Royal Navy Readiness for a War with Japan in Mid-1941: Intelligence and Capability IV

The latest Royal Navy carriers had the most advanced radar of the day. Aircraft communications systems and direction-finding homing were steadily improved. The Royal Navy continued developing and refining the techniques for long-range enemy raid detection and fighter direction that were first tried in Norway and employed during subsequent operations in the Mediterranean. Impartial testament to the quality of Fleet Air Arm operations at this time came from an American observer, Commander E G Taylor (US Navy), who served in the Fleet Air Arm in 1940 as a Royal Navy sub lieutenant. He informed the US Navy that the Fleet Air Arm in the spring of 1940 was in a desperate condition as regards pilots, aircraft numbers and quality, but did an excellent job with what it had through skill, innovation and new technology. Taylor described Fleet Air Arm fighter control techniques as very effective and far in advance of the US Navy which, in his view, was still not tackling the issue seriously at the end of 1941. Taylor subsequently played a part in Royal Navy procurement of the Wildcat, drawing on his war experience. The US Navy was later impressed with, and subsequently largely adopted, Royal Navy air defence tactics demonstrated by the Royal Navy carrier Victorious when on loan to the US Navy Pacific Fleet in mid-1943.

By mid-1941 the Royal Navy also had the basis of the action information organisation (AIO) that would revolutionise the way naval commanders used available information to drive operations. It would be followed with only minor incremental changes in the Royal Navy and US Navy through to the 1960s. The IJN had no radar at all before late 1942, totally inadequate airborne communications, and no real concept of fighter direction. IJN combat air patrols essentially ran themselves. This meant that IJN air defence was inefficient and susceptible to surprise.

The Royal Navy had been experimenting with night flying operations, including night torpedo attack, since the early 1930s. The scope for night attack pre-war was, however, limited because of the difficulty of conducting night searches before the advent of radar. It depended on night shadowing of an enemy already located at dusk, at which the Fleet Air Arm practised and became adept. However, during 1941, about half of the Royal Navy’s strike aircraft were fitted with ASV, providing a genuine night search capability for the first time. This enabled the Royal Navy carriers to undertake attacks at night or in bad weather, conditions impossible for the IJN or US Navy. Examples of night/bad weather operations were the attack on Taranto in November 1940, a night attack at a range of around 180 miles from Illustrious, and the previously mentioned bad weather attacks on Bismarck from Victorious and Ark Royal on 24 May and in the afternoon and evening of 26 May 1941. ASV was arguably crucial to the success of the Bismarck attacks, as emphasised by the commanding officer of 825 Squadron in Victorious. ‘ASV proved to be of assistance beyond all measure. While remaining hidden from the enemy by cloud, my observer was able to give me a clear picture of own and enemy forces up to the very last moment of breaking cloud for attack’.

By mid-1941 the Royal Navy had, therefore, acquired a much wider base of wartime experience in carrier operations than is often suggested. Some of this reflected the application and elaboration of pre-war thinking. The ‘find, fix and strike’ role on behalf of the battle-fleet evident at Matapan and the Bismarck operations fall into this category, and even the Taranto operation drew heavily on pre-war plans. The Royal Navy had formed a special committee to look at air attack on enemy bases in 1929, and investigated the merits of specialised weapons for this. Mediterranean Fleet orders in 1936 included instructions for shallow-water torpedo settings for an attack on Taranto. However, in air defence the Royal Navy was breaking new ground with capabilities, not only radar but also VHF communications and ‘identification friend or foe’ (IFF), which were not available before the war. It was also becoming adept at exploiting the full range of carrier capabilities: search, strike against land and sea targets, air defence, and anti-submarine, which all featured in complex multi-threat scenarios such as Mediterranean convoy operations.

