The Royal New Zealand Navy
CHAPTER 24 — With the British Pacific Fleet
With the British Pacific Fleet
AT the beginning of 1944 preparations were being made by the Admiralty to send a British fleet to the Pacific to take an active part in operations against the Japanese. The organisation and maintenance of such a fleet presented a major problem of logistics. Moreover, Admiral King, Commander-in-Chief United States Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations, regarded the war in the Pacific as entirely an American affair and was known to have a rooted aversion to a British fleet operating with the Americans in the drive toward Japan.1 In January 1944 he represented that if the proposed British force for the Pacific was aggressively employed in the Indian Ocean against Japanese airfields, port installations, and the shipping and oil targets it could reach, it would tie down a large number of Japanese aircraft and contribute more to operations in the Pacific than if it were moved immediately into the latter ocean.
The Admiralty's view, from wide experience in the Mediterranean, was that attacks on targets such as were suggested by Admiral King were unprofitable unless there was some definite objective to be achieved, and were a misuse of fleet carriers and naval aircraft. Nevertheless, while plans for a British Pacific Fleet went forward, the Eastern Fleet, as has been told, carried out several operations during 1944.
Preparations for a British Pacific Fleet with its main base at Sydney went forward during 1944. One factor which greatly influenced the preliminary planning was Admiral King's insistence that all British forces sent to the Pacific must be self-supporting, ‘except that the United States Navy would share its excess facilities afloat and ashore in the forward areas, … render emergency and temporary battle damage assistance to British ships on the same basis as to United States ships, and make available its airfields near the fleet anchorages for British carrier-based aircraft.’
This was an immense logistic undertaking involving the provision, among other things, of vast storage for supplies and equipment and accommodation for staffs numbering thousands. Much material and skilled labour as well as enormous quantities of naval stores had to be brought all the way from the United Kingdom. But, despite shortages of manpower and the demands of their own fighting services, great and important contributions to meet the needs of the British Pacific Fleet were made by Australia and New Zealand. ‘We were immensely assisted by having the resources of this area and the skill of the British people who live in it, at our back,’ said the Chief of Staff of the Commander-in-Chief. ‘In no other area in the East does the Empire possess comparable facilities with, in addition, ample food supplies to support a large force.’1 During 1945–46 123 ships of the British Pacific Fleet were docked in Australia and 350 taken in hand for repairs. Numerous cruisers, destroyers, and lesser ships were also refitted in New Zealand. It is estimated that about 30,000 Australians were directly employed during the peak period on British Pacific Fleet projects.2 During 1944 steps were also taken to organise a Fleet Train of supply and repair ships to give logistic support to the fleet when operating in the vastness of the Pacific, thousands of miles from its base.
Preparations had so far advanced that, at the second Quebec Conference in September 1944, Mr Churchill was able to offer a ‘powerful and well-balanced’ British Fleet ‘to take part in the major operations against Japan under United States Supreme Command.’ A fleet train of adequate proportions would make the warships independent of shore-based resources for considerable periods. President Roosevelt ‘intervened to say that the British Fleet was no sooner offered than accepted. In this, though the fact was not mentioned, he overruled Admiral King's opinion.’3
2 At the end of the war there were 142 ships in the British Pacific Fleet and 94 ships in the Fleet Train. There were some 500 first-line aircraft, 100 on ancillary services, and 1000 in reserve. The peak strength in personnel was about 125,000 officers and men. These figures were rapidly increasing, and by the end of 1945, had hostilities continued, there would have been 400 ships of all types, 900 first-line aircraft, and more than 200,000 officers and men.
4 HMS Howe, battleship of King George V class; 35,000 tons standard displacement; speed 30 knots; ten 14-inch, sixteen 5·25-inch, and many light anti-aircraft guns.
The British Pacific Fleet struck its first blows at the Japanese from the Indian Ocean. In January 1945 Rear-Admiral Sir Philip Vian's carrier force consisting of the Indomitable, Indefatigable, Illustrious, Victorious, the cruisers Suffolk, Ceylon, Argonaut and Black Prince, and eight destroyers, carried out three successful attacks on oil refineries in Sumatra which were supplying about three-quarters of the aircraft fuel used by the Japanese. The production of the three refineries was drastically reduced as a result of the damage done by these attacks. More than sixty New Zealand pilots of the Fleet Air Arm serving in the carriers took part in the operations.
The first strike (Operation LENTIL) was made at Pangkalan Brandan in eastern Sumatra on 4 January 1945. Sixteen fighters attacked the nearby airfields, and thirty-two Avengers and twelve rocket-firing Fireflies escorted by twelve fighters bombed the refinery. The fighters shot down two Japanese aircraft and destroyed seven others on the ground. Much damage was done to the refinery, oil storage tanks and a small tanker were set on fire, and two locomotives were hit. Seven enemy aircraft were also shot down by the escorting fighters. The only losses were an Avenger which forcelanded owing to engine failure and a Firefly which ran out of fuel and came down near the Indefatigable.
Two New Zealand pilots were mentioned in despatches for their part in this operation. Sub-Lieutenant (A) McLennan,1 of HMS Indomitable, was the leader of a flight which shot down three Japanese fighters and shared in the destruction of a fourth. McLennan himself shot down one and shared a second. Sub-Lieutenant (A) Rhodes,2 of 1834 Squadron, HMS Victorious, shot down an enemy fighter and would almost certainly have accounted for another if he had not stuck to his job of giving top cover for the bombers.
