Book review: Force Z shipwrecks of the South China Sea

How two of Britain’s greatest battleships fell victim to the Japanese

Author: Pat
12th August 2013

Rod Macdonald’s latest book turns his attention one of the early shocks of the Second World War.

Broadly speaking, the theatres of battle in the South East Asia region are less well known to us than those of Western Europe. HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales both succumbed to aerial bomb and torpedo attack on the same day, off the coast of Singapore. The year was 1941 and America was being drawn into the war by an aggressive, expansionist Japan that had just launched the infamous attack on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. Britain too was under threat at home, leaving Winston Churchill with little to defend the colonial outposts of the Far East, notably Singapore.

a full and lengthy historical account

The admiralty’s hasty answer was Force Z, a flotilla led by the enormous battlecruiser Repulse and brand-new battleship Prince of Wales. Supported by several smaller vessels, Z’s arrival at Singapore provided a reassuring show of strength, but already the Japanese were making rapid advances from the north. They were bringing something the British had not counted on: torpedo and dive bombers positioned comfortably within striking range.

Rod Macdonald’s grandfather Charles was living in Singapore at the time, working as a prison officer in Changi Gaol. His wife and children were hastily evacuated but Charles was subsequently interned and poorly treated by the Japanese. His grandfather’s story clearly touched Rod from an early age, and has fed a lifelong interest in military history.

Accounts of his own diving and wreck exploration make up Rod’s best known works, and ‘Force Z shipwrecks of the South China Sea’ appears outwardly to follow in these footsteps. Yet within just a few chapters it becomes clear this is predominantly not a book about diving at all, but a full and lengthy historical account from WW2. Perhaps the final five percent actually features Rod’s technical descent to the sorry wrecks of these once mighty warships, with the rest describing the formidable battle that sent them – and so many sailors – to the bottom.

In that sense, if you didn’t know the full story (as I didn’t), the title is a giveaway. And if you are looking for diving tales (like Rod’s ‘The Darkness Below’) or a guide (like ‘Dive Scapa Flow’) this is not for you.

However, it does provide a detailed account of the fall of Singapore, and offers clear insight into perhaps the first great shock of World War 2: the loss of a brand new, state of the art battleship with heavy casualties. The growing threat from aerial attack had been hitherto misunderstood and as the pages turn you sense the psychological blow this dealt to the Royal Navy. The day of heavily armoured battleship shoot-outs was already over, to be replaced by carriers with their nimble torpedo bombers.

The effects of torpedoes on Repulse and Prince of Wales are still visible today on the upturned hulks, and Rod has made good use of photography in the diving pages of the book, as ever. Despite the considerable depth (55 metres for Repulse, 70 for Prince of Wales) the gloomy pictures reveal the damage sustained below the waterline that proved so costly. Although not a guide, the author can’t resist taking us on something of a ‘wreck tour’, using diagrams highlighting areas of interest and artistic impressions of how the ships lie today.

As a seasoned wreck explorer, Rod Macdonald understands the history of a sinking better than most, yet you sense the Force Z shipwrecks represent something more. Because of his grandfather in Singapore, there is an affinity that underpins his account of diving to the site. It is a fascinating and respectful tale of – ultimately -  a military tragedy. Let’s hope that other technical divers who visit the Force Z shipwrecks of the South China Sea pay it the same reverence.

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