The British Pacific Fleet (BPF) was a multinational Allied naval force which saw action against Japan during World War II. The fleet was composed of British Commonwealth naval vessels. The BPF formally came into being on 22 November 1944. Its main base was at Sydney, Australia, with a forward base at Manus Island.
Following their retreat to the western side of the Indian Ocean in 1942, British naval forces did not return to the South West Pacific theatre until 17 May 1944, when an Anglo-American carrier task force implemented Operation Transom, a joint raid on Surabaya, Java.
The U.S. was liberating British territories in the Pacific and extending its influence. It was therefore seen as a political and military imperative to restore a British presence in the region and to deploy British military assets directly against Japan. The British government were determined that British territories, such as Hong Kong, should be recaptured by British forces.
The British establishment, however, was not unanimous on the commitment of the BPF. Churchill, in particular, argued against it, not wishing to be a visibly junior partner in what had been exclusively the United States' battle. (The Australian and New Zealand forces that were active had been absorbed into US command structures.) He also considered that a British presence would be unwelcome and should be concentrated on Burma and Malaya. Naval planners, supported by the Chiefs of Staff, believed that such a commitment would strengthen British influence and the British Chiefs of Staff considered mass resignation, so strongly held were their opinions. Some U.S. planners had also considered, in 1944, that a strong British presence against Japan was essential to an early end to the war and American home opinion would also be badly affected if Britain did not put itself in the line.
The Admiralty had proposed an active British role in the Pacific in early 1944 but the initial USN response had been discouraging. Admiral Ernest King, Commander-in-Chief United States Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations, and alleged Anglophobe, was reluctant to concede any such role and raised a number of issues, including the requirement that the BPF should be entirely self-sufficient. These were eventually overcome or discounted and, when at a meeting, U.S. President Franklin D. 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".
The Australian Government had sought U.S. military assistance in 1942, when it was faced with the possibility of Japanese invasion. While Australia had made a significant contribution to the Pacifc War, it had never been an equal partner with its U.S. counterparts in strategic decision-making. It was argued that a British presence would act as a counter-balance to the powerful and increasing U.S. presence in the Pacific. When the BPF arrived at Sydney, its new home base, in February, 1945, it was well received. The Australian government had prepared necessary facilities, supplies had been stock-piled and civilian homes were available for crews to rest and experience home life.
The deployment of the BPF would not be straightforward. The Pacific War was a radically different operating environment requiring warships to remain at sea for extended periods, without ready access to land bases. Britain had previously depended on land bases for replenishment, and had to develop a fleet train to support its efforts at sea, far away from British bases.
The effort made by Britain and its Commonwealth partners in the final stages of the Pacific war did manage to repair British prestige and influence.
The Eastern Fleet was reorganised into the British East Indies Fleet, based in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and what was to be become the British Pacific Fleet (BPF). The BPF operated against targets in Sumatra, gaining experience until early 1945, when it departed Trincomalee for Sydney. (These operations are described in the article on the British Eastern Fleet.)
The name "British Pacific Fleet" is misleading, the BPF was multi-national although the British provided the majority of the fleet and all the capital ships. It eventually comprised ships and personnel from the British Royal Navy (RN), British Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA), Royal Australian Navy (RAN), Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN). The RAN's contribution was limited because its larger vessels had been integrated with United States Navy formations since 1942. A high proportion of naval aviators were New Zealanders. The USN also contributed to the BPF, as did personnel from the South African Navy (SAN). Australian and New Zealand ports and infrastructure also made vital contributions in support of the BPF.
During World war II, the fleet was commanded by Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser. In practice, command of the fleet in action devolved to Vice-Admiral Sir Bernard Rawlings, with Vice-Admiral Sir Philip Vian in charge of air operations by the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm (FAA). The fighting end of the fleet was referred to as Task Force 37 or 57 and the Fleet Train was Task Force 113.
The Pacific war environment with its enormous distances and fast paced carrier operations was unfamiliar to the Royal Navy. The technical implications may well have been better appreciated by Admiral King - a naval aviator - than by his British colleagues.
The requirement that the BPF be self-sufficient necessitated the establishment of a fleet train that could adequately support an active naval force at sea for weeks or months. The Royal Navy had been used to operating close to its bases in Britain, the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean, and purpose-built infrastructure and expertise were lacking. Indeed, in the north Atlantic and Mediterranean, the high risks of submarine and air attack would have made routine at-sea refuelling highly dangerous. Fortunately for the BPF "the American logistics authorities... interpreted self-sufficiency in a very liberal sense".
The Admiralty sent Vice Admiral C. S. Daniel to the United States for consultation about the supply and administration of the fleet. He then proceeded to Australia where he became Vice Admiral, Administration, British Pacific Fleet, a role that "if unspectacular compared with command of a fighting squadron, was certainly one of the most arduous to be allocated to a British Flag officer during the entire war.
The US Pacific Fleet had assembled an enormous fleet of oilers and supply ships of every type. Even before the war, it had been active in the development of underway replenishment techniques. The Admiralty realised that it had a great deal of new capabilities to develop, in a short time, and with whatever it had to hand. Lacking purpose-built ships, it had to assemble a fleet train from whatever RN, RFA or merchant ships were available. On 8 February 1944 the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Alan Cunningham, informed the Defence Committee that 91 ships would be required to support the BPF. This was based on an assumption that the BPF would be active off the Philippines, or would have a base there. By March, the war zone had moved north and the Americans were unwilling to allow the British to establish facilities in the Philippines. The estimate had grown to 158 ships, as it was recognised that operations eventually would be fought close to Japan. This had to be balanced against the shipping needed to import food for the civilian population of the UK. In January 1945, the War cabinet was forced to postpone the deployment of the fleet by two months due to the shortage of shipping.
