Posts Tagged ‘Force Z’

Repulse and Prince of Wales

June 22, 07

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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