World War II

The Fall of Singapore

The bombing stunned the British Far East Command who had no idea that the Japanese had aircraft capable of striking Singapore from 600 miles away. It also came as a surprise to Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, commanding officer in Singapore, who noted, “I hardly expected the Japanese to have any long-range aircraft”. One can only wonder at the complacency and ignorance of the High Command at the time.

Japanese planners had however, made two great mistakes. All three US aircraft carriers stationed at Pearl Harbour were at sea when the attack took place and were therefore able to begin retaliatory action immediately, further, if the Japanese had concentrated their attacks on the harbour’s oil tanks and repair dock facilities, the port would have become totally unusable. In the event, American enterprise ensured that all but three of the stricken fleet were reclaimed, repaired and made ready to fight.

Just after midnight on the 8th of December, signals were now coming confirming that the Japanese were landing troops at Kota Bharu on the Malayan coast and pressing the British and Commonwealth defenders hard. With the threat of Japanese forces overrunning Malaya, This was the first time British and Allied troops had come up against a full scale onslaught by the Japanese army and were totally confident of British military superiority, but were to soon overwhelmed by the speed and aggression of the enemy.

British planners had anticipated that any Japanese attack would come from the sea and had built coastal defences to deter any attempt. They could not imagine an invasion through the swamps and jungle of the Malay peninsula, but this exactly what the Japanese commander General Tomoyuki Yashimoto with his force of 65,000 soldiers did. His army was ordered to take no prisoners as this would slow the army’s advance. A pamphlet was issued to all ranks, stating, “When you encounter the enemy after landing, think of yourself as an avenger coming face to face at last with your father’s murderer. Here is a man whose death will lighten your heart”.

The Japanese now concentrated their bombing raids on RAF airfields and systematically destroyed the majority of its aircraft making it impossible to give air support to the retreating British forces.

Admiral Phillips was ordered to deploy his ships in an offensive role and attack enemy convoys in the South China Sea. Like many of his contemporaries, Phillips did not believe that modern warships could be vulnerable to air attacks and consequently, did not request air cover for his force from the RAAF’s 453 Squadron stationed at Senmawang. This attitude to aviation had been prevalent in the navy since the very beginning when the Wright Brothers offered them an aircraft, only to be told by the Admiralty that, “they could see no place for aviation in navy circles”.

Whilst his belief may have been true in the past (and it was a fact that no capital warship had ever been sunk by air attack while at sea), the news from Pearl Harbour should surely have raised questions regarding Japanese air power. It is thought that a number of factors influenced his decision. Firstly, he did not believe that Japanese aircraft could operate so far from land. He also thought his ships were relatively immune from air attack as his flagship Prince of Wales was fitted with the very latest naval anti aircraft defence equipment, the High Angle Control System. This system had been tested and demonstrated earlier in the year with impressive results, but in the extreme heat and humidity of Malayan waters, the ship’s anti aircraft radar was rendered unserviceable. Technicians estimated that repairs would take a week but, being under pressure to act, Phillips decided to set out to seek the Japanese convoys regardless. Lastly, he was unaware of the capabilities of the latest Japanese bomber and torpedo aircraft and, like many RN officers, underestimated the fighting capabilities of the enemy.

453 Squadron RAAF, which was supposed to provide air cover for Force Z, was not kept informed of its position, even though its leader, Flight Lieutenant, Tim Vigors, had proposed to keep at least six aircraft over Force Z during daylight hours, but this offer was declined by Phillips who had a low opinion of the capabilities of the squadron’s Brewster Buffalo aircraft. After the war, Vigors remained bitter towards Phillips over his failure to call for air support on time, stating, “I reckon that this must have been the last battle in which the navy reckoned they could get on without the Air Force, a pretty damn costly way of learning”.

Admiral Phillips received word on the 8th of December that a further Japanese convoy was on its way to Malaya. His force, comprising, Prince of Wales, Repulse, Electra, Express, Vampire and Tenedos sailed at 17.55 that evening without waiting for the destroyers promised by Admiral Harte that were on their way from Balikpapan. Phillips was hoping that, should a landing be attempted, he could intercept the convoy off the coast of Singora. Ironically, should he have sailed a day earlier, he may have achieved his objective without coming under attack as the Japanese squadrons had not yet been fully deployed. Further and oddly, 453 Squadron was not informed of the fleet’s position or course.

The next morning, the force was overflown by two Japanese reconnaissance aircraft, but the ships did not report this. Later that day they were spotted by the enemy submarine 1-65, who shadowed the British ships for five hours, radioing their position while remaining undetected.

When the reported sightings reached the Japanese 2nd Air Flotilla, its planes were in the process of being loaded with bombs for an attack on Singapore, but immediately began switching to torpedoes. The report also alerted the Japanese 2nd Fleet, comprising two battleships, eight cruisers and eight destroyers, to head south and intercept Force Z.

