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THE JET AGE RESERVE MODEL COLLECTION

 
 

 

   
 

MITSUBISHI G3M "NELL" AND THE LOSS OF FORCE Z

 
 

 

   
  In May 2006 a 1/72 scale Mitsubishi G3M bomber from the Jet Age Reserve Model Collection was selected as a possible candidate to promote the forthcoming Cheltenham GWR Modellers Exhibition at the Sixth Annual International Plastic Modellers Show, held at Churchdown Community Centre. In a challenging and competitive environment, this twin-engined Japanese monoplane was chosen because it had not been displayed under the Jet Age Reserve Model Collection banner before and also because it would also be the first time that the Jet Age Reserve Model Collection had fielded a Japanese aircraft.  
 

 

   
  In May 2006 a 1/72 scale Mitsubishi G3M bomber from the Jet Age Reserve Model Collection was selected as a possible candidate to promote the forthcoming Cheltenham GWR Modellers Exhibition at the Sixth Annual International Plastic Modellers Show, held at Churchdown Community Centre. In a challenging and competitive environment, this twin-engined Japanese monoplane was chosen because it had not been displayed under the Jet Age Reserve Model Collection banner before and also because it would also be the first time that the Jet Age Reserve Model Collection had fielded a Japanese aircraft.

However, research for the accompanying caption revealed an even more fascinating story that - although usually relegated to the footnotes of history books – marked a number of profound changes in both the tactics and technology of warfare and in Britain’s decline as World Power.

When the Ka-15 prototype of the twin-engined stressed-skin Mitsubishi G3M first flew in July 1935 it was more technically advanced than any other bomber aircraft in the World with the possible exception of the Boeing Model 299 ( later to become the B-17 Flying Fortress and first flown in the same month ). At the time however, most Western military experts considered the Japanese as mere imitators of innovations from other cultures.

 
 

 

   
  COUNTDOWN TO CONFLICT  
 

 

   
  Indeed, a century earlier Japan had been an inward-looking feudal empire. But in 1854 an American expedition commanded by Commodore Perry arrived on the Japanese coast and forced Japan to accept a treaty opening the country to US trade – much of which eventually flowed through the port of Nagasaki. The imposition of this American treaty led to a breakneck modernisation of Japan - despite its lack of coal, oil and other natural resources - and to the beginning of its imperial expansion.

Indeed, not long after Orville Wright made the first flight by a powered aircraft on 17 December 1903 at Kill Devil Hill near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Japan was able to defeat the theoretically much stronger Imperial Russian fleet so resoundingly that the rout triggered the Russian Revolution of 1905. In the longer term, Japan was to maintain a garrison in Manchuria ( then part of a China less politically unified than it is today ) as a defensive measure against a possible Russian invasion from its Far Eastern territories, By 1910, Japan had also acquired Korea as its colony.

Japan was also a useful ally of Britain and the United States in the 1914-1918 conflict but was frustrated by its lack of territorial rewards at the peace conferences of 1919. The post Great War depression also hit Japan harder than most countries, at a time when its population was growing by a million people a year, unemployment was high and crop failures led to famines.

In contrast, Britain had – in 1916 – completed the battlecruiser HMS Repulse as the largest warship in the World and – after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles – taken control of many former German and Turkish territories on behalf of the new League of Nations. Britain also took steps to strengthen its grip on the more far flung parts of its Empire, including – in 1924 - the start of construction of major naval base at Sembawang on the island of Singapore.

In July 1921 meanwhile, the ex-German battleship Ostfriesland had been sunk by bombers commanded by United States General Billy Mitchell during trials in Chesapeake Bay off America’s eastern seaboard.

On 15 May 1930 however, a revolt by young army officers - many of who hailed from poor agricultural backgrounds - marked the start of an increasing militarisation of Japanese life. Extreme nationalist "Patriotic Societies" became popular and a number of prime ministers that were either liberal or keen on peaceful dialogue with Western nations were assassinated.

By 1940 militarists had also taken over the education system - teaching the "bushido" code of death before surrender, martial arts, and reinforcing traditions of absolute loyalty to the Emperor who Japanese people worshipped as a god. Indeed, the Emperor Hirohito did nothing to denounce the militarisation of his empire, where western popular culture was frowned upon, the media became a tool of militarist propaganda and all civilians were expected to wear uniforms.

