Two Royal Navy Bells on Display After Sinking 80 Years Ago

As World War II ravaged from east to west in late 1941, Sir Winston Churchill, then serving as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, ordered a small delegation of fast ships and an aircraft carrier to deter expected Japanese aggression off the coasts of Singapore and Malaya. The United States was reeling from the recent attack on Pearl Harbor. Imperial Japanese aircraft were proving to be meddlesome and deadly in the Pacific theater. Perhaps these ships could help.

HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were two of the fleet. The former was a King George V-class battleship with several key actions in her brief career. The latter was one of two Renown-class battlecruisers built for the Royal Navy during the earlier Great War. Both succumbed to Japanese bombers on December 10, 1941 – the first instance of a battleship having been sunk solely by air attack. A combined 842 souls perished beneath the waves.

Sinking of the HMS Prince of Wales

Image: Crew of the sinking HMS Prince of Wales abandon ship to the destroyer Express on December 10, 1941. Courtesy: Imperial War Museum.

The loss of the Prince of Wales and Repulse dealt a heavy blow to the Allied posture in the region. Churchill recalled in his post-war memoirs: “In all the war, I never received a more direct shock.” The wrecks remain in frigid stillness at the bottom of the South China Sea.

Bells from HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse

Image: Two bells recovered from two Royal Navy warships sunk during World War II go on display to mark the 80th anniversary of the catastrophe. Courtesy: Andrew Matthews, PA Wire.

The two ship bells, however, were recovered in 2002 from the entanglement of rusting metal on the sea floor and have just gone on display at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Their presence in the exhibit offers visitors a singular point of reference for reflection on the enormity of the wartime loss. The exhibit is timed to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the sailors' deaths.

A bell for the Prince of Wales’ successor

The HMS Prince of Wales ship bell now on display in Portsmouth was referenced in a 2019 project to cast a replica bell for the ship’s successor: HMS Prince of Wales (R09), the second Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier. Utley Offshore, a foundry outside Liverpool that had also cast the bell for the Titanic, still maintained the original 1908 pattern for the 1940-cast Prince of Wales bell. This was proffered to the ship building company Cammell Laird, who completed the project. A specially-sourced nickel silver was used for authenticity. The finished bell was presented to commanding officer Captain Darren Houston in March 2020.

Cover image: Victoria Ingles, senior curator at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, and Will Heppa move the ship's bell from HMS Repulse into an exhibition space at the National Museum of the Royal Navy on December 8, 2021. Courtesy: Andrew Matthews, PA Wire.