Remembering the tragic outbreak of Britain’s Pacific war

It’s 76 years this week since the Pacific war exploded across the British and their Commonwealth – a moment timed by the Japanese to coincide with the attack on US forces in Pearl Harbor, on the other side of the date line.

HMS Prince of Wales arriving in Singapore, 2 December 1941. (Public domain).

The shock was compounded a few days later by the ill-fated sortie from Singapore of two heavy ships, HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, deployed there to deter Japanese aggression. By 10 December both were on the bottom of the South China Sea, with the loss of 840 dead. They were attempting to foil a Japanese invasion of Malaya (Malaysia) – and went down without once seeing Japanese surface forces. Their loss to unopposed Japanese air power marked the first time major warships had been lost to aircraft while operational at sea.

Defence policy in Australia and New Zealand had been focused on supporting a major British base at Singapore – to which the ‘main fleet’ would sortie if Japan attacked. But that assumed no war in Europe. By late 1941 the likely force had been reduced – after a great deal of argument in British command circles – to a single modern battleship and an elderly battlecruiser, backed by a handful of destroyers. A carrier meant to join them was delayed, and the squadron – Force Z – went to Singapore under Admiral Sir Tom Phillips amid criticism that they were being deployed too far forward and without sufficient air support.

HMS Repulse leaving Singapore for the last time. My great uncle served on this ship in the First World War. Public domain.

Against that, Phillips’ decision to sortie into the South China Sea once war broke out has always been portrayed as foolhardy. But that is to do with hindsight. To me, the decision Phillips made to go reflects the way humans rationalise thought. The framework he worked to included the point that in the Second World War fleet commanders used their forces aggressively, even against significant odds or high risks. This was exemplified by the way the battleship HMS Warspite was sent into a narrow fijord to attack German forces around Narvik in 1940; or the way Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham used his Mediterranean Fleet to tackle Italian forces.

And in December 1941, Japan was invading Malaya. That was Phillips’ problem. He had fair intelligence about the likely Japanese invasion fleet and its covering force – and on paper, his own force of two capital ships and supporting destroyers was sufficient to tackle it.  Lack of air cover was an issue, but British ships had often operated without being lost under enemy air superiority in the European theatre; and the Prince of Wales had the latest underwater protection systems, coupled with the latest style of anti-aircraft armament and high-angle fire control. Blunting the Japanese attack and sinking some of their heavy cruisers, particularly, would have been a setback to Japanese ambitions in South East Asia.

What they did not know was that the Japanese had developed specialist ship-killing squadrons, and some 88 aircraft were deployed to Saigon in anticipation of the British arrival. Although the dated underwater protection of Repulse was well known, there were also flaws in Prince of Wales’ construction which had yet to emerge. These included such mundane matters as problems with hatch dogging and sealing, along with poor damage control. These last were shared with the rest of the fleet at the time and were an issue for Prince of Wales because Captain John Leach had never been given time to fully work his crew up to full fighting efficiency.

Still, when the Nelsonic tradition of taking the battle to the enemy is added to the mix, it seems clear that Phillips and his staff made a rational decision in terms of what they knew.

There is no need to repeat events; for details, check out my book Pacific War. Suffice to say, both heavy ships ended up on the bottom of the South China Sea, with tragic loss of life. The shock waves rippled around the world, coupling with the US experience at Pearl Harbor a few days earlier to produce the impression of an unstoppable Japanese advance. The horror in Australia and New Zealand was palpable; Singapore was where the whole basis of regional defence rested, and it had just failed.

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We have to wonder how different the course of that war might have been had the Japanese attack on Malaya been blunted in December 1941. Japan would not have been able to secure the oil and rubber supplies they were seeking, at least. Let’s discuss in the comments.

