With the Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbor on the December 7th, World War II ceased being mostly about Europe and Russia and became truly a global conflict, as the vastness of the Pacific Ocean now became a battleground.
As war with Japan approached, the British felt a growing concern for their territories in Southeast Asia. In late October, the British Navy sent two of their best warships, HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales, to Singapore to act as deterrents to Japanese aggression. The battleship Prince of Wales might be familiar to readers of Today’s History Lesson, as just 7 months ago she was in the Atlantic trading blows with the mighty German battleship Bismarck. The Repulse was a battlecruiser, a ship with battleship-sized guns and engines, but somewhat less armored as the lighter weight offered greater speed and agility.
All this firepower did little to intimidate the Japanese, who began their attack of the East Indies and Malaya on December 8th (the same day as the Pearl Harbor attacks, just on the other side of the International Date Line). Admiral Tom Phillips (aboard the Prince of Wales) set out to oppose the landings but, failing to do that, ordered his fleet back to Singapore. He had left Singapore without air cover, and without a functioning surface radar, but he (along with the British Navy and most non-Japanese navies at that time) felt that aircraft couldn’t mount effective attacks against capital ships.
So when the ships were spotted by a submarine on the morning of December 10, 1941, and subsequently attacked by nearly 100 Japanese aircraft, the British Navy got a rude surprise. The Prince of Wales was hit by 6 torpedoes, the Repulse at least 4. Both ships would sink, becoming the first capital ships (not sitting in Pearl Harbor) to be sunk by aircraft. As hard as this loss was for the British, it paled in comparison to the losses they would suffer at Japanese hands over the next several months. The Japanese were on a roll and, right now, no one was going to slow them down.
Recommended Reading: Jane’s Fighting Ships of World War II – No WWII library would be complete without this massive reference.