About an hour before dusk, Prince of Wales’ radar picked up three aircraft—seaplanes from the Japanese cruisers. They kept out of antiaircraft range and plotted the course and speed of Force Z, relaying this information to Admiral Ozawa.
By 8:15, Admiral Phillips knew Force Z had been sighted. At 8:55, Prince of Wales signaled Repulse: “Have most regretfully cancelled the operation because, having been located by aircraft, surprise was lost and our target would be almost certain to be gone by the morning and the enemy fully prepared for us.”
Force Z was returning to Singapore. However, just before midnight, Admiral Palliser signalled: “Enemy reported landing Kuantan. Latitude 0.350 north.”
Phillips was well aware that if the Japanese seized the road running inland from Kuantan, Malaya would be cut in two. He turned his ships toward Kuanton and increased speed to 25 knots. He was keen to catch the enemy by surprise, so he did not break radio silence to inform Singapore of his change of plan, feeling this might reveal his position to the enemy.
Phillips seems to have assumed Palliser would arrange air cover for the morning of the 10th; No. 453 Squadron was on standby to support Force Z. However, nothing was done, the Kuanton report was a false alarm, and RAF HQ at Singapore had no idea where Force Z was.
The Japanese submarine I-58 spotted the British ships about midnight on a southerly course and shadowed on the surface, sending several signals after first trying an unsuccessful torpedo attack.
The position of Force Z was relayed to the Japanese 22nd Air Flotilla in French Indochina; on December 9 it had tried to find the British ships without success. At 6 am on the 10th the Japanese launched 30 bombers and 50 torpedo bombers. They flew south 150 miles beyond Kuanton, almost as far as Singapore, but spotted nothing. However, on the return a break in the clouds revealed the British ships. The high-level bombers came in first at about 11 am, followed by the torpedo bombers.
The British ships had spotted the Japanese aircraft on radar. In the very first attack, Repulse and Prince of Wales were hit by bombs, and then a torpedo hit the flagship.
Captain Bill Tennant of Repulse reported after the action, “The second attack was shared by Prince of Wales and was made by torpedo-bomber aircraft. I am not prepared to say how many machines took part in this attack but, on conclusion, I have the impression that we had succeeded in combing the tracks of a large number of torpedoes, possibly as many as twelve.
“We were steaming at 25 knots at the time. I maintained a steady course until the aircraft appeared committed to the attack, when the wheel was put over and the attacks providentially combed. I would like to record the valuable work done by all bridge personnel at this time in calmly pointing out approaching torpedo-bombing aircraft which largely contributed to our good fortune in dodging all these torpedoes.”
Repulse tried to help Prince of Wales, but Repulse was hit again by a bomb, then four more torpedoes hit Prince of Wales. Having dodged 19 torpedoes, Repulse was struck five times; she rolled over at 12:33.
Sergeant H.A. Nunn of the Royal Marines aboard Repulse recalled, “It was time for me to go over the side, so I kicked off my shoes and climbed over the guardrail. It was possible to walk partway down the ship’s side, but I had to finish the rest of the journey on my seat, regardless of the rips and tears to my person and clothing. I had my lifebelt with me but I had no qualms about going into the water, as I was a strong swimmer.
“I didn’t even think of the possibility that there may be sharks in the vicinity. My only concern was to try and get away from the ship and the oily patch that was beginning to spread out over the surface of the water.”
From Repulse, 796 men out of a complement of 1,309, including Captain Tennant and Sergeant Nunn, were rescued. The destroyer Express came in to take men off the stricken Prince of Wales.
Lieutenant W.M. Graham remembers surviving as Prince of Wales keeled over. “I was able to muster most of my close-range gun crews over on the starboard side and remember quite clearly walking over the bilge keel, keeping pace with the roll, and thinking how clean the ship’s bottom looked as I swam away. The last time I had seen the underside of the Prince of Wales was when I saw her being launched at Cammell Laird’s yard at Birkenhead [Liverpool] in 1939.”
The Buffaloes of No. 453 Squadron arrived just in time to see Prince of Wales go down. Flight Lieutenant Tom Vigors recalled seeing the survivors in the oily water waving to him. “I [saw] many men in dire danger waving, cheering, and joking as if they were holidaymakers at Brighton waving at a low-flying aircraft. It shook me, for here was something above human nature. I take off my hat to them, for in them I saw the spirit that wins wars.”
Winston Churchill stated, “In my whole experience, I do not remember any naval blow so heavy or so painful as the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse.”
The loss of the British warships was a huge boost to Japanese prestige, bolstering the myth of their invincibility. In Berlin, Adolf Hitler was jubilant at the news and then made the fatal mistake of declaring war on the United States.
In Malaya, the British Army was now largely on its own. On December 8, General Matsui’s 5th Division had started moving south from Singora and Patani, hoping to cross the Perak River. The British Operation Krohcol was designed to foil this move. However, the British needed to win the race to the Ledge—the road cut into the hillside above the Patani River.
Major General David Murray-Lyon’s force, assigned this role, got off to a bad start and did not arrive at the start line on December 8. However, the 3/16 Punjabis were there and started forward into Thailand on their own without artillery support. They soon ran into trouble with the Thais, who had been told to defend the country against the British in the hope of not provoking the Japanese. Thus, the Thai police were manning roadblocks, unaware the Japanese had invaded, and delayed the British advance.
The next day the Punjabis got within six miles of the Ledge but soon came under fire from the Japanese 42nd Regiment, supported by tanks, which had beaten them there. The 3/16 was forced to withdraw and suffered heavy casualties.
Another British force, this time mechanized and with artillery, advanced into Thailand from Kedah along the Singora-Jitra Road and ran into a Japanese column. The British gunners brought the column to a halt, but Japanese infantry swarmed into the jungle and soon outflanked the position, forcing back the British, who then destroyed bridges as they rejoined the 11th Indian Division at Jitra.
The Jitra line was not strong or based on natural features, and Murray-Lyon spread his forces too thinly over a 12-mile front from Jitra to the sea instead of concentrating on the two main roads leading into Jitra from the north.
The Japanese had captured a map showing the British defenses at Jitra. Their attack was reckless but the tanks carried them through the poorly prepared lines. In 15 hours, the Japanese broke through and 3,000 Indian troops surrendered. Huge amounts of equipment were captured—enough ammunition and food to keep the Japanese going for months. The Japanese poured into northern Malaya along good roads, the infantry speeding along on bicycles. On the east coast, the 18th Division took Khota Bahru.
Murray-Lyon’s request to withdraw 30 miles south to Gurum was refused. However, he repeated the request as the Japanese advance from Kroh threatened to cut him off. On December 13, his tired, rain-soaked, and largely confused men trudged south. At Gurum, the 6th Brigade headquarters was destroyed and the 11th Indian Division was in danger of collapse. They withdrew beyond the Muda River, losing men constantly. By December 20, they were farther south, near Taipang, leaving Penang uncovered. The British lacked air cover. The outdated Buffaloes were no match for the Japanese Zero fighters.
From Brigadier Archie Paris’s reserve 12th Brigade, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were pushed forward to Bailing on the main road from Kroh with three companies, while C Company with armored cars went to Grik in case the Japanese used that mountain track. The Argylls were one of the few British infantry units that, thanks to their commanding officer, Lt. Col. Ian Stewart, had undergone rigorous jungle training. Many desk-bound soldiers thought Stewart, who kept his soldiers “square-bashing,” was “barking mad.”
Stewart created fast-moving Tiger Patrols designed to encircle enemy troops and drive them into roadblocks of artillery, mortars, and armored cars. Now he was about to put his tactics to the test.