Monday, December 6, 2010

The British Pacific Fleet - Misinterpreting the past

I have just finished H. P. Willmott's PhD thesis, published as Grave of a Dozen Schemes. It is a comprehensive analysis of the background to the despatch of the British Pacific Fleet to the final months of the war against Japan.

It is highly researched, very detailed, excellently argued, and completely wrong in it's conclusions.

The interesting question is why is it wrong?

For those who don't know (such as most of the American official historians if you go by their writings), The Royal Navy and it's Commonwealth divisions made a huge contribution to the defeat of Japan despite Admiral King's desperate attempts to keep them out of his private war. The combined orders of battle of the British Eastern Fleet (just finished invading Burma and en-route to invading Malaya), and the British Pacific Fleet (assembling in Australia or fighting off the coast of Japan) at the time of the Japanese surrender was about 700 ships (with more en-route from Europe). This included 6 battleship, 35 aircraft carriers, 23 cruisers, 42 submarines, and over 200 destroyers and escorts. The only reason that it was this low was because the RN was still mostly responsible for major Allied activities in the Atlantic, Arctic Circle, Baltic, Mediterranean, and Indian Oceans. Far more vessels would have been available for the invasion of Japan.

Wilmott's description of the torturous process of getting all the British, Commonwealth and American players to agree on the assembly and dispatch of this force is overwhelmingly detailed. The problems of the repeated failure of the Germans to collapse, and then the suprisingly quick collapse of the Japanese thereafter, is also adequately covered. I have no problems with most of this. What I do have problems with is the conclusions he makes.

Wilmott's main argument is that Britain should not have bothered with this effort, or at least should not have tried to make both the Pacific and Indian Ocean efforts, because it was beyond British power to do so. The factor's he raises are economic exhaustion, lack of ships - particularly fleet train, lack of manpower, and lack of sensible reasons for bothering given that Empire was a thing of the past. He argues all of this with the assumptions of hindsight , and from the safety of a modern academic consensus.

How then is it possible that the Royal Navy had so many ships there at the end, with more on the way? How was it possible that the British successfully invaded Burma, and were preparing to invade Malaya, even while expanding the British fleet operating off the Japanese coast? How could they be doing everything he had assumed was impossible, and succeeding, if it had really been impossible? Why is he arguing so hard against conclusions that his own statistics make evident?

Could it be that he believes what he is saying so strongly, that he is just doing his best to argue around the evidence? Could it be that he is trying to cement his place in academic circles by arguing what is politically correct regardless of the evidence? Or could it be that he knows he is making bad arguments, but also knows he has to do so if he stands any chance of getting a high mark for his PhD from academics who have pre-conceived notions of what they want to hear?

Whatever the reason, the problem is one common to far too many modern academic works. (This was published in 1996 but came out of research originally done in the early 80's.) The author appears to have approached the work with a pre-conceived notion of how things ought to have been viewed, and then forced the facts into that prospective by hook or by crook. (Even if a few slipped out of control in the process.)

The fact is, that the real debate was between Churchill's geo-political preference for British efforts in the Far East to be concentrated on Malaya. the East Indies, Borneo, the China Sea and Hong Kong in the lead up to the invasion of Japan: and the Chief's of Staff Committee's strategic preference to just make a contribution to the naval actions in the Pacific as a cheaper and quicker alternative. (Both considered the efforts wasted on Burma pretty pointless considering that China was never of much value in the war, and both were amused that the eventual speed of Japanese collapse made the Chinese fantasy redundant.) This debate went on for several months.

Wilmott is justified in calling a lot of this debate hot air. He is less justified in claiming that hindsight makes it clear that Churchill's perspective was wrong. He is unconvincing in the argument that everyone should have known that Britain lacked interest in what would happen in Asia in the future. He was, by his own figures, simply wrong to state that Britain lacked the capacity to try.

The debate did take too long, but that might be because things kept changing. Eisenhower's failures in North West Europe, and Germany's surprise survival into a new year, meant that Allied forces could not begin redirection to the east in October 1944 as had been planned. On the other hand Japan's suicidal offensive against India in 1944 opened the opportunity for a faster and cheaper re-conquest of Burma than anyone would have imagined. Similarly Allied plans for offensives through Borneo to Formosa (Taiwan) were initially agreed, then dropped when MacArthur preferred the Philippines, and were then renewed with the Allies agreeing to a British-Australian offensive instead. Only to be dropped again when it became clear that Japan was unexpectedly on it's last legs.

