The Carrier War Leyte Gulf to The End. III

rhms-036- british pacific fleet- 800 x 530

British Pacific Fleet 1945 – HMS King George V.

To perform these important if unglamorous tasks, Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian, who controlled the carriers under the overall command of Vice Admiral Rawlings, had a total of sixty-five Avengers, twenty-nine Hellcats, seventy-three Corsairs, forty Seafires, nine Fireflies and two Walrus amphibians used for air-sea rescue duties. This was less than the strength of any American Task Group and the variety of aircraft types meant that a disproportionate number of spare parts, and indeed of spare aircraft was needed; these were supplied by escort carriers Striker and Slinger, for which escort carrier Speaker’s sixteen Hellcats provided fighter protection. It is rather humiliating to recall that when Vian’s four fleet carriers had to leave the combat zone for a period of about a fortnight to be refuelled and replenished, their duties were undertaken, perfectly capably, by four small American escort carriers.

Nonetheless, the British carriers did have one advantage that was particularly important in the Okinawa campaign. On 1 April, the invasion of the island began; but curiously enough, although this was assisted by American fleet carriers, light carriers and escort carriers, the only ‘flat-tops’ subjected to air attack were those of the Royal Navy. The Combat Air Patrol broke up several small raids, but at about 0720, three bomb-carrying Zeros were able to attack Indefatigable. One of her pilots, Sub-Lieutenant Richard Reynolds, shot down two of them and fatally damaged the third – an achievement that made him the war’s highest-scoring Seafire pilot – but the crippled aircraft was still able to dive on Indefatigable and struck her flight deck squarely at the base of the island structure.

If this had happened to an American carrier with a wooden deck, it could have caused serious damage; but though Indefatigable had eight men killed and twenty-two wounded, six of whom died later, her steel deck only received a three-inch deep dent, a small fire that had been started was quickly extinguished and she remained in formation. The Americans with their unpleasant experiences of Kamikaze attacks were duly impressed.

They were soon to have many more such experiences. By this date, the Japanese, in desperation, were compulsorily allocating whole units to make suicide attacks. Yet this, as Captain Roskill notes, ‘brought few signs of any decline in morale and most of the conscript crews seem to have set out with the same selfless dedication as the volunteers’. They made few attacks at first, though escort carrier Wake Island was damaged on 3 April, but on the 6th, mass Kamikaze assaults began. They were called ‘Kikusui’ or ‘floating chrysanthemum’, like the cherry blossom, a symbol of purity.

The first of these was also the biggest. No fewer than 355 Kamikazes took part, accompanied by almost the same number of orthodox attackers. Though ordered, as usual, to make carriers their prime objectives, they achieved only near misses that caused minor damage to light carriers San Jacinto and Cabot – but they had other successes. Two of them crashed into ammunition ships, both of which duly exploded, while their main victims were the ‘radar pickets’, small groups of destroyers posted all around Okinawa at distances of up to 100 miles to give warning of approaching enemy aircraft. They sank two of these destroyers, wrecked two more so completely they had to be scrapped and damaged eight others plus two destroyer-escorts.

That same evening, Yamato, escorted by light cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers, set out for Okinawa. The giant battleship had only enough fuel for a one-way journey, but Admiral Toyoda – a convinced supporter of General Anami’s determination to fight to the bitter end whatever happened – preferred that she should perish in action after inflicting the maximum damage on her enemies, rather than skulk uselessly in harbour and perhaps be tamely handed over to the victors if the very worst occurred.

In practice, Yamato and her accompanying warships would have no opportunity to harm more than the US carrier-aircraft that would attack them. American submarines reported them on the night of the 6th/7th, and Vice Admiral Mitscher was certain that they would be making for Okinawa. However, his responsibilities with regard to supporting the landings meant that he could not move too great a distance from the island. He therefore decided he would steam as far north as was possible while still being able to fulfill this commitment and strike at the Japanese warships from long range. At dawn on the 7th, his scouts took off to search for the enemy. Four luckless Corsairs ran out of fuel and had to ‘ditch’, one pilot being lost, but at 0822, a Hellcat from Essex flown by Lieutenant William Estes sent the sighting report that Mitscher was eagerly awaiting.

It shows clearly how futile was the Japanese sortie when it is noted that, although Enterprise, Randolph and light carrier Independence had retired to refuel; Task Force 58 still contained Bunker Hill (Mitscher’s flagship), Essex, Hancock, Hornet, Bennington, Intrepid and Yorktown, and light carriers Bataan, Cabot, San Jacinto, Belleau Wood and Langley, with a total of 986 aircraft on board. At 1000, 439 of these began to take off. On their way to the target, the group from Hancock, fifty-three strong, lost touch with the others in bad weather and returned to their carrier, a Corsair from Bunker Hill crashed into the sea for no apparent reason, killing the pilot, and an Avenger and a Hellcat from Bennington turned back with engine trouble. That still left 383 warplanes in the attacking formations and their striking power was particularly great on this occasion, because to back up the Helldiver bombers and the Avengers, some armed with bombs but most with torpedoes, a majority of the Hellcats and Corsairs were also carrying bombs.

Their attack began at about 1230, and was made in three waves. The officer responsible for co-ordinating the first one, Commander Edmond Konrad of Hornet, was determined not to concentrate on just one target as had the pilots who had attacked Kurita’s Central Force at Leyte Gulf, but to sink not only Yamato, but all her escorts as well. At the very start of the action, destroyer Asashimo was hit by two torpedos, blew up and went down in less than three minutes. Ten minutes later, destroyer Hamakaze, struck by several bombs and at least one torpedo, probably more, also exploded and sank. Light cruiser Yahagi, her engines wrecked by one torpedo and her propellers and rudders smashed by another, slowed to a halt.