All of this had demanded much tactical innovation and a new approach to force composition. It was the Royal Navy which consolidated the concept of the fast multi-role carrier task force in this period, of which Force H was the supreme example. This model would not be embraced by the US Navy until much later, because until its new build battleships (North Carolina and Indiana classes) became available for the Pacific in late 1942, it had no capital ships fast enough to operate with its carriers, and it also lacked the oil tankers to support them until well into 1943. By contrast, the Royal Navy not only had its battlecruisers, but also widely used the modernised Queen Elizabeth class, significantly faster than their US Navy equivalents, alongside its carriers in both the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. This not only ensured support against surprise surface attack, but also provided substantial anti-aircraft firepower. Finally, as proof that it could conduct the most advanced multicarrier operations, the Royal Navy undertook a four-carrier operation against the most challenging opposition, air, surface and submarine, in Operation Pedestal, the convoy to Malta, in August 1942. Both the IJN and US Navy would have struggled to conduct a comparable operation against an equivalent level of air attack at this time. Overall therefore, while the Royal Navy could not hope to compete with the IJN in late 1941 in either carrier numbers or quantity and quality of embarked aircraft, it would be quite wrong to view it as left behind in the exercise of air power at sea. The Royal Navy carrier force had significant strengths and experience to draw on.

Royal Air Force maritime strike

The 1937 agreement gave the Royal Navy full control of its carrier air arm, but left land-based maritime attack with the Royal Air Force. For the Royal Air Force, this role inevitably took lower priority in the first phase of the war to the air defence of the British homeland, to strategic bombing, and even within the maritime sphere to the anti-submarine effort. The emphasis on strategic bombing reflected long-standing service doctrine and it was the only immediate way of directly attacking Germany.

By late 1940 the Royal Air Force had nevertheless deployed a new torpedo bomber, the Beaufort, for maritime strike. It was broadly equivalent in capability to the IJN land-based torpedo attack bombers, albeit with less range. However, a British equivalent of the IJN 11th Air Fleet would have required a significant diversion of resources from Bomber Command to Coastal Command that was never forthcoming, even in the face of the acute threats in the Battle of the Atlantic and in the Indian Ocean in 1942. The United Kingdom-based Beaufort torpedo force struggled, therefore, to reach four operational squadrons by the end of 1941.226 The only overseas torpedo force at that time comprised the two Malaya squadrons equipped with obsolete Vildebeest biplanes. The parlous state of Royal Air Force torpedo strike in early 1942 was summarised in a report for the Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Operations). This stated that although torpedo attack was more effective against ships than bombing, the Royal Air Force had neglected it for both technical and tactical reasons. It highlighted lack of high-level commitment, shortage of torpedoes and associated maintenance and support facilities, and inadequate training for this specialised role, given constant diversion of aircraft and crews to other tasks. This presented major difficulties in expanding the force.

The lack of high-level support for torpedo attack partly reflected the scarcity of high-value warship targets accessible to the United Kingdom force, since bombing was seen as adequate for interdiction of commercial traffic. Bombing was also the preferred option for attacking naval targets in port or dockyard. However, it mainly reflected the entrenched belief across most of the Royal Air Force leadership that the strategic bombing of Germany must take primacy and that everything else, with few exceptions, represented a diversion from winning the war. Statistics did not help the Coastal Command case for enhanced surface strike resources. They demonstrated that surface strike was very expensive for only limited benefit. Between April 1940 and March 1943, Coastal Command conducted 3700 attacks which sank 107 vessels (almost all merchant) for the loss of 648 aircraft. Minelaying, primarily by Bomber Command, sank three times the number of ships (369), for about half the losses (329).

The poor Coastal Command surface attack record was painfully underlined by the woeful performance of the Beaufort force during the escape of the German battlecruisers through the Channel in February 1942. By contrast, both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were badly damaged by mines dropped along their predicted track, and Gneisenau was wrecked by Bomber Command in dock at Kiel a fortnight later. Nevertheless, despite limited resources, the Beaufort force had some notable successes. An attack on 6 April 1941 crippled Gneisenau alongside in Brest, and a night operation on 13 June seriously damaged the pocket battleship Lützow. This attack on Lützow off the Norwegian port of Egersund took place at a range of about 400 miles, only slightly less than the later IJN attack on Force Z. It was the first successful attack by a land-based torpedo force on a capital ship at sea and a harbinger, therefore, for the attack on Force Z. The Lützow operation obviously contrasted with the poor performance by all three available United Kingdom Beaufort squadrons against the German battlecruisers six months later, but this reflected incompetent communication, command and control, rather than any deficiency in aircraft performance.

