Thursday, December 10, 2015

December 10, 1941. A dark day for the British.

On December 7th, 1941, Pearl Harbor gave America and the rest of the world a wake-up call. Until then, many Americans dismissed the Japanese soldiers and airmen as being little more than the caricatures found in the newspapers of the day: they were small, with buck teeth and thick glasses because they had bad eyesight. They couldn't fly airplanes or fight, unless it was against other Asians who were even worse at it, like the Chinese.

The British pretty much shared this opinion, and it cost them dearly on this day in 1941. For as the Japanese were sneak-attacking Pearl Harbor, others had done the same thing at the British base at Singapore, albeit with far less damage caused. The next day, the British Navy detected a Japanese landing force enroute to Malaya, north of Singapore. They quickly sent out a task force comprised of the Battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the cruiser HMS Repulse.
The Repulse was a Word War One vet, showing her age but still quite capable. The Prince of Wales, however, was virtually new, a state-of-the-art battleship. It was thought that these two warships and their four supporting destroyers would be more than a match for anything that the Japanese might try, so off they went to stop the Japanese landing fleet.
HMS Prince of Wales

HMS Repulse

Ideally, the British would have had an aircraft carrier in that task force as well, however HMS Indomitable, while enroute to Singapore, ran aground at Kingston, Jamaica, and had to put into the shipyard at Norfolk, VA for repairs. As a result, she wasn't there when war broke out in the Pacific and the Brits decided to go it without air cover, having apparently learned nothing from the destruction of the German Battleship Bismark, fatally damaged by British carrier-based torpedo biplanes in May of 1941.

Heck, this time the Brits were just going up against the Japanese, right? What could they possibly do?

On December 10th, 1941, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were attacked by Japanese torpedo planes and bombers and in less than an hour and a half, both warships--the backbone of the British Naval presence in Asia--were on the ocean floor along with 840 crewmen. Hubris has cost the British dearly that day.

Sir Winston Churchill stated in his memoirs later that never during the course of the war had he received so strong a shock as when he got the phone call telling him that the ships and most of their crews were gone. No one had thought such a thing possible, especially coming from the Japanese.

Sadly for the Allies, the Japanese were just getting started. It was about to get a lot worse.
Wake. Guam. Singapore. Bataan. Corregidor. The Dutch East Indies. Australia...the price of underestimating the Japanese and dismissing them as "unfit to fight" was going to be a high one indeed, and tens of thousands of American, British, Dutch and Australian men were going to pay it with their blood in the coming weeks.

13 comments:

  1. thanks for this one. i didn't know about this.

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  2. Arrogance of the Allies bite them hard.

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  3. Unfortunately, I think we are on the path to repeating this mistake, whether by sheer incompetence, twisted design or a combination. This time the enemy is already among us.

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  4. When you fight the last war (and people always try to), you end up with your hat handed to you, and so much more. If the British had an aircraft carrier, it would have gone to the bottom too. The tactics of carrier defensive airpower were insufficient at the time and the wing on the HMS Indomitable was too small in number. They might have splashed a few Japanese airplanes. That is true, but remember what happened to the fighters defending Midway Island... (sort of an unsinkable aircraft carrier)

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  5. "...the price of underestimating the Japanese and dismissing them as "unfit to fight" was going to be a high one indeed..."

    Unfortunately, this was all true. However, it wasn't just the Allies that paid for their hubris. The Japanese themselves thought that they were the superior race and that the weak British and Americans would fold once their east Asian conquests were a fait accompli. They were sadly mistaken.

    Winston Churchill, in an address to Congress shortly afterword asked: "What sort of people do they think we are?" The Axis powers all thought we were weak and easily beaten. Four years later...

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  6. ...another thing I forgot to mention. The "HMS Prince of Wales" was with "HMS Hood" during their encounter with the "Bismark". During that engagement, the "Prince of Wales" was damaged. The "Hood" was sunk.

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  7. Not to quibble but the pic labeled POW is not of the Prince of Wales. King George V class had a twin and a quad 14" main turret forward and no fighting top. The ship in the pic has two twin main turrets forward and a fighting top...looks like a HMS Repulse pic.

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    1. Corrected, thanks. See what happens when you just glom pics off the internet? Good catch though.

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  8. The Repulse was a BATTLE CRUISER, not a cruiser. Cruisers had normally 6 or 8 inch guns, not 15 inch. The Repulse, unlike battleships, did not have the armor to stop 15 inch gun return fire. They were fast, fast as a cruiser but they just could not take it in a fight with a battleship.

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    1. I think that what killed Repulse was a lack of anti-torpedo blisters. Unlike HMS Hood, she never took a single round of incoming naval gun fire.

      Thanks for highlighting the difference between cruisers and battle cruisers though. One more thing that I did not know before.

      I have some of the coolest and most knowledgeable readers.

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  9. BTW, the HMS Hood was a battle cruiser to. Hence she got blown out of the water.

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  10. Battle cruisers have always had a bad time when locking paws with battleships. The Battle of Jutland, in WW1, had several British BCs get ahead of the fleet and end to in a fight with German battleships. Even though the German ships had smaller guns the lack of armor got several British BCs blown up. HMS Indefatigable, HMS Queen Mary, and HMS Invincible. HMS Princess Royal was badly damaged.

    That lesson had to be repeated in WW2!

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  11. Thank you for posting this. I learned something new today.

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