Britain’s Eastern Fleet
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2017

Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.
Psalm 146:3

For the first two years of World War II, the Royal Navy faced significant challenges in European waters. While British naval strength seriously outweighed that of Germany and Italy, in the North Atlantic the huge expanses of open water required huge forces to adequately patrol against German raiders. And British ships operating in the Mediterranean against the Italians were exposed to constant attack by enemy land-based aircraft, plus the efforts of the Italian surface fleet.

That left little strength to deploy against potential adversaries, with every ship needed to combat real ones. The Far East Station, headquartered in Singapore and responsible for security in the Indian Ocean, spent the first years of the war hunting enemy commerce raiders and supporting the invasions of Iraq, Iran and Italian Somaliland. Its strength varied, usually including a few cruisers, most of them veterans of the First World War, and the small aircraft carrier Hermes.

Eastern Fleet workhorse, the light cruiser Dragon.

By the summer of 1941, British leaders believed a Japanese attack had become inevitable; the only variable was its timing and initial targets. Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord, advocated sending a squadron of the old battleships then engaged on convoy escort to Ceylon as a deterrent. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, never one to doubt his self-anointed expertise, called the old ships “floating coffins” and argued instead for a small, modern striking force including at least one modern fast battleship and an aircraft carrier. Both opposition leader Clement Atlee and Foreign Minister Anthony Eden backed Churchill’s assessment.

Compromise was achieved by approving both plans. Four ancient battleships of the Royal Sovereign class headed to the Indian Ocean. They had not been rebuilt like most Great War battleships still serving in the Royal Navy and other fleets, and had seen hard service in the North Atlantic protecting convoys from German raiders. They could barely make 18 knots and faced a constant threat of serious breakdowns — something that could not easily be repaired at Ceylon. They did each carry eight 15-inch guns, but their low speed and inadequate anti-aircraft protection would have made them a liability in any fleet encounter.

Churchill’s version, known initially as Force Orange, included the battleship Prince of Wales, the battle cruiser Repulse and the aircraft carrier Indomitable. To command the force, and by extension the Eastern Fleet which would be declared operational once the ships arrived at Singapore, Churchill pushed his personal friend Rear Admiral Sir Tom Phillips on the Sea Lords. Phillips, vice chief of the Naval Staff, had not been to sea since 1917. The diminutive “Tom Thumb” had a scornful attitude toward both the Japanese and the threat to surface warships posed by aircraft of any nationality. When Indomitable ran aground in the West Indies, he did not consider it a major loss.

Two other major units were potentially available, and would join the Eastern Fleet in January 1942. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the battleship Warspite was at Bremerton, Washington, undergoing major repairs following damage suffered during the evacuation of Crete in the summer of 1941. The carrier Formidable was at Norfolk Naval Shipyard for the same purpose.

Phillips arrived at Singapore with on 2 December 1941, with Prince of Wales and Repulse and two destroyers. One undersized heavy cruiser, a handful of Great War-era light cruisers and some destroyers were already on station. “Tom Thumb” formally took command of the Eastern Fleet on 8 December, and held it for less than 48 hours.

Japanese wartime painting of the end of British sea power.

On learning of Japanese landings in northern Malaya and southern Thailand, Phillips decided, in the best tradition of the Royal Navy, to go “right at them.” He steamed north with all four of his newly-arrived ships plus two elderly destroyers from Singapore station (both of which he had to send back due to fuel and maintenance problems). He narrowly missed intercepting the Japanese, but instead was spotted by Japanese aircraft on the 10th. Both British capital ships sank under a rain of bombs and torpedoes.

Command passed to Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, who came under the Allied naval command “ABDAfloat” and brought his surviving cruisers to Java to join Dutch, American and Australian ships there. The Japanese crushed ABDA and by March the Eastern Fleet’s remnants (chiefly its headquarters personnel, as most of its cruisers and destroyers had either been sunk or diverted to vital convoy escort missions) had relocated to Trincomalee, Ceylon. There, Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville, who had commanded the famous Force H at Gibraltar, took command and soon faced a serious challenge.

Somerville had the four ancient battleships sent by Sir Dudley the previous summer, Warspite and Formidable newly arrived from the United States, and the just-repaired Indomitable. Warspite became his flagship, as he’d commanded her in the 1920s. From the old Far East Station he also inherited the heavy cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire, which had spent the war patrolling the Indian Ocean for surface raiders, and the small, aging carrier Hermes. Several old light cruisers from Layton’s force rounded out the fleet.

Hermes sinks, 9 April 1942.

Two days after Somerville took command, he received word of a major Japanese incursion into the Indian Ocean. Admiral Chuichi Nagumo brought five fleet carriers on a raid against Ceylon. Dividing his force into a “fast” and a “slow” group, Somerville cruised south of the big island but, probably fortunately for the Royal Navy, did not make contact with the Japanese carrier force. The Japanese did spot Hermes and the two heavy cruisers, and promptly sank all three. At times the fleets were no more than 200 miles apart, with Somerville trying to keep his distance by day and close for a night surface action. The Japanese failed to locate the new British “secret base” at Addu Atoll and the Eastern Fleet moved to a new anchorage on the Kenyan coast near Mombasa to keep out of range of the Japanese carriers.

In April and May, parts of the Eastern Fleet helped cover Operation Ironclad, the invasion of Madagascar. Afterwards, it remained a “fleet in being” until early 1944, when the British began to contemplate resuming active operations in the theater. The defeat of Italy and the destruction of most of German’s surface fleet had freed many warships for new missions. When an American task force arrived for some practical demonstrations of the new style of carrier warfare, the Eastern Fleet went on the offensive.

Eastern Fleet covers the 1942 operations of the Eastern Fleet in the Indian Ocean; Tom Thumb’s first and last command is shown in Strike South.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.