2 Lieutenant (A) H. A. Rhodes, DSC and bar, RNZNVR, m.i.d.; born Marton, 25 Sep 1922; veterinary surgeon.
Two of the airmen lost in this operation were New Zealanders – Sub-Lieutenant (A) Haberfield,1 of HMS Indomitable, and Sub-Lieutenant (A) Baxter,2 of HMS Illustrious. They were shot down and taken prisoner by the Japanese, at whose hands they met a shocking end. They were taken to Singapore and kept there until July 1945, when they were executed together with seven other Fleet Air Arm Officers.3
After refuelling at sea, the carrier force returned to the attack on 29 January, the target this time being the Soengai Gerong refinery on the opposite side of the river from Pladjoe. The strike included 48 Avengers, 12 Fireflies and 40 fighters, and 24 fighters again swept the airfields. Important sections of the refinery were wrecked by direct hits, and photographs taken during the strike showed a sea of flames in the cracking plant and power-house areas. Seven Japanese aircraft were shot down and three others probably destroyed. Nine British aircraft were lost but the crews of eight of these were rescued. Lieutenant (A) Webb,4 of 1770 Squadron, HMS Indefatigable, lost his life in the ninth aircraft – a Firefly. A group of twelve Japanese bombers which attempted an attack on the carriers during landing-on operations was broken up by fighters, which shot down seven of the enemy.
1 Lieutenant (A) J. K. T. Haberfield, RNZNVR; born Greenhills, Southland, 25 Nov 1919; fireman, NZ Railways; executed by Japanese 31 Jul 1945.
Admiral Vian's aircraft-carrier force, which now included HMS King George V, four cruisers, and nine destroyers, arrived at Fremantle on 4 February 1945 and proceeded thence to Sydney to join the other ships of the British Pacific Fleet.
On his return to Sydney from a conference at Pearl Harbour with Admiral Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief Pacific Ocean Area, Admiral Fraser on 15 January 1945 made the following signal to Admiral King at Washington:
I hereby report for duty in accordance with the ‘Octagon’ decisions.1 The British Fleet will look forward to fighting alongside the United States Navy in whatever area you may assign us.
Admiral King replied: ‘Welcome to service in the Pacific’, and stiffly stated that allocations to meet operational requirements would ‘continue to be made by me in consonance with arrangements made at Quebec and in the same manner as is now done in my capacity as executive agent of the United States Chiefs of Staff with respect to the U.S. Navy’.
Admiral Fraser arrived at Auckland from Sydney on 5 February in HMS Howe, which was accompanied by HMNZS Achilles and the Australian fleet destroyers Quality, Quadrant, and Queenborough. He visited Wellington to confer with the War Cabinet and the Naval Board and returned by air to Sydney three days later. In a farewell message to the Prime Minister, Admiral Fraser said:
I much appreciate all the kindness shown to me and I am very grateful for the opportunity of meeting you and your Government. The cooperation and help which New Zealand has always given to the Royal Navy has been fully demonstrated to me. All my best wishes to you.
In a message to the Naval Board, Admiral Fraser said that he had been impressed with the keenness and efficiency of the officers and men in the establishments he had visited.
1 ‘Octagon’ was the code name of the Quebec Conference of September 1944.
During their stay at Auckland HMS Howe and her destroyers, with the Gambia in company, carried out gunnery and other exercises, graphic accounts and pictures of which were printed subsequently in the newspapers. The affection of New Zealanders for the Royal Navy was shown by the lavish hospitality accorded to the ships' companies. On their arrival at Sydney on 17 February, the Gambia took her place in the Fourth Cruiser Squadron. The British Pacific Fleet sailed from Sydney on 1 March and carried out exercises, including fuelling from tankers under way, on passage to Seeadler harbour, Manus Island, where it arrived six days later.
The British Pacific Fleet was a truly Imperial naval force and included substantial components from the Dominions. New Zealand was represented by the cruisers Gambia and Achilles and the corvette Arbutus, Australia by a number of destroyers and sixteen minesweepers,1 and Canada by the cruiser Uganda. The command relationship with the United States Fleet is of historic interest as this was the first time a British fleet had ever operated under the command of a foreign flag officer. In order to facilitate joint operations Admiral Fraser decided to change over to the US Navy system of communications. To assist in this fundamental change and other highly specialised fields, more than 100 American officers and some 300 ratings served on liaison duties in the British Pacific Fleet.
First Battle Squadron: King George V (flagship of Vice-Admiral Rawlings), Howe.
First Aircraft-carrier Squadron: Indomitable (flagship of Rear-Admiral Vian), Victorious, Illustrious, Indefatigable.
Fourth Cruiser Squadron: Swiftsure (flagship of Rear-Admiral Brind), Argonaut, Black Prince, Euryalus, HMNZS Gambia.
Fourth Destroyer Flotilla: Quickmatch (Captain D.4), Quiberon, Queen-borough, Quality.
Twenty-fifth Destroyer Flotilla: Grenville (Captain D.25), Ulster, Undine, Urania, Undaunted, Ursa, Ulysses, Urchin.
Twenty-seventh Destroyer Flotilla: Kempenfelt (Captain D.27) Wager, Wakeful, Wessex, Whelp, Whirlwind.
Destroyer Depot Ship: Tyne.
