The Forgotten Fleet

Five British aircraft carriers at anchor at war’s end: HMS Indefatigable, Unicorn, Illustrious, Victorious, and Formidable

The Royal Navy was struggling to overcome its failure earlier in the Pacific, but during 1945, this forgotten fleet fought back dramatically to stand with the U.S. Navy against a storm of kamikaze attacks.

British naval operations in the Far East in World War II started badly and went downhill from there. Years of underfunding in defense meant that Britain simply did not have the means to defend its huge empire, and for 18 months prior to the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, it had stood alone against Nazi Germany.

Barracks at Tokishuma airfield, Shikoku Province, in the Japanese home islands, under attack by British naval aircraft, July 24, 1945. The planes were launched by HMS Victorious, Formidable, Indefatigable, and Implacable.

The Royal Navy was primarily committed to the Battle of the Atlantic, keeping open the all important sea lanes upon which the island nation’s survival depended. In the Far East, there were only token naval forces available to meet the Japanese attack, and in that part of the world Britannia’s claim to rule the ocean waves was immediately exposed for the empty rhetoric it had become.

The Pacific Ocean had never been a main operating area for the Royal Navy, so it was not geared or experienced for that sea’s vast distances in the way the U.S. Navy was; its vessels did not have the same cruising ranges and could not remain on station as long as the Yanks. So Task Force 57 started its operational life at a distinct disadvantage. This was compounded by having an inadequate supply fleet.

An auxiliary ship of Task Force 57 (center) refuels a British destroyer at sea. The Royal Navy struggled with logistics and resupply over the vast distances of the Pacific.

Because of the nature of the war it had been fighting in the Atlantic, the Royal Navy also had relatively little experience in large-scale carrier operations against land targets, which were the bread and butter of the U.S. Navy. For that reason, Task Force 57 practiced against targets in Sumatra when en route to the Pacific to gain experience and at the same time wreck some Japanese oil refineries.

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the senior American naval officer in the Pacific, gave Task Force 57 a gracious welcome, signaling, “The British Carrier Task Force and attached units will increase our striking power and demonstrate our unity of purpose against Japan. The U.S. Pacific Fleet welcomes you.”

A British-marked Grumman TBM Avenger aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm, returning from an attack on Sakishima Gunto, flies above the HMS Indomitable in March 1945.

It was certainly not a token contribution. The combat elements of Task Force 57 at that time comprised four fleet carriers embarking 207 combat aircraft, two battleships, five cruisers, and 11 destroyers. There were also six escort aircraft carriers guarding the fleet train and ferrying replacement aircraft.

Commanding this formidable naval armament was Vice Admiral Sir Henry B.H. Rawlings. He and Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey, at the helm of the American Fifth Fleet and directly in charge of all naval forces at Okinawa, worked well together.

By the end of April, the verdict on Task Force 57’s actions so far was generally considered “not bad.” The British were on a steep learning curve, getting used to a type of operation for which they were not properly equipped or trained. It had to refuel and resupply more frequently than the U.S. Navy and were still having serious problems with replenishment at sea.

An obsolescent Fairy Swordfish torpedo bomber approaches the HMS Victorious during operations. The ship was hit by three kamikazes during the Okinawa operation but survived.

In late May 1945, Task Force 57 broke off after 62 days at sea, returning to base to refit, resupply, and repair battle damage. Its first major missions of the Pacific War were over.

There would be more action to come, including Operation Inmate (June 14-16), involving air attacks on the main Japanese naval bastion at Truk in the western Caroline Islands, as well as raids on Japan itself in the run up to the planned invasion.

The British raids—both by air and shore bombardment—continued right up to August 15, 1945, and the Japanese surrender to the Allies; the second British task force, built around another four fleet carriers and one battleship squadron, arrived too late to take part in the fighting. By VJ Day, the Royal Navy Pacific Fleet had 80 principal warships (including nine large and nine escort aircraft carriers), 30 smaller combat vessels, and 29 submarines.

Click on images to enlarge.


