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Attack on Force Z - Japanese air attack

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The Japanese air attack

At 0050 next morning, 10 December, Phillips received a report from Palliser of Japanese landings at Kuantan, a town on the east coast of Malaya, halfway between Singapore and Kota Bharu. Force Z headed in that general direction, without signalling Palliser his intentions (which would have revealed his position). Palliser failed to anticipate this and request air cover from Semabang's F2As; not until a radio message was sent by Repulse an hour after the first Japanese attack were RAF aircraft dispatched. At 0515, objects were spotted on the horizon. Thinking they were the invasion force, Force Z turned towards them. They turned out to be a trawler towing barges. At 0630, Repulse reported seeing an aircraft shadowing the ships. At 0718, Prince Of Wales catapulted off a Supermarine Walrus reconnaissance aircraft. The aircraft flew to Kuantan, saw nothing, reported back to Prince of Wales, and flew to Singapore. Express was sent to investigate the area, finding nothing. At 1005, Tenedos reported she was being attacked by Japanese aircraft, about 140 miles southeast of Force Z. The attack was by nine Mitsubishi G3M 'Nell' twin-engined medium bombers from the Genzan Air Corps, 22nd Air Flotilla, based at Saigon, each armed with one 500 kg (1,100 lb) armor-piercing bomb. They mistook the destroyer for a battleship and wasted their ordnance with all bombs scoring no hits. At 1015, more Japanese aircraft spotted the ships, after Force Z failed to find any Japanese invasion forces and was heading back south.

At 1113, the fleet was attacked by three waves of Japanese planes, the first being 17 Nell high-level bombers from Bihoro Air Corps, armed with 500 kg (1,100 lb) bombs, as well as eight Nells with two 250 kg (550 lb) bombs. Beside eight near misses by 250 kg (550 lb) bombs, they scored just one hit on the hangar deck area of the Repulse, which started a small fire. She was making 25 kt (46 km/h, 29 mph) again within minutes.

Around 1140, the first of 16 Nell torpedo bombers (two squadrons from Genzan Air Corps) arrived and attacked, sending at least six torpedoes into Prince of Wales. The first wave of attackers delivered one catastrophic torpedo hit on her outer port propeller shaft; this shaft, turning at maximum revolutions, twisted and breached several compartments as well as rupturing the glands that prevented sea water entering the ship via the broad shaft tunnel. She promptly took on 2,400 tons of water and her speed dropped to 16 kt (30 km/h, 18 mph). Testimony from Lt Wildish, in command of B engine room, indicated the shaft was stopped successfully, but upon restarting the shaft, water rushed in through the damaged shaft passage, flooding 'B' engine room. Also flooded from this hit, and the subsequent shaft passage flooding, was 'Y' boiler room, the central auxiliary machinery room, 'Y' action machinery room, the port diesel dynamo room, and a number of compartments aft.

This single torpedo hit had three crippling effects. First, it caused a 11.5 degree list to port, meaning starboard 5.25-inch anti-aircraft turrets were unable to depress low enough to engage the attackers. Furthermore, power to Prince of Wales' aft 5.25 inch dual-purpose turrets was cut, leaving her unable to counter further attacks. Power loss to her pumps meant an inability to pump flood water faster than it was entering the breached hull. Second, it denied her much of her auxiliary electrical power, vital for internal communications, ventilation, steering gear, and pumps, and for training and elevation of the 5.25-inch and 2-pounder gun mounts. All but S1 and S2 5.25 inch turrets were almost unmanageable, a factor compounded by the list, their crews unable even to drag them round manually using chains. The crews also had difficulty bringing the heavy 2-pounder mountings into manual operation. Third, the extensive internal flooding and shaft damage left the ship under power of only the starboard engines and able to make only 15 knots at best, and with her electric steering unresponsive the ship was virtually unmanageable. Prince of Wales was still able to fire at a high level bombing attack with S1 and S2 turrets at 1241 hours, the bombs straddling her but not penetrating the deck armour. One bomb fell amongst the wounded gathered in her hangar causing extensive casualties. HMS Express came alongside to take off wounded and non-fighting crew. The order to abandon ship was then given and Prince of Wales rolled over to port and sank at 1318; she scraped Express, lying close alongside taking off survivors, and very nearly took the destroyer with her.

Another high altitude attack by bombers aimed at the Repulse passed without damage. Then a second attack by eight torpedo bombers from the Mihoro Air Corps attacked Repulse from two directions, but she avoided all the torpedoes "brilliantly" and continued to steam. The third and final attack by 26 Mitsubishi G4M 'Betty' torpedo bombers from the Kanoya Air Corps, a detachment from the 21st Air Flotilla also based near Saigon, struck from several directions. Repulse, which had dodged 19 torpedoes so far, was caught between two Japanese torpedo attacks and hit by two, possibly four of them, the first jamming her rudder. However, the Repulse did not have the anti-torpedo blisters her sister Renown had received, and also did not have a modern battleship's internal waterproof compartmentalisation and subdivision. She was hit heavily and suddenly and Captain Tennant ordered the crew overboard; Repulse listed heavily to port over a period of about six minutes and finally rolled over and sank at 1223 with heavy casualties.

The Japanese had achieved 6, possibly 8 hits out of 49 torpedoes launched, while losing three aircraft during the attack: one Nell torpedo bomber from the Genzan Air Group, and two Betty torpedo bombers from the Kanoya Air Group, a fourth plane was so badly damaged it crashed on landing. A recent survey of the two wrecks has confirmed that there was only four hits on the Prince of Wales, and 2 confirmed and two possible, hits on Repulse. The Explorer's Club "Job 74" underwater survey was completed on June 11 2007, see the external link below for more information. The air cover assigned to Force Z, four F2As of the Australian No. 453 Squadron, arrived over the force at 1318, just as Prince of Wales sank. They caught a Japanese bomber which stayed behind to observe the sinking, but it managed to escape as they gave chase.

Last Updated ( Sunday, 26 April 2009 16:00 )  

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