Politically, there is no doubt that had the Allies, or just Britain and Australia, militarily ousted the Japanese from Malaya, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Chinese coast: the decades of violence throughout Asia that followed would have been very different. Churchill's plans may not have been better than what we got, but they would certainly have been different.

Similarly there is no eason to accept that Britain was going to withdraw 'East of Suez' soon after the war at the time decisions were being made. In hindsight it is clear that the British voter was sick of the cost of being the world's policeman, and delighted that the Americans seemed dumb enough to want to take it up. But the Allied documents at the time make it clear that no such plans were in the allied 'mind'. Indeed, American plans to go home as soon as the war in Europe was over argued exactly the opposite.

Then there is the issue of 'power'. Britain, and most of her Dominions and colonies, were at the stage of exhaustion in 1944-5 that any state reaches after 6 years of intense war. (The US was lucky to get out in only 4 years, when the cracks in manpower for the army were only starting to rear their heads.) Nonetheless the way that Wilmott argues that Britain lacked the 'power' for such operations is also self-defeating. After dozens of paragraphs over hundreds of pages about the British lack of troop lift shipping available for the Far East, Wilmott notes in a small aside that such ships can't be spared because Britain is responsible for moving 70,000 US troops per month across the Atlantic. The fact that Britain lacked resources in one theatre because she is making up for American lack of resources in another theatre is studiously ignored.

The truth is of course that the Allies - all of them - lacked the resources to do everything they wanted to do at any time. Britain could have sent plenty of resources to the east had she not being transporting the Americans, supplying the Russians, and feeding the Dutch. Similarly Australia had plenty of resources, food and troops for supporting British Commonwealth operations, except they were deployed to feed, house and support American operations. Indeed according to the US Chiefs of Staff in 1943, America lacked the power to invade Japan without a British fleet, Australian troops, and a Russian Army intervening on the mainland in Asia. (The US COS had a brief hubris in late 1944 when they decided they could manage alone, but by mid 1945 they were busy requesting Britain get 50 aircraft carriers assembled to support 120 of theirs for the invasion... and an army corps please... don't forget landing ships... how about some bombers...)

The simple fact of the matter is that had Britain concentrated its Pacific Fleet resources in the Indian Ocean and Australia to follow the 'middle strategy', it would have been little more costly than the immense effort of projecting a fleet through the central Pacific to the Japanese islands. Malaya, the East Indies, Borneo, possibly Thailand, all might have been liberated before the Japanese surrender by the same shipping efforts that put British carriers at Okinawa and Japan.

Wilmott follows the British COS line that a political solution in Asia was less important than a prestige deployment of British units for the invasion of Japan. He quotes American documents suggesting that the lack of such a presence would have been 'unforgivable' to Americans. He claims that it was vital. Again, he is playing hindsight, and again, he is getting it wrong. How much did Admiral King want the RN sticking it's nose in to his private war? How often did the US COS, in their hubris period, say they didn't need help? How much credit do the history books give the British Pacific Fleet? How many American books fail to mention it?

By contrast how much stability might have been achieved had the British Commonwealth effort gone the other way? Would the Malayan Emergency have happened? Would Indonesia have invaded West Papua and East Timor later? How much stability if Japan had surrendered before Russia entered the war? Would China have gone Communist? Would there have been a Korean or Vietnam war? If you really want to go with hindsight, then Churchill's political forward thinking looks considerably more impressive than the limited strategic viewpoint of the British COS.

Hindsight is almost as fun a game as 'what if', but both are dangerous. People have to be judged on the information and realities of the time, not academic theories based on a misinterpretation of hindsight decades later. Books that twist the facts to come to the conclusions that seem most comfortable or acceptable to people with their own barrows to push are always dangerous.

They are also not history books. They are rationalisations.


  1. What are your credentials Nigel?

  2. Read David Hobbs' "The British Pacific Fleet". It shows the rationale as to why the RN had to be there with the USN. It shows King was in a minority when it came to senior USN personnel's attitude to the RN presence. It shows the reason for the future development of NATO and US/RN relations for the next 50 years.
    Your critique of this person's paper seems spot on, whatever your credentials, Nigel. I am anonymous as I don't fit any other criteria at the moment, but my name is:
    Mike Day

  3. What are my credentials? What an interesting question.
    I have always felt that the best credential to critique things is an enquiring mind and a willingness to do some research. As a result some of the best and most detailed historians have no academic qualifications (have a look at some of Charles Whiting's 250 odd books for instance).

