By August 1945, the Second World War had already been won by the Allies in Europe.
Germany had been deemed the greater threat, and was vanquished first.
But the war waged against Japan across the Pacific was every bit as gruelling for the men fighting it. In fact, given the fanaticism of many Japanese soldiers and their harsh treatment of their POWs, it was arguably more so.
The 30,000 dead that the UK sustained throughout the campaign, though small in comparison to the roughly 450,000 the nation suffered during the war as a whole, was still a considerable number.
(The 29,968 dead, to be precise, were part of an overall casualty base of 90,332, 12,433 of whom had been prisoners of war, and had therefore endured those harsh conditions in captivity).
And it wasn’t just Britons.
There was all manner of troops, battling in myriad ways against the Japanese: Africans fighting in Burma, Gurkhas and Indians fighting in Malaya, Australian and New Zealand pilots flying sorties over the Pacific – these are just a few examples of the effort and heroism that came from the British Empire as a whole. The empire, and all services - Army, Royal Navy, RAF and Royal Marines – were all pitching in to the wider struggle against the Japan.
But as well as the diverse range of personnel, and the casualties they bore, the Empire’s material contribution to the Pacific War was extensive.
So much so, in fact, that it might seem surprising in its scale to those only familiar with the more well-known, American-led elements of the campaign (i.e. like the battles of Iwo Jima, the Philippines or Okinawa, or the dropping of the atomic bombs.)
For while the British relied on their empire for support in the Pacific, the Americans in turn relied on the British for help.
And it’s little wonder that they did.
The help came in the form of the BPF, the British Pacific Fleet. Based out of Sydney, it was one of the largest Royal Naval fleets ever put together, replete with battleships, multiple aircraft carriers, cruisers and other warships, subs and support vessels.
Former Royal Navy Commander-cum-naval historian David Hobbs MBE has written that, from its inception, the fleet was:
“Made up from elements throughout the British Empire (and) … was to be subordinate to American orders in action, using USN (United States Navy) signal procedures and codes.”
Hobbs also describes its commander, who’d come to play a significant role in the official Japanese surrender:
“The man chosen to be Commander-in-Chief was Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser GCB KBE, the outstanding leader of his generation. He was responsible to the Admiralty in London for the general direction the forces under his command; to the Australian Government for the dockyards, air stations, depots and barracks that formed his main base and to the individual Navy Boards of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa for the men and ships they provided him. Operationally he took his orders from Admiral Chester Nimitz the Allied Commander-in-Chief Pacific Ocean Areas. But because of his own seniority, he delegated sea command to Vice Admiral Sir Bernard Rawlings his second-in-command”.
Nimitz was one of two principal American commanders in the region, the other being General Douglas MacArthur, who was the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the SWPA (Southwest Pacific Area.)
MacArthur’s efforts on land, pushing into Japanese-occupied territory from Australia first into New Guinea (where fighting continued into 1945), would eventually converge with Nimitz’s armada, of which the BPF became a part.
Progress was, counter-intuitively, enabled by earlier Japanese successes. In ‘The Complete Illustrated History of World War II’, Donald Sommerville writes:
“Japan’s troops (in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands soon) began paying the price for their reckless early-war conquests. Garrisons were isolated and then either picked off or left to starve as the Allied forces pushed past in their counter-offensive toward the Philippines.”
They would also succumb to Nimitz’s island hopping during 1943, the year before his fleet was augmented by the BPF.
Much praise here should go to planners, who, with the help of men like the Seebees – US naval engineers - overcame the difficult logistics of resupply across the great distances of the Pacific:
“The solution was a new type of naval organization, the fleet train, including tankers and other kinds of supply ship, so that combat vessels could be replenished at sea during assault operations far from any base. Then a range of new bases was improvised by rapidly building shore installations and installing floating docks in various previously tranquil Pacific lagoons – like Ulithi in the Caroline Islands (an important base from September 1944.)”
