Saturday Snippet: The sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse in 1941

Americans tend to forget that Japan didn’t only attack Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.  She simultaneously attacked across a wide swath of the Pacific Ocean, including the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies and Malaya.  Britain had just sent to Singapore one of its most modern battleships, HMS Prince of Wales (which had recently played a part in the destruction of the German battleship Bismarck), accompanied by a World War I battle-cruiser, HMS Repulse.  Operating together as Force Z, they attempted to attack a Japanese landing fleet near Singapore a few days later, with disastrous results.

This description of what happened was written by then-Sub-Lieutenant (equivalent to the US Navy rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade) Geoffrey Brooke, a junior officer aboard HMS Prince of Wales.  He survived the sinking, and made a lengthy, dramatic escape from Singapore to India.  He returned to the Pacific aboard a British aircraft carrier in 1944, and took part in the naval and air battles off Okinawa.  After the war he published his memoirs, “Alarm Starboard!“, which are very interesting reading for naval history buffs.

Here’s what he has to say about the sinking of his ship and her consort on December 10th, 1941.

     The Repulse was on our starboard quarter at four cables (800 yards), her rakish bow carving majestically through the water and a long white road streaming out astern. One destroyer was ahead and another on each bow. The day was warming up to a sticky heat and the Prince of Wales was vibrating to the few knots less than her maximum. A temperature of 136° had just been recorded in the boiler rooms, with several stokers collapsing, and one felt uneasily comfortable on the ADP [Air Defence Position – it looked like this], basking in the man made breeze of some 30m.p.h. However, any contentment was short lived as the lookouts began to yell and one saw them plainly, eight or nine twin-engined plump looking bombers high up ahead.
     On went anti-flash gear and tin hat, to start sweat oozing and running into every fleshy crevice. Our forward 5.25s crashed out, quickly followed by the Repulse’s 4-inch. Seconds later the 5.25s again as the first shells began to wink among their quarry and spatter them with black puffs of T.N.T. The enemy came on steadily, beginning what appeared to be a run on the Repulse. I watched their relentless advance with grudging admiration; some shell bursts were close enough but the formation remained tight. We altered course to starboard and then back to port. They were overhead when the Repulse all but disappeared in a forest of fountains that rose up around her. As the water subsided, brown smoke billowed out from somewhere amidships. With a hollow feeling one realised she had been hit. But she kept on, apparently little the worse. The bombers, now making off, had kept high throughout—about 10,000 feet—and were certainly most competent.
     For some time Force Z sped on unmolested. Repulse got her fire under control and signalled that she was operationally unimpaired. I had taken off my anti-flash gear for a breather when the most ill-timed call of nature of my life made me descend two decks to the bridge heads. I was no sooner seated than every gun in the ship except the 14-inch seemed to open up. The heavy jarring of the 5.25s, the steady bang-bang of the new Bofors and the rhythmic coughing of the multiple pom-poms mocked me as, frantic with annoyance, I sped my departure. I was nearly out when there was a tremendous reverberating explosion that shook my little steel cabinet and had me staggering. It continued as an ominous, muffled rumble that seemed to come from a long way off. My hand was on the door knob when another, peculiar noise percolated through the rest. The gunfire had died down. The noise was rushing water, the sea pouring into our ship, the sound being transmitted up the lavatory waste pipes with chilling clarity. Back up top I was in time to see three or four black dots disappearing towards the horizon.
     Nine Mitsubishi ‘Navy 96’ twin-engined torpedo bombers had dived out of cloud to port, turned towards us and attacked in line abreast. It was some consolation that I would have been on the disengaged side. One aircraft had been shot down, crashing close alongside the ship, but all had released their torpedoes and some had machine-gunned the bridge as they passed near, killing two men on the wings. It seemed that one torpedo had hit the Prince of Wales right aft. We were now describing a turn to port, slowing considerably, and had taken on a noticeable list, also to port. The alteration continued, which we in the ADP watched with disquiet, worst fears confirmed when eventually the ‘not under command’ balls—two big black canvas spheres—went up at the yardarm to denote that HMS Prince of Wales could not steer.
