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  • Author:
    Alexander Boyd
    The purpose of this book is to provide an audit trail of how HMSs Prince of Wales and Repulse came to be where they were when they were sunk on 10th December 1941. This achieved via exhaustive research into primary sources going back to 1935 - Chiefs of Staff minutes etc - backed up by meticulous analysis. The thesis is that the end situation was the direct child of years of debate about our optimum strategy for our Eastern Empire in the event of war with Japan. The underlying policy was to send a balanced fleet to deter Japan politically, the Imperial Japanese Navy strategically, and to reassure Australia and New Zealand. The priority was to reserve our use of the Indian Ocean and so ensure continuing supplies of Iranian oil for ourselves, the Empire, and as it turned out Russia whose dependence on Allied supplies via Persia was critical to keeping her in the War. This competed with the Eastern Mediterranean for resources.

    However the war you get is never the one you plan for. The Fall of France, besides effectively doubling the number of U-boats pitted against us in the Atlantic, gave Japan a foothold in Indochina that brought her air power far closer to Malaya than had been assumed and eliminated a 3000 mile support problem for IJN surface vessels. Meanwhile our war losses meant that the same carriers and capital ships and cruisers needed to be in two or even three places at once. Within the Admiralty we see a staff process that was somewhat muddled, and from the top a failure - in spite of an apparent genuflection to Air matters - to project the potential technical development of aircraft. In 1918 the RN's aviators had been shanghaied by the infant RAF and so there were no 1918 RNAS Lieutenants developing into informed aviator Commanders and Captains twenty years later, a point that might have found a place in this account, and which may be what lost naval gunnery the anti-air war in 1931 and stuck the Force Z ships with HACS - thank you Boyd for the Tony DiGiulian reference.

    Meanwhile Pound, 1SL, is shown as not entirely grasping Churchill's wider view of strategy. Nor did Pound's creature, Phillips, see the bigger picture. If he had held in Ceylon and waited to concentrate his forces he might have achieved deterrence; once in Singapore he had no alternative but to sortie as he did. Both failed to use Intelligence intelligently - there are other references to Pound regarding this in Patrick Beesly' 'Very Special intelligence' and 'Very Special Admiral'. Pound comes across as perhaps a dull person on the defensive who substitutes pulling rank and autocracy for consultation and delegation; in Phillips he selected a comforting reflection of himself. The key to this story is that it was NOT Churchill interfering (for once) that finally doomed Force Z.

    The book closes with an account of Somerville's non-encounter with the IJN off Ceylon - he lucky that the IJN didn't find him by day, they that Somerville didn't find them by night.

    The author served in the RN as a submariner. That NAM Rodger has provided a foreword is a recommendation in itself. Many points in the narrative are backed by a recapitulation of receding factors which for the ordinary reader may prove repetitive, and the style as a result can be a touche turgid.

    The book is illustrated with a selection of thirty black and white photographs that excellently complement the text.

    Some detail cavils:

    1. This is a two-bookmark book as one has constantly to refer to the end notes - approximately another 10% of the text! - indeed p381 has a whole page of notes to itself - as each citation is not only carefully referenced, but also often subjected to an informative critique.

    2. The author is rightly critical of a 'bean-counting' approach to strategy but in comparing, say, one navy's capital ships or carriers to another's one needs to recognise that the correct counter to any weapon is not necessarily more of the same on the other side. A more scissors-paper-stone analysis may be what is needed. Also, while at night all cats are grey, at sea some ships are more equal than others.

    3. There could be more sensitivity (there is some) to including ships in the bean-counters total before they were properly worked up. Prince of Wales herself, already sent to fight Bismarck before her turrets had even been properly set to work mechanically, had been hither and yon and it could be argued that a contribution to her demise was that she was still not fully efficient.

    4.The Brewster Buffalo's Wiki suggests that was not such a credible fighter as is here implied. One account I have read has the pilot having to ferret around by his feet to cock the guns.

    5. The increased aircraft capacity of 'Implacable' and 'Indefatigable' was gained at the expense of hangar deckhead height meaning that they could not accommodate the Corsair and had to make do with the prang-prone Seafire (see also Mike Crosley's 'They Gave Me a Seafire').

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    6. As to improvements on the Swordfish, the Centaurus engine of the Albacore was notoriously less reliable than the Swordfish' Pegasus, and the Barracuda tended to asphyxiate its pilot (see Lord Kilbracken, 'Bring Back my Stringbag')

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    7. It is not clear why Boud classifies the 6" 'Southampton' class as 'Heavy' cruisers when they had exactly the same primary and secondary armament as the 'Colonies'.

    8. Tricycle, the double agent whom we knew was tasked to report on Hawaii, might have merited a mention as even if Roosevelt was denied this information by Hoover, this should have told us that reliance on the US fleet in Pearl was at best imprudent.

    9. Radar picket destroyers are mentioned. In the absence of airborne early warning they were still necessary in 1982.

    These nitpicks should not overshadow the remarkable job the author has done to elucidate a situation normally passed over in 'popular' accounts of the annihilation of Force Z which concentrate on the actual action, here, quite fairly, assumed to be familiar. He has drilled down into new levels of detail showing that is indeed where the devil is, sometimes unpicking the positions of such as Marder, Roskill and Barnett as he goes, sometimes seeing them as taken in by post-hoc self-serving Admiralty analyses. My congratulations to Boyd for giving us what must become the standard work on the subject.


    The second photo shows a white ensign flying under water from the PoW wreck.

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