The sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse was a World War II naval engagement which illustrated the effectiveness of aerial attacks against naval forces that were not protected by air cover and the resulting importance of including an aircraft carrier in any major fleet action.
The action took place east of Malaya, near Kuantan, Pahang where the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse were attacked by land-based bombers and torpedo bombers of the Imperial Japanese Navy on 10 December 1941.
Both ships were sent to Singapore in December 1941, to serve as a deterrent to Japanese aggression, which had been demonstrated in the invasion of French Indochina. First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound felt Singapore could not be adequately defended, unless the Royal Navy sent the majority of its capital ships there, to achieve parity with the estimated nine Japanese battleships. That was unacceptable as the British were at war with Germany and Italy. However, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was optimistic about the improving situation in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean and allocating three ships (including a carrier) to the colony's defence was seen as a vital compromise given the British need to protect its various colonial territories in Malaya, Borneo and the Straits Settlements. Churchill's "considerable ignorance" and "exaggerated belief in the power of the battleship", along with "a tendency to interfere in naval matters", led him to propose a squadron of three modern ships: one battleship (such as King George V or Prince of Wales) and one carrier (such as Formidable), in addition to Repulse, already bound for the Indian Ocean. His belief this small number could act as a variety of "fleet in being" and deterrent on Japanese action, as Tirpitz was in the North Sea; there was, however, no firm plan for such a task. The original British proposal had called for including the new Illustrious-class aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable for air cover, although the plan had to be revised when Indomitable was damaged working up in the Caribbean Sea.
While Churchill may be seen as making a futile and costly gesture, the dispatch of capital ships to Singapore had been part of the Admiralty's strategic planning since the naval base was established. The scale of this deployment had been reduced during the 1930s, as Germany and Italy presented new threats to British interests in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Nevertheless, it was still assumed that a significant force of capital ships would deter Japanese aggression. It must also be noted Churchill's thinking presumed (wrongly) the U.S. Navy would agree to send its Pacific Fleet, including eight battleships, to Singapore in the event that hostilities with Japan broke out, or that the British contribution would add to the U.S. fleet's deterrent value, should it stay at Pearl Harbor. The governments of Australia and New Zealand, who had sent the bulk of their armed forces to the North African campaign, also stressed the importance of Singapore in deterring Japanese aggression. Australian commitment to war in Europe had wavered in 1939 and 1940, and would be severely tested following the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong, Darwin, and the Kokoda Track, so Churchill's effort, while militarily foolish, may have made good grand strategic (political) sense.
What was designated Force G, consisting of the modern battleship Prince of Wales, the World War I era battlecruiser Repulse, and the four destroyers HMS Electra, HMS Express, HMS Encounter, and HMS Jupiter, arrived at Singapore on 2 December 1941. They were then re-designated Force Z. The new carrier, Indomitable was allocated to Force G, but whilst working up off Jamaica she had run aground in the entrance to Kingston harbour on 3 November 1941. Indomitable required 12 days of dry dock repairs in Norfolk, Virginia and was able to take no further part in the action. Indomitable carried only one squadron each of Fairey Fulmars and Hawker Sea Hurricanes, which were no match technically for A6Ms, flown by aircrews whose training and experience (with their misplaced confidence in their ability to dogfight with the Zero) were no match for the Japanese, either; it is probable Indomitable would "have been added to the butcher's bill." On 1 December, it was announced Sir Tom Phillips had been promoted to full Admiral, and appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Fleet. A few days later, Repulse started on a trip to Australia with HMS Vampire, and HMS Tenedos, but the force was recalled to Singapore to assemble for possible operations against the Japanese.
Also at Singapore were the light cruisers HMS Durban, HMS Danae, HMS Dragon, and HMS Mauritius, and the destroyers HMS Stronghold, Encounter, and Jupiter. The heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, Dutch light cruiser Java, two more British destroyers (Scout and Thanet), and four United States destroyers (Whipple, John D. Edwards, Edsall, and Alden) would be there within three days.
Though Durban and Stronghold were available, Admiral Philips decided to leave them at Singapore because they were not as fast as the other units. Additionally, Danae, Dragon, Mauritius, Encounter, and Jupiter were also at Singapore, but were under repair and not ready to sail.