THE FORGOTTEN FLEET I

This was a full-scale rehearsal for Operation Meridian, an attack on the Pladjoe and Songei Gerong oil refineries near Palembang.

This map shows the flight paths of the strike forces of Meridian I & II for the attacks on the Pladjoe and Songei Gerong (dotted lines) refineries immediately south of Palembang city. Of particular note are the location of the Japanese airfields, and the relative position of the targets on the opposite bank of the tributary to the River Mosei.

While Admiral Halsey and the Third Fleet turned away from Okinawa and set course to Ulithi on January 23 at the end of their epic mission, another fleet was headed east across the Bay of Bengal. This fleet, the Royal Navy’s Far Eastern Fleet, had departed Trincomalee, Ceylon, on January 16, destination Sydney, Australia, where it would become the British Pacific Fleet and join in operations with the US Navy for the final battles of the Pacific War. The fleet with its four carriers was now 100 miles off the coast of the island of Sumatra in the Netherlands East Indies. The previous two days had been too stormy to launch the planned strike against the Pladjoe oil refineries in southern Sumatra, but this morning the sky had cleared sufficiently to allow operations.

Operation Meridian One was important to the Royal Navy, as it marked the beginning of British naval operations in the Pacific Theater. After Kido Butai, the fast carrier striking force of the Imperial Japanese Navy, had struck the Royal Navy base at Trincomalee in March and April 1942, and also sank HMS Hermes, the Royal Navy had been all but completely driven from the Indian Ocean. Two months earlier, the British had been forced to retreat from Singapore, their main Asian base, and continued moving west after the loss of the Andaman Islands off Malaya. By the end of April, the main surviving units of the fleet were based at Addu Atoll in the Maldives. Admiral Nagumo’s successful strikes at Trincomalee, coupled with the Japanese advance on India through Burma, created a strategic situation in South Asia so dire that Prime Minister Churchill feared a successful invasion of Ceylon would allow the Japanese to link up with the German Afrika Korps then stormed through the Libyan desert in North Africa in a drive that made it appear possible the British Eighth Army would be defeated in Egypt, allowing a German advance into the Middle East.

The British forces had also been hampered by the fact that the primary area of operation for the Royal Navy was the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic; the Eastern Fleet became little more than a convoy escort force. With the Allied capture of Sicily, the primary Axis threat to the Mediterranean Sea lanes was removed, which allowed the Royal Navy to begin planning a more forceful return to the Indian Ocean.

By 1944, American forces were liberating British territories in the Central Pacific and extending US influence throughout the region. This strategic situation created a political and military imperative that British presence be restored in the region and British naval forces participate more directly in the war against Japan. While many in His Majesty’s Government believed British territories, such as Hong Kong, should be liberated by British forces, their position was opposed by Prime Minister Churchill on the grounds he did not wish to be seen as a visibly junior partner in what had become a primarily American war.

The prime minister’s experience with the Anglophobic US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest King, led him to believe a British presence in the Pacific would be unwelcome and that Commonwealth military force should concentrate on pushing the Japanese out of Burma and Malaya. Churchill’s position was opposed by the leadership of the Royal Navy, who were supported by the Chiefs of Staff, who held the position that such a commitment to the Pacific War would strengthen British influence in the postwar period. So strongly did they hold this position that they would have considered mass resignation were it not adopted as government policy.

The British were right to be concerned. President Franklin Roosevelt was not favorable to continued European control of their Asian empires, and was of the opinion that the British, French and Dutch should be prevented from reclaiming their lost territories, with those countries placed under an American-led trusteeship through the planned United Nations while they were readied for independence. Only his death prevented this from happening.

While Admiral King was a notorious Anglophobe, he had in fact been favorably impressed by the performance of HMS Victorious during her tour with the US Navy in the South Pacific in 1943. In the dark days after the loss of Hornet at Santa Cruz in October 1942, when the US Navy had only Enterprise and Saratoga as the survivors of the prewar carrier fleet, King had gone hat in hand to the Admiralty and requested a British aircraft carrier as temporary reinforcement pending the arrival of the new-construction Essex-class carriers. Victorious, known by her code name “Robin,” crossed the Atlantic in December 1942 and joined Saratoga at Noumea in March 1943 after being modified with American equipment. The two carriers operated in the Solomons between April and June, providing air support for the invasion of New Georgia. Each side had learned important lessons from the other. The Americans adopted much of the British system of fighter direction for air defense, which would be crucial in the coming Central Pacific campaign, while the British learned much about modern carrier air operations with their emphasis on the speed of the “operation cycle,” knowledge that was put to use in the next year to create a British Pacific Fleet whose carriers would be capable of operating successfully in the final battles of the Pacific War.