British Military Humor –











Farewell Salutes – 

Gerald Ballard, Scranton, IA; US Coast Guard, WWII / USNR (Ret.)

Philip Corfman – Bowie, MD; US Navy, WWII, PTO / World Health Org. & FDA

Paul Gifford – Troy, NY; US Navy, WWII & Korea, corpsman, USS Shangri-La & Tranquility

Joe Jackson – Kent, WA; US Air Force, Vietnam, Medal of Honor

Charles Kettles – Ypsilanti, MI; US Army, Vietnam, Medal of Honor

Fernand Martin – Debden, CAN; Canadian Army, WWII, ETO

Gabriel Nasti – St. Augustine, FL; US Army, WWII, PTO, 20th Infantry/6th Division

Svend Nielsen – Copenhagen, DEN; Civilian, Danish Resistance, WWII, ETO

Jan-Michael Vincent – Hanford, CA; Army National Guard / beloved actor

Allen Wright (102) – Red Willow City, NE; US Army Air Corps, WWII, ETO, MSgt., Chemical Corps / USAR, Major (Ret. 31 y.)


About GP

Everett Smith served with the Headquarters Company, 187th Regiment, 11th A/B Division during WWII. This site is in tribute to my father, "Smitty." GP is a member of the 11th Airborne Association. Member # 4511 and extremely proud of that fact!

Posted on March 11, 2019, in WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 104 Comments.

  1. Another wonder post. ‘Underfunding’ seems to be the scourge of all militaries. Must keep up to be prepared for …. whatever. Isn’t history fascinate?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The war certainly did prove The Royal Navy didn’t rule the waves. The other observation out of that time and your post gp, is that any country that under funds its Defence, leaves itself wide open in time of conflict, sadly I believe Australia is in the same situation, that’s why we maintain our alliance strongly with America.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Another interesting article GP. I like the way you include all the Allies’ contributions to the war effort in your postings.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Really interesting post and thanks for sharing those photos. My husband’s great uncle served on the HMS Illustrious. He was killed when it was attacked in the Mediterranean, we’re not sure if he died in the hospital in Malta or on board the ship. He may have a grave on the island but his name is on a monument in England. We saw some film footage of the bombing of the Illustrious, it was very emotional to know that a relative was there at the time and didn’t survive. Brave men and women.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. This post is filled with information I didn’t know. That’s part of the reason I had to read and re-read, to slow myself down, follow some rabbit trails, and even learn some vocabulary along the way. That reference to the female sniper was interesting; I just noticed that, and now I have to run off and find out more about her!

    What caught me on the first reading was the mention of Admiral Halsey. I wondered if he might have been the one mentioned in that Beatles’ song, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey. In fact: yes! It’s one of my favorites of their songs, and now I know more about Admiral Halsey.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I have written about the British contribution to the Pacific war. It was a noble attempt, performed admirably by a Navy not designed for the type of operations required. The logistics was the Achilles heel, the carriers very resilient when struck by Kamikazes or bombs. The British designed carrier aircraft were not designed for the war in the Pacific, and either obsolescent, or in the case of the Seafire lacked the range needed. Lend lease Hellcats, Marlets, and Avengers were very important to TF57. Good article.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great piece of history that must be shared

    Liked by 1 person

  8. There are a two points I’d like to make.

    One is that the UK didn’t stand alone after the fall of France – we had considerable help from the Australians, Canadians, Czechs, Free French, Indians (with associated Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nepalese troops), New Zealanders, Nigerians, Poles, South Africans and many others.

    Two is that I often see discussions of the relative contributions of various nations on the internet. As I get older I tend to think of John Donne’s quote “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind”. In the end, does it matter who did what 80 years ago? What’s done is done, and tomorrow is more important than yesterday.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Quite true about the Commonwealth assistance during the war, but they all were given quotas they had to meet.

      Tomorrow can only be more important if we learn from the mistakes of yesterday.


