The End of an Era

Britain was the most affected by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which prevented a post war arms race by limiting capital ship construction, and placed a 10 year moratorium on new capital ships. It eased the effects of the bad post war economy, but the British shipbuilding industry atrophied, and the specialized knowledge required of the big ships disappeared. When the Treaty limits were completely dropped in 1936 in the face of German and Japanese aggression, a shipbuilding boom happened, but unlike their adversaries whose capital ship industries started from scratch, the British just recycled and updated Great War designs (They won, why change?).

With the Battleship Admirals still in control of the Royal Navy, the battleship was seen as the means by which deterrence was measured. But the Admiralty had a huge problem: the shipbuilding industry couldn’t produce the required numbers of battleships vis a vis their potential adversaries (much less the much more important carriers, cruisers, and especially destroyers, frigates, and corvettes). And they were all lower quality. After the 1940 and early 41 battles with the German capital ships, the Admiralty couldn’t rely on parity, they needed superiority, at least 4 to 1 against Bismarck’s sister ship, the Tirpitz. The latest British design, the King George V, was simply no match for the Bismarck (The Prince of Wales, a KGV design, had to run away from the Bismarck after the Hood blew up, and the KGV herself couldn’t sink the Bismarck even though the Germans couldn’t maneuver and could only sail ten knots.) And to make matters worse, the Italian designs were far superior, so battleships needed to stay in the Med in case the Italians decided to sortie (the Italian problem was leadership, not design). Britain didn’t have enough ships for its current commitments let alone enough ships for her other global commitments, especially after the losses suffered over two years of war.

When Japan occupied Indochina in the summer of 1941, the Admiralty planners’ worst nightmare came true: a likely maritime war with three major naval powers in three distinct areas: Germany in the Atlantic, Italy in the Med, and Japan in the Far East. Up until then the Far East question was an academic exercise, but now it needed an answer. The old French, now Japanese anchorage at Cam Ranh Bay was only a short three day sail from Britain’s main, if neglected, naval base in the East, Singapore.

But Singapore had no fleet, and this was not lost on Australia, New Zealand, Burma, East Africa, South Africa, and India, all of whom were particularly vulnerable to Japanese aggression. The combined Commonwealth navies barely amounted to a few cruisers and destroyers, but tens of thousands of Commonwealth troops were fighting the Germans and Italians vast distances away from home. They expected a British fleet to come to their defense, but the British simply didn’t have one to send.

In late November, after Australia and New Zealand threatened to pull their troops out of North Africa for home defense, Churchill ordered the two largest and most modern warships in the Royal Navy to Singapore: the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, and battlecruiser HMS Repulse, with four destroyers, as a deterrent (it didn’t matter, the Japanese were already committed to the attacks on Malaya and Pearl Harbor, but the Kiwis and Aussies felt better.) They were expected to pose a threat similar to the Tirpitz and Bismarck and tie up Japanese assets. But the Japanese were keen observers of the last two years, and saw little threat from the two British ships, given their lack of cruiser support (especially the lack of a Dido class specialized antiaircraft cruiser, all of whom were needed for the Malta convoys) and Britain’s piss poor naval–air coordination (a product of RAF Coastal Command’s red headed step child status compared to Bomber and Fighter Commands)

On 10 DEC 1941, Prince of Wales and Repulse, with supporting destroyers, moved north from Singapore to intercept Japanese landings on the east coast of Malaya. They were both sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers in less than three hours. Afterwards, the Japanese ignored the destroyers, and even signaled that they wouldn’t be molested if they stuck to picking up survivors. The Prince of Wales and Repulse were the first major warships sunk by planes on the open sea. Combined with the American disaster at Pearl Harbor two days before, it became clear airpower now defined seapower, even to the eldest and most hardheaded battleship advocate. The Age of the Battleship was over; the Age of the Aircraft Carrier had begun.

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