Even considering the success of Victorious’ South Pacific deployment, Admiral King was extremely reluctant to see the Royal Navy participate in what he considered “his” war, believing the British would require US support for their operation that he felt would be better employed in support of the fast carrier task force. When it appeared the British would proceed with their planned deployment, he insisted the proposed British Pacific Fleet be self-sufficient. King’s objections were finally overruled by President Roosevelt at a meeting in which the BPF was formally offered and accepted by the president. As a sop to his naval commander, FDR agreed that the British fleet should depend on British resources, though they were provided with an advanced base at Manus Atoll in the Admiralty Islands between New Guinea and the Philippines. British sailors would come to consider Manus as “Scapa Flow with bloody palm trees.”

The Royal Navy provided the majority of the fleet’s ships and all the capital ships, but the BPF also included tankers and supply ships from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA), and escorts from the Royal Australian Navy, Royal Canadian Navy and Royal New Zealand Navy. Many of the naval aviators were New Zealanders and Canadians, though there were also Dutch and South African aviators aboard the ships. Port facilities in Sydney, Australia, and Wellington, New Zealand, also supported the fleet.

British naval operations in the war against Japan began when HMS Illustrious arrived in Ceylon in January 1944. In March 1944, the battlecruiser HMS Renown and battleships HMS Howe, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant joined Illustrious and became part of the US Navy Task Force 58.5, which comprised Saratoga and three destroyers that were detached from Task Force 58 after the successful invasion of Kwajalein and sent to the Indian Ocean to demonstrate US operating procedures. Illustrious embarked 1830 and 1833 squadrons, both operating the Corsair II (the British designation of the F4U-1A), while Saratoga’s fighter squadron, VF-12, the first USN squadron to equip with the Corsair a year before, was now flying F6F-3 Hellcats that they had chosen over the F4U after experiencing difficulty getting carrier-qualified in the “birdcage” F4U-1.

Several weeks of training resulted in a marked operational improvement on the part of the FAA aircrews. On April 19, Operation Cockpit saw the combined Anglo-American fleet strike the Japanese oil port on Sabang Island off northern Sumatra. The Japanese were completely surprised by the attack and the port facilities were heavily damaged.

VF-12 shot down three G4M Betty bombers, while the Illustrious Corsairs burned 12 parked aircraft.

For the Japanese, the refineries on Sumatra and Java were of supreme importance as the source of all aviation gasoline for the Imperial air forces. The captured refineries in Sumatra were beyond range of Allied aircraft in India or Australia, which allowed operation with impunity. Operation Cockpit marked the opening of a campaign against the refineries. Operation Transom followed on May 17. Again, the enemy was surprised by the strike against the refinery at Surabaya, Java, and the installation was severely damaged. With the British carriers and their fliers now “blooded,” Saratoga departed the next day and returned to the Pacific.

The campaign against the Sumatra oil refineries was originally assigned to the newly arrived Boeing B-29 Superfortresses of the Twentieth Bomber Command, which had recently commenced operations in India and China. On the night of August 10/11, 1944, 54 B-29s of the 444th Bomb Group of the 358th (Very Heavy) Bomb Wing flew from the China Bay RAF base near Trincomalee on a night radar attack against the Pladjoe refinery at Palembang, the first since its capture in 1942. The bombers flew individually straight to Siberoet Island, off Pandang, Sumatra, then direct to Palembang. The B-29s were still new on operations and 12 of the big bombers aborted for various reasons, while 39 managed to reach the target, though only nine reached Palembang itself, where they were forced to drop 36 500lb GP bombs and 16 photo flash bombs through heavy overcast. Two hit the Pangkalan Brandan refinery, the secondary target, and one bombed the Djambi Airfield. Eight dropped mines in the Moesi River, the main shipping route for all of Palembang’s gasoline and oil. At the time, the result was unobserved, but later intelligence considered the effort unsuccessful.

The 4,030-mile, 19-hour, 40-minute flight from Ceylon to Palembang and the Moesi was the longest single-stage flight made by USAAF aircraft during WWII.

