01 August 2018

The British Pacific Fleet - David Hobbs

The Royal Navy’s contribution to the war in the Pacific can be likened to a set of bookends. It was there at the start and it was there at the end. That is an exceptionally simplistic analogy that ignores pressures from all over the world, the loss of important bases and the lack of resources to start afresh. It was, however, vitally important for Britain to return to the Pacific, in the last throes of Empire, and it was never really far away with its major presence in Ceylon and heavy lifting during the Madagascan campaign. Europe was always the priority, however, and it was not until things were progressing towards certain victory that eyes, political in particular, began turning towards the Pacific. The end result was the British Pacific Fleet which, sadly, remains relatively unknown despite some recent efforts. An impressive and experienced force at war’s end, the BPF was still only about the size of one US Navy Task Force. How the BPF got there and did what it did is nothing short of remarkable and The British Pacific Fleet by David Hobbs, Britain’s foremost naval aviation historian, lays it all out. There have been several books on the BPF over the decades, and this one builds on them, but this beautiful publication is the ultimate guide to the Royal Navy’s most powerful strike force.

Operation Tungsten, the attacks on the Tirpitz in Norway, could be argued as a practice run for the BPF. Several of the ships and units involved would become integral parts of the BPF, but, importantly, the attacks involved several carriers operating together to send a large strike against a ‘single’ target. American types like the Corsair and Hellcat, particularly the former, saw their first real operations with the FAA during this time and much maligned types, such as the Barracuda, were proven to be effective, albeit somewhat limited. Granted the ships were never far from home and were at sea for days as opposed to weeks and weeks. It was a start, but there was much to learn.

The biggest issue for the proposed BPF was infrastructure. Save the base at Trincomalee, Ceylon, the submarine base at Fremantle, Western Australia, and various harbour facilities, the Royal Navy had very little it could call its own. On top of that, there was no supply chain, no stores, no workforce, no reserves, no airfields, no training facilities, no administration. As the force in Ceylon was built up and began to make further forays to Sumatra, things were well underway in Australia which, despite its own war effort, went above and beyond to help the BPF establish a footprint. Airfields were borrowed and developed, stores and manpower slowly built up, and the foundations of the BPF, once everything began rolling, came into being.

The strikes against the Sumatran oil fields (Operations Lentil, Meridian etc) were effective, but also highlighted a number of deficiencies. The Barracudas did not have a good enough range, forcing the carriers closer to the target, and the coordination of the bomber force was something that would improve with experience. Forming up, in particular, took too long and burnt precious fuel. The signs, however, were promising, as expected from the FAA, with the American types showing their worth and ‘little’ things, like photo-reconaissance Hellcats, being successfully implemented.

Operating range was always a problem that would be exacerbated by the vast expanse of the Pacific. The Barracudas did not initially make it to the BPF for this and other reasons. Seafires were notorious for their lack of legs, but were kept for fleet defence as the variants in use were superb interceptors at low to mid-level altitudes. The ships, too, suffered with even the newer battleships and cruisers proving very thirsty. When the early Eastern fleet operated with the USS Saratoga well before the BPF, refuelling was performed in a quiet part of the remote north-western coast of Western Australia, effectively taking the fleet out of action for several days. This would not do in the Pacific, but the astern at-sea refuelling method the RN used was slow and prone to pipe breakages. So, on top of all of the infrastructure required on land to support the ships, new or modified supply vessels had to be acquired/built to meet the demands of a modern combat fleet that could not afford to be away from the frontline for days. The creation and development of the fleet train, the supply ships that shuttled back and forth, with attendant escorts of course, between Australia (even the UK in some respects), island bases and the fleet was an incredible achievement.

All of this effort, initiative, hard graft and collaboration resulted in a strong naval force that contributed to the invasion of Okinawa, denied the use of the Sakishima Gunto to kamikazes transiting from Formosa, and then flew strikes over Japan proper as it continued to gear up for a long and devastating invasion of the Home Islands.
That it was capable of doing so in such a short period of time is, after six years of war, almost expected of the RN and the FAA in particular. Equipment that was not quite fit for purpose, such as poorly ventilated ships designed for European conditions, and short-legged Seafires, was a constant hurdle to overcome for the FAA and had been since before the war due to, primarily, the combination of the RAF wanting to be ‘the’ air force and the big gun mindset of the RN. Naval aviation was, at best, second string and continued to be even after the war commenced. The loss of HMS Glorious, for example, on 8 June 1940 is partly attributed to the lack of patrolling carrier aircraft (the captain, a former submariner, is often blamed for that) and, as is widely accepted, the aircraft designs used and supplied to the FAA often left a lot to be desired. The conversion of Hurricanes and Spitfires for carrier use was not ideal, but they were made to work. ‘Made to work’ is the theme throughout the wartime operations of the Fleet Air Arm and was there in spades during the BPF era. It bred the culture of innovation and initiative that was required to create the BPF in such a short period of time. When the war ended, the BPF was still being tweaked, still learning and always improving. It set up the Royal Navy as the leader in what was to become a decade of rapid change in carrier aviation. Of course, 'making do' should never have happened, but, as ever, it was the lot of the service personnel to play the hand that was dealt them by the powers that be.

Rather than rattle off dates of operations, fleet movements and the like, this review is a very general, very basic outline of what David Hobbs covers in this magnificent book. The 460+ pages delve into everything that brought the BPF into being, set in the context of a world war. It continues beyond the end of the war as the expected drawdown is countered by a need to show the flag throughout the Pacific and Far East. The breadth of detail, from biographical detail of major players, analysis of ships’ designs and capabilities, the social effect of the RN in Sydney and beyond and, of course, the operational aspects from Sumatra to the east coast of Australia and then all the way up the Pacific to Japan, is mind-boggling, yet the narrative never becomes dry or clunky. The operational accounts, of course, are an exciting read, but the wise reader can reflect on how everything from pencils to Grumman Avengers got there because it is all relayed so well in the narrative. 

From cover to cover, this book exudes quality. The reviewed copy was the 2017 paperback edition of the original 2011 hardback. Paperback makes it sound ‘pulpy’. Softback is a better description. Like the hardback, the new edition is beautifully solid. Photographs abound and there is barely a two-page spread without an image featured. The smallest photos are a full-page width and about a quarter page height while the largest consume almost an entire page. All are relevant to the immediate text which is particularly useful when trying to envisage one of the plethora of ships that make up the fleet (lists of dispositions on certain dates also consume several pages and it’s good to put hulls to names, so to speak). The references and index are excellent as expected, no book like this could ever be without them, and the appendices roll into double digits. If you’re a BPF aficionado like me, you’ll revel in the bibliography and the contents of your shelves will expand as a result. 

While this will not be the final book on the British Pacific Fleet, David Hobbs has perhaps written the last word on the subject. I can’t see how it can be improved upon. The original manuscript would no doubt have been longer, but the entire thing has been seamlessly edited by someone who knows their stuff. The British Pacific Fleet is  perfection. The cover tells a hundred stories at once, familiar and different at the same time, and sets up the reader for perhaps the greatest Royal Navy story of, at least, the twentieth century. It is a story that portrays the epitome of the wartime Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm – determination to get the job done despite the odds. It is a tribute to the thousands of people who made it happen and who have largely been forgotten.

ISBN 978-1-5267-0283-8

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