The Eastern Fleet and the Indian Ocean by Charles Stephenson

An intriguing recent history of the Royal Navy’s fleet in the Indian Ocean through most of the Pacific War. Subtitled “The Fleet That Had to Hide” which pretty much sums up the challenge.

This is one of those little known niches of the War that caused much frustration at the time, yet today is almost wholly ignored.

In the Pacific the Royal Navy is best known for action at the very beginning and very end. Starting with the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse on December 10, 1942; then fast forward to the British Pacific Fleet that was essentially another fast carrier division in the US Pacific Fleet in the last year of the War. [Seriously, I have several books on each of these aspects; but have only ever seen an occasional chapter, or part of a chapter, in books on the Pacific War that look at anything else.]
The Eastern Fleet is the entity that existed in between. During most of its existence it was under the command of Admiral Sir James Somerville; often ranked today as the most capable and least known RN Admiral of the War.

Of course this history starts with a lot of backstory. The Japanese started naval aviation immediately after World War I and were enthusiastic students of the Royal Navy. They pretty masterfully manipulated the Royal Navy into sending a technical mission to help as they developed aircraft carriers, seaplane tenders and maritime patrol. And there’s no doubt the mission shared more completely than they were supposed to, even to say the head of the mission William Francis Forbes-Sempill continued to provide Japan with classified British technology long after the mission ended.
By the time the Pacific War started the Royal and Imperial Navies had gone very different directions. The latest British carriers were fast, armored and radar equipped. But Japanese carriers had more than twice the air group, and vastly better aircraft using devastating, overwhelming technique that the RN could truly not compete with.
The first big section of the book is about the Kido Butai’s April, 1942 raid into the Indian Ocean. This could have shaped up to be history’s first carrier battle, with the RN carriers Indomitable and Formidable trying to get into position to strike at the Japanese carriers. Adm Somerville was well acquainted with carrier operations and the use of radar. He planned to launch his radar equipped Fairey Albacores for a night strike on the Japanese carriers. He had little knowledge of the actual power of the Japanese carriers until his cruisers Dorsetshire and Cornwall, which had departed Ceylon late and were trying to catch up to his main force, were caught by Japanese dive bombers. The Japanese scored something like 88% hits and sank the cruisers in a matter of minutes. He then backed off and gave the Japanese far more room. He was perhaps the first to recognized how completely outclassed he was. His only chance would have been to annihilate the Japanese carriers in a single night, because failure to do so would surely cost him his entire force the next morning.
No doubt this newfound caution made him unpopular in certain circles (ahem…. Winston Churchill) But for the next two years it enabled him to maintain a fleet in being. The Eastern Fleet’s primary purpose came to be protecting shipping routes from the mid-East and Africa to India and Ceylon. This became an interesting challenge as both Germany and Japan (and the most successful Italian submarine of the War) would fight him on this. The Germans were most active around South Africa, but in 1943 they established a U-Boat base on Penang Island off the coast of Malaysia. This base was supported by both supply ships and supply U-boats. Hunting these to destruction was among the very first fully successful uses of Enigma intelligence.
This also leads to a fascinating chapter about a secret German transmitter in the Portuguese colony of Goa (on the Indian coast) and an outrageous commando raid involving long retired servicemen (the Calcutta Light Horse). For those who have seen the spy caper “The Sea Wolves” starring Gregory Peck, Roger Moore and David Niven that is exactly what this is about. The movie is entertaining, but no surprise, takes liberties. The biggest being the importance of the transmitter; it used an older model Enigma machine that had been completely compromised. So it provided no information that the British could not effectively counter. The German U-boat U-160 was indeed very successful in the Indian Ocean, but this is mostly just to the credit of a very capable captain.

