As British Admiral Sir Thomas Phillips, YOU must lead your powerful warships to oppose Japan’s December 1941 opening war offensive in the Pacific.

It is December 8, 1941, as you assume the role of British Admiral Sir Thomas Phillips, the ranking Royal Navy officer at Singapore, Britain’s Far East bastion and most important Pacific naval base. Although Britain has been at war with Germany in Europe since September 1939, rising aggression by Japan in Asia throughout 1941 has posed an increasing threat to Britain’s interests in the Far East,principally its colonies of Malaya, Burma and Hong Kong and the vital sea-lanes in the southwest Pacific and Indian Ocean.

In late October, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered you to lead a naval squadron from Atlantic waters to Singapore as a show of force to deter further Japanese aggression. The squadron,known then as Force G, comprised the new battleship His Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Prince of Wales, the older battle cruiser HMS Repulse and four destroyers. The new aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable was to join Force G, but its participation was canceled when it ran aground and was damaged. Six days ago, on December 2, Force G arrived at Singapore and was redesignated Force Z.

But in the hours before dawn this morning, the strategic situation in the Far East changed suddenly and dramatically when Japanese air, naval and ground forces launched a series of devastating attacks that began World War II in Asia and the Pacific. Japanese forces have overrun the neutral international concessions in Shanghai, attacked Hong Kong, dealt a devastating blow to the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor (it was December 7 in Hawaii), struck American airfields in the Philippines, and, of immediate concern to you, launched an amphibious invasion of northern Malaya.

Your “show of force” deterrence effort has now become a combat mission to oppose the enemy onslaught.

FORCE Z

You have great confidence in Force Z’s striking power in any ship-to-ship naval action given the heavy guns of its two powerful capital warships. Your flagship, Prince of Wales, first saw combat as part of the Royal Navy force that tracked down and sank the German battleship Bismarck in May. Your ship’s critical hits on Bismarck were a major factor in the British victory.

Completed last March, Prince of Wales has a top speed of 30 knots and displaces 44,000 tons when fully loaded. Its main armament consists of 10 new rapid-firing 14-inch guns (in three multiple-gun turrets, two forward and one aft) with a range of 18 miles. Its secondary armament consists of eight pairs of 5.25-inch heavy anti-aircraft guns; a half-dozen 8-barrel, 2-pounder pom-pom batteries; a 40 mm Bofors gun; and several .303-caliber machine guns. Captain John Leach commands the ship and it is crewed by 100 officers and 1,502 sailors.

Completed in 1916, the 25-year-old battle cruiser Repulse fought in World War I naval engagements and was later extensively reconstructed to improve its armor protection and fire control. Its top speed is 32 knots and it displaces 36,000 tons when fully loaded. Its main armament consists of six 15.2-inch guns mounted in pairs (in two forward turrets and one aft) and with a range of 19 miles. Its secondary armament consists of a dozen 4-inch guns, six high-angle 4-inch anti-aircraft guns, and two 8-barrel pom-pom batteries. Captain William Tennant commands Repulse and it is crewed by 69 officers and 1,240 sailors.

Force Z’s destroyers are His Majesty’s Ships Electra, Express, Encounter and Jupiter. The latter two are currently undergoing repairs and are out of action for up to three weeks, but HMS Tenedos and the Australian navy’s HMAS Vampire are available to replace them. The destroyers are less heavily armored and mount much smaller main guns (typically one or two 5-inch guns) than do your two major warships, yet they are valuable for screening, countermine and anti-submarine operations.

Since Force Z lacks an aircraft carrier, the only available air support is from Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) ground-based aircraft flying from forward airfields in Malaya and from Singapore. However, this air support is greatly limited by the number and type of planes – only 43 outdated Brewster Buffalo Mk-I fighters – and the necessity for them to support ground combat against the Japanese landing force. Yet you doubt the ability of enemy aircraft alone to sink your combat-ready warships as they maneuver at sea, and you further believe that the proper employment of your large number of anti-aircraft weapons will provide formidable protection from enemy air attacks.

