The British Pacific Fleet and Kamikazes

The Royal Navy in the Pacific

 The British Pacific Fleet was formed in November 1944 and elected Sydney, Australia to be its headquarters. The new fleet included the battleships Howe and King George V, four of the Navy’s newer aircraft carriers, five cruisers, and 15 destroyers. One of the cruisers was from New Zealand and a number of the destroyers were from the Royal Australian Navy. 1. Additionally, the Navy drew on resources from across the Commonwealth to put together a support fleet composed of repair ships, tankers, supply ships, hospital ships, ocean-going tugs, and floating dry docks. 2. The British were clear in stating that its Pacific Fleet would be fully self-sustaining and flexible to operational necessity. They were emphatic that the Royal Navy did not expect to play second fiddle to the US Navy. The creation and deployment of the fleet was vital to Britain as she sought to re-establish herself as a power player in the coming postwar world order.The British were eager to regain control of their pre-war Far Eastern colonial empire that included Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Burma, India, and Borneo.

As the fleet began to mobilize the British Combined Chiefs of Staff issued a report to Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt that stated:

We have agreed that the British Fleet should participate in the main operations against Japan in the Pacific, with the understanding that this Fleet will be balanced and self-supporting. The method of employment of the British Fleet in these main operations in the Pacific will be decided from time to time in accordance with the prevailing circumstances.3.

 “We Sailed South” HMS King George V With the British Pacific Fleet

 Able Seaman Hubert Hancox joined KGV just as she was completing a yard period at Liverpool in the summer of 1944. Hancox had been earlier forced to leave technical school in his home town of Wocester when his father who owned a small shoe repair business died. Hancox took over the shop for which he was given a deferment from military service as the family’s sole breadwinner. In 1943, when his deferment was terminated, he chose to enlist in the Navy. His choice of service branch was based on having seen and been impressed by HMS Hood as a very small boy. After a period of working up by both KGV and her numerous new and inexperienced crewmen, the battleship sailed to become part of the newly formed British Pacific Fleet. Hancox, who was to stay with the ship for the next two years, recalled the rather roundabout passage from England to the Pacific.

Early November (1944), we were ready to start our journey for the Far East, calling at Plymouth where everyone (in rotations) was given embarkation leave of three days and eight hours. As soon as (the last group) returned from leave, we made a hasty return to Scapa as it was thought the German battleship Tirpitz was about to make a dash into the Atlantic to attack convoys. We and other capital ships were to intercept and sink her as had happened with Bismarck. It was a false alarm and, late one Saturday night, we anchored off Greenock (near Glasgow). Early next morning we started to ammunition ship … before going to a late breakfast and changing into our best uniforms to welcome the King and Queen and two princesses aboard.4. We formed up by divisions to be inspected by the King, followed by ‘Hands to Dinner,’ and changed again into working rig to continue taking on stores and ammunition. The Royal Party walked around the ship talking to some of the crew whilst we worked, then … left the ship. “Splice the Mainbrace” was signaled from their launch (which meant) an extra tot of rum for each crew member. Soon afterwards, we sailed, calling at Gibraltar, en route for Malta where we stayed a week. Next we arrived at Alexandria (and) went out to a bombardment of the island Milos off the coast of Greece to destroy the heavy guns interfering with shipping in the narrow channel. After again returning to Alexandria, we soon passed through the Suez Canal, into the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean. (We) arrived at Colombo briefly before moving around the coast of Ceylon to Trincomalee. This was a beautiful anchorage, surrounded on three sides by trees that (grow) down almost to the water line. This is where we spent Christmas day and it is also where I received the news that my son David had been born and both mother and baby were doing fine. The news was well celebrated in a suitable manner!  