Just before sunset, Force Z was spotted by a seaplane which had been catapulted off one of the Japanese convoy cruiser escorts. At 18.30, the British destroyer Tenedos was detached to return to Singapore as she was low on fuel. Having lost the element of surprise, Phillips no longer intended to head for Singora, but, at 19.00. changed course in that direction to deceive the shadowing aircraft and then, as darkness fell, steered for Singapore. A short time later, a Japanese reconnaissance plane accidentally dropped a flare over the heavy cruiser Chokai which was serving as a convoy escort. The flare was seen by Force Z some five miles distant who believed they were approaching the Japanese main fleet, confirming Philips’ decision to withdraw. The British fleet was again spotted by the Japanese submarine 1-56 at 03.50 am, who fired five torpedoes. All five missed and the British remained unaware that they had been attacked.

Fearing that the British might find the convoy, a night attack was launched by Japanese torpedo bombers, but failed to locate Force Z. Phillips, learning of another Japanese landing at Kuantan, turned his fleet in that direction, but did not signal his Air Liaison Officer in Singapore of his intentions as this would have revealed his position to Japanese listeners. The Air Liaison Officer had failed to anticipate this. Had he done so, he could have managed air cover from the RAF at Sembawang.

At 07.18 on the 10th, Repulse reported shadowing aircraft and Express was sent ahead to scout the area around Kuantan, but found nothing and reporting, “all is as quiet as a wet Sunday afternoon”. Phillips was unaware at this time that a large force of enemy bombers was looking for him but, being unaware of his change of course for Kuantan, they were searching further south.

Tenedos, having left the force the previous day, was now some 140 miles south east of the main fleet and signalled that she was under attack from enemy aircraft. The attack was carried out by Mitsubishi medium bombers of the 2nd Air Flotilla, based at Saigon, each armed with a 500 kg bomb. They mistook the destroyer for a capital ship and wasted their bombs without scoring a hit.

At 10.15, a scout plane, flying further north than most of the Japanese aircraft, piloted by Ensign Masato Huachi, spotted Force Z and radioed its exact position to the searching bombers who altered course to converge on the British ships. They had spread out during their search and arrived over Force Z in small groups. Running low on fuel, they did not wait to make a coordinated strike, but attacked as they arrived.

The first of these groups, comprising eight Nell bombers, concentrated on Repulse , managing seven misses and one direct hit., which crashed through the upper deck and exploded in the Marine mess and causing a few injuries but no serious damage The ship continued on at 25 knots and was still in fighting order. Skilful handling of the ship by its commander, Captain Tenant, managed to comb and avoid the paths of a dozen torpedoes. All eight of the bombers were damaged by accurate anti aircraft fire.

At 11.40, ignoring the screening destroyers, a further seventeen torpedo bombers arrived over the two capital ships, eight closing in on Repulse and seven on Prince of Wales, who managed to shoot down one bomber and damage three others with her AA guns, while at the same time combing the tracks of incoming torpedoes. Only one of the torpedoes scored what was to be an ultimately catastrophic hit on the battleship, exploding at the point where the starboard propeller shaft exits the hull, causing severe flooding, reducing the ship’s speed to 16 knots and causing a twelve degree list.

The Prince of Wales‘ commander, Captain Leach, flooded the ship in an attempt to reduce the list, but by now the stern was a mere two feet above the water instead of its usual 24 feet. The explosion also knocked out the ship’s electrics which left the pumps inoperable and many of the anti aircraft mounts unable to traverse. With no power to the lifts, the shells had to be passed hand to hand by the crew to service the guns, but the increasing list made it impossible for many of the AA weapons to bear on the low flying bombers.

Limping slowly in a wide circle but still fighting, the warship came under further attacks and eight minutes later was hit again and slowly began to list to starboard.

Aboard Repulse, Captain Tenant was astonished to discover that Admiral Phillips had sent no signal to Singapore requesting air cover. Now, at 11,58, an hour after the attack had begun, he took it upon himself to send a message for help, reading, “From Repulse, to any British Man of War, enemy aircraft bombing, my position 134NYTW22X09″. It was the first and only radio message Force Z had sent since leaving Singapore and was also the only indication that naval headquarters had that Force Z was in trouble.

Within 22 minutes, air cover was on its way from 453 squadron at Sembawang as it scrambled into action. The squadron had been assigned to provide air cover over Force Z from the moment it had left Singapore, but Phillips never once called for their help. The air cover was an hour away from the two ships’ position and would not arrive in time to help.

With Prince of Wales seemingly finished, the remaining bombers turned to the flagship. Captain Tenant worked the ship up to 27 knots and began a turn to starboard to comb the incoming torpedoes as seventeen more bombers began to attack her, coming in at all angles to split her AA fire. The first six planes dropped their torpedoes from long range, but the bombers of the second section closed to 600 yards before releasing their load. Two failed to turn away fast enough and were brought down by the ships’ intense AA fire. Despite this, three torpedoes struck home, causing huge damage and, more seriously, jamming the rudder to starboard, resulting in the ship moving in a wide circle. A fourth torpedo then penetrated the engine room.

The attack lasted just four minutes and was enough to finish her. The list increased to twelve degrees and Captain Tenant gave the order to abandon ship. The crew began to jump over the side as the destroyers came up to assist. At 12.35, just a few short minutes since the first torpedo hit, Repulse turned turtle and sank.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.