The Eastern Fleet and the Indian Ocean 1942-1944, Charles Stephenson

The Eastern Fleet and the Indian Ocean 1942-1944, Charles Stephenson

The Fleet that Had to Hide

During the Second World War the Royal Navy achieved many things, but its record against Japan was pretty undistinguished, at least until the last year of the war. This book looks at the history of the British Eastern Fleet during those difficult years, when it was quite a long way down the list of priorities (behind the defence of home waters and the need to contest both ends of the Mediterranean), and at least at first faced a highly efficient and dangerous opponent in the Imperial Japanese Navy. Ironically we start with a look at how various British missions had helped the Japanese build up their air power between the wars,

The key argument here is that although the Royal Navy had been able to build modern, world class aircraft carriers, the period of dual control, with the RAF providing their aircraft and aircrews, left the Navy with second class aircraft (at best). This is hard to argue against – in 1941-42 the Japanese had some of the best naval aircraft in the world, while the Royal Navy had outdated biplane attack aircraft and under-performing two-man fighters, which were also available in much smaller numbers. A second argument is that the split meant that very few senior Naval officers had much aviation experience, as they couldn’t get that in the Navy, and very few RAF officers wanted to get much experience with the Fleet Air Arm, as that wasn’t a route to high rank in the RAF. One can certainly see this in incidents like the loss of the HMS Glorious in 1940, when her commanding officer ordered all aircraft to be taken below while they were crossing the North Sea back from Norway, so her aircraft didn’t play and role at all in the battle against the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.

Not all of the British ships were high class. The author makes a big thing of the Eastern Fleet being the biggest British fleet to face an active opponent, during the Japanese raid into the Indian Ocean in 1942, but part of that strength was made up of four R class battleships, slower versions of the Queen Elizabeth class produced before the First World War and which hadn’t undergone the same modernisation as the Queen Elizabeths. In 1942 they were too slow to be able to escort the modern fleet carriers and had to be detached from the main striking force when Somerville attempted to intercept the Japanese. It is probably true that a clash between the full British fleet and the Japanese would have been costly for the British, but I’m not as convinced as the authors that it would have been as one sided as they suggest – Midway suggested that Japanese carriers could be quite vulnerable, so it may well have seen both sides suffer heavy losses.

The sub-title is valid for 1942, when the Japanese carrier fleet was at its best, but after Midway the Japanese threat was much weakened, and their experienced naval aviators were lost in a series of costly battles with the Americans. However the Allies didn’t actually realise how much damage they’d done – we see this at Leyte Gulf, where the Americans saw the Japanese carrier force as the main threat, and we also see it here, where even once better aircraft have arrived Somerville was still wary of attacking the Japanese bases across the India Ocean. When the first raid was carried out, Japanese opposition was much less than expected, and we finally see the fleet go back onto the offensive, although admittedly on a small scale compared to the Americans further east. Between these two periods the fleet went through its own wilderness years, with no realisitic prospect of offensive action, and major ships being withdrawn to reinforce more threatened theatres.

I enjoyed this book – it gives us an account of an often neglected part of the war at sea, and of the achievements of Admiral Somerville, who kept his fleet intact in the face of a potentially overwhelming opponent, then was willing to acknowledge that his fleet needed to improve massively before it could take on the Japanese. 

1 – The Master, the Mission and Rutland of Jutland
2 – Between Scylla and Charybdis
3 – ‘Shattering, blasting, overpowering force’
4 – The Grandsons of The Master
5 – The Ratcatcher, the Common and ‘Old Ming’
6 – Unknown Unknowns
7 – ‘… Aircraft fit for sailors to fly in’
8 – Ironclad
9 – ‘In the belly of Death’
10 – The ‘Unwritten Chapter’ and a Wilderness of Mirrors
11 – The Penang Submarines
12 – Tweaking the Tail of a ‘Fireless Dragon’
13 – Admirals in Collision (Generals and Politicians too)
14 – Final Operations
15 – ‘… Not a Rolls Royce outfit’

Author: Charles Stephenso
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 336
Publisher: Pen & Sword Maritime
Year: 2020

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