In this way, these measures could perhaps be thought similar to Allied efforts in Europe, where success in the Battle of Normandy (and then the continuing war) had been greatly facilitated by superb logistics work. The Allies had won not just the war of production, but also the war of supply, swamping the Germans with better-equipped troops, who attacked under a screen of superior air cover.
At least, that’s the argument made by historian James Holland, and the importance of optimising support elements is also emphasised by former US Defense Secretary Robert MacNamara, with ‘Maximise Efficiency’ being one of his 11 rules of war.
The principle was certainly vital in the Pacific, and not just for island-hopping marines.
That’s because the tip of the spear was actually carrier-based attack aircraft, with British planes being flown by the FAA (Fleet Air Arm), support coming from the RAF.
Here again, there was much excellence in the supply and maintenance arrangements that kept the FAA in the air, as Hobbs explains:
“A Fleet Aircraft Maintenance Group (FAMG) was created which comprised the maintenance carriers Unicorn and Pioneer together with a number of specialist maintenance ships capable of repairing airframes, engines, instruments and equipment such as hydraulic and electrical assemblies. Additionally a number of escort carriers were used to ferry naval aircraft as freight from the UK to Australia and to carry fully operational replenishment aircraft from Australia to the fleet carriers in the operational areas. The FAMG proved capable of carrying out nearly all the aircraft repair work needed by the BPF up to August 1945.”
This is why the importance of the war isn’t confined to remembrance – operational lessons learnt during the conflict have proved highly as influential in subsequent years:
“The more I studied it, the more I came to realise that the post-war Royal Navy in which I served for thirty-three years owed much of its concept of operations to the outstanding achievements of the BPF in the year from November 1944 to November 1945. The ability to improvise and make replenishment at sea both possible and practical and to absorb new ideas, working within international coalitions when necessary, were also key elements in the modernised post-war Royal Navy that fought so effectively off Korea, in the South Atlantic and in the Gulf. Not least, the implementation of the true potential of the carrier-borne aircraft to project power, rather than act merely as an auxiliary arm shackled by political limitations, provided the catalyst that allowed the Royal Navy to become one of the world’s leading proponents of air power in the immediate post-war period.”
American aircraft and pilots were also proving highly effective, and vital to the campaign.
In action around the Mariana islands, they won so many aerial duels with their Japanese opponents that the air battle became known as the ‘Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’.
Effectively, the Americans were squeezing the Japanese, forcing them into a downward spiral by first killing off their best pilots and then easily outmatching the replacements in subsequent engagements.
As the Thames Television series ‘The World at War’ explains:
“In one day, Japanese naval airpower was virtually destroyed. The original force of 430 planes (the Americans had twice as many) was reduced to about a hundred.”
Then the Americans searched for the retiring Japanese fleet; when it was located, American planes attacked, sinking one aircraft carrier and damaging two more:
“This great naval battle, in which neither fleet actually fired on the other, ended with the Japanese reduced to only 35 aircraft, retreating to their bases in Japan.”
But the audacious action, launched at great distance, came with a huge risk: Landing on aircraft carriers with low fuel, at night. As Sommerville explains:
“…the American commanders knew that their pilots would have to return to the carriers after dark. Another Japanese carrier was sunk and 3 more damaged for the loss of 20 American aircraft. Over 70 craft were lost while returning to their carriers, but (fortunately) most of the crews were picked up.
“By contrast hardly any crew members of the more than 400 Japanese aircraft lost in the battle were saved. Thus, the biggest ever carrier battle also marked the effective demise of the Japanese carrier force. They still had ships but hardly any trained crews to fly from them”.
Ground-level resistance was more challenging – on Tinian, Saipan, Guam and the Palau islands, the Japanese held out as long as they could. The World at War makes clear just how fiercely the Japanese clung on, hiding in caves that took months to flush out and damaging their enemies so badly that many dead American marines could only be identified by their fingerprints.
But once won, these battles enabled the next great step, retaking the Philippines, which had fallen into Japanese hands back in 1942.
Now MacArthur, who’d been evacuated at the time, would have his triumphant return, on October 20, 1944.
