HEAVEN HIGH, OCEAN DEEP: NAVAL FIGHTER WING AT WAR

Reviewed by: TIM BENBOW

As a child, the author of this book heard stories from his father and godfather about their experiences as Fleet Air Arm fighter pilots serving in the Eastern Fleet and then British Pacific Fleet during the Second World War.  He was inspired to join the Royal Navy himself, and then to put together this book, based on their memories and those of other pilots.  In the introduction, he refers to himself as an editor rather than an author; while this is taking self-effacement just a little too far, he does step back, allowing the words of the pilots – culled from many interviews that he conducted as well as written documents such as war diaries and letters home – to speak for themselves.  Their words are complemented by a large number of photographs from the personal collections of those interviewed or contacted by the author – these alone would justify acquiring the book to anyone with an interest in the Second World War or carrier aviation.  The aim of the book is to provide an account of the experiences of the 5th Fighter Wing, comprising 1839 and 1844 Squadrons (flying Hellcats) as they trained, worked up and then, in July 1944, joined HMS Indomitable to participate in the war against Japan.

There are some minor flaws.  The publisher could have done a better job: what might be described as rather light-touch editing has allowed several errors and repetitions to slip through, and the book is crying out for a few maps to accompany the text.  Some of the author’s judgements, for example the rather bleak assessment of the results of Operation MERIDIAN, the strikes on the Palembang oil refineries, are at odds with the historical literature.  To be fair, though, his aim is not to write a comprehensive history but rather to present the views of the pilots, in their own words.  Even if criticisms of the commanders of the Eastern Fleet and then Pacific Fleet are harsh, or evaluations of the results of a raid more grudging than the consensus of historians, this account reflects how the pilots felt at the time: if one (the author’s godfather) commented in relation to MERIDIAN, ‘we all felt that the Butcher’s Bill was far too long for what we had achieved’ (p.101), this commands respect and is worth recording.  Judged by the author’s intention, the book is successful and makes for a vivid, often moving and memorable read.

It provides a remarkable insight into the harrowing experience of living in and operating from a carrier, in hugely challenging conditions.  The bravado and camaraderie, the tension before an operation and the release when it begins, the debilitating effect of combat fatigue, the frustrations with senior officers will all strike a chord with those who have served in the Navy.  Some experiences were more peculiar to the Pacific War, such as the growing apprehension as awareness spread of ‘kamikaze’ tactics, the justified anger and revulsion at the Japanese treatment of prisoners of war, including the murder of several captured aircrew (one from the 5th Fighter Wing) even after Japan’s surrender, and what was for some the uncomfortable awareness that their lives had probably been saved by the use of the two atomic weapons.

Perhaps most striking is the eye-wateringly high casualty rate, from operational accidents as much as from the enemy: ‘in a normal naval fighter wing, operating in the Far East, a third, or more, would lose their lives to enemy action or accident’ (p.59).  During Operation ICEBERG (the invasion of Okinawa) alone, the British Pacific Fleet – which provided one quarter of Spruance’s naval air power – lost 23 per cent of its aircrew.  One pilot, the New Zealander Lt Alex Macrae, was badly injured but managed to return his stricken Hellcat to the carrier; he noted, ‘Jenkins, Haberfield, Langdon and myself shared a cabin.  Only I survived.’ (p.125).

For giving a voice to these remarkable young men, and chronicling their experiences, this book is highly recommended.