/ Published April 04, 2019
The British Pacific Fleet: The Royal Navy’s Most Powerful Strike Force by David Hobbs. Seaforth Publishing, 2011, 462 pp.
By keeping Britain’s supply lines open in World War II, the Royal Navy prevented Britain’s certain defeat. The feats of the Royal Navy, including convoy escort in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, the sinking of major German warships, including the German battleship KMS Bismarck, and the defeat of the U-boats are among the most epic of that war. Yet the most powerful Royal Navy force of the World War II fought, not in the Atlantic or the Mediterranean but half a world away in the Pacific Ocean and is barely remembered today even by serious students of the war.
British trade in the Pacific was of such importance in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the Committee of Imperial Defense considered its defense second in importance only to Britain itself (p. 1). Besides the Dominions of Australia and New Zealand, key British outposts in the region included Hong Kong and Singapore. The Japanese offensive of 1941 resulted in the capture of both Hong Kong and Singapore, and Imperial Japanese Navy bombers sank the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser HMS Repulse, all of which were shocking losses to the British. Despite Britain’s considerable pre-war interest in the Pacific, for the next three years the Pacific was largely the domain of the US, with the British military focused elsewhere. However, the British did aspire to return the Royal Navy to the Pacific in force, to fight alongside the US Navy against Japan. By working with the Americans, the British hoped to learn about the methods of aircraft carrier operations that the Americans had finely honed, be seen postwar as a contributor to the defeat of Japan, and help Britain regain its position as a great power in the Pacific (pp. 17–18).
With these objectives, the Royal Navy formed the British Pacific Fleet (BPF) under the command of Adm Sir Bruce Fraser. Centered around its aircraft carriers, the BPF closely mimicked its American counterpart. The BPF started combat operations in late 1944 with air strikes against oil refineries and other targets in Sumatra, which acted as a shake-down. In March 1945, the BPF joined with the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, essentially acting as an additional carrier task group within that enormous force. The BPF also had to create an elaborate and highly capable logistics infrastructure to operate at vastly greater distances than the Royal Navy had faced closer to home.
The author, David Hobbs, is a retired commander in the Royal Navy and served as a naval aviator. After retiring from the naval service, he was the curator at the United Kingdom’s Fleet Air Arm Museum. He first developed an interest in the BPF while being assigned as a midshipman in 1966 to HMS Victorious, which had been an aircraft carrier in the BPF. With his professional background, Hobbs is well-qualified to recount the story of the BPF and he does so in depth. The book is a goldmine of fascinating information from the details of air strikes to the mechanics of replenishment at sea. It appears that no aspect of the BPF, from submarine operations to the immense logistics and maintenance infrastructure in Australia, escapes the attention of Hobbs. The book has a good assortment of photographs and excellent maps.
Not only is this book a thorough study of an historical subject that has not received much coverage, but it is an exceptionally timely read for today. Technology may change but geography does not, and the Pacific Ocean is a theater of much current interest to the American military. This book will give the reader a renewed appreciation of the tyranny of distance and the challenges of operating in this enormous region.
Kenneth P. Katz