  9. The British fleet in the Pacific may not have ruled the waves, but it sounds like they offered immeasurable support.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Another great historical read and to top it off, ending with great toons! 👍👏😁

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks for the shout-out to a very much forgotten fleet, one in which many of my NZ countrymen served! Much appreciated. I’ve covered the story of the British Pacific Fleet in a number of my books. It included ships from the Royal New Zealand Navy – including Gambia, which took part in the final bombardment of the steel works at Kawaishi, just before the Japanese surrender. The politics of the Royal Navy deployment were manifest: Admiral King, the USN’s Chief of Naval Operations, didn’t want a British naval presence in the Pacific and allowed it only on the basis that the British supported themselves. They were based in Sydney and the force ultimately grew to 123 warships and supporting vessels. The limited ‘fleet train’ was a problem, not helped by the fact that the armoured fleet carriers had only limited capacity for supplies; but support unofficially came via US systems. King may have had a personal agenda, but the US Navy didn’t, and there was a definite sense that friends had to stick together! The whole venture makes a great story. I hope you don’t mind my pointing anybody interested to my book covering the Kiwi part in that fleet: – finally back in print, as I think we’ve discussed in the past.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Not at all, Matt, I have a few of your books and they are quite informative. I often have trouble locating Australian and New Zealand data because many of the reports simply state “Commonwealth Nations”. I thank you for coming by and taking the time to contribute to this post.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Part of the problem was the expense and horror of WW1. Up to 20% of the British GDP, I have read somewhere, was still paying for WW1 in 1938. A large proportion of the population was unable to work and had to be paid for, insofar as they lacked one limb or more. These factors led to a lot of opposition to starting another major war only twenty years after the first one.
    The Royal Navy before WW2, suffered from being very much the refuge of the upper classes. Even today, the story is that there are more admirals than ships. In 1939 though, even so, the Navy was, more or less, capable of most tasks it was expected to do, although, as with everything in life, they could have done better. The Royal Navy sank all the warships Hitler sent out to fight them and they seem to have learnt fairly quickly about the U-boat menace, which I don’t think any Allied country had any real appreciation of in 1939.
    I don’t think you can really expect the Royal Navy to have the ships for the vast expanses of the Pacific. The British Empire didn’t really stretch there. The last British colony going eastwards was Hong Kong in western China. They did have aircraft carriers but these were not really a European type of vessel. Germany had none at all, and between them, the other European countries had very few. Here’s a list…

    Liked by 1 person

  13. This was very interesting, before the first world war there had been an arms race with lots of dreadnought class ships being built, interesting to hear that before the second world war, that the navy was underfunded.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. This is a great read! Very interesting! I didn’t know any of this before reading your post.
    Thank you for your researching and writing, GP!
    HUGS!!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  15. So unprepared, but made a contribution in spite of, not least when considering they were bogged down early with protecting shipping in the Atlantic too. That other theatre of the war. Great piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. A slight error in mathematics methinks GP,…

    and for 18 months prior to the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, it had stood alone against Nazi Germany.

    By my calculations 3rd Sept 1939 to 7th December 1941 is 2 years 3 months or 27 months.

    I think it’s fair to say that we had our hands full, We stood alone then, and then had to help out the Russians after Hitler turned on them on the 22 June 41,

    Luckily we had forces from the Empire/ Commonwealth to give us a helping hand.

    It was pretty hard expecting a small country of 48 million, or thereabouts at that time, to be able to provide protection for countries that were many thousands of miles from Europe, which in 1941/42/43/44 was in a constant state of conflict.

    After the Washington Treaty of 1922, the Royal Navy was forced to reduce its fleets, to the same size as the USN’s fleets, as a consequence come Sept 39 our naval strength was not nearly as strong as it was on the 28th July 1914.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Fascinating facts, GP, I had never ‘wasted’ a thought on the Royal navy in the East after the disastrous sinkings when the Japanese were invading Malaya…
    I knew of the army’s hard fight in Burma and elsewhere, but not the Navy.’s contribution … such hard times, and thank you for shining a light on little known corners of the world war…..