 … (S)oon we were back at sea, but this time as escorts to the aircraft carriers whose planes were attacking the oil fields on Sumatra around Palenbang. Several times we had to abandon strikes as the weather was so bad the planes couldn’t take off in the mountainous seas. Eventually … the attacks were carried out. Some of our planes did not return, but a few airmen were rescued from the sea, having either run out of fuel or being damaged by enemy action. The fleet was attacked by Japanese aircraft (that) were driven off by (shipboard anti-aircraft) fire and patrolling (carrier-borne) fighters.5. The same types of target were attacked for several days. Then, instead of returning to port in Ceylon, we sailed south … arriving at Freemantle to a true Australian welcome. Every man on board received a box of goodies, mostly things we hadn’t seen for a while, like fruit and Cadbury’s milk chocolate … A few days later we sailed around the coast to another rapturous welcome in Sydney which was to be our main base for a year.6. 

“You’d Get an Air Raid Warning” KGV and Friend or Foe?

On arriving in the Pacific, KGV operated either with a shore bombardment group or with a British carrier task group. The primary targets in both instances were Japan’s remaining resource infrastructure and any island based airfields that could impede the Anglo-American path towards the Japanese homeland. KGV’s first assignment with the British Pacific Fleet was to protect the British carriers as they launched strikes against Japanese controlled oil facilities in Sumatra. The Indonesian oil fields were producing upwards of 75% of Japan’s fuel needs. The continuous availability of the British carriers was to become vital as Kamikaze attacks were to completely knock several American fleet carriers out of action.

The closer the British and Americans got to Japan, the stiffer the resistance grew. The Kamikaze concept of desperate suicide attacks was not limited to the familiar air strikes, but included the use of small manned submersibles packed with explosives and called “human torpedoes.” The Kamikaze role was even given to the super-battleship Yamato when the giant ship was sent forth on a one way mission to cause as much damage to the naval forces arrayed against Japan as she possibly could before running herself aground. The Royal Navy took every possible precaution against attacks by Japan’s suicide forces. In training, every ship in the BPF was subjected to mock suicide attacks by Fleet Air Arm aircraft. When simulating the enemy British pilots sometimes even fired live ammunition at their targets.

John Lang began his naval career as a midshipman aboard the Hood in the late 1930s. By 1945 Lang was serving on KGV’s open bridge beside Vice-Admiral Sir Bernard Rawlings who was second-in-command of the BPF. Not yet thirty years old at the time, Lang recalled several incidents in which unknown aircraft approached his ship.

You’d get an air raid warning ‘Red’ and the possibility of Kamikaze strikes and you’d all get very tensed up waiting for things to happen. I remember (that) I saw two little tubby airplanes coming towards us and I told the Admiral to get flat on the deck as I thought we were going to get Kamikaze’d and two (American or Fleet Air Arm) Hellcats flew over and landed on one of the carriers and my face turned red and I said, ‘Sorry, sir … better safe than sorry.’ … Whenever there was an air raid warning ‘Red’ the staff used to disappear into the conning tower behind 11-inches of armor but the Admiral didn’t think this was right … with so many other personnel out in the open at action stations, that he should go (inside), too. So he stayed out on the flag deck with his assistant which was J. Lang! (I was there) to sort of advise him of the air situation so I thought it my special responsibility to look after him. He was a very tall man and I am a very little man, so I got down to the deck quicker … a few hours later, I saw another pair of tubby airplanes approaching the KGV and I said, ‘I think this is alright, sir. Two more Hellcats.’ And immediately bbbbbrrrrrr! … little holes were drilled just above our heads on the funnel cases just behind us … and they gained a little height and dived into the carriers … (this was) off the Sakishima Gunto islands … The captain of the Indomitable was a Japanese interpreter and they discovered from the crash some … notes for Kamikaze pilots … (saying) ‘If your engine stops, switch off and fly home,’ or words to that effect. 7. 

On 29 May 1945 KGV fired the last big gun rounds of any Royal Navy battleship at war against enemy targets. Lying off shore from the Japanese city of Hamamatsu, KGV fired her main battery at targets that included ammunition manufacturing plants, the Nakajima aircraft factory, the Japanese Musical Instrument Company which was a producer of airplane propellers, and the Suzuki Motor Company. 8. 

