Neglected Skies: The Demise of British Naval Power in the Far East, 1922-42
Angus Britts. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD (2017).
Reviewed by Joseph Moretz, Ph D
Of the many years of fiscal stringency preceding the Second World War, Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond observed that a ‘two-ocean empire cannot be defended by a one-ocean navy.’ That dilemma ever faced the Admiralty in 1939 as it attempted to secure command of the seas near the British Isles and in the Mediterranean when facing Germany and was not abetted when Italy opted for belligerency in 1940. Difficult to achieve then, the task became insuperable following the fall of France when a bellicose Japan now occupied Indochina bringing land-based airpower that much closer to Australia, New Zealand and Malaya. British planners understood the peril of the Axis acting in concert and framed their prewar maritime strategy accordingly. Unfortunately, Italy in 1939, much as it had in 1914, sat on the sidelines and initially played the role of an unfriendly neutral. Thus, Britain was not free to strike a blow against the Italian Navy and then deploy its fleet eastward to forestall any Japanese moves arising in the Pacific.
The efficacy of Britain’s initial strategy cannot be measured, but the actual alternative realized witnessed a Royal Navy diminished in a series of campaigns and engagements against the two European Axis partners. This made meeting the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1941-42 on anything approaching equal terms extremely problematic, as British air and naval resources remained fully committed to the European War. Owing to the dynamics of imperial relations and prior commitments made, Britain could not expressly follow a strategy anchored on sequential operations in Europe before facing any Japanese threat. At a minimum, it had to provide a deterrent force in the Far East in 1941 or risk seeing Australia and New Zealand withdrawal its forces from the Near East to defend what Britain would not.
In the first instance, Force Z (HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse) was meant to be that deterrent, but an enemy willing to challenge the American Pacific Fleet directly at Pearl Harbor was not an enemy likely to be forestalled by a British battleship and battle cruiser operating from Singapore. And so it proved. Both capital ships were sunk by Japanese land-based aircraft on 10 December 1941. Responding to the unfolding crisis, the Admiralty created an Eastern Fleet operating from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) formed around 5 battleships, 3 aircraft carriers, 7 cruisers and 14 destroyers. Commanding all was Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville, an officer of exceptional abilities and with experience of the present war via his time leading Force H.
On paper, Somerville’s fleet appeared formidable, but it suffered from critical deficiencies. Four of his battleships required modernization to face anything more than a token scale of air attack and were slow of speed and of limited range. Thus, they were not able to defend the carrier force from any air assault and, if operated with the carriers, would impose a significant cost in the speed of approach. If the carrier force largely avoided those shortcomings, then it demonstrated traits all too common with British models in 1942: They carried too few aircraft and what few they carried were easily outclassed by their Japanese counterparts.
Somerville did, however, enjoy three key advantages. A secret anchorage in the Maldives was available to the Eastern Fleet, some of his ships and shore installations possessed radar, and, through signals intelligence, Somerville knew a Japanese sortie into the Indian Ocean was likely. Enjoying a long-range aerial reconnaissance and strike capability courtesy of Royal Air Force Catalina and Blenheim aircraft, the potential to visit a defeat against his adversary on a par with the to be fought Midway existed. Alas, that did not occur, and the reasons why are the subject of Neglected Skies: The Demise of British Naval Power in the Far East, 1922-42 by Angus Britts.
Possessing the world’s premier naval air arm in 1919, it did not take long for Britain to waste this asset as the dictates of finance and naval treaty exerted their baleful influences. With control over what little aviation Britain could afford now split between the Admiralty and the Air Ministry, fashioning a coherent vision of the role and scale of naval aviation was made that much more difficult. That others, including the Japanese, saw the promise of neutralizing American and British surface dominance by using carrier and land-based air operations is a particular strength of Neglected Skies. The nadir of British naval fortunes came in April 1942 when the carrier Hermes joined the cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire in a watery grave at the hands of Japanese carrier-launched dive bombers. Rather than see his remaining ships destroyed in detail, Somerville withdrew the Eastern Fleet to African waters, thereby ceding the Indian Ocean to Vice-Admiral Nagumo.
Britts avows the withdrawal of a British fleet was without modern precedent, but that is to ignore events in Norwegian waters in 1940 and off the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915. It also ignores that in both World Wars British surface forces never could operate in the Baltic and Black Seas. Such absolute claims are repeated at intervals by the author. Thus, it is avowed that the British lacked experience in multi-carrier operations ignoring the joint presence of the Ark Royal, Glorious and Furious off Norway. Further, the author offers that Somerville’s retreat demonstrates the collective sins of British interwar atrophy and represents the mismatch between two competing schools of naval doctrine as espoused by British and Japanese practice. Accordingly, these events have a strategic significance beyond the limited results achieved. This reviewer readily accepts that these events are worthy of understanding by a greater audience, but questions the strategic lessons seemingly on offer.
The Japanese, after all, also retreated from the Indian Ocean and British communications to the Near East remained intact following the Japanese Navy’s incursion.
Somerville acted as he did not so much from possessing a different doctrinal understanding than his enemy counterpart, but for the simple reason the capabilities of his fleet dictated his tactical approach. Again, in Norway, the Royal Navy executed multiple long-range strikes against both shore and at-sea objectives. If these largely failed, then it was because the means possessed (Swordfish, Roc and Skua aircraft) were insufficient for the ends desired. This was primarily a failure of acquisition and one never so much as doctrine. Somerville was commanding a fleet of the second eleven in 1942 and he knew it. His four R-class battleships were so obsolete Churchill previously weighed sinking them as blockships in the Gulf of Bothnia. Under the circumstances, Somerville did as much as he could with what he had. If he failed to deliver a decisive blow against Admiral Nagumo, then surviving to fight another day was not a poor second.
The author’s use of the counterfactual to ‘what if” alternative outcomes and his failure to consult many primary and secondary works readily available testify that Neglected Skies is not a work aimed towards an academic audience. It is, though, worth reading by others. These events, all too often overlooked, were critical hours for Australia, New Zealand and India too no less than for the Royal Navy. Britts accounting demonstrates how so and for this alone is commended.
Dr. Moretz is with the British Commission for Military History