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Not having a great knowledge of ships in the Royal Navy’s arsenal, I do know that Indefatigable, Illustrious and Victorious, went on to be quite famous names, especially in the jet age.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And I’m always learning from your site, we compliment each other, eh? They had to be reconstructed for the jets, but that was a lot cheaper than building new carriers. Thanks for coming by.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Hoe klein ook in penibele situaties is elke hulp welkom

    Liked by 1 person

  20. GP, we had a ‘forgotten navy’, and also a ‘forgotten army’, the 14th.
    On of my uncle’s ship’s was sunk by the Japanese, one of three ships he was sunk on, yet he survived the war. That included the famous sinking of HMS Barham.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. It’s been said by experts and cynics alike that “the British are always well prepared to fight the last war”.

    Things might become a bit more realistic for their forces if all leading politicians’ sons (and now wives and daughters, boom boom!)* could be drafted immediately and sent to the front/s — not as privileged officers but as basic grunts/gobs—immediately when war is initiated.

    Aside: We never use the definite article ‘the’ when using a ship’s name— ‘HMS’ means simply His (currently ‘Her’) Majesty’s Ship … “The Her Majesty’s Ship” comes through as rather awkward …

    (I know, nit-picking … but it’s no fun seeing people I respect unwittingly ‘faux pas’-ing.)

    * Sex equality, boom boom! (I still don’t like it—but Boadicea was a great leader, I’m told). Certainly the Russians showed how—one Russian lady sniper popped off almost the equivalent of a battalion.)(She was sent to the States on a publicity thing and famously said to a squirming audience “Gentlemen, don’t you think it’s time you came out from behind my skirts?”

    Liked by 1 person

    • hahaa, your opening is cute! You are quite right about the HMS and saying her, etc. I did know that, so it was my own faux pas. Out of habit, to me, every ship is a ‘she’. That Russian sniper is said the be the best in the war and quite young at the time too.

      Liked by 1 person

  22. Thank you for another wonderful piece of information, GP! There is so much i never heared before. Best wishes for the week! Michael

    Liked by 1 person

  23. The return of the Royal Navy to the Pacific! A very interesting and not often talked about part of that theater.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. While it’s magnitude was not as great as that of the U.S. Navy, the British units showed up ready to fight and did what they could. Had the war in the Pacific not ended as it did, I am sure the British would have contributed what they could to the invasion of Japan. There are those today who out ignorance might denigrate the British contribution; however, I am sure that those who were there were glad to have their assistance.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Excellent background on the Royal Fleet in the South Pacific, GP! I was not aware of how underfunded the British Navy was at this time. Really valuable historical material–keep up the great work! Steve

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Love the names of the ships.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. At least the British were willing to try and help, unlike one unnamed country.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Very interesting post! And, it illustrates the need to maintain a nation’s military even during prolonged times of peace. History is a great teacher if you simply pay attention.

    Liked by 2 people

  29. Glad to know about the British contribution in the Pacific. Where was their “base”? Ulithi?

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Another thing I’d never encountered, and thanks for bringing it up. As far as I new, the Britsh contribution to the pacific war ended with the Sinking of the Prince of Wales. Thanks for bringing this up and posting it. Like I said before, graduate level education on the World War II history.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. This is an interesting post. I have rarely heard about the British involvement in the Pacific. I guess I know why. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  32. Surprising and interesting, given England’s historical naval reputation.

    Liked by 1 person

  33. I hope they helped rather than hindered 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  34. Hope our lot helped a bit!

    Liked by 1 person

  35. The British fleet came to the rescue near the end to refute the claim that they were only fighting in the east to regain its empire while U.S. was left to finish off Japan.

    Liked by 1 person

  36. Great to learn this GP. I’d not heard much about the Royal Navy in the Pacific since their losses early in the war.

    Liked by 1 person

  37. Interesting as always.

    Liked by 2 people

  38. Good to see the British contribution put in such understanding perspective

    Liked by 3 people

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