For the Royal Navy, the end seemed to come quickly in the Pacific war. Less than three days after the conflict’s outbreak, Japanese aircraft attacked and sank the most powerful British warships in Far Eastern waters, the modern battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse. Their loss, followed within a couple of months by the capture of the naval bases in Hong Kong and Singapore, effectively drove the British navy out of the Pacific.
But the Royal Navy—in the form of the British Pacific Fleet (BPF)—returned to make a major contribution in 1945 to the defeat of Japan. The BPF, its vital bases, and logistical support organization did not exist until late 1944, but eight months later, the fleet had become the most powerful deployed force in the history of the Royal Navy.
The BPF did not begin to come into focus until the August 1943 Quadrant Conference of Allied leaders in Quebec. Agreement was reached that greater priority should be given to the Pacific war, while retaining the “Germany first” principle. But for much of 1944, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the British Chiefs of Staff argued over how best to implement the decisions.
Churchill wanted to reconquer Burma, Malaya, and the oil-rich former Dutch East Indies island of Sumatra. The Chiefs of Staff argued that fighting on the littoral of the Indian Ocean would not be seen as central to the defeat of Japan, but a British strike fleet fighting alongside the U.S. Navy would be recognized after the conflict as a major contribution to the defeat of the enemy.
By the second Quebec Conference, in September 1944 and code-named Octagon, it was clear that if Britain intended to play a part in direct operations against Japan, the pace of American progress meant that action must be taken immediately. Britain offered to send a balanced fleet including at least four aircraft carriers to the Pacific by the end of the year. Two months later the U.S. government agreed in principle that a British carrier task force should fight in the Pacific, but there was opposition from Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King.
King expressed concerns that the U.S. Navy had insufficient logistical support to supply such a force, which must, therefore, be entirely self-sufficient. He doubted that would be possible, failing to recognize that Britain could rely on the Commonwealth for help with manpower, ships, industrial capacity, and land for bases.
The commander-in-chief of the new fleet had to have formidable qualities as a diplomat as well as be an exceptional leader and tactician. The man chosen, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, was the outstanding Royal Navy leader of his generation, and no other contemporary British commander would bear such awesome responsibility. Fraser would be accountable to the Admiralty in London for the general direction of the forces under his command; to the Australian government for the headquarters, dockyards, air stations, depots, and barracks that formed his main bases; and to the individual Navy Boards of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand for the men and ships they provided him. Operationally he took orders from Admiral Chester Nimitz, Allied commander-in-chief of the Pacific Ocean Areas, but because of his own seniority, Fraser delegated sea command of the BPF to Vice Admiral Sir Bernard Rawlings, his second-in-command.
Laying the Foundation
Australia was the obvious location for the new fleet’s base. But in the autumn of 1944, it lacked much that would be needed and was heavily committed to supporting U.S. forces in General Douglas MacArthur’s South West Pacific Area. Men and matériel took time to travel the 12,000 miles from the United Kingdom, and the Japanese mainland was 4,400 miles from Sydney, requiring intermediate bases to be identified, negotiated for, established, and stocked.
Royal Navy plans in early 1944 had assumed operations off the Philippine Islands, but by March 1945 the BPF would operate nearly twice as far from its Australian bases, with a consequent need for more logistical shipping. Led by Rear Admiral C. S. Daniel, a mission tasked with examining in detail the U.S. Navy fleet-support organization and making recommendations was sent to the United States, U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters at Pearl Harbor, and Australia in early 1944.
The U.S. Navy made it clear that the Royal Navy would have to be self-sufficient with naval, food, armament, and aviation stores and that, while fuel oil could be drawn from shared bulk stores, British supply tankers would have to put in an amount equivalent to that taken out. Because most British ships, together with their weapons and ammunition, differed from their American equivalents, this was a sensible and reasonable approach. While by late 1944 the Royal Navy operated more U.S.-built than British-built aircraft, the planes were so extensively modified that they had effectively become different aircraft.
