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80 Years Ago Today Japan Ended the Battleship Era Forever

Battleships
Image of Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Image Credit: Royal Navy.

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.

Yamato-class battleship

Battleship IJN Musashi, August 1942, taken from the bow.

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

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. 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 has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Slack

    December 8, 2021 at 5:39 pm

    Japan’s naval aviation ended the day for the battleship. Today, the hypersonic missile is ending (or threatening to end) the day for the aircraft carrier.

    So, what should nations do to protect their sovereignty in light of uberpowers and their minions now exercising unchained powers of subjugation?

    Build a fleet of spaceplanes and space gliders.

    Spaceplanes and gliders put any target on Earth in the crosshairs in a matter of minutes upon receiving a signal or command.

    Their speed and reach will make any uberpower think twice before trying to unthinkingly kneecap any rival or foe.

  2. Johnathan Galt

    December 9, 2021 at 9:59 am

    Battleships may well return, nuclear powered. They will be armored enough to take severe hits, and use lasers and rail guns to repulse any swarm attack.

  3. Steve Wills

    December 9, 2021 at 4:36 pm

    Prince of Wales and Repulse had at best poor AAW capabilities. They might have survived had they been equipped with proximity-fused AAW shells developed during the war.

  4. Dudley Skaggs

    December 9, 2021 at 9:21 pm

    The implications of the sinking of Repulse and Prince of Whales were clearly true. Battleships underway at sea could be sunk by aircraft. The fact that they were twin engine land based planes gives them no advantage over carrier aircraft. They were in larger numbers than could be expected from a single Carrier. But Carriers almost never fought alone. The Prince of Whales was as tough a target that any aircraft could come accross. She had the most modern AA guns and hull defense system that the Royal Navy could devise at the time. We know from later in the war this fact was true. Yamato and Musashi the most powerful battleships ever built were both sunk by aircraft. The day of the battleship as ruler of the sea was over by 1941. However battleships were still important and capable ships. Thanks to their thick amour and massive main guns and AA systems they served as capable bodyguards for carriers. Nothing to this day has replaced their big guns for shore support. When the weather was too rough to launch Carrier aircraft in the north and arctic seas they resumed their role as the king of the sea. Many times after WW2 US battleships have been recalled from storage to fight; Korea, Vietnam, the 1980s Cold War and Iraq I. Nothing ever fully replaced them. But now it would take years and billions to bring them back. Someday something like them will appear to take the battleships place. Whether a missle toting monster like the Russian Battlecruisers or a technological supership like the largely failed Zumwalts or something new. However no ship has or will invoke the awe and admiration of the original.

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