Heritage: The day the legend of the navy sank with its ships

On this day, 75 years ago, the battleships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales were sunk by Japanese

On this day, 75 years ago, the battleships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales were sunk by Japanese aircraft off the coast of Singapore. HMS Repulse is photographed here. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

If you travel Romford’s inner by-pass, you’ll glimpse Linden Street, a quiet side road squeezed alongside St Edward’s Way. It recalls a tragedy, 75 years ago, that marked the end of UK world power.

The British colony of Malaya was vital to the war against Hitler. Producing huge quantities of rubber, Malaya put the tyres on planes and lorries and jeeps. Lose Malaya, and we could lose the war.

Malaya was defended by the Singapore naval base, itself protected by RAF bases up the peninsula. But would Japan challenge for control in the Far East? When the Nazis overran France in 1940, Japan seized the French colony of Vietnam.

As a gesture, Churchill sent Force Z to Singapore, headed by the mighty 43,000-tonne battleship Prince of Wales and the fast cruiser Repulse.

Those three words, “the Royal Navy”, radiated invincibility.

On December 7, 1941, Japanese bombers smashed the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. Next day, Japanese landing began in Malaya, knocking out the RAF bases inland.

It was unthinkable that the navy would not rush to the rescue. Admiral Tom Phillips set sail, vaguely planning to disrupt the enemy.

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The only available air cover was a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) squadron at Singapore. Their Brewster Buffalo fighters were stubby, clumsy aircraft – pilots called them “flying coffins” – but they might have provided lookouts.

Admiral Phillips was confident. The nearest Japanese air base was at Saigon, 700 miles away, a very long operational range. No battleship had ever been sunk by a warplane. Prince of Wales had advanced, radar-guided anti-aircraft systems. (They broke down in the hot weather). Phillips ordered radio silence: the RAAF lost contact.

Disaster struck on December 10. Waves of Japanese torpedo bombers sank the two big ships. The world changed forever. Great warships were vulnerable from the air. The Japanese used fewer than 50 torpedoes. They lost only four aircraft. Repulse had broken radio silence to appeal for RAAF support.

The Buffalo fighters arrived overhead minutes after the two big ships had gone to the bottom. Hundreds of men were lost. Admiral Phillips went down with his ship.

Remarkably, many were also saved. Destroyer crews bravely closed in to pick up survivors. Among them was a stoker from Repulse, Arthur Milbank.

News of his rescue reached his home in Linden Street just before Christmas.

It’s hard now to describe the shock of the disaster. Britain’s navy was not just about power. It also conveyed mystique. The UK would continue to be a global player through alliances, but the myth of British superpower sank in Malayan waters 75 years ago.