The East Indies Fleet was created in August 1944 when Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, former commander of the Home Fleet, raised his flag in the gunboat HMS Tarantula as Commander-in-Chief East Indies Fleet, later moving his flag to the battleship HMS Howe. Over the course of the summer of 1944, HMS Victorious joined the fleet in July, followed by HMS Indomitable in August and HMS Indefatigable in September.

Vice Admiral Sir Bernard Rawlings commanded the fleet in action, while famed Vice Admiral Sir Philip Vian commanded the carriers, which were ordered to strike the Indonesian refineries since they could attack with less warning and greater accuracy than land-based bombers.

When HMS Victorious arrived in July 1944, her two squadrons of Corsairs, 1834 and 1836 squadrons of 47 Naval Fighter Wing, attracted the attention of Major T. Ronald Hay, Royal Marines, who was serving as a staff officer to Admiral Somerville. Hay had joined the Royal Marines in 1935 and begun flight training with the Fleet Air Arm in the wake of the Munich Crisis in 1938. Assigned as a fighter pilot just before the outbreak of war in 1939, Hay scored two victories flying the Blackburn Skua from HMS Glorious off Norway in 1940, and scored a further seven victories in the Mediterranean in 1941 while flying Fairey Fulmars. He was very interested in the Corsairs operated by 1830 and 1833 squadrons, since the aircraft was such a vast improvement on what he had previously flown. As one of the only FAA graduates of the RAF’s Wing Leader Course, arrangements were quickly made for Hay to assume command of 47 Fighter Wing prior to the unit entering combat against the Japanese.

Operation Crimson saw the British capital ships shell the port on Sabang Island on July 21 under air cover by Illustrious and the recently arrived Victorious. The fire of the 12 battleships and cruisers, directed by naval aviators trained as artillery spotters, inflicted heavy damage on the oil facility.

1830 Squadron opened their aerial score by shooting down three Ki.43 Oscars, while 1833 Squadron shot down two Oscars and a Ki.21 Sally bomber. As they retired to the fleet, the Japanese mounted an attack, and Sub-Lieutenant Ben Heffer of 1837 Squadron was launched from Victorious. As he later recalled:

I was directed towards the enemy at 1645 hours and sighted five enemy aircraft. There was a large storm astern of the fleet, but Victorious managed to vector us onto the enemy. A Japanese aircraft dived past me and I followed him down, hitting him in the port quarter with a long burst of fire. He was weaving, but flames were coming from his port wing. He disappeared into a cloud and, following him, I came out dead on his tail at a range of about 100 yards. After another long burst, the aircraft went up in a burst of fire.

Victorious and Indomitable struck targets in Sumatra in Operation Banquet on August 25.

Ronnie Hay led Victorious’ 47 Naval Fighter Wing, which shared escort duties with the Hellcats of Indomitable’s 1839 and 1844 squadrons of 5 Naval Fighter Wing led by LCDR T. W. Harrington. Hay’s Corsairs concentrated on the airfield at Padang. He later remembered, “After the attack, the fighters roamed the area looking for the most impressive buildings. These were then machinegunned in the hope the Japanese overlords were present.”

Operation Light-B saw Victorious and Indomitable again strike Sumatra as a diversion to the American landings at Peleliu, hitting the railway repair yard in Sigli on September 15. Poor weather provided disappointing results.

Victorious and Indomitable next struck Japanese facilities in the Nicobar Islands on October 17 in Operation Millet, with the intention of distracting the enemy from the Leyte landings.

Withdrawing over October 18 on account of the weather, the carriers returned on October 19. Discovered by the enemy at 0840 hours, the carriers came under attack at 0930 hours by 12 Oscars of the First Reserve Flying Unit. In a fierce 40-minute air battle, Canadian Corsair pilot Sub-Lieutenant Leslie Durno shot down one Oscar and shared the destruction of two others, while 1836 Squadron’s Lieutenant Edmundson opened the Hellcat’s Pacific score by shooting down another, though at a cost of two Corsairs and a Hellcat shot down by the other Oscars. Minutes later, Hellcats from Indomitable found the enemy’s top cover and in a short, sharp fight, South African Sub-Lieutenant Edward Wilson of 1844 Squadron shot down two Oscars. Overall, the Hellcats and Corsairs shot down seven Oscars. Major Hay, who was in the center of the fight, later remembered that:

The Corsair was just the right aircraft for that war. It was certainly better than anything we had, and an improvement on the Hellcat. It was more robust and faster, and although the Japanese could out-turn us in combat, we could out-climb, out-dive and out-gun him. By far the most healthy improvement was its endurance, as with about five hours’ worth of fuel in your tank you didn’t have the agony of worrying whether or not you would make it back to the carrier.

