Thursday, September 12, 2013

The British Pacific Fleet in 1945, an issue of academic honesty...

Last year I reviewed a very poor book, by the very well known naval historian H.P.Wilmott, on the British Pacific Fleet and its operations against Japan in 1945 called 'Grave of a Dozen Schemes', so it is delightful to finally review a good book on the topic 'The British Pacific Fleet' by David Hobbs.

Grave of a Dozen Schemes read like what it was, an academic thesis in the early 1980's, which either by preference of the author, or possibly just in an attempt to pander to the preconceptions of examiners, rehashed the concepts of the inevitable collapse of British power in the Far East during the war which was so popular at that time. It was a largely self contradictory muddle of ideas, where attempts to justify imperial collapse fought with the reality of the vast British Commonwealth fleets mounting simultaneous operations in both the indian and Pacific Oceans. The Acknowledgements for instance make the astonishing statement that,

"It would be pleasing to record that this book first saw the light of day as a result of a conviction that the story of the British contribution to the war against Japan in 1944-45, and specifically the story of the British Pacific Fleet, deserved an account that did both justice. Unfortunately this author cannot honestly make such a claim. This book took shape as a result of the realisation that a doctorate, and with it admission to the most mysterious Masonic order in the Western world, would be required if the author was to work in the United States".

In other words, I tailored my stuff to what people in university circles wanted to hear to be acceptable to the powers that be in academia…

The resulting book does all it possibly can to hide or diminish the achievements of the Commonwealth navies in the last year of the war against Japan, and yet still fails to be convincing on its main thesis.

By contrast Hobbs, who actually served as an aviator and planner with the Royal and US navies, and became an awarded journalist on defence topics, has produced a book that quite factually portrays exactly what was done up to the stage japan unexpectedly surrendered, and what was in preparation for the invasion of Japan. His interpretation of events is both more realistic, and far far more interesting.

The British Pacific Fleet was born out of the British Eastern Fleet, when it split into the East Indies Fleet and the Pacific Fleet in late 1944.

The Eastern Fleet had been created after Japan attacked in late 1941, and in early 1942 was the largest and most powerful Allied fleet in the world, with 5 battleships and 3 aircraft carriers assembled in April 1942 (one carrier lost that month), and another four battleships and 3 carriers expected to join within weeks. (This was in fulfillment to the British governments long term plan to move the main fleet to the East within six months of the Japanese attacking. It was also at the cost of the RN practically abandoning the Mediterranean for several months, which allowed Rommel's counter-offensive that got as far as El Alamein… so in practical terms it also filled Churchill's promise to put the defense of India and Australia above the defense of the Middle East.)

Fortunately for the allies the last serious offensive by the Japanese was the raid into the Indian Ocean that month which managed to wreak havoc, but without achieving its objective of finding and engaging the main British fleet before it could be reinforced. This was the only serious attempt by the japanese to solve their 'two front war' problem. The Japanese could be fairly described as having 'run out of steam' at this point, and over the next few weeks their naval forces were fought to at least a draw at Coral Sea, and then a significant defeat at Midway, while their land forces were stopped cold in New Guinea and Guadalcanal, and Allied counter-attacks really began.

The blunting of Japanese naval offensive power was so great that the Eastern Fleet was quickly diverted to the invasion of Madagascar, and then slowly milked (along with the US Pacific fleet which sent units to the British Home Fleet as well) for the invasion of North Africa. By the end of 1942 the Eastern Fleet was hardly more than a shell, and in 1943 the Commonwealth's main anti-Japanese effort was the 'TG17.3' cruiser squadron in Macarthur's command, and the loan of the modern armoured aircraft carrier Victorious (codename USS Robin) to work with USS Saratoga in 1943 after the American losses at Santa Cruz reduced the USN to a similar hollow shell with just the Saratoga available in the Pacific.

After the Italian surrender, the British Eastern Fleet was increased again, and after D-Day, it grew to include several battleships and carriers. Late 1944 saw it practice a number of offensive operations (including one where the USN loaned Saratoga back to assist with training), but for the 1945 seasons it was split into the Pacific Fleet, and the East Indies Fleet.

Many of the authors who do mention the Commonwealth contribution to the air operations off Okinawa and Japan make comments along the lines that naming the British fleet a Task Force was generous when it was actually only the size of a Task Group. This is already a bit of a long bow in January when the fleet consisted of 4 armoured carriers, a 'light fleet', and 4 escort carriers. By August it was 4 armoured, 8 light fleet, and 9 escort carriers (along with 4 battleships, 12 cruisers, 3 fast minelayers, 40 destroyers and 70 odd escorts, 29 submarines, and a fleet train of about 100). The total comes to approximately 286 ships. Imagining that this did not count as a reasonable Task Force is pretty hard to justify, particularly as it does not include a steady stream of new vessels due to arrive over the next few months in preparation for the planned invasion.

