The British Pacific Fleet

HMS Illustrious entering the Captain Cook Graving Dock, Sydney 11 February 1945

Inception

After the fall of Singapore and the subsequent raids on Ceylon in early 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had expelled the Royal Navy (RN) from the Pacific and effectively restricted British naval operations to the fringes of the Indian Ocean. The British subsequently gave priority to the war in Europe, and the United States Navy (USN) took the lead against the IJN in the Pacific. The successful landings at Normandy and the advance on Germany convinced the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that the time was right for a return of the White Ensign to Far Eastern waters. At the second Quebec conference in September 1944, the United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted Churchill's suggestion that a British fleet be used in the main theatre of operations against Japan. Subsequently the British Pacific Fleet (BPF) was formed on 22 November 1944 under Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser. As the island hopping Pacific war moved through the Philippines inexorably toward Japan, the British fleet was to operate from a main base to be established in Sydney, with an intermediate base at Manus in the Admiralty Islands.

The BPF remained in the Indian Ocean conducting operational training and re-equipping its units. This included substantial changes to British carrier and Fleet Air Arm doctrine, as the air operations in the restricted waters of the European theatre were replaced by large numbers of aircraft operating with a single purpose from several carriers simultaneously, as well as the introduction of superior American aircraft. As the BPF was to operate upon the great expanses of the Pacific Ocean it needed to support itself far from base, hence the fleet expanded its floating supply organisation, along the lines of the 'Fleet Train' of their American allies. In spite of a worldwide shortage of afloat support ships and the difficulties inherent in creating a large supply organisation some 12,000 miles away from home, the RN was able to assemble about 60 ships for the Fleet Train; a mixed group including many nationalities and vessels from the RN, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, as well as numerous merchant ships from Britain and the European Allies. Unfortunately the BPF Train was short on fast tankers capable of refuelling ships at sea, and this subsequently became a serious handicap for the fighting ships. The BPF's first flagship was the battleship HMS Howe which sailed for Sydney with Admiral Fraser embarked in December 1944. The BPF's first flagship was the battleship HMS Howe which sailed for Sydney with Admiral Fraser embarked in December 1944.

First Flagship of the British Pacific Fleet, the battleship HMS Howe.
First Flagship of the British Pacific Fleet, the battleship HMS Howe.

Arrival in Australia

While on their way to Australia, aircraft from the BPF successfully attacked two oil refineries at Palembang in eastern Sumatra inflicting heavy losses on the defending Japanese aircraft. When the fleet arrived at their main base in Sydney on the 11th and 12th February 1945, its ranks were full of confidence for the future. Admiral Fraser, as Commander-in-Chief, established his headquarters ashore in Grenville House, William St, Sydney, while his second-in-command, Vice-Admiral Sir Bernard Rawlings, commanded the fleet at sea. Australia had been under 'American occupation' since 1942 and many Australians were delighted to see the British fleet. The people of Sydney raised £A200,000 by public subscription to build the British Centre staffed by over 4,000 volunteers and which provided 1,200 beds and at times 6,000 meals each day. Three hundred young Australian women attended dances each night as hostesses, while some 12,500 homes in New South Wales offered hospitality to British sailors. Australia managed to perform a host of refit and repair facilities in support of the BPF from February 1945 until well after the end of the war. This included an emergency docking of Illustrious in the newly constructed Captain Cook Graving Dock at Garden Island Sydney, three weeks before the official opening ceremony. Not only did many Australian sailors serve in RN ships of the BPF, but by early March 1945 he Australian Navy had allocated all its 'N' and 'Q' class destroyers and eighteen of its Australian corvettes (minesweepers) to that fleet.


Admiral Faser, escorted by Sub Lieutenant P Forster, RANR, inspects Australian sailors serving in RAN corvettes attached to the British Pacific Fleet, Sydney, February 1945.

The Composition of the British Pacific Fleet on its Initial Formation - 1944

TF118 The Strike Fleet

Fleet Aircraft Carriers

1st Aircraft Carrier Squadron

HMS Indomitable, HMS Illustrious, HMS Victorious, HMS Indefatigable

HMS Indomitable, Flagship Aircraft Carrier Squadron 1
HMS Indomitable, Flagship Aircraft Carrier Squadron 1

Battleships

1st Battle Squadron

HMS King George V, HMS Howe

 

HMS King George V was one of the many ships of the British Pacific Fleet to undergo maintenance in the newly constructed Captain Cook Graving Dock.
HMS King George V was one of the many ships of the British Pacific Fleet to undergo maintenance in the newly constructed Captain Cook Graving Dock.