At first, the Philippine landings themselves were easy. This, however, was only because the Japanese defenders had retreated inland, where they’d soon resist Allied advances as viciously as they had everywhere else.
The Philippine invasion would also spark what is widely regarded as the largest, most complex naval engagement ever – the four-day Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Sommerville explains the impetus for the Japanese attack:
“Japan still had many big-gun ships, including the Yamato and Musashi, the largest battleships ever built. Japan’s admirals also wanted an all-out battle in which these ships might turn the tide of the war. The Japanese naval air arm was no longer powerful: it had aircraft carriers but few trained crews or planes. Admiral Toyoda’s Sho-Go plan (Operation Victory) called for carriers to divert the main American strength to the north, with most of the heavy ships attacking the vulnerable US landing fleet from the west through various channels between the Philippine Islands …
“The main Japanese force, Force A (or Centre Force), sailed from Borneo … US submarines sank two cruisers and reported (the Japanese) move the next day … (then) the American carrier Princeton was sunk by land-based aircraft. Force A was attacked by US carrier aircraft in the Sibuyan Sea; the Musashi was sunk by bombs and torpedoes. Admiral Kurita Takeo ordered a brief turn away because of these attacks.”
After this, Admiral William Haley (commander of the US Third Fleet) “now assumed (incorrectly) that Force A had retreated for good and (correctly) that (Task Force 38 commander Admiral Thomas) Kinkaid’s shore-bombardment ships could cope with the Japanese southern force …
A group to the south of Centre or Force A.
“(Halsey) therefore felt free to take his main force north against the Japanese carriers.
“Thus, in the early hours of (October 25th), the old battleships of the Seventh Fleet triumphed in a night gun and torpedo battle in the Surigao Strait; two Japanese battleships were among the vessels sunk. Now, after earlier abortive strikes, the Japanese carriers in the north had barely a couple of dozen aircraft left between them to face the ten full-strength carriers of (Kinkaid’s Task Force) 38. Three Japanese carriers and several other ships were sunk during the 25th in the Battle of Cape Engaño”.
This lack of Japanese aircraft may have seemed like real progress for the Allied effort, but the same month in which the Leyte Gulf battle raged – October 1944 – saw the debut of what was perhaps the most terrifying Japanese weapon: the Kamikaze.
As noted, Japanese planes and pilots, particularly those of high calibre and experience, were a rapidly diminishing resource. But depleted aircraft (and pilots) might be compensated for if there were more direct hits on American ships:
“The first kamikazes used standard fighters, but aircraft fitted with heavy bombs were later employed along with various purpose-built craft, including piloted flying bombs, explosive motor boats, manned torpedoes and midget submarines.”
Whatever the payload, the method of delivery was essentially, terrifyingly, singular: a pilot, trained as a suicide bomber, meant to take a one-way trip to the afterlife for the glory of country and emperor as he slammed his diving plane into Allied ships.
Petrified and desperate gun crews attempted to blast the kamikazes out of the sky before they hit home, inevitably killing anyone under them.
Unfortunately for the Allies, the horror, stunningly bold self-sacrifice and extreme audacity of these attacks did not limit their deployment:
“Around 500 kamikaze air attacks were made during the Philippine campaign and perhaps 2,000 during the fighting on Okinawa in 1945.”
The Japanese ships also had the capacity to smash through and wreak havoc on the Allied invasion transport vessels, but “resolute American defence and a developing fuel shortage persuaded Kurita to turn away feebly after an inconclusive combat, known as the Battle of Samar. The various Japanese forces suffered further losses during their retreats. When all were counted, what might have been an American disaster thus turned into another catastrophe for Japan’s fleet”.
It wasn’t over yet. Ground forces had to push inland and take the capital, Manilla, the first assault on a major city by US forces in the campaign. According to the World at War:
“The Battle raged from street to street, house to house.”
At least, it must have to begin with. By the end of the battle, in February 1945, Sommerville explains that the “city was flattened and about 1,000 Americans and 16,000 Japanese died … along with probably 100,000 local civilians”.