Detailed planning began in May 1944 when Admiral Daniel and his team arrived in Australia. At first they did not know when the BPF would arrive nor where or under what orders it would operate, but by November they had produced a plan that was forwarded to the Joint Administration Planning Sub Committee of the Australian Defence Committee. It included broad requirements for dockyards, port facilities, and stevedores; naval air stations and air yards; barracks, workshops, and transport; and food and armament depots on a massive scale. The resulting Australian document formed the basis for the development of the BPF’s main base complex throughout 1945.
On 10 November 1944, Vice Admiral J. W. Rivett-Carnac was appointed as vice admiral (quartermaster), or VA (Q), with his headquarters in Melbourne. He had responsibility for the logistical support of the BPF, including activities ashore and ships of the Fleet Train, the British equivalent of the U.S. Navy service squadrons. In December 1944, the flag officer Naval Air Stations, Australia, Rear Admiral R. H. Portal, established his headquarters in Sydney. His title was changed in 1945 to flag officer Naval Aviation Pacific, and he was responsible to the VA (Q) for the supply of replacement aircrews, aircraft, and engines to the combat area. He was also responsible for training aircrews in Australia to meet the fleet’s requirements.
In other oceans, the Royal Navy had relied on an extensive system of bases to provide ships with logistical support. But in the late 1930s, consideration was given to the need for depot ships capable of moving to a remote anchorage. Many fleet auxiliaries were converted from merchant ships then under construction in Canada, and by July 1945 the Fleet Train would comprise 10 repair and maintenance ships, 22 tankers, 24 store carriers, 4 hospital ships, 5 tugs, 11 miscellaneous vessels, and 2 floating docks. Among them, the amenity ship Menestheus featured a 350-seat theater, bars, and even a brewery capable of producing 250 barrels of beer per week using distilled seawater. The repair and maintenance ships were commissioned into the Royal Navy and proved to be valuable assets.
The British Pacific Fleet was formally established on 22 November 1944, and in addition to British warships included the Canadian cruiser Uganda, the New Zealand cruisers Achilles and Gambia, and the Australian destroyers Quiberon, Queenborough, Nizam, Napier, Nepal, and Norman. Many of the Royal Navy vessels had Commonwealth sailors in their ships’ companies who integrated seamlessly into their duties. The fighting core of the BPF was the 1st Aircraft Carrier Squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian, which in 1945 included all six of the Illustrious-class armored carriers, although only four were in action at any one time.
The Commonwealth contribution was especially important in terms of the aircrews that made up the BPF’s 36 naval air squadrons. More than half the Royal Navy’s pilots came from the Commonwealth, either serving in the Royal Navy and its reserves or as members of the Royal New Zealand Navy, Royal Canadian Navy, or Royal Australian Navy and their attached reserves.
British experience in Pacific strike warfare had been gained in 1943 when the carrier Victorious was loaned to the U.S. Pacific Fleet at a time when it had only one operational carrier, the Saratoga (CV-3). The Victorious’ fighter-control officers helped to improve the U.S. Navy’s air defense organization, and the Saratoga subsequently served briefly with the British Eastern Fleet in 1944, passing on the latest American techniques to British carrier air groups.
When Fraser and key members of his staff had called on Nimitz in Pearl Harbor in late 1944, the Pacific Ocean Areas commander asked the BPF to launch strikes against two important oil refineries near Palembang on Sumatra that provided Japan with much of its aviation fuel. U.S. Army Air Forces B-29 bombers had recently attacked the plants but failed to score significant hits. Understandably, Nimitz also wanted a demonstration of the Royal Navy’s capability to carry out strike operations so that he could judge for himself the potential value of the BPF to his command.
Fraser accepted without hesitation. The refinery at Pladjoe was attacked on 24 January 1945, and after delays caused by rain and low clouds, the facility at Soengi Gerong was hit on 29 January. The air strikes put both refineries out of action, and neither recovered full capacity before the end of the war. But the attackers lost 16 aircraft to enemy action and others to deck-landing accidents and engine failures. Thirty aircrews were lost, some of them without a trace.
