Strategic consequences of the Ceylon attack and British reinforcement Part II

“HMS Warspite of the Eastern Fleet and Flagship of Admiral Sir James Sommerville, underway in the Indian Ocean.”

The prime minister’s confidence that the Eastern Fleet with its planned reinforcements, together with the Royal Air Force additions in Ceylon and India, could meet further Japanese attacks went beyond that of the naval staff and, indeed, Somerville. Where did this confidence come from? It was partly no doubt over-simplistic ‘bean counting’ – his belief that a Royal Navy force of four modernised capital ships and three modern fleet carriers should be able to deal with an equivalent IJN force. The passage of time helped – he intuitively realised the Japanese had a limited window for operations in the west before increasing United States strength made these too risky. This time factor applied to the Germans also. At the end of May the prime minister acknowledged the risk of a German drive southward into the Middle East from the Caucasus, also highlighted by Smuts, but noted: ‘The year is advancing and the Germans have a long way to go …’. Above all, he retained faith in the ability of the US Navy to pose a threat in the Pacific, which the Doolittle raid and Coral Sea action at the beginning of May amply confirmed.

The evolving intelligence picture also probably encouraged the prime minister.240 NID reported (correctly) on 19 April that the bulk of the IJN forces deployed in the Indian Ocean were returning to Japan, although the carriers Zuikaku and Shokaku might be redeployed for operations in the southwest Pacific. Successive NID assessments over the next month confirmed the IJN was conducting a major redeployment back to Japan, probably aimed at future operations in the central Pacific. Naval forces in the southern area would be sharply reduced. The Joint Intelligence Committee assessed in mid-May that the bulk of the Japanese fleet was deployed between the Mandates and New Guinea, with no indication that significant forces were being earmarked for the Indian Ocean.

At the end of May 1942, the joint planning staff considered how the war against Japan should be prosecuted. They correctly identified two significant Japanese vulnerabilities, which were relevant to its ability to conduct sustained operations in the Indian Ocean. They judged that Japan’s frontline air strength was small in relation to the commitments it had now acquired, and that aircraft production was too low to sustain even this frontline if it undertook major operations. They also emphasised Japan’s dependence on Netherlands East Indies oil. In exploiting this, it faced long sea routes, an acute shortage of tankers, and quite inadequate anti-submarine forces. In mid-June the Joint Intelligence Committee produced a more detailed assessment of Japan’s air capability after six months of war. Although it admitted its figures for aircraft losses were of variable quality, and it had no precise intelligence on production rates, its estimates for frontline strength were accurate. It correctly forecast that production was struggling to keep up with losses, as the planning staff had already suggested.

In their look ahead, the joint planning staff also reviewed the concept of a joint British-American fleet taking the offensive in the Pacific. Redeploying the bulk of Royal Navy major units to the Pacific meant carrying risk in the Indian Ocean. This transfer could only be considered when retained defences were adequate, when reinforcements had made Australasia secure, and when the arrival of US Navy new build ensured adequate superiority over the IJN. This thinking reflected that conveyed to eastern theatre commanders and Joint Staff Mission Washington some six weeks earlier on 15 April. They had then argued that it was currently impossible to cover Allied interests across two oceans from a single base. It was essential, on the one hand, to cover India, the Middle East and Persian oil, and, on the other, the United States west coast, Hawaii, and communications across the Pacific to Australasia. The Indian Ocean was critical to the British Empire, but it covered no comparable interests for Japan. It consequently offered no offensive potential. To defeat Japan, a strategic offensive in the Pacific would be necessary, but this was only possible once vital interests elsewhere were secure.

In parallel with the latest joint planning staff deliberations, Pound received requests from Admiral King for more immediate help to the US Navy, which had seen its effective carrier strength cut by half following the Coral Sea action. King would accept a diversion operation by the Eastern Fleet, but would prefer the transfer of one or more Royal Navy carriers to the southwest Pacific. Theoretically, Britain had an opportunity here to take an early stake in the Pacific campaign and buy significant influence for minimal investment. She also risked lasting resentment from King and the US Navy if she refused to help and Midway turned out badly. Pound was reluctant to weaken the Eastern Fleet while a major IJN attack in the Indian Ocean remained possible, and King failed to make a persuasive case that Royal Navy intervention in the Pacific would make sufficient difference to compensate. Time and distance, and the difficulty arranging logistic support, also argued against the transfer, which was not therefore pursued.

The first significant reinforcements reached Somerville at the beginning of May, part of the forces allocated to seize Madagascar (Operation Ironclad). These were a third fleet carrier, Illustrious, and the heavy cruiser Devonshire. Three other modern cruisers reached him from new build or refit during the next two months. The Eastern Fleet was still planned to reach a strength by the autumn of four modernised battleships, three fleet carriers, one 8in cruiser, five to six modern 6in cruisers, two older 6in cruisers, sixteen modern destroyers, and nine to twelve submarines. In addition, the four ‘R’ class, with six to seven older cruisers and nine old destroyers, would be retained for trade protection duties. This fleet was comparable in size to the ‘maximum Eastern Fleet’ of August 1939.

In the event, the strength of the Eastern Fleet peaked in early July. By then it had two modernised battleships, Warspite and Valiant (the latter about to work up, following damage repair at Durban), two fleet carriers Formidable and Illustrious (Indomitable had departed a week earlier for Pedestal), two ‘R’-class battleships, Royal Sovereign and Resolution (Ramillies had been damaged by IJN submarine attack), one heavy cruiser, three modern 6in cruisers, six older cruisers and nine destroyers. The fleet now had a more modern core than in April, and was better trained and more cohesive as a fighting force. It remained weak in destroyers, which would constrain Somerville’s mobility in the coming months.

The further reinforcements proposed during April and May never arrived. From early July, Eastern Fleet strength rapidly declined. By the autumn, Somerville was down to one modernised battleship and one carrier. He did not recover the mid-1942 strength until early 1944. There were two related reasons for this reduction: the crippling of the IJN carrier arm at Midway on 4 June, and the demands of the Mediterranean. Once the scale of the US Navy achievement at Midway was evident, it appeared to the British that IJN ability to intervene in the western Indian Ocean with anything more than occasional surface raiders or submarines had been eliminated. By early September, the Joint Intelligence Committee judged that Japan now lacked the resources to pursue major new commitments and would adopt a defensive perimeter strategy. The threat to Persian oil would remain a British anxiety into the autumn, but post-Midway, the primary risk was from German attack in the west or north. Ironically, at the moment Midway took place, the Japanese Army general staff revived the idea of major operations in the Indian Ocean, including the seizure of Ceylon, to which they had been distinctly lukewarm in February. Planning continued during June and an Army Directive (No 1196) was produced on 29 June. The reason for this new enthusiasm was the perceived success of the German drive towards Egypt, which resurrected the prospect of an Axis ‘junction’ in the Middle East, and for knocking Britain out of the war. The IJN endorsed the concept, but had to defer to resource realities, especially as the Guadalcanal campaign got underway.

The British war leadership were clear during the first five months of 1942 that the Indian Ocean took priority over the Mediterranean. Actual and planned naval reinforcements, largely at Mediterranean expense, reflected that. This raised the difficult question of sustaining Malta. Experience demonstrated that supply convoys were only possible with substantial naval cover. If Somerville was to receive his planned reinforcements, such cover was not possible. A proposal was therefore developed during April for a major part of the Eastern Fleet to deploy through the Suez Canal for the two weeks necessary to run a convoy to Malta from Alexandria. This risky plan was put on hold when it was assessed Malta could hold out until August. However, an August convoy was essential if Malta was to survive. It meant either resurrecting the Eastern Fleet option, or running a convoy from the west, which required Somerville to release one of his three carriers to reinforce Force H. The western option was militarily more attractive, and Midway made the release of Indomitable in mid-July possible.