     The damage must be bad, but just how bad one could not tell until reports began to come in from various stations to the Gunnery Officer nearby. The electrics of half the ship—her rear half—had gone, one of the worst results being that the after 5.25-inch batteries (four twin turrets in all) were virtually useless. They could be worked by hand but for AA purposes this was but a gesture. There was also no communication with the affected area, a situation full of menace. Presumably part of the ship’s electrical ring-main and one or more generators were damaged but there was a well tried system of switching to alternative routes or sources of supply, not to mention portable leads that could cross-connect to undamaged sections and doubtless the damage control parties would soon have power restored. But the minutes ticked by and there was no improvement. The ship continued to circle to port, the ominous black balls remained aloft and we began to wonder. As far as we knew there had only been one torpedo hit and, however powerful, its effect was shockingly greater than it should have been. Though nothing was voiced it would be idle to pretend one was not shaken, at least temporarily. Moreover, it was only a question of time before we were attacked again and it was about 150 miles to Singapore. Where the hell were our fighters? We did not know and all we could do in the ADP was to sweep the hostile sky with our glasses yet again.
     Soon—it was just before mid-day—a formation of high-level bombers was seen approaching from the south—I do not remember if they were picked up by radar—which shaped up for a run over the Repulse a mile or so away from us. We fired a few salvoes at long range and she met them with a steady stream of 4-inch fire before disappearing for the second time in a maelstrom of splashes. Hardly had we observed with relief that she was unharmed, when another formation—of torpedo planes this time—came in low on the other side of her in an almost perfectly co-ordinated attack. She put up a 4-inch barrage as they dived towards the sea and when they levelled out and came in at the defiant old ship, her close range weapons opened up with a continuous chatter and she sparkled with fury from a dozen points.
     The attack died away and again she was unscathed. With licence from the Admiral to act independently from the outset, she had opened out during the first action and evasive manoeuvres had taken her still further away. She now closed again and in answer to a query made ‘Thanks to providence have so far dodged 19 torpedoes’. Meanwhile the Prince of Wales still circled—it was learnt that the rudder was jammed—and the list increased. ‘S1’ and ‘S2’ turrets, the only 5.25s on the starboard side with electrical power, could not now depress enough to engage torpedo bombers.
     Minutes later (the time was about 12:20) it was ‘Alarm starboard!’ again and I got ready with my indicating pointer as another nine planes came in low, beyond the Repulse. They broke up into small groups and went for her. She turned away from us towards the leading sub-flight of three, guns banging away. After they had dropped their torpedoes, banked steeply and made off, it looked as if Bill Tennant had done it yet again. But another aircraft, very well handled and possibly unnoticed, had worked its way to our side of her and, having started a run for the Prince of Wales, suddenly turned sharply and headed back for the Repulse. It was followed by two more and in seconds there were three torpedoes racing towards her. It was almost inevitable that one would hit, committed as she was to the wrong direction, and in another moment a tall grey plume shot up from her side, plumb amidships.
     But this was only seen out of the corner of the eye because the next half dozen came straight on for our starboard side, three being almost in line abreast. I should say the ship was doing less than ten knots. All were engaged by pom-poms, Bofors and Oerlikons, my mounting taking the middle aircraft, and the sound was deafening. I expected to see all three of them disintegrate but on they came, seeming to bear charmed lives.* The left-hand one—opposite the ship’s bows—let go first, then the right-hand one and some time after, the centre, three silver cigars slicing into the water in precise sequence. The foremost aircraft came straight on at the ship and for a moment appeared to be bent on flying into her. At the last moment the pilot pulled up over the fo’c’s’le and the large machine with its two radial engines, red sun marking on the side and the crew plainly visible, passed within yards of the four-barrelled pom-pom on ‘B’ turret, under Ian Forbes the bagpipe player. (One could not tell at the time because of the din, but the gun had a stoppage caused by faulty ammunition.) The other two aircraft aircraft banked and roared away astern to leave us in the company of three speeding torpedoes.
     The first track to be seen was the left-hand one, a narrow, pale green streak of rising bubbles that came on, straight as a die, for the bows of the Prince of Wales. We watched fascinated. Never have I felt so helpless. There was a resounding thud, our surroundings trembled as if shaken by an unseen hand and a great column of water, much like the shorts from the Bismarck, rose up alongside ‘A’ turret to a height above us on the ADP.
