- Book reviewer
- WWII operations, Book reviews, Royal Navy
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The British Pacific Fleet – The Royal Navy’s Most Powerful Strike Force by David Hobbs. Published by Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, 2011. Hard cover, 462 pages plus B & W illustrations, rrp £35 plus p&p. While not yet available in Australian booksellers it is available online from The Book Depository.
Despite still not having recovered from an exhausting Atlantic war during 1939-1944 the Royal Navy, by herculean effort, managed to muster a mighty fleet, based on aircraft carriers and supporting Commonwealth navies to shift its focus from the North Atlantic to an antipodean location and help the USN deliver the final crushing of Japanese empirical ambitions. Initial reception by the USN was cool but gradually shifted to admiration, all achieved in only a year.
The March 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review featured a book review on the early 20th century Royal Navy Grand Fleet. This review is effectively a sequel to that as they have many things in common and the British Pacific Fleet (BPF) was effectively the Grand Fleet re-formed, albeit separated by nearly half a century. The BPF was, as the title of this book states, the most powerful fleet ever assembled by the Royal Navy. The flexibility and firepower was perhaps surpassed only by the contemporary USN Pacific Fleet – of which the BPF was a component operating under the designation of Task Force 57. It also included substantial contribution by Australian, Canadian and New Zealand navies.
Although the Grand Fleet and the BPF were great fleets of the RN there were some significant differences between the two. The Grand Fleet was comprised of many kinds of warships but the uncontested backbone was the battleship. However, it was the last major hurrah for those monsters and their value was in any case already being questioned. Over the period of WW II the battleship’s primacy was replaced by the aircraft carrier and it was this vessel, with its aircraft, which more than any other was the star performer in bringing the WW II sea saga to a close and underpinned Macarthur’s Northern advance. It is no coincidence that the dust jacket for this book mainly features naval aircraft on an aircraft carrier flight deck. That is not to say that other ships were not involved in the defeat of Japan; indeed RAN cruisers and other warships were a major sub-component of the BPF and they are well featured in this work. There were in fact several hundred ships ranging from aircraft carriers and battleships to sloops and submarines, and even a Fleet Entertainment ship. Both the Grand Fleet and the BPF lasted only a relatively short time, the Grand Fleet from 1914 to 1922 while the BPF’s blaze of glory was primarily from August 1944 to the end of 1945. It still officially existed in August 1948 but by then it numbered but a couple of dozen vessels, none of which were aircraft carriers. Elements of it carried over into the Korean War. The Grand Fleet fought only one battle lasting a few hours, the outcome of which was indeterminate; the BPF also fought only one overall battle but it lasted for many months and its outcome was a shared contribution to absolute victory that ended a war.
Only six months elapsed from initial formation of the BPF late in 1944 to bombing Japanese territory. Not bad considering that some of the RN was still fighting the closing (but by no means finished) war in Europe and the Atlantic. It was exhausted and its ships in serious need of maintenance. Nevertheless, it smelt victory in the Pacific and had some old scores to settle with the Japanese over the fall of Singapore and the loss of HM Ships Hermes, Repulse and Renown. For these reasons it wanted to have its own slice of the Pacific sea war but was stoutly rebuffed by the USN which considered the Pacific to be its own pond and was still smarting over Pearl Harbor. And no doubt the egotistical Macarthur had background influence about the British being any part of his victory plans.
Ultimately, a compromise was grudgingly agreed on the basis that the RN and its Commonwealth support would be part of the USN Fleet under Chester Nimitz. Hence the designation Task Force 57, and its senior officer was Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser. Fraser was concurrently faced with an unenviable task of being responsible to the British Admiralty for the general direction and preservation of his Fleet, subordinate to Nimitz for operational orders and all the while necessarily working closely with the Australian Government for rapidly establishing, staffing and managing a string of support bases all over Australia and in New Guinea. The task was obviously political as well as professional. The wonder of the record is that by the war’s end Admiral Rawlings (now in charge of the BPF), his men and their ships had won unstinting and effusive approval from the Americans and Admiral Halsey (now the USN Pacific Fleet Admiral) gave public high praise. Thousands of RN personnel had won Australian friendships – many to the extent of marriages. Some of those brides went to the United Kingdom while many of the grooms became the first wave of post-war British immigration.