JAPANESE FORCES

Japan’s opening war offensive features five separate operational groups attacking as far east as Hawaii and as far south as Malaya. Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo’s Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) Southern Task Force, carrying the landing force of General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 25th Army, is mounting the Malaya operation. Kondo’s largest warships are two 1914-vintage battleships, Kongo and Haruna, each mounting eight older 14-inch guns whose firepower is inferior to that of the guns of Prince of Wales and Repulse. Moreover, IJN support offshore at the Kota Bharu landing site has no warship larger than a cruiser with 8-inch guns. However, you are sure that the Japanese will have naval mines along the sea approaches and submarines patrolling the waters.

Although Kondo’s Southern Task Force has no aircraft carriers, the operation is within range of the land-based IJN aircraft of 21st and 22d air flotillas flying from airfields in southern Indochina. Twenty-first Flotilla has 27 Mitsubishi G4M1 Type 1 bombers, which the Allies have code-named Betty bombers. Twenty-second Flotilla has 72 twin-engine Mitsubishi G3M2 Type 96 bombers, Allied codenamed Nell bombers; 36 Mitsubishi A6M fighters, Allied code-named Zeke fighters but commonly called Zero fighters; and six reconnaissance aircraft. The Japanese long-range bombers are armed with bombs and powerful Type 91 aerial torpedoes.

COURSES OF ACTION Just hours ago you witnessed Japanese airpower first-hand – and you were not impressed. In the predawn darkness of 4:30 a.m., 17 Japanese Nell bombers appeared over Singapore, which was not under blackout and therefore brightly lit. Although scattered bombs killed or wounded several hundred unsheltered people, the air raid inflicted no militarily significant damage.

The land defense of Malaya and Singapore is the responsibility of British army Lieutenant General Arthur Percival’s Malaya Command. (See What Next, General? in the March 2008 ACG.) Although you will cooperate with Percival, you are in sole command of all navy ships at Singapore and you will decide how best to use Force Z.

At noon you gather your staff and ships’ captains to decide Force Z’s actions in response to Japan’s opening war offensive. You are considering three possible courses of action.

COURSE OF ACTION ONE: ATTACK JAPANESE INVASION FORCE.  With this plan, Force Z will sortie from Singapore at once and directly attack the Japanese invasion force before the beachheads are consolidated. Success will depend on speed, the element of surprise, and the formidable guns of your major warships. Air support will require close cooperation with RAF/RAAF ground-based aircraft.

COURSE OF ACTION TWO: DEFEND SINGAPORE. Under this course of action, Force Z will put to sea immediately to avoid being caught at anchor and destroyed like the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. However, your ships will remain in the area to protect the Singapore base against a Japanese ground assault or naval strike.

COURSE OF ACTION THREE: STRATEGIC REDEPLOYMENT Under this option, Force Z will redeploy from Singapore to Jakarta harbor in Java. From this new base, your ships will be well positioned to cooperate with other Allied naval forces, protect vital sea-lanes to Australia and the Indian Ocean, and provide maximum flexibility to react to future Japanese thrusts throughout the southwest Pacific region.

You must now decide which plan you will implement.

What next, Admiral Phillips?

COURSE OF ACTION ONE: ATTACK JAPANESE INVASION FORCE

 You believe that prompt action by your powerful warships will prove decisive to defeating Japan’s invasion of Malaya. Therefore, you decide to sail Force Z immediately to the waters off northern Malaya and attack the invasion force before the beachheads are consolidated.

You estimate that if your ships depart Singapore as soon as possible today, they will arrive at the invasion area early on December 10. Your intent is to bombard the Japanese forces on the beachheads, destroy their support shipping, and engage Kondo’s fleet with the superior firepower of the guns of Prince of Wales and Repulse.

Before departure, you coordinate with Air Vice Marshal Conway Pulford, senior RAF commander. Pulford promises to provide what air support he can, but he warns that he cannot guarantee continuous coverage since his limited number of RAF/RAA Faircraft are committed to supporting ground forces in the ongoing combat.

As Force Z steams out of Singapore harbor at 5:35 p.m., you signal all ships from aboard Prince of Wales: “We are out looking for trouble and no doubt we shall find it. We hope to surprise the enemy transports and we expect to meet the Japanese battleships.” Led by the destroyers Electra and Express, Force Z then moves into open waters and is joined by the destroyers Tenedos and Vampire.

