was talk of using older battleships to create a Far Eastern fleet in 1941. Then, against advice, Prime Minister Winston Churchill insisted on sending a modern battleship – HMS Prince of Wales – and the old battlecruiser HMS Repulse, with a few escorting destroyers, under Admiral Tom Phillips.

They were dubbed Force Z, intended as a deterrent, and reached Singapore on 2 December amid criticism that they were being deployed too far forward. Fremantle might have been a better option. But the Royal Navy was not going to let the Empire down, and Phillips sailed to attack Japanese forces heading for Malaya as war broke out on the 8th.

They would have been a fair match for the rebult battlecruisers and heavy cruisers Japan was deploying to cover the invasion force coming from Saigon. But on 10 December, returning to Singapore after a fruitless search for the invasion fleet, the British force was attacked by 88 Japanese torpedo-bombers. Both capital ships were sunk with the loss of 840 dead, including Phillips. Nobody expected it. While Repulse was a quarter-century old and lacked effective torpedo protection,  Prince of Wales was a modern battleship. Churchill got the news early the following morning and later said he had never received a more direct blow during the war.

Historians have since criticised Phillips’ decision to operate without air cover – there were no modern fighters available in Singapore and the aircraft carrier tipped to join them was delayed.

HMS Repulse leaving Singapore for the last time. My great uncle served on this ship in the First World War. Public domain (HM Government, pre-1957).
HMS Repulse leaving Singapore for the last time. My great uncle served on this ship in the First World War, stationed on the Dumaresq/Dreyer FCT fire control system. Public domain (HM Government, pre-1957).

However, a lot of that is criticism of hindsight. The British had been operating ships for years under enemy air superiority in European waters. The fact that they over-estimated the effectiveness of anti-aircraft fire, and under-estimated the effectiveness of Japanese aviators, was something learned only by hard experience.

US naval historians William Garzke and Robert Dulin, in an earlier published book and in an online report updated this year, have shown that Prince of Wales was lost to a lucky hit that flooded the engine rooms through a damaged propellor shaft, coupled with bad damage control, this partly a result of an inexperienced crew. These issues were compounded by the fact that the hit knocked out the auxiliary generators, crippling the anti-aircraft guns and the ship’s prodigious pumping system.

The loss opened the way to Singapore and, from New Zealand’s perspective, to Australasia. Singapore – and expected British forces – had been the lynch-pin of our inter-war defence policy.

Suddenly both Australia and New Zealand seemed vulnerable – lone outposts of a British Empire beleaguered from all sides. Churchill promised that, if anything happened to us, the British would abandon everything except the defence of metropolitan Britain, on which all rested, and come to our aid. But such promises seemed hollow given the months it would take for Britain to mount a counter-attack, even if such was possible once Egypt – the Axis road to Britain’s oil supplies in Persia and Iraq – had been abandoned to the Nazis.

The attack on Pearl Harbor, paradoxically, gave hope. America was in the war. My wife’s grandfather reportedly summed it up in four words. ‘Thank God for that!’

We were not alone.

Part 3 tomorrow; an inspiring memorial in New Zealand to American soldiers.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012