Cruisers

4th Cruiser Squadron

HMS Swiftsure, HMNZS Gambia, HMS Black Prince, HMS Argonaut, HMS Euryalus

HMNZS Gambia (Allan C Green collection SLV)
HMNZS Gambia (Allan C Green collection SLV)

 

The Dido class cruiser HMS Euryalus
The Dido class cruiser HMS Euryalus

Destroyers

4th Destroyer Flotilla

HMAS Quickmatch, HMAS Quiberon, HMS Quality, HMS Queenborough

HMAS Quickmatch and Quiberon both formed part of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla
HMAS Quickmatch and Quiberon both formed part of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla

25th Destroyer Flotilla

HMS Grenville, HMS Ulster, HMS Undine, HMS Ursa, HMS Urania, HMS Undaunted

HMS Grenville and Undaunted (Allan C Green collection SLV)
HMS Grenville and Undaunted (Allan C Green collection SLV)

27th Destroyer Flotilla

HMS Kempenfelt, HMS Wessex, HMS Wager, HMS Whelp, HMS Whirlwind, HMS Wakeful

Support Force Escorts

Frigates and Sloops

HMS Crane, HMS Redpole, HMS Pheasant, HMS Woodcock, HMS Whimbrel, HMS Barle, HMS Helford, HMS Parret

HMS Woodcock and Pheasant
HMS Woodcock and Pheasant

21st Minesweeping Force

HMA Ships Ballarat, Maryborough, Lismore, Whyalla, Goulburn, Kalgoorlie, Toowoomba, Bendigo

22nd Minesweeping Force

HMA Ships Geraldton, Cessnock, Cairns, Ipswich, Tamworth, Wollongong, Pirie, Launceston

HMAS Pirie and Whyalla
HMAS Pirie and Whyalla, both are wearing their British Pacific Fleet pennant numbers preceded by the letter 'B". Note also the paint scheme adopted by the two vessels.

TF117 The Fleet Train

Replenishment Carriers

HMS Slinger, HMS Speaker, HMS Striker, HMS Fencer

The replenishment carrier HMS Fencer
The replenishment carrier HMS Fencer

Repair Ships

HMS Resource, HMS Artifex

The heavy repair ship HMS Artifex was initially deployed to Manus in the Admiralty Islands, from where she supported ships of Task Force 57
The heavy repair ship HMS Artifex was initially deployed to Manus in the Admiralty Islands, from where she supported ships of Task Force 57

Aircraft Repair Ships

HMS Unicorn

HMS Unicorn provided valuable service to the British Pacific Fleet in her capacity as a mobile aircraft repair ship
HMS Unicorn provided valuable service to the British Pacific Fleet in her capacity as a mobile aircraft repair ship

Destroyer Depot Ship

HMS Tyne

Netlayer

HMS Guardian

HMS Guardian
HMS Guardian

Victualling Store Issue Ships

Fort Edmonton, Denbighshire, Fort Albama, City of Dieppe

Air Store Issuing Ship

Fort Colville

Armament Store Issuing Ships

Corinda, Darvel, Hermelin, Heron, Kheti, Pacheco, Prince de Liege, Princess Maria Pia, Robert Maersk, Thyra S

Armament Store Carriers

Gudrun Maersk, Kistina, Kola

Naval Store Carrier

Bosphorus

Distilling Ships

Bacchus, Stagpool

Hospital Ships

Oxfordshire, Tjitjalengka

Oilers

Brown Ranger, Dingledale, San Ambrosio, Cedardale, Arndale, San Adolfo, Wave King, Aase Maersk

Tugs

4

Work-ups

On 24 February the fleet sailed for its base in Manus, conducting air, gunnery and replenishment at sea exercises in transit. On the way to Manus the fleet practiced, for the first time, USN tactical fleet formations, manoeuvres, and communications. It is perhaps understandable that the USN was somewhat reluctant to include the BPF in the forefront of their operations against Japan. USN fleet units had developed into close-knit teams during long years of difficult operations in Pacific waters, while the BPF was as yet largely untried in joint operations against Japan where interoperability was essential. The acceptance of the Australian Squadron within the US Seventh Fleet proved that integration was possible, however RN ships were at the time an unknown quantity. In addition, at the time the deployment of USN fighting ships was essentially limited by the logistic capabilities of the Fleet Trains so additional logistic demands by British ships could have led to reductions in the deployment of USN ships. The Allied commanders in the Pacific had differing opinions on how the BPF should be employed; General Douglas MacArthur preferred to use the fleet in the Philippines and Borneo, whereas Admiral Chester Nimitz thought the fleet would be best used to cover the invasion of Okinawa (the ICEBERG series of operations). Ultimately political pressure from London led to the BPF being allocated to the Okinawa operations and the subsequent advance directly upon Japan. During the early part of 1945, many in the BPF felt that while they enjoyed themselves in Sydney and waited for orders at Manus, the world was passing them by.