2 The American naval forces in the Central Pacific were known as the US Fifth Fleet when operating under the command of Admiral R. A. Spruance and as the US Third Fleet when commanded by Admiral Halsey. Accordingly, British Task Force 113 was designated Task Force 57 when it was working under Spruance and Task Force 37 when Halsey was in command at sea.
There were sixteen minesweepers and eight sloops and frigates in the British support forces in Task Force 112, which also included the Fleet Train. The latter consisted of destroyers as allocated, four combined operations vessels (landing ships), four replenishment aircraft-carriers (escort carriers),1 three repair ships, a netlaying vessel, a powerful tug and numerous oil tankers, water ships, and supply vessels.
It had been decided that the British Pacific Fleet would take part in the operations against Okinawa (Operation ICEBERG). On 16 March Admiral Rawlings reported his ships for duty to the United States Commander, Pacific, adding that ‘it is with a feeling of great pride and pleasure that the British Pacific Fleet joins the United States Naval forces under your command.’ The following reply was received from Admiral Nimitz:
The United States Fleet welcomes the British Carrier Task Force and attached units which will add greatly to our power to strike the enemy and will also show our unity of purpose in the war against Japan.
The fleet sailed from Manus Island on 18 March and arrived two days later at Ulithi, an atoll anchorage in the western Carolines. Replying to Admiral Rawlings, who had reported for duty with the United States Fifth Fleet, Admiral Spruance welcomed the British ships and wished them ‘good hunting’. Task Force 57 sailed on the 23rd for a position about 400 miles east of the northern extremity of Luzon, in the Philippine Islands, where the Fleet Train was met two days later. Fuelling was carried out with some difficulty owing to a strong wind and heavy swell, and Task Force 57 then proceeded at 231/2 knots to arrive in the operating area by dawn on 26 March.
1 One of these carriers provided aircraft for combat air patrol and anti-submarine patrol over the fleet while it was refuelling and re-storing.
2 Shoto or Gunto – a chain or group of islands. Shima or Jima – an island.
Japan and Outlying Islands
The assault on and occupation of Okinawa was the greatest and most difficult combined operation of the Pacific war. The joint expeditionary force consisted of 1213 ships, 564 carrier-based air- page 375 craft, and 451,870 troops of three Marine and four Army divisions. In addition, this force was supported and covered throughout Operation ICEBERG by the task forces of the United States Fifth Fleet – the Fast Carrier Force commanded by Vice-Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, USN, and the British Task Force 57. The former numbered 86 ships, including 15 carriers with 919 aircraft, and the latter 29 ships, including 4 carriers with 244 aircraft. In these great forces the Royal New Zealand Navy was modestly but most efficiently represented by HMNZS Gambia, about one hundred Fleet Air Arm officers, and by other officers and ratings serving in the carriers and other Royal Navy ships.
The task assigned to the British Pacific Fleet was to neutralise the enemy airfields in the Sakishima Gunto as continuously and for as long as possible. At sunrise on 26 March strong fighter sweeps were flown off the carriers from a position about 100 miles due east of the islands to attack the airfields on Ishigaki and Miyako. One fighter came down 20 miles from Tarima Island; the pilot was rescued later in the day by a Walrus amphibian aircraft flown in for that purpose.
In the fighter sweep over Ishigaki airfield, Lieutenant (A) MacRae, RNZNVR,1 leader of 1839 Squadron from HMS Indomitable, was severely wounded in his right thigh by ‘flak’, but continued to press home his attack. Not until his squadron resumed its patrol did he announce that he was returning wounded to his ship. Encouraged on the radio telephone by the flight direction officer, he flew alone more than 100 miles back to the Indomitable. When he arrived over the ship, MacRae found that he could not lower the undercarriage of his damaged fighter, but though his right leg was useless and he was weak from loss of blood, he made a perfect crash-landing. For his courage, devotion to duty and skill, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
The strikes on the island airfields were repeated next day when coastal shipping was also attacked. Shortly before noon the destroyer Undine, escorted by fighters, was sent in to rescue the crew of an Avenger bomber which had ‘ditched’ 56 miles from the carriers. She returned six hours later with the airmen and the pilot of an American fighter who was found after being adrift for forty-eight hours. The American submarine Kingfish was asked to keep a good lookout for ‘ditched’ airmen, but apparently she had not been fully briefed as she replied that she would ‘have to ask her boss first’. The Kingfish later reported that she had picked up the pilot of an Avenger from HMS Illustrious.
1 Lieutenant (A) A. B. MacRae, DSO, RNZNVR; born Pahiatua, 30 Jul 1921; clerk.
The fleet withdrew to its fuelling area in the evening of 27 March to forestall a typhoon which was expected to arrive there a few days later. Three days were spent with the Fleet Train in the fuelling area east of Luzon, which covered a rectangular area of 5000 square miles. Replacement aircraft were supplied to the carriers, and Task Force 57 resumed its air strikes against the Sakishimas at daybreak on 31 March. Once again the submarine Kingfish rescued the crew of a ‘ditched’ Avenger.
The British Pacific Fleet was now to have its first experience of a Kamikaze attack by Japanese suicide aircraft. The enemy chose 1 April, the day on which the American forces made their landing on Okinawa, to make their attack. Ten minutes after the carriers had flown off their first fighter strike, ‘bogeys’1 were detected by radar 75 miles to the eastward, closing the fleet at 210 knots at a height of 8000 feet. The fighter sweep was ordered to intercept the enemy and more fighters were flown off. Low cloud and consequent poor visibility gave an initial advantage to the Japanese, who split their formation when more than 40 miles from the fleet, but four were shot down by fighters before the attack began.