The BPF found that its tankers were too few in number, too slow, and in some cases unsuitable for the task of replenishment at sea. Its oiling gear, hoses, and fittings were too often poorly designed. British ships refuelled at sea mostly by the over-the-stern method, a safer but less efficient technique compared with the American method of refuelling alongside. Lack of proper equipment and insufficient practice meant burst hoses or excessive time at risk to submarine attack while holding a constant course during fuelling. Moreover, as the Australian Navy had already discovered, British built ships had only about a third of the refrigeration space of a comparable American ship. British ships therefore required replenishment more frequently than American ships.
In some cases even American-built equipment was not interchangeable, for FAA aircraft had been "Anglicized" by the installation of British radios and oxygen masks, while British Corsairs had their wing-folding arrangements modified in order to fit into the more cramped hangers of British carriers. Replacement aircraft therefore had to be brought from the UK.
The distance from Sydney was too far to allow efficient fleet support, so, with much American support, a forward base was established at Manus atoll, in the Admiralty Islands, which was described as "Scapa Flow with bloody palm trees.
As well as its base at Sydney, the Fleet Air Arm established Mobile Naval Air Bases (MONABs) in Australia to provide technical and logistic support for the aircraft. The first of these became active in Sydney in January 1945.
Major actions in which the fleet was involved included Operation Meridian, air strikes in January 1945 against oil production at Palembang, Sumatra. These raids, conducted in bad weather, succeeded in reducing the oil supply of the Japanese Navy. A total of 48 FAA aircraft were lost due to enemy action and crash landings; they claimed 30 Japanese planes destroyed in dogfights and 38 on the ground.
The United States Navy (USN), which had control of Allied operations in the Pacific Ocean Areas, gave the BPF combat units the designation of Task Force 57 (TF-57) when it joined Admiral Raymond Spruance's United States Fifth Fleet on 15 March 1945. On 27 May 1945, in became Task Force 37 (TF-37) when it became part of Admiral William Halsey's United States Third Fleet.
In March 1945, while supporting the invasion of Okinawa, the BPF had sole responsibility for operations in the Sakishima Islands. Its role was to suppress Japanese air activity, using gunfire and air attack, at potential Kamikaze staging airfields that would otherwise be a threat to U.S. Navy vessels operating at Okinawa. The carriers were subject to heavy and repeated kamikaze attacks, but because of their armoured flight decks, the British aircraft carriers proved highly resistant (unlike their U.S. counterparts), and returned to action relatively quickly. The U.S.N liaison officer on the Indefatigable commented: "When a kamikaze hits a U.S. carrier it means 6 months of repair at Pearl [Harbor]. When a kamikaze hits a Limey carrier it’s just a case of "Sweepers, man your brooms."” (Subsequent studies, however, showed that serious damage had occurred to the ships' structure and post-war modernisation was uneconomic.)
Fleet Air Arm Supermarine Seafires saw service in the Pacific campaigns. Due to their good high altitude performance and lack of ordnance-carrying capabilities (compared to the Hellcats and Corsairs of the Fleet) the Seafires were allocated the vital defensive duties of Combat Air Patrol (CAP) over the fleet. Seafires were thus heavily involved in countering the Kamikaze attacks during the Iwo Jima landings and beyond. The Seafires' best day was 15 August 1945, shooting down eight attacking aircraft for a single loss.
In April 1945, the British 4th Submarine Flotilla was transferred to the major Allied submarine base at Fremantle, Western Australia, as part of BPF. Its most notable success in this period was the sinking of the heavy cuiser Ashigara, on 8 June 1945 in Banka Strait, off Sumatra, by HMS Trenchant and HMS Stygian. On 31 July 1945, in Operation Struggle, the British midget submarine XE3, crewed by Lieutenant Ian Fraser and Acting Leading Seaman James Magennis, attacked Japanese shipping at Singapore. They sank the heavy cruiser Takao, which settled to the bottom at its berth. Fraser and Magennis were both awarded the Victoria Cross.
Battleships and aircraft from the fleet also attacked the Japanese home islands. The battleship King George V bombarded naval installations at Hamamatsu, near Tokyo; the last time a British battleship fired in action. Meanwhile, carrier strikes were carried out against land and harbour targets including, notably, the disabling of a Japanese escort carrier by British naval aircraft. Although, during the assaults on Japan, the British commanders had accepted that the BPF should become a component element of the U.S. 3rd Fleet, the U.S. fleet commander, William Halsey, excluded British forces from a raid on Kure naval base on political gounds. Halsey later wrote, in his memoirs: "it was imperative that we forestall a possible postwar claim by Britain that she had delivered even a part of the final blow that demolished the Japanese fleet.... an exclusively American attack was therefore in American interests."
The BPF would have played a major part in a proposed invasion of the Japanese home islands, known as Operation Downfall, which was cancelled after Japan surrendered. The last naval air action in WWII was on VJ-Day when British carrier aircraft shot down Japanese Zero fighters.
Lt Robert Hampton Gray, a Canadian naval airman who piloted a Vought Corsair with No. 1841 Squadron FAA on HMS Formidable, was awarded the Victoria Cross, following his death in an attack on a Japanese destroyer at Onagawa Wan, Japan, on August 9, 1945.
Source: Smith, Task Force 57, pp. 178-184
Source: Smith, Task Force 57, pp. 184-185