- Book reviewer
- History - WW2, Book reviews, Aviation, Naval Engagements, Operations and Capabilities
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2013 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Carriers at War 1939 -1945 by Adrian Stewart. Published by: Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2013. Paperback of 224 pages with numerous photographs. rrp about $30 but reductions now available.
Barely ten days into WW II, the converted 1916 cruiser HMS Courageous was torpedoed and sunk while stationary in the North Sea to retrieve its aircraft spotting for German submarines. Thus begins the author’s examination of ten principal areas of carrier warfare in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Pacific theatres of war, and the developments in the design of carriers and aircraft by which this war was fought.
The first significant application of carrier strategy occurred in the Mediterranean under Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham on 11/12 November 1940 against the formidable Italian fleet at Taranto. The 23,000 ton HMS Illustrious, one of the new fleet of carriers with armour-plated flight and hangar decks and flying 21 Swordfish fighters, made crippling torpedo attacks on the Italian fleet at Taranto, while the destruction of the 42,000 ton German battleship Bismarck in the Atlantic in May 1941 by relentless Spitfire torpedo and bomb attacks from HMS Ark Royal confirmed that the carrier had come of age.
The survival of Malta was central to Allied strategy in the Mediterranean and North Africa, and the relief of the embattled island, its inhabitants on the verge of starvation, was achieved with the help of convoys which included HMS Ark Royal delivering vitally needed land-based Hurricane fighter aircraft. Coinciding with the victory at El Alamein in November 1942 and the neutralisation of the Axis airfield at Martuba in North Africa, the siege of Malta was raised and the threat to the Suez Canal negated.
In the meantime Japan had invested in a large fleet of carriers equipped with aircraft of superior quality (Aichi Val dive bombers and Kajima Kate torpedo bombers) which devastated the U.S. Fleet at Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, fortuitously in the absence of two carriers, Lexington and Enterprise, which the Japanese would willingly have exchanged for the six disabled battleships.
By March 1942 the Japanese had overrun South East Asia and had seized the north coast of Papua New Guinea, where completion of an airfield under construction could have neutralised Australia as the base for an eventual reconquest of the Japanese-occupied territories. The author covers in detail the Battles of the Coral Sea (7-8 May), Midway (4-7 June) and the bitter six-month campaign from August 1942 to February 1943 centred on Guadalcanal in the Solomons, where Japan’s attempts to isolate Australia as the base for future offensive action were frustrated. The struggle for Guadalcanal had cost the US and its allies 24 major warships, including HMAS Canberra, far more than Japan’s losses, but the author observes that the industrial power of the US would soon make good the losses, which was beyond the power of Japan to match.
The introduction of various types of auxiliary carrier is examined at length, e.g. Fighter Catapult Ships employed against German long-range Condor aircraft and Escort Carriers, originally converted freighters and tankers, acting as convoy protectors in the Atlantic. They proved instrumental in safeguarding vital war shipments to the ports of Murmansk and Archangel delivering tanks, aircraft, ammunition, fuel, raw materials and medical supplies to Russia. They performed a similar role in protecting the vast quantity of US troops and war supplies required for the invasion of Europe in 1944. The purpose-built auxiliary or escort carrier was later mass-produced by the United States and its fleet eventually numbered 77, while 38 were supplied to the Royal Navy. No fewer than 14 escort carriers participated in the Leyte Gulf operations in October 1944 and they played a key role in the Allies’ island-hopping strategy in preparation for the final assault of the Japanese homeland.
Admiral Nimitz later described Leyte Gulf as the Trafalgar of WW II – it had ‘wiped out the Japanese fleet as an effective fighting force’. The author argues that the Battle ensured the eventual defeat of Japan, with its Navy crippled and denied access to the raw materials underpinning its ability to continue the conflict. Japan’s early acceptance of defeat, however, was ruled out by the Allied Declaration of Potsdam in July 1945 on Unconditional Surrender and Japan was left no alternative but to continue the war by redoubled Kamikaze attacks on the advancing Allied forces. The invasion of Japan would nevertheless have been a costly exercise and risked the slaughter of Allied prisoners of war. The issue was resolved by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima on 6 August and Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. On 15 August Japan surrendered unconditionally.
At Winston Churchill’s insistence the British Pacific Fleet had joined the US Battle Fleet for the final assault on Japan, but its carriers were allotted only a minor role, due in the author’s opinion to Admiral Halsey’s unwillingness to share the glory of victory – a sad reflection on the ally which had pioneered carrier warfare. Nevertheless, the last word belonged to the Royal Navy – on 9 August Lt. R.H. Gray, a Canadian Corsair pilot from HMS Formidable, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for a successful bomb attack on a Japanese warship in Onagawa Harbour – ‘the only time the supreme decoration was earned by an airman operating from a British carrier’.
The author packs a vast amount of detail into 224 pages. The RAN’s contribution is acknowledged by references to HMA Ships Perth and Vampire in the Mediterranean and HMA Ships Australia, Canberra (sunk at the Battle of Savo Island), Shropshire and Arunta at Surigao Strait. Stewart has authored a book of similar length on the Battle of Leyte Gulf. He cites no fewer than ninety-nine secondary, but no primary, sources to back his narrative, plus an exhaustive index on ships, types of aircraft and naval engagements. With the addition of HMAS Shropshire by Stan Nicholls (NHSA 1989) he would have earned a well-researched century.
Reviewed by Richard Gardner