Creating Britain’s Eastern Fleet
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
British planning for a war in the Indian Ocean began in earnest in the late 1930’s. Prior thinking had placed Singapore at the center of British defense strategy, and War Plan Matador had the Royal Navy fighting in the South China Sea to hold the so-called Malay Barrier.
Those earlier plans had been drafted when the nearest Japanese bases were on Formosa, and strike aircraft lacked the range and potency they would have by 1940. The Japanese threat grew closer when they took Hainan Island off the southern coast of China in early 1939, and much closer when they occupied French Indo-China in September 1940.
The 1920’s and 1930’s had been a time of Anglo-American naval rivalry, and some American admirals still carried a powerful dislike for their Royal Navy counterparts. British proposals to move the U.S. Pacific Fleet to Singapore, apparently delivered in all seriousness by liaison Roger Bellairs during joint staff talks, met with stunned disbelief and private scorn. The American naval leadership had no intention of denuding the West Coast to protect the British Empire.
President Franklin Roosevelt and his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, had a broader view. Though they recognized the ridiculous nature of the British plan, they saw the importance of retaining British prestige as more than ego satisfaction. Should Britain lose significant pieces of her Empire, the will to fight could easily decline among the British people and even more dangerously among the peoples of the Dominions. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in particular appeared vulnerable, with a great likelihood of unrest or worse breaking out in India.
Therefore, the Americans offered the British a compromise. They would not send the Pacific Fleet to Singapore, but would deploy more heavy ships in forward positions in the Atlantic. The British could then release ships of their own to defend Singapore or the Indian Ocean.
A British cruiser in Singapore's graving dock, September 1941.
The British naval liaisons still tried to wheedle an American commitment to the Far East, now pressing for a carrier task force and a division of battleships to be added to the Asiatic Fleet based at Manila in the Philippines along with their supporting cruisers and destroyers. While the Americans considered the proposal, they ultimately rejected it as falling into the worst possible middle ground: a force large enough to provoke a Japanese attack, but not large enough to defend itself from that attack and far more than the U.S. Navy could afford to lose.
With American forces committed to the Atlantic, the Royal Navy now had a commitment to the Far East – seven capital ships, to match the U.S. Navy deployment. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and First Sea Lord Dudley Pound apparently planned from the start to meet half of this commitment with the four otherwise-useless old battleships of the Revenge class.
By long-standing agreement with the Dominions, in case of the threat of war with Japan the Royal Navy was to shift the Mediterranean Fleet and all Australian and New Zealand ships to the Pacific, which amounted to a handful of cruisers and destroyers. And while both Dominion governments reacted with a great deal of bitterness to what they perceived as a British reluctance to defend them, each had spent far less of its Gross National Product on defense and particularly on their navies during the 1930’s than had the United Kingdom itself. Between 1928 and 1937, Australian defense spending never topped one percent of gross domestic product, roughly one-third the British level in each of those years. London had urged Canberra and Wellington to build a fleet that would be stationed at Singapore; by the summer of 1941 it was far too late.
A fleet at Singapore would require air cover, and here the British also fell short. The Royal Air Force could not justify shifting squadrons from an active front (Egypt) to a peaceful one (Malaya) when at the same time its political masters insisted that Fighter Command in Britain not be weakened. Memories of the London Blitz were less than a year old at this point. Meanwhile, over 3,500 modern combat aircraft (chiefly fighter planes) would ultimately be shipped to the Soviet Union, then believed to be on the brink of collapse.
Repulse seen before the war.
Diverting the planes to Malaya, however, meant they had to be shipped there. The Allies simply did not have the capacity to move many more aircraft to the Far East in the summer and autumn of 1941, not while also preparing for Operation Crusader in the Western Desert, which stepped off on 18 November. Given the choice between reinforcing a front still purportedly at peace (Malaya) and one facing an active enemy (Egypt), the British leadership chose to focus on Rommel rather than Yamashita.
The RAF faced another difficulty, what became known as the “East Indies Problem.” Japanese bombers from Indochina and Thailand could reach British air bases at Singapore and in Malaya, but the British lacked planes with the range to return the favor. The obvious solution would be to cover Singapore with fighters based on the Dutch-ruled island of Sumatra, within range of the British base but not the Japanese bombers. But the Dutch refused to take such a provocative step before war actually broke out, though they reluctantly joined in joint planning sessions.
With the great base at Singapore so vulnerable, some Royal Navy staffers suggested basing their new Eastern Fleet at Trincomalee in Ceylon. From here the important sea routes crossing the Indian Ocean could be better covered, and the Japanese would be far out of air range. Yet Britain had poured millions of sterling into the Singapore facilities and expended a great deal of political capital in presenting it as the bulwark of the British Empire. Churchill would not see those investments abandoned – the Singapore base was a guarantee of Australian and New Zealand security, and it could not be easily cast aside without igniting a political crisis. There would be a forward deployment of at least some Royal Navy heavy ships.
Sir Tom Phillips, deputy chief of the naval staff, pressed for a “flying squadron” of a King George V-class battleship and the battle cruiser Renown to be based at Singapore. Two more battleships (either Queen Elizabeth and Valiant from the Mediterranean or Nelson and Rodney from the Home Fleet) would move to Trincomalee while the four Revenge-class ships, “floating coffins” as Sir Dudley described them, would escort convoys. One aircraft carrier would also join one of the forces, making a commitment of nine heavy ships rather than the promised seven.
While Pound quickly suppressed use of the term “flying squadron,” support grew for Phillips’ proposal. Phillips received command of what eventually became known as “Force Z” along with the China Station, the naval command in Singapore. His command included the promised King George V-class battleship (Prince of Wales) but had Renown’s less-capable sister ship, Repulse, along with four destroyers. Once he was dead and could no longer defend himself, his predecessor (and successor) at the China Station command, Sir Geoffrey Layton, vilified Phillips as a desk-bound admiral who blundered his way to doom, but Sir Geoffrey had apparently neglected to share his insights before Phillips left Singapore on his fateful voyage. On 10 December 1941, Japanese bombers sank both ships.
Warspite under repair in Bremerton, Washington.
Nine days after the annihilation of Force Z, Italian frogmen sank Queen Elizabeth and Valiant at their moorings in Alexandria, Egypt. In their place the Admiralty dispatched their sister ship Warspite, at the time completing repairs at Bremerton, Washington, to the Indian Ocean. When Sir James Somerville took over command of what was now known as the Eastern Fleet in February 1942, relieving Layton, he had one modernized battleship (Warspite), four floating coffins, two fleet carriers and one nearly-useless light carrier plus a collection of cruisers and destroyers and a monitor (Erebus) that, to relieve more battle-worthy ships, he assigned to convoy escort duty. Valiant, another modernized battleship under repair in Durban, South Africa, would be added later as well as a third aircraft carrier.
That force would be plenty to fend off the second-line naval forces the Japanese had deployed for the invasion of the East Indies. It would not suffice if the elite First Air Fleet and its heavy fleet carriers entered the Indian Ocean. That, of course, is exactly what happened in April 1942.
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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.