Sinking of the HMS Repulse

How a Bottle & Tile from the HMS Repulse Came to Rest on the Ocean Floor

On December 10, 1941, the battlecruiser HMS Repulse and battleship HMS Prince of Wales sank off the east coast of Malaysia. The British warships were the central elements of Force Z, tasked with intercepting a Japanese invasion fleet. Following is a detailed record of the events of and leading up to the dramatic sinkings by Japanese aircraft.

A dive of the HMS Repulse wreck
A dive of the HMS Repulse wreck

Dec. 2nd – At 1200 hours the force arrived at Sembawang naval dockyard, Singapore; on arrival the force was designated Force Z. It comprised the PRINCE OF WALES, REPULSE, the British destroyers (HMS) ELECTRA, EXPRESS, TENEDOS and Australian destroyer (HMAS) VAMPIRE. These ships were under the command of Admiral Phillips.

 

Dec. 3rd – An undetected Japanese reconnaissance aircraft located Force Z at Singapore.

(At 1030 hours three Lockheed Hudson reconnaissance aircraft of No. 1 RAAF Squadron took off from Kota Bharu, Malaya, on a reconnaissance flight over the South China Sea. One of these aircraft sighted the Japanese invasion fleet and reported as follows:

1212 hours 3 ships in position 7-51N, 105-00E, course 310 degrees.

1246 hours 25 ships escorted by 6 cruisers, 10 destroyers, in position 8N, 106-08E., course 270 degrees.
1300 hours 10 ships escorted by 2 cruisers, 10 destroyers, in position 7-40N, 106-20E, course 270 degrees.
1835 hours 1 cruiser, 1 transport, in position 8N, 102-30E. The cruiser opened fire on the Hudson.

The actual forces employed by the Japanese were 28 transports escorted by the light cruiser SENDAI (flag, Rear-Admiral Hashimoto), 10 destroyers, 6 minesweepers and 3 submarine chasers. This force moved into the Gulf of Siam.

The whole Southern Expeditionary Force was commanded by Vice-Admiral Ozawa, with his flag in the heavy cruiser CHOKAI with the 7th cruiser division of the heavy cruisers KUMANO (Flag Vice-Admiral Kurita), SUZUYA, MIKUMA and MOGAMI and four destroyers in support.

Off the southeast coast of Indo-China, were the battleships KONGO, HARUNA, heavy cruisers ATAGO (flag Vice-Admiral Kondo) and TAKAO, and 10 destroyers.

Following receipt of these reports Rear-Admiral A. F. E. Palliser, RN, DSC, Admiral Phillips Chief of Staff ordered the recall of REPULSE and her escorts)

 

Dec. 7th – At 1200 hours REPULSE, TENEDOS and VAMPIRE arrived back at Sembawang naval dockyard.

Dec. 8th

(At 0025 hours Japanese Forces commenced landing at Kota Bharu)

At 0400 hours there was an air raid by 17 Japanese aircraft on Singapore and the naval dockyard. REPULSE and the PRINCE OF WALES provided anti-aircraft fire. No enemy planes were shot down and no damage was done to the warships.

(During the day, Admiral Phillips formulated what Force Z’s response would be to the landings. The operation he planned was an isolated surprise attack which, if successful, would relieve the pressure on our troops and might throw the Japanese plan seriously out of gear. The plan called for all available naval units to sail from Singapore to attack the invasion forces)

At 1735 hours Force Z sailed from Sembawang naval dockyard and after clearing Singapore Strait, Force Z steered northeasterly to pass east of the Anamba Islands in order to avoid possible minefields.

Rendering of HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales
Rendering of HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales

Dec. 9th – At 0125 hours Force Z was informed by signal from Singapore confirming that the air reconnaissance asked for had been arranged, but also stating that–owing to the military situation–fighter protection off Singora on 10/12/41, would not be possible.
At 0400 hours Force Z altered course to the north.
At 0620 hours a lookout on VAMPIRE briefly sighted an enemy aircraft through the rain squalls and low cloud.
At 1343 hours in approximate position 5N, 106E, Force Z was sighted by the Japanese submarine I-65.

(The submarine made the sighting report ‘two enemy battleships, course 310¼, speed 14 knots.’ Due to poor reception and decoding problems, the message did not reach Vice Admiral Ozawa until 1540 hours.

The report reached the 22nd Air Flotilla, based in the vicinity of Saigon, at about 1600 hours. The Flotilla was highly trained in bombing and torpedo attacks. It consisted of three groups, the Genzan and Mihoro Groups, each equipped with 36 Mitsubishi G3M3/3s (Nell) Type 96 bombers, range 2125 miles, bomb load 1100 lb; and the Kanoya Group, which had recently acquired 26 of the new Mitsubishi G4M1s (Betty) Type 1 bombers, range 3075 miles, bomb load 2200 lb.