Small size and lack of dedicated expertise in the United Kingdom Beaufort force constrained the development of a torpedo strike force overseas. However, two squadrons were deployed to Egypt via Malta in early 1942 to compensate for the planned departure of the Alexandria battle-fleet. This was destined for the Indian Ocean following the Japanese attack, although the ships were badly damaged by Italian frogmen before they could be released. This planned substitution of Beaufort torpedo bombers for battleships was an almost exact analogy of Yamamoto’s use of the 22nd Air Flotilla to counter Force Z. It demonstrated that the Royal Navy leadership recognised the strategic impact that an appropriate land-based strike force could achieve. However, the Beaufort force was too small, and its crews insufficiently trained, to stand real comparison with its IJN counterpart. The force took some while to achieve operational efficiency in the theatre and there were insufficient resources for an additional force in the Indian Ocean, although one of the Egypt squadrons would be deployed onward to Ceylon at the end of April. The Chief of Air Staff accepted that torpedo bombers were the most pressing need in the Far East, but the only way of providing these was to replace the remaining two Beaufort squadrons in UK with obsolete Hampdens. The remaining Beauforts would then be deployed to the Middle East, releasing the two squadrons already despatched there to go on to India. Clearly, the impact of just two squadrons would have been limited, although still a significant contribution to the defence of Ceylon.

The Far East also suffered problems with the planned production of Beauforts in Australia. Australian Beauforts were to replace the Vildebeests in Malaya by mid-1941 as part of the ‘336’ reinforcement plan. When Brooke-Popham took stock of planned reinforcements following his arrival as Commander-in-Chief Far East at the beginning of 1941, he expected to have two squadrons of Beauforts and reserves, comprising fifty aircraft by the end of the year. However, he was aware, following a visit to Australia, that this reflected an estimated output in Australia of twenty aircraft by October and seventy at the end of the year. Given the embryonic state of the Australian aircraft industry, he should perhaps have anticipated that the targets would slip, even without problems in the American supply chain. Shortages of key parts from the United States meant that only seven aircraft were completed by the end of 1941, when production halted for six months. Even if the original target had been met, the new Beaufort squadrons could not have achieved operational efficiency until well into 1942, not least due to a shortage of suitable torpedoes. The modernisation of the Malaya strike force on which Far East commanders placed much emphasis was, therefore, always compromised although neither the chiefs of staff nor Far East commanders seem to have known this. Following the Japanese attack, they repeatedly pressed the Australian government to expedite the provision of Beauforts to Malaya.

There is no doubt that British maritime air power was quite inadequate to take on the IJN in December 1941. However, this situation cannot be reduced to simple explanations. The Royal Navy’s overall record and experience in 1940 and 1941 demonstrates a good grasp of the risks and opportunities presented by modern air power at sea, and often showed remarkable innovation with limited resources. In rebalancing its naval programme in 1940, the Royal Navy cut battleships, not carriers. The Royal Navy knew its Fleet Air Arm aircraft were inadequate. It made reasonable and timely decisions to address this, but fell victim to production priorities in the United Kingdom and United States it could not foresee. The Royal Air Force’s Beaufort force had similar potential capability to the IJNAF, but suffered the limitations of small size, multiple roles and inadequate training for the specialised maritime environment. The Royal Air Force could have invested more in the Beaufort force at the expense of bombing. For decision-makers in 1941 that trade-off was hard to justify, but it made it difficult to build up the force when it was urgently needed overseas in 1942. Matters did begin to change from mid-1942 with the decision to develop a variant of the well-proven Beaufighter as a replacement for the Beaufort. This was the Beaufighter TFX, known as the Torbeau, which became a very successful maritime strike aircraft, with the first squadron going operational in the United Kingdom in November that year. The Royal Air Force should, however, have been quicker to spot the problems with the prospective Australian Beaufort force, given its importance to Far East reinforcement.