One single-engined aircraft machine-gunned HMS Indomitable, killing one rating and wounding two officers and four ratings. Still flying very low, it strafed HMS King George V but this time there were no casualties. All the ships were firing hard and had considerable difficulty in distinguishing the enemy from their own aircraft who were in close pursuit. A few minutes later a Kamikaze bomber dived on HMS Indefatigable and exploded at the base of her island superstructure. Four officers and ten ratings were killed and sixteen others wounded. The flight deck was put out of action temporarily, but ‘within a remarkably short time and in a most creditable manner, aircraft were again being operated from this ship, although that day on a reduced scale.’ HMS Ulster was badly damaged by a nearmiss bomb explosion, and when the Japanese attack had ended the Gambia was ordered to tow her to Leyte Gulf.
1 Suspected enemy aircraft.
The Gambia, with the Ulster in tow, left the fleet at midday on 1 April. Two days later the destroyer reported that she was short of drinking water and supplies were passed to her from the cruiser, sixteen casks being veered astern one at a time on the end of a light wire line. The Australian minesweepers Ballarat and Lismore met the Gambia on 4 April and gave anti-submarine escort for the rest of the passage. Two hours after the meeting, the tow-line carried away when two badly worn links in the Ulster's cable parted. It took the Gambia about five hours to recover her wire and pass a 61/2-inch wire hawser which was secured to the destroyer's two remaining shackles of cable. The ships arrived off the entrance to Leyte Gulf in the evening of the 5th and the tow was transferred to a naval tug. The Gambia had towed the Ulster 760 miles at an average speed of eight knots.
By this time there were forty-five cases of mumps isolated on board the Gambia. Thirty-seven ratings were sent to the hospital ship Oxfordshire and sixteen who had completed their period of isolation rejoined from that ship. A lieutenant (E) was borrowed from HMS Unicorn, two of the Gambia's engine-room officers being among the cases isolated on board. The Gambia, in company with the Canadian cruiser Uganda and the destroyers Urchin and Ursa, sailed from San Pedro Bay in the afternoon of 6 April and rejoined Task Force 57 in the fuelling area at daybreak on the 8th.
After nine days of intensive bombardment by ships and aircraft, the amphibious assault on Okinawa had begun on 1 April. Landings in great force were made on the south-western beaches against unexpectedly light opposition. By midday two airfields had been captured, and within forty-eight hours the American troops had reached the east coast and isolated the southern end of the island. But nearly three months of bitter struggle on land, at sea, and in the page 378 air were to pass before Okinawa was finally cleared of Japanese, whose prodigal efforts to retain their stronghold were of no avail against the overwhelming sea power of the Allies. From 23 March their fast carrier forces operated continuously for two and a half months in the Okinawa area, giving direct cover and support to the amphibious forces. This was the longest sustained operation by aircraft-carriers of the whole war.
The refuelling of Task Force 57 from 3 to 6 April was made difficult by bad weather and a heavy swell. During these periods of replenishment the Allied fleets and supply groups had to steer steady courses at slow speeds for hours on end. The fact that not one submarine or air attack was made on any ship by the Japanese during these periods of vulnerability was one of the remarkable features of the Pacific war. Vice-Admiral, British Pacific Fleet, in his report on the ICEBERG operations, remarked that ‘fuelling the fleet in this manner presents targets in which the German U-boats would have delighted’.
The Sakishima airfields were well bombed when Task Force 57 resumed strikes on 6 April. While returning from Miyako in the forenoon, fighters shot down a Japanese bomber after a chase of thirty miles. In the evening ‘bogeys’ detected by radar were intercepted, one being shot down by fighters. Another broke through the clouds and dived on HMS Illustrious, which took drastic avoiding action. The Kamikaze's wing-tip hit the carrier's island, causing the aircraft to spin into the sea, where its bomb exploded. The ship was slightly damaged, but there were no casualties. Three other suicide aircraft were shot down, one by destroyers and the others by fighters. Most unfortunately, a Seafire fighter was shot down by the gunfire of the fleet and the pilot was lost. Next day the carriers sent in three bomber strikes against the Sakishima airfields, all of which were well cratered. Two aircraft were shot down by flak and four were lost from other causes. Lieutenant (A) Churchill, RNZNVR, was one of the pilots killed that day. He was posthumously awarded a second mention in despatches.
During this third series of strikes, eight Japanese aircraft were destroyed and two junks sunk. Our own losses were fourteen aircraft, two in combat and twelve from other causes. These figures were very small in comparison with those of the heavy air fighting about Okinawa. Vice-Admiral Rawlings remarked that ‘the Nips do not seem to be trying very hard down our end’.
