The Royal Navy in Eastern Waters

30 Jul 18
Posted by: Nick Kettlewell

by Andrew Boyd

Andrew Boyd was a submariner who served in SSBNs before taking early retirement for a second career in the Foreign Office. Now he is in a third career as a senior research fellow at the University of Buckingham specialising in twentieth-century naval history.
This book has been a major undertaking, with over 400 pages of text and over 100 pages of Annexes, Notes, References and Index. He has consulted widely and had access to many hitherto unseen documents in the public archives, but not including our archives which contain interesting contemporary discussions between Captains Roskill and Cresswell. In his foreword Dr N.A.M. Rodger, a naval historian himself, congratulates Boyd on his comprehensive coverage filling a huge void in most histories of the Second World War and in the process absolving Churchill of the blame for the sinking of Force Z. He concludes that “This new account ought to startle the many comfortable ideas which have been dozing too long in their arm-chairs.”
Naval Review members have been fortunate in the two recent excellent articles on the subject, in May 2017 by Arthur Nicholson and in November 2017 by Dr Martin Stephen. These, of course, look closely at the loss of the ships. Boyd starts his coverage in 1935. In fact, while the Washington Treaty of 1921 did not stop the building of Singapore Naval Base as it was defensive in nature, it caused our only capital ship in the region, the Battlecruiser HMAS Australia, to be scuttled off Sydney heads. Main Fleet to Singapore by Captain Russell Grenfell, published in 1951, and which at Staff College we considered to be the bible on the subject, covers this period well. Surprisingly Boyd does not refer to it.
Boyd reviews the forces available in the 1930s to counter the perceived Axis threat in the Atlantic and Mediterranean and, in considerable detail, the dilemma facing the Naval Staff if the Japanese threatened our interests in China and our trade routes in the Far East. The 1937 Imperial Conference was interpreted by the Australian and New Zealand representatives as an unambiguous commitment to despatch a fully competitive fleet in the event of any Japanese attack. There is no doubt that Chatfield intended to honour this promise but resources to do so would be limited. In 1940 the Naval Staff concluded that it could not be relied on in less than 180 days.
A tactical appreciation by the Air Staff in Singapore in October 1940 considered that 556 aircraft were necessary to defend the peninsula from the North. At this time the RAF in Malaya consisted of just 88 aircraft, of which the fighters were obsolete American Brewster Buffalos. The Chiefs of Staff in London agreed only 336 on their assessment that the effectiveness of Japanese aircraft was only 60% that of the RAF. How wrong that proved to be! This reinforcement never happened as the Hurricanes were diverted to Greece and Russia.
RN/USN staff talks continued throughout 1940-41 based on an assumption that the USN would enter the war. If this were the case, and they were already providing convoy escorts in the Western Atlantic, the USN agreed to share more of the burden of the battle of the Atlantic and Mediterranean thus releasing capital ships for the Far East where the situation was deteriorating, the Japanese taking Saigon in March 1941. President Roosevelt froze all Japanese assets; the British and Dutch followed suit.
There was a significant meeting in August 1941 between the Prime Minister, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound and VCNS Vice Admiral Sir Tom Phillips. 1SL was aware of Churchill’s requirement to deter the Japanese but also wanted to defend trade in the Indian Ocean. He therefore proposed a sizeable force East of Suez based on Force H, consisting of Nelson, Rodney, Renown, four ‘R’ Class battleships and two to three carriers. Churchill wanted a smaller force, a KGV, Renown or Repulse and the carrier Indomitable. Churchill did not want the ‘R’ class, calling them “coffin ships”. Boyd doubts that Indomitable would have made it even had she not run aground off Jamaica. Despite the contribution of new construction the larger force would not be available until 1942 so Churchill’s smaller Force Z was the only option. Repulse sailed for the Cape in September 1941, Admiral Phillips was relieved as VCNS on 21st October and sailed in the Prince of Wales four days later as CinC Eastern Fleet. The force assembled in Ceylon from where Admiral Phillips flew ahead to Singapore and where the ships arrived on 2 December.
Boyd postulates that after the August meeting two differing views emerged, Churchill’s to deter Japanese aggression and Pound’s perhaps more limited aim to confront the Japanese Navy and deter them from entering the Indian Ocean. Later he records naval staff proposals, led by Admiral Harwood, to adopt a more aggressive strategy and, a meeting on 30 September chaired by Phillips, agreed that the RN would prefer a single allied fleet in the Far East with Singapore as its main base and Manila as a forward operating base. Subsequently this aspiration was a main topic of Phillip’s discussions with General McArthur and Admiral Hart in Manila on 6 December rapidly overtaken by the events of the next two days.
This is a very short summation of Boyd’s detailed and exceptional coverage of the debates in 1940-41. But, the question remains – does he justify his absolution of Churchill’s responsibility for the loss of Force Z, considered by many at the time to be the case, and that the Naval Staff’s change of direction in September 1941 was the cause? To my mind Phillips was always going to Singapore because he firmly believed in our commitment to Australia and New Zealand and I doubt he considered two capital ships held back in Ceylon constituted a sufficient deterrent, as indeed events of the 8 December proved. Furthermore he had been appointed CinC Far East and also to relieve Admiral Layton as CinC China Station on arrival. He would hardly have left his flagship in Trincomalee. No one could have foreseen the Japanese escalation that week culminating in Pearl Harbor. Phillips had no choice but to put to sea and the lack of air cover and failing to break wireless silence off Kuantan when some could have been provided led to the inevitable loss of the ships. Boyd concludes with excellent coverage of Somerville’s build up of the East Indies Fleet in 1942 just in time to fend off the Japanese from Ceylon, another close run thing.
Who then is this book for? Staff College students certainly and for those wishing to delve a bit deeper into this period or perhaps take it out of the library. For the remainder it is probably best to stick to Captain Grenfell’s book, still obtainable second hand, and the occasional article in the Naval Review.

Nick Kettlewell