     Next came the right-hand torpedo. As sure as fate it sped to the quarterdeck where an exact repetition took place. There goes my cabin I thought. And then the third. It seemed to be coming straight for the bridge, almost underneath me. I remember thinking ‘Am I going sky high?’ On and on came the line of bubbles, right up to the ship’s side just forward. Knowing that the torpedo itself was well in advance of its track, I thought—for a split second—that it had passed underneath. But then came a great crash. Everything around seemed to jump and bounce as I gripped the steel parapet in front of me; and then what can only be described as a world of filthy water—I suppose smoke and water mixed—shot up in front to blot out all vision. It spread out and then cascaded down on top of us with crushing force. I shut my eyes and clung to the parapet for dear life. The noise was like all the rainstorms ever invented. When it had subsided there was silence except for the sound of water—it was ankle deep—running away through the drainage scuppers. For the moment there was an indefinable feeling of despondency in the air. Guns obviously sensed it too and with true inspiration shouted to another comically bedraggled officer ‘My God, you don’t look half as good as Dorothy Lamour’ (we had just had the film Hurricane in which Dorothy Lamour spent most of her time in a drenched sarong). A spontaneous laugh went up and the moment passed.
     According to the records we were hit by a fourth torpedo in this attack. I have no recollection of it at all but presume that in concentrating among a lot of noise one can miss such things. (The compass platform narrative, kept by the Captain’s secretary, only noted three on the starboard side.) Scrutiny of the Repulse showed her to have a slight list to port but no great reduction in speed. If only one could say the same of the Prince of Wales! Heaven knows the Japanese had been lucky to get a torpedo home in a vital spot so early on, but someone was loading the dice too heavily against us. It was bad enough to be without air cover but to be fighting, from the first few minutes, with our hands tied behind our backs … ‘Alarm starboard!’ On tin hat again for another attack, but they were not concerned with us this time. No doubt the enemy had seen we were crippled and could wait while they concentrated on the indomitable Repulse.
     We were then subjected to a ringside view of the end of that gallant ship. There can be no more dreadful sight than that of a large vessel, full of one’s own kith and kin, being hounded to the bottom. The seemingly inexhaustible supply of aircraft with which this was accomplished indicated to the impotent watchers what could be in store for us too.
     This time her tormentors came in individually from all directions. It was agonising to watch the gallant battlecruiser, squirming and twisting her way through what we knew was a web of crossing torpedo tracks, guns banging and crackling defiance. One plane flew between the two ships from aft on a parallel course to the Repulse. She hit it just before it came in line with us and a fire started at the tail. The flames ate their way towards the cockpit and the machine began to porpoise as the tail lost directional control. Although it was clear the men inside had only seconds to live I watched with undiluted pleasure. The plane slowed, its whole fuselage a torch, and then the blazing mass dived into the sea. A cloud of smoke went up and we all cheered. Turning back to the Repulse I was just in time to see another plume shoot up from her port quarter. Her port screws and rudder must be damaged and this, one knew, was the beginning of the end. Even as the thought registered there were three more hits in quick succession, two on this side of her and one on the other. As the last aircraft pulled up and away the Repulse had a severe list and her speed was right down.
     She was now about four miles away. The sea was calm and grey, as was the sky. At the end she was steaming slowly at right angles to our line of sight, from right to left. She was still making headway when her bow began to go under like an enormous submarine and terrible to see. As the waves came aft along her fo’c’s’le—tilted towards us—and then engulfed the great 15-inch turrets, still fore and aft, she listed further and remained so for a time. Then she rolled right over, upperworks, mast, funnels and all splashing on to the surface of the sea. She lay on her side for a few seconds—perhaps longer—stopped at last. Then her keel came uppermost and she began to sink by the stern. The last thing I saw was the sharp bow, pointing skywards, disappearing slowly in a ring of troubled water.
     Two of the destroyers were speeding to succour the black dots that speckled the area. I found myself watching with a dry mouth. Had Bill Tennant gone down with her? And Pool? Were they fighting for their lives at this very moment? But there was no future in such thoughts and hard as it was I concentrated my mind on our own predicament. Not to much comfort. The ship, in which we had great faith, was designed to stand many more than half a dozen torpedoes. But facts were facts. We were unmanoeuvrable and there were no powerful ships that could come to our aid. Up till now I had contrived a mental blanket that kept out thoughts of disaster but the evidence of one’s own eyes is hard to discount. The Repulse might have been old but at least she had begun her death struggle in a fair condition. Only a few of our 5.25s were still in action. Though the list had been temporarily reduced—either by counter-flooding or the results of the last three torpedoes—it had begun to worsen again and the close-range weapons would soon be difficult to handle (the electrics of some had failed and they were using the unfamiliar direct sights). Above all, where the hell was the RAF? Even a few fighters would make all the difference…

