Anasazi Ruins, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Review of "Hostages to Fortune" by Arthur Nicholson, 2005

This is a good book on an old topic, the sinking of a British battleship and battlecruiser off Malaya on the 10th of December 1941. There have been many books written on this one topic, and it is covered in detail in many general books on the war in the Pacific. This book continues the tradition of adding new information and drawing new conclusions, based on new research or adding new interpretation of old research and old documents.

The basic story continues to fascinate. In late 1941 the British decided to send two battleship-class ships to Singapore as a deterrent to the Japanese threat to British and Dutch colonies in the Far East. The two ships sent were the modern battleship Prince of Wales and the older battlecruiser Repulse. Together they operated as Force Z. Both ships were sunk in the first few days of the war, an outcome several senior politicians and military leaders in Britain were worried might happen. Although that they would be sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers operating from Indo-China was not foreseen, except by the two British Admirals commanding in the Mediterranean who had often experienced the dangers of air attacks on surface ships.

After the war British leaders, especially Churchill, avoided taking responsibility. Who was responsible is one of the ongoing questions. Another question is whether loss of the ships could have been avoided, even after the they arrived in Singapore.

One myth is shattered in this book. That is the belief that the British intended to send an aircraft carrier to Singapore along with Force Z. The author argues convincingly that while it was understood that a balanced force including an aircraft carrier was needed, it was only post-war that various British leaders claimed they fully intended to send the carrier on the expedition. The late story is that the carrier option was prevented because the new carrier Indomitable grounded while working up in the Caribbean in November 1941. In fact, Tom Phillips, the British Admiral in command of Force Z, did not expect an aircraft carrier to arrive until several months into 1942. Even without the grounding Indomitable was not going to be worked up by early December 1941.

The author of this book believes that there is plenty of blame - he prefers the word “responsibility” - to spread amongst politicians and military leaders in Britain and Singapore. But the fundamental problem was that the British were stretched to the breaking point in naval resources, so a slow build-up was the best that could be accomplish. In a difficult situation, the two battleship-class ships alone were thought by Churchill to provide sufficent deterrence.

The author focuses on the failure to provide guidance about what to do if deterrence failed and the British ships were at Singapore before there was a balanced allied naval force in the Far East. In November the two ships were ordered east ignoring the possibility of a worst possible situation, exactly the situation they encountered.

Given that Prince of Wales and Repulse were in Singapore when the war started, without orders from London to withdraw, British naval tradition demanded that they sail to stop the Japanese landing in the north of Malaya. Phillips sailed north on December 8. When it became clear the both surprise and air support that far north from Singapore were not possible, Phillips turned back towards Singapore, diverting on his way to investigate a possible Japanese landing at Kuantan, well behind the current British defense line in Malaya. He reached Kuantan on the morning of 10 December. At the same time Japanese torpedo bombers were searching for his ships. This brings us to the second major question of the book, which was whether Phillips could have asked for fighter protection off Kuantan. The author believes that Phillips had sufficient reason to break radio silence on that morning and request fighter cover at his location off Kuantan. His ships were being shadowed by a Japanese plane, and Phillips knew that Japanese attack planes were in the area. The author believes that the two squadrons of obsolescent Buffalo fighters available from Singapore would have arrived in time to interfere with the opening Japanese torpedo attack which effectively decided the outcome of the battle. The author suggests that one of several possible reasons Phillips did not ask for fighters was that he thought the Japanese would do only level bombing, which had not proven to be much danger to ships previously in the war in the Atlantic or the Mediterranean.

Prince of Wales Leaving Singapore

I was motivated to read this book because of the revisionist conclusions in Alan Zimm’s recent book on Pearl Harbor. (“The Attack on Pearl Harbor, Strategy, Combat, Myths and Deceptions”, 2011) Zimm believes that if the Americans had been flying normal dawn patrols off Oahu on December 7 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would have ended in a massacre of the first wave of Japanese planes. Such patrols had been flown during the previous weeks. Thinking about these two books together leads me to a striking conclusion: the Japanese were remarkably lucky in the date they choose to start the war. A week earlier and their attack on Pearl Harbor would have been intercepted before surprise was achieved and Japanese naval airpower would have been destroyed for far fewer hits on American battleships. And, if they attacked a week earlier, Prince of Wales and Repulse would not yet have arrived in Singapore and would have been diverted to the Dutch East Indies or Australia were they could have been more dangerous to the Japanese.

If the Japanese had attacked a week later, the British would have gathered a more balanced force at Singapore, including at least 4 modern cruisers and 7 modern Dutch destroyers, with some time to work out a joint doctrine. While well below the 8 cruisers and more than 20 destroyers available to the Japanese off Malaya, along with two old battlecruisers, this would have been a much better force to use in an attack on the Japanese landing in northern Malaya. Certainly the amount of anti-aircraft fire from cruisers would have been a problem for the Japanese torpedo bombers. And with a more balanced force, even without a carrier, the British would have been more likely to bring the Japanese naval forces to battle in possibly favorable conditions. For one thing, the British ships had radar while the Japanese did not.

At the same time the Japanese did not seem to take account of the possibility of British reinforcements. Luckily for the Japanese the British lost the battleship Barham and the carrier Ark Royal in the Mediterranean in November 1941. These were not factors the Japanese could hope for and did consider in their decision for war. One can easily imagine the Japanese with a much weakened carrier force due to a disastrous attack on Pearl Harbor, a British fleet of 3 battleship-class ships, a carrier, and multiple cruisers and destroyers operating near the Dutch East Indies in early 1942, and a largely undamaged American fleet advancing west from Hawaii. Meanwhile, the Japanese aircraft carriers would have been integrating new aircraft flown by novice pilots, neither of which they had in quantities sufficient to overcome their own disaster off Hawaii.

Either way, starting the war a week earlier or a week later would have led to a much less successful Japanese naval offense. A week earlier and the Japanese would have literally lost the war in the first few days. A week later, and their success in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies would have been doubtful, if not unlikely. If the Americans had restarted dawn fighter patrols off Oahu, it’s back to the week earlier case, with the British having more options available in the Far East.
There is a condition on the above paragraph, which is that I can find no evidence online that the British made specific plans with the Dutch navy in the East Indies for cooperation before the arrival of Force Z in Singapore. Heck, British coordination with the Australian and New Zealand navies regarding Force Z seems to have been almost non-existent. I find this oversight surprising and difficult to understand accept based on British arrogance.

One nice feature of this book is that it includes in appendices a number of messages sent between London and the Far East near the start of the war in the Pacific. These include what the author of “Hostages to Fortune” identifies as a “prodding message”, form London that Tom Phillips must have taken as urging offensive action against the Japanese off Malaya.

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