Not that Commander Konrad neglected Yamato either. Helldivers achieved at least two bomb hits, one of them going through two decks before exploding, as well as several near misses. Avengers put two torpedoes into her port side. These and the damage done by the near misses caused flooding and a consequent list to port that had to be rectified by counter-flooding.

During these assaults, Konrad had remained in constant radio communication with Commander Harmon Utter of Essex who was to co-ordinate the second wave of attackers. It seemed clear that Yamato was by no means crippled yet, so Utter ensured that most of the heaviest strikes by his wave were made on the battleship. She was hit by four bombs that left smoke pouring from her, and though the number of torpedo hits was grossly exaggerated, it seems that at least seven found their mark. Water poured into the doomed giant and her speed steadily fell away.

While their torpedo-planes struck at Yamato, many of the American dive-bombers and fighter-bombers continued to assault the escort vessels. Three destroyers were badly damaged. Kasumi was left burning furiously and not fully under control. Isokaze was also set on fire and was shaken by explosions. Suzutsuki’s bow was shattered by bomb hits and apparently also by a stray torpedo. And a rain of bombs left light cruiser Yahagi with her superstructure in ruins, listing and blazing furiously. She was already slowly sinking when the third American wave arrived and again made her a target. It is believed that she took a total of twelve bomb hits and perhaps five torpedoes in this and the earlier attacks. At 1405, this tough little ship finally capsized and sank. As she disappeared, a last explosion lit up the sky with a huge ball of flame.

Meanwhile other American aircraft were seeking out Yamato. Two more bomb hits and numerous near misses increased her already serious list, and a torpedo-bomber scored a hit on her stern, jamming the rudder. As all power failed, her great gun turrets jammed as well. ‘Abandon Ship’ was ordered. A final strike by Avengers hit her twice more – but this was a waste of torpedoes. At 1423, Yamato turned over completely; then exploded. A tremendous cloud of smoke, thousands of feet high, visible over a hundred miles away, marked another triumph of naval air-power.

So ended the Battle of the East China Sea. It had cost the lives of the Japanese Fleet Commander, Vice Admiral Seiichi Ito, Yamato’s captain Rear Admiral Kosaku Ariga, and more than 4,200 officers and men, over 3,000 of them in Yamato. Destroyers Isokaze and Kasumi, too badly damaged to be saved, were finished off by Japanese torpedoes or gunfire. Suzutsuki, with 20 feet of her bow missing, crawled slowly back to port, stern-first. Two other destroyers had been damaged. The Americans lost fifteen aircraft shot down or forced to ‘ditch’, but only twelve airmen died. Lieutenant William Delaney, an Avenger pilot from Belleau Wood who had been forced to bale out and thereafter watch the action unfold while clinging to his life raft in the middle of the enemy fleet, was snatched to safety under the noses of the surviving Japanese destroyers by an American flying-boat.

Unfortunately, the victory did nothing to check the onslaught of the suicide pilots. Between 26 March, when the preliminary attacks on Okinawa commenced, and 22 June, when the island was declared secure, Japanese air raids sank twenty-eight ships of various types and damaged 237 more. Twenty-six of the vessels sunk and 176 of those damaged were victims of the Kamikazes.

Despite the official exhortations of their commanders and the unofficial action of one destroyer that had an arrow painted on its deck pointing over the side, accompanied by the caption ‘Carriers That Way’, the most common targets of the Kamikazes were still the ‘radar pickets’. One particularly dramatic attack on 12 April deserves special mention. A bomb-carrying Zero smashed into the engine room of destroyer Mannert L. Abele, leaving her dead in the water. As she lay helpless, another suicide pilot hit her amidships and she broke in half, to sink in five minutes. It was the first, and happily as it transpired, the only ‘kill’ made by the Oka/Baka.

Inevitably, though, the carriers could not escape the Kamikazes entirely. On 7 April, just as the American airmen were preparing to engage Yamato and her screening vessels, a Zero dived on Hancock, dropped a bomb that penetrated to her hangar and then crashed into her flight deck, setting nineteen of her aircraft ablaze. Damage control parties mastered the flames after a tense 40 minutes, but seventy-two dead and eighty-two injured was the high price exacted by one enemy fighter-bomber and one determined pilot.

There were plenty of other pilots willing to sacrifice their lives for the chance of hitting a carrier and some of them did just that. Enterprise was damaged on 11 April. Intrepid was struck on the 18th, and suffered ninety-seven casualties, ten of them fatal. Escort carrier Sangamon was hit on 4 May, set ablaze and so damaged that she had to withdraw from the battle area. And worse was yet to come.

On 11 May, Vice Admiral Mitscher’s flagship, Bunker Hill, was struck twice. First a Zero put a bomb onto her flight deck, itself crashed through the aircraft on her deck, setting them on fire – and fell over the side. Before anyone had had a chance to recover, a Judy bomber came down in a vertical dive to smash right through the flight deck at the base of the island superstructure. Swept by flames and listing badly, the great ship was saved by the heroic efforts of her damage control personnel but she too had to withdraw. Of her crew, 392 were killed and 264 wounded.

Vice Admiral Mitscher now hoisted his flag in Enterprise but the Kamikazes still pursued him. Two days later, one crashed into Enterprise’s forward elevator, causing an explosion that blew this high into the air, seeming to be balanced on top of a great column of smoke. Mitscher moved on to Randolph, while Enterprise, like Sangamon and Bunker Hill, had to leave the area to effect repairs – as did escort carrier Natoma Bay, crashed by a Kamikaze on 6 June. Yet the Americans remained firm and, as stated earlier, on 22 June, Okinawa was finally secured, whereupon the carriers retired to rest and refit in preparation for the final assault on Japan.

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.

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