Royal Navy – The Far East, 1941–45


Beautiful diorama by Chris Flodberg of Repulse and Prince of Wales in 1941.


Royal Navy (including Imperial forces) strength in the Far East and Indian Ocean, 1941–45.

Japan had been Britain’s supposed naval enemy for much of the interwar period and its aggression in Manchuria had persuaded the British government to end its dalliance with disarmament in the early 1930s. But such was the situation that Britain faced in 1939 and 1940 that no ships were available to send to the Far East – quite simply there were more pressing matters for the Royal Navy and its Dominion naval partners to face in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

However, Japan did not join the fighting against Britain in 1939 or 1940. But this does not mean that the area was peaceful. As early as 1939, German surface raiders had operated in the Indian Ocean against Allied merchant vessels, and were hunted by British and Commonwealth cruisers. The Graf Spee was the first to penetrate the Indian Ocean in November 1939 and was followed by the Admiral Scheer in February 1940, but between them they only sank three ships in the area. However, the Germans also dispatched a number of disguised merchant raiders – converted merchant ships with their armament hidden away from prying eyes – to the Central and South Atlantic, Antarctic and Southern Oceans, Indian Ocean and the Pacific. Between the start of 1940 and the end of 1941 four disguised merchant raiders operated in the Indian Ocean – the Atlantis, Orion, Pinguin and Kormoran – with the Komet together with the Atlantis and Orion in the Pacific. In total these five raiders sank 77 merchant ships and whalers – some 451,225 tons of shipping. The Navy’s patrolling cruisers had some successes: HMS Cornwall found and destroyed the Pinguin on 8 May 1941 off the Horn of Africa, the Italian disguised raider Ramb I was sunk by HMNZS Leander on 27 February in the Arabian Sea, and HMS Devonshire caught and sank the Atlantis in the Atlantic on 22 November 1941.

However, a disaster had already occurred when on 19 November 1941 the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney found and tried to stop the Kormoran, which was pretending to be a Dutch steamer, off the west coast of Australia. For reasons that have never been explained, the Sydney closed to within a mile, parallel to the Kormoran’s course. Realizing there was no chance of bluffing its way out of trouble, at 16:35 the Kormoran unleashed a devastating surprise close-range gun and torpedo attack. The Sydney opened fire at almost the same moment as the Germans, and both ships suffered mortal damage in around ten minutes of fighting; the ships then drifted apart blazing furiously. By nightfall they were out of sight of each other. The Sydney was never seen again and all 645 of her crew perished; the Kormoran scuttled herself after her engines failed as a result of battle damage and 318 out of the 399 personnel on board were either picked up by Allied ships or reached Australia in lifeboats.

Patrolling cruisers to deal with German surface raiders were not, however, the answer to the problem with Japan. Fundamentally the British naval problem from 1939 to 1941 was how to deter Japan from entering the war rather than getting ready to fight her. Unfortunately deterrence was not just a naval problem but a political one. It was Churchill and his Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, who forced the Admiralty to dispatch the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the veteran battlecruiser HMS Repulse – Force Z – in October 1941 to Singapore to act as the deterrent force they felt was needed, against the wishes of the Admiralty who instead wanted to establish a balanced fleet by March 1942. Force Z arrived in Singapore on 2 December 1941, the day after the Japanese had decided on war. Deterrence had failed.

In the early hours of 8 December – about the same time as the attack on Pearl Harbor was going in – Japanese aircraft bombed Singapore. Perhaps appropriately, the Navy’s first shots in this new war were from its anti-aircraft guns. With the outbreak of fighting, the commander of Force Z, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, took command of all HM ships in the Far East area at 08:00 on 8 December. Even before the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, they had started their seaborne landing in northern Malaya. At 00:25 on 8 December – some 80 minutes before the attack on Pearl Harbor – the Japanese attempted to land at Kota Bharu. Despite being initially held by the defenders, by dawn they were ashore and establishing themselves after very heavy fighting. About this time landings were also occurring on the Siamese coast at Singora, Tepa and Patani to little or no opposition.

