Mirage Before the Storm, 80 Years Ago Today

The new C-in-C of the Eastern Fleet, Adm. Sir Thomas Spencer Vaughan “Tom” Phillips GBE, KCB, DSO, (short guy, hands on hips) watches his flagship, the brand new (and still not fully complete) King George V-class HMS Prince of Wales, fresh from catching the Bismarck, berth at Singapore on 4 December 1941. The second officer on the Admiral’s right (holding briefcase by his side) is Chief of Staff Rear Admiral A F E Palliser.

Prince of Wales, being the flagship of Force Z, was given the best berth alongside the West Wall of the Naval Base, opposite the main office buildings. Meanwhile, her companion, the Renown-class battlecruiser HMS Repulse was left moored out in the stream like some sort of ugly cousin.

It was a happy time, as the “Gibraltar of the Pacific” seemed even more impenetrable with the arrival of the two battlewagons. Surely the Japanese would take notice and steer clear, looking for easier targets. 

Just six days later, both of the proud capital ships would be on the bottom with a loss of 840 of HMs officers and men – including Tom Phillips and flagship captain John Leach. The spell was broken. 

Palliser, meanwhile, would survive, go on to command the British part of the ill-fated ABDACOM, then ride a desk at Trincomalee and New Delhi before ending the war as Fourth Sea Lord– Chief of Supplies and Transport.

One comment

  • Captain John Leech’s son, Henry Leech (the 1st Sea Lord during the Falklands War) had dinner with his father and the skipper of HMS Repulse, Captain William Tennant, a few days before the battle. He’s said that neither captain were under any illusions that this operation amounted to a suicide mission. They didn’t have control of the air, nor a carrier, and were operating in the Japanese backyard.

    It was Churchill who had the belief that just the sight of the RN would cause the Japanese to retreat in panic. He was wrong with that and with so many other things. He was a great PM but a horrible tactician.

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