Starting on 6 April, the Japanese air forces struck against the Americans at Okinawa with unprecedented fury, the scale of their suicide attacks being the outstanding and most spectacular feature of the Okinawa campaign. During the period from 6 April to 22 page 379 June, ten major Kamikaze attacks were made on American ships. The relatively short distance from Japanese air bases in Kyushu and Formosa enabled the enemy to use aircraft of all types, manned by pilots of every degree of proficiency. In all, there were 896 enemy air attacks, and approximately 4000 Japanese aircraft were destroyed, of which 1900 were Kamikaze aircraft. Twenty-six of the twenty-eight United States ships lost in air attacks were sunk by suicide aircraft, which also accounted for 164 of the 225 ships damaged.1
On its way to the fuelling area on 7 April, the British Pacific Fleet learned that Vice-Admiral Mitscher's Fast Carrier Force had virtually destroyed a powerful Japanese naval force, a report which, Admiral Rawlings commented, ‘filled us with admiration and at the same time, it must be admitted, with envy’.
In accordance with the ‘Ten’ plan for the defence of the Nansei Shoto, naval forces were to take favourable opportunities to penetrate into Okinawa anchorages and carry out suicidal attacks on Allied ships. Orders for the ‘Ten-Ichi’ Operation were issued to Vice-Admiral Ito, Commander-in-Chief First Diversion Attack Force (Second Fleet), which consisted of the monster battleship Yamato (flagship), light cruiser Yahagi,2 and eight destroyers, and which sailed in the afternoon of 6 April. As the ships emerged from the Inland Sea through Bungo Strait they were sighted and reported by two United States submarines.
They were found next morning by aircraft from the Fast Carrier Force which was cruising east of Okinawa. The destroyer Asashimo,3 which had fallen astern owing to engine trouble, was sunk shortly after noon. Swarms of fighters, dive-bombers, and torpedo-carriers attacked the other ships through low clouds and rain squalls. For nearly two hours the Japanese ships manoeuvred drastically at maximum speed while the aircraft showered down their bombs and dropped shoals of torpedoes. The Yamato was hit by five bombs and ten torpedoes. She capsized and sank after a violent explosion with the loss of 2498 officers and men, including her commanding officer and Vice-Admiral Ito and his staff. The Yahagi and the destroyers Hamakaze, Isokaze and Kasumi4 were also sunk with most of their ships' companies. The four surviving destroyers, one of which was badly damaged, returned to Sasebo during the night. A total of 386 American aircraft had achieved a great naval victory at a cost of only ten of their number and the loss of sixteen airmen.
2 Yahagi, cruiser, 7000 tons; speed 37 knots; six 6·1-inch, eight 4-inch, and nineteen small anti-aircraft guns; four 24-inch torpedo-tubes.
3 Asashimo, destroyer, 2100 tons; 37 knots; six 4·7-inch and ten anti-aircraft guns; fifteen 24-inch torpedo-tubes.
4 Hamakaze, Isokaze, and Kasumi, 1900 tons; 35 knots; six 5-inch guns; eight 24-inch torpedo-tubes.
Soon after leaving its fuelling area on 10 April, the British Pacific Fleet was instructed to attack airfields in northern Formosa while aircraft of General MacArthur's command struck at those in the southern part of the island and an American task group kept up the neutralisation of the Sakishima airfields. The fleet arrived in the flying-off position, 30 miles south-west of the Sakishimas, at daybreak on 11 April but bad weather caused a postponement of operations for twenty-four hours.
Early next morning the two main strikes, each of 24 bombers and 20 fighters, were flown off and proceeded round the north coast of Formosa, heavy cloud preventing their flying over the mountains. One strike bombed the airfields at Shinchiku and the other, finding Matsuyama airfield shut in by low cloud, attacked Keelung harbour, doing damage to the docks, shipping, and a chemical plant. One flight bombed a railway station and a factory near Matsuyama, destroyed a grounded aircraft, and demolished a bridge. Two fighters shot down four out of five eastbound bombers and damaged the other. Four other enemy aircraft were shot down during the day. In the evening Japanese aircraft made a sortie from Ishigaki but were intercepted by fighters, eight being shot down and three damaged. A New Zealand pilot, Sub-Lieutenant (A) Daniel McAleese,1 of 849 Squadron, HMS Indefatigable, was lost when his Avenger crashed on Sharyo Island off Keelung harbour. He was badly injured and died next day in a Japanese hospital at Keelung.
Shortly before dawn on 13 April, four Japanese aircraft made an unsuccessful attack on the fleet. HMS Indomitable was narrowly missed by a dud bomb. One enemy aircraft was destroyed by gunfire. Unfortunately, a Hellcat fighter which failed to get clear of the fleet during the heavy firing was shot down by the Gambia's port pom-pom in the dim light and the pilot killed. About an hour later, another enemy group was intercepted 25 miles from the fleet and two aircraft were shot down by Corsairs. Two bomber strikes made successful attacks on the Formosa airfields. During the two days' operations at least thirty-six Japanese aircraft were destroyed and others damaged.
When Task Force 57 arrived in the fuelling area on 14 April it was joined by HMS Formidable, which relieved HMS Illustrious. The latter carrier, which had been ordered home for an extensive refit, sailed for Leyte. On this occasion the Admiralty tanker Wave King established a record for the number of ships fuelled in one day and pumped 5050 tons of oil in nine hours. When news of the death of President Roosevelt was received, all ships flew colours at half-mast for the last hour before sunset on 14 April.
Vice-Admiral Rawlings had informed Admiral Spruance of his intention to prolong operations and advised him that Task Force 57 would be available to strike at the Sakishima airfields on 20 April. The Commander US Fifth Fleet replied: ‘Affirmative. This is fine initiative and co-operation.’ The Commander-in-Chief Pacific (Admiral Nimitz) noted the offer with gratification, adding: ‘It is characteristic of your Force repeatedly to put forth extra effort whenever there is any chance to do added damage to the enemy. You have my appreciation of an offer so in keeping with the traditions of the British Navy.’