The lack of adequate maritime air resources to meet the IJN is invariably presented as a consequence of over-stretch. However, the problem was less one of overall capacity than strategic choices. Britain chose to prioritise its air resources in 1941 on Fighter and Bomber Commands at home and in the Middle East, and deliberately to carry risk in the Far East. For a whole series of reasons outside the scope of this book, which included steady attrition, production failings, and the need to re-equip the whole frontline, Bomber Command took a long time to reach a size with which it could have any hope of strategic effect. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris stated that, when he took over the command in February 1942, when prospects in the Far East were most grim, immediate strength was 378 aircraft of which only sixty-nine were heavy bombers and fifty were light bombers. His primary force was, therefore, 250 medium bombers, about the same as those in the Middle East and those planned for India by the autumn. Against this background, in the spring of 1942 Pound, with partial support from the new Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, argued forcefully for air resources to be diverted from bombing to protection of sea communications. Pound’s primary concern here was the Atlantic, but he also emphasised the need to improve the defences of the Indian Ocean. He met vigorous opposition from Portal as Chief of Air Staff, and the Harris numbers help to explain why.

The subsequent argument has been described as one of Whitehall’s most notorious battles of the war. The debate ran for three months before a compromise position was reached in July, which provided Pound with only a limited part of what he had sought. Four factors have been suggested to explain why Pound substantially conceded:

– The attitude of the prime minister, which was broadly behind Bomber Command;

– Production limitations, which made it impossible for a diversion to maritime air to achieve results in a meaningful timescale;

– Shifting strategic perceptions in favour of bombing U-boat bases and focusing effort on the Bay of Biscay;

– Improved efficiency in Coastal Command by mid-1942.

Portal also had sound reasons for rejecting demands from Attlee, Beaverbrook and Wavell, as well as Pound, for more bombers to be sent overseas at this time beyond those currently planned. These included the obvious constraints in time and shipping space inherent in any move of large air forces; the technical teething problems with the latest aircraft which would raise immense serviceability issues outside United Kingdom infrastructure; the ‘strategic immobility’ caused by the need to replace Bomber Command’s frontline; and the impossibility of adapting heavy bombers to a torpedo strike role. These constraints did not reflect well on previous Royal Air Force planning and procurement, but as ‘we are where we are’ arguments they were powerful. Also important was the impact of Midway, and the drastic reduction in the threat to the Indian Ocean. In effect, a slow or even minimal air build-up in the East was now tolerable.

The striking point is how little was really changed by this debate. Minimal Admiralty requirements in the Atlantic area were met by the end of 1942, and arguably in the Indian Ocean too, but more from the impact of American production than any shift in British priorities. Figures drawn from the British Official History put the debate in context and underline the limited scope for more diversion from Bomber Command. In September 1942 Royal Air Force strength was allocated as follows:

At this time the US Army Air Force also had two bomber groups with ninety-six heavy bombers in the United Kingdom, three squadrons in the Middle East and two in India.

A final perspective is provided in post-war remarks from Dr Noble Frankland, the official historian of Bomber Command, to Admiral Sir Algernon Willis, Somerville’s second in command in the Indian Ocean during 1942.245 Frankland described Bomber Command during the first part of the war until mid-1943 as a small, undernourished force, which did not grow at all in 1942, partly due to re-equipping the frontline, but also substantial diversions to Coastal Command and overseas. Any further diversion might have led to the collapse of the offensive. Frankland did not believe either Portal or Churchill harboured illusions that bombing alone would win the war, but they did doubt it could be won without it, and they may have been right. Harris may have had illusions that bombing alone would do it, but much of his bombast was also aimed at maximising resource share. Frankland also stressed the need to understand that the strategic air offensive embraced many aims and achievements beyond the general attack on German industry. Initially, reducing the scale of German air attack on the United Kingdom was a priority, while in 1941–43 a large part of its effort went on the Battle of the Atlantic, directly or indirectly. If the results were disappointing, the lesson was not that the strategy was wrong, but that the force was operationally inadequate. That reflected poor Royal Air Force equipment and training decisions before the war. Frankland accepted that by switching more resources to Coastal Command (and by implication wider strategic communications), success at sea might have come a little earlier. But the resulting excess resources could not easily have been switched back later to an effective strategic air campaign. The Battle of the Atlantic had to be won, but winning this was no good on its own.

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