Repulse and Prince of Wales

I’m sure you remember reading in our Sejarah (history) books about how the British in Malaya were soundly trounced by the invading Japanese during World War II.

I for one remember clearly the two catchy names of Repulse and Prince of Wales. These were the two British ships sunk by the Japanese in a brief engagement.

If I recall correctly, the way the loss of those two ships is portrayed in the Sejarah text and reference books makes it seem like the British were overconfident, woefully unprepared, and weakling wimps in the face of Japanese military might.

This of course fits in perfectly with the unstated agenda of the chapters on the Japanese invasion of Malaya, i.e. To show up the British colonial masters as not invincible and capable of being humiliatingly defeated by Asians.

Thus, during my years in Secondary school, Repulse and Prince of Wales were mentioned with at least a hint of ridicule and humour.

But looking closely at what actually happened in that encounter, beyond the few shallow paragraphs of the nuanced Malaysian textbooks I found much in defense of the two ill-fated ships of the Royal Navy.


                                            HMS Repulse


                                     HMS Prince of Wales

FIRST, before Repulse and Prince of Wales engaged the Japanese aircraft, no capital ship at sea had ever been sunk by air attack. The largest ship to have yet been sunk by air power was a heavy cruiser . That a battlecruiser could be sunk solely by aerial attack was unthinkable and unproven.

Remember that it was only after Pearl Harbour and Midway that aircraft carriers came to dominate the seas. And it happens that the day of the Japanese attack on Repulse and Prince of Wales was the same day that they devastated Pearl Harbour.

SECOND, the two ships managed to last pretty long against the Japanese bombardment.

The World War I veteran Repulse survived a direct bomb hit, dodged 19 torpedoes, and fought on for 20 minutes before she was finally sunk by 5 torpedo hits. Repulse had not been fitted with anti-torpedo blisters that her sister ship Renown had receieved, which hastened her sinking.

The new World War II ship Prince of Wales on the other hand went into battle with a non-functioning radar. While being fitted out for combat in Britian, she was damaged by German bombers before she was even ready to go.

In the Japanese engagement, she was disabled by a lucky torpedo strike early in the battle. The propellor shaft was forced into the hull, causing severe flooding, disabling the rudder and cutting power to the 5.25 inch guns. She became a sitting and gunless duck.

Two more torpedos hit her weakest section – an area damaged by the German bombing that was never completely repaired. In total, Prince of Wales took 6 torpedos and 1 bomb before sinking.

The air support assigned to cover Force Z arrived just as the Prince of Wales sank.

THIRD, Repulse and Prince of Wales were not the only British ships in the region of Malaya. The Sejarah text gives the distinct impression that the British had only these two ships to defend the entire of the Straits.

Four destroyers – Electra, Express, Tenedos, and Vampire were assigned to accompany them in their attempt to intercept the Japanese. Together, they were known as Force Z.

An aircraft carrier, the Indomitable was meant to join the Force, but it ran aground in Jamaica during trials and thus needed repair. Imagine how things might have been different had Force Z met the Japanese with their own planes…

After Repulse and Prince of Wales had been sunk, the Electra, Vampire and express moved to rescue the surviors.

FOURTH, the ships had previous proven their combat worth in naval engagements. During World War I, Repulse briefly engaged two German battleships.

Prince of Wales scored three hits on the legendary German battleship Bismarck , damaging one of Bismarck’s fuel tanks before retreating after 7 large-calibre hits from Bismarck and a German heavy cruiser . She was also the ship that carried Winston Churchill across the Atlantic to meet Franklin Roosevelt and sign the Atlantic Charter.

In the battle off the coast of Malaya, three Japanese aircraft were shot down. Of the 49 torpedoes the Japanese launched, only 11 struck the ships. For more on the history and sinking of these two fine ships, see HMS Repulse, HMS Prince of Wales and Sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse.

FIFTH, it must be remembered who the sailors were, and who they died for. The sailors manning the Repulse and Prince of Wales were British, sent to fight a lopsided engagement in defense of Malayan civilians. Just like the Vietnam War , ‘foreign Western militaristic imperialists’ died in order that we may live.

And we repay their valiant sacrifice with mocking and belittling textbook accounts. How truly Malaysian of us.

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19 Responses to “Repulse and Prince of Wales”

  1. John Edgcumbe Says:

    Thank you for these words. My father was aboard the Repulse on that fateful day, thankfully he lived to tell the tale – it isn’t a good one.
    Over half of both ships company’s died that day with the remainder being taken by the destroyers to Singapore. The majority were given rifles and sent up the Malay peninsula to help repel the Japanese.
    My father was very lucky and was posted at the last minute to another destroyer that was leaving Singapore loaded with women and children in an effort to escape before the city was overrun. Perhaps 250 out of a total
    2500 men survived the war. Many hundreds died in POW camps

  2. Scott Thong Says:

    Wow… It’s pretty incredible to hear this testimony about an actual Repulse survivor… Thanks for sharing, John! And for searching and stumbling across my humble blog post.

