The Eastern Fleet and the Indian Ocean 1942 – 1944; The Fleet That Had To Hide. By Charles Stephenson. Pen and Sword Books, Barnsley, 2020.
Reviewed by Tim Coyle
Charles Stephenson chose the subtitle ‘The Fleet That Had To Hide’ of his book as an oblique reference to Richard Hough’s work on the Imperial Russian Navy’s Baltic Fleet which sailed half-way around the world to meet oblivion at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Navy at Tsushima in 1905. This was ‘The Fleet That Had to Die’. Thirty-seven years later the Royal Navy’s Eastern Fleet faced a similar fate from the same navy, this time having developed a world-class naval air arm which the British had helped to create in 1920.
The Eastern Fleet was compelled to hide as a ‘fleet-in-being’, forced to abandon the Eastern Indian Ocean and its base at Trincomalee, Ceylon, and operate from East Africa. Stephenson describes why this occurred and how the RN entered a period of decline, having to play second fiddle to an emergent US Navy – none more so than in the sphere of naval aviation.
The core themes of the book are the Fleet Air Arm’s combat capability 1942-44 and the Eastern Fleet commander, Admiral Sir James Somerville. In his Introduction Stephenson states he did not mean the book to be an academic work – it is a narrative history for the general reader and it accomplishes this aim admirably.
The story begins with the Sempill Mission to Japan in 1920. Stemming from the Anglo-Japanese naval relationship the Mission was led by the splendidly titled Master of Sempill and comprised a strong technical team. The Mission was the genesis of Japanese naval aviation which 20 years later spearheaded the invasion of the South East Asian British colonies and destroyed the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.
While the Japanese capitalised on the Sempill Mission’s expert advice, British naval aviation began a 20-year imposition of the dead hand of RAF management. Stephenson avoids too much detail here as he directs the reader to the plethora of other sources, but he provides enough comment to background how the FAA, returned to RN control in 1939, still suffered the repercussions of its time in the RAF wilderness. We are also led through other major naval events such as the inter-war naval arms limitation conferences and up to the British attacks on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kabir and Dakar, the Taranto raid and the Bismarck battle, the latter two triumphs of FAA fortitude and skill.
Somerville’s late 1942 appointment to the Eastern Fleet in the wake of the loss of HM Ships Prince of Wales and Repulse to Japanese airpower, saw him faced with the ubiquity of the ascendent Imperial Japanese Navy. Although Somerville’s command was outwardly powerful, with two modern aircraft carriers, he laboured with the deadweight of four obsolete and resource-intensive R class battleships. Although the carriers were modern, their aircraft were not.
Then based at Trincomalee, Somerville had intelligence that the fleet would be attacked. Initially withdrawing to a secret anchorage at Addu Atoll Somerville sortied in early April 1942 to meet the five aircraft carriers of the Japanese Kido Butai but retreated at the prospect of engaging superior naval aviation and, in the process, losing two heavy cruisers, HM Ships Cornwall and Dorsetshire. The Kido Butai struck Trincomalee on 9 April and sank the old carrier HMS Hermes.
Somerville bemoaned his lack of ‘aircraft fit for sailors to fly in…’ referring primarily to the unfortunate Fairey Barracuda torpedo bomber; what he needed was modern American aircraft. While the Eastern Fleet had some Grumman Martlet fighters (US F4F Wildcats) they shared the carrier decks with second rate Fairey Barracudas and Hawker Sea Hurricanes.
Overall, the FAA was beginning to benefit from the US Navy ‘Towers Scheme’ training program. By late November 1943 FAA aircrew trained under this scheme in the US provided 44% of RN pilots and with them came Lend Lease Corsairs, Hellcats and Avengers – indeed worthy of sailors. These assets finally reached the Eastern Fleet along with the temporary attachment of the carrier USS Saratoga, whose air group commanders lent their expertise to improve take-off and form-up times of the British carrier air groups.
With these reinforcements and the now declining IJN capability, largely through the destruction at Midway of most of the Kido Butai, Somerville mounted a series of attacks in 1944 against targets in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Northern Sumatra. Most of these were diversionary in support of the wider US campaigns but gave the Fleet valuable combat experience.
There is much more to this story: the book begins with an ethereal description of the German High Seas Fleet surrender in 1918 under the guns of the pre-eminent Grand Fleet – the RN at its greatest and how we all wish we could have been there just on that day! We also read of German U-boat operations in the Indian Ocean in 1943 and their cooperation with Japanese submarines. There is much discussion of the always fascinating imbroglios between Allied admirals, generals and politicians. Churchill’s aim of regaining British colonial possessions did not sit well with US leaders. His obsession with Operation Culverin, a hopelessly impractical invasion of northern Sumatra was fought tooth and nail by the British Chiefs of Staff. How this was modified and eventually discarded, resulting in the creation of the British Pacific Fleet, into which the Eastern Fleet was morphed, is an epic in itself. There is even a mysterious spy story.
Are there lessons for today? British naval aviation was a world leader in 1920 and the Sempill Mission gave Japan the opportunity to develop a formidable naval air arm. Are defence planners today still single-minded in supporting capabilities which should be phased out? The US Marine Commandant, General Berger is transforming the Corps into an innovative and flexible force, deleting old favourites like tanks and artillery. The debate in Somerville’s time was battleships versus carriers – now there is some questioning of carriers in the US against hypersonic long-range missiles.
Stephenson’s 80 pages of notes and source references give plenty of material for those who want to ‘learn more’; however the general reader, and indeed the specialist, can be satisfied with this expertly written and absorbing study of the Eastern Fleet and the Indian Ocean 1942-1944.