As the Japanese were already ashore, it was imperative that their forces were attacked while they were still vulnerable – before they had completed unloading troops, supplies and equipment. At 17:35 on 8 December Admiral Phillips sailed with all the ships he had available to attack the Japanese forces at Singora and Kota Bharu, as it was felt that these areas were probably outside the range of Japanese anti-shipping aircraft in southern French Indochina. It was a very small force – the modern battleship Prince of Wales, the battlecruiser HMS Repulse and four destroyers of various types and antiquity.

Unfortunately, despite the cloudy weather and rain that shielded the ships from Japanese air observation, Force Z was sighted by the Japanese submarine I-65 at 13:40 on 9 December. Then at 17:40 Japanese reconnaissance aircraft were sighted and it was clear that any chance of surprising the Japanese landing force had been lost – Force Z turned around. At 23:35 that day a report was received that the Japanese were landing at Kuantan, over 150 miles further south than the then southernmost landing at Kota Bharu. As this was even further from the Japanese airfields in Indochina, and close to the return track to Singapore, Phillips decided to investigate, but he did not ask for RAF fighter cover or inform anyone at Singapore of his change of plan. By 08:45 on 10 December reconnaissance by Prince of Wales’s Walrus aircraft and the destroyer HMS Express proved the report false. At 10:26 a land-based Japanese aircraft found Force Z.

The Japanese had 85 bombers already in the air waiting for information on Force Z and at 11:00 they saw the British ships ahead of them. They launched a devastating and highly disciplined attack that saw first the Prince of Wales hit and mortally damaged by a single torpedo hit on her stern at 11:44, and then HMS Repulse hit by a single torpedo amidships, which she shrugged off. Both ships kept up the fight. However, the slowly sinking but still moving Prince of Wales was hit again by three more torpedoes at 12:23. In the same mass attack Repulse was unable to dodge all the torpedoes aimed at her and was hit by up to four more torpedoes just after 12:25; she capsized and sank at 12:33. At 13:10 the order was given to abandon HMS Prince of Wales as she listed steeply to port; then at 13:20 she turned turtle and sank. Force Z had been destroyed and with it the Royal Navy’s main strike force in the Far East.

By 31 January British and Imperial land forces had retreated to Singapore Island and the causeway linking it to the mainland was demolished. On 15 February 1942 Britain experienced its worst ever defeat when the British army and Allied forces surrendered at Singapore. An American–British–Dutch–Australian (ABDA) command had been established in early January and its naval component consisted of a number of cruisers from all four states and supporting destroyers – the Royal Navy’s contribution was HMS Exeter as well as some destroyers. As the Japanese invaded Borneo and the Dutch East Indies, the ABDA naval strike force tried to intervene.

At the battle of Java Sea on 27 February the ABDA force tried to sink an invasion convoy heading for Java. The ABDA force had severe problems due to the lack of common tactics and procedures between the different nationalities in the naval force. HMS Exeter was hit in the boiler room by an 8-inch shell from one of the Japanese cruisers and forced to pull out of the battle, while the British destroyer Electra and the Dutch Kortenaer had been sunk by torpedoes. The ABDA force tried to get at the Japanese force again after dark, but HMS Jupiter was sunk by a mine (probably a mislaid Dutch one) and the Dutch cruisers Java and De Ruyter were torpedoed and lost. The surviving cruisers, HMAS Perth and the USS Houston broke off the action, but the next night blundered into a Japanese force off Batavia that was in the act of landing, and in a vicious close-range battle both ships were destroyed. On 1 March HMS Exeter, hastily patched up and heading for repairs in Trincomalee, was caught and sunk by a force of four Japanese cruisers and three destroyers in the Java Sea. The naval defence of the Dutch East Indies was now gone; Java fell on 9 March. All the Admiralty could do was to try to save what ships and soldiers could be got past the Japanese, who were rapidly spreading through the area. The closest British bases from which the war could be fought were now Trincomalee in Ceylon and Fremantle in Western Australia.