Nor does it include the East Indies Fleet, which added another 16 escort carriers (plus 2 battleships, 12 cruisers, and 230 odd other ships). These were the ships that invaded Burma in early 1945 and were preparing to invade Malaya when the Japanese surrendered.

In total the Commonwealth (and French - they had a battleship and some cruisers involved too), naval forces arrayed in preparation for the final attacks on Japan came to about 700 ships.

Wilmott's attempt to suggest that all this effort was a waste of time, and that it somehow reveals the weakness of the British Empire and the paucity of their resources, can't help but sound a bit self-delusionary.

By contrast Hobbs is quite clear that the effort of assembling and training these two fleets for operations, particularly preparing and practicing the fleet train for long term operations off the Japanese coast, was very difficult. He makes no bones about the fact that in the early days there was a lot to learn from the Americans who had had 3 years to build this experience, but without ignoring that the British Pacific Fleet caught much of that up in about 6 months.

He lists in detail the many times that American generosity was vital to progress, but (unlike Wilmott) also lists the many times Admirals Spruance and Halsey were more than grateful to get unexpected extra assistance from the Commonwealth in return. (Not just the extended contribution of Britain's armoured carriers against the Japanese kamikaze's at a time when the Americans were having to amalgamate their own Task Groups due to heavy losses, but also detailing just a fraction of how reliant American forces had been upon the same bases and personnel and supplies in Australia and New Zealand that the British fleet needed to operate effectively.)

Whereas Wilmott often belittles the contribution of the British Task Force, Hobbs simply records its effects, and the comments of the American liaisons. Whereas Wilmott acts as if the British fleet has nothing to offer, Hobbs discusses the radar directed fighter interception techniques developed against the Italians and Germans that the British taught the Americans in return.

Hobbs' book is a straightforward discussion of what two different navies managed to achieve in co-operation, and includes an outline of what was planned for the invasion of Japan, and what happened after hostilities ended. He raises both the successes, and the failures, but allows events to speak for themselves. He covers Halsey's very political decision to refuse to let the British fleet undertake any strikes on major Japanese warships without rancour, and makes only the barest of comments on American anti-British co-operation with the Chinese Nationalists post war, but pretty much leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions on these issues.

What he doesn't discuss, except for the briefest passing mention, is on the decision to have a British Pacific Fleet in the first place.

Churchill wanted the Eastern Fleet to leave the Pacific operations to the Americans, and to kick the Japanese out of South East Asia. Reconquoring Burma, Malaya, the Netherlands East Indies, and possibly Thailand or formosa in the process of heading up to Hong Kong and maybe even to join the USN in a final attack on Japan. (He believed Britain needed to liberate British colonies themselves.) The British Chiefs of Staff however, thought a Pacific Fleet would be a better idea, possibly in terms of being seen to help the Americans, and possibly in terms of prestige of being in on the kill.

Both possibilities were to prove overly optimistic.

The Chiefs of Staff got their way (in fact they unanimously threatened to resign to get it), and the resulting split of British naval forces slowed down the reconquest of Burma, and delayed the invasion of Malaya until after Japan surrendered. (Interestingly the Australians had been in favour of a Pacific solution too, until it became clear that MacArthur was abandoning them, at which point they tried to rejoin Churchill's China Sea 'middle way'.)

Wilmott's book is largely about this debate, with the confusing assumption that not only was the eventual attempt to follow both options wasteful, but that even following one of them was beyond British power. Seeing they were actually doing both, successfully (though admittedly slower and with far less efficiency than they might have done either one on its own), at the time of the Japanese surrender, his logic is pretty hard to fathom.

Hobbs practically ignores the debate, but nonetheless draws a convincing case for both being within British power, if possibly excessive efforts for the returns achieved as a result of an earlier than expected surrender.

So a few quick 'what if's?'

What if the atomic bomb had not been dropped, and a full British Task Force of the same size as an American task Force had been involved in the invasion of Japan, even as another similar sized British Fleet had finished the invasion of Malaya, and moved on to clear the East Indies. What would post war international affairs, decolonisation, and history have looked like then?

Or, what if the entire effort of the Commonwealth forces operating with the British Pacific Fleet had been put into invading Malaya while Okinawa was still underway? Would American losses without the support of the British armoured carriers have slowed the invasion of Japan?

