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Second World War at Sea:
The British Pacific Fleet

During the September 1944 “Octagon” joint planning conference, the British undertook to send a Royal Navy task force to the Pacific to serve under American command. This would include four fleet and four light carriers plus two fast battleships with cruisers and destroyers. This greatly pleased the admirals, who saw it as the best way to free them from having to carry out Winston Churchill’s hare-brained schemes for amphibious assaults in South-East Asia and the Dutch East Indies.


Though it rankled some to place their fleet under the Americans, this solution certainly seemed better than flinging themselves against Sumatra, Rangoon or Singapore. By the fall of 1944, the Royal Navy was a spent force, at least in physical terms. Its heavy units had seen hard service, and the modernized ships dating from World War I could no longer be considered front-line units. Ships built in the 1930s had been kept at sea far too long between refits and desperately needed major work.

When the Americans began major operations in the Central Pacific in early 1944, the Japanese withdrew their carriers and battleships to Singapore. The Royal Navy felt an urgent need to reinforce their Eastern Fleet, but all of the fleet carriers in the European theater had been sent to the dockyards. Two of the four modern battleships were in drydock, with the other two scheduled to take their place when they completed their refits.

These ships, when available, formed the nucleus of the British Pacific Fleet. The first units left Ceylon for Sydney, Australia, in December 1944. The Royal Navy hoped to increase the fleet’s strength even beyond their commitments, but the poor material condition of many of the ships continually caused delays.

In January, the main body of the fleet set out, and along the way launched a carrier raid on Sumatra. Afterwards they proceeded to Fremantle in Western Australia and on to Sydney, arriving in mid-February. There the carrier Illustrious had to have her central propeller replaced, and the carrier Formidable finally caught up with the fleet. Formidable had broken down in the Mediterranean on the way to the Far East and required major repairs at Gibraltar.

HMS Indefatigable passes the Suez Canal
on her way to the Pacific, December 1944

Transferring to the American anchorage at Ulithi Atoll in March, the fleet received orders to participate in the invasion of Okinawa, code-named Iceberg, and the new designation Task Force 57. All of the British carriers suffered kamikaze hits during the operation, although the most serious damage came from an accidental hangar-deck fire on Formidable that destroyed 32 aircraft.

After refitting at Sydney in June, the Pacific Fleet (under the call sign Task Force 37) joined in American carrier strikes against the Japanese home islands, hitting northern Honshu and the Tokyo area. On the night of 29-30 July the battleship King George V shelled the aircraft factories at Hamamatsu in southern Honshu.

The British carriers refueled and returned to action, after a typhoon-induced delay. On 9 and 10 August the British carriers again hit Honshu, and on the 13th planes from Indefatigable conducted Britain’s last wartime carrier strike.

Formidables rush to repair kamikaze
damage to their carrier, May 1945

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