The battering the Royal Navy had received in the Far East was not yet over. Although the Admiralty had been attempting to rebuild the Eastern Fleet at Ceylon, many of the ships sent to the Indian Ocean were obsolescent or, in the case of the aircraft carriers, with inexperienced and weak air groups. It was enough to make the commander of this poisoned chalice, Admiral James Somerville, despair. Then the Japanese took steps to keep the British off balance. Admiral Chūichi Nagumo, who commanded the Japanese aircraft carriers in the attack on Pearl Harbor, took four of his fast carriers and four fast battleships and struck at the Royal Navy at Ceylon. Trincomalee was bombed and at sea the cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire were lost as well as the obsolescent carrier Hermes to air strikes. Somerville’s handling of his ships – keeping the four very vulnerable unmodernized World War I-era R class battleships out of the way, while trying to get close enough to launch air strikes of his own from his two modern armoured fleet carriers – prevented things from being much worse. However, the Admiralty ordered the Eastern Fleet to shift its main base from Ceylon to Kenya, 3,000 miles to the west.

From the early summer of 1942 until 1944 the Royal Navy was on the defensive in the Indian Ocean, with distance from the enemy, not the quality or quantity of its ships, the most important factor in its safety. It had enough ships to deny the Indian Ocean to the Japanese and to safeguard it as a vital supply route to and from the Middle East and Australia, but little else. Nor did they have a fleet train like the United States Navy that would allow them to remain at sea without having to return to refuel. Instead a secret refuelling base had to be built in the Maldives. Only the Navy’s submarines could take the fight to the enemy, but Japanese shipping was not plentiful in the Bay of Bengal, although the light cruiser Kuma was sunk and the Kitagami damaged in January 1944. The only real offensive the British could mount at sea was at the start of May 1942 when the Vichy French island of Madagascar was successfully invaded and captured, to forestall any possible Japanese moves.

With the winding up of the naval campaign in the Mediterranean, as well as the sinking of the Scharnhorst and the crippling of the Tirpitz in northern waters, the Admiralty could now send modern warships to the Eastern Fleet in early 1944. Just as importantly, more modern aircraft were reaching the carrier air groups – Barracuda torpedo/dive-bombers and Firefly strike fighter/reconnaissance aircraft, as well as Lend-Lease American naval aircraft such as the Hellcat and Corsair fighters and Avenger torpedo/dive-bombers. These additional resources allowed a rejuvenated Eastern Fleet under Somerville to start attacking Japanese bases and economic facilities in Sumatra and Java. In April 1944 the island of Sabang off Sumatra was attacked by British aircraft carriers and bombarded by the Eastern Fleet’s battleships. Then in May the Eastern Fleet launched successful air strikes against an oil refinery at Surabaya in Java; both this and the April operation were strengthened by the presence of the carrier USS Saratoga. July saw Sabang struck for the second time. All in all, eight such attacks on Japanese possessions along the Malay barrier were mounted between March and October 1944.

More significantly, it was accepted, grudgingly by Churchill, and in the face of outright opposition from the highest echelons of the US Navy who did not wish to share the coming battle with anyone, that the Royal Navy would send a British Pacific Fleet to fight alongside the US Navy in the assaults to clear away the final obstacles to an invasion of the Japanese home islands. On 22 November Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser hoisted his flag as the Commander in Chief British Pacific Fleet (BPF) and much of the resources of the Eastern Fleet were transferred across to his command. Such was Fraser’s seniority that he outranked the US naval commanders. To avoid awkward command issues, he decided, once in the Pacific, to direct the fleet from onshore, while day-to-day command at sea was carried out by his deputy, Vice Admiral Sir Bernard Rawlings. Fraser had actually been in command of the Eastern Fleet since August 1944 – Somerville had been sent to Washington to take on Admiral Ernie King who was the professional head of the US Navy and the chief cause of US opposition to the BPF. King is often characterized as anti-British, but this is perhaps unfair. He was certainly irascible and bullying but, above all, pro-US Navy rather than anti-British. With intense British pressure, however, King’s opposition to the BPF was overcome. The Royal Navy would share in the forthcoming victory over Japan.

