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The Rising Sun of Japan - Dec. 10, 1941


After hosting the historic Atlantic Charter meeting between Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt on August 12, 1941, the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the WWI veteran battlecruiser HMS Repulse were dispatched by Churchill as the core naval units of "Force Z" to Singapore on October 25th to deter the Japanese from attacking British possessions in Malaya and the East Indies.  The new aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable had been scheduled to join Force Z to provide air cover for the ships, but she ran aground in Jamaica during trials and was under repair.

Arriving in Singapore in early December, Force Z was meant by Churchill to "overawe" the Japanese with British naval power, but Japan was not deterred from commencing their invasion of Malaya on the same day of their attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7th.  Serving as the new flagship of Vice-Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, the HMS Prince of Wales along with the HMS Repulse and four destroyers left Singapore the following day to search for and intercept Japanese invasion forces at sea.  However, they were not successful and the Japanese submarine I-65 spotted Force Z as it was returning to Singapore.  Japanese aircraft and submarines shadowed the fleet, and on December 10th, 1941, three days after Pearl Harbor, they were attacked by 86 bombers and torpedo bombers from the 22nd Air Flotilla based in Saigon.  With no air cover, both the Prince of Wales and Repulse were quickly sunk and 840 men were killed, including Vice-Admiral Phillips.  The Prince of Wales, having sustained four torpedo strike and one bomb hit, sank in 223 feet of water.  In 2001, the British Government declared its resting place an official "Protected Place".  The wreck lies upside down with a British flag, which is periodically replaced, attached to a buoy line to mark the grave of those sailors lost that fateful day.

This was the first time that capital ships were sunk at sea by air power alone and signaled the end of the era of the battleship.  Henceforth, aircraft and aircraft carriers reigned supreme in naval combat, eclipsing the role of the big gun ships that were the backbone of the Royal Navy for a half century.  The incident also demonstrated Churchill's tragic miscalculation that two British battleships could deter Japanese aggression in the Pacific, seriously underestimating Japan's large pre-war navy and air forces.  The Imperial Japanese Navy would be the dominant power in the Pacific for another six months until the tide was turned against long odds at the Battle of Midway in May 1942.  Over the next three years, the Japanese Navy was steadily driven back to its home islands until Japan finally surrendered to Allied forces in Tokyo Harbor on September 2, 1945, bringing World War II to an end.

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