Hay was not the only Royal Navy pilot who was impressed by American carrier aircraft. While the Royal Navy had invented carrier warfare in 1918, the service had also lost control of its ability to develop and operate aircraft designed for carrier use when the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps were combined into the independent Royal Air Force in April 1918. While the US Navy retained control of naval aviation and spent the next 20 years developing aircraft specifically suited for their role aboard ship, the Royal Navy was forced to make do with “navalizing” aircraft primarily designed to be operated ashore by the RAF. The service regained control of the Fleet Air Arm only in 1938, which was not enough time to catch up with the US Navy or the Imperial Japanese Navy.

In 1939, the primary FAA shipboard fighter was the RAF Gloster Gladiator fighter biplane, equipped with a tailhook as the Sea Gladiator. The aircraft did not even display the technical advances of the Grumman F2F and F3F biplane fighters, which had entered service before the Gladiator and were in the process of being replaced. The Fleet Air Arm was at least a generation behind the US Navy or the Imperial Japanese Navy in terms of aircraft development. The first all-metal monoplane “fighter” was the Blackburn Skua, which was supposed to perform double duty as a dive bomber and had a top speed of barely 200mph at a time when its land-based opponents were nearing 400mph top speeds.

Additionally, the Fleet Air Arm was saddled with the obsolete idea that a carrier-based naval fighter required a second crewman to operate communications equipment, which meant that the Fairey Fulmar introduced into service in 1941 was powered by the same Merlin engine and carried the same eight-gun armament as the RAF’s Hurricane and Spitfire, although it was 50 percent bigger and 50 percent heavier than the Hurricane with no increase in power. With a top speed of only 258mph, the Fulmar was hard pressed in combat against agile Italian fighters in the Mediterranean, and could only hope to intercept the speedy trimotor S.79 Aerosiluranti torpedo bombers if it was favorably positioned for a diving attack from sufficient altitude to build up the necessary speed. Nonetheless, until the arrival of the Sea Hurricane in sizeable numbers in 1942, the Fulmar gave a good account of itself over the Mediterranean, as well as with the Arctic convoys, opposing Ju-87 and Ju-88 dive bombers and He-111 torpedo bombers.

The Royal Navy was eventually forced to adapt first the Hurricane and then the Spitfire for carrier operation in order to field a fighter that could compete with its contemporary opponents. While the Hurricane was strong enough that it went aboard ship as the Sea Hurricane with a minimum of difficulty, the light and delicate Spitfire was really unsuited to carrier operations; indeed, the overwhelming majority of “Sea Spitfires,” or Seafires as they came to be known, were lost in operational accidents aboard ship rather than as a result of enemy action. While the Hurricane was rugged enough for carrier operation, its performance by 1942 was not up to that of its opponents.

In 1940, the Fleet Air Arm was introduced to the Grumman F4F Wildcat, known to the British as the Martlet. The stubby fighter found immediate favor with FAA pilots because it could survive carrier operations while still having sufficient performance to fight its Axis opponents and would be utilized by the FAA throughout the war. The experience of a fighter that was designed for the job at hand led to early adoption of the two major US Navy fighters of the war, the F6F Hellcat and the F4U Corsair. In fact, the Royal Navy made use of the Corsair in its designed role as a carrier-based fleet fighter long before the US Navy did.

One in six Corsairs produced during World War II was delivered to the Fleet Air Arm. All told, 2,012 Vought-built F4U-1 and F4U-1A (known as the Corsair I and Corsair II respectively), Brewster-built F3A-1s (Corsair III), and Goodyear-built FG-1Ds (Corsair IV) went to the FAA between 1943 and 1945; the 430 Brewster-built F3A-1s represented half of Brewster’s total production. The FAA used the Corsair in larger numbers than any other US naval aircraft operated by the service. The Corsair was a generation ahead of anything in the domestic inventory at the time of its arrival and by the end of the war, 18 Fleet Air Arm fighter squadrons were equipped with the Corsair.

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