Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017: Who touches me is broken
Here we see the Renown-class 15in gun battlecruiser HMS Repulse of the Royal Navy sailing as part of Force Z from Singapore, 8 December 1941, the day WWII expanded to the Pacific in a big way with the entrance of the Empire of Japan to the conflict. Just 48 hours later, some 76 years ago this week and just three days after Pearl Harbor, Japanese aircraft caught Repulse and the new King George V-class battleship Prince of Wales in the South China Sea, unsupported and unable to resist the onslaught.
Originally part of the eight planned “R” type battleships of the Revenge-class, big 33,500-ton vessels with 8 15-in/42 cal guns, 13-inches of armor and a top speed of 21-knots on a 26,500shp plant, the last two of the class were carved off and improved upon a good bit. These ships, Renown and Repulse had much more power (126,000shp on 42 glowing boilers!) while sacrificing both armor (at their thickest point just 10 inches) and guns (six 15-inch Mark Is rather than 8). But what these two redesigned battlecruisers brought was speed– Renown making an amazing 32.58kts on builder’s trials, a speed not bested for a capital ship for almost a half-decade until the one-off HMS Hood reached the fleet in 1920.
Our ship had a storied name indeed and was the 10th RN ship to carry the name introduced first for a 50-gun galleon in 1595 and last for a Royal Sovereign-class pre-dreadnought sold in 1911, earning a combined total of 7 battle honors between them. Her motto: Qui Tangit Frangitur (Who touches me is broken.)
Both Renown and Repulse were laid down on the same day– 25 January 1915, five months into the Great War, at two different yards. Repulse, built by John Brown, Clydebank, in Scotland, was the first one complete, commissioned 18 August 1916, just six weeks too late for Jutland.
Repulse became the first capital ship to carry an aircraft, mounting a tiny 800-pound Sopwith Pup on two bullshit looking flying off platforms from her “B” and “Y” turrets in September.
Repulse did get a chance to meet the Germans in combat, however, as the flagship of the 1st Battlecruiser Squadron during the ineffective scrap of the Heligoland Bight on 17 November 1917 with RADM Richard F. Phillimore’s flag on her mast. The most severe damage done to the stronger German force under RADM Ludwig von Reuter was when one of the Repulse‘s 15-inch shells hit on the light cruiser SMS Königsberg, igniting a major fire on board.
Win one for the Repulse!
She later finished the war uneventfully but was on hand at the surrender of the High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow.
Post-war, Repulse was extensively rebuilt with some 4,500-tons of additional armor and torpedo bulges, drawing on lessons learned about how disaster-prone battlecruisers are in combat (“There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today”) against battleships and submarines. This gave her a distinctive difference from her sister for years until Renown got the same treatment. This process is extensively documented by Ivan Gogin over at Navypedia.
She joined the brand-new HMS Hood and five “D” class cruisers in 1923-24 as part of the “Special Service Squadron” to wave the Royal Ensign in a round-the-world cruise that saw her visit several far-flung Crown Colonies as well as the U.S and Canada.
In 1925, Repulse undertook Royal Visits to Portugal, South Africa and east coast of South America with Prince of Wales then largely spent the next 10 years in a reduced status with up to a third of her crew on furlough, though she put to sea for a number of exercises to give a good show between yard periods and a lengthy reconstruction.
She also picked up some deck-mounted torpedo tubes, always a waste on a capital ship!
Back to work after 1935, she was a common sight in the Med, protecting British interests.
Assigned to the Home Fleet at the outbreak of WWII, she sailed first for Halifax to provide cover in the western north Atlantic for HX and SC convoys then returned to the UK in early 1940 to screen the Northern Patrol and the Norwegian convoys, later operating off Norway itself, primarily in the Lofoten Islands, during the campaign there, just missing a chance to sink the cruiser Adm. Hipper.
Repulse then formed part of Force A, intended to block German surface raiders including Scharnhorst and Gneisenau as well as a variety of lesser cruisers from massacring Atlantic convoys.
She got a break in late 1940 with a refit at Rosyth where these great images were taken.
By March 1941, Repulse was assigned to Force H in the Med, and dispatched to Gibraltar where she would help shepherd Freetown convoys. However, in May the great German battleship Bismarck broke out into the Atlantic and Repulse took part in the effort to run her to ground– though she never contacted the Germans.
Then, Churchill decided that HMS Prince of Wales, who did get in some licks on Bismarck, along with Repulse would be a terrific addition to bolster the defenses of Singapore against a lot of noise the Japanese– who had just taken over nearby French Indochina– were making.
When the Japanese entered the war with a vengeance, enemy troop convoys were spotted, and landings made at Kuantan in Malaysia– with Force Z directed to intercept. Bird-dogged by two Japanese submarines, the Japanese 22nd Air Flotilla, based out of the French facilities at Saigon, tracked the woefully unprepared British ships and some 90~ G3M “Nell” and GM4 “Betty” bombers soon took to the air to erase the Royal Navy from the Pacific on 10 December.
It was a slow-motion slaughter that lasted for hours as the aircraft hounded the British ships.
At approximately 12:30 midday, the battlecruiser Repulse which had dodged 19 torpedoes so far, finally rolled over, within six minutes of three simultaneous hits. At the same time the relatively new battleship Prince of Wales also took three torpedoes – leaving her in a dire situation. With a torpedo having already taken out two shafts earlier in the attack, she was now left with just one. With this and, incredibly, north of 10,000 tonnes of unwelcome seawater aboard, her speed was massively reduced. However, not yet slain her crew took up the fight with high level bombers as she clawed her way home. From that final wave of attackers, one 500lb bomb came to be the final nail and slowly rolling over to port, she settled by the head and sank at 13:18.
