Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Embracing the value of sea power

When you think of the part sea power served in defending Singapore during the Second World War, it is likely that the failure of the Royal Navy's Force Z warships will spring to mind.

The tragic loss of the British battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, and the battlecruiser, HMS Repulse, to Japanese air power has a little-known prologue: some naval assets that defended British interests in the Mediterranean came from Singapore.

These include the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle, which was based in the Far East, an entire flotilla of Singapore-based submarines and a shallow draft 15" gun monitor, HMS Terror, which lived up to its name harassing the Italian Army in the Libyan Desert.[Terror Camp in Sembawang is named after this monitor and not after the attitude of Naval Diving Unit instructors who lord over their tadpoles.)

Had these warships stayed in Singapore, the fate of Force Z may have been very different. This blast from the past underlines the importance of a balanced fleet and shows the telling effect that sea power, when ably led by aggressive commanders, can serve in a theatre of war.

Those who ask why these precious assets set sail from Singapore would do well to remember that Europe had been at war for nearly two years and three months while people in the Far East watched as bystanders.

In a war of survival, the Royal Navy needed every war machine at its disposal. Warships recalled from Singapore robbed defence planners here of naval aviation and submarines that would have complemented the weight of fire from capital ships.

A 64-page booklet published during WW2 by His Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO), titled simply His Majesty's Submarines, noted: "As diplomatic relations with Italy grew steadily worse, all submarines east of Suez, including the 4th Flotilla at Singapore and the 8th Flotilla at Colombo, were sailed for Alexandria to form the 1st Flotilla. Half of this force went to Malta; and when the war with Italy began, there were six British submarines there (two of them refitting) and six at Alexandria."

The withdrawal of 4th Flotilla from Singapore explains why Imperial Japanese Navy submarines had a free run of the South China Sea in December 1941. These submarines formed a picket line which detected Force Z as it made its passage north for its date with destiny.

The fact that half of the HMSO booklet sings praises to successful RN submarine operations in the Mediterranean tells us the impact these boats could have had in regional waters. RN submariners could have been sent first in, ahead of Force Z to protect the surface ships from enemy submarines.

The aircraft carrier Eagle was pulled out for the same reason.

The HMSO booklet, East of Malta West of Suez, recounted: "Early in 1940, Italian neutrality deteriorated into passive hostility towards the Allies. By the end of March, 1940, she had made it plain that she was only biding her moment to throw in her lot with Germany. The lull was nearly over and the gathering storm sent the Battle Fleet from home waters to the Mediterranean, and reinforced it with cruisers from the East Indies, the aircraft-carrier Eagle and some submarines from China."

HMS Eagle served with distinction in the Mediterranean. The RN recognised the value of naval aviation and paired aircraft carriers together with battleships and battlecruisers into task groups named after letters of the alphabet (Force A, Force B, Force H etc).

In that theatre, the battlecruiser HMS Renown showed that warships steaming at speed in the open sea were hard to hit. That the Renown was a sister ship of HMS Repulse is unlikely to have been overlooked by British planners who despatched the Repulse to Singapore.

The battleship Prince of Wales was no ordinary battle wagon either. The King George V-class warship was then Britain's newest battleship, bloodied during the Battle of the Denmark Strait during the encounter with the Bismarck and having won the affection of Britons for ferrying British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to Newfoundland for his meeting with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She was known fondly as Churchill's yacht.

After two years of operations in the Mediterranean, no RN capital ships had been lost to air attack.

British disdain for the "new weapon" (i.e. air power), as noted in the WW2 HMSO booklets, is spelt out clearly in this account of a clash with the Italians.

"The Warspite and her attendant destroyers were attacked by bombers twenty two times. Force C fifteen times; altogether nearly 400 bombs were dropped on the British Fleet during its return to Alexandria without causing damage or casualties. The new weapon had had every chance to prove itself a substitute for sea power and had apparently failed; in the confusion of the enemy's retreat to the Straits of Messina the Italian bombers were twice observed to be attacking their own fleet. The German dive-bombers had not yet appeared on the scene."

HMSO's text is accompanied by pictures I've not seen elsewhere. These show RN warships under heavy air attack. One picture shows the battleship Malaya (what an irony, considering where Force Z met its fate) sailing "unscathed through the forest of water hurled up in the bombing attack".

With more than two years of experience fending off attacks by two air forces in the narrow seas, one cannot be surprised at British confidence that Force Z would stand up to the then-untested Japanese air power.

The signal lessons for Singapore are as follows:
1. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) military history reading list should include British naval ops in the Med. This theatre should not be considered out of the syllabus. Understanding how and why British sea power remained undefeated in the Med is a key to appreciating the importance of a balanced fleet.

2. A study of Allied ops in the Med would also show the importance of timely intelligence. What the HMSO booklets do not mention is how Axis convoys were found and wrecked. Years later, we all know the part that Ultra intelligence played in betraying Axis intentions and destroying Rommel's supply lines.

