Major, Michael John Herbert

He was the only son of Ernest Henry Major, of ‘Fridays’, Ockley, Surrey, and Leila Mary Major (daughter of Herbert Bennett). Before Winchester, he was educated at Sandroyd School. He went steadily up the school, later entering the Science side in order to compete for the Navy and was successful at his first attempt at special entry in 1936.

After obtaining his commission he served mainly at home, initially as a sub-Lieutenant in destroyers. Soon after the outbreak of war he entered the Fleet Air Arm, and was promoted Lieutenant in April 1940. But at the age of twenty-three he was reported missing, presumed dead in the action which saw the loss of his ship, HMS Prince of Wales, together with HMS Repulse on December 10th 1941 off Malaya.

HMS Prince of Wales left Greenock on 25th October 1941 for the Far East.  Within days of their departure, Winston Churchill had informed President Roosevelt:  “As your naval people have already been informed, we are sending that big ship you inspected into the Indian Ocean as part of a squadron we are forming there. This ought to serve as a deterrent to Japan.”

By 3rd December the ship was in Singapore harbour.   Unfortunately the ship and her two destroyer escorts had been spotted by a  Japanese reconnaissance plane.  On the evening of 7th December Japan bombed Singapore.  Troops also began landing on the Malayan coast and information was also coming through about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

On the afternoon of 8th December HMS Prince of Wales, with HMS Repulse and 4 destroyers as escorts left Singapore with the aim of disrupting the Japanese landings around Singora in Thailand.  Unfortunately, the Prince of Wales was operating at less than full capacity as one of her engines was out of action, as was her surface radar system.

The following day they were spotted by a Japanese submarine  and by 2055 that night it was realised by the authorities on board that they were being subjected to a detailed search by the Japanese.  They cancelled the proposed operation and headed back to Singapore.

At 1118 on 10th December a group of Japanese bombers attacked the Repulse, causing severe casualties.  Fifteen minutes later more enemy aircraft appeared over the horizon with HMS Prince of Wales as their target.  They were Mitsubishi G4M1 torpedo bombers which flew in low on the ship’s port bow releasing their armaments while the men on board watched in horror.  Two made direct contact with the ship and within seconds she began listing while both the steering gear and main electrical systems had been severely damaged.  A propeller shaft had been twisted to such an extent that the blades were tearing the armour plating off the stern of the ship.   The ship took on over 18,000 tons of water.  The Japanese moved their attention to the Repulse and for a while she managed to evade the torpedoes.  However eventually she was hit by 5 which literally tore her apart.   With the Repulse finished the Japanese resumed their attack on the Prince of Wales, which was already very slowly sinking and they finished her off with a high level bombing run.

With both ships sunk the Japanese left the area.   Within minutes a British squadron of Brewster Buffalo aircraft flew over.   They had responded to a request for air cover from Captain Tennant of the Repulse but did not arrive in time.

Repulse sank with the loss of 513 men and out of the Prince of Wales’ crew of 1612 men, 20 officers, 280 sailors and 27 marines were lost.  Among the dead were Admiral Sir Tom Phillips ( Commander of the Eastern Fleet) Captain John Leach (HMS Prince of Wales’ commanding officer) and Lieutenant Major.  The wreck of the Prince of Wales now lies upside down near Kuantan, Malaya.

Lieutenant Michael Major is commemorated on the Lee-on-Solent Memorial, Bay 1 Panel 6.

War: World War 2

  • Surname: Major
  • Forenames or initials: Michael John Herbert
  • House: K
  • Years in School: 1931-1935
  • Rank: Lieutenant
  • Regiment: Fleet Air Arm, Royal Navy
  • Date of Birth: 4th August 1918
  • Date of Death: 10th December 1941
  • How Died: Killed in Action
  • Location in War Cloister: Inner G2
  • Decoration: NA
  • Burial Site: Commemorated on Bay 1, Panel 6 of the Lee on Solent Memorial