Phillips a scapegoat for 1941 ship loss

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Scapegoat: The Death of Prince of Wales and Repulse. By Martin Stephen. Published by Pen and Sword Maritime, Barnsley, 2014.
Reviewed by Dr Gregory P. Gilbert

Admiral Sir Tom Phillips was no more perfect than any other mortal, but the things that ensured the command of Force Z was a poisoned chalice were none of them his making. He has been made a classic scapegoat for the failing of others.
Scapegoat
, p. 180

THE story of the loss of the British battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse off Malaya on 10 December 1941 resonates with Australian audiences.

Not only was it was the tragic result of the British Empire’s failed Singapore strategy it was also the first time capital ships were sunk by aircraft alone in wartime. For these reasons, the circumstances of their sinking has been examined and discussed many times over the years.

Historians have tended to highlight the inadequacies of the British forces in Southeast Asia – poorly trained air units with obsolete aircraft and no organised air defence system, land forces that were inadequate for the defence of the Malay peninsula, and the late arrival of a scratch naval force, Force Z, in place of the promised main fleet.

The use of surprise by the Japanese in a rapid campaign of manoeuvre on land, at sea and in the air was decisive. In many ways the sinking of Force Z resulted from Japanese strategy that capitalised on the systematic errors of the British. A number of histories, on the other hand, have seized upon what they perceive as errors in decision making, command and leadership, to the point that Admiral Sir Tom Phillips – the commander of Force Z – is often portrayed as a scapegoat for the British systemic failures.

In this new examination Martin Stephen reconsiders the events leading up to the loss of Prince of Wales, and Repulse, by reassessing the claims made against Admiral Phillips, before generating a revaluation of the action. For the first time, using the private papers of Admiral Phillips, Stephen is able to challenge many of the so-called facts that have been used to blame the British commander. Phillips’ death in the battle left him unable to defend himself against claims of inexperience in sea command, outdated beliefs in the superiority of battleships and prejudice against the effectiveness of air attacks. Although these were not true, they form the basis of numerous historical narratives where the search for a scapegoat sits better with the reader than a well-informed consideration of the long and short term systematic errors in the British strategic policy.

Many of the decisions taken by the British during the interwar period set the scene for the string of disasters that extended across the Pacific and Indian Oceans in late 1941 and early 1942. Unfortunately scapegoating continues to be a tool for those wishing to hide systemic failures and keep their good name. Hopefully such decision making does not lead to a repetition of the events similar to the British defeats of 1941-42.

In a few areas the author introduces his own unsubstantiated counter claims while trying to demolish another author’s argument. This only distracts from Stephen’s view. In addition a number of factual errors, incorrect wording and editorial mistakes distract from the message. That said, I do think Martin Stephen is essentially correct.

Scapegoat: The Death of Prince of Wales and Repulse is an informative offering that puts forward a logical construct which unfortunately still requires the forensic work of a dedicated historian to critically examine the available sources. This book should reopen a debate rather than close the debate by exonerating Admiral Phillips.

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