At the time the submarine’s report was received, the Air Flotilla was bombing up for an attack on Singapore. Orders were given to exchange bombs for torpedoes as quickly as possible, but the change-over was not completed till 1800 hours, by which time it was getting dark. The menace to the invasion transports, however, was considered so grave that it was decided to attempt a night attack. Owing to bad weather the aircraft failed to find Force Z; all returned safely to their base at around midnight)

Between 1700 and 1830 hours the weather cleared and three Japanese naval reconnaissance aircraft were sighted by the PRINCE OF WALES.
(This meant that all hopes of surprise had been lost, and a heavy air attack off Singora had to be anticipated. Under these circumstances, Admiral Philips decided that the risk was unjustifiable and he decided to abort the mission)

At 1835 hours in approximate position 6-10N, 106E, TENEDOS, who was running short of fuel, was detached to return to Singapore.

(At 1635 hours TENEDOS was given the following message ‘request destroyers to meet Force Z off the Anamba Islands at dawn, 11th December’ which she was to transmit to Singapore at 0800/10/12/41)

At 1850 hours Force Z turned on to north westerly course, possibly to mislead the shadowing aircraft.
At approximately 1930 hours lookouts on ELECTRA reported sighting a flare an estimated 5 miles to the north.

(At this point the Japanese 7th cruiser division was approximately 15 miles to the north of Force Z and were just turning on to a north easterly course away from Force Z. The flare sighted by ELECTRA had been dropped by a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft searching for Force Z who had mistaken the CHOKAI for one of the British ships)

At 2015 hours Force Z turned onto a southerly course.
At 2055 hours Admiral Philips sent the following signal to his commanders: “I have most regrettably 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.”
Captain Tennant of the REPULSE immediately signalled the Admiral that he appreciated the difficulty of this decision and agreed with it.
At 2335 hours Admiral Philips received a signal reporting an enemy landing at Kuantan, 150 miles to the south of Kota Bharu. Since Kuantan was a key military position of great importance Philips decided to investigate the report.

HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse under attack
HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse under attack

Dec. 10th – At 0052 hours in approximate position 5N, 105-50E, Force Z turned on to a south westerly course towards Kuantan and increased speed to 25 knots.

At 0221 hours the Japanese submarine I 58 sighted Force Z. She at once attacked and fired five torpedoes at the lead ship, the PRINCE OF WALES, all missed. I 58 then surfaced and sent off a sighting report and followed at 16 knots, but finally lost contact at 0305 hours.
At 0730 hours PRINCE OF WALES launched one of her Walrus aircraft to carry out a reconnaissance of Kuantan.
At 0800 hours Force Z was off Kuantan. The report from the Walrus of no enemy activity, so EXPRESS was detached to also have a look. EXPRESS signalled ‘all as quiet as a wet Sunday afternoon.’
At 0830 hours EXPRESS rejoined Force Z and course was set to the south. Shortly afterwards course was altered to the northeast then to the east.
At 1026 hours an enemy aircraft bearing 220 degrees was picked up by REPULSE’s radar. This was a Nell reconnaissance aircraft which reported the sighting of Force Z at the same time, but the report did not reach the strike force until 1100 hours.

(At 0600 hours 9 Mitsubishi G3M, Nell bombers, each armed with a 60kg bomb and three Mitsubishi Ki-15/C5M2, Babs, were flown off to conduct a sector search for Force Z. Because of the poor visibility the search planes did not discover Force Z until they were returning to Saigon)

At 1100 hours course was altered to 135 degrees by blue pendant, bringing the heavy ships into starboard quarter line, REPULSE was given authority to act independently: and a few minutes later, nine enemy aircraft were sighted approaching from the starboard bow, flying at about 10,000 feet. All ships, except the VAMPIRE, which was outranged, opened fire at 1113 hours.

(At 0700 hours a strike force of 84 aircraft (34 bombers (Nells) and 50 torpedo planes (25 Nells +25 Bettys)) took off from Saigon and set course south for the estimated position of Force Z. The strike force was organised in flights of about 9 aircraft; the general plan was to attack continuously, starting with a bombing attack from about 8,000 feet by the Genzan group, the Mihoro and Kanoya groups following in turn as they arrived. All attacks were to be controlled by the Flight Leaders. After making their RV the flights proceeded independently south along the 105th meridian. Nothing was seen of Force Z during this southerly run and after sighting Singapore they turned to the northward. One flight separated from the main group and attacked TENEDOS. The main group’s course was to lead them straight to Force Z and these were the aircraft that were now attacking Force Z)

Japanese high-level bombing attack on HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse on 10 December 1941
Aerial bombing of Repulse and Prince of Wales

At 1115 hours 8 Nells, armed with 250kg bombs, carried out a high level bombing attack from 10000 feet, on REPULSE. One bomb fell just clear to starboard, six very close to port.
At 1122 hours one 250kg bomb hit the port hangar, bursting on the armor below the marines’ mess deck. This caused a fire in the catapult deck and fractured a steam pipe, but no damage was done to the engine or boiler rooms and the fire was rapidly got under control.
At 1156 hours REPULSE was attacked by a group of nine Nell torpedo bombers. These came in from her port side; she altered course towards them and succeeded in combing a large number of torpedo tracks.

