Scapegoat by Martin Stephen

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  • The author, apart from a very distinguished career as a Public School headmaster, is a prolific published historian. His work has mostly covered earlier periods but, with a long interest in naval history, he has recently shifted his focus onto the Royal Navy and its leadership in the Second World War. This has brought him to the study of Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, who lost his life in HMS Prince of Wales while leading 'Force Z' against the Japanese.

    Phillips being unable to answer back, he afforded a convenient scapegoat for the Force Z disaster. Dr Stephen thinks this is wrong and unfair, and sets out to demonstrate this. He has had unique and unprecedented access to Admiral Phillips' own papers.

    The most difficult task for any writer of naval history who has not worn the blue suit is to get under the skin of that unique institution, the Royal Navy. Arthur Marder and Andrew Lambert manage this; an early warning note in this book is the use of 'hrs' after 24-hour-clock times. Giving the credit for the attack on the German battlecruisers during the Channel dash to the RAF (p.6) makes one a bit wary of this author. Placing the 1931 Invergordon mutiny in the 1920s (p.1) was another early warning signal. I was not happy with Captain Bell being referred to as Phillips' 'Senior Aide' (pp.31, 158) as that does not define his position, and that is important. Hayes (see below) had him not as IH Bell as in Stephen's index, but as the staff-qualified (see below) Captain FS Bell who had commanded HMS Exeter in the River Plate battle, who is in the Navy List as Captain of the Fleet and Chief Staff Officer but to FO Malaya. However once the book gets going the author does pretty well and he is very good on political matters, particularly in reference to the USA and Roosevelt, which subject is vastly complicated.

    The statement on p.1 that the Royal Navy 'had made great strides in naval aviation in the inter-war years' deserves (and receives, a few pages later) some qualification. The rape of the RNAS by the nascent RAF on All Fools' Day 1918, following Jellicoe and Beatty's failure to challenge land animal Smuts' 1917 report that argued for this by analogy, left the Navy with no junior officers with air experience. Thus between the wars, and into the war, the Fleet Air Arm was managed and employed by senior officers who mostly did not understand it. Leaving aside how Courageous and Hermes were thrown away through misemployment and Glorious by mismanagement, the aircraft with which the FAA entered the war were inferior to their American, and more seriously Japanese equivalents. For Force Z this had deadly consequences as its Command had no idea of the reach of Japanese torpedo-carrying Bettys and the already obsolescent Nells - and had not appreciated that Japan's Pacific position would have made this a requirement. Churchill exonerates Phillips in this respect.

    Dr Stephen has accessed a very good sample of earlier work, as listed in his bibliography. Not listed is Vice Admiral Sir John Hayes' 'Face the Music' which I think will have been the source for the Hayes reference on p.93. Hayes has an interesting lead on a Mr Windsor at Kuantan, who was previously the German Herr Mueller, and who may have been the otherwise unexplained source for the rumour of a Japanese landing there. The real question is why the RAF did not conduct a reconnaissance that would have bowled out this false report far quicker than it took Force Z. As it was Force Z was decoyed from its return to Singapore - although if the original course had been followed it might still have run into the IJN air strike with equally fatal consequences.

    Hayes was the Signals Officer on board Repulse and his survivor account of the appalling tactlessness of Admiral Layton does support Dr Stephen's assertion that Layton would have been nobody's choice as a diplomat. Somerville is also dismissed in this role by Stephen although later he is said to have got on very well with the virulently Anglophobic American Admiral Ernie King, no mean feat for an Englishman.
    One thing that has escaped the author is that Phillips was Staff qualified, unlike Layton, Somerville and Cunningham, the last of Stephen's bê tes noires. Dr Stephen really has his knife into Cunningham but to criticise his choice of destroyers to send East does not take fair account of the situation the Mediterranean Fleet was in after Greece and Crete. Also, to criticise him for as it were caving in to Churchill over Greece leaves out of account that if, after making representations, Cunningham was told to get on with it then that is what he had to do. Dill (CIGS) was equally doubtful. It was a stroke of luck that the Italian human torpedoes that damaged Cunningham's battleships were able to sneak into Alexandria harbour by tailgating on three British destroyers. Other criticisms could be levelled at ABC like his positioning Illustrious in such a way that she was almost mortally damaged on Operation EXCESS. Dr Stephen's one-sided, even vituperative armchair view of Cunningham damages the credibility of the main thesis.

