06 November 2020

Heaven High Ocean Deep - Tim Hillier-Graves

Last year was quite exciting for a wartime Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm tragic. Hot on the heels of David Hobbs’ then latest work, The Dawn of Carrier Strike, came a book any aircrew enthusiast could get excited about: a title about the Grumman Hellcat-equipped 5th Fighter Wing. A book on the subject was incredibly welcome and, considering some of the recent attention and study directed at the British Pacific Fleet, would bring some of the ‘forgotten’ men of ‘the forgotten fleet’ into focus. Heaven High Ocean Deep certainly does that, but in doing so it ignores everything brought to light in the past three decades (at least).


One of the great traits of the wartime FAA was adaptability. This was born mostly out of having to face the odds with aircraft that were either of ‘another era’ or pressed into an environment for which they were not designed. Hamstrung from well before the outbreak of war, due to the RAF’s desire to control military aviation into the thirties, and an Admiralty in love with the ‘big gun’, the Fleet Air Arm did what it could with what it had. What it achieved with its biplane torpedo bombers, hastily converted land-based fighters, and two-seat long-range fighters, in the first years of the war is legendary. The effectiveness and flexibility of the carrier strike force began to hit home and the Americans and Japanese massively reinforced that point in the first year of the war in the Pacific. The British aviation industry, already pushing hard, could not hope to fulfil the FAA’s resulting need for more, and new, aircraft. The US, however, was beginning to pump out aircraft. The Hellcat—with its rugged construction, docile landing characteristics and excellent forward visibility—was a development of the Wildcat (also used effectively by the FAA) and Grumman refined the design as encounters with the Japanese ‘Zero’ were analysed. Its simplicity meant it went from drawing board to carrier deck far quicker than the troubled Corsair, a design that had flown before the US entry into the war. The Hellcat, as mentioned above, settled into the USN easily and became so well established that by the time the USN had carrier qualified its first two Corsair units in 1943 (before the RN received its first Corsairs), commanders in the Pacific didn’t want the headache of another fighter requiring yet another supply chain of unique spares. The US Marine Corps were happy with the ‘surplus’ of Corsairs and, despite the type’s tricky handling, so did the RN, recognising the bent-wing fighter offered a significant jump in capability. Its issues would be dealt with and made to work in typical FAA style.


The RN went for the Hellcat at the same time and the 5th Fighter Wing came into being in late 1943. Only two squadrons, 1839 and 1844, made up the Wing due to a shortage of pilots and space considerations on board HMS Indomitable, the assigned fleet carrier. They worked up in Northern Ireland before embarking on an escort carrier in February 1944. The loaded-to-capacity carrier took them to Colombo where they finally met, and started flying from, Indomitable mid-year. The Royal Navy’s pivot to the Indian Ocean, which it had never left despite the reversals of 1942, was well and truly underway (as was its return to a legitimate role in the Pacific). The fleet began to make forays to Sumatra, initially hitting lightly defended targets before going after the oil refineries from late 1944. These raids—the inexperienced Hellcat units were left off the early ones, with the exception of the photo-reconnaissance Mk.IIs—revealed a lot of issues from beginning to end of a strike (excessive time taken to form up, control over the target etc), and these had to be ironed out, to the satisfaction of the Americans, some of whom weren’t keen to bring the RN into ‘their’ theatre, before the fleet arrived in Australia to establish itself as the British Pacific Fleet.


That arrival in Australia followed the well-known raids on Palembang in late January 1945. By the end of March the now accepted BPF had begun its attacks on the Sakishima Gunto, an island chain pointing the way to Formosa (now Taiwan) from Okinawa. Its role was to prevent Japanese aircraft, many assigned for kamikaze attacks, using the islands to hop from Taiwan to the US invasion fleet at Okinawa. It was hardly a glamorous job, the fleet’s aircraft, Hellcats included, hitting the same airfields and installations time and time again, and at quite a cost, withdrawing to re-supply from the fleet train, and then returning to do it all over again. This was kept up until late May. The return to Australia, to prepare for attacks on the Japanese Home Islands, meant the end of major operations for the 5th Fighter Wing. Only its specialist photo reconnaissance and night fighter elements would see combat with the BPF to the end of the war. The PR pilots were particularly hard pressed and returned excellent results.