. . .

     It was now about 12:40. The list was steadily increasing and reports began to come in from some close-range mountings that they could not depress enough to counteract this. Others followed. For some minutes we remained at our virtually useless stations and then a Petty Officer of Quarters of one of the pom-poms came up to the Gunnery officer and saluted. ‘Permission to fall out my gun’s crew Sir please?’ Guns thought for a moment and then said ‘Yes’, subsequently dismissing the remainder who could not fire, including mine. I was taken aback but no doubt Guns appreciated the gravity of the situation better than I.
     With nothing on hand, and being a supernumerary of the Air Defence organisation anyway, I left the ADP and began to make my way down without any particular intention. I was passing a plotting office when there was the drone of bombers. Going outside I saw someone looking up and made out a formation that was just about over us, high up to port. One or two of the forward 5.25s fired and I went back into the plotting office. Two ratings were on all fours under a small table. I snapped at them to behave like men and come out. They emerged sheepishly and were making a show of resuming their duties, when the ever increasing whistle of descending bombs, and large ones at that, froze the three of us. A second later there was a heavy detonation nearby, and the ship trembled with a now familiar convulsion. I could not very well give the two men the usual ‘Get on with your work’ because I knew and they knew that there was no longer any work to get on with, so I scowled appropriately and left. There was a lot of smoke about on the catapult deck but no exact indication of where it had come from. (In fact a large bomb had penetrated on the port side to burst in the recreation space beneath.)
     The Flag Lieutenant (B.R. Armitage) was standing on the starboard wing of the Admiral’s bridge, looking aft at the quarterdeck where some wounded were gathered. He was a very pleasant, large RNVR (an amateur boxer, I believe) whom I had got to know quite well in the very few weeks he had been on board. ‘Thank God it’s a calm day for a bathe’ I said. ‘Oh it’s all right for you to joke about it’, he replied ‘I can’t swim’. I said not to worry, just catch hold of something floating, there was sure to be lots of it about. Neither of us had our rubber lifebelts with us. We talked for a bit and then I heard (though there was no official order) someone shout ‘Abandon ship!’ So this was it. A glance aft confirmed that the end was not far off. A destroyer had come alongside the quarterdeck, the port side of which appeared to be almost awash.
     I then remembered that my inflatable life jacket was in my action bag in the 14-inch director, right aft, and decided to go and get it. I went down on to the catapult deck and, crossing among buckled plates, climbed up a steel ladder that led to the boat-deck, two pom-poms each side of the second funnel and eventually my goal. Though it was awkward going in some places, I was still not unduly worried and was ‘making haste slowly’.
     Suddenly I saw that the sea was lapping at the support of the lowest pom-pom mounting. The sea near the base of the funnel! It struck me in a flash that not only was the ship heeled over but also very low in the water and the end probably a matter of minutes. The life-belt forgotten, I retraced my steps as quickly as possible. Ships’ bows always seemed to sink last and I had long since determined that the fo’c’s’le was the place to aim for.
     From the top of the steel ladder I saw that the destroyer had moved up the starboard side so that her waist was abreast the catapult and hands along her side were casting heaving-lines up to the Prince of Wales. Our men were gathering at the guardrails opposite her and also on the higher level of the 5.25-inch turrets. Recrossing the catapult deck—with some difficulty due to the list—I climbed back up past the 5.25 battery and found several patient queues formed at the upper deck guardrail just forward, where the heaving lines from the destroyer— now relatively stationary—had been secured. Several men were dangling from each, jerking themselves along, hand-over-hand like puppets. I decided to join the nearest queue, rather than go forward. It seemed to take an age—though probably only a couple of minutes—to get near the front and this offered ample opportunity to look round.
     There were hundreds of men gathered along the side in both directions. Some were already jumping off forward. A dozen lines down to the destroyer were thick with wriggling figures. There was no untoward noise of any sort, all concerned were simply going about the business of saving themselves with proper determination. The sea between the two ships and for some distance around was now black with oil fuel and the pungent smell of it assailed the nostrils. By now one could sense the heel of the deck increasing under one’s feet, underlined by the fact that the gap between the ships was growing infinitesimally. A macabre race ensued. I reckoned the chances were even and made ready for a dash towards the bows in reversion to my original plan.
