“In all the war I never received a more direct shock.”

The sinking of the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales off Singapore by Japanese aircraft on 1o July 1941. Winston Churchill said in the all of the war he never received a greater shock.

 

 Admiralty_Arch,_London,_England_-_June_2009

Admiralty Arch in London, 2009

This magnificent photograph by David Iliff is a four segment exposure blended image of the Admiralty Arch in London England, as viewed from the Mall facing north-east.

 

The blame for the loss of the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse to Japanese naval planes on 10 December 1941 can be laid directly at the feet of Vice-Admiral Tom Phillips. He was a protege of First Sea Lord Dudley Pound and had been jumped over a number of more competent admirals to become Vice Chief of the Naval Staff because Pound wanted him.

It is true that at the beginning, Churchill liked Phillips but that affection waned over the next months and Churchill came to actively dislike Phillips who many thought blunt and rude.

Subsequently it was Pound who informed Churchill that he had appointed Phillips as Admiral Commanding the force being sent to Malaysia. What makes this appointment by Pound so inexplicable and unfortunate, was Phillips had spent seven his years of previous eleven years spent in staff positions.

While Pound had only seen action once, as Captain of a battleship at Jutland, he had commanded many types of ships and squadrons as well as the Mediterranean Fleet. Phillips had never, not ever, been captain of a battleship and yet he was put in charge of one of the newest and most powerful battleships in the entire Royal Navy–HMS Prince of Wales. At the time of his appointment he had not commanded at sea during the war and had not been on the receiving end of German air attacks.

Many blame Churchill for this but the Prime Minister cannot be held accountable for the stupidity of men whom he had had every right to believe knew their trade. Neither Pound nor Phillips seemed to understand the threat posed to warships by aircraft even after the horrendous losses of and damage to British warships in the Norwegian Campaign April-June 1940.

Captain Stephen Roskill, an experienced and intelligent career officer, was serving on the Naval Staff when Phillips arrived as Vice-Chief.  That planes regularly sank warships and that the British system of AA gunnery was fatally flawed, something known before the war, was not something Roskill seemed to be able to get through to Phillips or the senior admirals in the navy.

Roskill had read all the reports from Norway and talked to many of the officers who were his contemporaries. After the war, Captain Roskill, RN, became the official historian of the Royal Navy. Despite his great capabilities Roskill suffered a fair amount of discrimination because he was Jewish. Anti-Semitism was alive and well in the Royal Navy to their discredit.

Writes Roskill,

“….the Norwegian campaign brought many new troubles, and heavy losses to the fleet; and it was then that the navy learnt the hard lesson that, so long as adequate air cover was lacking, control of coastal waters by warships in support of military operations was impossible….

….Rear Admiral Tom Phillips, the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff, who had no first hand experience of the deadly effect of unopposed dive-bombers on warships, insisted that all the was needed to deal with them effectively was greater courage and resolution; and he took it very badly when told that such ideas were unjust to those officers who had the experience, and were in fact far from the truth.”

quoted from Churchill and the Admirals by Stephen Roskill
In a footnote to these paragraphs in the book cited above, Roskill, never a man to be rude, writes the following:
“I had a stormy interview with Phillips on this matter when I brought back to the Admiralty first-hand reports of the effect of bombing off Norway in April 1940. Phillips would not accept that it was suicidal to send warships to operate off an enemy-held coast without air cover.”
(Author’s emphasis)

For Roskill to write that he had a “stormy interview” means he must have gone right up to the line of insubordination with Philips whom he detested and made no secret of his feelings. In face, I get the impression that Roskill no doubt raised his voice to a level just below yelling. For a man of Roskill’s diplomatic abilities, disposition and exuisite manners, this must have been quite an argument but it shows how deeply Roskill felt.

The responsibility of the debacle of the sinking of the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales is summed up best by Martin Middlebrook and Patrick Mahoney in: Battleship: the Loss of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. Writing of Phillips they say,

“…the facts speak for themselves: two great ships and many good men were lost because one stubborn old sea-dog refused to acknowledge that he had been wrong.”

 

Sources:

Churchill and the Admirals by Stephen Roskill

Churchill’s Anchor–a biography of Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Dudley Pound

Alarm Starboard

Battleship my Middlebrooks

Published by

Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/