In March 1945 the British Pacific Fleet joined the US Navy’s Central Pacific command. On its way from Ceylon to first Australia and then to the Admiralty Islands chain the BPF carried out two massive raids on the oil refinery at Palembang, Sumatra. The BFP’s first operation was as part of US Admiral Raymond Spruance’s 5th Fleet. Operating as Task Force 57, the BPF was as part of the Okinawa invasion force – Operation Iceberg. Task Force 57 was given the task of suppressing Japanese airfields on Sakashima Gunto, an island group between Okinawa and Formosa, thus preventing the Japanese from moving aircraft to the invasion site from bases further west. From 26 March until 20 April the BPF attacked the Japanese airfields and fended off retaliatory strikes before withdrawing to refit and replace lost aircraft. It is a telling comment on the combat power of the BPF that it was replaced not by a task group from the US fast carrier task force, TF 58, but the escort carriers of the US 5th Fleet’s Carrier Support Group. On 4 May TF 57 was back on station and launching attacks against airfields for the next three weeks, until on 25 May the BPF again withdrew to Manus to refit. The BPF returned to the fray on 16 July, this time as TF 37 attached to Admiral William Halsey’s 3rd Fleet, which was ranging up and down the Japanese coast at will. At this stage of the campaign, not only was the BPF launching aircraft against the Japanese mainland but was also engaging in shore bombardments using its battleship King George V and its cruiser force.

Away to the south-west, the Eastern Fleet’s successor, the East Indies Fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Sir Arthur Power, was also carrying the fight to the Japanese. The year 1945 began well when five destroyers found and sank the Japanese heavy cruiser Haguro in the Malacca Straits in a brilliantly executed torpedo attack that scored eight hits on the Japanese ship, which went down in a matter of minutes. X-craft midget submarines were used to cut the submarine telegraph cables from Saigon to Singapore and Hong Kong (XE4) and then the one from Hong Kong to Singapore (XE5). X-craft were also deployed against Japanese ships immobilized by a lack of fuel in Singapore harbour. On 31 July two X-craft penetrated the harbour and laid limpet mines on the heavy cruiser Takao. The mines blew the Takao’s bottom out and she sank upright in the shallow water. The commander of XE3, Lieutenant Ian Fraser, and his diver, Leading Seaman James Magennis, were both awarded the Victoria Cross. The Royal Navy’s submarines had also scored a major coup the previous month when HMS Trenchant successfully hit the heavy cruiser Ashigawa in the Banka Straits. Hit by five torpedoes – demonstrating the value of the T class submarine’s heavy bow salvo, the Ashigawa sank in about 30 minutes.

On 15 August, following the triple hammer blows of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the destruction of the Japanese ‘Kwantung’ Army in Korea and Manchuria by the Russian army after the USSR entered the war on 9 August, and the often overlooked near starvation of the Japanese thanks to the Allied submarine campaign, the Japanese surrendered unconditionally. At sea the BPF’s logistics situation, always fragile thanks to its small ad hoc fleet train, was critical. It was decided that only a small squadron could be supported in Japanese waters and thus be present at the formal surrender. In the end only the battleships Duke of York (with Admiral Fraser) and King George V, the aircraft carrier Indefatigable, the cruisers HMS Newfoundland and HMNZS Gambia plus ten destroyers (two of them Australian) remained off Japan and were allotted berths in Tokyo Bay to witness the ceremony. On 2 September the Japanese formally surrendered to the representatives of the Allied powers on the USS Missouri; Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser signed on behalf of Great Britain. The Royal Navy’s World War II was over.

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