     Someone on the other side shouted ‘Stand by!’ It was the destroyer Captain, a sandy-bearded Lieutenant Commander (F.J. Cartwright), a picture of coolness as he lent on his forearms at the corner of the bridge, watching the side of the Prince of Wales. On the deck beneath, a seaman stood at each line, knife poised over the taut rope, eyes on his Captain. At last there was no one in front of me. I gave my precursor a few feet and went too, the half-inch diameter rope biting into my hands with considerable intensity. It was surprisingly tiring work, now with the nightmare element that, as the battleship heeled increasingly away, the men at the other end of the rope had to pay it out, nullifying most of one’s efforts. When the last few yards became a steep uphill haul—the weight of bodies kept the rope well down—I felt for a moment too exhausted to go on but a glance at the oily water in which men were already struggling provided the spur of desperation. A last effort put my wrists within the grasp of eager hands and in one exhilarating heave I was over the destroyer’s rail. Crawling out of the way to regain my breath, I saw the man after me come safely over and then ‘Slip!’ roared the destroyer Captain.
     The row of knives flashed and, as I struggled to my feet, all the ropes swung down, heavy with men, to crash sickeningly against the battleship’s side. ‘Starboard ten, full astern together’, came from the bridge above and, as the engine room telegraph clanged, the grey wall opposite began to roll inexorably away. There was a heavy bump and we began to heel violently outwards. Grabbing at something I realised that the Prince of Wales’ bilge keel had caught under the destroyer. Her skipper had left it too late! But the next instant she swung back, the powerful propellers began to bite, and gathering sternway we surged clear. The destroyer stood off a cable or so and in silence except for the hum of her engine room fans, we watched aghast.
     The great battleship continued to roll slowly away; as her upperworks dwindled and then vanished, the grey paint on her hull changed to brown as the dividing black line of her boot-topping rose out of the water, and the men at the guardrails began to climb over and slide down this treacherous slope. Those still hanging on to the severed ropes found themselves lying on a near-horizontal surface. Some scrambled to their feet and joined the long lines of men moving at ever increasing speed, as if running on a giant treadmill.
     The bilge keel that had hit the destroyer in its upward climb from the depths, reared out of the water, a massive six-foot steel wall that now bore down threateningly on the advancing throng. They climbed desperately over it and continued on. The ship was now nearly bottom up with the main keel rolling, if more gently, towards them. She then slowed to a standstill, a 700-foot waterlogged cylinder of brown, the forefoot higher than the stern.
     How long she stayed like that I do not know, a minute or two I think, as if doing her best to give the last of her men some sort of chance. They were slipping and sliding into the water, now uniformly black with oil fuel and littered with débris. Two or three of the ship’s boats were floating away on the other side.
     Then we saw that the huge hull was disappearing. The bows rose higher and higher. A perimeter of broken water marked, as if with throttling fingers, the exact extent of the ship that remained. This closed in steadily towards the bow as the main body of the hull settled deeper. Again there was a pause when the sharp bow alone was visible-poised like a stark memorial to the brave men she was taking down with her—and then in a last turmoil of foam it slid from view.
     The surrounding water, for some time a great confusion of eddies and swirls, was a mass of black specks as the heads of swimming men showed in exact and dreadful emulation of Repulse’s end. Some made for the boats which soon became little islands of packed humanity. Others struck out for us and another destroyer that had closed in. By now our side was almost covered with scrambling nets and ropes of all sizes. Tired men were soon clinging to them and being hauled up. Some were wounded or too exhausted to do anything but just catch a hold, and fell back when their full weight was lifted clear. Sailors from the destroyer went down to the bottom of the nets to help the swimmers and several jumped into the sea to bring in the worst cases. Nearly all were covered in oil fuel, very painful to the eyes, and those who had swallowed any were coughing and retching.
     We worked like beavers hauling on the ropes. If the sea had been at all rough the numbers saved would have been very much smaller. Soon there were more men on deck than appeared to be left in the water and we took turns at the hauling. Some of Prince of Wales’ Engine Room staff were dreadfully scalded, presumably from escaping steam; in particular I remember the little Senior Engineer (Lieutenant Commander (E) R.O. Lockley), on whom the brunt of the responsibility for his department had evolved, with the flesh hanging from his chest in dreadful white bights.