Wary of Japanese submarine attacks using torpedoes, you order your ships to sail a zigzag course. The weather turns in your favor as low-hanging clouds and frequent rain squalls help obscure Force Z from observation by enemy aircraft.

The next morning the weather clears somewhat and Vampire reports sighting an enemy plane. This presents a dilemma:Should you call for air support in case the plane spotted your ships and initiates an attack, or should you maintain radio silence to avoid alerting the Japanese to your presence if Force Z has not yet been observed?You decide to maintain radio silence, and your ships continue sailing toward northern Malaya throughout December 9.

Unbeknownst to you, however, the enemy submarine I-58 has spotted Force Z and reports your position. The Japanese begin preparing the aircraft at their Indochina bases to attack your ships. During the night of December 9-10, an enemy reconnaissance plane mistakenly drops a flare over Kondo’s fleet, which is positioned only five miles from you. You seethe flare, but since you are unaware that Kondo’s ships are nearby, you assume it means the enemy has spotted Force Z and that you have lost the crucial element of surprise. You therefore decide to abort the strike mission.

At 11:13 a.m. on December 10, as Force Z sails back to Singapore, nine enemy aircraft are sighted. All of your ships’ anti-aircraft guns open fire as the Japanese bombers approach. The planes drop nine bombs; eight of them miss, while one explodes on Repulse’s heavily armored deck. The damage, however, is minor.

Thirty minutes later, 16 enemy torpedo planes arrive and dive at full speed toward Prince of Wales. The battleship turns to avoid the torpedoes but is nonetheless struck by one. Your flagship immediately lists 12 degrees to port and slows to 10 knots, losing its ability to evade further strikes. Meanwhile, Repulse successfully dodges over a dozen torpedoes.

At 12:20 p.m., more enemy torpedo planes arrive. Four of them target Repulse and six attack the crippled Prince of Wales. A torpedo strikes Repulse amidships and then minutes later three more crash into its sides. Repulse sinks within 20 minutes, taking 513 sailors with it. The crew aboard Vampire, however, rescues Captain Tennant and several hundred men.

Unable to maneuver, Prince of Wales is hit by three more torpedoes and begins to capsize. You refuse to leave your sinking flagship, however, and you, Captain Leach and 327 British sailors go down with it.

COURSE OF ACTION TWO: DEFEND SINGAPORE

You fear that any attempt to strike the Japanese invasion force in northern Malaya will unnecessarily risk the loss of Force Z. Although you still doubt the ability of aircraft alone to sink major warships maneuvering at sea, you also think it would be foolhardy to test that theory by placing the Allies’ two most powerful ships in the region in an exposed position with, at best, only weak air cover.Therefore, you decide to remain in southern Malayan waters and defend Singapore.

Since the Pearl Harbor attack has demonstrated that aircraft can sink ships at anchor, you order Force Z to leave Singapore harbor immediately. Led by the destroyers Electra and Express, your flagship, Prince of Wales, and the battle cruiser Repulse put to sea at 5:35 p.m. and shortly thereafter are joined by the destroyers Tenedos and Vampire. Singapore will remain your base for refueling and resupply, but by ensuring that only one or two of your ships are in the harbor at a time, you can prevent a disastrous repeat of Pearl Harbor.

You initially lead Force Z to a position about 80 miles southeast of Singapore.From here, your force is better protected but you can still respond to land or sea threats to the city.

In the meantime, Malaya Command is losing the ground and air battle in northern Malaya. The enemy reinforces its Kota Bharu beachheads, advances rapidly and then defeats British forces at the Battle of Jitra on December 11-13. Although this causes you to have second thoughts about whether you should have attacked the Japanese invasion force, you cannot turn back the clock.

After Jitra’s fall, Yamashita’s spearheads swiftly move down the Malay Peninsula’s west coast, keeping Percival’s troops off balance and unable to stop the enemy onslaught. By January 9, 1942, the Japanese advance reaches the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur,halfway down the peninsula.

Percival urgently requests Force Z to sail to the adjacent waters and use its heavy guns to bombard the enemy and help defend the important city. You, however, reluctantly decline Percival’s request – you can’t risk being caught by an enemy air or naval attack in the narrow strait between Malaya and Sumatra. Kuala Lumpur falls to the Japanese on January 11.