Ships of the British Pacific Fleet berthed at Wooloomooloo c.1945. In the foreground is the destroyer HMS Wessex. HMS King George V can be seen berthed at the Finger Wharf in the background. (State Library of Victoria)
Ships of the British Pacific Fleet berthed at Wooloomooloo c.1945. In the foreground is the destroyer HMS Wessex. HMS King George V can be seen berthed at the Finger Wharf in the background. (State Library of Victoria)

Operations

The BPF received orders on 15 March 1945 to report to Admiral Nimitz for duty in the ICEBERG operations. By 26 March the fleet was stationed off the Sakishima Gunto islands, between Okinawa and Formosa (now Taiwan), and on that and subsequent days the fleet's carrier aircraft attacked the Japanese airfields of the group. The main American assault on Okinawa commenced on 1 April. The British carriers next attacked the Japanese airfields in Northern Formosa before returning to neutralise the remaining aircraft in the Sakishima group.

Oiling at sea was crucial to long range operations in the Pacific. (J.C. Goodchild)
Oiling at sea was crucial to long range operations in the Pacific. (J.C. Goodchild)

After replenishing at Leyte, the BPF returned on 4 May to bombard the Sakishima Gunto airfields. Recognising that IJN ships could no longer effectively challenge Allied sea control in the approaches to Japan, the Japanese resorted to large scale Japanese suicide plane 'Kamikaze' attacks. The first Kamikaze attack against the BPF occurred on 6 April when the carrier Illustrious was hit, fortunately the British carrier's armoured flight deck saved her from serious damage. From 4 May the BPF was subjected to intense Kamikaze attack, with four major hits on the carriers resulting in many of the aircraft on the flight decks being destroyed. The fleet continued air operations against the Japanese at Sakishima until 25 May 1945 when the fleet set a southerly course for Manus and then Sydney. The fleet spent three weeks in Sydney where it was replenished, repaired and refreshed. The aircraft carrier Formidable required major repairs after its armoured flight deck was ripped apart by a Kamikaze attack.

HMS Formidable shortly after suffering a Kamikaze attack on 4 May 1945
HMS Formidable shortly after suffering a Kamikaze attack on 4 May 1945

The BPF departed Sydney on 28 June 1945 to join the US Third Fleet, under Admiral William Halsey. On 17 July the fleet went into action with air attacks and bombardments against targets on the Japanese mainland, and these operations continued for the succeeding weeks. Having destroyed many of Japan's towns, dockyards, airfields and industries in the south-east, the US Third Fleet (including the British) moved north-east up the Japanese coast leaving a path of destruction behind it. The BPF was attacking Honshu when the first atomic bomb exploded at Hiroshima on 6 August, but hostilities did not cease until the 11 August when Japan formally surrendered. Most of the BPF left the Japanese coast, as planned, on 12 August due to an absence of tankers for refuelling. The flagship King George V and the carrier Indefatigable remained behind to attend the formal surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945.

Admiral Fraser signs the formal surrender document on behalf of the United Kingdom, on board USS Missouri, Tokyo Bay 2 September 1945.
Admiral Fraser signs the formal surrender document on behalf of the United Kingdom, on board USS Missouri, Tokyo Bay 2 September 1945.
In additon to the large fleet carriers, numerous escort carriers supported offensive operations in the Pacific. Left: HMS Ruler in Sydney Harbour. Right: HMS Shah
In additon to the large fleet carriers, numerous escort carriers supported offensive operations in the Pacific. Left: HMS Ruler in Sydney Harbour. Right: HMS Shah

After hostilities ceased, the BPF was employed on urgent political and humanitarian tasks including: accepting the surrender of Japanese forces, re-establishing British government presence in the region (including the ZIPPER landings in Malaya); the rescue and repatriation of prisoners of war; and supplying food and medical supplies to the starving people of South-East Asia. The BPF was not represented at the Victory Celebrations held in the United Kingdom during June 1946. Admiral Rawlings was appointed Commander-in-Chief Pacific Fleet and relocated to Hong Kong; while the BPF, once the largest array of British Commonwealth ships ever to have operated under a single command, was dispersed and largely forgotten.

Left: Japanese prisoners boarding HMS Whirlwind following the cessation of hostilities. Right: HMS Speaker repatriates former Australian prisoners of war to Sydney.
Left: Japanese prisoners boarding HMS Whirlwind following the cessation of hostilities. Right: HMS Speaker repatriates former Australian prisoners of war to Sydney.

Further Reading:

  • Hobbs, D., The British Pacific Fleet, The Royal Navy's Most Powerful Strike Force, Seaforth Publishing, S Yorkshire, 2011
  • Brown, D., (ed.), The British Pacific and East Indies Fleets, 'The Forgotten Fleets', 50th Anniversary, Brodie Publishing, Liverpool, 1995.
  • Brown, D., 'The Forgotten Bases: The Royal Navies in the Pacific 1945', in D. Stevens (ed.), The Royal Australian Navy in World War II, 2nd edn., Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2005, pp. 186-197.
  • Frame, T. R., The Garden Island, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, NSW, 1990.
  • Roskill, S., The Navy at War 1939-1945, Collins, London, 1960.
  • Stevens, D., (ed.), The Royal Australian Navy, The Australian Centenary History of Defence, Vol. III, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2001.
  • Winton, J., The Forgotten Fleet, Michael Joseph, London, 1969.