By the time this western convoy operation (Pedestal) took place, the wider strategic context had further evolved and the major Anglo-American landing in northwest Africa, codenamed Torch, was planned for November. The political and strategic debates that led to Torch, and the campaign itself, are outside the scope of this book. However, it is important to underline how Torch linked with, and influenced, the naval defence of the eastern empire. The most obvious impact lay in the substantial resources required to execute Torch, for which the Royal Navy provided about two-thirds of the naval forces. They included two battleships, Rodney and Duke of York, the battlecruiser Renown, three fleet carriers (Victorious, Formidable and Furious), the light carrier Argus, three escort carriers, nine cruisers and forty-three destroyers. To help generate these forces it was necessary not only to abandon the planned buildup of the Eastern Fleet, but to make substantial further withdrawals from Somerville, including one of his remaining two carriers, Formidable. She was required because Indomitable had been badly damaged in the Pedestal convoy and was therefore not available for Torch. As the prime minister emphasised to his deputy Clement Attlee, this was neither a permanent withdrawal from the East, nor a sign that the East was unimportant. It was a deliberate strategic choice to apply Britain’s scarce naval resources where they had most effect. If the Japanese threat in the Indian Ocean had sharply reduced after Midway, Britain again had options.

Churchill apparently hoped that the reduction of the Eastern Fleet would be for a few months. In the event, in the absence of any new Japanese threat in the Indian Ocean, successive Mediterranean demands following Torch left the Eastern Fleet in a Cinderella state throughout 1943. However, the 1943 Mediterranean campaign was a staged affair, and the successive Royal Navy commitments here were not inevitable. If the Japanese threat had resumed, the Royal Navy could have redeployed to the Indian Ocean earlier than it did. The Royal Navy Torch force, including its three capital ships, three fleet carriers, and three escort carriers, was the force that would have gone to Somerville in place of Torch if the Japanese had pursued a major offensive into the western half of the Indian Ocean in the second half of 1942.

The success of Torch influenced Britain’s eastern defence problem in crucial ways. It removed any possibility of the Germans securing new Atlantic bases at a critical stage in the U-boat war. It also secured the eastern empire irrevocably from any Axis threat on its western boundary. These two threats had continued to exercise British planners through the summer, as they contemplated the possibility of Russian defeat. In July the joint planners anticipated that if Russia collapsed, Germany would embark on a strategy to seize Atlantic bases and Middle East oil, which almost exactly mirrored the OKW strategic survey of August. As late as October, the planners judged – ‘we are not yet out of the dangerous period of the war: a major false step may still jeopardise our prospects of victory’.

It took longer to clear the Axis from North Africa than the Allies hoped, but after Torch the result was not in doubt. Allied mastery of North Africa then opened up the Mediterranean to Allied shipping, and from there via the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean, with the first through cargo convoy from Gibraltar to Suez running in May 1943.266 Reopening Mediterranean transit made it much easier to move reinforcements to secure the Indian front against Japan, and to boost supplies to Russia through the Persian Gulf. In the long run it saved substantial shipping resources. Supplies on the Persian route to Russia in the second half of 1943 were approximately double those in the first half, and more than double those delivered by the Arctic convoys. The Persian route was by far the most important route for supplies delivered to Russia under the Third Protocol from October 1943 to end June 1944, and always had spare capacity if other routes had failed.

Finally, the Torch campaign was catastrophic for the German air force. The Luftwaffe lost 2422 aircraft in the Mediterranean over the seven months from November 1942 to end May 1943. This represented 40 per cent of its overall frontline strength in all theatres at the beginning of November. The Mediterranean losses broadly equalled those on the Russian front in the same period, although in some categories, notably fighters, they were much higher. The German response to Torch also absorbed large numbers of transport aircraft to build up their forces in Tunisia; Ju52s were deployed in November and December, of which half had been lost by end January. The despatch of these precious heavy transport aircraft to the Mediterranean significantly reduced German airlift capacity at Stalingrad. By reducing German air power, Torch therefore made a direct and important contribution to the Stalingrad battle, and then severely hampered German prospects for any lasting recovery in the East. This contribution to Stalingrad and its aftermath must be weighed alongside the simultaneous lend-lease aid delivered through Persia, the impact of which was highlighted earlier. Even if the Germans had achieved a more successful outcome to their 1942 southern offensive in Russia, the air losses suffered in the Torch campaign would have left them insufficient air support to contemplate the early invasion of the Middle East from the north, which the British so feared.

