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History Page 5d

Great Canadian Ships

HMS Prince of Wales - 1936-1941

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

HMS Prince of Wales in the China Sea - AH Hider
Orig. oil - Image Size - 61 x 76 cm
Found - Port Hope, ON

A fabulous discovery of a huge oil by Great Canadian Painter Art Hider, features the British King George V class battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, steaming to a date with destiny that would forever end the reign of battleships as the queens of the battle fleet. In the distance is the unmistakable profile of the battle cruiser HMS Repulse.

Art probably painted Prince of Wales as a commission for a Canadian calendar because she had brought Sir Winston Churchill near to Canadian shores, for a meeting in Newfoundland, with US President Roosevelt, at which they had signed the Atlantic Charter, and then, only months later, sank, along with Repulse, in a spectacular war disaster that mesmerized the world and changed the course of history.

Canada has never had battleships of its own. It was too small and poor a country to afford the luxury of the capital war toys afforded by Britain, the US, Germany, France, and Italy.

So from the beginning, Canadians historically bought Britain's cast-offs, in cruisers, aircraft carriers, and in the 1990s, leaky, rusting, malfunctioning submarines. What Britain's military had mothballed as outmoded and deteriorating rapidly, found a willing purchaser in Canadian naval officers who wanted war toys that the big boys played with, but affordable enough to convince its civilian political masters that they were a good deal.

As a result Canadian tax payers have paid billions of dollars to upgrade submarines with damaged hulls, that leak, explode and catch fire, kill their crews, and rust, and after years of upgrades, are still not operational, a decade after they were bought second hand. Civil servants and their political masters continue to call this a good deal... Apparently they got that from the British too...

Sink the Bismarck


On the eve of World War II, Britain was in the midst of constructing their newest line of capital ships, the King George V Class of battleship.

The Prince of Wales took five years to build (1936-1941). Launched May 3, 1939, she was not ready for service till April, 1941, more than a year and a half after the war had started.

She was damaged on the ways by bombing, but the urgency of war sent her off without all the proper repairs and the usual sea trials.

Her first job, was joining HMS Hood - which, during the inter-war years, had been the largest warship afloat - to hunt down the mighty Bismarck, which was Germany's biggest and most modern battleship. Captain John C Leach left would be Prince of Wales' only skipper.

Together, on May 24, 1941, Hood and Prince of Wales engaged the Bismarck at the Battle of the Denmark Straits. Within 10 minutes a shell hit the Hood near her magazines; she exploded and sank within three minutes taking down all her crew - some 1400 - save three.

Prince of Wales was so damaged, with most of her guns out of action, that she broke off the fight, escaped under a smoke screen, and returned to England. Bismarck fled to France for a refit.

When she emerged, Prince of Wales - with other ships - gave chase again, but running out of fuel, had to return to port. Others, including Prince of Wales' sister ship, and namesake for the class, the battleship King George V, would sink Bismarck.

Taking a punishment no other warship could have survived, the Bismarck was out of action, with almost all her guns disabled. But she would not sink; neither armoured hull or decking had been penetrated by shells. The Captain ordered her scuttled and the men to abandon ship and save themselves.

Left some of the 800 German sailors swimming for their lives after the Bismarck went down.

The British cruiser Dorsetshire under Captain Benjamin Martin right was ordered to pick up survivors.

He had barely 100 Germans aboard when he suddenly decided to abandoned the humanitarian effort, claiming submarines were in the area, and for their own safety, had to leave the area, leaving 700 German sailors to drown... Hmmmmh...

When a British sailor went over the rail to help up a German who had lost both his arms, and was clinging to the rope with his teeth - it proved a vain effort as the German fell away - Captain Martin flew into a rage and had his crewman clapped in irons, for abandoning the ship!

The Sinking of the Bismarck

(by a crewman FJ Kelly, and printed & published aboard the battleship King George V, shortly after the sinking.)

The Bismarck is unsinkable,
That was Hitler's cry;
But he never thought about the day,
She would meet the "K.G.V"

I will never forget that morning,
On the twenty-seventh of May,
For the boys onboard our warship,
Each played his part that day.

At nine-o'clock on Tuesday,
When we avenged the "Hood,"
And sank that German Battleship,
As only British Sailors could.

For salvo after salvo,
We let her have it strong,
And knew her crew, like Germans,
Would not stick it long.

The going was too strong for them,
We knew that all too well,
So we let them have a broadside,
And blew them into Hell.

Survivors were a hundred,
That is ninety-nine too many,
If the boys would have had a say in it,
I doubt if there'd be any!!

So we have got our vengeance,
For the sinking of the "Hood"
And the "Bismarck" lies beneath the sea,
Where all those square heads should.