The book also takes an interesting, and somewhat depressing look at the state of British (FAA) carrier aircraft and Admiral Somerville’s often frustrated desire for “an aircraft fit for sailors to fly in”. The fleet carriers in use at the start had Albacores and Gladiators. The Albacore’s replacement was meant to be the Fairey Barracuda. But the Barracuda was slow, short ranged, and couldn’t take off with a heavy load when winds were calm. The British fix came to be US Navy aircraft. The Martlet (Wildcat) was a much more capable fighter, but still broadly “first generation”. The Avenger was the answer as a bomber, but deliveries were slow (the Royal Navy had a lower priority than the US Navy). And since the Barracuda could not even take off from an escort carrier, the first Avengers went to the baby flattops. The RN was finally able to get modern fighters thanks to the Corsair, which the US Navy initially passed on.
And this led to the much more aggressive operations in 1944. Especially with the USS Saratoga on loan. The Eastern Fleet launched several raids on Sumatra, the Andaman Islands and other Japanese positions around Malaysia and Burma. This all proved to be valuable practice for the next phase of British operations, but that would be beyond the scope of this book. The Eastern Fleet was reorganized into an amphibious force to support operations in Burma and a new British Pacific Fleet to fight alongside the US Third/Fifth Fleet.
Admiral Somerville had redeemed his reputation somewhat (in Winston Churchill’s eyes) with the later more aggressive operations. But he clashed badly with the new theater commander Lord Louis Mountbatten. He was reassigned as the Royal Navy’s Combined Chiefs of Staff representative in Washington DC. He claimed he would rather command a Destroyer, but he did his duty as directed.

Overall this book is a little difficult to rate. The writing is somewhat dry and technical, except when its utterly fascinating. I would say it is a detailed look at a much underserved aspect of the War. And that alone may make it irresistible to history nerds. Also, fans of The Sea Wolves may want to check it out just for the detailed look at that story (and the author does specifically address plot points of the movie and book its based on). That chapter gets four stars.

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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8 Responses to The Eastern Fleet and the Indian Ocean by Charles Stephenson

  1. David L. Schneider says:

    Interesting, Dave. Thanks!

  2. jfwknifton says:

    Thank you for this post. It was very interesting. FAA aircraft were initially very, very poor. Aeroplanes such as the Blackburn Roc and the Blackburn Skua were next to useless and the Seafire was arguably far too delicate to land on a carrier.
    Churchill’s attitude at this time was mostly frustration at the way things in general were going. The RAF was bombing Germany and being generally aggressive but the army and navy were largely unsuccessful and relatively frustrating. In North Africa 35,000 had surrendered at Tobruk and the Germans were at the gates of Egypt. In the east, 50,000 were unable to stop the Japanese in Malaya and were lost. 80,000 then surrendered at Singapore. Churchill thought at this time that Britain was going to lose the war and the Navy didn’t help when the Prince of Wales and Repulse were lost.
    Only El Alamein and Stalingrad were the tide turning, but both of these came after many months of German successes and many kicks in the teeth for the British and the Russians.

    • atcDave says:

      Thank you John for providing a lot of context!
      The situation with FAA aircraft was painfully bad. With the RAF responsible for development and purchasing of Navy aircraft until just a few months before the War started there was little interest in getting things right. Even worse, this meant when the RN did finally get the responsibility for the own hardware (March of ‘39 I believe?) there was no one in Navy leadership with any experience or knowledge in aircraft development either.
      The Seafire is an interesting example. Sort of a desperation project, adapting a land based fighter for maritime service, it wasn’t wholly without merit. Certainly the best British built naval fighter, but it inherited two serious problems from its land based fore-bearer. First is just its very short range. Far too short to accompany most carrier strikes. It was mostly useful for fleet defense. There were a couple squadrons with the later Pacific fleet and they served well enough, but partly that was due to a ship’s engineering department (I forget which carrier) modifying the planes to carry additional drop tanks. Such a thing obviously should have been foreseen and planned for long before it happened.
      The second issue was harder to fix, the landing gear was simply too fragile for carrier service. Seafire squadrons had a very hard time keeping aircraft operational. In supporting Mediterranean operations several Seafire squadrons wasted away to nothing even with virtually no combat damage. Again, the later BPF had the most developed version of Wartime Seafires, and pilots with high average experience, but loss or damage due to gear failure was a constant drain on aircraft availability. Corsair, Hellcat and Wildcat were all more useful aircraft for the Fleet, no surprise they were all aircraft that started out as carrier based.
      I remember Eric Brown making the comment the only reason the FAA made the Corsair work on carriers was because there were truly no other acceptable choices at the time. Hellcats (and even Firefly) wouldn’t be available until much later. So if the Corsair didn’t work out Carriers would have Seafires or Fulmers (maybe Wildcats if they were stripped from escort carriers).
      And remember the Blackburn Roc was one of my candidates for “Worst Aircraft of World War Two” when I did that list a few years back!

  3. Jeff Groves says:

    Nice review! Another “forgotten theater” where really a lot was going on.

  4. An great review in a very hidden subJect.

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