In 1931, extreme Japanese nationalists infiltrated the Japanese garrison in Manchuria and persuaded the soldiers to take over the iron and coal rich territory. As Manchuria was sparsely populated and only weakly defended, the garrison soon triumphed - although Japan later responded to international criticism of the coup by leaving the League of Nations.

 
 

 

   
  BANZAI MITSUBISHI!  
 

 

   
  In the early nineteen-thirties Mitsubishi of Japan developed the successful Ka-9 twin-engine long-range reconnaissance aircraft which in turn evolved into the Ka-15, a twin-engine bomber/transport. Service trials made it clear that Mitsubishi had developed an excellent aircraft notable for its exceptional range. In June 1936 it went into production - designated the Navy Type 96 attack bomber Model 11. Its Mitsubishi designation was G3M1.

The first production version, was powered by two 910 hp Mitsubishi Kinsei 3 radial engines, and had a defensive armament of three 7.7 mm (0.30 calibre) machine-guns, in two dorsal and one ventral turrets, all turrets being retractable.

Only 34 of this version were produced before 1,075 hp Kinsei radials became available. These resulted in the G3M2 Model 21, which as well as the more powerful engines had increased fuel capacity. The Model 21 was succeeded by the G3M2 Model 22 in which the defensive armament was increased to one 20mm cannon and four 7.7 mm machine-guns. The crew was increased from five to seven, including two additional gunners to man the enhanced armament. The Model 23 featured Kinsei 51 engines and further increased fuel capacity.

The G3M3 bomber variant was fitted with Mitsubishi Kinsei 14 cylinder radial engines developing 1 300 hp each and could carry 1764 lb of bombs or a torpedo over 3 871 miles at an altitude of 10 280’ at a maximum speed of 258 mph. For self defence it was fitted with one 20mm canon in a dorsal fairing, three 7.7mm machine-guns in fuselage positions and a dorsal turret. In all 1,048 G3Ms were built (636 by Mitsubishi and 412 by Nakajima)

Meanwhile, the first Mitsubishi G3Ms were delivered to the Imperial Japanese Navy in late 1936 and immediately proved popular with the crews that flew them. However, in July 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army crossed the Manchurian border and invaded northern China in search of further new sources of raw materials for Japanese industry.

On 14 August 1937 a force of G3M2s based at Taipei on the island of Formosa – now Taiwan - attacked targets in China 1,250 miles away. Ominously, Japan had made history’s first transoceanic air attack.

 
 

 

   
  ONE NIGHT AT TARANTO  
 

 

   
  During the following year - 1938 - construction of Britain’s new Singapore naval base was completed. And as the new King George V class battleship HMS Prince of Wales also took shape, August 1939 also saw Admiral Yamamoto become Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet. However, although Peking ( now Beijing ), Shanghai and the then capital of China - Nanking - had all fallen to the Japanese, skirmishes along the Manchurian border with Russia had forced Tokyo to sue for peace with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. As a result, Japan became diplomatically closer to Italy and Germany.

In September 1939 the armed forces of Japan’s European ally Germany invaded Poland - causing France and Britain declare war on the Nazi aggressor. By June 1940 Germany had also over-run Holland, Belgium and France and – as Mussolini came to the aid of fellow fascist dictator Adolf Hitler - the Battle of Britain had also begun in the skies over south-east England.

In practical terms for Japan, any attempts to seize the French colony of Indo-China ( later known as Vietnam ), the rubber-rich British colony of Malaya and the oilfields of the Dutch East Indies ( today's Indonesia ) seemed much more feasible with their European owners defeated or distracted.

Indeed, Vichy France was soon persuaded to allow Japanese forces on its soil, a move which so threatened the American dependency of the Phillipines that the United States embargoed the sale of iron ore and aviation fuel to Japan. In September 1940, Japan formally allied itself with Germany and Italy in the Tripartite Pact and in April 1941 signed a Neutrality Treaty with the USSR. As Japanese forces took over Indo-China during the summer of 1941, a further United States embargo on oil left the Japanese Navy - the largest in the Pacific Ocean - desperately short of fuel. Despite continuing diplomatic endeavours between Tokyo and Washington to lift the fuel embargo, Japanese military leaders ordered their troops to begin jungle warfare and amphibious landing training so that the Dutch East Indies could be captured before all of Japan's fuel ran out.

Amid this increased geopolitical tension, on the night of 11/12 November 1940, a small force of Fairey Swordfish torpedo-bombers from the British carrier Illustrious made a night attack on the Italian fleet base of Taranto - sinking or seriously damaging three battleships and two heavy cruisers in what the Italians had considered safe, shallow water.