On 16 and 17 April the airfields on Ishigaki and Miyako were well bombed and left unserviceable. Four Japanese aircraft were shot down. During the afternoon of the 16th three separate ‘bogeys’ were reported. They were probably piloted ‘flying-bombs’ launched too far away to reach the fleet before their fuel was exhausted. At that time the Japanese were using a rocket-propelled weapon which was launched from an aircraft and guided by a pilot in a suicide attack. Twelve such weapons were found by the Americans on Okinawa.
Task Force 57 arrived in the fuelling area on the 18th and was joined by the Australian-manned destroyers Napier, Nepal, and Norman. Though the fleet had received no replacement aircraft since 9 April, it was decided that an operation of one day was possible. Five strikes were flown off the carriers at daybreak on the 20th and dropped 75 tons of bombs on the airfields at Ishigaki and Miyako. Rocket-firing fighters set fire to a barracks, a radar station, and several small ships. A lengthy search failed to find the crew of an Avenger which ‘ditched’ 10 miles from Ishigaki, but they were rescued twenty-four hours later by a United States naval vessel. In the evening the fleet shaped course for Leyte Gulf. In a series of six air strikes in the Sakishima Gunto area, nineteen aircraft had been destroyed by enemy action, with a loss of sixteen pilots and thirteen members of the air crews. More than seventy Japanese aircraft had been destroyed and at least fifty-two damaged.
When the British Pacific Fleet arrived in San Pedro Bay in the afternoon of 23 April, it had completed thirty-one days at sea since sailing from Ulithi. During that period it had been refuelled and stored six times by the ships of the Fleet Train. This was the first occasion on which a modern British naval force of this size had been maintained at sea for so long a period.1
1 In June 1945 Admiral Fraser reported that ‘the British Pacific Fleet has been making British Naval history by operating off the enemy coast for periods of up to 30 days, but it is well to remember that similar American task groups are doing the same thing for twice as long’.
On 29 April HMNZS Gambia challenged the fleet to an ‘allcomers’ race in whalers, with crews of twenty-five using paddles instead of oars. Eighteen boats entered for the race in which the Gambia's crews, dressed as Maoris, finished first and third respectively, HMCS Uganda's crew being second.
Captain Edwards, CBE, RN,1 arrived on 27 April and assumed command of the Gambia next day, relieving Captain William-Powlett, DSC, RN, who had commissioned the ship as a unit of the Royal New Zealand Navy in September 1943.
While the British Pacific Fleet was at San Pedro Bay the possibility of its taking part in an operation against Borneo was under consideration, but the United States Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, decided that air strikes against the Sakishima Gunto were to be continued. When Task Force 57 arrived in the flying-off area at daybreak on 4 May 1945, Japanese aircraft activity was detected by radar, the general trend of traffic being in the direction of Okinawa. One small group approached the fleet and the combat air patrol shot down a Japanese fighter, the others escaping in the clouds. Bomber strikes from the four carriers left the airfields on Ishigaki and Miyako well cratered and unserviceable. One Avenger crashed into the sea when taking off, but the pilot was rescued unhurt by a destroyer.
1 Rear-Admiral R. A. B. Edwards, CB, CBE; born 1901; entered RN 1914; midshipman HMS Tiger, 1917–19; Captain, 1939; Naval Staff, Admiralty, 1939–41; Eastern Fleet Headquarters, 1942–43; CO HMNZS Gambia 1945–46; Rear-Admiral, 1948; Assistant Chief of Naval Staff, Admiralty, 1948–50.
While the battleships and cruisers were away, the carriers were attacked by Kamikaze suicide bombers. There were probably from sixteen to twenty aircraft, some of which acted as decoys. While fighters engaged one group, others made for the ships. There were no ‘bandits’ on the radar screen when, at 11.30 a.m., an aircraft was seen diving from a great height on HMS Formidable and engaged by gunfire. The four carriers manoeuvred by successive emergency turns under full helm at high speed. Though reported hit by close-range fire from its target, the Kamikaze crashed on to the flight deck near the island superstructure of the Formidable and started a large fire in the aircraft park. One Corsair and ten Avengers were damaged beyond repair. A hole about two feet square was blown in the armoured flight deck, which was distorted to a depth of two feet at the centre of an area ten feet in width. A large splinter of steel was blown down through the hangar deck and the centre boiler-room, where a steam-pipe was ruptured, and came to rest in a fuel tank in the ship's double bottom. The barriers on the flight deck were damaged, one beyond repair, and much of the radar equipment was put out of action. Eight men were killed and 47 wounded.
