Eighty years ago today Japanese aircraft shocked the naval world with a devastatingly effective attack against a group of Allied battleships. The attack effectively destroyed Allied naval power in the area and paved the way for the Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, the events of December 10, 1941, remain poorly understood. While December 7 has become a signifier for shocks to the national security state, the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse has become a signifier for technological shocks. How could the defense bureaucracies of half a dozen of the world’s largest powers have persisted in the construction of battleships in the face of the obsolescence that Malaya rendered so obvious?
To recap: Shortly after news of the Pearl Harbor raid reached Singapore, the Royal Navy(RN) received intelligence of Japanese amphibious attacks on Malaya. In an effort to disrupt the attack the RN dispatched Force Z, including the battleship Prince of Wales, the battlecruiser Repulse, and four destroyers to intercept the Japanese invaders. Prince of Wales, which had inflicted eventually fatal damage on the German battleship Bismarck at the Battle of Denmark Straits, was the most powerful modern battleship in the Pacific Theater at the time and thus a serious threat to Japanese plans.
The British ships narrowly missed a Japanese task force in the night, in part because Prince of Wales radar had malfunctioned in the heat and humidity. The Japanese were aware of the presence of the British ships and launched a force of land-based bombers to conduct a sweep in the early morning of December 10. This force, consisting mostly of G3M and G4M twin-engine bombers, found the task force in the late morning and proceeded to attack. Bombs and torpedoes disabled and then sank the British ships.
Aircraft had sunk and damaged battleships before; a Swordfish biplane damaged Bismarck in May 1941, the Royal Navy’s attack on Taranto had sunk or severely damaged several battleships, and of course, Pearl Harbor had been attacked only three days prior. But aircraft had never destroyed modern battleships that could maneuver in the open sea and defend themselves with anti-aircraft weapons.
Churchill referred to the attack as the war’s most shocking moment, and military historians and analysts have used it as a touchstone for thinking about how military technology becomes rapidly obsolete. And from a certain point of view, the events of December 10 demonstrated the obsolescence of the battleship. The sinking of Force Z showed that battleships could not operate on their own without air cover. It conclusively proved that prewar naval authorities had made several critical errors in resource allocation and technology evaluation. Finally, it demonstrated that military planners could not be trusted to manage their own toys. If the navies of the world could not understand, on the brink of World War II, that their primary technology platform was fundamentally obsolete, then how could they ever be trusted to manage their own affairs again.
As is usually the case, the event itself was far more complicated than its reputation. The Japanese planes weren’t carrier aircraft, but rather land-based twin-engined bombers, undercutting the case that carriers were suddenly dominant. Carrier aircraft would not sink an underway battleship until 1944. The British ships were under the unusual condition of absolute vulnerability, with faulty radar and no fighter cover. Force Z had come within a hair’s breadth of a surface night engagement against the Imperial Japanese Navy that might have substantially delayed the Japanese advance. Subjecting Japanese cruisers and transports to the 14” guns of HMS Prince of Wales would have resulted in a much different appraisal of the obsolescence of battleships.
Of course, there are big parts about the classic story of Force Z that aren’t wrong. Battleships would not play the decisive role in the Pacific, conceding that role to aircraft carriers. Navies would soon stop acquiring battleships altogether, as their superior armor and survivability could not match the long-distance striking power of the carrier. The loss of Repulse and Prince of Wales would crystalize the narrative that was emerging in the wake of Taranto and Pearl Harbor and would clarify the emergence of carrier aircraft as a critical naval technology. Still, we should take care with how categorically we embrace the myths around the crucial events of 80 years ago.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He spent the 2018-19 academic year in the Department of National Security Strategy at the US Army War College. You can find Dr. Farley on Twitter: @DrFarls.