3. Early SAF planners seem to have spent too much time fighting the last war. Singapore's defenders during WW2 had no tanks, a weak air force and relied on powerful warships for their defence. The 1st Generation SAF reversed all three factors - we had armour and plenty of it, a strong air force and the navy became the Cinderella of the SAF.

4. The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) needs to maintain a balanced fleet. Sea power amounts to more than what its six Formidable-class stealth frigates can bring to the party. Photo calls with all the good and the great aboard these stealth warships should not detract from the fact that the RSN needs to keep its undersea, naval aviation, close escort (i.e. patrol vessels), underway replenishment and special operations capabilities sharp.

5. Some naval capabilities such as naval aviation will cost a pretty penny. This is because specialised warships need to be designed and built for naval air power. Central to the whole operation are the people who generate and sustain naval air power. Underfund the navy and you undermine the SAF's full spectrum capabilities. How much is the economy worth?

6. In the pre-Springboard era, the neglected Navy lost many officers and WOSEs. With economic prospects in the private sector continuing to beckon warfighters to hang up their uniforms for good, we cannot afford to have a similar mindset or the Navy will never make good its manpower losses.

7. The best drawer plans can sometimes be scuttled by events outside one's control. Pre-war Singapore had an aircraft carrier plus submarines. These were siphoned off to shore up the Med front. Drawer plans are imperiled by cost pressures that cut capabilities razor thin. Our one-per-ship assignment for the S-70B Seahawks is a good example - there's no spare capacity to go round. The cost per helo in the event we ever need to replace one will be far in excess of what it would have cost Singapore to buy spare airframes in the first place.


warspite said...

Interestingly, there is a recent thread here, which was discussing on Force Z on what ifs, based on the situation in the area then. Do check it out.

Anonymous said...

Interesting perspective. I think the ability of air power (esp. naval air power) to sink warships wasn't appreciated until the Taranto raid on the Italian fleet by British Swordfish torpedo biplanes in Nov 1940. Perhaps another factor may be the slower speed of the planes prior to 1940, making them less effective against capital ships.

HMS Terror is an interesting warship. It carries two 15 inch guns and yet the armour is only 1 inch thick (most capital ships had 12 inch or more armour).

Piper said...

David, thanks for making an invaluable contribution from a naval perspective. The decisive element in naval warfare is indeed the scouting element that encompasses the full C4ISR assets and i believe this is the current focus of the SAF.

In today's context, the 'fleet' cannot be viewed solely in terms of the 'Navy'; rather it will include the Air Force's Maritime Strike capabilities to augment the standard fleet of surface and subsurface assets for wartime striking power.

However in the other 99pct of 'peace time' or OOTW ops, Singapore needs large capable and flexible vessels that support our political objectives. In that one sees that the planning of the Navy is not necessarily restricted to wartime missions.

Mike Yeo said...

Anonymous, Taranto didn't convince the RN that aircraft could defeat battleships, at least not in open water. This was partly due to pig-headedness in the admirals, because in their eyes all Taranto did was demonstrate that torpedo aircraft can only sink warships taken by surprise in harbour.

In fact when the Rikkos of the Genzan Kokutai began the first torpedo attack runs on 10 Dec 1941, either Adm. Phillips or Capt. Tennant was heard to remark that he thought the Japanese were trying for a low level bombing run. They were used to torpedo planes being single-engined biplanes that attacked at 300 feet and 100mph, not twin-engined monoplanes at 100 feet flying at 250 mph.

Mike Yeo said...

Forgot to add; Paradoxically, the Japanese didn't have too much faith in torpedo attacks against fast battleships in open water either. When preparing for the mission, they had actually ditched the torpedoes on one Chutai of Mihoro Ku Rikkos in favour of bombs (for high altitude horizontal bombing). FWIW, the horizontal bombers scored at grand total of two hits, and one of those was on the already-sinking Repulse.

And, had the attack on Force Z failed (eg. If there were land or sea-based air cover defending the ships), the Japanese would have been left with those 9 fish as their entire stock of Type 91 torpedoes in-theater. That’s how close it was.

In the context of the RSN, it does strike me as a little odd, that for an island nation so dependent on sea trade, the navy does seem like an unlike stepchild compared to the other 2 services. The Seahawk example cited by David would be a good example.

David Boey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Boey said...

Hi Piper,
Agree with you on the RSAF's maritime strike capabilities. But aircraft cannot poise the same way warships can lurk off a hostile coast as sovereign Singapore territory.

Hopefully the "large capable and flexible vessels" you mention will have deck space for naval aviation. We could learn from the Japanese who have no aircraft carriers but, interestingly, have the Hyuga-class DDH "helicopter-capable destroyers" and of course the Oosumi-class "LSTs".

