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Sinking Force Z: the day the Imperial Japanese Navy killed the Battleship

The loss of Force Z was a colossal disaster for the British, and one that effectively marked the end of its empire in the East.

In late 1941, war was looming with Japan, and Britain’s empire in southeast Asia was at risk. The British government decided to send Force Z, which included the state-of-the-art battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse, to bolster the naval defences of Singapore, and provide a mighty naval deterrent to Japanese aggression.

As explained by Angus Konstam in his book Sinking Force Z 1941 the day the Imperial Japanese Navy killed the Battleship, these two powerful ships arrived in Singapore on Dec. 2 – five days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But crucially, they lacked air cover. On Dec. 9 Japanese scout planes detected Force Z’s approach in the Gulf of Thailand. Unlike at Pearl Harbor, battleships at sea could manoeuvre, and their anti-aircraft defences were ready. But it did no good. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) dive-bombers and torpedo-bombers were the most advanced in the world, and the battle was one-sided.

HMS Prince of Wales had been crippled by a torpedo hit at 1144hrs that morning. As a result, she was listing heavily to port, her speed reduced to 16 knots and unable to steer a steady course. The list meant that her lower hull on her starboard side was riding high in the water, giving any torpedo hits on that side a good chance of striking her below her protective armoured belt. So, the Prince of Wales was extremely vulnerable. Then, at 1220hrs, more Japanese aircraft were spotted, approaching the battleship from the south. Watching their attack develop from the ship’s compass platform, Admiral Phillips was slow to realise he was under torpedo attack. However, it soon became clear this was exactly what was happening. Due to the list, the battleship’s forward 5.25in batteries were unable to depress low enough to fire at the approaching low-flying aircraft. Her after batteries were out of action due to a lack of electrical power. Only the ship’s multiple-barrelled ‘pom-poms’ and smaller guns put up any effective defence. The first six Type 1 bombers of the 1st and 2nd squadrons, Kanoya Kokutai approached the battleship’s starboard side from different heights and angles, and released their torpedoes at short range – around 500m. Three of them struck the Prince of Wales forward, amidships and aft, causing extensive flooding and irreparable damage. After these mortal blows, the battleship gradually began to sink.

At 1224hrs the remainder of Kanoya Kokutai broke away from the attack on the Prince of Wales, and began a run towards the Repulse, which was off their port side. They circled around the battlecruiser, to attack her from several directions at once. Repulse avoided most of these torpedoes. However, one hit Repulse on her port quarter, damaging her outer port propeller shaft and causing flooding.

At 1225hrs simultaneously, the 3rd Squadron, Kanoya Kokutai approached the battlecruiser from both port and starboard. Repulse struck by four more torpedoes, three on her port side and one to starboard. These caused extensive flooding damage, jammed her rudder, and the battlecruiser began to heel over and sink. The order was given to abandon ship. At 1232hrs Repulse sank.

At 1241hrs the 1st and 2nd squadrons, Mihoro Kokutai conducted a high-level bombing attack on Prince of Wales which is struck amidships by a 500kg bomb, causing extensive casualties. At 1310hrs on Prince of Wales the order is given to abandon ship and at 1323hrs the Prince of Wales sank.

Strategically, the loss of Force Z was a colossal disaster for the British, and one that effectively marked the end of its empire in the East. But even more importantly, the sinking marked the last time that battleships were considered to be the masters of the ocean. From that day on, air power rather than big guns would be the deciding factor in naval warfare.

Sinking Force Z 1941 the day the Imperial Japanese Navy killed the Battleship is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Adam Tooby via Osprey

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