A sad tale, and a national tragedy for Britain in one of its darkest moments of World War II.  Coming as it did on top of the US naval disaster at Pearl Harbor, it was an enormous shock to both nations.  On the other hand, their mutual desire for revenge drove them to ever-greater efforts, culminating in victory in 1945.

S/Lt. Brooke’s adventures in Asia were only just beginning.  He made a long escape through the islands of the East Indies, culminating in a long, arduous voyage aboard a sail-powered native trading vessel all the way from the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia) to Ceylon (today Sri Lanka).  It’s a powerful tale, well told in his book, which I recommend.



  1. Hey Peter;

    Part of the problem with the fighters was that the British believed that once the Japanese faced a proper airplane, they would be defeated. The British command ignored the reports and analysis that the AVG had from China facing the Japanese. The British viewed the spitfire and Hurricane as superior to the P40 that the Americans had and of course they were stunned when the Japanese whipped them also. It didn't help that the British high command in Singapore was ate with rot.

  2. Interesting additional info on the Force Z sinking – the Pom Pom ammunition was not suitable for use in the tropics and literally fell apart with heavy use (like loading) and the Pom Poms on the two capital ships did not have tracer ammunition which allowed the Japanese aircraft to be a bit calmer in lining up for their attack runs as they could not see any return fire.

  3. IIRC,all the fighter cover repelled the first set of attacks, or got in a furball with escorts. All fighters were refueling and rearming when the subsequent waves arrived. Land-based air didn't grasp Combat Air Patrol or covering convoys; no thought was given to rotation or sending a ready squadron to replace. MrGarabaldi noted rot: probably included the sick, lame, unfit, and the young. Applying the colonials' lesson from China – not cricket, eh what?

  4. The comments by MrGarabaldi, Barry Jones, and Silent Draco deserve but one reply. RUBBISH!. I'll say nought but this. With an open mind and eye, read the history of those times.

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