    Perhaps anonymous wants to know how many degrees I have (3), how many universities I have studied at (4), or worked at (3), how many students I have taught ( thousands), or how many words I have had published in books or magazines articles (about 25,000 words last financial year - and by that I mean commissioned and paid for words, which do not really fit most academics pretensions do they?).

    Speaking as somebody who considers themselves lucky to have escaped from the university system, but who has spent the last 20 years developing multisensory in interactive teaching techniques and training hundreds of teachers to work with 10s of thousands of students, I would actually say that my main qualifications are scepticism about received wisdom, and an irresistible urge to challenge people's preconceptions.

  4. Late in the war the US had upwards of 6000 ships of all sizes and classes. The fact that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor made it personal to Americans because of the way the Japanese attacked which was before any declaration of hostilities. The author fails to point out that had America not sent 50 Divisions to Europe, Britian would have been in a very bad way. The people of America wanted Japan's throat because of Pearl Harbor, but Churchill insisted on a "Germany" first strategy and the US had to fight a largely defensive war against Japan until Midway. If the US had not had the victory at Midway, the US was still going to be on the defensive, and that was something the American public did not want. When it comes down to it, US and British historians downplay each others role, its some kind competiton or something. Truth is after Germany kicked out the French and British at Dunkirk, Germany was not worried about either. England is dam lucky that they were separated by the English Channel or German tanks would have rolled thru London as it did Paris...

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. But your facts are wrong. Nigel points out that the Americans sent only 8 weak divisions to Europe until 1945 when the British had already beaten the good German divisions; the Americans and Russians entered the fighting after the Germans would have already surrendered if President Roosevelt hadn't foolishly demanded unconditional surrender. The Germans were good people except for a few rude and unruly SS who practiced genocide on Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and others they didn't care for. They even killed a few Canadian POWs at Ardenne Abbey and a few American POWs at Malmady. I don't believe the SS hurt any Australian troops because any Aussie was worth 25 Germans. (Remember one Turk is worth 200 Aussies as you learned at Gallipoli.)

      Unconditional surrender and war crimes trials does seem a bit harsh on the poor Nazis but then the same was done to the Japanese who were kind and generous to the Commonwealth troops.

      Churchill didn't want the American to enter the war and kept pleading with Roosevelt not to send the British any more of the awful destroyers, tanks, planes, weapons, and food. American Spam almost forced the British to switch sides. Only Vegemite from Australia saved them. Churchill called America the Arsonic of Democracy and ask if you don't have a King and a House of Lords how can you pretend to be a democracy?

      In conclusion Nigel is right. If the Americans listened to Joseph P. Kennedy and Charles Lindbergh and had stayed out of WWII it would have been over much sooner (1942 - 1943) and the Nazis could have surrendered to the Australian Commonwealth but kept all of Europe except for the soft underbelly and the Channel Islands. They had already been kicked out of Africa by the Aussies at Tobruk.

  5. @Wilford Burchett...

    "The war would have been over much sooner"....are you serious? Just by you saying that, you have lost all credibility here. The US sent 45 divisions of infantry, 20 armored and 16 of artillery, plus supplied nearly all the supplies used by the allied armies in europe. In the Pacific, the US Navy fought the Japanese virtually alone. Where was the British in the Philippines, Iwo Jima, Marshall Islands, the Gilberts, Guam, Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa? You commonwealth people do your best to downplay the American effort anytime you can, but people that know their history know better. After Anzio, there was NO question of American superiority over the Germans in Europe, and after Midway no question who was the finer military than the Japanese...if you doubt my knowledge, come to my WW2 History page.....same goes for you Nigel...I'm not a "professional historian" or formally educated at it, but have been at this over 30 years, doing my own research and have read hundreds of books and have interviewed many WW2 vets. I live near the retirement community called "Sun City" in Arizona that more than likely has the greatest concentration of vets in the yes, I do know...

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. The Link to my WW2 History Page:

    3. Kurt the Brits and the Aussie's did not need America to defeat the Axis. Nigel keeps pointing out that the British Empire did most of the fighting, had better Generals, better ships, better tanks, planes, vegamite, etc. In WWI the British won the Battle of the Somme without American assistance. They would have won at Gallipoli if they had sent British troops; here all they had were a sorry lot of Nigels and they lost.

      Again if Nigel has one message it is that the British Empire did not need any help in WWII. The Germans also ridiculed America as the razor blade manufacturer. America was fortunate that the British Empire didn't attack America and attempt to force us back into their empire. We were suckers for playing in these foreign wars and thank god President Obama will not allow this to happen again.

