In the long and proud history of the Royal Navy, the largest formation ever to see combat fought under the operational command not of Drake, Nelson, Jellicoe, or Cunningham, but rather of Americans Raymond Spruance and William Halsey. The British Pacific Fleet was massive and today would be the largest navy on the planet, but in 1945 it fought the Imperial Japanese Navy as a component of the U.S. Fifth and Third Fleets.
The British, at the end of World War II decided that they needed to be in at the kill at the end of the Pacific war, for political and diplomatic reasons. The Americans accepted the offer of a British task force, though somewhat grudgingly. This was not mere parochialism. The Pacific theatre presented challenges the Americans had mastered through years of hard effort, but which were new to the British.
Despite American assistance, the British still faced a huge problem. Naval architects had designed British ships for duty in the confined waters around Britain, not in the vastness of the Pacific. “The distances were staggering to those of us accustomed to the conditions of the European War,” [Admiral Vian, the British aircraft carrier commander] stated. The Royal Navy also had little experience in resupplying ships under way. The British transferred fuel at sea using hoses that trailed astern of the tankers since they lacked catamarans to keep ships apart and the appropriate block and tackles to sail side by side while fueling. Vian called this method “an awkward, unseaman-like business.”
In part offsetting these problems was the design of the RN’s aircraft carriers. They had been designed for fighting in the narrow seas around Europe, and had been expected to stand up to land-based air attack, and hence were ruggedly built by comparison to the USN’s carriers:
Task Force 57 quickly proved itself a worthwhile commodity to the U.S. Pacific Fleet. British and American officers soon learned that the carriers of the Royal Navy stood up to the suicide attacks better than their American counterparts. Designed to take a beating from enemy aviation, the British carriers had more defensive plating. “The armoured decks of our C.V.s have caused a great sensation among the Americans and have certainly proved their worth against suicide aircraft with their comparatively small penetrating power,” [British fleet commander] Fraser observed. The U.S. liaison officer on the Indefatigable was impressed at the resilience of the ship. “When a kamikaze hits a U.S. carrier it means 6 months of repair at Pearl. When a kamikaze hits a Limey carrier it’s just a case of ‘Sweepers, man your brooms.’”
In the end, the British made a valuable contribution, both in practical and in political terms.
When the war ended, Admiral Fraser represented Britain on the deck of the USS Missouri. He and his command had earned the honor. The ships flying the White Ensign of the Royal Navy had operated successfully at the end of an exceptionally long supply line. [American] concerns about logistic problems in matters of spare parts, refueling, and the speed of fleet movements were legitimate. British assets, however, outweighed liabilities in these areas. How this was accomplished lies in the fact that all forces have strengths and weaknesses, and the Japanese with their kamikaze attacks had stumbled onto a vulnerability; these suicide planes were a deadly threat to U.S. carriers, but one to which the British were largely immune. This niche contribution would have grown in importance had the war continued. The British presence also increased the weight the allies could apply against the home islands. Moreover, the British were a morale booster to Americans serving in the Pacific. The presence of His Majesty’s ships and sailors meant that the burden of combat in Japan would be shared, minimizing to some degree the losses the United States would suffer and helping sustain public sentiment on the home front. Put simply, friends are good to have in a fight. Finally, the British presence serviced the political interests of both nations. The leadership in each capital realized they were stronger with an ally than without one.
Obviously enough, the issue of “niche contributions”, “burden sharing” and “friends in a fight” are still critical aspects of intra-Anglospheric military cooperation. Britain and Australia in Iraq and the Canadians and the New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan have filled similar valuable roles in our recent military efforts. (Non-Anglospheric allies such as the Poles in Iraq and the Norwegian special forces in Afghanistan also made valuable “niche” contributions.)
The larger lesson seems to be that such “traditional” cooperation should not be taken for granted. There are always forces pushing against it. These valuable relationships have taken decades to develop and they should be cared for and cultivated in the years ahead. The world will be a dangerous place for a very long time and the peoples of the Anglosphere will always want friends who are ready, willing and able to bring their guns to a fight.
Cross-posted at Albion’s Seedlings.