Lost Battleship HMS Prince of Wales Honored off Malaysia

Prince of Wales
The crew of HMS Prince of Wales abandon ship, December 10, 1941 (Royal Navy)

Published Nov 16, 2023 10:50 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Thursday, the crew of the Royal Navy patrol ship HMS Spey paused to pay tribute to the crew of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse, which were attacked by Japanese forces and sunk off the Malay Peninsula in 1941. The wrecks have been targeted by scrap thieves in recent years, making the visit all the more timely. 

On December 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese troops began amphibious landings on the eastern side of the Malay Peninsula. The brand-new HMS Prince of Wales and the HMS Repulse were tasked with intercepting and attacking Japanese troop convoys to slow the invasion, and they departed on December 8.

They were transiting into the Gulf of Thailand, within reach of Japanese land-based bombers. British Royal Air Force assets amounted to a handful of aircraft to provide cover, and task force commander Admiral Tom Phillips turned down even this amount. Prince of Wales' antiaircraft systems were also degraded by exposure to tropical conditions, with inoperable fire control radars, but Phillips decided to proceed. 

The task force did not find the Japanese convoysd, and on the 9th, Phillips called off the operation to return to Singapore. By this point, the flotilla had been spotted by a Japanese sub, which reported the contact and the force's approximate position. On the morning of the 10th, a large force of Japanese bombers and scout planes began looking for Phillips' task force. A Japanese scout aircraft found it at 1015 hours, and bombers attacked at 1115. Waves of Japanese aircraft sank both ships with torpedo strikes within about two hours.

Phillips went down with his ship, and 840 men were lost in total between the two warships. Japan's Imperial Navy - three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor - was left as the dominant force in the Western Pacific. 

On Wednesday, a Royal Navy task force paid honor to HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. HMS Spey passed over the site and deposited a wreath in remembrance. 

“As we remember them, we also pause to remember the friends and families of those that perished and give thought to those who survived the tragedy and lived on with the difficult memories of the loss of their friends throughout their lives. The Royal Navy will honour their memory for evermore," said HMS Spey executive officer Lt. Cmdr. Bridget Macnae. 

The wrecks lie in relatively shallow water of about 180-230 feet deep, and are within reach of illegal scrapping operations. In May 2023, Malaysian authorities detained a notorious Chinese grab dredger for crushing and removing the wreckage of Prince of Wales and Repulse, which are both protected war graves. Inspectors found rusting artillery shells and other scrap on the deck of the dredger, the Chuan Hong 68. The penalty for the crewmembers could be as much as two years in prison if convicted, according to the New Straits Times.