  3. Colin Cartwright Says:


    Do any survivors of the Repulse recall a Peter Callaghan, who was supposed to have gone down with his ship but,of which, there is no record in the list of those who perished, or those who survived.

    His wife was informed at the time by the naval authorities that Peter Callaghan had died on the repulse. Any information would be gratefully appreciated by his son, also called Peter Callaghan.

    Hope you can help


  4. Penelope Bell Says:

    I’m helping with family history research. A cousin, Harry Butler, was an AB on the Repulse when it was sunk. He was one of the survivors and another cousin remembers his accounts of the sufferings of the sailors as the ships went down. It was interesting to read comment from a perspective other than that of the British or naval historians. Thank you.

  5. hayley Says:

    hi my bampi was on the repulse on the day it sank, but he also lived to tell the tale. when the ship went down he and other survivors were left in the sea for 3 days before they were rescured. he was lucky to be alive as he had to watch other sailors also his mates being eaten by sharks. his name was jack o`connor.

  6. wits0 Says:

    Never trust the revision of history by umno educational brain washing. It just want to instill a permanent but subtle resentment of all things Western into the minds of the new generations….seemingly to make ’em more ‘patriotic’.

    I this case, I think, the British were not to overconfident but plague with the wrong intelligence and sometimes bad military leaderships. They did not expect the Japs to have attack planes with such long range.

  7. hutchrun Says:

    UMNO history. Bloody larf that`s what. One of them was made a minister after independance. One of his claims was that he had been a freedom fighter during the war. In actual fact the rowdy used to be on the circuit disseminating Jap propaganda. When he turned up in Kuala Pilah after the war, he tried to enter a army camp. The Sikh soldiers there told him to F.O.

  8. wits0 Says:

    From Japanese source, it’s clear that their attack planes were about to turn back at the limit of their range when they spotted both ships and escorts.

    The British ships were unlike American ones which tended to be bristling with anti-aircraft guns. From British crewmen, much of their AA fire were falling behind the attacking Japanese planes. There was no such thing as proximity fuse at that time which proved extremely effective later at the Battle of Leyte Gulf where the US navy shot down so many Japanese planes. And the British AA gunners were also rather green then.

    Had the British ships gotten away and found the Japanese transport ships, the battle for Malaya would have been greatly different and not a cake walk for the Japanese.

  9. Abednigo Says:

    This article is impressive. I myself also like history and I also know about the sinking of both ships. I even have models (1/700 scale) of both ships & the destroyers as my collection.

    It’s sad how the text book change so much compared to the actual events that took place.

    The British should get more respect because they fought & died in a foreign land instead of being mock in history text book.

  10. Ravendran Navaratnam Says:

    Dear fellow ex-servicemen of the Prince of Wales and Repulse,


    I was a local resident of the town called KUANTAN which some of you might have looked into that very day when the Empress came into the Kuantan river to scout for Japanese landing that was radioed to the Admiral Tom Phillips. I would like if all those persons who knew their fellow buddys on both the battleships could mail me their particulars because since 1988, I have compiled an article and hope to design a memorial to these persons who had come to give the residence hope.

    This article is at the Pahang State Muzeum, I hope to have a chance to develop it to a living memorial. Anyone could write to me giving details to the incident, knowing that there is such discussions from fellow Malaysians themselves who feel committed.

    What I need is Full names, designation, ship that they were on, and what they would want us younger generation to do!

    Thanks everybody. I’ll keep in touch.

  11. Larry Lindsey Says:

    I’m a big fan of the Royal Navy, and have studied its history extensively, particularly this period (World War I and II). I have a bit of an affection for these ships, so I appreciated reading your defense of the honor of these ships. Your piece was well-written, but there are a few facts that could possibly have been researched more thoroughly:
    1.) “And it happens that the day of the Japanese attack on Repulse and Prince of Wales was the same day that they devastated Pearl Harbour.”

    Actually, this battle took place on 10 December, two days after the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor.

    2.) “the two ships managed to last pretty long against the Japanese bombardment.”