“We Can No Longer Win the War by Adhering to Conventional Methods” Japan’s Special Attack Units 

The enemy the BPF was to face had suffered heavily from losses of warships, aircraft, and key personnel. The Japanese were especially short of combat experienced pilots. For all that, Allied personnel understood that the Japanese still remained highly resourceful, desperate, dangerous, and deadly. Pushed back, Pacific island by Pacific island, to the edge of its home islands, Japan was preparing to do anything and everything possible to resist what it knew was to be an inevitable invasion. In October 1944 the Americans were well on their way to regaining hold of the Philippines. That month, Japan’s Vice Admiral Takijiro Ohnishi, the designated commander of the First Air Fleet and his country’s foremost expert in aerial warfare, convened a meeting in which he announced:

… (T)he First Air Fleet has been designated to … render enemy carriers ineffective … In my opinion this can be accomplished only by crash diving on the carrier flight decks with Zero fighters carrying 250 kilogram bombs. 9.

Admiral Ohnishi’s predecessor made a journal entry dated 18 October 1944 in which he wrote:

We can no longer win the war by adhering to conventional methods of warfare … we must steel ourselves against weakness. If fighter pilots set an example by volunteering for special attack (Kamikaze) missions, other units will follow suit. These examples will in turn inspire surface (navy) forces and army forces … we conclude that the enemy can be stopped and our country saved only by crash dive attacks on their ships.10.

A Special Attack Unit, or Kamikaze, pilot’s manual included the following advice:

  • Transcend life and death. When you eliminate all thoughts about life and death, you will be able to totally disregard your earthly life.
  • In the case of an aircraft carrier (when attacking), aim at the elevators. Or if that is difficult, hit the flight deck at the ship’s stern. For a low altitude horizontal attack, aim at the middle of a vessel, slightly higher than the waterline. If that is difficult … aim at the entrance of the airplane hangar or the bottom of the stack.
  • At the very moment of impact do your best. Every deity and the spirits of your dead comrades are watching you intently … do not shut your eyes … many have crashed into the targets with wide open eyes. They will tell you what fun they had.
  • Remember when diving into the enemy shout at the top of your lungs: “Hissatsu!” (“Sink without fail!”). At that moment all the cherry blossoms at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo will smile brightly at you. 11.

One of the BPF’s mission was to strike at the Ryuku Island chain that extends in a long southwesterly arc from the tip of Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island. The arc of islands includes Okinawa and continues to the northernmost point of Formosa. The value of Okinawa to the Allies lay in the island’s airfields and anchorages from which the expected invasion of Japan could be staged. Japan intended nothing other than to fight desperately to prevent that. Heavy anti-aircraft fire against Fleet Air Arm planes flying against Okinawa took its toll on British aircraft. While no target was immune to their attention, Kamikaze pilots made special efforts to target aircraft carriers. Aircraft carrier HMS Victorious which had transferred to the BPF in February 1945 was hit by her first Kamikaze in April. Despite the fact that the hits absorbed by Victorious and her well-armored counterparts always had to be considered seriously, American naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison’s assertion was that …

a Kamikaze hitting a steel deck (of a British carrier) crumpled up like a scrambled egg and did relatively little damage, whilst one crashing the wooden flight deck of an American carrier usually penetrated to the hangar deck and raised hell below.12.

“They Were Very Difficult to Shoot Down” Kamikazes

In May the Japanese went full bore after the Allies off Okinawa. The famed USS Enterprise was simultaneously set upon by 26 Kamikazes of which the ship’s defensive planes and anti-aircraft guns shot down all but one. The lone surviving Kamikaze crashed into the ship, penetrated the flight deck, and exploded deep below decks. Enterprise had to be withdrawn from combat operations and sent home for repairs. Not long afterwards, a second American carrier was so badly damaged that she too had to be withdrawn from combat operations. The British carriers would each have their turns.