Or, if the atomic bomb had still ended the war at the same time, but with Britain in possession of Malaya and most of the East Indies (using the elite Australian Corps as ground troops as the Australians had suggested), and possibly closing in on Hong Kong as Churchill had originally planned? What would post war international affairs, decolonisation, and history have looked like then?

Personally, I have always believed that Churchill was the best geo-political strategist of the war, and that his approach would have been better, not just for the British Commonwealth, but for the entire post war decolonisation process. (Far less likely to have the Communist Domino's and the Vietnam war etc under Churchill's approach.) I find this particularly pertinent as the majority of history books – certainly US history books, but also people like Wilmott – act as if the Commonwealth had virtually no contribution to the defeat of Japan, which they treat as an all American achievement.

But to consider this question is difficult with inadequate information. Hobbs' book gives us the practical information, but with virtually none of the political discussion (and is obviously disinterested in the efforts of the East Indies fleet at the same time). Whereas Wilmott's book gives us the political debate in huge detail, (but with an underlying dismissiveness about why anyone was even trying that makes it very hard going to interpret reality).

Hobbs has written by far the better book, and the factual detail gives an infinitely better insight into what was real, and what might have been possible, than Wilmott would even consider. But Wilmott gives the political and strategic background necessary to analyse whether the capabilities of the forces Hobbs outlines could in fact have been better employed.

If you want a real analysis of what the British Pacific fleet could and did achieve, stick to Hobbs. If you want to consider what alternatives might have been possible, then you could do a very careful dip into Wilmott.

But please accept that Hobbs is a serious student of military history, whereas Wilmott is a serious practitioner of academic arse kissing.

Monday, September 9, 2013

"Britain's War Machine" and recent British portrayals of their own role in World War Two

In a recent post I was asked to discuss whether the US could, possibly, have been more valuable to the Allies as an 'arsenal of democracy' than as a combatant. How the British and their allies might have won anyway. I am going to look at the confused response of some people to my answer, with a further discussion of how I could consider such conclusions given the offerings of many, particularly British, historians since the war about British 'weakness'.

The generally accepted version of the story is that Britain in World War Two was too backward, poor and insignificant to have won without help. This appears to be a story constructed by British writers and propagandists for their own purposes, and is probably as useless a fictional construct as Holywood presentations which suggest that the US won the war almost single handedly, and with no help from anyone else at all, or Russian apologists suggesting the same.

(In reality the US was no more capable of winning the war without Britain and her Empire and Commonwealth, than Britain was without Russia, or Russia was without Anglo-American support. Any one of those nations on their own was incapable of facing all three Axis powers, and could not have won a world war against them all unaided. Nor has there ever been any power in history who could successfully take on any other three major unaided. Full stop, and end of story.... For those who have some fantasy that the US has ever been a unique 'superpower' consider what would happen if China, Russia and Iran all got uppity at once today, and NATO and Japan and the rest of America's allies gave the type of two fingered salute that the US gave British attempts at peacekeeping in the 1930's? Well you don't have to really, just watch Obama trying to workout what to do about Syria!)

My particular point with this post being that the British have rubbished their own wartime record and achievements since halfway through the war..

Now I used to think that this was mostly the traditional British self deprecatory understatement. Whereas an American or a Russian or Frenchman boasts about their superiority and how much their nation has achieved, a typical English stiff upper lip type always downplays their efforts. (Dawn French does a good take-off of upper crust lunacy in a comedy skit where she accidentally chops of a finger. Having fed it to a dog, she realises the proper British thing to do is give the other dogs a similar treat, and starts chopping off more fingers... If you think this is a joke, go and find the story of how the nutty British general Carton di Wiart pulled off some fingers at an aid station in WW1 so he could get back to the front faster...) But a new writer has made me consider the possibly more sinister motives behind this dismissie attitude.

Not just self deprecation, but consciously targetted and frighteningly nationalistic political propaganda by self righteous 'reformers'... (My favourite historical villains.)

I have just finished a book by David Edgerton called 'Britain's War Machine', which has enormous fun poking holes at all this 'weakness' nonsense. It starts with images like the famous dramatic cartoon of a British soldier standing defiantly against a dark and stormy sea shouting "all right, alone", which he contrasts with the more accurate cartoon of British and Dominion soldiers sitting relaxed on the beach saying "poor old Empire, just the 500 million of us". It is a fair point about propaganda versus reality.

More interestingly, it is not just a matter of the first being motivational propaganda at the time to buck up the population, while the second was a bit dangerous at the time for offering excessive complacency. Instead the emphasis of the book is on those who even after the war pretend that the first is reality, and consciously try to cover up the second. (The British politicians  and dons were not alone in this game. Australia's Curtin government started an invasion scare campaign in 1942 through ignorance, but kept it up for its motivational value during the war even after they knew it was false, and many historians have continued the baseless myth since… often for party political purposes.)

