The Royal Navy’s greatest defeat in World War II – the sinking of the capital ships H.M.S. Repulse and the brand new Prince of Wales by Japanese aircraft just days after Pearl Harbor – was due in part to a command with little appreciation for air power, and in particular the threat posed by a single, air-delivered torpedo.
The British didn’t pay any attention to Mitchell’s demonstration. Their battleships were better made, better armed, and better manned. With an impregnable British stronghold in Singapore and the RN patrolling offshore, what could those little Jap monkeys do? A powerful battle group led by the battleship Prince of Wales and the Cruiser Repulse steamed out to oppose Japanese landings in Malaysia, and ran into several squadrons of Japanese planes. In a few minutes both ships were sinking, The Prince of Wales sank so fast virtually the entire crew went down with her.
Actually, 1194 of Prince of Wales’ complement of 1521 were rescued, but detail has never been the War Nerd’s strong suit. Nevertheless, the War Nerd must be jumping up and down excitedly at the news that Robert Gates has adopted one of his favorite stories. As I feel that this blog has an obligation to correct popular misconceptions about battleships, I’d like to add some notes of caution to this story. The idea that Prince of Wales and Repulse were lost because of stupidity isn’t entirely wrong, but the story is a bit different than how either Gates or the War Nerd present it. The Royal Navy was not, by and large, shocked by the airborne torpedo, and the loss of Force Z is more complicated than the “them idiot admirals who couldn’t appreciate the aeroplane” indicates.
- The Royal Navy was substantially behind the USN and the IJN in developing carrier warfare, but it had nonetheless analyzed the possibility of using airborne torpedoes against battleships prior to the war.
- The Royal Navy put this work to the test in the November 1940 raid on Taranto, which sank three stationary Italian battleships with airborne torpedoes.
- The Royal Navy used airborne torpedoes to cripple the underway Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto at the Battle of Cape Matapan in March 1941. Vittorio Veneto, slowed by the torpedo damage, only barely escaped destruction by British surface units.
- The Royal Navy again used airborne torpedoes in May 1941 to cripple underway the German battleship Bismarck, which was later finished off by British surface units.
- The Royal Air Force used airborne torpedoes in June 1941 to cripple the underway German armored cruiser Lutzow.
- On December 7, 1941, three days before the destruction of Repulse and Prince of Wales, four stationary USN battleships were sunk by airborne torpedoes (a fifth, USS Arizona, was destroyed by a bomb).
Thus, the Royal Navy had ample operational evidence that airborne torpedoes posed a lethal threat to battleships, whether the stationary or underway. Although neither the Bismarck nor the Vittorio Veneto were destroyed by torpedoes, it was understood that the air attacks had contributed to the loss of the former and nearly brought about the loss of the latter. There is some evidence that Admiral Tom Phillips, who commanded Force Z, was unconvinced by these examples, but his views were by no means representative of the Royal Navy as a whole. Now, it’s certainly a problem that a man with Tom Phillips views on the invulnerability of surface ships could rise so far in the organization, but all organization, civilian and military, suffer from such issues.
It’s also worth noting that the air attacks themselves may not have been necessary to the destruction of Force Z. The task force included the fast battleship Prince of Wales, the battlecruiser Repulse, and four destroyers. Arrayed against this was a much larger force of Japanese surface assets, including the battlecruisers Kongo and Haruna, several heavy cruisers, and many destroyers. Prince of Wales was, admittedly, the most powerful surface unit in the Pacific theater prior to the commissioning of Yamato, and likely would have handled a Kongo class battlecruiser with same efficiency that USS Washington displayed at Gualdalcanal. However, Repulse was not the equal of the modernized Japanese battlecruisers, and I suspect that the Japanese advantage in torpedo-bearing cruisers and destroyers would have been decisive. The loss of Repulse and Prince of Wales to a hail of 24-inch torpedoes, rather than to air attack, would not have affected the course of the Pacific War in the slightest. Thus, it was the decision to sortie Force Z against superior Japanese opposition (which Phillips notably opposed) that was the critical decision leading to their loss. It’s possible that Force Z could have escaped Japanese interception (although IJN surface units were on their way), and it’s possible that PoW and Repulse could have taken some Japanese ships with them, but it was nevertheless understood that the deployment of Force Z was a risk; the destruction of the fleet was more surprising to Churchill than it was to local naval authorities.