Taken on 9 October 1941, this image shows the Air Defence Deck of the King George V class battleship HMS Prince of Wales. The observers are involved in anti-aircraft training, and interestingly, the identification poster comes from ‘Flight’ magazine, the main competitor of our sister title, ‘Aeroplane’, in the war days.
Despite being in commissioned service for less than a year, the Prince of Wales had a busy career. Her first action occurred in August 1940 while she was being fitted in drydock, as she was attacked by German aircraft. Commissioned in January 1941, she sallied with HMS Hood to intercept the Bismarck in May that year.
So new she was still plagued by teething problems, her crew not completely trained, and still with civilian contractors aboard, she witnessed the Hood’s sinking in the Battle of the Denmark Strait and although her guns were not working effectively, she was able to hit the Bismarck in two separate engagements. Following repair in Scotland, Prince of Wales transported Prime Minister Winston Churchill across the ocean to Newfoundland for a secret conference with Roosevelt. The three-day conference began on 10 August, and ended with the proclamation of the Atlantic Charter, which defined Allied war goals. By 18 August the battleship had returned to Scapa Flow. In September 41, Prince of Wales served in the Mediterranean, where she covered Operation Halberd – a Malta Convoy. During this action, the battleship was responsible for downing several Italian aircraft on 27 September, and also sortied with HMS Rodney and HMS Ark Royal to hunt for the Italian fleet, though this ended without action.
By 6 October the ship had returned to home waters, and shortly after, on the 9th, this photo was taken. On 25 October the ship set course for the Far East, tasked with the defence of Singapore. Sadly, without carrier cover, the air defence training given to her crew would not be enough to ensure her survival.
As flagship of Force Z, Prince of Wales, HMS Repulse, and four destroyers set sail from Singapore on 8 December to intercept and sink a Japanese troop convoy. No carrier was available to assist them, and RAF cover, heavily pressured by the Japanese, was spotty at best. The Japanese had seen the ships in harbour during a raid two days earlier, and the ships had been picked up by a submarine and air reconnaissance. At midnight on the night of 9/10th December, Force Z responded to a signal suggesting that a landing was occurring nearby and sailed to intercept. The landing was only a diversion, but served to put the warships in a perilous position. At 11am on the 10th, Japanese aircraft began their attack on the force. A few hours later, after four waves of attacks, both Prince of Wales and Repulse would be sunk.
Prince of Wales and Repulse were the first capital ships to be sunk solely by naval air power on the open sea, and their loss signalled the beginning of the end for capital ships.