The human side has a modern coda. Scrap merchants – pirates – have been looting both wrecks for their metals in the past five or six years. The wrecks are, of course, war graves: solemn memorials to those lost, and are owned by the British government. In early November this year, while touring Malaysia, Prince Charles congratulated a team of British divers for standing over the site and fending off the pirates’ vessels. The problem both the British and Malaysian governments face is how to deal with it. Aside from the cost and legal complexity of direct action, tracking down all those robbing these ships is likely going to be akin to playing whack-a-mole: the appalling practise has been widespread across the region and multiple Second World War wrecks (war graves!) have been looted of late.

For the full story of New Zealand’s experience in that Pacific theatre, don’t forget to check out my book Pacific War.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

5 thoughts on “Remembering the tragic outbreak of Britain’s Pacific war

  1. We should never forget the ship’s companies of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse and the sacrifices made by the brave service people of New Zealand, Australia, the UK, India and the people who lost their lives at the Alexandra Hospital Massacre.

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    1. Absolutely. I am also horrified at the way the wrecks are being looted – this is just wrong, and I think neither UK nor Malaysian governments have done enough to stop the problem, even though it’d probably be like playing whack-a-rat to shut it down. On the fall of Singapore, I still recall spending time in the Battle Box under Fort Canning Hill, now a museum – it had been (partly) returned to 1941-42 state, complete with animatronic models of Gen. Percival and others. I knew the story of Singapore’s fall, but the fact of being actually there in the genuine place, with all that had been reconstructed, bought it home – as I mentioned over on your blog, it’d be great if museums etc could use VR or ER to make the experience even more real for all sorts of historic sites.

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  2. Some interesting counter-factuals could be argued. If Force Z had survived the air attack to interfere with the Japanese invasion of the north Malay Peninsula, the IJN would have to deal with the threat. I don’t know offhand if the naval forces allocated to the investiture of Borneo (the Japanese took Balikpapan and its oil refinery some time in January, don’t recall when offhand, and points on the north coast of Borneo, also with oil refineries, a week or two before) were the same as those used to invade Malaysia; if so, it would’ve thrown off their timetable for the occupation of Borneo and the destruction of Dutch and American naval and air forces on Java. The USAAF had B-17s and P-40s based in Java, with plans to reinforce the air defense of Java with more P-40s across an island-hopping route, that stretched from Darwin to Surabaya. If the USAAF could have succeeded in this effort it would’ve introduced another potential for delay, at least as far as the defense of Java is concerned. Would it have been enough? Maybe, but the correlation of forces in the South Pacific was not in favor of the Allies, even with Force Z intact to protect Singapore and interfere with the Japanese invasion of Malaysia.

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    1. It’s definitely an intriguing and rewarding field to speculate on – not least because figuring out plausible ‘what ifs’ can sometimes shed light on what actually happened, in terms of how the real-world decisions were made by the participants, or what part chance played. No question that the Allies were absolutely on the back foot in SE Asia and the Pacific in 1941-42. Force Z always was looked on as a deterrent, not a combat force, a ‘fleet in being’ to tie down more substantial Japanese units – I think there was talk of basing it in Perth.

      In the longer term, I guess, Japan had no chance whatsoever of winning, irrespective of the outcomes of the SE Asia campaign, because they couldn’t out-strip US industrial capacity or out-build the forces already under construction under the various Acts of mid-1940. My suspicion is that variations on Force Z surviving and so forth would alter the time-frames of Japan’s defeat and likely reduce the casualty levels – but not shift the ultimate outcome. I think the only way Japan could have got away with it was if Germany forced the Allies to terms in the European theatre – which would have had to include giving Japan what it wanted in the Pacific. And in the last six months of 1941 as Japan finalised its war plans, that wasn’t unreasonable as a prospect; Guderian was approaching Moscow, Rommel was well advanced into Tripolitania, and the Battle of the Atlantic still hung in the balance.

      I’m not aware of any Japanese debates along those lines, but – at Ribbentrop’s suggestion – they had already prepared an occupation plan for New Zealand by 1940. I’ve seen it – the documents were found by US intelligence in 1946 and copies are now in our National Archives. So this suggests that Japanese hegemony in the Pacific (and across Britain’s former Dominions) on the back of a German victory in Europe was always going to be part of any peace arrangement if the Allies agreed to terms.

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