Wednesday, March 6, 2019

December 10, 1941: HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse Sunk

Wednesday 10 December 1941

HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, 10 December 1941
A Japanese Navy photograph (extensively highlighted for propaganda effect) showing HMS Prince of Wales at upper left and Repulse beside it slightly close to the camera. An unidentified destroyer is at lower right (© IWM (HU 2762)). 
Battle of the Pacific: On 10 December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy sends land-based medium bombers and torpedo bombers against British Force Z, composed of Royal Navy battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse and accompanying destroyers. The two ships are investigating reports of Japanese landings at Kuantan, on the east coast of Malaya, which turn out to be spurious. The diversion costs the force valuable time in heading back to base at Singapore.

HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, 10 December 1941
"A Japanese aerial photograph showing HMS PRINCE OF WALES (top) and HMS REPULSE during the early stages of the attack in which they were sunk. HMS REPULSE had just been hit for the first time (12.20 hours)." © IWM (HU 2763).
The Force Z incident is a catastrophe for the British (in his memoirs, Winston Churchill recalls being woken up with the news and writes that "In all the war I never received a more direct shock"). With no air cover (which was available, but not requested by Force Z commander Admiral Tom Phillips until much too late), the ships are swarmed by waves of bombers. First,  at around 10:00, nine Mitsubishi G3M 'Nell' twin-engine medium bombers from the Genzan Air Corps, 22nd Air Flotilla, based at Saigon, unsuccessfully attack destroyer Tenedos, which has been detached from the force and is 140 miles southeast of Force Z. The Nell bombers then learn of the capital ships' actual position from a scout plane and head there, which fortunately for them is on their way back to base as they are running low on fuel. This force attacks at 11:13 and scores only one hit on Repulse which is inconsequential. At around 11:40, 17 more Nell bombers of the Genzan Air Group conduct a coordinated attack on the two fleeing ships. The attackers score a torpedo strike on Prince of Wales at the juncture of the port torpedo shaft with the hull which causes an 11.5-degree list and disables many anti-aircraft guns. Force Z is slowed to 15 knots or less after this, enabling further waves of planes to attack.

HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, 10 December 1941
"Japanese Forces: Japanese cruiser CHOKAI whose seaplane sighted the British ships, HMS PRINCE OF WALES and REPULSE, on 9 December 1941. The next morning they were attacked by Japanese aircraft and both were sunk off the coast of Malaya. The majority of the crews were rescued. The sinkings were an appalling blow to British prestige." © IWM (MH 6207).
At around 12:20, 26 Betty bombers of the Kanoya Air Group attack and pump three or four more torpedoes into Prince of Wales. They also hit Repulse for the first time with four torpedoes. Repulse, with inadequate waterproof compartmentalization and other deficiencies, sinks within 13 minutes. Prince of Wales is still afloat but sinking fast, so destroyer Express moves alongside and takes off a few men via ropes attached to the battleship's rising starboard side. As the Prince of Wales slowly rolls over, the length the men have to cover to reach the destroyer constantly increases, meaning few make it all the way. Express itself nearly sinks when the keel of the battleship strikes the destroyer and upends it. Prince of Wales sinks at 13:18, taking Phillips and Prince of Wales captain John Leach - who could escape but choose not to - with it. Aircraft from RAF No. 453 Squadron RAAF, called in an hour after the battle began, arrives just as the Prince of Wales sinks and achieve nothing. There are 840 deaths (508-13 from Repulse and 327 from Prince of Wales) and about 670 survivors from Repulse and just under 1200 from Prince of Wales. The Japanese later claim that they did not attack the accompanying destroyers in order to enable them to pick up survivors.

HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, 10 December 1941
Sailors abandon HMS Prince of Wales as it increasingly lists. Falling off the rope would mean almost certain death as you got caught between the two ships (AP Photo).
While the Japanese are sinking Prince of Wales and Repulse, the Netherlands Ambassador to Japan J.C. Pabst delivers a declaration of War to Japanese Foreign Minister Shigenori Tōgō. This potentially opens up another battlefront in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). However, the Japanese are not ready to attack yet, so they do not reciprocate in hopes that the Dutch will not destroy the oil fields that the Imperial Japanese Navy covets. The Dutch have a powerful fleet in the Pacific under Admiral Karel Doorman which, in conjunction with the remaining American and British forces, makes an invasion problematic for the time being. However, once that obstacle is eliminated and the other Allied forces are neutralized, the Imperial Japanese Navy is prepared to invade the Dutch territory.

HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, 10 December 1941
Three RAF Lockheed Hudson aircraft fly in formation over Iceland, 10 December 1941 (AP).
Things are not going well on land for the British, either. The RAAF withdraws No. 21 Squadron south from Sungai Petani to Ipoh and No. 62 Squadron from Butterworth to Taiping, reflecting the Japanese advance south on the Malay Peninsula. At Hong Kong, the Japanese 228th Infantry Division under Major General Takaishi Sakai and 38th Division attack at Shing Mun Redoubt and take it and Golden Hill after short but fierce battles.

HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, 10 December 1941
United States Navy Battleship Row off Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 10 December 1941. Visible (from upper left to lower right) are the sunken USS California (BB-44) (upper left), USS Maryland (BB-46) with capsized USS Oklahoma (BB-37) beside her. USS Oklahoma has a barge beside it as it is assumed there are still sailors in trapped air pockets who need rescue. USS Tennessee is still afloat, but USS West Virginia (BB-48) that is beside it is lying on the harbor floor. Also sunk (though it is hard to tell) is USS Arizona (BB-39) at the lower right  All of the battleships will be refloated except for USS Arizona, and all of those will return to service except for Oklahoma, which sinks while being towed to San Francisco in May 1947. US Naval History and Heritage Command.
The most advanced United States positions in the Pacific also are under pressure. At Guam, the Japanese 5th Defense Force from Saipan lands 400 soldiers at Dungcas Beach, north of Agana. They quickly defeat light opposition (thirteen US civilian deaths and five Marine deaths during the day) and move inland. Governor George McMillin surrenders the island at 05:45, thereby affirming congressional opponents to building an expensive naval base on the island in the first place. The Japanese only suffer one death and five wounded. In the Philippines, the Japanese bomb the US naval base at Cavite, causing extensive damage and leading Admiral Thomas C. Hart (perhaps under orders from Washington) to withdraw the US Asiatic Fleet from Philippine waters to Australia. Small Japanese landings take place on Camiguin Island and at Vigan, Aparri, and Gonzaga in northern Luzon. At Wake Island, Japanese land-based bombers based on Kwajalein Atoll attack US Marine installations on Wilkes and Wake islets. US Marine Corps pilot Captain Henry T. Elrod shoots down a Nell bomber for the first USMC fighter victory of the war.

HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, 10 December 1941
Soviet General Konstantin Rokossovsky poses in front of abandoned German equipment northwest of Moscow near Kalinin (RIA Novosti Soviet news agency as Sovinformburo).
Eastern Front: The Soviet counteroffensive at Moscow continues to make relatively small but strategically significant gains. Third Panzer Army is isolated when the Soviets cut the road out of Klin behind it. The Army Group Center war diary (Kriegstagebuch) records the situation report from isolated Third Panzer Army:
... discipline is breaking down. More and more soldiers are heading west on foot without weapons, leading a calf on a rope or pulling a sled loaded with potatoes. The road is under constant air attack. Those killed by the bombs are no longer being buried. All the hangers-on (corps troops, Luftwaffe, supply trains) are pouring to the rear in full flight. Without rations, freezing, irrationally they are pushing back. Vehicle crews that do not want to wait out the traffic jams in the open are drifting off the roads and into the villages. Ice, inclines, and bridges create horrendous blockages. Traffic control is working day and night and barely maintaining some movement. The panzer group has reached its most dismal hour.
While such reports likely contain a bit of heightened drama due to the desire for higher commands to approve withdrawals, they support similar reports from General Guderian and others around Moscow. German morale is plunging, sapped by the cold and the vulnerability of Wehrmacht positions outside Moscow.

HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, 10 December 1941
With the United States now officially at war, civil defense is taking on more urgency than previously. Here, Harry Kelsch leans toward the master switch which can shut off all lights the Hotel Astor during a blackout of New York  City, December 10, 1941. (AP Photo/Robert Kradin).

December 1941

December 1, 1941: Hitler Fires von Rundstedt
December 2, 1941: Climb Mount Niitaka
December 3, 1941: Hints of Trouble in the Pacific
December 4, 1941: Soviets Plan Counteroffensive
December 5, 1941: Soviets Counterattack at Kalinin
December 6, 1941: Soviet Counterattack at Moscow Broadens
December 7, 1941: Japan Attacks Pearl Harbor
December 8, 1941: US Enters World War II
December 9, 1941: German Retreat At Moscow
December 10, 1941: HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse Sunk
December 11, 1941: Hitler Declares War on US
December 12, 1941: Japanese in Burma
December 13, 1941: Battle of Cape Bon
December 14, 1941: Hitler Forbids Withdrawals
December 15, 1941: The Liepaja Massacre
December 16, 1941: Japan Invades Borneo
December 17, 1941: US Military Shakeup
December 18, 1941: Hitler Lays Down the Law
December 19, 1941: Brauchitsch Goes Home
December 20, 1941: Flying Tigers in Action
December 21, 1941: The Bogdanovka Massacre
December 22, 1941: Major Japanese Landings North of Manila
December 23, 1941: Wake Island Falls to Japan
December 24, 1941: Atrocities in Hong Kong
December 25, 1941: Japan Takes Hong Kong
December 26, 1941: Soviets Land in the Crimea
December 27, 1941: Commandos Raid Norway
December 28, 1941: Operation Anthropoid Begins
December 29, 1941: Soviet Landings at Feodosia
December 30, 1941: Race for Bataan
December 31, 1941: Nimitz in Charge


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