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Remembrance. Force Z's 70th Anniversary - the lesson the Navy had to learn in the use of air power

Published: 08 Dec 2011

Remembrance - other nations use of air power. At last, a memorial to the forgotten heroes of Britain’s 'Pearl Harbour’

Seventy years ago, the pride of the Royal Navy, the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Repulse, were sunk by Japanese aircraft. Now a tribute is to be unveiled.

By Neil Tweedie From the Daily Telegraph 8 December 2011.

Never was a blue sky so unwelcome. The grey, tropical clouds that had helped mask the movement of the two great ships since their departure from Singapore had parted, and now, hanging lazily on the horizon, were Japanese reconnaissance aircraft. The officers of the battleship Prince of Wales and her consort, the battlecruiser Repulse, codenamed Force Z, knew that an engagement of some kind could not be far away. It was the morning of December 10 1941, three days after the attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and the Royal Navy was about to suffer its greatest single defeat of the Second World War.

The bugles sounded shortly after 11am. Crude radar screens in the bowels of the capital ships were registering smudges of approaching aircraft, scores of them. Sailors and Marines, their mid-morning tea break interrupted, ran to join shipmates already at their posts. Anti-aircraft guns trained skyward, preparing to deliver a hail of fire against the Japanese aerial armada.

It was soon all over. At 1.20pm Prince of Wales, pride of the Navy, commissioned only eight months previously, slowly rolled over, her hull torn open by four torpedoes. Repulse, elegant veteran of the First World War, had already slid beneath the azure calm of the South China Sea, similarly disembowelled.

For more than an hour Jim Wren, a Royal Marine from Salisbury, and the other young reserve gun crew had sat inside Repulse listening to the roar of battle before emerging to chaos. “We knew she was going and going fast,” he remembers. “She was right over on her port side. Pretty well half the ship was below the water line. I stripped off some of my heavier clothing, climbed over the side, crawled over the bilges and into the water. There was no time to freeze with fear. It was do or die.”

The ships, 41,000 tons and 33,000 tons respectively, had shot down just three of 85 aircraft before succumbing. They were the first battleships to be sunk at sea exclusively by airpower, their demise signalling the end of the big gun era. With them went British prestige in the Far East. Devoid of naval protection, Singapore, the fortress constructed at vast expense to protect the eastern Empire from Japanese expansion, fell two months later. For the British, who had denigrated the Japanese as myopic, semi-primitives, it was a humiliation, a harbinger of imperial decline.

The most terrible cost, though, was in human life. Of the 1,612 officers and men aboard Prince of Wales, 327 died. The toll on Repulse was higher, 513 from a complement of 1,309. Eight hundred and forty souls, blown apart by torpedoes and bombs, scalded to death by escaping steam and ripped to shreds on the exposed undersides of the stricken titans. Or drowned while awaiting rescue, or trapped in the watertight compartments that became their tombs.

Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, commander of Force Z, was one. A resolute believer in the big gun, disdainful of the aircraft as a weapon, he chose to remain to the end on the bridge of Prince of Wales, his flagship.

Winston Churchill, who had sent the ships to their doom, wrote of how he was awoken in the night to be told the news: “In all the war I never received a more direct shock. As I turned over and twisted in bed the full horror sank in upon me.”

Yet the destruction of Force Z is now a footnote, a distant tragedy obscured by the greater struggle against Nazi Germany. Yesterday the United States marked the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor with memorial services and lowered flags across the country. The British, meanwhile, will largely ignore the 70th anniversary of their own catastrophic overture to the war with Japan.

Except for a hundred or so people, including half a dozen special old men, who will gather at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire on Saturday to witness the unveiling of a small memorial. Of the 2,081 survivors from Prince of Wales and Repulse about 40 are thought to be still alive. Most are too infirm to travel and those making the journey will have no VIP to greet them. The Prince of Wales declined an invitation to attend and a single Petty Officer is expected to represent the Royal Navy.