Similarly, British carrier based aircraft proved their worth against enemy capital ships on 28 March 1941 at the Battle of Matapan, where the modern Italian battleship Vitorio Veneto was severely damaged in an attack by 5 torpedo planes from HMS Formidable. Later Mussolini’s heavy cruiser Pola was hit and crippled by torpedo aircraft and the following night she and her escorts were sunk by British warships.

 
 

 

   
  SINK THE BISMARK!  
 

 

   
  British capital ships and aircraft combined victoriously once again during Battle of the Denmark Strait. On 24 May 1941 HMS Prince of Wales (only completed on 19 January and still plagued with main armament problems) and the World War One battlecruiser HMS Hood engaged the German battleship Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. HMS Hood was hit by a German shell in an ammunition store, exploded and sank within a few minutes while HMS Prince of Wales was badly damaged and forced to break off the action.

However, the new addition to the Royal Navy had seriously damaged the Bismarck with three 14-inch shells. On 26 May the Bismarck was torpedoed and crippled by Swordfish biplanes from the British carrier Ark Royal and a day later the German battleship was scuttled after being wrecked by gunfire from the battleships King George V (Prince of Wales' sister ship) and Rodney.

 
 

 

   
  PRELUDE TO PEARL HARBOR  
 

 

   
  As early as January 1941 Admiral Yamamoto began investigations into the possibility of a surprise attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, home of both the aircraft carriers and battleships of the American Pacific fleet. If the capture of the Dutch East Indies was to be successful, both American and British naval opposition would have to be quickly eliminated and key islands - such as Guam and Wake - on the tanker route from Bataan ( today's Jakarta ) to Japan also secured.

By this time the G3M - known as "Nell" in American reporting nomenclature - was obsolete and being replaced by the larger and more capable G4M "Betty": just as the RAF had seen the Handley Page Hampden outclassed by the Vickers Wellington.

Many G3Ms were relegated to bomber training duties and a final version of the airframe was produced as the L3Y "Tina" transport.

Meanwhile, on 25 August 1941 Prime Minister Winston Churchill, sent a memorandum to the British Admiralty proposing that a 'formidable, fast, high-class squadron' consisting of a new battleship, a battlecruiser, and an aircraft carrier be sent to the Far East to deter Japan from offensive action. On 28 August the Admiralty replied with its own memorandum: proposing that a large, balanced battle fleet should be built up in the Indian Ocean while the new battleships Prince of Wales and King George V stay in home waters to counter the threat from the Bismarck's sister ship Tirpitz.

In fact earlier in August 1941 HMS Prince of Wales had taken Winston Churchill to Placentia Bay in the Canadian province of Newfoundland to meet Franklin Delano Roosevelt as United States President for the first time. Their discussions produced an impressive statement of democratic intent in a document later known as the Atlantic Charter. Among its provisions, Britain and the United States pledged to protect the right of peoples to choose their own governments and to live free from fear.  More practically and immediately though, President Roosevelt presented each member of the crew of HMS Prince of Wales with a box containing an orange, an apple and either 200 cigarettes or half a pound of cheese.

Roosevelt also promised to commit the United States to even greater involvement in the European war, including supplying aid to the Soviet Union - invaded by Germany in June 1941 - "on a gigantic scale", more merchant ships to transport tanks and bomber aircraft to Britain, and five destroyers for each convoy sailing the dangerous North Atlantic run. Although the Placentia Bay talks brought America no closer to joining the conflict, Roosevelt confided in Churchill that a big dramatic incident would instantly clear all isolationist doubts and propel the United States to war on a wave of national outrage.

In Tokyo, on 16 October 1941 Prince Konoye, who did not accept that war between Japan and the Western powers was inevitable, resigned as Prime Minister and was replaced by the hard-line General Tojo. As a result British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden ( later Prime Minister during the 1956 Suez Crisis ), sent a memorandum to Churchill urging that deterrent forces be sent to the Far East as soon as possible.

A day later, at a Defence Committee meeting, Churchill continued to argue for the despatch to the Far East of a fast modern squadron. A.V. Alexander, the First Sea Lord argued the Admiralty case for a larger force built around older battleships deployed in the Indian Ocean. Eden supported Churchill, and arguing that the arrival of one of the new British battleships in Singapore would be a much more effective signal to the world of British resolution, and would do much more to reassure the governments and peoples of Australia and New Zealand. However, no decision was taken.

