IJN Amakusa under attack by Robert Hampton Gray. Much-loved Canadian aviation artist Don Connolly depicts the final moments of Gray’s attack.
The British Task Force 57 also had its encounters with Kamikazes. On 4 May, a large number of raiders were shot down at a safe distance by flak or fighters but a Zero attacking Formidable – she had joined Vian’s strength in mid-April to replace Illustrious, badly in need of a refit – could not be stopped. Its bomb exploded on the flight deck, putting it out of action temporarily, and it then crashed among the aircraft on the deck, setting eleven of them on fire, killing eight men and wounding forty-seven others, many very seriously. A few minutes later, another Zero hit Indomitable but bounced over the side into the sea, where its bomb exploded. Damage was slight but Indomitable’s radar, an improved American version that was the only one in the force, was knocked out and could not be repaired since there were no spare parts available.
Five days later, the Kamikazes came again. Of the five Zeros that made up the raid, one was destroyed by fighters, one by AA fire and two hit Victorious but her armoured deck prevented more than minor damage. Formidable was again the unlucky one. As on the previous occasion, the Kamikaze crashed on top of the aircraft on her deck. A fire swept over this but happily it was quickly brought under control. Seven of Formidable’s aircraft were destroyed, fourteen more were damaged, but the only fatal casualty was a luckless seaman who was decapitated by a wheel hurled into the air by an exploding aircraft.
Sadly, though, while the Kamikazes could be overcome, the British supply problems could not, and on the evening of 25 May, Task Force 57 retired, ultimately to Sydney. Here it was joined by another carrier, HMS Implacable controlling twenty-one Avengers, twelve Fireflies and forty-eight Seafires, for which satisfactory drop-tanks had at last been found, greatly increasing their range and hence their usefulness. She was quickly given a mission of her own and during 14 and 15 June, her aircraft attacked the Japanese base of Truk in the Carolines, both by day and at night with the aid of flares.
Truk had long since been bypassed and isolated and Implacable found few worthwhile targets but the operation did provide further examples of the various tasks performed by carriers and the varied experiences of naval airmen. Implacable was accompanied by escort carrier Ruler, to provide not only increased fighter cover but an additional deck for the large carrier’s aircraft to land on in emergency; on 15 June for instance, she received six of Implacable’s Seafires that had lost their mothership in a violent rain squall.
To illustrate the pilots’ experiences it seems fitting to quote that of Commander Alan Swanton. As a young sub-lieutenant on Ark Royal he had, as we saw, taken part in the attack that crippled the Bismarck and returned safely in a Swordfish damaged beyond repair. He was now CO of 828 Squadron and on 14 June, had just taken off from Implacable when engine trouble forced his Avenger to ‘ditch’ right in front of the carrier, then travelling at 30 knots. She had no chance of taking evasive action and simply trampled the Avenger under water. Happily, Swanton and his two crewmen were carried down the sides of the carrier and clear of her propellers by her bow wave and all were picked up safely by a destroyer.
By 16 July, Implacable had rendezvoused with the American Fast Carrier Force. This was now part of Third Fleet as Halsey had taken over from Spruance at the end of May, and since 10 July it had been striking at targets in the Japanese home islands. Indomitable and Indefatigable were refitting, but Victorious and Formidable also formed part of what was now Task Force 37, escort carrier Ruler again provided replacement aircraft and four other escort carriers were engaged in ferrying supplies. Once more, alas, the British ‘flat-tops’ were badly handicapped by having the use of only a few small tankers and in any case they formed only a minor part of the Allied strength compared with the sixteen fast US carriers, now under the control of Vice Admiral John McCain who flew his flag in Shangri-la.
This difference in strength was reflected in the duties the British and American carriers were allocated. On 18 July for instance, the former struck at airfields in the Tokyo area, inflicting minor damage; but the American carriers destroyed most of the installations at the Yokosuka naval base and crippled, though they did not sink, battleship Nagato. Third Fleet, incidentally, had already sunk destroyer Tachibana on the 14th, and now made preparations to complete the destruction of the Imperial Navy by assaults on other naval bases, especially the one at Kure, where most of those few major Japanese warships that still survived had been located.
After a delay caused by bad weather, a series of assaults began on 24 July and was followed by others on the 25th and 28th. The Japanese surface warships, without fighter cover, immobilized by lack of fuel and of value only as floating batteries, were easy prey. The exultant American carrier-pilots sank battleship Haruna, the two battleships with flight decks Hyuga and Ise, heavy cruisers Aoba and Tone, light cruiser Oyodo and destroyer Nashi.
