- Francis, Richard
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2002 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
In mid 1941 the British naval defence of the Malayan peninsula comprised a small number of old cruisers and destroyers, all dating from the end of WW I or shortly afterwards:
- Cruisers – HM Ships Durban, Danae and Dauntless (4,850 tons, 6 x 6″ guns, 12 torpedo tubes, 29 knots)
- Destroyers – HM Ships Tenedos and Stronghold, (1000 tons, 3 x 4″ guns, 4 torpedo tubes) and HMS Thanet and HMS Scout (905 tons, 2 x 4″ guns, 2 torpedo tubes, 31 knots), and also refitting in Singapore were HMA Ships Vampire and Vendetta (1,090 tons, 4 x 4″ guns, 6 torpedo tubes and 34 knots).
The Admiralty had long appreciated the growing danger from Japan and had made moves to build up an Eastern Fleet. Force Z was assembled, comprising the modem battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, the old battle-cruiser HMS Repulse and four destroyers, HM Ships Electra, Express, Encounter and Jupiter – the first installment of a proposed balanced force of seven capital ships, one carrier, ten cruisers and 24 destroyers. However, the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable had had the misfortune to run aground in the West Indies en route, and no other carrier was available. During the build-up period it was assumed that the US naval forces would co-operate in providing the necessary balance. This expectation was shattered by the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbour, and the simultaneous invasions from the Chinese mainland into Hong Kong and Malaya.
Additional local forces in Singapore at this time included several RAN corvettes, HMA Ships Bendigo, Burnie and Goulburn and Maryborough (21st Minesweeping Flotilla) and also a collection of old Insect Class China river gunboats, HM Ships Grasshopper, Dragonfly and Scorpion.
The British Fleet reached Singapore on 2 December 1941 and sailed a week later (8 December 1941) to confront the Japanese invasion force reported off Singapore, on the Thailand border with Malaya. The Japanese plan was ambitious with several simultaneous landings by 28 transports taking place in northern Malaya and Siam, supported by two battleships, seven heavy cruisers, 3 light cruisers, 24 destroyers and 12 submarines, with 145 combat aircraft in support from southern Indo-China. Force Z comprised the two British capital ships, screened by the destroyers Electra, Express, Tenedos and HMAS Vampire, with the CinC, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, embarked in the flagship Prince of Wales (Captain J C Leach). Despite a request for fighter air cover this was not forthcoming because of the loss of the northern Malayan airfields. Sailing hurriedly from the Naval Base, Force Z set out to engage the invading Japanese troopships reportedly off the east Siam/Malayan border. Nothing was found except Japanese air patrols which were assumed to have sighted Force Z at sea. The destroyer HMS Tenedos was detached at dusk and ordered to return independently to Singapore.
Loss of Repulse and Prince of Wales
At first light Repulse catapulted off her Walrus aircraft to search the coast, and on its return Prince of Wales launched her aircraft. HMS Tenedos radioed a warning of being under air attack shortly after 1000. An hour later Force Z was directly targeted by air attack by 84 aircraft from Indo-China (10 December 1941) off the mid east coast of Malaya. First attack was high-level bombing, which scored one hit amidships on Repulse. Subsequently both heavy ships were subjected to low level torpedo attack. Repulse (Captain Tennant) managed to evade 19 torpedoes dropped in the first wave, but was not so lucky afterwards. At 1222 the ship was hit by five torpedoes in the space of three minutes and began to sink. Survivors were later picked up by HMS Electra and taken back to Singapore. Prince of Wales soon followed Repulse’s destruction, having also suffered multiple torpedo hits, rolling over and sinking. Over 2,000 survivors were eventually picked up by the escorting destroyers, Electra, Express and HMAS Vampire, while a few RAF Buffalo fighters arrived belatedly from Singapore as the last enemy aircraft disappeared over the horizon. Loss of life from the sunken heavy ships was severe, nearly 50%. The survivors were landed back in Singapore at about midnight.
Reinforcements were few and far between. The small heavy cruiser, HMS Exeter arrived in the Naval Base just in time to hear the dreadful news of the loss of the heavy ships of Force Z. Another cruiser, HMS Enterprise arrived late in January 1942. The RAN minesweeping corvettes were later joined by sister ships, Ballarat, Toowoomba and Wollongong and the sloop, HMAS Yarra, to provide anti-submarine defence for Singapore. However, the position was crumbling fast in Malaya, and Singapore was subjected to ever-increasing air attack, particularly on the city to the south and the naval base to the north.