The Sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse
Admiral of the Fleet Sir James Fownes Somerville (1882–1949), GBE, GCB, KBE, KCB, CB, DSO
by Arthur Hayward, 1950, oil on canvass. Courtesy IWM.
Admiral Tom Phillips, commanding Force Z and the man responsible for loss of HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales was, in addition to being stupid, also a backstabbing schemer who was constantly after the job of Admiral James Somerville, Commander of the famous Force H and one of Britain’s greatest fighting admirals of the war.
Writes Raymond Dannreuther in Somerville’s Force H: the Royal Navy’s Gibraltar based Fleet, June 1940 and to March 1942:
“The tendency in London not to appreciate the naval implications of political decisions put Somerville out of sympathy with the Board of Admiralty and a strained relationship developed between him and the First Sea Lord, and particularly with Vice Chief of the Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Tom Phillips, whose judgments Somerville considered lacked any understanding of how air power had changed the nature of war at sea.”
A polite way of saying that Somerville thought Phillips a fool, which he did. No one who had read reports of the debacle in Norway of RN ships being sunk by German dive bombers right and left, or of the more than 100 British ships sunk in the English Channel by the Germans during the “phony war” mainly by aircraft, or who had ever operated in the Med, would have discounted truths won at such great cost. Without risking significant loss, neither merchant ships nor warships could operate without their own air cover in waters within range of enemy airfields.
Convoys in the Med would often be attacked by 40 or more torpedo bombers coming at them from every point of the compass with dive bombers attacking the ships as they maneuvered to avoid torpedoes.
Admiral Tom Phillips caused disaster to befall the British Empire in the East. He was a man promoted far beyond his capability with a narcissism that repelled all attempts at sage advice from officers who had experienced heavy air attacks at sea, including his very own flag commander, Captain Leach of HMS Prince of Wales.