The decision to attack the refineries on separate days had telegraphed the intention to return, and the second strike suffered in consequence. Subsequent underway replenishment using the inefficient “astern” method proved to be slow, with none of the carriers able to take on the amount of fuel oil they needed in the time available. Enemy aircraft located and attacked the BPF on 29 January, but combat air patrol (CAP) fighters splashed them all. Royal Navy aircraft losses were made good when the fleet arrived at Sydney in February. The maintenance carrier Unicorn had reached the port only days earlier with replacement aircraft and workshops able to prepare more planes for operations as they arrived in ferry carriers. Local air stations were ready just in time to provide shore-based facilities for the carrier squadrons.
The BPF meanwhile had to assimilate American tactics, signal codes, and procedures in a matter of days. The ships even had to adopt U.S. Navy hull numbers, which were painted onto their sides, replacing their Royal Navy pennant numbers. The Admiralty had been averse to the idea of using U.S. Navy signal codes, but Admiral Fraser, who had earlier incorporated American warships into the Royal Navy Home Fleet under his command using British codes, insisted and acted on his own initiative to use American signal codes. He also adopted U.S. Navy–style working dress for his ships’ companies—khaki for officers and blue for sailors.
American acceptance of coalition operations by the BPF was not confirmed until March 1945, after the fleet had sailed from Sydney. Nimitz had insisted that the BPF serve as his Central Pacific command’s “flexible reserve,” a stance soon justified when the Intrepid (CV-11), Wasp (CV-18), and Franklin (CV-13) were damaged by enemy action. Designated Task Force (TF) 57, although it was only the size of an American task group, the BPF operated to the southwest of TF 58, the U.S. Navy’s main Pacific strike force, during Operation Iceberg, the Battle of Okinawa. The BPF was tasked with preventing enemy aircraft based on Formosa from staging through airfields on the Sakishima Islands to Okinawa. It operated in cycles of two strike days followed by two days of replenishment. Four U.S. escort carriers replaced the British carriers when they were absent.
Strikes commenced on 26 March, but the airfields proved unrewarding targets, as the enemy repaired their runways, made of crushed coral, every night. The BPF’s lack of night-flying capability was keenly felt, although some experienced Avenger pilots from the Indomitable flew predawn strikes to catch Japanese “early birds” staging through the islands.
On 1 April, D-day for U.S. soldiers and Marines landing on Okinawa, the Indefatigable became the first British carrier to be hit by a kamikaze when a Zero broke through the ship’s CAP and crashed into the base of her island. Despite damage to the carrier and casualties that included four officers and ten enlisted men killed, after repairs that took just an hour to complete the Indefatigable was able to operate aircraft.
Over the next month, all the British carriers, including the Formidable, which replaced the Illustrious in May, would be hit and damaged to varying degrees by kamikazes. But the ships’ armored decks prevented them from sustaining critical damage and all were able to remain in action. In the Indefatigable’s case, the kamikaze crash dented the armored deck by about three inches, started a fire in the deck head of B hangar under the point of impact, and wrecked an office in the island.
The U.S. Navy was impressed. On 8 April, a day after the Hancock (CV-19) was so badly damaged by a kamikaze hit that she had to return to the United States for extensive repairs, TF 58 commander Admiral Raymond Spruance requested that TF 57 strike at airfields on Formosa, believing that the armored British carriers would be less vulnerable than U.S. carriers to kamikaze counterattack. Admiral Rawlings agreed, and aircraft from his carriers conducted strikes against Formosan targets on 11 and 13 April. They damaged airfields, destroyed planes on the ground, hit road and rail targets, and shot down at least 16 Japanese aircraft at the cost of 3 BPF aircraft lost.
As TF 57 withdrew from Formosan waters, Spruance requested more BPF strikes against the Sakishima Islands; in the fleet’s absence, U.S. escort carriers had not been able to maintain the same weight of attack as the British carriers. Again Rawlings agreed, reporting to Admiral Fraser that Spruance’s seasoned 5th Fleet had accepted the BPF as equals; it was no longer a “flexible reserve” but an essential part of a coalition fleet under its commander’s orders. On 14 April HMS Formidable replaced the Illustrious, which had been steaming on only two of her three shafts, maintaining the number of TF 57’s operational carriers at four. After strikes on 20 April, the task force sailed for Leyte Gulf to repair damage and replenish stores. It had been at sea for 32 days, the longest sortie by any British fleet since the days of sail.
