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British Pacific Fleet 1944-45: The Royal Navy in the Downfall of Japan

07 May 24

80 pages

Andy Field

I enjoy Osprey books, and have several in my library, so I was pleased to receive British Pacific Fleet, the third in their new, ‘Fleet’, series for review. Like me, regular buyers know what to expect: informative text, interesting photographs, and good coloured illustrations, although space constraints often lead to some of these being spoilt, being over two pages, with detail lost “in the gutter”. This is the case here, which is a pity, as I’ve always admired Paul Wright’s naval artwork, but it’s a minor quibble.

The ’Fleet’ series is a relatively new one of Osprey’s. I’ve read Mark Stille’s book on Japan’s Combined Fleet and am awaiting the arrival of the forthcoming books on the Home Fleet and the Regia Marina. From what I’ve seen so far, they appear to be good and reasonably well detailed books for the reader who wants an overview of the topic.

Brian Lain Herder’s book is organised in four sections, ‘The Fleet’s Purpose’, giving the background to the formation, deployment, and mission of the BPF, supported by a helpful map of the Pacific theatre. ‘Fleet Fighting Power’ describes the ships involved, not just the fleet carriers, but the light carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers and ancillaries and auxiliaries which supported the fleet. A full page, 3D diagram of the deployment of the Anglo-American bombardment of Hamamatsu is used to help understand how the ships worked together, although I felt this would have been better placed in one of the other two, following sections. There is also discussion on the personnel, the types of aircraft used, the lessons learned whilst working with USS Ranger in the Home Fleet in 1943 – her captain complained of how little the RN knew about the proper use of carrier air power compared to the USN – and when Victorious operated with USS Saratoga, in the South Pacific. Whilst when Saratoga worked with the Eastern Fleet in 1944, her air group commander “…..was horrified that it took Illustrious an hour and a half to launch and rendezvous a single deck-load of planes. Retraining the British air group in American methods, Clifton soon had that time down to 25 minutes…..”. A steep learning curve for the British, no doubt, as they had to unlearn their own doctrine and embrace a new one, more suited to a different style of naval warfare.

Another informative, 3D diagram on the air tactics associated with CAP finishes this section and we move into ‘How The Fleet Operated’. This covers Doctrine and Command, and the way Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser willingly adopted USN fleet tactics. More 3D diagrams on Combat Formation and Logistical Support Group Formation support this section, which goes on to cover Intelligence, Communications and Deception, and Logistics and Facilities.

The final section, ‘Combat and Analysis’, makes up nearly half of the book, and describes the Sumatran Raids of late 1944-early 1945. In February 1945, the US Admiral King, finally authorised the BPF to join in Operation ICEBERG, operating in conjunction with Admiral Spruance’s Fifth Fleet against Okinawa, The British, now designated TF-57, were tasked with supressing Japanese air power in the Sakashima Gunto islands, a task they completed in the face of continued opposition and despite the shortcomings of the extemporised Fleet Train.  Over 2,000 sorties had been flown, over 12 days, for the loss of 68 aircraft, 34 aircrew and 19 non-flyers. An error of judgement occurred May, during Operation ICEBERG II, when the battleships and cruisers were deployed to bombard Japanese positions, opened up the four carriers and their eight destroyers to Japanese Kamikaze attacks, damaging Formidable and Victorious. Formidable had to be detached back to Sydney for repairs, but the operations proved to the Americans that the BPF were fully capable of operations. Admiral Spruance agreed and recommended that the British force be fully integrated with his fleet.

Further operations against Japan are described, in which the British fleet took a full part, despite the US side-lining them at one stage, not wanting them to be involved in the final destruction of what remained of Japan’s fleet. The crucial role of the Commonwealth is also further stressed, with both the withdrawal of HMCS Uganda from the theatre, and the actions of Lieutenant Hampton Gray, DSC, RCNVR, in sinking an escort in an action that led to his posthumous award of the VC.

In his analysis, Brian Lane Herder makes the point that the BPF illustrated tremendous resilience and resourcefulness in a type of warfare they had not expected to fight, in ships which were not designed for the theatre, and sometimes, up against politicians from both sides of the Atlantic. He particularly mentions Churchill, who, with the chiefs of staff, wasted eight months, just deciding where the British ships in the Far East should go, giving no time to develop any logistical support bases. ( He also, in fairness, make the point that the speed of the American advance quickly meant that the supplies built up in Sydney were too far from the fleet’s operational area.) The British contribution was acknowledged as courageous, and in Brian Lane Herder’s opinion, did help in the final defeat of Japan, although it was obvious that this would have been achieved by the Americans.

It did, of course, also give the RN experience of a new form of naval warfare, operating aircraft carriers in Task Groups. And, as he says in his final sentence, “…..One way or another, the British Empire’s accounts with Japan needed to be squared, and the British Pacific Fleet proved to be the weapon that did it…..”

All in all, I think that this is an excellent, short, account of the BPF. I feel that there’s a lot packed in here and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone wishing to buy a brief and inexpensive account of “The Forgotten Fleet”.