In late January, after keeping Force Z safe and in a state of preparedness for so long, you finally get the opportunity to fight Kondo’s Southern Task Force. On the lower east coast of Malaya, Japanese troop transports have begun landing a force near Endau against light opposition from Malaya Command. Given the threat Prince of Wales and Repulse pose to this amphibious assault, Kondo undoubtedly has his warships in the vicinity. You immediately lead Force Z at top speed to the waters off Endau and arrive at 2 a.m. on January 27.

Indeed, Kondo is protecting the landing with the battleships Kongo and Haruna as well as a light cruiser and six destroyers. You initiate the night battle with the main guns of Prince of Wales and Repulse, concentrating their firepower on the enemy battleships.

Both sides score hits, but soon the superior firepower of your capital ships’ rapid-firing 14-inch and 15.2-inch guns swings the combat in your favor. Haruna is a smoking wreck and Kongo is severely damaged. Unfortunately, two Japanese torpedoes hit Repulse and it must limp back to Singapore.Defeated, however, Kondo withdraws his surviving ships. As he departs, you sink three unprotected Japanese troop transports.

Since your naval victory over Kondo’s Southern Task Force at the Battle of Endauhas ended any immediate seaborne threat to Singapore, you decide to reposition Force Z several miles off the city’s southwestern coast to oppose the looming ground threat posed by Yamashita’s advancing army on Malaya’s west coast. When Yamashita attempts an amphibious assault across the Johore Strait to invade Singapore on the night of February8, you unleash Prince of Wales’ big guns and your destroyers’ smaller guns, blasting apart the enemy invasion effort.

Desperately short of troops and ammunition and unwilling to risk another amphibious assault in the face of your powerful naval guns, Yamashita decides to suspend indefinitely further attacks against Singapore. It will take several weeks – perhaps months – for him to receive enough men and ammunition for another attempt.

With Singapore remaining an unconquered bastion and U.S. General Douglas MacArthur’s American and Filipino troops continuing to hold back the Japanese conquest of the Philippines, Japan’s opening war offensive timetable has been seriously disrupted.

COURSE OF ACTION THREE: STRATEGIC REDEPLOYMENT

You believe that attacking the Japanese invasion force in northern Malaya unnecessarily puts Force Z at risk. You also are convinced that now that the enemy is ashore in force, Malaya and Singapore will be won or lost by Percival’s Malaya Command fighting on the ground and in the air, not by offshore naval combat.

The Japanese air attack on Singapore this morning has demonstrated the enemy’s surprising ability to project long-range airpower that could threaten nearby British warships. You therefore decide that a strategic redeployment to Jakarta harbor will protect Force Z and allow it to remain the Royal Navy’s most powerful threat to counter further Japanese advances in the southwest Pacific region.

Percival understandably objects to the loss of naval support, but you stand firm on your decision. At 5:35 p.m., Prince of Wales, Repulse and the destroyers Electra and Express leave Singapore harbor and are soon joined by the destroyers Tenedos and Vampire. After sailing at top speed for 72 hours, Force Z arrives at Jakarta harbor at 6 p.m. on December 11.

You receive reports over the next week that Malaya Command is losing the ground and air battle in northern Malaya. Yamashita’s soldiers, supported by overwhelming airpower that sweeps the skies of outnumbered and outmatched RAF/RAAF aircraft, relentlessly advance southward against the more numerous but demoralized British troops. Although this causes you to have second thoughts about your choice not to attack the Japanese invasion force or defend Singapore, you remain convinced that you made the right strategic decision.

In early January 1942, the Allies create the American-British-Dutch-Australian(ABDA) Command to coordinate their combined naval, ground and air operations against the Japanese offensive in the region.Except for Prince of Wales and Repulse, ABDA naval assets consist only of a number of destroyers and a few older heavy and light cruisers armed with 8-inch main guns.Thus, your two capital warships give ABDA naval forces the formidable firepower they need to have a fighting chance in combat against the Japanese ships.

Bad news arrives on February 15; Percival has surrendered Singapore to Yamashita. Despite Malaya Command outnumbering Yamashita’s force by over 2-to-1, the Japanese outfought and outmaneuvered Percival’s troops to capture Britain’s main Pacific bastion with surprising speed. Japan now turns its focus to seizing the Dutch East Indies andits vital resources defended by ABDA forces.