Back in Action
Task Force 57 sailed for further operations against the Sakishima Islands on 1 May. Three days later, after the battleships King George V and Howe and five cruisers had detached from the force’s screen to close the islands and bombard their airfields, a kamikaze hit the Formidable, releasing what appeared to be a 500-pound bomb a second before impact. A sheet of flame rose to funnel height, and the blast punched a two-foot-square hole in the armored flight deck. Later in the day a repair crew plugged the hole with a wood and cement patch, over which was tack-welded thin steel plates, and flight operations resumed.
When a group of four kamikazes attacked TF 57 on 9 May, one of them crashed into the Victorious’ flight deck, knocking out her single catapult. A second also targeted the carrier, but Captain Michael M. Denny put his ship’s helm hard over as the Japanese pilot committed himself in the dive, resulting in the plane crashing through the aft deck park, bouncing off the armored deck, and landing about 200 yards off the port beam. Antiaircraft fire splashed the third kamikaze; however, the fourth slammed into the Formidable’s crowded aft deck park, destroying 18 aircraft but causing minimal damage to the ship.
On 18 May the Formidable suffered more serious losses on her hangar deck when a Corsair’s guns were accidentally fired into an Avenger, which exploded. The ensuing fire destroyed or seriously damaged 28 planes. The carrier left for repair in Sydney on 22 May and was followed by the remainder of TF 57 on 25 May.
During Operation Iceberg, the BPF had spent 62 days at sea, with a break of 8 days anchored in Leyte Gulf. Aircraft from five of its fleet carriers flew 5,335 sorties and expended 1,000 tons of bombs and 500,000 rounds of ammunition. The fleet destroyed 42 enemy aircraft in the air and more than 100 on the ground and prevented the Japanese from staging aircraft to Okinawa. In exchange, TF 57 lost 44 officers and men killed on board ships and 41 aircrew. All four operational carriers needed dockyard repairs on their return to Sydney to make good defects and damage inflicted by the enemy.
Striking the Home Islands
In June 1945, the carrier HMS Implacable and other BPF ships that had recently arrived in the Pacific carried out a series of strikes known as Operation Inmate against Truk Atoll in the Caroline Islands. The Implacable subsequently joined the remainder of the British fleet off northeastern New Guinea at the beginning of July. By then TF 57 had been redesignated TF 37, which formed an integral part of Admiral William F. Halsey’s 3rd Fleet.
Off the coast of Japan itself, the BPF’s 1st Aircraft Carrier Squadron included the carriers Formidable as flagship, Victorious, Indefatigable, and Implacable. The Indomitable remained in Sydney to become flagship of the newly arrived 11th Aircraft Carrier Squadron, which included the light fleet carriers Colossus, Venerable, Vengeance, and Glory. The carrier squadron was to form the nucleus of a second BPF task force for Operation Olympic, the first phase of the invasion of Japan, scheduled for the autumn. The Indefatigable and Implacable air groups both had Supermarine Seafire fighters, naval versions of Spitfires, that had been employed solely for CAP because of their limited endurance. But the air groups improvised fittings so the planes could carry large external fuel tanks, enabling them to carry out strike and escort missions and greatly increasing their usefulness.
Task Force 37 rendezvoused with Halsey’s TF 38 at dawn on 16 July. The three task groups that made up the American task force were still refueling and stretched from horizon to horizon, a sight that Admiral Rawlings described as both striking and unforgettable. Allied operations against the Japanese home islands began the next day.
Despite bad weather, on 17 and 18 July BPF Corsair squadrons dropped more than 14 tons of bombs. Subsequent replenishment of the fleet’s fuel and stores using the “alongside” method perfected by the U.S. Navy worked well. On 24 July, TF 37 aircraft flew 416 sorties against targets that included shipping in the Inland Sea and airfields and railways in the area between Nagoya and Tokyo. Typhoons slowed replenishment that had begun on 31 July, and then the Allied fleets were ordered to keep clear of southern Honshu until after the first atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima.
