The loss of British capital ships to airpower during the Battle for Malaya is the proverbial albatross round the neck of anyone tasked to discuss the value of naval forces in the defence of Singapore.
One cannot ignore naval history but one should examine the loss of the Royal Navy battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, and battlecruiser, HMS Repulse, which formed the heart of Force Z from a broader perspective.
Royal Navy strategists had long recognised the need for, and importance of, a balanced navy operating from and supported by Sembawang Naval Base.
In Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) parlance, this full spectrum force comprised submarines from its 4th Flotilla, the aircraft carriers HMS Eagle and HMS Hermes and specialised vessels such as the 15-inch gun monitor, HMS Terror - in her time a sort of littoral mission vessel tailored for operations close to shore.
Naval units were to be supported by fighter aircraft from RAF Sembawang. with 453 Squadron the designated Fleet Defence Squadron. Squadron CO Tim Vigors wrote about how he had worked out a plan to keep at least six Buffalos over the fleet during all daylight hours as long as they stayed within 60 miles of the Malayan coast.[POW and Repulse were sunk about 50 miles off Kuantan]
In the 1930s, Singapore's defences were not short of accolades:
- Sembawang Naval Base was Britain's largest and best-protected naval base in the Far East.
- RAF Seletar was described as one of the empire's finest seaplane bases, from which Sunderland and Catalina flying boats - the eyes of the fleet - flew long-range maritime reconnaissance missions.
- The coastal defences that guarded the Singapore Strait could deny the strait to shipping and the 15-inch guns of the Buona Vista and Johor batteries were the largest of their kind outside Britain.
Before dismissing the value of naval forces, one must remember that war had raged in Europe for two years before the Pacific War erupted.
As Britain fought for her survival, naval units based in Singapore were retasked to serve in the Mediterranean theatre. This strategic pivot - to use contemporary language - saw the deployment of Singapore's submarines, HMS Eagle and HMS Terror westward to the Mediterranean. All served with distinction there. Sunderland seaplanes also left Singapore for new operational taskings in the Med.
While the RN's bench strength in Singapore was diluted, there were ample reasons for strategists to feel that the forces at hand were adequate to deal with the Japanese threat. Consider these points:
- The Brewster Buffalo fighters, then the mainstay of RAF fighters squadrons based in Singapore, had acquitted itself well in Finland's Winter War against Soviet fighters. Many Finnish pilots emerged as aces flying Buffalos, a fighter type that was the United States Navy's first monoplane carrier fighter.
- The Vildebeest biplane torpedo bombers were an anachronism. But Swordfish biplanes - similarly as slow and antiquated - had earned distinction during the Bismarck hunt and more recently during the attack on the Italian naval base at Taranto.
- The Blenheim bombers operating from Malaya were some of the fastest twin-engined light bombers. When introduced in the 1930s, Blenheims could fly faster than pursuing fighters.
- British warships deployed in the South China Sea would be fighting with the advantage of friendly coastlines in Peninsular Malaya and Borneo. Britain could also count on support from American, Dutch and Australian warships under a sort of coalition operation.
- In the two years prior to the sinking of Force Z on 10 December 1941, no British capital ship had been lost to air attack launched by Germany's Luftwaffe and Italy's Regia Aeronautica in the Med. In that theatre, British ships had to run the gauntlet of shipping lanes with hostile coastlines in southern Europe and North Africa. The fact that capital ships survived against the combined might of two European air arms gave Royal Navy officers confidence that such warships could prevail against Japanese warplanes - then prejudiced as being inferior to European models.
Deployed in the SCS without a submarine screen, no aircraft carrier for fleet air defence, no air cover from shore-based units, the odds were stacked against Force Z.
Force Z sailed in defiance of the principle of Mass. American, British, Dutch and Australian warships sunk later during the Battle of the Java Sea, could have turned the tide in December 1941 had they been deployed with Hermes (then in the Indian Ocean theatre. She was also in Cape Town as POW made a port visit en route to Singapore) as part of an upsized Force Z.
In addition, the Prince of Wales and Repulse encountered unfortunate stoppages when QF 2-pounder pom-pom gun crews (the 8-barrelled guns were the CIWS of their day) discovered (belatedly) that the ammunition was defective. As a result, shell and cartridge would separate, causing a stoppage. The lack of tracer for pom-poms weakened their value for warding off air attacks compared to the Bofors 40mm and Oerlikon 20mms that did fire tracer.
Add to Force Z a weak destroyer screen with poor anti-aircraft armament and one would realise why the naval operation gave British Prime Minister his greatest shock during WW2.
Churchill wrote in his memoirs: "In all the war I never received a more direct shock. The reader of these pages will realise how many efforts, hopes, and plans foundered with these two ships. As I turned over 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 Harbour, who were hastening back to California. Over all this vast expanse of waters Japan was supreme, and we everywhere were weak and naked."
In the Malayan theatre, the Royal Navy proved that ably-led warships properly equipped for duty in the tropics could engage and sink hostile units of superior strength.
In May 1945, the RN scored its last victory by destroyers against a capital ship when the Japanese heavy cruiser, Haguro, was sunk during a night attack off Penang. The British victory, which was the last major naval gun and torpedo engagement during WW2, owed its success to close coordination between maritime air surveillance and the use of radar to track and target the Haguro. It's a success often overshadowed by the tragic loss of POW and Repulse.
Fast forward from WW2 to the SAF's formative years. With the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) regarded as the defence advisor nonpareil, it is perhaps clear why the SAF's force development loci has (and still is?) anchored upon the use of airpower and the development of Armour as the arm of decision.
Alas, the WW2 albatross had extended its wings.
The IDF's experience with warfare at sea has been marginalised by the application of airpower during the 1967 Six Day War (the same year National Service began in Singapore) and the success of the IDF's armoured manoeuvre forces in saving Israel from Arab armies during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Furthermore, the loss of the IDF warship Eilat to Egyptian missile boats in 1967 may have contributed to a poor appreciation of the value of naval forces vis-a-vis airpower, which could be one reason why Singapore's early defence planners placed less emphasis on naval forces as defence dollars were lean.
In subsequent decades, the IDF's use of naval forces has been less than illuminating. The damage inflicted upon the Saar V corvette, Hanit, by a shore-based missile in 2006 off Lebanon is a painful relearning of the value of sensors that can warn of impending attack by guided munitions.[That Hanit survived is a tribute to the importance of fire-fighting & damage control and the robustness of naval construction. Till today, however, not one picture of the damage inflicted has been released by the IDF.]
In this jubilee year, as the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) gears up to mark its 50th year, it would be a mistake to let the albatross from the past blinker one's assessment of the role and importance of the Navy.
Thanks to a better appreciation of the need to defend our access to SLOCs, the RSN successfully fielded MCVs in the 1980s - a project that represented a springboard for the RSN to uplift its operational capabilities to include ASW and point defence missiles for the first time.
A balanced Fleet, accurate, relevant and timely intelligence, the ability to plan and deploy naval units for joint operations, the superior application of defence technology are just some of the critical elements one needs to bear in mind for the future fighting fleet.
Never make the mistake of discounting the fleet.