The above is a barely potted history of the BPF’s activities. It, obviously, doesn’t include that most vital component of any unit history—the human element; the memories of the people involved. Fortunately, Heaven High Ocean Deep leans heavily on a number of veterans interviewed by the author, inspired by his father and godfather both being wartime naval aviators, during the 1990s. The book is built around these interviews. They span the range of experiences, from joining up all the way through to the end of the war and demobbing, and sees several interviewees quoted throughout the book. There are some valuable passages looking at the operational side of things, and the steep learning curve, but also several that reflect on losses and their impact. Diary entries abound, but there is little, save the acknowledgements, to indicate the extent of other records referenced as there is no bibliography. Indeed, only three secondary sources—in the form of Winton’s The Forgotten Fleet, Hanson’s superb Carrier Pilot and Admiral Vian’s Action This Day—are directly mentioned, the youngest of these first being published in the late seventies. The work of John Winton, who the author was in contact with and whom he received completed research from, appears to underpin the entire narrative. Fair enough, it was a ground-breaking work, but doesn’t stack up to the claim ‘it was and remains the most important account…’ as that accolade now sits with The British Pacific Fleet by the aforementioned David Hobbs. That’s probably the theme of the major issue with this book. All of the research is at least two decades old and a good chunk seems to rely on work from the 1960s. Granted, history doesn’t change, but new analyses and discoveries greatly enhance its understanding and to ignore recent ‘developments’ is akin to sticking your head in the sand.


It can also lead to repeating information since disproved or, at least, incomplete. Early on there is a suggestion the RN led the way with the operation of Corsairs from aircraft carriers, even mentioning the nickname ‘Whistling Death’ which has since been understood to be a creation of the manufacturer’s marketing department. As mentioned above, the USN had carrier qualified Corsair units before the RN even received its first aircraft. Yes, the FAA developed modifications and improved techniques to operate the Corsair at sea, but it was not the pioneer. Similarly, there is also a discussion regarding the preference for American types because the USN Pacific supply chain could be relied upon for replacements. One of the requirements for the RN to operate alongside the USN against Japan was it had to be self-sufficient. That’s why there was a mad scramble to assemble supply ships for a fleet train that ultimately stretched from the east coast of the US across the Atlantic to the UK and then east to the Indian Ocean, Australia and beyond. Then there’s the extensive modifications the RN made to its aircraft.


Opinions and analysis seem to be largely driven by the comments made by the interviewees. If a veteran says ‘It was a bloody waste of time’ (I’m paraphrasing) in reference to an exercise or raid, it’s taken as gospel. There is no attempt to prove it was or wasn’t. The bigger picture of everything leading up to the BPF was to prove to the Americans the RN was good to go, was capable of effective, standalone strike operations. Similarly, the attitude of some of the veterans to Admiral Vian seems to have rubbed off on the author. I’ve not read a lot about the man, but to say he didn’t care for the men under his command is too much. My first thoughts upon reading that was to recall the efforts he made to recover downed airmen, including sending a Walrus to a Sumatran lake, at a predetermined time and date, in case evading flyers had managed to make it there as briefed. That means keeping the fleet within range, and therefore in danger, so the Walrus could make it back. Hardly heartless. 


As usual, a ‘hook’ to open the book—something exciting to draw the reader in—would have been good to see. Hanson’s Carrier Pilot is quoted and that opens with one of the most perfect hooks I have read. The author’s godfather shared a kill during his time as a Hellcat pilot and that would have been ideal to open the book with.


This is a beautifully produced book from Casemate. Black and white photographs are liberally sprinkled throughout, many featuring men mentioned in the narrative. There is also a superb glossy colour photo section that brings everything to life. Combined with the veteran interviews and ‘real time’ diary entries, the more than 125 photographs included in this 210-plus page hardback work hard to make up for the out-of-date, unbalanced narrative. Heaven High Ocean Deep could have ranked with the best of the current crop of FAA authors (Hobbs, Willis etc). Sadly, it falls disappointingly short.


ISBN 978-1-61200-7-557

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