Not Britain's finest hour...


 

 

 

 

 

 

 



Quite probably revenge was a more likely - if less noble - motive for choosing not to save the floundering Germans in the freezing water from a certain death.

There was enormous British hate for men who had sunk Britain's most famous battleship with just a few shells, resulting in the loss of 1400 fellow Britons in three minutes...


A poem, written by a British seaman who was there speaks volumes for the feelings that ran all the way from the keel to the bridge... They were all looking to have their pound of flesh...

To see what a German Captain did under similar circumstances:

Go to the Laconia Order

 





You Don't Say! - A recent television documentary, featuring British experts and German survivors of the sinking of the Bismarck, illustrates the cultural solutions to problems of historical inconvenience. Lots of time is spent on the horrific end of the men on the Hood, including a piece by a German who said they celebrated the horrific end of the ship! Nothing is said, at all, of 700 Germans deliberately left to drown by the British. No Brit is quoted - reflective of the George V poem - that they are happy the Germans are dying, but shudders of political correctness, 50 plus years after the event, one British Fairey Swordfish pilot is quoted as feeling bad about the Germans going down with the ship. Really! Does one believe political correctness half a century after a historical event... or a widely circulated document, frozen in time, that captures an entirely different mind set of the same event at the time it took place? A continuous historical problem... Inconvenient behaviour looked at with the passing of time and changing morality... The modern day documentary maker doesn't want to air dirty linen reflecting unfavourably on his people - for some the war goes on - and a veteran who has come to terms with his personal history by doing - no doubt here - a complete 180 from his youthful days of wartime exuberance... Which is why a lot of people burn their correspondence... they will look better in history...

In spite of tales of heroics, and selfless deeds on behalf of others, by men at war, there are just as many of mean spirited, low-minded behaviour. But then we prefer to mask them to protect the victors from publicizing the times they sank below the minimum bar of human decency.

Sadly, George Bush rationalizations on clear departures from even the minimum standards of human decency are not the sole purview of Americans...

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Argentia Bay - Newfoundland


In August 1941, Prince of Wales carried Sir Winston Churchill to Newfoundland - then still a British Colony, not part of Canada - for a meeting with US President Roosevelt, who, a year after the Germans attacked Poland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, still kept the US neutral, and out of the war.

On August 9, 1941, the two men held meetings aboard ship in Argentia Bay and drew up the Atlantic Charter which was to outline their vision for a peaceful post-war world.

Above Prince of Wales in the bay.

The Atlantic Charter has thus been called a founding document of the United Nations. Its terms:

Left is Winston Churchill's annotated copy of the working document that was drawn up for discussion.

No signed document was ever produced as the finishing work on the wording went on after the men departed Newfoundland.

In September other allied powers signed on in support of its vision for a post-war world.

The Axis Powers regarded it as another level of collusion with the US increasingly siding against them.

Americans didn't like it because they felt their President was pushing them further towards a war they didn't want to fight.

The Brits were demoralized because they had hoped the meeting would lead to the US finally committing to fighting the Nazis like every other Anglo-Saxon country had been doing for a year.

Remembering the betrayal of President Wilson's 14 Points, with the vindictive peace after World War I, leading directly to the Second World War, British Labour MP John Rhys-Davies, denounced the planned dismemberment of a defeated Germany and the expulsion of its people, in a strong speech in the British House of Commons, Mar 1, 1945:

"We started this war with great motives and high ideals. We published the Atlantic Charter and then spat on it, stomped on it and burnt it, as it were, at the stake, and now nothing is left of it."

Roosevelt and Churchill at church service aboard Prince of Wales, with from left, US Admiral Ernest King, US General George Marshall, British General John Dill, US Admiral Harold Stark, and British Admiral Sir Dudley Pound.

Exactly four months later, the teak deck on which they stood would be under water in the China Sea, and hundreds of the boys who sang hymns that day would be gone as well...

Newfoundland became part of Canada in 1949, but even though Canadians had been at war at Britain's side for a year, Churchill did not invite Canadian Prime Minster Mackenzie King to attend.

To hold a meeting on your front porch, with the leader of a neighbouring neutral power, and not invite you, a supposed valued brother-in-arms to take part... A snub?

Well when the powerful cut up the world they don't want minor players to complicate the division of the spoils... Or give them the sense that their status was anything other than junior at best.

It certainly was not Churchill's finest hour...

Singapore - In October 1941 Prince of Wales was sent to the Far East, to join battle cruiser HMS Repulse, and support ships, to show the flag, and intimidate the Japanese from expanding their attacks and invading Malaya. Above as she looked in Singapore.

