One Year: The Story of HMS Prince of Wales

First off: I’m really sorry for not writing these more regularly! I’ve been trying to keep the blog regularly updated with these (every Sunday) and news (when there’s news) but lately I’ve been having to focus on some personal stuff that doesn’t leave me with time for a whole lot else. Thankfully, I’ve had some windows of free time!

Now, to the history. Last time we talked about a British ship, it was about the HMS Warrior, and I called her the luckiest ship alive today. As it happens, this Sunday we’re going to be looking at one of the unluckiest ships of the Royal Navy – HMS Prince of Wales, second of the King George V class of modern fast battleships. She in service for less than a year, but in that time had travelled much of the world, and been involved in some of the most important and notable events of the Second World War at sea.

Prince of Wales‘ run of bad luck actually began before she was a commissioned warship; in 1940, while she was still being fitted-out at her home of Birkenhead in Liverpool, she was bombed by the Luftwaffe, which led to her completion being delayed – something which would have dire effects almost a year later. While still in Liverpool she was quickly commissioned for trials, and then sailed off to Rosyth in Scotland to complete her fitting-out and testing.

Prince of Wales early in 1941, sometime before her battle with Bismarck

The Royal Navy was, in fact, quite desperate to have a second modern battleship complete, as Germany currently boasted two: Bismarck, and the recent addition of Tirpitz just in February. On March 31st, despite not having fully functional guns and missing out on several important tests, Prince of Wales was declared complete.

It was a political decision, ultimately, and certainly not the first one that the battleship would suffer.

In May, before the fateful mission alongside HMS Hood, Prince of Wales had a crew mostly made up of men who had never actually been on a ship before, and of them 100 were staff of Vickers Armstrong still trying to get all her guns sorted out.

On the bright side, her anti-air systems were considered top-class for the time, which we will find later happens to be a bit of a sadly ironic compliment. Regardless, though, shooting down aircraft wouldn’t help in her first engagement in late May.

Prince of Wales went out with the battlecruiser Hood and six destroyers; their goal was to reinforce the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk south of Iceland in the Denmark Strait, prepared for the battleship Bismarck to attempt a breakout into the Atlantic. On 23rd May, Bismarck was sighted escorted by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, and the two battleships steamed ahead to intercept the German force, with the destroyers tailing the British group. The destroyers ended up being sent north and didn’t take part in the coming battle, which commenced early in the morning on 24th May.

The British entry into the battle, bow-on to Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, was unfortunate, as they could only fire their forward guns, whereas the German ships could fire broadside on their approaching opponents.

Due to an initial confusion, Hood fired on Prinz Eugen and Prince of Wales on Bismarck, though both would later focus on the battleship – just as the Germans would focus on Hood in turn. Unfortunately for Prince of Wales, water started entering her foremost, four-gun turret and it remained of questionable use throughout the rest of the battle.  This problem with her gunnery was compounded by issues with her rangefinders, but she nonetheless managed some decisive hits on Bismarck, disabling some of her boilers and causing her to spill some fuel oil, both of which would result in Bismarck being forced to end her attempted break into the Atlantic.

The last picture taken of the Mighty Hood before she exploded.

That, however, would prove to be a minor concession. Just a few minutes after the opening salvos were fired, Hood was turning to port in order to bring all her guns to bear, and a shell from Bismarck hit Hood amidships, causing her to famously explode.

Within minutes, the flagship was sunk, and Prince of Wales had to make drastic evasive maneuvers in order to avoid colliding with the descending wreck. With the battlecruiser out of commission, Prinz Eugen and Bismarck concentrated devastating fire on the remaining British battleship; it was at this point that Prince of Wales got the only stroke of luck in her whole career: a 15-inch shell penetrated her midsection below her armour belt right near her boilers, but failed to explode. Considering the inexperience of her crew and her relative isolation, it’s certain that had this shell detonated, Prince of Wales would have either suffered a fate like that of her companion, or she would have been crippled at sea and whittled down by relentless gunfire or Prinz Eugen‘s torpedoes.

Locations of where Prince of Wales was hit during the Battle of the Denmark Strait

Faced with this opposition, Captain John Leach made the decision to lay smoke and get out of there. She radioed and joined up with the Norfolk, and in the company of both heavy cruisers in the area, later in the day coming within range of Bismarck again in a distant chase and firing twelve salvos, possibly getting a hit on Bismarck – but it was to no avail. She and her cruiser escort lost the Bismarck‘s trail, and departed for Iceland.

That would be the sad end of Prince of Wales‘ fight with Bismarck, but her story was to become more interesting still.

Back at Rosyth, she was repaired and the lucky 15-inch shell defused and removed, and she underwent some refits as well as some much-needed gunnery exercises with her sister, King George V, who would finish the job with Bismarck that Prince of Wales started.