(The torpedoes carried by the Nells were Type 91 Mod 1,450mm diameter, weighing 784 kg., with a warhead of 150 kg., speed 41 to 43 knots with a range of 2000 metres. The maximum launch speed was 260 knots)

At 1158 hours a high level bombing attack by eight Nells (the same group that attacked at 1115 hours) concentrated on the REPULSE she was maneuvering at high speed at the time and being actually under helm when the bombs fell and she escaped untouched. There was one near miss to starboard and the remainder fell just clear to port.
At 1158 hours REPULSE made a W/T report ‘Enemy aircraft bombing.’
At 1200 hours REPULSE contacted the PRINCE OF WALES by signal light and informed Admiral Philips that the ‘REPULSE had so far avoided all torpedoes and that damage from the bomb which had hit her was under control.’ Captain Tennant also enquired ‘if the flagship’s wireless was still in action,’ in case the Admiral wished any reports made by the REPULSE.
At 1210 hours the PRINCE OF WALES hoisted ‘not under control’ balls and Captain Tennant closed her, reducing to 20 knots, to see if he could be of any assistance. As REPULSE was closing, 25 torpedo carrying Bettys were sighted low on the horizon on the starboard bow of the REPULSE; when about three miles distant, they split into two formations. The right-hand one attacked the REPULSE from the starboard side, dropping their torpedoes at about 2,500 yards range.
Captain Tennant, foreseeing this, had already started to swing REPULSE to starboard, and had no difficulty in combing the four torpedo tracks. The left hand formation was apparently making straight for the PRINCE OF WALES but when abaft of the REPULSE’s port beam suddenly turned and headed straight for REPULSE and dropped their torpedoes when about 2,000 yards on her port beam. No avoiding action was possible, as any large alteration of course would have incurred a hit from the torpedoes whose tracks were already being combed, and one torpedo hit REPULSE amidships on the port side. REPULSE took this well and continued to maneuver at about 25 knots.

(The torpedoes carried by the Bettys were Type 91 Mod 2,450mm diameter, weighing 935 kg., with a warhead of 205 kg., speed 41 to 43 knots with a range of 2000 metres. The maximum launch speed was 260 knots)

Painting of Prince of Wales and Repulse sinking
Painting of Prince of Wales and Repulse sinking

Fresh waves of Betty torpedo bombers then attacked the REPULSE from several directions.
At 1226 hours REPULSE shot down two of her attackers.
A torpedo hit jammed her steering gear, and, though she could still steam at well over 20 knots, was almost immediately afterwards hit by three torpedoes abreast the superstructure, two simultaneously on the port side and one on the starboard side. She turned sharply 90 degrees to starboard, listing heavily to port. This brought her fine on the PRINCE OF WALES quarter and steering a parallel course. Captain Tennant knew then that the end was at hand, and at once gave the order for everyone to come on deck and to cast loose the Carley floats.
Captain Tennant described the last moments of REPULSE as follows:

Men were now pouring up on deck. They had all been warned 24 hours before to carry or wear their lifesaving apparatus. When the ship had a 30 degrees list to port, I looked over the starboard side of the bridge and saw the Commander and two or three hundred men collecting on the starboard side. I never saw the slightest sign of panic or ill discipline. I told them from the bridge how well they had fought the ship, and wished them good luck. The ship hung for at least a minute and a half to two minutes with a list of about 60 degrees or 70 degrees to port and then rolled over.

At 1233 hours REPULSE sank
ELECTRA and VAMPIRE closed the REPULSE and succeeded in rescuing 42 out of 69 officers (including Captain Tennant) and 754 out of 1,240 ratings (called enlisted in the U.S.).
ELECTRA made the signal that REPULSE and PRINCE OF WALES had been sunk. Even after they were rescued, some survivors from the REPULSE manned action stations on ELECTRA to free the ELECTRA crew to rescue more survivors.

 

Having sailed without any air support, Force Z was attacked in open waters and had its two largest warships sunk by long-range torpedo bombers. Along with the attack on Pearl Harbor only three days earlier, this illustrated the effectiveness of aerial attacks against even the heaviest of naval assets if they were not protected by air cover.

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