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On 10th December 1941, the Royal Navy battleship HMS Prince of Wales, and escorting battlecruiser HMS Repulse were sunk near Malaysia by a force of Imperial Japanese bombers. This was a powerful indicator of the vulnerability of surface vessels to aircraft. The question is, how did Royal Navy tactics change in response to this attack?

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    Well, how many more UK battleships were lost to aircraft?
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 27 at 16:10
  • Tactics or fleet strategy? Pulling fleet units back to Ceylon didn't work out all that well so from there to the east coast of Africa eventually reduced capital ship losses to Japanese aircraft. Also one might look at anti-aircraft suites after 1942 as opposed to prior.
    – R Leonard
    Jan 27 at 16:16
  • PoW and Repulse were the last UK battleships lost in the war. After the last Japanese raids into the Indian Ocean the UK primarily to the ETO until after VE Day, when the contributed to Pacific ops with the US.
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 27 at 16:43
  • And, obviously, what do you mean by "tactics"?
    – R Leonard
    Jan 28 at 0:23

2 Answers 2

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The Royal Navy change its strategy and its tactics in response to this event, and to former events that also had shown the vulnerability of heavy ships to air attacks.

The change in tactic consisted in:

  • Reinforcing antiaircraft capabilities aboard all types of ships
  • Forming massive fleets with a lot of light cruisers and destroyers to escort the heavier ships, many more than the few destroyers that were alongside Prince of Wales of Repulse
  • As much as possible, provide an aircraft carrier or land-based aircraft escort to these fleets

The change in strategy consisted in:

  • Limiting the use of battleships in big operations close to land, especially in the Mediterranean sea
  • Focusing battleships on the role of deterrence of German battleships/heavy cruisers in the Atlantic and on the role of far-away escort of convoys, for example in the Barents Sea were destroyers assumed the close escort, and battleships stayed far, ready to intervene if a German battleship should intervene
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I don't see where there was little in a of change of tactics that would have directly resulted from the loss of REPULSE or PRINCE OF WALES.

Most leaders of the major navies were well aware that capital ships were in grave danger from torpedo hauling airplanes in the absence of any sort of air support themselves.

Major navies of the early 1940’s were well aware that 1930s era and before anti-aircraft defense suites were inadequate for the job when facing modern aircraft, hence you see upgrades in numbers, quantities, and improved weapons in the major players, RN and USN from 1940 and on. For the IJN, not as much in the IJN for ships already in service, but their limited new construction, well, that’s another matter.

Additional smaller anti-aircraft weapons such as the Bofors 40mm proliferated just about anywhere they could find space. Compare anti-aircraft suites for USS NEVADA, in 1941 – 12 @ 5 in individual dual purpose mounts, 4 @ 1.1 in AA and 8 @ .50 cal machine guns (Janes 1942). In 1945 – (from Janes 1945) 16 dual purpose 5 in in twin turrets and over 100 40mm and 20mm. Or, sticking with the RN, HMS NELSON, for example, in 1941 sported 6 4.7 in AA, 4 3 lbs AA and 3 multiple mount 2 lbs pompom 4 to 6 barrels per mount. In 1945 you’d see the 6 4.7 inch AA, 16 40 mm Bofors, 42 2 lbs pompom in various mounts and 61 20 mm Oerlikon (all as reported in the 1942 and 1945 Janes). Obviously, more was better. Airplanes, especially armed with a torpedo, were ship killers and everyone knew it.

And of course, not immediately, but by 1944 most capital ships, at least RN and USN had the advantage of radar controlled systems, but that’s naught to do with the destruction of Force Z.

Increasing the number of escorts, to include anti-aircraft specific cruisers, was already an obvious solution. The RN types such as the DIDO class had already come off the ways starting in 1939, 3 of them in that year, another 3 in 1940 and a last in 1941; the first 4 of the 8 USN ATLANTA class were launched in late 1941 and had joined the fleet by early 1942 the last 4 came to after July 1943.

There was nothing new that could be traced directly to the loss of Force Z. Everything which came about from 1939 and on, defense weapons, increase escorts, specialized AA cruisers, keeping one’s distance, air defense with carrier based aircraft, cruising formations, single carrier task forces to multi-carrier task forces, all were already part and parcel of existing doctrine and strategy or were natural outgrowths of the evolution of naval warfare.

I regret that I cannot point to trusted online availability (at least that I’m willing to venture a trust) of 1942 and 1945 Janes such as I can pull off my shelves.

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  • So it wasn't poor tactics, it was just that the desired AA resources weren't available? The mission was a calculated risk?
    – DrMcCleod
    Feb 3 at 11:08
  • Right. Tactics had nothing to do with it from the RN side. They could try to “comb” the torpedoes and put up what AA fire as they could, but when you are swarmed by torpedo haulers from all directions the outcome is inevitable. Very rarely does a single action somewhere produce a shift in tactical or operational doctrine. Even “the Battle of the Ironclads” in March 1862 did not change naval tactics, weapons, yes, tactics, no - they still went out and banged away at each other with the weapons of the era until one side retreated, gave up, or sank – just like Surigao Straits in October 1944.
    – R Leonard
    Feb 3 at 14:38
  • The impact of the Repulse/PoW loss (along with other events in Mediterranean sea) was to show that airplanes were so efficient and that small escort was not enough. In Norway campaign or against Italian air forces, British were able to stand with a force of approx. 2 big ships, 5 destroyers against air attacks. It consummated a lot of ammo and could force the fleet to retreat, its ammo exhausted, but the ground could be stood for a while. Now, with the experience of Ju-87 attacks in Mediterranean or the Japanese massive attack that were far more efficient, it did change the mind of the British Feb 4 at 14:24

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