In all, around 840 of HMs officers and men – including the task force commander Adm. Sir Thomas Spencer Vaughan “Tom” Phillips GBE, KCB, DSO, and flagship captain John Leach – lost their lives. The Japanese lost six aircraft and 18 aircrew. A squadron of land-based RAAF Brewster Buffalos, which were crap fighters compared to Zeroes but still could have fought off the lumbering twin-engine Japanese bombers, arrived after both ships were on the bottom. Four escorting destroyers, HMS Electra, Express, Vampire, and Tenedos, managed to pick up over 1,000 survivors.
Prince of Wales and Repulse were the first capital ships to be sunk at sea by aircraft alone, smothered in a wave of no less than 49 air-launched torpedoes, about 20 percent of which hit home. It was the final nail in the coffin in the air power vs the all-gun big warship debate following (ironically) the British raid on Taranto in November 1940 and, of course, Pearl Harbor. In the 13 months spanning these three engagements, there was a paradigm shift in naval warfare that found battleships on the bad end of the stick.
Of the attack, Winston Churchill said, “In all the war I never received a more direct shock. As I turned and twisted in bed the full horror of the news sank in upon me. There were no British or American capital ships in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific except the American survivors of Pearl Harbor who were hastening back to California. Over this vast expanse of waters, Japan was supreme and we everywhere were weak and naked.”
As for her crew, the survivors were scattered to the wind and continued as best they could once reaching dry land again, many winding up as prisoners of war when Singapore fell in Febuary 1942, a fate which some did not survive.
Repulse’s captain, Bill Tennant, survived the sinking and was not lost at Singapore, later going on to become one of the architects of the Normandy invasion, aiding in the setup of the Mulberry harbors and the Pluto pipelines. Sir William retired as an Admiral in 1949 and lived to the age of 73 and his earlier exploits during the miracle at Dunkirk before he arrived on Repulse were portrayed in large part by Kenneth Branagh in that recent film.
In 1945, when a major British fleet returned to the Pacific looking for a little payback and to take back Singapore and Hong Kong, it was centered around six heavily armored fleet carriers, escorted by a force of modern battleships slathered in AAA defenses– to include two sisters of Prince of Wales: HMS King George V and HMS Howe.
As for Repulse‘s own sister, Renown helped search for the pocket battleship SMS Admiral Graf Spee, traded fire with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, fought in the Med, covered the Torch Landings in North Africa, carried Churchill to the Cairo Conference and even made it to Java by 1944 to plaster the Japanese in honor of her lost classmate. She lived on to be scrapped in 1948 after 32 years of very hard and faithful service.
Both Renown and Repulse had their names recycled for an 8th and 11th time respectively, in the 1960s as two of the four Resolution-class Polaris missile submarines in the Royal Navy. Those boombers are currently laid up at Rosyth dockyard with their used nuclear fuel removed after three decades of deterrent patrols.
The 1941 loss of Repulse and Prince of Wales is still painfully remembered in the Royal Navy today, akin to the loss of the USS Indianapolis or the USS Arizona in the U.S. Navy.
The wrecks of Repulse and Prince of Wales were discovered in the 1960s and have been extensively visited and memorialized over the years.
There is now a campaign to urge recovery of some of the more important artifacts from Repulse (Prince of Wales‘ bell was salvaged some years ago) to beat illegal scrappers to the punch. As reported by the Telegraph, “The massive bronze propellers disappeared sometime between September 2012 and May 2013, followed quickly by components made of other valuable ferrous metals, such as copper. The scavengers have since turned their attention to blocks of steel and high-grade aluminum.”
And of course, she is remembered in maritime art across three continents.
27,200 long tons (27,600 t) (normal)
32,220 long tons (32,740 t) (deep load)
35,000 full (1941)
750 ft. 2 in p.p., 794 ft. 1.5 in (oa.)
Beam: 90 ft. 1.75 in
Draught: 27 ft. (33 at FL)
Installed power: 112,000 shp (84,000 kW)
4 × shafts, 2 × Brown-Curtis steam turbines steam turbine sets,
42 × Babcock & Wilcox boilers water-tube boilers
Fuel: 4243 tons oil for 4700nm range @12kts.
Speed: 31.5 knots (28 by 1939)
Crew: 967 (designed) 1,222 (1919) 1,250 (1939)
Belt: 3–6 in (76–152 mm) (later increased to 9-inches)
Decks: 1–2.5 in (25–64 mm) (later increased to 4-inches)
Barbettes: 4–7 in (102–178 mm)
Gun turrets: 7–9 in (178–229 mm)
Conning tower: 10 in (254 mm)
Bulkheads: 3–4 in (76–102 mm)
Aircraft carried: 2 Sopwith Pups (1917-20) 4 Sea Walrus (1936)
3 × 2 – 15-inch (381 mm) guns
6 × 3, 2 × 1 – 4-inch (102 mm) guns
2 × 1 – 3-inch (76 mm) anti-aircraft guns
1x 3pdr Hotchkiss Mk I 47mm
2 × 1 – submerged 21 in (533 mm) torpedo tubes
3 × 2 – 15-inch (381 mm) guns
4 × 3 – 4-inch (102 mm) guns
6 × 1 – 102/45 QF Mk V
2 × 8 – 40mm (1.6 in) 2pdr QF Mk VIII “pom-pom” AA guns
4×4- Quad Vickers .50 cal mounts
8 × 21 in (530 mm) Mk II torpedo tubes
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