President Roosevelt anticipated these Torch achievements in the instructions he gave to Marshall and King prior to their visit to London in July 1942. He stressed the need to maintain a ‘Germany first’ strategy, and not to be diverted by Japan. He emphasised his continuing commitment to a cross-channel invasion (Roundup) in 1943, while noting that its feasibility would depend on events in Russia. Less recognised is the importance he placed on holding the Middle East. Losing the Middle East meant losing Egypt and the Suez Canal, and thereafter potentially Syria, Iraq oil and access to Persian oil. This would permit a junction between Germany and Japan, and result in the probable loss of the Indian Ocean. There was also a continuing risk of a German move into northwest Africa, with severe consequences for Atlantic communications. Holding the Middle East required continuing American support on existing fronts, but he commended the advantages of a landing on the Atlantic coast against Germany’s back door. Roosevelt’s arguments here, notably his stress on the Atlantic trade war, the importance of Persian oil and the Persian supply route, precisely echoed those deployed by Churchill a year earlier in May 1941.

In the autumn of 1942 the naval defence of the eastern empire had come full circle. The Indian Ocean, so critical not just to Britain’s position in the East, but to the whole Allied war effort in the first half of that year, had reverted to a calm backwater. Meanwhile, the need and opportunity to remove the western Axis threat to the Middle East had moved centre stage. Priorities had changed, and Royal Navy resources, in the view of the British war leadership, were now better deployed elsewhere than with Somerville. That meant the Mediterranean during 1943, but it also included deploying the fleet carrier Victorious to help the US Navy Pacific Fleet for much of that year, as well.

Royal Navy commitment to the eastern theatre: critical to Allied success

The Royal Navy was over-stretched in 1942, but it faced an inescapable commitment in the eastern theatre for the first half of that year. If the Axis had secured control of the Indian Ocean, denying Britain the resources of India and Australasia, and cutting the supply lines to the Middle East and Russia, while giving Germany potential control of Persian oil, the Allied task would have been immeasurably harder. Indeed, clear victory might have been impossible. The Royal Navy had to counter this risk. It had just enough latent strength in modern ships, modern technology, fighting effectiveness, and global support and experience, to do this, provided it had enough time to redeploy the necessary forces.

The weakness of Royal Navy forces off Ceylon in April 1942 reflected temporary limitations and was not representative of what the Royal Navy could do if required. Its ability, successively through 1942 to deploy a significant Eastern Fleet; plan major reinforcements for that fleet; project a substantial expeditionary force 7000 miles from the United Kingdom to seize Madagascar in May; mount the complex Pedestal operation at the other end of Africa, using some of the same forces, just two months later; and finally to mobilise 160 warships, including seven carriers, for Torch, demonstrates that the picture of Royal Navy power being in decline is overdone. The Royal Navy remained a strong and resilient force with global reach. Somerville undoubtedly hazarded his fleet at Ceylon, but came close to inflicting serious damage on the IJN.

The standard portrayal of a Royal Navy reduced to tokenism in the East, the inevitable consequence of a flawed interwar Singapore strategy, is misplaced. In the ultimate crisis, the British war leadership was prepared to withdraw all major units from the Mediterranean and run significant risks with the Home Fleet in order to secure the East. Despite some limitations, the fleet available to Somerville at the beginning of July 1942, before redeployment to the Mediterranean began, was stronger than any fleet the Royal Navy had deployed in the war to date, and comparable with the US Navy Pacific Fleet at that time. The second quarter of 1942 in the Indian Ocean is best viewed as a window of vulnerability. If the Japanese had made the Indian Ocean their main focus, they had the chance, for a short period, to bring more force to bear than Britain could, and perhaps radically to shift the global strategic balance, with incalculable consequences for the future direction of the war. Given time, Britain still had just enough capacity to close the window off.


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