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Sinking the Unsinkable

It was something new in the memory of man when the Japanese Sea Eagles torpedoed the mighty dreadnoughts Prince of Wales and Repulse, much vaunted as unsinkable, and sent them to the bottom of the South China Sea. It was the same at the Pearl Harbour. This episode we will investigate the story of these two once great warship and uncover the event of the fateful day that leads to their sinking both above and beneath the watery grave.

The HMS Repulse

HMS Repulse, a 26,500-ton Renown class battlecruiser, was built at Clydebank, Scotland in 1916. In 1933-36, Repulse was modernized, emerging with improved deck armor, a hangar and catapult for aircraft, and a greatly increased anti-aircraft gun battery.

She operated with the Home Fleet in the North Sea and Atlantic during the first two years of the Second World War, taking part in the pursuit of the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941.

Later in the year she was sent to the Far East, accompanying the new battleship Prince of Wales. The two ships arrived at Singapore just before Japan began the Pacific War. As soon as hostilities commenced, both steamed northwards to intercept a reported invasion force. While returning to Singapore on 10 December 1941, Repulse and Prince of Wales were attacked by Japanese high-level bombers and torpedo planes.

Repulse was moderately damaged by bombs early in the action and was later hit by several torpedoes. After receiving this heavy underwater damage, she sank rapidly, followed less than an hour later by the Prince of Wales.

 
 
HMS Prince of Wales, a 35,000-ton King George V class battleship built Birkenhead, England, was completed in March 1941. Sent to the Far East with the battlecruiser HMS Repulse to counter the swiftly developing Japanese threat in the region, she arrived on 2 December 1941. On 8 December, the day of the Pearl Harbor Raid on the other side of the International Date Line, the Japanese landed in northern Malaya. Prince of Wales, Repulse and four destroyers were sent to attack the invasion force.
 
 
 

 

 

After finding no targets, the British ships were returning to Singapore when, late in the morning of 10 December, they were attacked by a strong force of Japanese high-level bombers and torpedo planes. With no friendly planes to protect them, both heavy ships were hit several times. Repulse sank at about 1230. Prince of Wales capsized and followed her to the bottom less than an hour later. The first capital ships to be sunk by air attack while operating on the high seas, their loss further shocked a naval world already stunned by the events at Pearl Harbor only a few days earlier.

Loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse
10 December 1941

Photograph taken from a Japanese aircraft during the initial high-level bombing attack. Repulse , near the bottom of the view, has just been hit by one bomb and near-missed by several more. Prince of Wales is near the top of the image, generating a considerable amount of smoke.

Japanese writing in the lower right states that the photograph was reproduced by authorization of the Navy Ministry.
Loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse
10 December 1941

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane, with Prince of Wales at far left and Repulse beyond her. A destroyer, either Express or Electra , is maneuvering in the foreground.
Dulin and Garzke's "Allied Battleships in World War II", page 199, states that this photograph was taken "after the first torpedo attack, during which the Prince of Wales sustained heavy torpedo damage."
"Sea Battle off Malaya"
Japanese war art painting by Nakamura Kanichi, 1942, depicting Japanese Navy aircraft making successful torpedo attacks on the British battleship Prince of Wales (center) and battlecruiser Repulse (left) on 10 December 1941.

Planes shown include "Betty" bombers.


 
 
 
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