    The Hough reference states that as early as May 1941 Phillips was given a dormant appointment to command the Fleet that would be sent to Singapore. This rather belies the idea that Churchill gave Phillips the job to get rid of him. As VCNS and Pound's right hand man Phillips would thus have been continually in the developing picture in this respect, which would not be the case with his distant seniors Somerville and Layton. Peer criticism of Phillips' lack of experience was, however, more valid than Stephen credits, for Phillips rose to Flag rank - and then Acting (full) Admiral - without ever having commanded a capital ship.
    The canard that HMS Indomitable's grounding in Jamaica prevented her from being available to Force Z has long legs. Churchill's minute to the First Lord and the First Sea Lord of 25th August 1941 as recorded in the National Archives under ADM 199/1934 seeks inclusion in the projected deterrent force of 'one aircraft carrier of high specification' and by November Indomitable was the only carrier at all available for the role. Hermes was totally unfit to take part and Stephen shows that criticism of Phillips for not calling her forward is utterly misplaced. However, although Indomitable was intended to deploy to the Far East after her workup, there is at least one authoritative source (which I am at present unable to trace) that states categorically she could not have reached Singapore by December 10th, grounding or no grounding. It was convenient to Churchill, and others, after the event, for people to believe the contrary. If she had been present we could very well also have lost our most modern carrier. Dr Stephen correctly assesses her as, in the event, an irrelevance to Force Z's survival. However the real problem was that the long planned, but totally unanticipated, lightning assault by the IJN across the entire area did not wait upon the timescale of British preparations.

    As Dr Stephen points out the capital ships' speed was their main asset. Revenge would have been as much an embarrassment to Force Z as Mauve's pre-dreadnoughts were to Scheer at Jutland. Something is made of the publicity attending the commitment of Prince of Wales and it was news of her that had the IJN reinforce its squadrons in Indochina, but perhaps Japanese Intelligence might have picked up on this anyway regardless of the publicity.

    Force Z's material and Prince of Wales' personnel shortcomings, in experience and training, are excellently capitulated. ADM 116/4454 contains PoW's Principal Medical Officer's report chronicling her appalling habitability in tropical waters, the 95° F temperature on the messdecks and the boiler cleaning that had to be done in 130° F on arrival in Singapore instead of the stokers (or anybody else) getting any shore leave, and much else besides. Stephen correctly points out that PoW, continually employed on the Bismarck chase, a Malta convoy run and racing across the Atlantic with Churchill, had never had a proper workup. Churchill refused to understand or accept this point.

    On the materiel side, on the Bismarck chase PoW had Vickers men on board frantically trying to fix the 14" turrets, but in the event the main armaments of the capital ships were yet another irrelevance; not until 1942 was a director for barrage fire introduced for our battleships, whereby the main armament could be fired so as to force the attacker to fly through enormous gouts of water.

    The anti-aircraft armament comes in for close and well-merited study. It did put up a show, may have forced some early torpedo release, and did secure some kills, particularly as the torpedo-carrying aircraft had, force majeure, to overfly their targets albeit after dropping their weapons. While doing so they hosed down the ships' upper decks with machine gun fire and one could wish to know (but we never shall) what casualties were caused and thus what the effect was on the exposed crews of the HACS anti-aircraft directors and the pom-pom ('Chicago Piano') crews.