Formidable took a Kamikaze hit that, while not causing much damage to the ship, exploded among aircraft on the flight deck. The hit caused fires and explosions that wrecked a great number of the parked planes. When her time came, Indomitable tried to protect herself by ducking under cloud cover for a spell, but persistent pursuit by the Japanese resulted in her being hit. Not two days, later Victorious was again hit, this time by two Kamikazes just minutes apart. The armored British decks proved their value by preventing the type of extensive damage taken by the American carriers.

According to Raymond Barker of HMS Victorious, Japanese air attacks were often announced ahead of time by the appearance of an enemy scout plane. Flying out of defensive gun range, such planes served to report pertinent target information to incoming attackers. Defensive aircraft would be launched in order to engage the Kamikazes as far from the ship as possible, but there were practically always some who got through. As in the case of the American Enterprise, only one hit always had the potential to raise hell. Although the British sailors had been warned about Kamikazes, very few could get a sense of what they really were until they actually experienced their first attack. Then they were “astounded,” “shocked,” and “amazed” that someone would want to deliberately kill himself for a cause. It seemed to defy all logic. An attacker, after all, would never know if he had been successful or not. Even if successful, there could never be any enjoyment of victory. Barker recalled that the first Kamikaze strike against Victorious involved seven planes. They appeared to be torpedo planes approaching to drop their weapons, but they suddenly gained altitude, wheeled, and began to dive. All of them were shot down, but until they were all gone, Barker could not avoid an intense feeling of helpless vulnerability. He felt that he could tolerate a conventional bomb attack reasonably well enough. To him, such cases were impersonal matters of an airplane going against a ship. Having to watch a Kamikaze bore in on him, however, made him think that the pilot was aiming precisely at none other than just him. For Barker, the sense that he was being personally attacked made the Japanese suicide attempts on his ship eerily unpleasant. In all, Barker witnessed three Kamikaze hits on Victorious. He said of them,

They were very difficult to shoot down. Once you saw them wheel and start to dive you loosed every gun you had on them but it’s a fact of life that a lot of gunnery is very inaccurate … most of it is … and whilst we shot some down, most of them that attacked the fleet got through … they caused damage but not the damage they caused on the American ships … we were different from the Americans insofar as we had an armored flight deck; 3-1/2 inches thick (of) armor plate … the Americans had wooden flight decks under which was a ½ inch steel plate and when a Kamikaze hit their flight deck it went straight through and often into the hangar where other airplanes were either being bombed up or being fueled or whatever and tremendous explosions and conflagrations took place. When we were hit we had a hole … 3 feet in circumference and we just put a steel plate over and some quick drying cement and our airplanes were back to flying in a quarter of an hour’s time. The material effect (of Kamikaze hits) was very small but the morale sapping effect was in a different league … and then they had a variation of that towards the end of the war when an airplane would drop, from twenty miles away, a bomb with a man attached to it and he had a little guidance system and he was rocket propelled … he could chase you around. They were very unpredictable … most of them got nowhere near the fleet; they crashed into the sea, they blew up in mid-air; all sorts of things happened to them. We never suffered a single hit from these. We called them “Chase McCharlies” 13.

British carrier sailor Graham Oakes Evans described the Kamikaze strike against Indomitable of 04 May,

… The ship performed evasion maneuvers as the first Kamikaze (of only three from a formation of 20) to break through the CAP closed in on the starboard side and somehow evaded the ship’s ferocious flak barrage. The Kamikaze struck (our) flight deck about 10 yards astern of the island sending personnel diving for cover. The Kamikaze spewed burning petrol engulfing the flight deck in black acrid smoke. But surprisingly it did not explode as it bounced off the armoured flight deck and glided over the port side. It detonated upon impact with the ocean, throwing a huge sheet of water over the carrier … There was no respite though as a second Kamikaze attacked. Miraculously our luck held as I watched the suicide plane pass just above the flight deck over our heads. It too exploded harmlessly as it hit the ocean alongside punctuated by another shower of water over the deck.14.