On 20 October at a British Chiefs of Staff meeting Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord argued that Churchill's proposed deterrent squadron would not prevent Japan from invading Malaya, as the Japanese Navy would be able to overwhelm so small a force. In return, Churchill argued that Japan would not attack Malaya, but was likely to carry out raids against trade routes. Pound then gave up the attempt to dissuade Churchill, and proposed a compromise under which the battlecruiser Repulse - which would already be in the Indian Ocean on convoy escort duties - should be sent east. HMS Prince of Wales would then be sent to Capetown after which her further movements will be decided. The new aircraft carrier Indomitable would also join the Prince of Wales en route to the Cape of Good Hope.

Despite this, on 21 October, The Lords of the Admiralty decided that HMS Prince of Wales would sail for Singapore and on 24 October Admiral Tom Phillips raised his flag aboard Prince of Wales in the Clyde Estuary. HMS Prince of Wales, with escorting destroyers Electra and Express, then sailed for Capetown, arriving on 16 November 1941.

By 2 December what became known as Force Z arrived in Singapore – crucially without HM carrier Indomitable, which had run aground and left the capital ships without naval air cover.

On December 7 1941 Japanese Admiral Nagumo's carrier force made its crushing surprise attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and at 1735 on December 8 Force Z sailed from Singapore to attack Japanese invasion shipping off the coast of Malaya.

 
 

 

   
  ENTER FORCE Z  
 

 

   
  Those who make the decisions in war are constantly weighing certain risks against possible gains. At the outset of hostilities with Japan, Admiral Hart thought of sending his small striking force north of Luzon in the Philippines to challenge Japanese communications, but decided that the risk to his ships outweighed the possible gain because the enemy had won control of the air.

Admiral Phillips had precisely the same problem in Malaya. Should he steam into the Gulf of Siam and expose his ships to air attack from Indochina in the hope of breaking enemy communications with Japanese landing forces? He decided to take the chance. With the Royal Air Force and the British Army fighting for their lives, the Royal Navy could not be true to its tradition by remaining idly at anchor.

So Prince of Wales and Repulse, escorted by destroyers Electra, Express, Vampire and Tenedos, sailed from Singapore. Admiral Phillips left his Chief of Staff Palliser at the command post ashore and flew his flag in Prince of Wales.

At 0050 on 9 December 1941 Palliser radioed Phillips that the Royal Air Force was so pressed by giving ground support to land operations that the Admiral could expect no air cover off Singora. He also reported that Japanese heavy bombers were already in southern Indochina and that General MacArthur had been asked to send Brereton's Flying Fortresses to attack their bases.

Little did Palliser know that the United States Army Air Forces of the Far East were in a desperate situation. The Japanese invasion force was already well established in the peninsular section of Thailand, a country that had promptly surrendered. At Kota Bharu within British Malaya there was bitter fighting in a series of rear guard actions fought desperately by British and native troops. But by the time the British warships arrived, their opportunity had passed; the vulnerable transports were already returning to base. Admiral Phillips did not realise this.

The Japanese, by striking at three points almost simultaneously, hoped to attract all available land-based fighters of the Royal Air Force and leave Phillips without air cover when they were ready for him; and he steamed right into this trap.

 
 

 

   
  THE TRAP SPRINGS  
 

 

   
  He swung north, leaving the Anambas Islands to port, and at 0629 on 9 December received word that destroyer Vampire had sighted an enemy plane.

Phillips was entering the Japanese air radius without air cover, but he still hoped to surprise a Japanese convoy at Singora. So on he sped to a position some 150 miles south of Indochina and 250 miles east of the Malay Peninsula.

At 1830, when the weather cleared and three Japanese naval reconnaissance planes were sighted from the flagship, he realised that his position was precarious and untenable. Reluctantly he reversed course to return to Singapore at high speed. It would have been a happy ending had he persisted in this resolve.

As he steamed south, dispatches from Singapore portrayed impending doom on the shores of Malaya. The British Army was falling back fast. Shortly before 2359 on 9 December word came through of an enemy landing at Kuantan, halfway between Kota Bharu and Singapore. Admiral Phillips, in view of the imminent danger to Singapore, decided to risk his force in a strike on Kuantan. But the report was false, and his brave reaction to it proved fatal.

At 0220 on 10 December 1941 Japanese submarine I-58 sighted Force Z through its periscope and fired five torpedoes at the British warships. These all missed – but the contact was reported to other Japanese forces. As a result, at 0600 the first wave of Japanese aircraft - three reconnaissance aircraft and nine G3M Nells armed with bombs – took off from Saigon to attack Force Z, followed by 86 torpedo aircraft between 0735 and 0930.