Just to explain the concept of why we can't take the image of 'poor little Britain' seriously... Britain was one of the richest nations in the world in 1940, and in terms of living standards per head, the Dominions, and even much of the Empire, were right up there with her. None of the Axis powers came close to a similar standard of living. In terms of modern industrial output for instance, 30% of Germans were still involved in agriculture, whereas only 8% of the British workers were.

Whereas the Axis powers planned to fight a traditional mass conscription war, Britain expected to fight her traditional 'industrial power and money' conflict, and let other people do as much of the fighting as possible. Ie: a concentration on increasing the capacities of allies and undermining the capacities of enemies through industrial and economic might, rather than on removing men from industry to field huge armies in the field. (The approach used against Napoleon and - to a lesser extent - in World War One writ large, and indeed the approach copied by the United States in World War Two and the Cold War.)

British industry alone was already outproducing the Axis powers in ships, aircraft, tanks, and most other war fighting tools by 1940. Add in the Dominions (an extra 20 million Anglo's with substantial industry of their own - particularly Canada), and the Empire (450 million assorted races in nations dominating much of the worlds resources, trade, and industry), and the idea that Britain could do what it had always done seemed perfectly reasonable.

In fact British investments in other parts of the world - particularly South America and the Middle East - and British domination of the sea lines of transport (not to mention US bias to trading with Brits not Axis via these routes) gave an overwhelming advantage in access to the worlds productive resources.

Even in sheer production terms, Britain alone outproduced the Germans and Italians (and Japanese) in ships, warships, tanks, aircraft, and most munitions (except heavy artillery and infantry arms  - not unreasonably since the Axis were into mass armies while the Commonwealth was not). Given access to American production by purchase or Lend-Lease, and much of the rest of the world's resources by purchase or loan (Sterling Balance was effectively a technique of allowing much purchase now with promise of repayment from accumulated investment funds later), Britain was 100% correct believing winning the war was practically inevitable, even after the fall of France.

But this strength is not what British historians and propagandists portray after the war. Instead the 'Britain alone' myth is backed up with an unrealistic 'poor little Britain' playing 'David against Goliath' combined with a very nasty version of British nationalism that pretends Britain really was alone.

I have always suggested that post war the British taxpayer had completely lost interest in paying for the 'privilege' of being the world's policeman, and was more than willing to let the stupid Americans give it a try (and see how they liked being universally condemned as arrogant by nations they were paying to protect...) I felt that the consequences were unfortunate (particularly for colonies abandoned to an independence they were not ready for... see any African or Asian dictatorship of the last 50 years), but that the motivation was fairly understandable. But I had not much considered the more cynical perspective.

David Edgerton argues that the 'Socialist' parties in Britain went 'Nationalist' by 1945, and won power on a completely un-British 'Little England/Britain' wave of truly offensive propaganda. He suggests that the chattering classes rewrote the international achievements of the British Commonwealth to portray a 'Britain Alone' perspective, and then used that to justify protectionism, and nationalism of industry, and all the other disasters that Labour governments inflicted on the British economy for the next 30 odd years. 

His argument is extremely detailed, and fairly convincing. He particularly notes that the British Labour parties 1935 platform endlessly repeated the word 'socialism', while their 1945 platform had a singe mention of that word, and endlessly repeated 'nationalism'. In fact the nationalisation program of industry and energy and health, and all sorts of other things that the socialist parties experimented with after the war, used the 'National' or 'British' title endlessly.

Edgerton points out that this centralised economy approach was in fact a pursuit of Soviet or Nazi ideals in how a state should work, and completely opposite to the way the British capitalist colossus that effectively dominated world trade pre 1942 had always worked.

He did not spend much time on the effects of attempting a centralised economy. But British living standards relative to the rest of the world fell throughout the 20th century, and faster post war than interwar, so it is likely that this had as much - if not more - to do with misunderstood socialism and incompetent centralisation as with any losses from the wars themselves. (I will do another post on this concept later).

His main point is that the fantasy of poor little Britain against the big bad world is rubbish. Until Japan joined the war, Britain was the world's leading military industrial power, with world's most advanced technology (including the world's leading nuclear bomb program, radar, penicillin, proximity fuse, and many other things that were passed on to Americans to continue development of as part of the United Nations approach to the rationalisation of wartime resources). Britain was eventually almost certainly going to beat Germany and Italy, even if it was only by arming Russia.