Two minutes after the Formidable had been hit, two suicide aircraft were shot down in flames by the carriers' fighters, and a third which flew in close to HMS Indomitable disappeared in the clouds. It soon returned and dived steeply on that ship. The carriers were turning to starboard at the time and the Indomitable increased her helm to ‘hard-over’. The aircraft was heavily engaged by the ship's close-range weapons and set on fire. It flattened out at the last moment, hit the flight deck, and bounded over the side, its bomb exploding as it sank. Eight minutes later another aircraft dived on the Indomitable, whose guns and those of the destroyer Quality hit it hard. The aircraft burst into flames and crashed into the sea about ten yards off the starboard bow of the carrier. No casualties were sustained by the Indomitable in either of these attacks.page 384
Half an hour later the carriers had to turn into the wind to land their fighters for refuelling, those of HMS Formidable being taken by the other carriers. Two Japanese suicide aircraft were shot down by fighters from the Indomitable and Indefatigable. In the meantime, the fires in the Formidable were got under control and the ship was able to steam at 24 knots. The hole in her flight deck was filled with steel plate and rapid-hardening cement, one aircraft barrier was made workable by hand tackle, and repairs to electrical, radar, and signalling equipment were well advanced. The bombardment force rejoined the carriers at 2.20 p.m. and the fleet withdrew to the southward. By five o'clock the Formidable was able to receive thirteen of her Corsairs.
During the afternoon Corsairs from HMS Victorious intercepted and shot down a Kamikaze aircraft. Later on an impending attack on the fleet was forestalled by fighters. One Japanese aircraft was shot down from 24,000 feet, and a few minutes later Seafires from the Indefatigable destroyed three out of four others. A Hellcat fighter, piloted by Sub-Lieutenant (A) A. R. Thompson,1 of 1839 Squadron, returning to make an emergency landing on the Indomitable, was fired on and hit by the Formidable. The aircraft crashed, but Thompson was rescued unhurt by the destroyer Undaunted. Less than an hour later, Corsairs from the Victorious found and shot down another Japanese aircraft, making a total of fourteen destroyed during the day. The carriers' losses totalled fifteen, including eleven destroyed on board the Formidable.
The airfields on Miyako and Ishigaki were again well bombed the following day. Three Japanese aircraft were destroyed on the ground and a petrol dump set on fire. As a result of the previous day's bombardment, no anti-aircraft fire was encountered over Miyako. About 7.30 a.m. four Corsairs belonging to the Formidable, but which had spent the night in the Victorious, spotted a high-flying snooper and chased it for 300 miles. The aircraft was finally overhauled about 80 miles from the fleet and shot down from 30,000 feet by Sub-Lieutenant (A) Ian Stirling,2 of 1842 Squadron, a remarkable feat that earned him the commendation of Admirals Rawlings and Vian and the subsequent award of the Distinguished Service Cross.
During the afternoon another Kamikaze attack was made on the carriers. As the enemy aircraft approached, the fleet was manoeuvred radically by emergency turns at 22 knots. The ships had barely completed a turn of 60 degrees to starboard when a suicide bomber made a shallow dive on HMS Victorious from her starboard quarter. The aircraft was well hit by close-range weapons and crashed on the flight deck near the forward lift. The resulting fire was quickly got under control, but the bomb explosion blew a hole in the flight deck, put a 4·5-inch gun out of action, and damaged the motor of the lift. Another Kamikaze made a shallow power glide from astern on the Victorious. Hit hard by the guns, and burning fiercely, it struck the flight deck and went overboard. Minor damage was done to the ship, but four Corsairs were smashed beyond repair. Casualties from both attacks were three killed and fifteen injured, four of them seriously so.
Barely a minute later a third suicide bomber made a pass at the Victorious and then swept on HMS Howe, further ahead, in a long shallow dive. The aircraft was hit several times and was well ablaze when it crashed into the sea about 100 yards from the Howe after passing over her quarter-deck. Shortly afterwards the Gambia passed close by a body attached to a parachute which had come adrift from one of the Japanese aircraft.
Yet another suicide bomber was then sighted by the Gambia and engaged by several ships. It appeared to be diving straight for the New Zealand cruiser, which had opened fire from both 4-inch batteries, but turned sharply and dived on to the after-deck park of the Formidable. There was a great explosion and fire, which destroyed six fighters and a bomber. One man was killed and several injured. Speed was reduced to 15 knots to aid control of the fire, which was extinguished in about fifteen minutes. The explosion blew out a rivet in the flight deck; causing burning petrol to leak into the hangar which had to be sprayed with water. Eleven aircraft were damaged.page 386
During the day the carriers had lost twelve aircraft and eight had been damaged beyond repair. The Formidable and Victorious could still operate, but the former had only four bombers and eleven fighters still serviceable and two pom-pom gun mountings were out of action. The fleet withdrew that night to the fuelling area, where temporary repairs to the two carriers were made and replacement aircraft flown on.
Attacks on the Miyako and Ishigaki airfields were repeated on 12–13 May, 128 tons of bombs being dropped and 66 rocket projectiles discharged. Five aircraft were lost, two being shot down. The crews of two ditched bombers were rescued by the United States submarine Bluefish. The tenth operation against the Sakishima Islands began on 16 May, when three bomber strikes were made on Miyako and two on Ishigaki. The airfields were again well cratered, seven grounded aircraft and numerous small craft being damaged and four truck-loads of Japanese troops exterminated. A bomber and two fighters ‘ditched’ during the day, their crews being picked up by destroyers and the ubiquitous Bluefish. Very light winds handicapped the carriers on the 17th. In the morning a Corsair, making an emergency landing on the Victorious, crashed through the barriers, burst into flames, and went overboard. On its way it damaged three aircraft in the deck park. One officer and a rating were mortally injured, two ratings seriously injured, and two others slightly hurt.