    Careful with a statement like this. You would need to qualify it, and even then, you would be challenged by many a naval historian (including this one). Repulse “lasted” about an hour, Prince of Wales about two. Relatively speaking, given the speed of both ships (29+ knots) and the armor protection and comprehensive underwater compartment subdivision scheme of the Prince of Wales, the two ships were sunk with relative ease. But this is not to slight the ships or their crews – credit must be given to the skill of the Japanese pilots, who were the best in the world at that time, bar none.
    3.) “Repulse and Prince of Wales were not the only British ships in the region of Malaya.”

    True, but they were the only ships that were of any concern to the Japanese. Vampire, Electra, Express, and Tenedos were destroyers, which are essentially support ships – they escort battle squadrons to screen battleships from submarine attack and provide anti-aircraft support against air attack. Notice the Japanese did not press home their attack on Force Z and wipe out the entire squadron (which they could have done with ease).

    4.) “An aircraft carrier, the Indomitable was meant to join the Force, but it ran aground in Jamaica during trials and thus needed repair. Imagine how things might have been different had Force Z met the Japanese with their own planes…”

    Unfortunately, it would have just delayed the inevitable. The Japanese attacked with 88 land-based planes. At the time, the Indomitable’s aircraft complement was around 48 planes, with the proportion of offensive aircraft (bombers) outweighing that of defensive aircraft (fighters), in line with the traditional British offensive naval philosophy. Had the Indomitable been with Force Z during the attack, the Japanese would have concentrated their attacks on her from the outset, eliminating her defensive umbrella as a factor in the battle before turning their attention to the capital ships. The Japanese would have lost more than the three bombers they did during the battle (and that’s assuming, of course, the Japanese didn’t have a fighter escort of their own, which they most likely would have if attacking a carrier), but it would have been only a matter of time before the sheer numbers of planes thrown against the British fleet would have overwhelmed them. Take a look at how the U.S. Navy sank the Japanese battleships Yamato and Musashi – two ships far more massive and heavily armored than either of the capital ships of Force Z – and you’ll understand.

    3.) “the ships had previous proven their combat worth in naval engagements. During World War I, Repulse briefly engaged two German battleships. Prince of Wales scored three hits on the legendary German battleship Bismarck, damaging one of Bismarck’s fuel tanks before retreating after 7 large-calibre hits from Bismarck and a German heavy cruiser.”

    You’re referring to the Second Battle of Heligoland Bight and the Battle of the Denmark Strait. In the former, Repulse engaged SMS Kaiser and SMS Kaiserin, true – but Repulse was part of a squadron of five battlecruisers, each of which individually outgunned the German battleships. The German ships of course fled in the face of this overwhelming disparity, but this doesn’t really prove Repulse’s combat worthiness, especially against two battleships if they elected to fight back (Repulse had what you would call, in boxing parlance, a “glass jaw” – heavy guns but very weak armor protection; in other words, she could dish it, but she couldn’t take it). 24 years later, at the Battle of the Denmark Strait, Prince of Wales gave a very good accounting of herself, given the circumstances (she was a brand-new ship that had yet to be worked up – at the time of the battle, she even had civilian mechanics still embarked, working out problems with the main guns en route to intercept the Germans). The three hits she scored on Bismarck were certainly critical to the outcome of a later battle, in which the Prince of Wales did not anticipate. And the seven hits she took from the Bismarck were certainly an impressive testament to her superb armor protection scheme. But otherwise she was essentially a non-factor, as a fighting unit, in this battle. To say that the Battle of the Denmark Strait proved Prince of Wales’ combat worth is a bit of a stretch. In fact, Prince of Wales never really had a chance to prove her combat worth. She was rushed into service against Bismarck when she wasn’t yet complete; she performed escort duties for Malta convoys; she ferried Churchill to Placentia Bay to meet Roosevelt; and she was deployed to Singapore to deter Japanese aggression. The attack by these Japanese planes was essentially her trial by fire. And one lucky Japanese torpedo hit essentially sealed her fate. Not a terribly proud testament to her combat worth…

    4.) “Of the 49 torpedoes the Japanese launched, only 11 struck the ships.”

    I’m smiling as I type this, because I know you mean well with this article, and your intentions are clear – to pay these ships and the men who crewed them the proper honor and respect that they deserve. But, if I may – this statement you wrote above is highly uninformed, and I would urge you to consider for just a moment what you’re saying with this statement. It’s akin to saying that of five albums a band released in a given career, only one went to number 1. Have you ever had a number 1 album? Probably not. Why? Because you’re not a professional entertainer, I’m assuming. When you do something by trade, you’re judged by a different standard than a lay-person, and the lay-person sounds silly judging the success of a skilled professional. It is extremely difficult to hit a fast-moving, heavily-armored, maneuverable vessel on the open seas with a torpedo dropped from a moving airplane, and with anti-aircraft flak bursting all around you. It takes an extraordinary amount of concentration, patience, and skill which these pilots took years to hone. Torpedo hits at the rate we’re discussing here (about 20%) is extraordinary – no other navy in the world at that time could come close to the naval aviation skill level of the Imperial Japanese Navy. By saying that “only” 11 of 49 torpedoes hit the target makes you sound – with all due respect, sir – extremely ignorant. Again, I know your article is well-intentioned, but it loses credibility when it’s supported on shaky facts and logic.