(In December 1941, one of the reasons Malaya was in danger was because 249 Valentine and 187 Matilda II tanks, delivered to Russia instead of to British troops in Egypt and Asia, were providing something like 30-40% of the medium/heavy tanks defending Moscow. Fighters like Hurricanes and British supplied Tomahawks were probably 16% of Russian defenders at this vital point. Britain probably lost Malaya and Burma - possibly the Netherlands East Indies too - because of such resources sent to Russia. The effect on the British Empires war effort was very bad, but possibly not as bad as Moscow falling in 1941 would have been. Was it a good choice? From whose perspective? British interests, or world history?)

After 1942 things changed of course. The United States became the leading military industrial power by 1945, which for some reason has been labelled a British 'decline'. Again, he would say that this is rubbish.

Britain came out of World War Two as the world's second largest military and industrial economy, and the second largest international trading power. (And that is excluding Empire and Commonwealth resources... Canada and Australia also coming in the top ten world military industrial powers in their own right.) 

Now I have always argued that the un-natural economic dominance that the tiny Britain achieved after the end of the Napoleonic wars could hardly be considered an inevitable or sustainable right. No nation that small can remain so dominant forever. That would be extremely unnatural.

For the same reason I have never felt that the unnatural economic dominance that the United States achieved after World War Two was sustainable. As did Britain in 1815, they dominated over ruined economies, not over healthy trading rivals. I have never accepted  that the modern 'decline' in US power is anything but a natural correction.

But you will note that these two liberal democratic capitalist states still vastly outweigh the power their respective populations should have in world affairs. (Despite unnecessary damage done by socialist ideology in Britain.) 

Edgerton makes the very interesting point that the reason British industry was still so dominant in world affairs in 1939-1942 was because US industry was still being kept artificially repressed by the stupidities of the New Deal. (Whereas capitalist free market economies around the world largely recovered by 1936 from the Depression, the US economy was kept in recession until war in 1942 released it from the fell hand of Roosevelt's socialist command economy claptrap... another post...)

He points out that Britain during the war could increase its labour force by only about 6-8% above 1939 levels. Britain hadn't all that much flex in reserve. It's economy was too efficiently active already. (By the way he points out that despite propaganda about the wonders of US mass production, British man hours per ship were way below US for the same ships for the entire war... except for a couple of US companies that concentrated only on one very simple design - the British Liberty ship - where they came to about British standards by 1944. It was therefore very sensible for the more skilled British labour force to build more complex ships, and leave the simplest mass production to the less skilled American workforces. He has similar interesting statistics on aircraft factories and other industries which the British 'intelligentsia'  has written off as poor performers during the war in probably self deprecating and self serving propaganda of their own.)

By contrast the United States was so underemployed as late as 1941 - with as many as 20 million workers unemployed - that they increased their workforce participation by up to 50% during the war. (20 million unemployed being almost as much as the entire British workforce at full employment.) His argument being that Britain did not decline at all, it is just that the US finally got on its feet and started reaching the military/industrial standards its vastly larger workforce should have been capable of many years earlier.

The replacement of Britain with the United States as the leading military/industrial power at some stage was both inevitable, and logical. All that was needed was for the US to finally shoulder its part of the burden of international peacekeeper. At that point a much larger industrial population should, inevitably, have a much greater role. No decline on Britain's part necessary at all. (In fact had the US stepped up to the plate when Wilson tried to get it too after WWI, then an earlier 'special relationship' would have easily prevented most of the things that eventually led to WWII!)

In fact the question is why Britain was still, in 1944 as much as in 1939, so far ahead of the Axis and other powers in military/industrial power. Why could Britain outproduce all 3 Axis and all their conquests and slave workers, even without the Commonwealth? Why were the rest so inefficient?

Or perhaps more importantly, why does Britain downplay this power so much? What did the chattering/intellectual classes hope to achieve with the whole 'Britain alone', 'David vs Goliath', 'incompetent bumbling', and 'pathetic and needy' dialogue they so carefully crafted between the 1930's and the 1980's?

The truth is, that much British history written about this period tells worse lies than the contemporary Australian or American or Russian history of the period tells about their countries, and does so for reasons that should be examined for political motivation.

It is clear that some academics have done so to pursue their idealistic left wing agenda's, or to pretend that Socialism isn't as destructive to economies as it clearly is: but unfortunately far more have done so because they are either not bright enough, or not brave enough, to challenge the house of cards they found their academic careers on.

But perhaps we should investigate what negative effects these lies eventually had on such minor things as British living standards, Keynsian economics, third world development, and our understanding of how history works?