      Look at the senseless loss of American lives at Bataan and Guadalcanal. When an American GI is sent over seas and killed it's a loss of treasure as well as a human life. We fought a Revolution to escape the wicked British Empire. America should have listened to George Washington and avoided foreign entanglements.

      Remember Helen Reddy who once said "Australia doesn't have an inferiority complex. It's just inferior." Australia should supply the cannon fodder for Britain and America should stay out.

  6. And one other thing, the US's supply ship and forward repair facilities at Guam, Ulithi atoll, Leyte, Espirito Santos were the reason the US was able to operate at FULL STRENGTH and the BPF had no refueling at sea capability as the US had. The fact is that the BPF was totally dependent on US supply, a clear 3/4's of the aircraft on BPF carriers were Hellcats and Corsairs, with your beloved Spits and their short range relagated to CAP duties. The BPF shot down 112 Japanese aircraft, the US shooting down over 10,000. The Marines did the ground fighting from the Philippines all the way to Okinawa, with a not even a single British platoon on ANY of those central pacific islands. I believe the CBI theatre was more to preserve the Brit Empire than to win the you see guys, I have the same thoughts as you but in the other direction of British efforts during the war.....and I would like to know why you deleted my other comments...

  7. The Japanese were kind and generous? do you know about the fight against the Japs and what they did to the British troops after they surrendered? my god Wilford, the Japs were as brutal as any since the ancients.......where you get you "facts" from has gotten you nothing but a totally wrong idea of true events...and in my opinion the 920 Japs executed after the war should have had that number doubled or even tripled for the numbers of just the non-combatants they killed in the Philippines and China. Do you know of Unit 731?...the Japanese got EVERYTHING they deserved at the end...Wilford is woefully and inadequately "schooled" in this subject to bring anything of any use to this argument...Wilford, I'm sorry, but you really need to read alot!!

  8. I am still waiting for answer from anyone really about the US logistics and supply/repair facilities the US had out in the Pacific. That is/was a huge reason for US defeating Japan, the BPF couldn't even refuel while still underway. The US had a great fleet of oilers and ship repair ships of every description. The floating dry-docks that were towed all the way from the west coast of the US to Guam, Espirito Santos, the Philippines were so instrumental to the DECISIVE victory over the Japanese as any. I am even going to say that the US welcomed BPF assistance (well, the US had a personal grudge to settle), but as much as I have researched and read on the Pacific War, the more I think that the US could have done just fine without the British...the US had plenty of carriers and planes and pilots, even with the 32 picket duty ships sunk by kamikazes, the near 800 ships on station around Okinawa hardly made a dent. Face it, US intelligence was top notch in Europe, so was American artillery and I dont want to hear this that the US fought bad german divisions, the truth is after Anzio no matter who the US went up against, the US a longtime historian I know the US didnt win the war all by ourselves like you British "blokes" love to point out, at least the US didnt get thrown out of Europe like the BEF did at Dunkirk, the US got their rear-ends handed to them at Kasserine but learned from it and with all allies together kicked the Germans from North Africa and saved many millions of Arab lives and more importantly, kept Rommel away from the Middle East oil fields...are you even ever going to respond Nigel?...Wilford?....Hmm?...I wish either of you would because I enjoy saying how wrong you both are about certain points...

  9. The trouble with throwing stones is that sometime you break your own windows.

    “at least the US didnt get thrown out of Europe like the BEF did at Dunkirk, “

    What like the Philippines, at least the BEF could blame the French, who do you blame?

    “kept Rommel away from the Middle East oil fields”

    By this time Rommel was no threat to the oil fields and this had very little to do with US combat operations.

    And by the way Kurt, Wilfred is taking the piss.

    1. Obviously!! And, I suspect, "Wilfred Burchett" is very likely a nom de plume - in keeping with the rat-bag tendencies of the original Burchett. Come in spinner!

  10. Tips my lid to Wilf. Best trollin' ever.

  11. Which Japanese fleet carriers and battleships were sunk by the British Pacific Fleet?

  12. Dear Anonymous,

    is that a rhetorical question? Like which German or Italian battleships and aircraft carriers did the Americans sink in either world war?

    (Yes both nations launched some carriers but never got them into action… just like a number of Japanese ones which are nonetheless claimed as 'kills' like Shinano.)

    To answer, I will just cut and paste the following from Wikipedia article on the BPF...

