Key point: The British navy was a junior partner to America, but a valued partner nonetheless.
British naval operations in the Far East in World War II started badly and went downhill from there. Years of underfunding in defense meant that Britain simply did not have the means to defend its huge empire, and for 18 months prior to the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, it had stood alone against Nazi Germany.
The Royal Navy was primarily committed to the Battle of the Atlantic, keeping open the all important sea lanes upon which the island nation’s survival depended. In the Far East, there were only token naval forces available to meet the Japanese attack, and in that part of the world Britannia’s claim to rule the ocean waves was immediately exposed for the empty rhetoric it had become.
After December 1941, what remained of the Eastern Fleet retreated into the Indian Ocean for three years. Only in 1945, with Germany on the verge of defeat and the Nazi U-boat threat virtually eliminated, was Britain secure and strong enough to send a fleet back into the Pacific to join the United States in the war against the Japanese Empire.
The new British fleet was the largest single force the Royal Navy had ever assembled, and it arrived in time in theater to play an important part in the battle for Okinawa and in the preparation for the invasion of Japan. It operated alongside the U.S. Navy, which by then had grown into a force of colossal size and power.
The Royal Navy was, naturally and inevitably, in the position of a valued but very junior partner in the struggle against Japan. Nevertheless, it returned there in time to fight and be there at the finish, which was the outcome the politicians wanted. But, because it was late on the scene and totally overshadowed by the massive U.S. Navy its contributions have been largely forgotten—despite the fact that by VJ Day most of the Royal Navy was in the Pacific, and poised to take part in the final battles against Japan.
The new realities of naval warfare came home to the British with a vengeance with the destruction of Britain’s Force Z in the South China Sea only a few days after the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor. In October 1941, the British decided to send a naval task force to deter Tokyo from attacking British-held Malaya and Singapore. The main elements of Force Z were meant to be the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable, the battleship Prince of Wales (a King George V-class battleship), and the battle cruiser Repulse. These vessels were all that London could spare from the defense of the United Kingdom at that stage of the war.
Clearly, sending this small contingent against the Imperial Japanese Navy was a grave risk, driven by the political need to make a demonstration of intent rather than an assessment of the military realities. In fact, the risk became a gamble after the Indomitable was damaged in an accident and could not join the force being dispatched. When the Japanese invaded Malaya, the Prince of Wales and Repulse left Singapore to confront the new enemy.
Along with them sailed just three destroyer escorts; no fleet air cover was available. The Admiralty hoped that ground-based Royal Air Force squadrons would be able to defend the ships, but this early on proved to be merely wishful thinking. The British planes were too few in number in the area and too busy with supporting Commonwealth troops in the ground war in Malaya to provide even a modicum of maritime air cover.
Force Z was spotted by the Japanese submarine I-165 on December 9, 1941, and attacked by the submarine I-156 in the early hours of December 10. For the moment, Force Z was lucky. All the Japanese torpedoes missed their targets. However, a few hours later an enemy reconnaissance aircraft discovered them, and, at 11:15 amplanes from Admiral Matsunaga Sadaichi’s First Air Force based in French Indochina attacked. Up to that time the British ships had maintained radio silence.
For some reason, unknown to this day, no emergency message was sent out by the small fleet until almost noon, too late for the British to organize any air support from their land bases to aid their doomed fleet.
War correspondent Cecil Brown, aboard the Repulse, was a witness to the Japanese aerial assault. He recorded: “At 11:45 hours the [Japanese twin engine] torpedo bombers are coming in. We are putting up [a] beautiful [antiaircraft gun] barrage, a wall of fire. But the bombers come on, in a long glide, from all angles, not simultaneously but alternatively. Some come head-on, some astern and from all positions on both sides of the ship. They level out; the torpedoes seem small, dropping flat into the water sending up splashes, then streaking towards us. The bombers are so close you can almost see the color of the pilots’ eyes … machine gunning our decks as they come in.”
By 11:51, the Prince of Wales was dead in the water, her steering gear and propellers smashed. As the battleship absorbed its death blows, the Repulse and the accompanying destroyers circled the flagship in a vain attempt to shield it from further damage. Then a second wave of enemy aircraft appeared and homed in on the stricken man-of-war “like a pack of wolves on a wounded buck,” recalled one British survivor of the battle. The same eyewitness noted the end of the battle wagon: “I saw one plane drop a torpedo. It fell nose-heavy into the sea and churned-up a thin wake as it drove straight at the immobile Prince of Wales. It exploded against her bows. A couple of seconds later another hit—and another.”
Vice Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, Force Z commander, and Captain John Leach, commander of the Prince of Wales, went down with the ship. Last seen on the bridge, Captain Leach was heard to call out to his crew, “Goodbye. Thank you. Good luck. God bless you.” The Repulse sank at 12:33 pm. The Prince of Wales finally went down 50 minutes later; 840 British sailors lost their lives.
The two ships were among the best and most modern in the Royal Navy inventory, and their demise was a body blow to British morale. A commentator in Singapore soon wrote of the tragedy that it caused a “chill sense of calamity” as well as a feeling of vulnerability: “For the first time, we had an inkling of the true balance of factors in this Pacific war … blown away at one fell swoop was one of the main pillars on which our security rested.”
The December 1941 sortie made by Force Z from Singapore was the Royal Navy’s last major operation in the Pacific for the next three years. After the fall of Singapore in February 1942, the British maintained only a small oceangoing force in the Indian Oceanfor defensive purposes. This naval element, named the Eastern Fleet, was headed by Admiral Sir James Somerville. It was composed of one modern and four obsolete battleships, two fleet and one light aircraft carriers, six cruisers, and about 12 destroyers. In addition, attached to the Eastern Fleet was the antiaircraft cruiser Heenskirk, the remnant of the Royal Dutch Navy operating in the Far East at the start of the Pacific War.
On taking command, Somerville quipped, “So this is the Eastern Fleet. Never mind. There’s many a good tune played on an old fiddle.” He went on to say, “I considered making a revised will as I reckoned that if the old battleship met a Japanese fleet we would be in for it.” Almost immediately, the British intention to carry out defensive operations using the Eastern Fleet changed to one of exclusively carrying out evasive actions.
After driving the British out of Southeast Asia, the Japanese considered their options. The Navy favored an invasion of Ceylon in the hope that a major defeat there would destroy the entire position of the British in India. They were probably on the mark since London’s authority in the subcontinent was extremely fragile at the time. However, the incursion was never sanctioned and the Army refused to provide any troops for such an operation.
This failure of the two branches of the Japanese military to cooperate was one of many examples of interservice squabbling during World War II, which time and time again marked and derailed Japanese strategy. The Navy settled instead for a raid on the island, which occurred in April 1942. Six aircraft carriers accompanied by four battleships forayed into the Indian Ocean, attacked bases in Ceylon, and shelled a number of towns on the Indian coast.
Admiral Somerville, very sensibly, did not desire a full-scale engagement against such an overwhelming enemy force, but he felt he had to do something to respond to the Japanese move. His riposte to the Japanese raid on Ceylon was to send his fleet out in hopes of tracking the Japanese and inflicting some measure of damage on them through torpedo attacks delivered at night.