Prince of Wales sinking. That large British battle cruiser (43,786t of displacement) was sunk on 10 December 1941 by the Japanese air attack off Kuantan with 327 fatalities.



The utter rout of the American battleships in Pearl Harbor furnished Japanese forces' superiority over the joint naval forces of the United States, Great Britain, Holland and Australia in the Pacific Ocean, and enabled the offensive in the south, namely the Philippines, Malaya and, eventually, Dutch East Indies. Therefore, within few hours after the strike on Pearl Harbor, Japanese ships showed up off Malaya and the Philippines, while the fleet coming back from Pearl Harbor attacked American bases on Guam and Wake. Those two islands make somewhat a bridge between Hawaii and the Philippines, and therefore their seizure would break the natural link between the Pacific Fleet and the Asian Fleet.

Yet, that seemingly easy task succeeded only on Guam, where the Americans had only a small, weak garrison. It capitulated on 10 December, after the island was invaded by 10-fold stronger Japanese forces. Hardly any stronger garrison of Wake, supported by artillery and 12 obsolete fighter planes, fought gallantly for two weeks, till 23 December. A week earlier the Japanese occupied two small undefended islands in the Gilbert Archipelago - Makin and Tarawa.

On the other hand, the Japanese achieved a full success in invading Malaya, which followed almost immediately the attack on Pearl Harbor. Malaya occupied a very important place in the Japanese war plans due to several reasons. First of all, together with the little Johor Island at its tip, it locks the shortest way between the Far East, and the Indian Ocean. That strategic "lock" was guarded by Singapore - the strongest British naval base in the whole Far East. Farther advance, to Sumatra, to Java, and to other islands of the Dutch East Indies, heavily depended on breaking and occupation of that Malayan barrier.

The British had perfect understanding of the menace looming over Malaya, and especially Singapore, which at that time stood like stables without horses - a naval base without ships, especially those biggest ones: battleships and aircraft-carriers. Therefore, in the summer of 1941, when the danger of Japan's entry to the war along Germany and Italy became greater than ever, the British prime-minister, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, extorted from the British Admiralty consent to send some capital ships to Singapore. Yet, it was not an easy task.

Due to recent losses in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, the British were not able to form a squadron strong enough to pose a major deterrent to the Japanese. Originally the Admiralty planned to send to the Far East 4 old battleships of the Revenge type - heavily armed, but slow; in the beginning of 1942 they would be reinforced with 3 modern battleships and an aircraft-carrier. Churchill, however, rejected that plan in favour of forming a powerful, fast and mighty squadron of 2 or 3 modern battleships, 1 battle cruiser, and 1 aircraft-carrier. Unfortunately, the aircraft Indomitable, designated for the Far East expedition, went aground, and instead of Singapore she sailed to America for repairs. As a result, the Force Z was limited to two ships - battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse. With those two ships Admiral Tom Philips left Singapore in late afternoon on 8 December, upon receiving reports about the Japanese landing on the north-east coast of Malaya. He decided to intercept and destroy Japanese transports and escorting ships off Singora.

The weakness of Philips' squadron was in the lack of an aircraft-carrier, but he counted on efficiency of reconnaissance planes, as well as, when the squadron would enter the zone of the enemy aircraft activities, fighters' cover. Unfortunately, that hope faded when shortly before the midnight from 8 to 9 December Philips, already at the South China Sea, received message that the coveted fighters' cover would not be possible. Nevertheless, the British commander had decided to continue his mission. The hours to come were to show, how wrong was his decision...

The British squadron had been quickly spotted first from the enemy reconnaissance planes, and then from the submarine I-65, undetected by the British. In the evening of 9 December the British forces were again spotted from Japanese scouting hydroplanes. Philips understood that he had lost his strongest trump - the factor of surprise - and decided to turn back to Singapore. At the same time a Japanese squadron of 2 heavy and 2 light cruisers under the command of Admiral Takeo Kurita had been closing British ships. In case of an encounter, Philips would certainly had them defeated, but a scouting plane from Kurita's squadron had spotted enemy ships in time, and the Japanese had retreated.

