Heaven High Ocean Deep

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Heaven High Ocean Deep: Naval Fighter Wing at War. By Tim Hillier-Graves. Casemate Publishers, Oxford UK and Havertown PA, USA, 2019.

Reviewed by David Hobbs 

TO START on a positive note, the book is well illustrated with a number of black and white photographs, some of which have not been published before.  There are also several colour photographs taken by journalists who visited HMS INDOMITABLE in 1945.  The author’s father served in the Wing and growing interest in his achievements stimulated him to write about the Wing after his death, albeit many years later.  

He contacted a number of pilots from across the Commonwealth who had served with his father and either recorded or wrote down their recollections; many of these are used verbatim in the book to give an interesting contemporary perspective on how they felt in the heat of action during 1945.

Unfortunately, as the author explains in his Acknowledgements, more than two decades have passed since he interviewed the veterans or carried out research in the Naval Historical Branch. Most of his view of the British Pacific Fleet is based on John Winton’s book ‘The Forgotten Fleet’ published by Michael Joseph in 1969.  There is no bibliography or source list and so, while veterans’ comments are annotated, one has to assume that his own views are based solely on a book published fifty years ago and he seems to be entirely unaware of any research that has been carried out since then.  In consequence, this book is a very great disappointment.   

Hillier-Graves attempts to link the veteran’s stories with an explanatory text which contains a number of factual errors.  Examples include the statement on page 52 that ILLUSTRIOUSwas the first fleet carrier to be deployed to the Far East; VICTORIOUShad actually served with the US Pacific Fleet a year earlier.  On page 60 the author states that ‘American aircraft were …more readily available [to the BPF] through the supply chain supporting the US Navy’.  In fact USN types such as the Hellcat, Avenger and Corsair were so heavily modified by the RN that the US supply chain could not be used to support them.  As important, the USN insisted that the RN must rely on its own supply chain in the Pacific and American aircraft were not available even if they had been compatible. All aircraft used by the BPF came through the British supply chain, culminating with the Receipt and Dispatch units at RN air stations in Australia where they were prepared and modified to the latest standard for passage in replenishment carriers to the front-line squadrons at sea including those in INDOMITABLE.

The author seems to take every opportunity to criticise Admiral Vian, Flag Officer 1st Aircraft Carrier Squadron, describing him on page 63 as having a ‘ruthless side to his personality that might lead him and his fleet into taking unnecessary risk’.  With greater research, the author might have read that Vian actually had a reputation for doing everything he could to rescue his aircrew who had ditched  off enemy-held coasts.  The strikes on the Palembang oil refineries are described ‘as a costly mistake’ in one of the veteran’s anecdotes.  This was a personal view which should have been balanced by the author but instead he takes the view on page 81 that these targets ‘were ideal targets for America’s high-flying, fully-pressurised Super Fortresses [Boeing B-29s]’.  He fails to mention that an attack on the Palembang refineries by B-29s shortly before the strikes by the BPF in January 1945 had failed to hit their targets and had suffered significant losses.  It was precisely because naval aircraft carrying out low-level glide bombing attacks were more accurate that Admiral Nimitz asked for them.  The Palembang attacks are dismissed on page 82 as the result of ‘poor arguments’ but the  strategic purpose of the BPF and the need to demonstrate to Nimitz that it was capable of fighting alongside the US Pacific Fleet as an equal seem not to have been fully understood by the author.  Without Palembang the BPF would not have operated in the Pacific.

Regrettably, the author’s complete lack of research into primary sources has led him to rely on ‘The Forgotten Fleet’ for his chapter entitled ‘Murder at Changi’ which perpetuates a myth based on a miss-understanding which John Winton would, no doubt, have corrected had his book been re-published.  It alleged that 9 naval aircrew who had been shot down in the Palembang strikes had been taken to Singapore by the Japanese and executed. In 1994 several veterans’ organisations sought to have a plaque to commemorate them mounted in Portsmouth Cathedral but, concerned at the lack of primary evidence, the Cathedral authorities asked for an enquiry to establish the facts.  A team from the Public Record Office at Hayes, the Naval Historical Branch, the Fleet Air Arm Museum, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and others was briefed to examine primary sources and make recommendations.  I took part in it myself as a serving officer.

It found that a significant number of Fleet Air Arm aircrew from a number of different operations were executed after being taken prisoner by the Japanese but that it was entirely inappropriate to single out any one group.  There was no unequivocal evidence to indicate that there was a ‘Palembang 9’.  The myth was found to stem from the RN Staff Officer (Intelligence) at Singapore’s letter 640/53E dated 12 July 1946 which summarised local investigations after the Japanese surrender.  In it he stated at paragraph 2 that ‘these men were removed from Outram Road Gaol almost certainly in July 1945 and executed’.  Unfortunately at paragraph 8 he made the contradictory statement that ‘one distressing aspect is that the executions of the airmen probably took place after the Japanese surrender…’  Unfortunately the author of the Naval Staff History ‘The War Against Japan’ and John Winton in ‘The Forgotten Fleet’ used this misleading source.

The enquiry found that 12 British prisoners were murdered on 20 July 1945, including Sub Lieutenant J W Tomlinson of 888 NAS from HMS EMPERORwho had ditched near port Dixon; Major Maxwell RM and Sergeant Major Smith RM who had been captured during a beach reconnaissance off Phuket Island.  The others might have included survivors from a strike on the Nicobar Islands by the Eastern Fleet.  Sub Lieutenant D V Roebuck RNVR of 849 NAS, named by the author in ‘Murder at Changi’, was identified by a reliable witness as having been in Shinagawa prison hospital in April 1945 but he did not survive.  It is, therefore, extremely unlikely that he was executed in Singapore three months later.  As a result of the enquiry the proposed plaque in Portsmouth Cathedral was modified to read ‘In memory of aircrew members of the British Pacific and East Indies Fleets operating from HM Aircraft Carriers who lost their lives during air attacks on enemy held territory or were captured and subsequently executed…Remembering also comrades-in-arms of allied services including the United States Army Twentieth Air Force who lost their lives in similar circumstances in South East Asia and the Pacific in 1942-1945’.  It was unveiled in 1995.  

Everyone associated with the enquiry hoped that this would end the myth but Hillier-Graves lack of primary research has resurrected it.  I can only imagine the distress that this book might cause to relatives who thought they had achieved closure.  It is a deeply disappointing book that I cannot recommend, even for the sake of its photographs.               

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