A few hours after the fleet arrived in the fuelling area on 18 May, a fire broke out in the Formidable when the guns of a Corsair in the hangar were accidentally fired into an Avenger bomber, which caught fire and exploded. The blaze was extinguished by drenching the hangar. Seven bombers and twenty-one fighters, destroyed or badly damaged, were replaced from HMS Chaser. The fleet ran into dense fog when it returned to the operating area on 20 May and HMS Quilliam badly damaged her bow in collision with the Indomitable. The Black Prince towed the destroyer stern first to Leyte Gulf for repairs.
Low cloud and heavy rain hampered operations that day and only one strike on Miyako was made. A fighter from the Victorious was shot down and one crashed when taking off from the Formidable, the pilot of the latter being rescued unhurt by a destroyer. Despite unfavourable weather next day, three successful strikes were flown against Miyako and two against Ishigaki. In the afternoon a Japanese aircraft was intercepted at 26,000 feet and shot down by four fighters from the Indomitable. As the fleet withdrew in the evening to meet the Fleet Train, Admiral Rawlings recalled that forty years before he had passed his sixteenth birthday in those waters. He was then a midshipman in HMS Goliath, which was on page 387 its way to reinforce the British China Fleet during the critical phase of the Russo-Japanese War, when the Russian Fleet was to be annihilated by Admiral Togo in the Battle of the Sea of Japan on 27 May 1905.
The Achilles, which had come from Manus Island, joined Task Force 57 on 22 May and took her place in company with the Gambia in the Fourth Cruiser Squadron. Task Force 57 carried out its twelfth and final series of attacks on the Sakishima Gunto airfields on 24–25 May, five bomber strikes being made on Miyako and two on Ishigaki. The fleet withdrew after dark on the 25th, Vice-Admiral Rawlings in HMS King George V, with the destroyers Troubridge, Tenacious, and Termagant,1 proceeding to Guam, headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief Pacific. The remainder of the fleet under Rear-Admiral Vian set course for Manus Island, where they arrived on 30 May.
During the whole period of the operations against the Sakishima Gunto, Task Force 57 was at sea for sixty-two days, broken by eight days spent in Leyte Gulf. In the absence of the British ships while refuelling, an American task group maintained the attacks on the airfields and, in the later stage, aircraft based on Okinawa also took part. In the course of its operations the task force flew 4852 aircraft sorties and discharged 875 tons of bombs and rocket projectiles. About one hundred Japanese aircraft were destroyed and more than seventy damaged. Vice-Admiral Rawlings reported that ‘however thoroughly the airfields were neutralised by day, the enemy was determined and able to effect repairs by night.’ During the second part of the operations, nine tankers supplied the fleet with 87,000 tons of fuel-oil and 756 tons of aviation spirit, so enabling it to remain at sea for a month between 700 and 900 miles from its base.
The Gambia was with Task Force 57 for the whole of the operations, except for the period of seven days when she was towing the damaged Ulster to Leyte and returning to the fleet. She accompanied part of the fleet to Manus Island and thence to Sydney, where they arrived on 5 June 1945 to refit. The Gambia was at sea for the whole of May, during which she steamed 10,684 miles.
1 Troubridge, Tenacious, and Termagant, fleet destroyers; built 1942–43; 1710 tons; speed 34 knots; four 4·7-inch, eight AA guns; eight torpedo-tubes.
2 Lieutenant (A) J. A. Parli, DSC, RNZNVR; born Taumarunui, 10 May 1919; NZ Railways employee.
1 Sub-Lieutenant (A) A. S. MacLeod, DSC, RNZNVR; born Manaia, 2 Sep 1920; advertising agent.
Aircraft from the Implacable made numerous strikes on docks, shipping, airfields, gun positions, and wireless stations in Truk atoll on 14–15 June. In the forenoon of the 15th the cruisers and destroyers bombarded the seaplane base on Dublon Island and other targets. The Achilles fired 180 rounds of 6-inch high-explosive shell at a mean range of 21,000 yards. During the action she flew battle flags, that on the foremast being the New Zealand ensign. One Seafire fighter was shot down by enemy anti-aircraft fire and four Avengers crashed when taking off from the Implacable. While the cruisers were withdrawing from the bombardment, the Achilles opened fire from her 4-inch batteries on two aircraft which came out of the clouds from the direction of Truk. Six salvoes were fired before the aircraft were identified as Avengers. The task group returned to Manus Island on 17 June.
The struggle for Okinawa lasted nearly twelve weeks and was one of the fiercest of the war. Continuous assistance to the United States troops was given by the supporting ships which on one day, 15 May, fired 420,000 rounds of 5-inch and larger shell against the Japanese positions. The stubborn resistance of the defenders of Okinawa was not finally overcome till 21 June. Approximately 131,300 Japanese were killed and 7400 prisoners were taken.
The Americans paid a high price in men and material for Okinawa. Casualties to US Army troops were 7213 killed and missing and 31,080 wounded. In the naval forces 4907 were killed and missing and 4824 wounded. Thirty-six ships were sunk and 368 damaged, and 763 aircraft were lost. Nor was the damage suffered by the ships solely due to enemy attacks. On 5 June a typhoon struck the United States Fleet and damaged more than twenty ships, including three battleships, four aircraft-carriers, and the heavy cruiser Pittsburg. That ship lost 104 feet of her bow but reached Guam, 900 miles away, the forepart of the vessel being towed in by a tug some days later.