  12. Scott Thong Says:

    Thanks for the info! I didn’t expect that this little post researched on a boring day would attract so much attention.

    If I recall correctly, I wrote this casual piece as a layperson based almost solely on Wikipedia (which I wouldn’t rely on 100% if I were seriously attempting an argument), and with the inclination towards countering the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of the battle in (mildly anti-Colonial) Malaysian textbooks.

    From what they teach in school, we get the impression that the British just parked the ships and sat around waiting to sink instead of fighting for their lives through a strategic and tactical blunder. (Well, okay, with the amount of damage they did in return to the Japanese, it practically turned out a sit-fest…)

    With that focus, I didn’t put too much effort into making it more solid. Honestly? I think the British made a big, arrogant blunder – just not as foolish as the textbooks make them out to be. No matter how tough a battleship, World War II proved that they are absolutely no match for carriers with their aircraft.

    Wouldn’t you it too, just last night they featured Force Z on Military Blunders! Not too flattering there either, but they put the blame almost entirely on Admiral Phillips.

  13. Adifferentview Says:

    Are you a professional, Larry Lindsey? What kind of a professional? A historian? A student of the history of the British Navy? Whatever, someone snobbish, immersed in hubris? But why can’t a lay-person judge a professional? Or are professionals so far removed from laypeople that the latter are ignorant? That was the claim of the Catholic Church: only priests (professionals), not laypeople, knew. Sorry, that won’t wash today.

  14. wits0 Says:

    “I think the British made a big, arrogant blunder – just not as foolish as the textbooks make them out to be. No matter how tough a battleship, World War II proved that they are absolutely no match for carriers with their aircraft.” – Scott.

    I believe the Americans already proved in 1921 that a few bombs could sink an “unsinkable” battleship.

    Sinking of the Ostfriesland:

    Then there were deadly and efficient air-dropped torpedoes as well by 1941.

  15. pauline Says:

    Hello and thank you so much for this welcome and informative post.

    I love these two ships. I first read about them when visiting a house where, years before, a paperback book had been left – BATTLESHIP – The Sinking of Repulse and Prince of Wales. I found when reading that I just could not stop. A compelling and tragic story, yet full of courage under fire and also illustrating the fierce bond of a ship’s company in extremis.

    I can believe quite easily, sadly that you and others were taught a biased account designed to mock the ships that were lost that day. You are helping to tell the truth, and that is fantastic.

    My thanks, again.

  16. Justin Timberlake Says:

    Here is a brief note transmitted from Winston Churchill to President Roosevelt after Churchill had disembarked aboard the Prince of Wales from Scapa Flow for their meeting in 1941:

    Prime Minister to President Roosevelt 4-5 Aug. 41
    Harry (Hopkins) returned dead-beat from Russia, but is lively again now. We shall get him in fine trim on the voyage. We are just off. It is twenty-seven years ago today that Huns began their last war. We must make a good job of it this time. Twice ought to be enough. Look forward so much to our meeting. Kindest regards.

  17. Justin Timberlake Says:

    Also, here are some of Churchill’s remarks on the Prince of Wales from page 429 of Churchill’s book, The Grand Alliance:

    The spacious quarters over the propellers, which are most comfortable in harbour, become almost uninhabitable through vibration in heavy weather at sea, so I moved to the Admiral’s sea-cabin on the bridge for working and sleeping. I took a great liking to our captain, Leach, a charming and lovable man and all that a British sailor should be. Alas! within four months he and many of his comrades and his splendid ship were sunk for ever beneath the waves.

  18. Andrew Nankivell Says:

    It is sad that so many lives were lost that day including that of my Grandfather, Cecil Nankivell who was aboard the Prince of Wales.
    Sadly the only memory I will ever have of him is his naval picture and his war medals.

  19. Simon Thong Says:

    Andrew Nankiwell: A lot of people say that the British were only trying to protect their own interests and empire when they fought the Japanese. Yet the sacrifice made by British sailors, soldiers and airmen eventually resulted in Malaya’s liberation from the Japs. That cannot be denied. I was not born yet. My father was then about 30. He spoke of the British armed forces with gratefulness. Let me add mine to his…let me express OUR heartfelt thanks to your grandfather, and by extension yourself…

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