We could even learn from the Brits whose Invincible-class ships started life as, ahem, "through-deck cruisers".

Anonymous said...

HI Mike Yeo,
Thanks for enlightening me on the historical details of those battles.

I second David's query of one Seahawk per ship - maintenance schedule, accidents could deny a Frigate a critical helo. I always thought we should have 2 more Endurance class LPDs for their capabilities and all the work they do - transporting equipment for foreign mil. exercises, humanitarian and Iraq+Gulf of Aden mil. missions.
I think Asean navies will see a lot more PLAN ships in S. China Sea in future.

Piper said...

Hi David,
Thanks for your reply, everyone has raised very interesting points thus far in this lively naval debate.

For the Seahawks, i believe that RSN planners were aware of the lack of numbers, however i believe that even the SAF cannot escape fiscal austerity. The initial procurement figure must have been for greater number of aircraft.

I share David's enthusiasm for shipborne naval aviation but like the "thru deck cruisers" and "heli capable destroyers", Singapore is politically and economically constrained against acquiring such vessels. We might nay afford to pay for the accompanying escorts, nor afford to stoke an arms race with our neighbours (although the PLAN seems to push everyone in dat direction these days).

In order to maintain the strategic status quo, we might just have to stick to a slightly expanded "Endurance" class in future?

Anonymous said...

Umm... Talking of Force Z, one of the lessons of WW2 was that ships without air cover are dead ducks. More recently, think Exocet vs. HMS Sheffield and Exocet vs. USS Stark.

So you build your air force first, then you think about building a navy. That's how it goes. But for force projection, nothing beats the LSTs of all ships (surprise !)

Incidentally, going by past patterns, what makes you think that the SAF will stop at 6 x S-70 ? Back in 1985, Singapore started with 8 F-16/79s (crippled export version) and upgraded the engines even before the planes were delivered.

Anonymous said...

The F-16/79 were never built. We got the F-16A/Bs.

David Boey said...

*Edited post dated AUGUST 19, 2010 1:47PM*

warspite: Thanks for the link.

re: HMS Terror. Ian Buxton's book, Big Gun Monitors, is one of the best written on RN gun monitors. It's available on Amazon and well worth the price. I bought an early edition off evilbay and when I read that the 2008 was reprinted with "revisions", bought that one too for good measure. :)

re: Ships vs aircraft. Ironically, it was the RN that drew first blood against ships. This was in April 1940 when Skuas from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal sank the German cruiser Konigsberg in Bergen, Norway, in dive-bombing attacks. Konigsberg was the first ship sunk by air attack during WW2, if I recall correctly.

The ship was alongside so I don't think that attack made an impression on RN planners.

re: Force Z. Two British journalists were embedded with Repulse. Gallagher O'Dowd and Cecil Brown. They both quarelled with RN censors before their embed because HMS Prince of Wales was the only one that could be mentioned in their despatches whereas Repulse had to remain anonymous. So they naturally wanted to be with POW as their stories would have more kick. (They were lucky to be with Force Z. If PAFF had run the show, they would have received only a news release for their stories, and a much-delayed and skimpy one at that)

Both survived the sinking and wrote up their take on the air attacks. Some fine writing there.

Incidentally, I picked up O'Dowd's tip to write using water-proof ink (his notes were intact) and use waterproof pens and rainproof notebooks whenever I'm at sea, the last trip being the embed aboard Steadfast.

There's a series of great pictures of Billy Mitchell's pre-WW2 experiments against dreadnoughts. Please do a google search for these. His subsequent fall from grace for challenging conventional wisdom (he was court martialled) is a good counterpoint to those who argue that armed forces are smart enough not to make the same mistakes twice.

re: RSN. Former Defence Minister Howe Yoon Chong once said that Singapore didn't need a Navy, just barges with 20mm guns.

Even LKY was quoted in 1995 saying the SAF was "crazy" to want submarines.

We are a island nation but our attention to the RSN mirrors IDF investments for their own navy. We copied them almost wholesale in building up the 1st Gen SAF.

That we're an island nation sitting astride the world's busiest trade routes, with the bulk of our trade and essentials supplied by sea seems to escaped the SAF's early planners.

Hopefully, TCH hasn't lost his sea legs... :)

Anonymous said...

I believe our defence planners have to take the rise of China seriously and should be planning an expansion of our naval capabilities, just as other regional governments are already doing, planning or wanting. To think that China will always be friendly is dangerous, what with the PLAN conducting amphibious exercises in Malaysia's islands off Sabah.

It must also learn the lessons of the piracy problem of the east coast of Africa. The poverty that drives these pirates to rob and ransom ships thousands of miles away affected our trade.

Perhaps these plans have not been revealed but the replacement of our maritime patrol aircraft which I hope will happen soon will pressage enhanced naval capabilities to further secure our SLOCs