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These ships, well-protected and repeatedly updated, proved reliable. That Hood was more vulnerable was not Churchill’s fault: he had discussed in detail the fatal flaws exposed at Jutland in his account of the Great War, The World Crisis. His return to the Admiralty in 1939 — prompting the famous signal “Winston’s back!” — came far too late to remedy the flawed design of a 20-year-old ship. Indeed, Hood saw action against the French fleet at Mers el Kebir without mishap; the Navy’s sins of omission, if that is what they were, only came to light when she came under fire from a far more modern fast battleship: Bismarck. Churchill sent Hood and Prince of Wales to stop Bismarck because they were the only ships available capable of catching her. His faith in the fast battleship was vindicated by the sincerest form of flattery: imitation by the enemy.

Hitchens reserves his bitterest criticism of Churchill for the decision later in 1941 to send Force Z — consisting of Prince of Wales accompanied by the battlecruiser Repulse — to the Far East, to defend Singapore and deter Japanese aggression. Churchill, he claims, “did for hundreds of his shipmates aboard Prince of Wales . . . by ordering them all into a futile suicide mission”. Citing at length a book published in 1960, Hitchens omits to tell his readers that (to quote Roberts) “modern scholarship has largely absolved the Prime Minister of responsiblity for the disaster”.

Crucially, it was not Churchill’s decision, but that of Admiral Tom Phillips, to leave port without air cover in order to attack the Japanese landing sites on the Malayan coast. Not only did Phillips fail in his mission, but Force Z was spotted by the Japanese and came under attack, first from submarines, then 96 bombers and torpedo planes. Prince of Wales was hit by five torpedoes, Repulse by four. The battlecruiser sank quickly (“such a beautiful ship”, one of the Japanese pilots later recalled), but not — as Hitchens claims — because her decks were too lightly armoured. It was Prince of Wales that was given the coup de grace by a high-level bomb. With hindsight, we can see that no warship could have survived such an onslaught. The catastrophe was perhaps even more of a shock than Pearl Harbor, where the US Pacific Fleet had been taken by surprise and destroyed at anchor. At the Japanese naval headquarters in Tokyo, according to John Toland’s authoritative work The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945, “senior officers found it difficult to accept that battleships in the open sea could have been sunk by planes. It meant the end of their concept of naval warfare.” Later in the war, the tables were turned when the two largest battleships ever built, Musashi and Yamato, were sunk by American aircraft at Leyte Gulf and Okinawa respectively; Tirpitz, the sister ship of Bismarck, was sunk in a Norwegian fjord after many air attacks. But the fate of Force Z was unprecedented. Churchill told the House of Commons: “In my whole experience I do not remember any naval blow so heavy or so painful as the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse.”
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Lawrence James
October 7th, 2018
9:10 AM
An excellent article which says all that needs to be said on World War II: Hitchens's polemic is selective and can be ignored whilst AJP Taylor wrote when large swathes of evidence were not available. Churchill's post-war remarks on an united Europe must be taken in context, for they were made when he was sure that the British Empire would survive for the foreseeable future. It did not and, by 1970, it was clear that Britain would have to to seek compensation by an alignment with what was then the Common Market.

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