The Pacific Fleet: RN’s Most Powerful Strike Force

The British Pacific Fleet: The Royal Navy’s Most Powerful Strike Force. By David Hobbs. Seaforth, Barnsley, 2011, paperback edition released 2017.
Reviewed by Dr Gregory P. Gilbert

… the post-war Royal Navy … owed much of its concept of operations to the outstanding achievements of the BPF in the year from November 1944 to November 1945.
Commander David Hobbs, RN(Rtd)

ONE of the most important maritime books of the last decade, ‘The British Pacific Fleet’, has now been released in a reasonably priced paperback edition that will enable every serious Australian naval practitioner to own their own copy. It is hard to envisage a book on naval history that resonates more with 21st century coalition naval operations and the role of smaller navies like the Royal Australian Navy than this modern classic by David Hobbs.

As the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH commences its sea trials and HMS PRINCE OF WALES is nearing completion it is timely to remind ourselves of why the United Kingdom needs to operate two strike aircraft carriers. RN official statements – the UK needs an aircraft carrier to be a significant player on the global stage with peacetime, wartime and humanitarian responsibilities, and aircraft carriers back up the words of the UK’s leaders with an indisputable presence and, when necessary, action. However such words tend to be far to abstract for the average citizen. In order to help overcome the modern epidemic of sea-blindness it is often better to use historical examples that can lend a certain reality that is often hidden within official language. The role of the British Pacific Fleet in the defeat of Japan in 1944-45 – ‘the Royal Navy’s most powerful strike force’ – although little known, is perhaps the best historical example that illustrates the basis for the development of modern strike carriers. Luckily for us David Hobbs’s book ‘The British Pacific Fleet’ is a masterful rendering of the organisation, administration, leadership, operations and fighting actions of this most successful British carrier strike fleet.

The British Pacific Fleet was the major instrument through which the UK gained a seat at the table that redrew the map of the Pacific after the defeat of Japan. It was the only British force that contributed in operations aimed directly against the Japanese mainland. While a number of senior American politicians and military commanders tried to restrict British involvement in the Pacific War to parts of South East Asia and India – where major British land, naval and air forces were deployed – Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, RN, the commander of the BPF, managed to get the United States Navy Admirals King and Nimitz, amongst others, to accept the British working under American command in the operations against Okinawa and mainland Japan. This was a major political victory for the British although it had to be backed-up by the physical presence of a fleet of war vessels that could match the sophisticated naval offensive strike operations, multi-layered naval defence capabilities, and sustained ‘floating’ logistic support arrangements of their US Pacific Fleet colleagues. The BPF’s great success was a remarkable achievement, even by 1945 standards – a year full of remarkable achievements. It was a tribute to the officers and men of the fleet and to the leadership of Admiral Fraser and his staff. As David Hobbs makes clear, it was also made possible by the generous and intimate support of the Australian government, its people and its navy.

Many Australians are aware of RAN ships working as part of the US 7th Fleet in New Guinea and the Philippines, but the work of RAN warships under BPF command operating with the US 3rd and 5th Fleets are largely forgotten. The BPF included British, Canadian, New Zealand and Australian warships. At its peak the BPF operated some nine fleet carriers, nine auxiliary carriers, four battleships, twelve cruisers, forty destroyers, twenty nine submarines, and over seventy smaller vessels. Included in this total were His Majesty’s Australian Destroyers QUIBERON, QUICKMATCH, NAPIER, NEPAL, NIZAM, NORMAN and eighteen Australian BATHURST class corvettes. There were approximately one hundred ships in the Fleet Train providing afloat support to the warships. None of these were provided by the RAN.

‘The British Pacific Fleet’ by David Hobbs comprehensively describes the major operations of the BPF – against the Sumatran Oil Refineries, Operations Iceberg I and II, Operation Inmate, and the numerous strikes against the Japanese mainland. He also describes the repatriation and peacetime activities from late 1945 until the disbanding of the BPF in 1948. To me, however, the sections on the theory behind BPF operations, forward planning, and logistic support arrangements – in Australia and across the Pacific – are equally if not more important. And for those trained in military appraisal techniques, David Hobbs has included the many lessons learnt in his concluding retrospection chapter. Many of these lessons remain critically important today. Even though the RAN is unlikely to lead carrier strike operations any time soon Australia will almost certainly contribute destroyers or smaller warships as part of larger fleets in future coalition operations, just as we did in 1945.

David Hobbs’s ‘The British Pacific Fleet: The Royal Navy’s Most Powerful Strike Force’ is a modern classic of naval history. It is a must read for Australian naval professionals and an important source for those interested in naval operations in the 21st century – one frequently labelled the Pacific Century.

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