Bad weather prevented flights until 9 August, when TF 37 launched strikes against northern Honshu. That day BPF aircraft dropped or fired 120 tons of ordnance—the Royal Navy’s highest total on any single day during World War II. Also on the 9th, Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray earned the Victoria Cross, the highest British award for gallantry in action. The XO of 1841 Naval Air Squadron, Gray was leading the Formidable’s second bomb-armed fighter sweep of the morning when the Canadian pilot attacked the Japanese escort destroyer Amakusa anchored off Onagawa, Japan. Despite antiaircraft fire hitting his Corsair’s engine and setting it on fire, Gray was able to skip one of his plane’s two 500-pound bombs into the ship. An instant later his aircraft, trailing smoke and flames, flew over the destroyer, inverted, and crashed into the sea. The Amakusa sank in less than five minutes. Gray, who went down with his Corsair, was awarded the VC posthumously.
After more air strikes on 10 August, the BPF had planned to withdraw to prepare for Operation Olympic, but Admiral Halsey decided to prolong ongoing operations. Because the BPF’s logistical group had insufficient fuel to keep TF 37 in action, the U.S. Navy generously agreed to provide fuel for a smaller British force to remain on station. So while the Formidable, Victorious, and Implacable left for Australia, the Indefatigable, the battleship King George V, some cruisers, and a destroyer flotilla stayed behind to form Task Group 38.5. There was considerable disappointment on board the departing ships, but the war was ending sooner than expected and the joyous reception the crews received when they returned to Australia was more than adequate compensation.
Dawn strikes were launched from the Indefatigable on 15 August and led to the last fighter combat of the war. After a dozen Zeros intercepted a flight of the carrier’s Avengers, ten Seafires in turn engaged the Japanese fighters, shooting down eight of the enemy planes for the loss of one of their own. The pilot of that Seafire, Sub-Lieutenant Fred Hockley, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, parachuted safely to the ground. But his Japanese army captors reacted to Emperor Hirohito’s radio broadcast at noon that day—announcing Japan’s surrender and the cessation of hostilities—by murdering the lieutenant.
On board the USS Missouri (BB-63) in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945, Admiral Fraser signed the Japanese surrender document on behalf of the United Kingdom. His flagship, the battleship Duke of York, was anchored close by, and he hosted other Allied leaders at an emotional sunset ceremony on her quarterdeck that evening. BPF ships were subsequently used for a number of urgent postwar tasks, including the relief of Hong Kong and the transport of former prisoners of the Japanese home to Australia, Canada, and the United States. They also helped to bring troops home, and the Victorious even ferried more than 600 Australian war brides to their new homes in the United Kingdom. The BPF continued as a peacetime fleet until 14 September 1948, when it officially ceased to exist, a victim of demobilization and reorganization.
Contemporary naval operations contain many features that are a legacy from the BPF, not least the ability to combine international assets and communicate within coalition forces. The BPF showed the United States that it had loyal allies that were capable of coming together to stand by it in its hour of need as equals, ready to learn but with their own ideas and high standards, even in the most intense and technically advanced form of warfare yet devised. This willingness to fight together in a good cause was demonstrated again in the Korean conflict and on many subsequent occasions. Hopefully, it remains just as relevant in the 21st century.
D. K. Brown, Nelson to Vanguard: Warship Design and Development, 1923–1945 (London: Chatham Publishing, 2000).
David Hobbs, Moving Bases: Royal Navy Maintenance Carriers and MONABS (Liskeard, UK: Maritime Books, 2007).
David Hobbs, The British Pacific Fleet: The Royal Navy’s Most Powerful Strike Force (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011).
Potentialities of Australia as a Base for Royal Navy Forces, Joint Administration Planning Sub Committee, Australian Defence Committee, 1/44 dated 20 November 1944.
David Stevens, ed., The Royal Australian Navy (Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press, 2001).
David Stevens, ed., The Royal Australian Navy in World War II, 2nd ed. (Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2005).
