On this day in 1941, two ships among the pride of the British Navy were sunk near Malaya. It happened just days after Japan launched its take- over bid for almost all of Asia, as well as attacking other powers who stood in its way: America, Britain, Holland, Australia and anyone else. Its attack on the US Navy and facilities at Pearl Harbor on 7 December is infamous.
The Japanese assault on Asia began in earnest the next day, with invasion of southern Thailand and northern Malaya, and air attacks on Singa- pore. The Nippon forces made short work of defence put up by Thais, Allied forces and people of Malaya, sweeping south through the Malay Peninsula along jungle roads and by ‘hopping’ along the east and west coasts.
Anticipating trouble, Britain had already sent the battleship Prince of Wales and the cruiser Repulse to Singapore, arriving 2 December. ‘Force Z’ was created to intercept the Nippon navy north of Malaya, and comprised Prince of Wales and Repulse plus four destroyers, Electra, Express, Vampire and Tenedos. It set out late on 8 December, having weathered an air attack earlier that day. Admiral Phillips declined any air support, to maintain radio silence. The following day, the fleet was tracked first by a Japanese submarine and later by seaplanes.
Toward midday on 10 December, as Force Z headed toward Kuantan on the Malayan east coast, it was attacked by 17 land- based Japanese bombers. In the first wave, a torpedo found its mark near a propeller of the Wales, crippling the ship.
The second attack, by a different group of bombers, hit the stricken vessel three more times. Repulse, which had avoided any hits previously, was struck in short order by four torpedoes. It healed over in minutes and sank with severe casualties. While Prince of Wales listed heavily, Express drew alongside to rescue survivors. As the ship sank, RAAF fighters arrived from the mainland, too late. The remaining destroyers returned to Singapore. Japan had lost only three aircraft, while 840 British sailors had perished.
The routing of Force Z left the east coast of Malaya exposed and allowed Japan to continue its invasion unhindered from the sea. Now the Allies had only four ‘capital’ ships left in the entire Pacific theatre, causing them to more keenly realise the importance of air support, but too late to prevent the fall of Singapore.