The British Pacific Fleet

Growing up in a Naval Aviation family, it was a given that I would know the major exploits of the Fast Carrier Task Force that formed the heart of the US Navy’s striking power in the Pacific. Operating alternately as TF 38 when under Halsey’s 3rd Fleet and TF 58 when under Spruance’s 5th Fleet, the FCTF roamed the Central and Western Pacific, at sea for weeks at a time, supporting various invasions, striking territory the Japanese had seized, and even raiding the home islands of Japan.  The FCTF was the powerhouse of the Pacific, making that ocean an American pond for 70 years. Every other part of the United States Navy, from the submarine service, to the stupendous fleet train,  to the Seabees to the amphibious shipping and indeed, the entire US Marine Corps, served simply to better enable the Big Blue to rule the mighty Pacific as a wholly American territory.

Of course, the US Navy wasn’t alone in those waters. Britain, with its many colonial outposts, maintained a significant fleet presence in the Pacific. Sadly, the opening months of the war saw them more soundly defeated by Japan than even our own fleet. Eventually, the Royal Navy would retreat to Trincomalee, Ceylon.  The bulk of the Royal Navy’s fighting strength would be devoted to operations in the North Atlantic and in the Mediterranean Sea.

However, by early 1944, the situation in those waters was sufficiently in hand that Britain felt it could spare ships and planes for the Pacific. The Chief of Naval Operations, Ernie King, was not exactly an Anglophile, and was not enthusiastic about the Royal Navy returning to the Western Pacific. In this, he was overruled by FDR.

Of course, it was more than mere politics that gave the US Navy pause about a Royal Navy fleet in the Pacific. The RN mostly operated close to its bases in comparatively close waters. Their ships had less endurance, and even less space for food stores. Furthermore, they had little experience in replenishment underway. Worst of all, they had virtually none of the fleet train of ships that the US Navy relied upon to allow the Fast Carrier Task Force to stay at sea for weeks. Any significant RN participation would almost certainly have to receive at least some support from the US Navy.

The RN did amass a sizeable fleet train to support its operations (though they also received quite a bit of help from the USN) and soon amassed a significant fleet of carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers and other combatants.

When operating with the US Navy, the British Pacific Fleet (BPF) was under  the US command structure, and designated either TF 37 or Task Force 57, depending on whether it was with 3rd or 5th Fleet.

The most significant operations of the BPF were in support of the US invasion of Okinawa, where the BPF conducted raids on Japanese airfields to suppress kamikaze attacks. Of course, that invited kamikaze attacks upon themselves. Unlike US carriers that had wooden flight decks, British carriers had steel flight decks. Generally, a kamikaze hit on them resulted in far less damage.

While some British carriers operated British designed planes such as the Seafire and the Barracuda, many operated US built planes, including the Corsair, the Avenger, and the Hellcat.

No audio, but still an interesting look at British carrier operations in 1944.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KM1PvJwQmcE]

3 thoughts on “The British Pacific Fleet”

  1. The armor decks had liabilities in that the hanger decks were much more cramped and the ship’s center of balance were much higher. When the armor was penetrated it could make the resulting damage much worse then on a US carrier. Mostly because the armor tended to contain the blast within the hanger then being allowed to vent outwards. Many of the British carriers were found to have serious structural damage when they got home that was too expensive to fix post-war. Also the limitations prevented upgrades like what happened with the Essex class and let them have decades more service.

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