Meanwhile Philips, while on the way back to Singapore, aware of a menace from the Japanese long-range bombers, received messages about the enemy landing at Kuantan. Since it was practically on his way, he decided to turn south-west. This way he had wasted few precious hours, since there was no enemy landing at Kuantan, and the British squadron had been spotted from the Japanese submarine I-58 and scouting planes. Few hours later, shortly after 10:00 on 10 December, few enemy reconnaissance planes flew by, and an hour later the first nine bombers appeared. It was the first of several consecutive waves of the long-range air forces operating from the bases in the French Indochina, occupied by the Japanese few months earlier. They were about to accomplish what the German and Italian bombers so far failed to accomplish: to sink in open sea battleships enjoying the ease of manoeuvre (unlike anchored ones, as it happened in Taranto and Pearl Harbor).

In the first attack British ships evaded many bombs, but one bomb hit the Repulse's mid-ship. Soon after that, when appeared two groups of torpedo bombers (16 or 17 planes), Repulse evaded all the torpedoes, but Prince of Wales got two hits. This attack, fatal to the British battle cruiser, was described in an account of a Japanese pilot:

We began the attack at an altitude of 1,000 feet and about a mile and a half from the enemy. No sooner had we emerged from the protection of the clouds than the enemy gunners sighted our planes. The fleet opened up with a tremendous barrage of shells, trying to disrupt our attack before we could release our torpedoes. The sky was filled with bursting shells which made my plane reel and shake.

The second battleship had already started evasive action and was making a hard turn to the right. The target angle was becoming smaller and smaller as the bow of thine vessel swung gradually in my direction, making it difficult for me to release a torpedo against the ship. It was expected that the lead torpedo bomber would be compelled to attack from the most unfavorable position. This was anticipated, and it enabled the other planes following me to torpedo the target under the best of conditions.

The air was filled with white smoke, bursting shells, and the tracers of antiaircraft guns and machine guns. As if pushed down by the fierce barrage thrown up by the enemy, I descended to just above the water's surface. The airspeed indicator registered more than two hundred knots. I do not remember at all how I was flying the airplane, how I was aiming, and what distance we were from the ship when I dropped the torpedo. In the excitement of the attack I pulled back on the torpedo release. I acted almost subconsciously, my long months of daily training taking over my actions.

A giant battleship suddenly loomed before the plane. Passing very close to the towering stern I swung into a hard turn and sped away from the warship. I began a wide circling turn in a clockwise direction, hastily easing the complaining bomber out of its steep climbing turn.

Not many shells appeared to be bursting about us. The engines were still roaring loudly and only moderate damage had been inflicted upon my airplane. I pulled up again in a steep climb and leveled off, once we were within the clouds. I took a deep breath, and forced my taut muscles to relax.

Suddenly my observer came stumbling forward through the narrow passageway, crying "Sir! Sir! A terrible thing has happened!" When I looked at him in surprise, he shouted, "The torpedo failed to release!"

I felt as though cold water had been dashed over my head and entire body. We were still carrying the torpedo! I forced myself to be calm and reversed our course at once. I passed on my new orders to the men. "We will go in again at once."

I began to lower our altitude as we flew through the clouds. The second torpedo run on the battleship would be very dangerous; the enemy gunners were fully alert and would be waiting for us. I did not like the idea of flying once again through a storm of antiaircraft fire which would be even worse than before.

We dropped below cloud level. We were on the side of the enemy battleship, which was just swinging into a wide turn. Our luck was good - no better chance would come!