H. P. Willmot, Grave of a Dozen Schemes: British Naval Planning and the War against Japan 1943–45 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996).
A Litany of British Carrier Developments
By Norman Polmar
American flier Eugene Ely made the first takeoffs from and landing aboard warships in 1910–11. But beginning with Lieutenant Charles R. Samson flying from a ramp built over the bow of the battleship Africa during the winter of 1911–12, the British took the lead in pioneered the development of carrier aviation.
Subsequently, the Royal Navy began fitting ships with flying-off decks to launch aircraft—landplanes as well as seaplanes on trollies. While deployed in the North Sea and Mediterranean during World War I, several of the seaplane tenders so fitted launched bombing and torpedo planes against German and Turkish targets.
The world’s first true “aircraft carrier” was HMS Furious. As laid down in 1915, she was to be a 19,000-ton “large light cruiser” mounting two 18-inch guns in single turrets. They would be the largest guns to be mounted in a warship until the 18.1-inch guns of the World War II Japanese battleships Yamato and Musashi.
But the Furious was completed in July 1917 with only one 18-inch gun (aft) and a flying-off deck forward. She originally carried four seaplanes and six wheeled aircraft, with a hydraulic lift transporting them between a hangar and the flight deck.
After numerous takeoff trials, on 2 August 1917 Squadron Commander E. H. Dunning made the world’s first aircraft landing on an underway warship. As he approached the stern of the Furious in a Sopwith Pup, the ship was steaming into a 21-knot wind at a speed of 26 knots, putting a 47-knot wind over the flight deck forward. He flew along the starboard side of the ship, turned onto the flight deck, and cut his engine. Several men grabbed straps attached to the wings to pull the aircraft onto the deck. (Five days later, Dunning was killed in a landing attempt.)
Back into the yard went the Furious, her big gun was removed, and she was fitted with a landing deck aft, with trackways around her superstructure connecting the two decks. But landing on the new deck was a most difficult proposition, and several years later the Furious was fitted with a full flight deck. She would see considerable action in World War II and served in the fleet until 1944.
Next the British completed an unfinished liner into HMS Argus as the world’s first flush-deck carrier, and an unfinished battleship as the carrier Eagle, and began the world’s first keel-up carrier as the Hermes. (The first keel-up carrier to be completed was the Japanese Hosho.) Later the British converted the large light cruisers Courageous and Glorious, each armed with four 15-inch guns, into full-deck carriers. Relatively advanced fighters and torpedo planes were produced for these ships.
The 1 April 1917 amalgamation of the Army and Navy air services eventually led to the eclipse of British carrier aviation, with Japanese and U.S. carrier developments pulling far ahead. Although the British built several large and small (escort) carriers during World War II, their most effective shipboard aircraft were U.S.-built Wildcats, Hellcats, Corsairs, and Avengers.
After the war, the Royal Navy retained a small carrier force, and although there was pitifully little new carrier construction, three enormously important British developments had a profound influence on carrier aviation. First came the steam catapult. The earlier hydraulic catapult was marginally effective launching jet-propelled and heavy aircraft; the steam catapult changed the dynamics of carrier aviation.
Next came the angled flight deck. With a straight, or axial, flight deck, landing aircraft that missed the arresting wires would crash into net barriers or sometimes “jump” the barriers and crash into aircraft parked forward. Also, when aircraft were parked forward, planes could not take off. With the angled deck, an aircraft that missed the wires would accelerate and come around for another landing attempt. And aircraft could be launched from the angled deck without disturbing the forward deck park.
The third British development was the mirror landing system. With higher aircraft approach speeds, it was difficult for the pilot of a landing aircraft to see the landing signal officer (LSO)—“batsman” in the British vernacular—and for the LSO to react quickly enough to signal the pilot. With the mirror landing system, the pilot observed a mirror-like device on the carrier with a “bouncing light” indicating his plane’s approach position.
All three developments have become standard for modern aircraft carriers.