    "Battleships and aircraft from the fleet also attacked the Japanese home islands. The battleship King George V bombarded naval installations at Hamamatsu, near Tokyo; the last time a British battleship fired in action. Meanwhile, carrier strikes were carried out against land and harbour targets including, notably, the disabling of a Japanese escort carrier by British naval aircraft. Although, during the assaults on Japan, the British commanders had accepted that the BPF should become a component element of the US 3rd Fleet, the US fleet commander, William Halsey, excluded British forces from a raid on Kure naval base on political grounds.[17] Halsey later wrote, in his memoirs: "it was imperative that we forestall a possible postwar claim by Britain that she had delivered even a part of the final blow that demolished the Japanese fleet.... an exclusively American attack was therefore in American interests."
    The BPF would have played a major part in a proposed invasion of the Japanese home islands, known as Operation Downfall, which was cancelled after Japan surrendered. The last naval air action in World War II was on VJ-Day when British carrier aircraft shot down Japanese Zero fighters."

    But you do raise an interesting point. Halsey and MacArthur (and of course King) tried very hard to prevent anyone else getting even a mention in the press about doing anything against Japan.

    Another Wik quote

    "The conflicting British and American political objectives have been mentioned: Britain needed to "show the flag" in an effective way while the US wished to demonstrate, beyond question, its own pre-eminence in the Pacific. In practice, there were cordial relations between the fighting fleets and their sea commanders. Although Admiral King had stipulated that the BPF should be wholly self-sufficient, in practice, material assistance was freely given: American officers told Rear Admiral Douglas Fisher, commander of the British Fleet Train, that he could have anything and everything “that could be given without Admiral King's knowledge.”[18]"

    1. Perhaps the best illustration of this is that the British East Indies fleet (another large force of battleships - including French ones - and escort carriers), was circling off the coast of Malaya waiting to invade for some days before the Japanese surrender.

      MacArthur held off on his previous agreement to hand over responsibility for that area to Mountbatten for just long enough to ensure that this operation did not get any press coverage, or credit, until after Japanese surrender. In this case, I suspect MacArthur's motive was actually less the short term jealousy and arrogance that he was justly famous for, and more the long term geo-political consideration about avoiding any of the European Empires recapturing territories by their own efforts before Japan's Surrender. (More territories I should say, because he had been unable to prevent the recapture of Burma despite a fierce campaign against operations there 'wasting resources' he could use much better.)

      Now to a better question, such as how much of Japan's merchant fleet was sunk by British or Dutch submarines? The answer is practically everything to the west of the Malayan peninsula (where they - and some USN subs based in Freemantle with them - were limited to operating by the same agreements). To be blunt that wasn't much. Dozens of wasted patrols were mounted with no Japanese ships sighted. Could they have operated further East? Yes. (Though the vessels designed for European waters were hardly easy to live in in the Far East.) Did the USN want them there? No. Why not? Guess.

      I will note that there was no front where the British did not welcome USN support - the Atlantic, Mediterranean, British Home Fleet, Arctic convoys, and Indian Ocean - all saw USN battleships and carriers used - and heavily quoted as being used in lots of PR releases. By contrast when the USN borrowed a British Carrier for the South Pacific in 1943, she was camouflaged as 'USS Robyn', and it is difficult to find much mention of her in USN references. By 1945, when they really did not need anyone else to finish off Japan, the policy of pretending no one else was there became far more rigid.

      The Soviets considered their sort of propaganda manipulation to be vital to its interests. So I suppose Halsey and MacArthur felt the same?

  13. I think it's a stretch to say that the British Pacific Fleet made a "huge" contribution to the defeat of the Japanese navy when you can't point to a single fleet carrier or battleship sunk by the Pacific Fleet during the entire war. Moreover, I believe the only Japanese heavy cruiser sunk by the Pacific fleet was by a sub as part of a combined US/ British patrol.

    I think it would be more accurate to say that the Pacific Fleet did what it could in the Indian Ocean after retreating to East Africa in 1942, but it was not capable of the major long-range carrier operations that only the US could engage in against the Japanese navy in the Pacific. It then came to the Pacific after the war was all but decided and participated in some mopping up operations after the US had already decimated Japanese naval power.

    1. I repeat the comment above.

      Did the USN contribute nothing during either the first or second world war to anything in the European theatre because they did not sink a single battleship?

