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.


  1. In general, the WWII literature seems to focus with laser-like precision on Britain's 1st half defeats, while basically glossing over her 2d half victories (or qualifying them to death, as in Monty's el Alamein victory being "inevitable"). We also see disparaging comments about the British Army's "logistical conservatism" whereas the "dashing" Rommel is lauded - when in fact the British Army's logistical system (and the flexibility it developed) was a, perhaps the, decisive factor, in its many important victories. See French's Raising Churchill's Army for more in this regard.

    As for the BPF, Hobbs' book is on my list. I have read Smith's Task Force 57 which covers similar ground I think, though I'd guess in less detail.

    The BPF was something like 1/4 to 1/3 the size of the US Pacific fleet off Okinawa - certainly impressive in its own right. The fact that it was intentionally shunted off to subsidiary ops to keep it out of the limelight explains its low profile then and now. The fact that Britain could field such a force after 5 years of total war shows strength, not weakness.

    I tend to agree that amalgamating the E Indies and Pacific Fleets and concentrating on reconquering SE Asia would've made the most sense from geopolitical and narrower "Imperial" perspectives - but can also see the chiefs' POV wanted to be in on the final kill and part of the "main thrust."

    I'd bet CHurchill was thinking if the 14th Army & co had routed the Japanese from all of SE Asia the way it did in Burma (with help from the combined EI/BP fleets + some amphibious shipping), might've gone a long way to erasing the locals' memory of the disasters of '41-2 and made for more post-war stability.

    Or maybe the genie was out of the bottle by then. But it is a tantalizing what if.

    1. Agree with most of that, but not sure what 'Genie' could be out of the bottle?

      Some people claim it was 'loss of empire', but decolonisation was planned and in progress anyway from India to Philippines. (In fact it was pursued with indecent haste post war regardless of whether some countries were ready or not).

      No, the question about post war 'balance of power' in Asia is all to do with perception and stability, and there is little doubt that had the Allied forces forcibly removed the Japanese, and cracked down on Communist insurgencies during wartime (as was done reasonably effectively even postwar in Malaya and Brunei and other places despite this failure), the Cold War would have been a lot more pleasant for most Asian people.

      Consider whether China would have necessarily gone communist? Korean war? Vietnam war? Pol Pot? Great Leap Forward? Burma? Worth at least idle speculation.

  2. Did you know you can shorten your links with Shortest and make $$$ for every click on your short urls.