On February 26, Allied reconnaissance aircraft report a Japanese task force of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and 14destroyers escorting 10 troop transports approaching the Java Sea through the Makassar Strait east of Borneo. Clearly, this is an invasion force intending to assault Java. An ABDA strike force composed of Force Z, two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers and nine destroyers intercepts the enemy fleet at4 p.m. on February 27 as it exits the strait and enters the Java Sea. Due to bad weather over Japanese air bases, the enemy task force lacks the powerful air cover that typically supports such operations.

Over the next seven hours, the Battle of the Java Sea – the largest naval battle since the 1916 World War I Battle of Jutland – rages into the night. As the warships on both sides exchange salvoes from their main guns,it quickly becomes apparent that the Japanese cruisers, which mount many more8-inch guns than their ABDA counterparts,would be dominating the combat if your powerful capital ships were not present.

In fact, early in the battle, the British heavy cruiser Exeter is heavily damaged by gunfire from the enemy cruisers and must withdraw to safety. Meanwhile, Prince of Wales’ 10 rapid-firing 14-inch guns and Repulse’s six 15.2-inch guns deliver sustained,overwhelming firepower. Both Japanese light cruisers are sunk outright, and the heavy cruisers are so severely damaged that they must break contact and retreat.

Left with only heavily outgunned Japanese destroyers for protection, the slow-moving, highly vulnerable enemy troop transports turn back north in a desperate attempt to escape. To cover the transports’ withdrawal, Japanese destroyers launch a barrage of deadly Type 93 “Long Lance” torpedoes. Only one, however,strikes an ABDA ship, the Dutch destroyer Kortenaer, which breaks apart and quickly sinks. All ABDA warships’ guns now concentrate on the troop transports. A rain of shells sinks eight of the 10 ships, mercilessly annihilating the Japanese amphibious invasion force.

Thanks to the big guns of Prince of Wales and Repulse, the Battle of the Java Sea is a stunning Allied strategic naval victory that stops Japan from quickly overrunning the resource-rich Dutch East Indies. Along with the continued heroic defense of the Philippines by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur’s American and Filipino troops on Bataan, Force Z has dealt a serious – perhaps fatal – blow to Japan’s opening war offensive.

HISTORICAL COURSE OF ACTION AND ANALYSIS

Phillips chose to lead Force Z in an immediate strike against Japanese naval and amphibious forces in northern Malaya (COURSE OF ACTION ONE: ATTACK THE JAPANESE INVASION FORCE), and the battle unfolded as described in the COA One narrative. His fateful decision to maintain radio silence, which prevented the coordination of ground-based air support from RAF/RAAF aircraft, was based on his tragically wrong conviction that airpower alone could not sink capital warships maneuvering at sea – the U.S. battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor, of course, had been stationary targets at anchor. Yet the Japanese aircraft’s sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse while they were underway and fully prepared for combat was a stark lesson that the nature of naval warfare had changed forever. Phillips paid for that lesson with his life, as did 840 British sailors who went down with the two warships.

The loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse was a blow to British naval forces and to Allied naval forces as well, since they were the largest and most powerful warships in the British, American, Australian and Dutch fleets opposing the Japanese in the southwest Pacific during the early weeks of the war. Two months after the ships were sunk, the Japanese overran Malaya and captured Singapore. They conquered the Dutch East Indies by early March 1942, and on May 9 the Philippines fell with Corregidor’s surrender.

Yet even as the Philippines were falling, the tide of war began to turn against Japan when the May 4-6 Battle of the Coral Sea stopped further Japanese expansion in the southwest Pacific. After the U.S. Navy’s decisive victory at the June 4-7 Battle of Midway and the successful conclusion of the August 1942-February 1943 land, sea and air campaign in the Solomon Islands, Japanese defeat in the Pacific War was inevitable.

 

Colonel (Ret.) Richard N. Armstrong has written numerous military affairs/history articles for professional and historical journals and has authored several books, including “Red Army Tank Commanders” and “Soviet Operational Deception.”

Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Armchair General.