Losing the two capital ships that comprised Force Z was a major blow to the Royal Navy in World War II, but the British could have maintained control in the Pacific as a matter of chance.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack against the US fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor. This strike, precise in its planning and execution, threw South East Asia into chaos. Coinciding with this strike, the Japanese launched numerous attacks against the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaya.
At midnight on December 8th, a Japanese force landed on the eastern shores of the Malayan peninsula. Their objective was the British fortress/island of Singapore, the de facto capital and bastion of all British interests east of India. To defend the island and Malaya, the British had several divisions strung out across the country and powerful air fleet based in Singapore. But in terms of naval forces, the British were strung out.
In the area were the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, together called “Force Z.” The loss of these two capital ships paved the way for the loss of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, and the complete destruction of the Allied position in South East Asia. Both then and now, many have asked the question: was this loss preventable? If so, then what impact could Force Z have had on the Malayan Campaign?
I argue that the loss was preventable and that the British capital ships would have had a decisive impact on not just the ongoing battles, but on the evolution of the entire war itself.
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Force Z Lacked Air Cover
Force Z was lost due to a lack of air cover. Some historians have argued that a major factor was the failure of Force Z's surface radar and anti-aircraft guns, which were ill-suited for the humid Malaysian weather. While these were certainly factors, I would argue that the real problem was the lack of air screen or Combat Air Patrol over the fleet.
The lack of this cover gave the Japanese a free hand to attack when and where they chose, while limiting Force Z's options. But could Force Z have obtained adequate air cover to protect it? Sir Thomas Phillips was often criticized for his inability to coordinate the movements of Force Z with the Royal Air Force (RAF) stationed on the Malaysian peninsula. However, this criticism is far from fair. In the two days between the Japanese landing and the loss of Force Z, the Japanese Navy had already established several airbases in the area, and they were already hammering the RAF hard. There was little extra to go around, and certainly few resources to stop the 90 bombers that would eventually bear down on the British.
So, the RAF was out, and there were no other assets that could have supported Force Z. Between Suez, Singapore, and Pearl Harbor, the only major British assets had already been thrown into Force Z. In the entire Pacific the only aircraft not already committed were aboard the three American carriers then racing east for the protection of the Californian coast. But this was only the case thanks to chance, and a very poor example of seamanship.
Calling in the HMS Indomitable
In October, the Royal Navy commissioned the HMS Indomitable aircraft carrier. She was state of the art and carried 50 aircraft, including twenty-two Hawker Sea Hurricanes. After her commissioning, Indomitable was sent on a brief training cruise through the Caribbean Sea, where she promptly ran around. While the damage to the ship was not catastrophic, she did require spend most of November in port making repairs. Through the fall of 1941, Indomitable was tasked with helping to shore up the defense of Singapore, but she was essentially laid up during the key decisions leading up to the loss of Force Z. Had she been present on that muggy December day, her Hurricanes would have made a world of difference against the slow and unwieldy Japanese land-based bombers. She also would have played a critical role in locating and attacking the vital Japanese convoys which were then feeding their forces ashore.
Even if the Indomitable was delayed in reaching Force Z due to transit through the Panama Canal and the central Pacific, knowing that help was on the way would have seriously altered Phillips' thinking. Without that bit of hope, the Malayan picture was bleak. British forces on the ground and in the air were being hard pressed by the Japanese, and there was serious risk that they would collapse all together.
With the loss of Malaya, Singapore's days as a British possession were numbered. So, Phillips made the only decision available to him. Realizing that the longer he waited the weaker his forces became, he decided to take Force Z as it existed and try to cut the Japanese off at sea. This was ultimately the right move, even if it ended in disaster.
Turning the Tide of Battle
The Japanese force attacking Malaya was tied to the rest of the empire through a delicate line stretching back around the coast of Vietnam to the occupied Chinese island of Hainan. Had Phillips opened up shop amid these convoys, there was little that could have stopped him. In December, Japan was stretched just as thinly in the region as the British. They were fighting in China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaya, the Central Pacific, and against the US Navy around Hawaii. The only escorts they could scrape together for the Malaya invasion were an old cruiser and several destroyers. The heavy Prince of Wales, slayer of the Bismarck, and the fast Repulse would have had weeks tearing across the Pacific before the bulk of the Japanese Navy would have been in position to challenge him.
With the Indomitable alongside him, using Singapore as his base, Phillips would have even likely been able to hold out against a much larger force. Over the course of 1942 he would have also been reinforced with more capital ships, including the Warspite. After that, the fall of Singapore would become increasingly unlikely.
With a major British fleet in Malaya, it's hard to see how the Japanese would have held Indonesia, New Guinea, or threatened Australia. Not only would the Japanese Navy have been thrown back on the Philippines and Indochina, but the oil of Indonesia, the very object of the 1942 campaign, would have remained in European hands. All this would have been possible if not for the loss of Force Z, and had Indomitable not ran aground in October.