      Let me be specific. The USN battleships that operated with the Home Fleet, and the USN carriers that supported the air resupply of Malta, and the battleships and carriers that contributed to invasions in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, D-Day, and Southern France, were pretty useful, even if they did not sink a single German or Italian battleship. The rest of the USN helped a bit too.

      Moving along to actual British Commonwealth contribution. The Japanese faced a two front naval war, and there were many occasions during the war when the USN asked the RN for diversions, or vice versa. As a result one of Japan's great problems was never being able to commit all its forces in a single direction without holding significant forces in reserve against a strike from the other direction. There was a reason the main Japanese fleet was eventually based in Singapore, not the Philippines or Formosa. (Hint, oil… see raids British Eastern Fleet raids on Netherlands East Indies - including participation by Saratoga.)

      Throughout the Pacific war, the RAN provided MacArthur with a cruiser sqn, and a significant force of destroyers, escorts, landing craft, etc. Check Wikipedia. Look under 'Coral Sea'. Or for air units 'Bismarck Sea'. Or just check the names of the Landing ships that made MacArthur's various invasions possible.

      At one point the RN just loaned the USN a carrier (see HMS Victorious, or 'USS Robin', at the time of New Georgia).

      Personally I think the British Pacific Fleet wasn't needed by the USN to finish off the Japanese Navy by mid 1945, and would have been better served reconquoring Malaya and The Dutch East Indies and cutting off the last of Japan's oil supplies. But it is interesting to note that the RN task force beat off a large number of Japanese attacks, and destroyed hundreds of Japanese aircraft on the ground (suffering - despite their superior air interception abilities - several hits on their carriers in the process - hits which would have incapacitated or sunk any American carrier). According to American sources, without BPF assistance, American losses - particularly in carriers - would have been much higher.

      Prior to the use of the bomb, as the reality of the invasion of Japan was being faced, the Commonwealth was being asked for dozens of aircraft carriers, a corps or two of troops, and vast additional resources. Again, I think they could have been better used elsewhere, but that is because I also believe that Japan would have surrendered a lot earlier if not for the stupidity of 'unconditional surrender'.

      You are pretty much correct to suggest that the Japanese were failing fast by the time the BPF finally arrived, and their presence was just guilding the lily, but that defines the US effort against the U-boats from the RN's perspective, or the US Army's efforts in Europe from the Soviet perspective. Their participation probably wasn't necessary, as long as you don't consider the extra time or casualties that would have been taken without such assistance.

  14. I would recommend the two books written by Stuart Eadon - Lieutenant RNVR, Sakishima and back, & Kamikaze The Story of The BPF. Both convey the magnitude of fighting a war over a vast distance of ocean.
    My Father served on HMS Argonaut was shelling the Normandy Coast on D Day and was then sent as part of the BPF to the Pacific. If He were alive today I think He would strongly disagree that the part the British Fleet played in the war against Japan was a side show.

    1. I suppose the question is not whether it was a 'side show' - after all the British Chiefs of Staff felt that they had to be present for the 'main game', and that reconquoring Burma and Malaya was less vital - as whether ti would have done more good to world history to have concentrated on clearing those two places before the surrender. Personally I believe Churchill was right here. War is ought for political reasons, and saving those two states earlier might have stopped many terrible things that have happened side… Maybe..

    2. In practice the British Fleet played the main part against the Japanese fleet quiet a bit. Consider the list of IJN battles of WW2.
      Pearl Harbor (US)
      Prince of Wales Repulse (B)
      Makassar Straight (B/Dutch/US)
      Darwin (B/Aus)
      Java Sea (ABDA)
      Indian Ocean Raid (B)
      Sydney Harbour (Aus)
      Madagascar (B) Coral Sea (B/Aus/US)
      Midway - first US battle since Pearl Harbour
      Savo (B/Aus?US)
      Eastern Solomons, Cape Esperance, Santat Cruz, Guadalcanal, Tassafaronga (Mainly US, but usually with Australian cruisers or even British Aircraft Carrier support)
      Bismarck Sea (as many RAAF aircraft as US aircraft involved)
      Komondorski, Kolombangara, Empress Augusta Bay, Phillipine Sea Leyte Gulf (Again, mainly US, but most with B/Aus ships in support)
      Okinawaw, TEn-Go, Tokyo (British Pacific Fleet played a significant part)
      Meanwhile the operations of the British Eastern Fleet in tehBay of Bengal, raids on Indonesia, Invasion of burma, prepared invasion of Malaya, and Australian fleet in the East INdies, with their own invasions late in the war, cannot be considered negligible.