As tensions grew in the Far East in 1941, Churchill ordered a small battle force sent to the British naval base at Singapore to act as a deterrent against any aggressive move by Japan. With the war going poorly in Europe, all that could be spared for the base were the battleship Prince of Wales, battle cruiser Repulse, aircraft carrier Illustrious, and a destroyer screen. However, Illustrious ran aground in the West Indies before it could join the force, suffering serious enough damage to require yard repairs. The remaining ships proceeded to Singapore without naval air cover. They were pitifully inadequate against the ten battleships of the Japanese Navy, but might have disrupted the Japanese timetable if intelligently employed.
Since Force Z was sent to Singapore for its deterrent value, no
effort was made to conceal its arrival from the Japanese. The Japanese
responded by reinforcing 22 Air Flotilla with additional bombers and crews.
The commander of the force, Sir Thomas Phillips, was determined to oppose the amphibious landings in northern Malaya in spite of overwhelming Japanese superiority in the air. He counted on fighter support from land bases and intended to stay out of range of Japanese bombers. Unfortunately, fighter support became unavailable almost as soon as hostilities commenced, and the Japanese Nell and Betty bombers had a much greater range than suspected by the Allies. Force Z was spotted by a submarine in the early hours of 10 December 1941 and again detected by a C5M search plane after daylight. Japanese bombers then attacked at the extreme limit of their range with bombs and torpedoes. Both capital ships were sunk after Prince of Wales took a critical hit on a propeller shaft that led to widespread flooding in the engineering spaces.
||Sunk: Prince of Wales and Repulse|
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