“These things happen,” says Hannah Rickard, secretary of the Force Z Survivors Association, whose late father, Ken Byrne, survived the sinking of the Prince of Wales. “It is a bit of a shame but the real VIPs are the survivors.”

The memorial has been paid for by the relatives attending the unveiling. They have raised £11,000 of its £13,000 cost. Mr Wren is 91 but will make the journey from his home in Salisbury. “It was one of Churchill’s big mistakes, ” he says. “It was all so quick: we arrived at Singapore on the 2nd and were sent to the bottom on the 10th.”

The threat from Japan could not have arisen at a worse time. The battlecruiser Hood had been lost in May and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and battleship Barham in November. Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord, favoured a slow build-up in the Indian Ocean but Churchill, true to form, demanded a more aggressive strategy in the Far East, in the shape of a modern battleship. Thus Phillips found himself on the afternoon of December 8 weighing anchor at Singapore, as fires still raged at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese were believed to be landing on the north-east coast of Malaya and the Navy could not be seen to run from the fight, despite an almost total absence of air cover. William Tennant, captain of Repulse, warned his crew: “We are off to look for trouble. I expect we shall find it.”

Phillips told his crews: “We are sure to get some useful practice with the HA (high-angle anti-aircraft) armament.”

Against Force Z were ranged more than 100 bombers based in Vichy French Indo-China, equipped with advanced torpedoes. Stalked by submarines and aircraft, the two capital ships, screened by four destroyers, searched in vain for troop transports. While returning to Singapore Force Z was caught in the open. Repulse was hit first by a bomb that almost ended Mr Wren’s life.

“The first thing I knew was the alarm sounding. I was still on the mess deck with a cup of tea. I dropped it, ran for the door, and as soon as I got through it a bomb dropped through the deck right behind me.”

Then came the torpedoes. The great ships twisted and turned, managing to avoid 41 of the 49 dropped.

Repulse went down at 12.33. Mr Wren found himself holding on to a piece of flotsam. “There was huge oil slick from the ship. I was covered in oil – everyone was. I swallowed a lot and was terribly sick. Someone hauled me on to a raft. Eventually we were picked up by the Electra, one of the escorts. I can’t remember anything being said. You are in a state of shock. You have lost everything: your ship, your home, comrades. There were a lot of bodies on the deck.”

Charles Wright, from Gloucester, was a 22-year-old anti-aircraft gunner on Prince of Wales. “We were given the impression that the Japanese were inferior, but they proved differently. The ship was brand new and we thought she was unsinkable. It was a beautiful clear day. Of course, the Japanese are the masters of coming out of the sun.”

A single torpedo crippled Prince of Wales, causing major flooding, reducing her speed, impairing her steering and knocking out the power for half her big anti-aircraft guns. She survived Repulse by 50 minutes.

“There were numerous fellows coming up from below, mainly the boiler room,” recalls Mr Wright.” They had been scalded terribly by burst pipes.” He helped his wounded shipmates on to the destroyer Express, which had come alongside. She had to pull away as the battleship turned turtle. Mr Wren was evacuated from Singapore but his vessel was captured at anchor off Sumatra. He spent more than three years in a prison camp, watching a third of the inmates succumb to cruelty and disease. Mr Wright was evacuated to Ceylon and posted to the cruiser Dorsetshire, which was sunk in an air attack.

Today the wrecks of Prince of Wales and Repulse rest in less than 250 feet of water, sometimes visible from the air. Designated as war graves, the leviathans are nevertheless prey to divers, some in search of booty. Pictures of human remains adorn diving websites.

But some good comes out of bad. One of Mr Wren’s friends on Repulse was a young marine who had placed a picture of his sister on the back of his locker door. “I said I’d like to meet her,” remembers Mr Wren. “And I did.”

He and Margaret have been married for 65 years. She will be there at the memorial, providing comfort. “It will be emotional,” says Mr Wren. “No doubt about that.”

Donations for the Force Z memorial should be sent to: Force Z Survivors Association, 19 Crossways, South Croydon, Surrey, CR2 8JP. Cheques made payable to: HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse Survivors Association.


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