On Dec. 8th, the day after Pearl Harbour, the British squadron - under Admiral Sir Tom Phillips left who put his flag aboard Prince of Wales - was ordered out to intercept the reported Japanese landing fleet.


Both Captain Leach and Admiral Phillips apparently knew - according to conversations Captain Leach had with his son, a midshipman, a day before he set off, that the British warships had not a ghost of a chance against a Japanese air attack like that on Pearl Harbour the day before.

They were deeply gloomy because they knew, that for them it would be a one way trip...

As it was, they failed to make contact with the Japanese invasion force. As they were returning to Singapore they were spotted by a Japanese submarine which relayed the news back to its headquarters.

On Dec 10, some 86 Saigon-based Japanese dive bombers attacked the British fleet, which was helpless, having no air cover and hopelessly outmoded anti-aircraft guns.

Both Prince of Wales - hit by six torpedoes and a bomb - and Repulse were sunk. Some 840 British sailors drowned.

Both Captain Tom Leach of the Prince of Wales and the Fleet Commander Admiral Phillips, also aboard, went down with the ship.

Right during the attack Repulse bottom escaping some six misses in the water, sends up a black cloud from a direct hit, as Prince of Wales top maneuvers desperately.

Below Prince of Wales in back, trails heavy smoke as Repulse on the left maneuvers.

 

Right Prince of Wales going down.

Prince of Wales and Repulse became the first capital ships sunk entirely by air power on the open sea.

The Japanese had lost six planes and 18 men in the action that spelled the end of battleships as useful ships of war, spectacularly eclipsed by the lethal power of aircraft and aircraft carriers, the capital ships of the new age.


A Different Standard of Morality
- It's remarkable, the difference in behaviour, when the sailors floundering in the water are your own - not Germans - even when threats from hostile Japanese aircraft and submarines are a clear and present danger to your ships...

After the capital ships had sunk, leaving hundreds of British sailors floundering in the water, the other British ships in the squadron did not flee the scene for security reasons - the excuse Captain Martin of Dorsetshire and her destroyer escort gave, for abandoning 700 Germans in the water to a certain death, after the sinking of the Bismarck only seven months earlier...

"It was obvious that the three destroyers were going to take hours to pick up those hundreds of men clinging to bits of wreckage and swimming around in the filthy, oily water. Above all this, the threat of another bombing and machine-gun attack was imminent. Every one of those men must have realized that. Yet as I flew around, every man waved and put up his thumb as I flew over him. After an hour, lack of petrol forced me to leave, but during that hour I had seen many men in dire danger waving, cheering and joking, as if they were holiday-makers at Brighton waving at a low-flying aircraft. It shook me, for here was something above human nature." - Flight Lieutenant Tim Vigors, DFC, RAAF

Probably a scene similar to that after Bismarck sank...

Above a few lucky Bismarck survivors. If only their 700 shipmates had been British, instead of Huns...

Two years later, when the German battleship Scharnhorst was sunk, in December, 1943, leaving many of her crew of 1968 foundering in the water, the British ships again, quickly left the area. Only 36 survivors were ever picked up.


Left men abandon Prince of Wales for a nearby destroyer in a rescue that would take hours in spite of imminent enemy hostilities... British gallantry and daring, then, rescued 2,200 men from both ships...

The disaster demonstrated, to military strategists, that the days of the hulking huge and big-gunned battleship were numbered. They were no more a match for dive bombers than the hapless individual who disturbs a hornet's nest and then tries to beat off a swarm of bees with a stick.

Air power and its delivery system - the aircraft carrier - would emerge as the capital ship of the future, as indeed it remains in our day.

The most powerful British battleships ever built, the five George V class battleships, were also the last...

The morning after the battle, Prime Minister Churchill received a phone call at his bedside from Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord, picture above at Argentia.

Pound: "Prime Minister, I have to report to you that the Prince of Wales and the Repulse have both been sunk by the Japanese - we think by aircraft. Tom Phillips is drowned."

Churchill: "Are you sure it's true?"

Pound: "There is no doubt at all."

Churchill hangs up... Later he wrote:

"In all the war, I never received a more direct shock... As I turned over and twisted in bed the full horror of the news sank in upon me.

There were no British or American ships in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific except the American survivors of Pearl Harbor, who were hastening back to California.

Over all this vast expanse of waters Japan was supreme, and we everywhere were weak and naked..."

In 2002 the bell of the Prince of Wales was salvaged from the war grave because the danger of it being plundered by illegally operating divers was too great.

With great ceremony it was installed in a museum in Britain to provide a living link to a great ship, a tragic history, and in honour of the men who had given her life in a great struggle to make the world a better place to live in, for all mankind...