    The authoritative treatment of RN AA Fire Control in WW2 is reported by Wiki as 'Weapon Control in the Royal Navy 1935-45', at pp126-127 of 'The Application of Radar and Other Electronic Systems in the Royal Navy in WW2' ed. FA Kingsley (Arms and Armour Press). The paper's author, Harry Pout was Director of the Admiralty Surface Weapons Establishment ca.1971 and had been one of the Admiralty scientists sent to sea in HMS Prince of Wales during the Bismarck chase, to try and get her radar working. However the Kingsley volume is out of print and the only copy on the internet is priced at £200. The interested reader is directed to 'The Gunnery Pocket Book', para. 415 et seq. at http://www.hnsa.org/doc/br224/part4.htm#par415 , and to a paper by Allan G Bromley, 'British Mechanical Gunnery Computers of WW2', at http://sydney.edu.au/engineering/it/research/tr/tr223.pdf.

    The active references (cited, and also published by Arms and Armour Press) are 'British Battleships in WW2' by Raven and Roberts, and 'King George V Class Battleships' by VE Tarrant, which enjoys the particular credibility of a Foreword by Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach, who served in Anson and Duke of York and whose father commanded Prince of Wales throughout her short life. Tarrant refers to earlier work by Stephens and there are some odd resonances in the phrasing between Tarrant and the work under review here. Tarrant (and Hayes, above) makes clear that Repulse's AA armament and its control was primitive in the extreme. Tarrant shows that PoW did have tachymetric control (HACS Mk.IV* with GRU (gyro rate unit)) of her 5.25" batteries in high angle fire but at low angle against torpedo bombers used barrage fire via the incorporated Admiralty Fuze Keeping Clock.

    Tarrant goes on to explain the low rate of fire of the 5.25" with its 82lb shell, and its low training rate. After battle damage manual training was very difficult, particularly 'uphill' when the ship was listed or heeled. When the ship manoeuvred to comb torpedo tracks the engaged side ended up wooded. So the 5.25s did very well to hit anything at all.

    Dr Stephen also explains the appalling defects of the Intelligence and Staff functions in Singapore in all three services. The RAF comes in for well-justified stick but its eventual offer of fighters never reached Phillips who had been told there were none available at all - so little point in breaking wireless silence to ask for something he could not have. The book does make this crucial point with great logic and clarity. It is just possible, however, since the action was well out of range of Japanese shore-based fighters, that with better RAF/RN liaison ashore that even the Brewster Buffalo with its inadequately organised armament might have had some success against the IJN's Bettys and Nells.

    As to production values, there is a well-selected set of photographs as illustrations, a comprehensive bibliography, and the book is well indexed. The Notes confine themselves to references so that, thankfully, one is not plagued by having to cross-refer to asides in them. The proof-reading however is poor - there are too many untrapped typos, caused I suspect by a predictive text function operating during speech-to-text dictation. The only map is a great disappointment: it is grossly distorted, lacks both scale and key, and would appear to be a bad adaptation of that in the Official History. There are other curiosities - I was unaware (p.x) that Malaya had been renamed Sri Lanka and had difficulty with the meaning (p.4) of 'the Japanese are 'good spotters of aircraft'.

    Ultimately the author is absolutely right that Phillips and Force Z had essentially a political and diplomatic role, and that its bluff was called by the totally unanticipated way in which the IJN raced into action across an enormous area of sea, and as he points out, there was then no option for Force Z but to give battle as best it could. Force Z was thus a classic of a deterrent that failed to deter. Stephen shows that, contrary to fable, Phillips had come to a realistic appreciation of the possible effects of air attack and of the limitations of AA gunnery (in spite of the performance put up by the German battlecruisers in the Channel Dash!) He demolishes the idea that Phillips should have broken wireless silence to call up RAF fighter cover by demonstrating that he had been repeatedly told that it was not available, and that no correction to this ever reached him. Dr Stephen also makes it clear that Phillips reacted correctly to the report of a Kuantan landing, and that to the end he made the best fist he could under overwhelming attack.

    This volume appears to be a corrective to an earlier work by the same author which has been used in Phillips' Wiki, which latter therefore needs to be corrected.

    The Japanese attack on Malaya and Singapore was in no way incommoded by Force Z. Its loss was the ineluctable consequence of events and their timing. And Admiral Sir Tom Phillips was in no way culpable.

    Four anchors

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