Sailors abandon HMS Prince of Wales and attempt to board the destroyer HMS Express 10 December 1941. © Ullstein Bild/Getty Images.

Sailors abandon HMS Prince of Wales and attempt to board the destroyer HMS Express, 10 December 1941. (Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)

The Tragedy of Force Z

The sinking by Japanese aircraft of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse in December 1941 and the subsequent loss of Singapore was a grievous blow to British morale. But have historians misunderstood what really happened? 

British accounts of the weeks immediately before the outbreak of war with Japan in December 1941 are dominated by the story of Force Z, comprised of the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle-cruiser HMS Repulse. It is the tale of a futile gesture of late and inadequate deterrence, leading inexorably to disaster. The loss of the force to Japanese air attack on 10 December, just two days into the conflict, was traumatic; the greatest single defeat suffered by the Royal Navy during the Second World War.

Yet historians have given the story more significance than is justified by the loss of a relatively small element of the Royal Navy. It has been portrayed as the inevitable consequence of a flawed ‘Singapore strategy’: the illusion that a two-hemisphere empire could be secured with a one-hemisphere navy ended with the despatch to Singapore of a political token. For those coming of age postwar, the sinking of British battleships by an upstart Asian power symbolised the collapse of imperial and naval power. It encapsulated not just strategic overstretch but a failure of will and capability, mixed with professional arrogance and incompetence.

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