Walter Hagan, a crewman aboard another carrier, Illustrious, remembered a near miss aboard his ship,

The aircraft that was diving on to our deck on this particular occasion was hit by our anti-aircraft guns which diverted its dive slightly … for its wing to hit the bridge in passing and dive into the sea alongside the island (superstructure). It exploded in the water and the remains of the aircraft were blown onto the flight deck, plus the pilot’s skull, which was kept by the medical officer. Years later I met (him) … at the Ophthalmic Hospital in Maidstone (and) asked him what had happened to the skull. He told me that he had given it to the C.O. of one of the squadrons on the ship. 15.

 Another British carrier crewman, Paddy Vincent, offered his thoughts and feelings about the Japanese suicide corps,

(At) Okinawa … we became very familiar with the Kamikaze attacks. They were unusual! I don’t recall being frightened – once committed to action you’re too busy doing your job to feel miserable … I had a grandstand view as a Kamikaze pilot strafed the Indomitable then crashed into the Indefatigable.16.

 Vincent was wounded while on Indefatigable. When he was brought down from his battle station, he was dropped roughly onto the deck. His shipmates found shrapnel wounds in his arms and legs and a bullet hole in his chest. He kept the bullet inside him long after the war. Vincent added,

One of the most striking things about our war is that we were all kids – the average age of our ship’s company was only 21 – half of us were aged just eighteen, nineteen, or twenty – and the Kamikaze pilots were just the same. We found out later that the Kamikaze pilots were the youngest in the Japanese Air Force. They were expendable – to be a Kamikaze would have been a waste of an experienced pilot. They were very difficult to stop – they would dive fast and change course unexpectedly. Altogether there were about 2000 Kamikaze attacks and about a fifth of them got through – 402 of our ships were hit and half of these were sunk or damaged beyond use. 17.

Kamikaze attacks were further described by Douglas Parker who had been a pilot and squadron commander aboard several aircraft carriers, among them Victorious and Formidable.

 … we were vulnerable, as were the Americans operating against Okinawa, to that dread thing called the Kamikaze dive bomber … and whilst we were operating off Okinawa we in Formidable were hit with two Kamikazes in rapid sequence. The first one literally bounced off the ship with not too much damage but it thoroughly succeeded in making everyone aware (of) what a menace it was trying to deal with these people who would fly through the most vicious of antiaircraft fire imaginable … (they) would fly literally down the barrels of Oerlikons and batteries of light AA guns (that were arrayed) all around the flight deck of an aircraft carrier ‘til they literally flew down the barrel of the gun and they would still keep going. It was quite depressing at times to see that ability to keep going … while the pilot was killed or the wing was blown off of them the rest would continue as it had been originally continuing until it hit the ship … some were literally breaking up in front of the gun barrel as they practically ran down them. This presented a problem, obviously, to the command because with the best will in the world it was very difficult to expect gun crews exposed in the catwalks, i.e. the decks alongside the flight deck of carriers out in the open fresh air, operating their guns to stay there firing when the aircraft was practically on the other end of their gun. It was very tempting for them to dive under the 3-1/2 inch of Skoda armored steel which was used in the construction of the flight deck because we had great faith that no matter what happened with the Kamikazes they would bounce off our armor plate. … (but) they were very gallant men who literally did go on firing until they could see the whites of the pilot’s eyes. 18.

The British concept of fairness was so shaken by the Japanese suicide attacks that they themselves., at least on one occasion, violated the so-called rules of war. Norman Harrison, Victorious’ Assistant Operations Officer, recalled that after the ship had been hit by a Kamikaze, he saw the plane, still fairly intact, land in the water. The pilot climbed out and was standing on the wing when every gun that could bear turned on him and fired. The tradition among sailors had always been clear that, friend or enemy, a man in the water was to be helped rather than hurt. Victorious’ gunners left no trace of Japanese plane or pilot but later, many could not help but feel badly for what they had done.19.