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.
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.