Come August, rather than engaging in further combat, the battleship was chosen to take Prime Minister Winston Churchill to Placentia Bay in Newfoundland – then still a part of the United Kingdom, but with the naval base of Argentia under US control due to the “Destroyers For Bases” agreement between the two countries – for a secret meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt was on the heavy cruiser Augusta, and Churchill was very keen on making an excellent impression on the president.

Prince of Wales, as usual, would have a hand in making that a bit of a problem: due to mix-ups with timezones, she arrived 90 minutes early, and an angry Churchill ordered that the ship leave the bay and sail around before entering again at the proper time.

Prince of Wales in Placentia Bay

This was the first meeting between the two leaders, and it had an incredible impact not only on the ongoing war, but also on events which would occur after the war’s end. The Atlantic Charter was proclaimed, bringing the two nations closer together and setting defined goals for the post-war world. The Charter led to the foundation of the United Nations, independence of European colonies across the world, and the economic support of Japan and West Germany after 1945. The Prince of Wales was witness to this world-changing declaration, but sadly she would not live to see its eventual effects.

After a trip up to Scapa Flow, September found Prince of Wales off the North African coast in the Mediterranean Sea, alongside HMS Rodney – another veteran of the Bismarck saga. Along with several cruisers and destroyers, they were to take part in Operation Halberd protecting convoys going from Gibraltar to Malta, bringing them in conflict with the Italians.

Prince of Wales and her group came under aircraft attack, and she managed to shoot down at least three planes; submarine attacks were also suspected, but Prince of Wales‘ excellent radar proved to be successful here as well, giving good early warning of submarine threats.

At one point, Force H and Prince of Wales almost came into contact with a large Italian force including the modern battleships Littorio and Vittorio Veneto. However, combat didn’t end up occurring, for better or for worse, and Operation Halberd was a pleasant success.

Prince of Wales in her usual camouflage, here seen in Singapore

Late in October, Prince of Wales was ordered from Scapa Flow to Singapore in the east in order to reinforce the British position in East Asia; this was a political assignment in order to ensure the colonies in the region, including Australia and New Zealand, were shown that Britain was committed to their defence. There was little tactical importance in a modern battleship being involved in the campaign against Japan, but it was mostly a show of force, as the Admiralty specifically only wanted to make a force built around the older battleships such as Repulse. Despite strong demands otherwise, the battleship was sent off to the East.

Prince of Wales made a few stops in the colonies, including one in Cape Town in South Africa, where she was briefly refitted for some more anti-aircraft armament. On the 2nd of December, Prince of Wales was made the flagship of Force Z in Singapore, under Vice-Admiral Tom Phillips. A few days later the Japanese launched an air raid on Singapore, but Prince of Wales had little impact on this. However, as part of Force Z, she was ordered to set out and intercept Japanese transports, and sailed to Kota Bharu in Malaya with the expectation of RAF support.

No air support was forthcoming, but it was decided to go on without it – this, perhaps, was the decision which doomed the two battleships on the 10th of December.

Prince of Wales also couldn’t get her Type 273 radar working, and in addition to this, it was believed the Japanese aircraft would be focused on ground targets and so wouldn’t be carrying torpedoes or anti-ship bombs. The force was diverted to Kuantan on the report of Japanese landings there after being sighted by a Japanese submarine; these landings were nothing more than a diversion, and at 11:00am on December 10th the fateful air attack on Prince of Wales and Repulse began.

Prince of Wales (above) and Repulse (below) under aerial attack

While Repulse initially avoided many of the bombs and torpedoes aimed at her, Prince of Wales wasn’t so lucky: a torpedo struck her and exploded on her port side near her propellers, wrecking one shaft and tearing open the bulkheads leading to Engine Room B. Her electrical systems in the same area stopped functioning, and the flooding was unable to be contained. She began to list, the single torpedo hit being ultimately fatal for her. If the torpedo had hit just farther forward of where it had, it might have struck her torpedo belt and she might have survived.

Not long afterwards, after avoiding many torpedoes, Repulse was damaged by a number of torpedoes and sank at 12:33pm. Three more torpedoes hit Prince of Wales afterwards, along with further bomb hits causing increased flooding and yet more casualties.

Heavily listing, at 1:15pm the order was given to abandon ship, and five minutes later Prince of Wales capsized, landing bottom-up on the seafloor. The sole captain she had during her career, John Leach, died along with Vice-Admiral Phillips. This was the first time in history that capital ships had been sunk by aerial attack alone when at sea, and as the war continued it became clear that the future of naval power was in aircraft carriers and the naval airforce. The era of battleships was over.

Perhaps Prince of Wales could have survived if her radar had been working, if her anti-air crews had been more properly trained, if Force Z had the RAF support it expected, or if she hadn’t received the fatal first torpedo hit to her propeller shaft.

Prince of Wales prior to sinking, her crew escaping to the destroyer HMS Express. 327 men did not survive.

Though her career was unlucky and remarkably short for a modern Allied battleship, she nonetheless took part in many of the key moments of the war, her legacy living on long after her tragic sinking.



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