Beyond technical carrier innovations, the Royal Navy has been a leading practitioner of “vertical assault” operations. British carriers conducted history’s first helicopter assault when the light carriers Ocean and Theseus landed 415 Royal Marines and 23 tons of ammunition and equipment in an hour and a half at Port Said during the 1956 Suez invasion.
Faced with severe financial limitations, the Royal Navy was unable to construct new conventional carriers during the Cold War. Instead, once the Sea Harrier vertical/short takeoff and landing aircraft was in service, it turned to smaller “Harrier carriers,” which were either purpose-built or converted. Two of them, the Hermes and Invincible, were key components in the British force that recaptured the Falkland Islands in 1982.
Despite limited resources, the Royal Navy has often been at the forefront of carrier aviation.
The BPF’s U.S. Aircraft
By David Hobbs
The majority of aircraft used by the British Pacific Fleet were U.S. Navy types, modified to meet Royal Navy requirements and operating techniques. Because the British aircraft industry had mostly specialized in producing land-based aircraft for the Royal Air Force, early in World War II the Royal Navy began purchasing U.S. naval aircraft. The Marlet, the most successful of the early types, was the British version of Grumman’s F4F Wildcat. It actually entered service with the Royal Navy three months earlier that the Wildcat did with the U.S. Navy.
Later, fighters were made available under Lend-Lease arrangements, and in 1943, after the U.S. Navy initially rejected the Chance Vought Corsair for embarked operations, just under 2,000 were transferred in large batches to the Fleet Air Arm. Royal Navy modifications included “squaring-off” the wing tips to reduce folded height so that the aircraft could fit into the low hangars of British armored carriers. The alteration was found to improve deck landings by eliminating “float” over the arrester wires.
Also, a small spoiler was fitted on the leading edge of the starboard, inboard wing to ensure that it always dropped first, and modification of oleo struts eliminated “bounce” on landing. The Royal Navy fitted its Corsairs with British lead-computing gun sights, crystal frequency-controlled radios, and IFF equipment. (The British gyro gun sight Mark 2 fitted to Royal Navy fighters from early 1944 is an interesting example of “reverse Lend-Lease”; it was manufactured under license in the United States for U.S. Navy and Army Air Forces planes.) Royal Navy Corsair squadrons formed in the United States at the rate of one a month from mid-1943.
The British navy also received more than 1,000 Grumman Hellcat fighters, which it originally named Gannets. (All U.S.-built aircraft in British service reverted to their American names in January 1944.) These included small batches of F6F-5N night fighters that were to have joined the British Pacific Fleet with the night-fighter carrier HMS Ocean. While the British made no airframe modifications to their Hellcats, they did make internal changes similar to those in their Corsairs. A small number also were modified with cameras and used for strategic photo-reconnaissance with 888 Naval Air Squadron.
The United States also transferred more than 800 Grumman Avengers to the Royal Navy. The performance of the U.S. plane was superior to that of the British Fairey Barracuda torpedo and dive bomber, but the British Avengers were still extensively modified in the United Kingdom by Blackburn Aircraft. While a U.S. Navy Avenger crew consisted of a pilot, radioman/tunnel gunner, and turret gunner, a Royal Navy strike aircraft crew was composed of a pilot, observer/flight officer, and telegraphist/air gunner. The British Avengers’ internal arrangements were modified to place the observer in a cockpit behind the pilot, under the canopy.
Also, the “stinger” tunnel machine gun was removed from the ventral position, and bulged windows replaced the flat ones in the radio compartment to give better visibility aft and below. As with the fighters, Avengers were fitted with British radios, IFF, and gun sights. But because the planes were never modified to carry British torpedoes and BPF commanders elected not to use U.S. torpedoes, the Avengers only dropped bombs.
All of the American-built aircraft had screw threads and electronic systems that differed from those in British-built aircraft, with the result that maintenance sailors had to be issued with type-specific tool kits and undergo specialized training, some of which, for a lucky few, took place at Grumman and Chance Vought factories in the United States. Royal Navy aircrews, meanwhile, considered their U.S.-built aircraft to be outstanding, superior in performance to British-built contemporaries, and they flew them with confidence and enthusiasm.