At dawn 10 December an unidentified plane was sighted by Force Z about 60 miles off Kuantan. Admiral Phillips continued on his course but launched a reconnaissance plane from Prince of Wales. It found no evidence of the enemy. The destroyer Express steamed ahead to reconnoitre the harbour of Kuantan, found it deserted, and closed the flagship again at 0835.

Not yet suspecting that his intelligence from Singapore was faulty, the Admiral continued to search for a non-existent surface enemy, first to the northward and then to the eastward. At about 1020 on 10 December an enemy plane was sighted shadowing Prince of Wales. The crews immediately assumed anti-aircraft stations.

At 1030 Admiral Phillips received a signal from the detached destroyer HMS Tenedos - 'Am being bombed by enemy aircraft' while at 1113 the first wave of attacking Japanese aircraft was sighted from Force Z. Two minutes later nine G3M2 Nells make a high-level bombing attack on Repulse, but despite one direct hit the battlecruiser was not seriously damaged.

At 1130 the Force Z flagship Prince of Wales' radar detected the approach of the next wave of Japanese planes. These were torpedo-carrying aircraft which arrived at 1142 and made two strikes in two minutes, leaving Prince of Wales severely damaged.

At 1158 a third Japanese wave attacked Force Z while at 1220 26 torpedo-armed Mitsubishi G4Ms "Betties" of the Kanoya Corps attacked. Nine of these twin-engined aircraft homed in on HMS Repulse and two were rapidly shot down by the battlecruiser’s anti-aircraft guns. However, other Japanese aircraft scored two torpedo strikes against HMS Repulse, the second jamming her rudder. Then, as Prince of Wales received four more torpedo hits, Repulse was hit by a further three torpedoes and sank.

By 1245 Prince of Wales had received a bomb hit which caused further serious damage and at 1305 the destroyer Express was ordered alongside Prince of Wales to take off survivors. At 1318 four Brewster Buffalo fighters from 453 Squadron RAF arrived in time to see Prince of Wales sink, and to chase off the remaining Japanese bombers.

Winston Churchill wrote of how he was aroused in the night and given the news.

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

 
 

 

   
  AFTERMATH  
 

 

   
  The loss of Force Z - one of the most critical naval actions of the Twentieth Century and the finest hour of the Mitsubishi bombers - as much as any event presaged the dissolution of the British Empire and the end of European supremacy in the East. By the time that the Empire of the Sun had been defeated, India, Vietnam, Malaya and Indonesia to name but a few would crave their own self-government.

Meanwhile, no free-moving battleship had been sunk by air power before but now the Japanese had disposed of the only Allied battleship and battle cruiser in the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii. The Allies lost face throughout the Orient and began to lose confidence in themselves. Methodically and relentlessly the Japanese forces drove down the Malay Peninsula. British, Australian and native troops fought valiantly but, as at Bataan, with the increasing knowledge that theirs – for the moment - was a lost cause.

Following the loss of Force Z many analysts - scoffing at the purported range of the Mitsubishi bombers - believed that the G3Ms must have been launched from aircraft carriers in the manner of April 1942’s "Doolittle Raids" on Tokyo using the flight deck of the USS Hornet. And there lay the rub. If so many of the "battlewagons" - which had ruled the seas since in the four decades since the launch of HMS Dreadnought – now littered the ocean floor then the time of the aircraft carrier as capital ship had truly come. They and their aircraft would dominate the battles of Midway, Guadalcanal and the Coral Sea until Allied forces reached back across the Pacific to the Marianas, within Boeing B-29 Superfortress range of Japan.

And, just as the G3Ms had flown from Taipei on 14 August 1937, so on 6 August 1945 a B-29 named Enola Gay would fly from Tinian Island on the first of two atomic missions that would both end Japanese aggression and change the World forever. Ironically 9 August 1945 would see a plutonium bomb drop from another 509th Bombardment Group B-29 on the Mitsubishi shipyards at Nagasaki - the very port where America had first traded with Japan.

Soon afterwards, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and began to develop an atomic bomb of its own. During the ensuing arms race, the former German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen was used to evaluate American nuclear testing in the Pacific and the name HMS Repulse was used for one of the four Polaris submarines which formed Britain's nuclear deterrent for over two decades from 1969.