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- WWII operations, History - WW2
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- December 2005 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Concept of the BPF
In respect of the closing years of the Pacific War, (and remember, at the time, no one knew the end was nigh) we found ourselves in muddy waters. The Americans were moving forward steadily, and in the view at least of the enormously influential US Chief of Naval Operations, Fleet Admiral Ernest King, no latecomers were needed to claim any part of the glory approaching victory. On the other hand, a prudent protagonist believes that in war no matter how certain the victory may seem, any possible addition to one’s force, would he welcomed. The war may have gone on to 1946 or 1947, had the kamikaze (suicide aircraft threat) increased as was anticipated; the staying power of the British armoured carriers, supplemented by the three new giant USN carriers built in their image and soon to be delivered, may well have proved vital to the outcome.
Politically, from the Imperial viewpoint, it was essential that Britain be seen in the forefront of the liberation of her Far Eastern possessions. Energetically promoted by Churchill, this view prevailed in the face of Washington Anglo-phobia and the appalling practical difficulties of keeping a fleet supplied so far from its base, with little time for preparation. American agreement was secured, but not without reservation, most of which could be traced back to the influence of the unfriendly Admiral King. From the beginning, the Americans insisted that the British Fleet should be self-supporting except for bulk fuel supplies. They agreed to pool resources, but the British must contribute their proper share to the pool. In fact, the Americans were much better than their word.
To quote from Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser (C-in-C BPF), when the Fleet left Sydney they were short of 3 Avenger heavy bombers, so he made a signal to Admiral Nimitz (USN C-in-C Pacific Zone), could he please supply 3 Avengers when the Fleet got to Manus? They had hundreds of them there. Nimitz replied that he was very sorry that he could not do it. “So I sent for my USN liaison officer and. I said to him, this is an extraordinary thing”. He was puzzled and went away and presently he came back and he said that he knew what it was. This signal had gone through to Washington. So Admiral Nimitz was bound to reply as he did. At about this time I flew up to Manus and the preparations for the arrival of the Fleet. I saw the American Admiral in charge and said: Look, do you think we could possibly borrow 3 Avengers from you?”
He said: Well, actually we do not issue them in less than 6 at a time. If you’ve got a bottle of whisky, you can have a dozen”.
The Fleet Train
So now, it is late in 1944. Our US Allies have finally agreed to our presence. The combat ships and aircraft are ready, awaiting allocation, but how is this fleet to be supplied in the vast regions of the Pacific? The answer lay in the creation, absolutely from scratch, of a support force, known as the Fleet Train. The Fleet Train in the Pacific was one of the most remarkable examples of the national British genius for what is known as “muddling through”. The formation of the Fleet Train was a masterpiece of improvisation and its operations triumphs of endeavour over circumstances. The US Navy had had years to plan, prepare, practice and perfect their Fleet Train. However, in the case of the RN, the first elements of the Fleet Train arrived in Australia in January 1945, and yet the Fleet, supported by its still embryonic train, was in action off Sakishima Gunto by March. Thus the Fleet Train sprang from what was virtually a standing start to operation off an enemy coast in a few months. It was an incredible achievement. It was formed from what ships were available, manned by such personnel as were available, and sent out to the Pacific as they became available in various states of capability, efficiency and morale. I remember one of our chaps who had had the opportunity of observing the Americans saying that it really shook him when he came alongside one of the British Fleet train vessels (an old tramp steamer) and he said the work of getting the lines across was being carried out by a Geordie mate (in a waistcoat and a bowler hat) assisted by three consumptive Chinamen. It was the most extraordinary motley collection of shipping ever assembled in British maritime history. It was an international fleet, including Norwegian masters and Chinese deckhands, Dutch mates and Lascar firemen, Captains RN and Papuan winchmen. It was a Commonwealth Fleet with officers and men from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and Canada. There was a Panamanian collier, a Dutch hospital ship, a Panamanian tanker and Norwegian and Belgian ammunition ships. Some ships were brand new, others were 30 years old. There were floating repair ships, floating docks and, latterly, a floating brewery. There were accommodation ships and netlayers, salvage tugs, water distilling ships, aircraft ferry ships, aircraft maintenance ships, and armament stores, air naval stores, and victualling storage and supply ships, with personnel of different nationality, different charter parties, articles of agreement, racial customs – even different diets. The problems of administration were enormous. It was no wonder that the Americans with their modern train of ships, each commissioned as a warship under naval discipline, looked upon the British Fleet Train with frank amazement!