Book Review: Battleship – The Sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse by Martin Middlebrook and Patrick Mahoney

Topic & Content

Published in 1979, this book examines the ill-fated operations of Force Z, where the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse were sent to Singapore and sortied to locate and attack the Japanese invasion forces off the coast of Malaya. Unfortunately, only three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they were spotted and sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers. The book is organized as follows:

  1. ‘A Sword at Our Hearts’
  2. ‘Sinister Twilight’
  3. ‘A Decisive Deterrent’
  4. Force G
  5. The Voyage East
  6. Singapore
  7. The Sweep
  8. Kuantan
  9. The First Round
  10. The Lull
  11. The Final Round
  12. ‘Abandon Ship’
  13. The Rescue
  14. The Aftermath
  15. An Analysis
  16. The Years that Followed

Middlebrook and Mahoney go through the events in a logical fashion and intersperse the narrative with quotes from survivors. The actual Japanese attacks on the Prince of Wales and Repulse don’t occur until roughly halfway through the book. Following the rescue of the survivors, the narrative covers the aftermath and analyzes the events and the decision-making of the commanders. The fates of the surviving crewmembers are also discussed.

Thesis

The goal of the authors was not only to report on the events of Force Z and its sinking but also to incorporate some of the personal recollections of the participants. Ultimately, the authors conclude that the action during which the Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk signified the end of the battleship as the arbiter of naval power.

Author’s Background

Martin Middlebrook is a British military historian and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He’s authored a number of books on various conflicts from WWI to the Falklands War. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any reliable information about co-author Patrick Mahoney, and the book contains no biographical information on him.

Critical Observations

Positives

The writing of the narrative is very well organized and flows smoothly. Additionally, the authors do a good job of incorporating the recollections of the sailors into the narrative without sacrificing the broader picture.

The maps are decent and provide the reader with a good sense of the geography and positions of the forces involved. It’s crazy when you realize just how close Force Z was at times to encountering the Japanese cruisers hunting for them.

The authors’ analysis of the events is a very interesting chapter that engages in a number of hypothetical scenarios. For example, what if Admiral Phillips had requested air cover from the RAF fighters in Singapore? What if the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable had been with them? There are many what-ifs to ask. The authors do recognize that they have the benefit of 30+ years of hindsight and that it’s easy to critique decisions made in the heat of the moment as foolish, but ultimately they conclude that without air cover, there’s no way these ships could’ve adequately defended themselves or withstood the damage they sustained. Furthermore, at this early point in the war, the officers likely couldn’t have accurately predicted the effectiveness of naval air power against capital ships maneuvering evasively. (The previous raids on Taranto and Pearl Harbor involved battleships at anchor.)

Negatives

Surprisingly I don’t have too many negatives about this book. While it’s by no means a masterful work of scholarship, it gets the job done and is detailed enough to satisfy most amateur historians. The major gripe I do have deals with the lack of citations. While the authors make good use of personal accounts, official histories, and other secondary sources as listed in the bibliography, there’s a complete absence of in-text citations, footnotes, or endnotes. This makes it difficult to track down specific pieces of information.

The only other issue is the dated nature of the work. However, that’s inevitable since time always marches on. I imagine more recent scholarship has come out on these events and the ships involved. Both the Prince of Wales and Repulse sank in less than 100 meters of water and are less than 60 meters below the surface. The Japanese were the first to locate the wrecks in early 1942, but it wasn’t until 1954 that the British began making surveys of the wrecks and ascertaining their exact positions. Divers have frequently surveyed the wrecks and no doubt have made further investigations of the damage they incurred.

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

Ultimately, this is a well-written narrative that describes the events with clear details, incorporates a good amount of personal stories, and provides a fair analysis of the outcomes.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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