Japan’s remaining aircraft carriers were still more pathetic, deprived not only of fuel but of aircraft for want of trained pilots to man them. The large carrier Amagi was hit repeatedly, capsized and sank. The sole remaining escort carrier, Kaiyo, was also sent to the bottom. Amagi’s sister ship Katsuragi was put out of action for the short remainder of the war. After the war, three badly damaged carriers were scrapped: Katsuragi, Junyo, already crippled by a submarine’s torpedoes, and light carrier Ryuho, an earlier victim of air attack. As was Hosho, Japan’s first-ever carrier, and the only one to survive the war undamaged. Such was the sad fate of the carriers built by the country that had been the first to make them her most important naval vessels; and thereby unwittingly taught her enemies one of the major means by which she could be defeated.
The carriers of the country that had first pioneered their use were not allowed to participate in these raids. Admiral Halsey, as he would admit after the war, did not want British ships to share any of the credit for striking these final blows at the once-mighty Japanese Navy. Since it is difficult to see what harm their participation would have done to American interests, his action would appear as unnecessary as it was selfish and ungracious. The seamen and airmen in the British Pacific Fleet, who had travelled a world away from home to render loyal support to their great ally, had every reason to feel aggrieved. The unkindness of fate had not ended either. Their finest moment lay just ahead, but it would pass almost unnoticed amid the world-shaking events occurring around the same time.
For the Allied threats of destruction had not been idle ones. On 6 August 1945, an atomic bomb obliterated the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Two days later, Stalin, eager to partake of the spoils of victory, declared war on Japan and sent his armies into Manchuria. And on 9 August, a second atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki.
It was also on 9 August that Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray, a Canadian Corsair pilot of 1841 Squadron serving aboard Formidable, attacked an enemy warship in Onagawa harbour. Though usually described as a destroyer, this was in fact an escort vessel, the 870-ton Amakusa, armed with three 4.7-inch guns and a useful AA battery. Flying very low, the Corsair quickly became a target for the guns of several warships and shore defences alike. It was hit repeatedly and its port wing set on fire but Gray was able to drop his single 1,000-lb bomb with deadly accuracy. It struck Amakusa amidships and she exploded and sank. The Corsair climbed briefly, trailing a long tail of flame, then dived into the harbour.
Lieutenant Gray was later awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. This received so little publicity that most of the men who served in the British Pacific Fleet were quite unaware of the incident, and it merits only a brief footnote in Captain Roskill’s Official History. Nonetheless, it deserves to be emphasized because it was the only time that the supreme decoration was earned by an airman operating from a British aircraft carrier.
It was a particularly sad incident as well. The war was so nearly over. During the night of 9/10 August, when after hours of argument, Japan’s Supreme War Council was still divided on whether or not to accept the Potsdam Declaration, Suzuki, ‘with the greatest reverence’, asked the Emperor for an opinion. General Anami, who was well aware of his sovereign’s wishes – and had steadfastly disregarded them – protested, correctly, that this was unconstitutional, but by now his supporters were grateful for any excuse to change their views. The Emperor stated clearly that ‘the time has come when we must bear the unbearable’ to avoid further futile ‘bloodshed and cruelty’.
Next morning, the Japanese government formally accepted the Potsdam Declaration ‘on the understanding’ that this would not ‘compromise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as sovereign ruler’. On 11 August, the Allies replied: ‘From the moment of the surrender the authority of the Emperor and the Japanese government to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers.’ The extremists argued that this qualification could not be accepted, but again the Emperor intervened decisively and demanded that it should be. On the 15th, on the conditions laid down in the Potsdam Declaration and the conditions agreed as to the Emperor’s authority, Japan surrendered ‘unconditionally’ – which is perhaps the best summary of that idiotic slogan.
There were a few last-minute convulsions. An attempt was made to prevent the surrender broadcast, but this failed and General Anami who knew of, but did not support the plot, committed ‘seppuku’. HMS Indefatigable had now rejoined the British carriers and in the last British air combat of the war, her aircraft shot down nine Zeros for the loss of one Seafire and one Avenger. The American airmen from Yorktown also had a fierce clash with Zeros, destroying another nine at the cost of four Hellcats. The last encounter came at 1120 on 15 August, when a Judy dropped two bombs very close to Indefatigable and was then downed by Corsairs from USS Shangri-la – a symbolic illustration of how it was America that now ruled the waves.
The formal ceremony ending the conflict took place on battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay on 2 September, six years and one day since the German attack on Poland had precipitated the Second World War. General MacArthur, who had been appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, signed on behalf of all the Allied nations; Fleet Admiral Nimitz on behalf of the United States. The British representative, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, had arrived in another battleship, HMS Duke of York. But as the formalities ended, it was appropriate that a triumphant fly-past of 450 carrier aircraft should have swept over the assembled warships, for it was naval air-power that in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the Arctic and finally the Pacific, had played the most important role in achieving victory at sea.