I pushed the throttles forward to reach maximum speed and flew just above the water. This time I yanked hard on the torpedo release. Over the thudding impact of bullets and shrapnel smashing into the airplane, I felt the strong shock through the bomber as the torpedo dropped free and plummeted into the water. It was inexcusable that we did not notice the absence of this shock during the first torpedo run.

The 1st Squadron commander was sending out the attack reports by radio. "Many torpedoes made direct hits," and "The lead battleship is listing heavily but is returning to normal position," etc.

As the outcome of my squadron's attack was impossible for me to determine, I merely radioed, "The 2nd Squadron has finished its torpedo runs." [Okumiya M. et al. (1958).]

Next attack was also conducted in waves. First 12 bombers missed Repulse, and then she evaded the attack of torpedo bombers. But the third, and last, wave had sealed her fate. Despite the very fierce anti-aircraft fire from both battle-cruisers and escorting destroyers, Japanese planes scored many hits. O'Dowd Gallagher, a war correspondent of the Daily Express, who was on board the Repulse at the time of her hopeless fight, describes the consecutive torpedo hits as follows:

The only analogy I can think of to give an impression of the Prince of Wales in her last moments is of a mortally wounded tiger trying to beat off the coup de grâce. Her outline is hardly distinguishable in the smoke and flame from all her guns except the fourteen-inchers. I can see one plane release a torpedo. (...) It drives straight at the Prince of Wales. It explodes against her bows. A couple of seconds later another explodes amidships and another astern. Gazing at her turning over on the port side and her stern going under and with dots of men leaping from her, I am thrown against the bulkhead with a tremendous shock as the Repulse takes a torpedo on her port side astern. I am wondering where it came from when the Repulse shudders gigantically. Another torpedo. Now men cheering with more abandon than at a Cup Final. What the heck is this, I wonder. Then see it is another plane down. It hits the sea in flames also. (...) My notebook says 'third torpedo'. [Fuller J. F. C. (1993).]

Repulse, torpedoed seven times, sank at 12:33, and the Prince of Wales - after six torpedo and two bomb hits - shared her fate at 13:15. Escort destroyers saved 2,081 out of 2,921 men, but Admiral Philips and Captain John Leach were among the lost.

The moral effect of the disaster off Kuantan on Singapore was catastrophic. The  new (and also the previous, before Philips) commander of the Eastern Fleet, Admiral Geoffrey Layton, left Singapore with several light cruisers and destroyers, and made for the Ceylon to rebuild the fleet in Colombo. Meanwhile Singapore,  a formidable naval base deprived of the land defences on the side of the Asian continent, fell to the Japanese two months later.

Simultaneously with the invasion of Malaya, the Japanese air and naval forces deployed on Formosa (Taiwan) launched another offensive against the Philippines. They attacked there bases of the Asian Fleet (3 cruisers, 13 destroyers, 29 submarines, 10 auxiliary ships and technical subsidiaries), as well as air bases in Cavite (Manila Bay) on the Luzon Island, and in Balikpapan (Borneo). Air raids caused complete destruction of the American and Dutch air forces as a considerable factor of the military campaigns unfolding in the region.

On the other hand, losses of the American navy were not big, but the Asian Fleet did not represent any big force, and on top of that its dispersed units were not able to stop the Japanese amphibious landing that took place between 10 and 24 December in many places of the Luzon. The American command soon came to the conclusion that the battle of the Philippines had been already lost before it actually had started. Main American land forces (two infantry divisions under the command of General Jonathan Wainwright) were retreating to the Bataan Peninsula, while Admiral Thomas Hart ordered his ships to sail to the Dutch bases. The commander-in-chief of the American forces in the Philippines, General Douglas MacArthur, declared Manila an open city, and on 24 December left the Philippine capital and moved his headquarters to the island fortress of Corregidor in Manila Bay, vis-à-vis the southern tip of the Bataan. On 2 January 1942 the Japanese occupied Manila.

Therefore, the combined operations of the Japanese forces in the Philippines brought also there a full success with little losses of their own.