In late 1941, tensions with Japan were growing in the Far East and the British sent a force of powerful warships which they hoped would deter further Japanese aggression. On 2 December, the new battleship Prince of Wales and the veteran battlecruiser Repulse arrived at Singapore.

The Sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse

These two ships formed the nucleus of a fleet based in Singapore, designated ‘Force Z’. Five days later on 7 December, the Japanese launched surprise attacks throughout the Far East and Pacific against British, Commonwealth, American and Dutch colonies.

On 8 December, a Japanese invasion fleet was sighted en-route to British Malaya and Force Z set out to intercept.

At 10:15am on 10 December, having narrowly missed the Japanese convoy, Force Z was spotted by Japanese scouts and bombers converged on the British fleet. The aircraft attacked in waves and the British ships desperately manoeuvred to avoid bomb and torpedo attacks.

Japanese aerial photograph of the attack on Prince of Wales (top) and Repulse. Repulse has just been hit
Japanese aerial photograph of the attack on Prince of Wales (top) and Repulse. Repulse has just been hit. IWM (HU 2763)

After dodging many torpedoes, the Repulse was hit several times and rolled over. The Prince of Wales had also been badly damaged and the order was given to abandon ship. At 13:20 she too rolled over and sank.

The crew of HMS Prince of Wales abandoning ship after torpedo attacks by Japanese aircraft
The crew of HMS Prince of Wales abandoning ship after torpedo attacks by Japanese aircraft. IWM (HU 2675)

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said of the loss of these ships: 'In all the war, I never received a more direct shock.There were no British or American ships in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific except the American survivors of Pearl Harbor who were hastening back to California. Over all this vast expanse of waters Japan was supreme and we everywhere were weak and naked.'

Of more than 2,900 crew, some 840 were lost: 500 from the Repulse and 320 from the Prince of Wales. The majority of these men have no known grave but the sea. The CWGC commemorates them by name on the three great naval memorials in the United Kingdom. The majority are commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial.