The Eastern Fleet and the Indian Ocean, 1942-1944: The Fleet that Had to Hide

Reviewed by Charles C. Kolb, PhD

Charles Stephenson is the author of previous works on naval and siege warfare and the history of fortifications, with four volumes in print: The Fortifications of Malta 1530-1945 (Fortress 16, Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2004, 2010); The Admiral’s Secret Weapon: Lord Dundonald and the Origins of Chemical Warfare (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006); The Channel Islands 1941-45: Hitler’s Impregnable Fortress (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2014); and – especially relevant to the book under review here – Germany’s Asia-Pacific Empire: Colonialism and Naval Policy, 1885-1914 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2009; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). He was also a Consultant Editor and contributor to Castles: A History of Fortified Structures: Ancient, Medieval & Modern (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin; Lewes: Ivy Press, 2011) and the author of three books of fiction constituting the Samson Plews Collection.

The Eastern Fleet and the Indian Ocean, 1942-1944: The Fleet That Had to Hide focuses on the history, origins, and predecessors of the British Pacific Fleet (BPF), which was formed in October 1944 and dispatched to fight alongside the United States Navy in the Central Pacific under Admiral Nimitz. Stephenson’s study explores the role of the BPF and its legacy through each level of war, from the grand strategic through the military strategic and operational levels down to the tactical level, with a particular emphasis on the fleet’s activities in the Indian Ocean. The BPF became the largest fleet deployed by the Royal Navy prior to 1945 and played a vital part in the theater of war it was sent to protect. The huge area assigned to this fleet spanned the regions from the coast of East Africa through the Indian Ocean and the Southeast Asia islands, Australia, and southwestern South Pacific. 

Stevenson’s volume contains an introduction, 20 illustrations (six portraits of individuals and 14 ships clustered between pp. 150-151), 15 chapters, copious notes (pp. 219-307); and a double-column index of proper nouns (pp. 309-320).  Additionally, 13 maps are scattered throughout the book, and 1,109 scholarly endnotes are provided in lieu of a bibliography. The author states that “This is not meant to be an academic work”, and indeed it contains no theoretical framework nor any new or startling connections but is a basic history designed for the general reader (p. 5). 

The author begins his introductory remarks by discussing the First World War, notably Admiral Beatty’s North Sea Grand Fleet, whose 19 capital ships were opposed by von Reuter’s German High Seas Fleet, and then quickly moves to the creation of the RAF, the important Battle at Taranto off the Italian Peninsula, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Stephenson notes that his history of the forces that would make up the British Eastern Fleet begins on December 10, 1941 and continues to the fleet’s dissolution on November 22, 1944.

Only three days after the American losses at Pearl Harbor, the tide turned on December 10, 1941 with the sinking of Force 7, including Prince of Wales and Repulse. Chapter 4 is devoted to this action, summarizing the “ill-informed” British intelligence regarding Japanese aircraft capabilities. Stephenson compares data discrepancies between Japanese recorded hits versus British post-action surveys, noting the devastating damage wrought by a single 450 kg aerial torpedo and the Japanese surprise at the “completeness of their victory.” These losses left three British capital ships, one aircraft carrier (HMS Hermes), and nine older and six modern cruisers scattered across the Indian Ocean and Southwestern Pacific. Singapore, untenable as a naval base, fell to the Japanese, so the remaining British ships, denied the possibility of combining with the American fleet in the Central Pacific, assembled at Colombo, Ceylon.

Little is said about Australian and New Zealand ships of the British Commonwealth or the Dutch vessels stranded in southeast Asia (mostly comprising cruisers and smaller craft). Force H, a British fleet located in the Mediterranean, was considered as a potential source of capital ships to defend British supply routes through the Red Sea to and from Australia and the Indian Ocean, and “protect Persian oil” which would be of tremendous value to the Axis war machine. Royal Navy plans were initially based on the premise that the Japanese would not send a fleet into the Indian Ocean. The British reallocated three battleships, two carriers, and an array of cruisers and destroyers to Trincomalee and Addu Atoll; the Japanese were apparently unaware of the naval base at the latter.

By April 1942, Rear Admiral Sir Reginald Somerville had surmised that the Japanese would send a task force with aircraft carriers to simultaneously attack Ceylon and Trincomalee and he calculated that his A and B naval groups could intercept them at night south of Ceylon. Japanese Admiral Nagumo Chuichi and Air Commander Genda Minoru had already been busy after Pearl Harbor, having sent IJN forces to Wake Island, Rabaul, the Dutch East Indies, Java, and then into the Indian Ocean. Even so, the Japanese air power proved too much for the British. The carrier HMS Hermes and two cruisers (HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall) were sunk and other vessels severely damaged. To avoid certain defeat, the remaining British Pacific ships scattered and hid so that the Japanese would disregard them for the time being (hence, the title of Stephenson’s book).

Nagumo was “wary and conservative”, just as he had been at Pearl Harbor, especially now that he lacked effective air reconnaissance and was unable to take advantage of Japanese air-naval superiority in the Indian Ocean. The IJN still controlled the Bay of Bengal and the coast of Burma, but a major Japanese fleet operation was checkmated for the first time at the Battle of the Coral Sea, between May 4 and 8, 1942, just a month after the Japanese victory over the British. The British would receive further help in the form of nearly 200 American Grumman F4F Wildcats and 2,000 Vought F4U Corsairs built for the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm to be flown by British aviators trained in the United States.   

Chapter 9, “In the Belly of Death”, is a very fine essay on IJN submarines and doctrine, which focused on warships as primary targets. This doctrine is contrasted with the Kriegsmarine U-boats and converted auxiliary cruisers, which served as surface raiders with a focus on sinking merchantmen and interdicting supply routes. The famous hunt for the Admiral Graf Spee in the South Atlantic is recounted in this discussion of the Kriegsmarine, as is the loss of the HMAS Sydney to Kormoran off the coast of Western Australia in November 1941. Among other actions reported are the sinking of Laconia by U-156 and the increasing importance of Enigma intercepts after Admiral Doenitz upgraded to four-rotor Enigma machines, which “blinded” Bletchley Park’s cypher analysis from February to December 1942.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Churchill was “displeased” with the inactivity of the Eastern Fleet, particularly because the Japanese had reassessed their Indian Ocean activities following losses at the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway and judged them as not being of vital importance. But Stephenson makes important observations about the tragic losses of both Allied and Axis POWs during the sinking of ships by U-boats and by U.S. Army Liberator bombers. The Eastern fleet almost ceased to exist after Operation Stab and the effectiveness of new Type IVC U-boats necessitated that destroyers be detached to convoy duty.

Stephenson also retells the story of three German ships interned for the duration of war in the neutral port of Goa, a Portuguese colony off the west coast of India from which the Germans had been illegally sending Allied shipping information via Enigma machine to their U-boats. On March 9-10, 1943, a group of patriotic-minded Brits called the “Calcutta Light Horse,” initiated Operation Creek / Longshanks. They captured the German crews, seized the Enigma machine, scuttled and burned all three ships, and escaped. This story has been previously told with some fictional embellishments in James Leasor’s book Boarding Party (1978) and a film version, “The Sea Wolves” (1980).  Good fun and mostly true; look for Gregory Peck, Roger Moore, David Niven, Trevor Howard, Patrick Mcnee, and the well-known Percy Herbert and Wolf Kahler – among other “retreads” from post-Second World War films.        

Stephenson recounts Operation Cannonball and Operation Ravenous among five Axis offensive operations in the Pacific and Far East, 1943-44. These were rare joint ventures involving the Japanese submarine base at Penang and ultimately eight U-boats, seven I-boats, and four Italian Aquila submarines. U-511’s voyage from Germany to Japan is also reported.  By January 1944 the British had assembled the First Battle Squadron (two battleships, one battle cruiser, and two carriers: HMS Illustrious and HMS Unicorn, both stocked with American Corsairs and Avengers). As a countermove, the Japanese sent a major fleet unit (seven battleships and three carriers) to Singapore. Both fleets had inexperienced and untrained personnel, but the British vessels were older and slower than their Japanese counterparts and the Japanese could also depend upon land-based aircraft.

The operations of the Eastern Fleet in 1944 were augmented by Australian destroyers and U.S. destroyer escorts; hence, “British” was dropped from the “British Eastern Fleet” designation. Stephenson documents actions at Sabang, Sourabaya, Port Blau, and Sabang again, all leading up to the Battle of the Philippine Sea, June 19-20, and the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot – Britain’s first carrier-to-carrier battle and the world’s largest in terms of number of ships involved. U.S. Fifth Air Force B-24 bombers escorted by P-38 long-range aircraft escorts obliterated the important Japanese airfield at Hollandia, destroying 340 aircraft on the ground and shooting down 50 others. Cooperative Allied attacks continued through 1944 and included Operation Culverin, an amphibious operation to secure northern Sumatra. Plans for the end of the war were being developed in Southeast Asia, as a wave of nationalism swept the colonial regions. Operation Millet failed as a diversionary action as MacArthur invaded the Philippine Islands in October 1944 and the British began to play “second fiddle” to the United States Navy.

The final brief chapter assesses the shortcomings of the Eastern Fleet – on paper, the fleet looked substantial, but it wasn’t. There were feuds between admirals and the British did not have the requisite capabilities to withstand the initial Japanese advances. For their part, the Japanese suffered from a lack of reconnaissance which hampered their air-naval superiority, as well as their naval doctrine and tactics. The surrender of Italy on September 8, 1943 opened the Mediterranean and Red Sea to Allied shipping, enabling the Allies to reclaim naval superiority in the Indian Ocean. 

Stephenson’s account of the British Pacific Fleet is the most recent narrative among a half-dozen major works published since 1969. Two pioneering essays were Peter C. Smith’s 1949 Task Force 57: The British Pacific Fleet, 1944-45 (reprinted in 2001) and John Winton’s 1969 The Forgotten Fleet: The Story of the British Pacific Fleet, 1944-45 (reprinted 1989). More recent volumes include David Hobbs’ 2011 The British Pacific Fleet: The Royal Navy’s Most Powerful Strike Force (reprinted 2017); Waite Brooks’ 2013 The British Pacific Fleet in World War II: An Eyewitness Account; Jon Robb-Webb’s 2013 The British Pacific Fleet Experience and Legacy, 1944-50; and Andrew Boyd’s 2017 The Royal Navy in Eastern Waters: Linchpin of Victory, 1935-1942. The 20th century books are now both a bit dated and, of course, do not benefit from access to more recently released archival documents utilized by authors writing during the new millennium.


Charles C. Kolb, PhD, is a USNI Golden Life Member.

The Eastern Fleet and the Indian Ocean, 1942-1944: The Fleet that Had to Hide (Charles Stephenson, Pen and Sword Maritime, Yorkshire, Great Britain, 2020).

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