But once the city had gone, so too had the industrial supply routes back to Japan, making encirclement and defeat an inevitability.
Concurrently with the drive through the Philippines, the British were involved in their own large-scale attack, this one from the air.
It was an operation that had been proposed, and planned in detail, sometime before, as Hobbs explains:
“Before his fleet was ready to move into the Pacific, Admiral Fraser called on Admiral Nimitz in Pearl Harbor (where he was based) with key members of his staff. Nimitz asked for the BPF to strike at the important oil refineries in the Palembang complex in Sumatra (near Malaya) as the fleet deployed from Ceylon to Australia. He had several reasons for doing so. Between them, the Sumatran refineries provided Japan with about 75% of the aviation fuel it needed and any reduction would have strategic significance. USAAF B-29 bombers had attacked the plants recently using high-level bombing techniques and had failed to score hits; tactical aircraft from carriers were expected to be more accurate. It must also be said that Nimitz wanted a demonstration of the RN capability to carry out sustained strikes at long range so that he could judge the value of the BPF to his command. Fraser accepted immediately and 1 ACS relished the chance to show what it could achieve. Models of the refineries were made in the carriers which helped operations staff brief aircrew on individual, specific targets and an ‘air co-ordinator’, Major Hay RM from Victorious, was used for the first time in line with USN procedures.”
It was the largest raid conducted by the Fleet Air Arm in the whole of the Second World War, and the results were impressive:
“The refinery at Pladjoe was attacked on 24 January 1945 and, after delays caused by rain and low cloud, Soengi Gerong was attacked on 29 January after which the fleet proceeded to Australia. The results were most successful, considerable damage was achieved by the set-piece attacks; both refineries were put temporarily out action and neither recovered to full capacity before the end of the war.”
“The waste, the barrenness of the place … it was actually like a nightmare. It was the closest thing you could see to hell. If ever hell looked like anything, it must look like Iwo Jima.”
Perhaps the marine who said that, interviewed on The World at War, wondered why he’d been sent into ‘hell’.
But for his commanders, moving onto Iwo Jima in February 1945 made perfect sense. Within fighter range of Japan itself, possession of the volcanic island would vastly facilitate Allied air assaults.
Of course, marines could therefore expect Japanese defenders to fight as relentlessly as they had everywhere else. One said of the approach:
“The minute you got in those boats you were scared, and you were scared until you hit the beach.”
He had every reason to be scared.
According to Sommerville, the Japanese “defences survived the extensive preliminary air and sea bombardment (and they) planned to let the attackers land before opening fire and revealing (their) positions”.
Once they did, the …
“Marines were being hit from all directions from the complex of trenches, tunnels and other strong points, which riddled the island.”
As you’d expect, brutality begot brutality. One marine said:
“You realise you’re going in to kill. And we were always taught that you had to kill or be killed. It was either us or the Japanese, one or the other.”
‘Kill or be killed’ didn’t mean execute captured enemy soldiers, but that’s what happened. Another marine recalled:
“They always told you (to) take prisoners (but) we had some bad experiences on Saipan taking prisoners … (for example) you take them and as soon as they get behind the lines they drop grenades and you lose a few more people. You’re a little bit leery about taking prisoners when they’re fighting to the death and so are you.”
The underground world the Japanese had constructed made flushing them out particularly hard, and further encouraged relentless slaughter over cessation and surrender:
“Very few of them came out on their own. When they did, there was usually one in the front who came out with his hands up, and one behind him (who’d) come out with a grenade.”
The World at War’s stats from the end of the battle back up the testimonies of veterans, starkly showing just how tenacious Japanese defenders had been:
“Of the 21,000 Japanese troops on Iwo Jima when the attack began, only 200 were taken alive.”
Moving on to the island of Okinawa sparked waves of kamikaze attacks, thousands of them, leading to the destruction of 30 US warships and the damage of a further 200
And there was every reason to expect yet more dogged resistance:
“The steep hills and narrow ravines of Okinawa formed a natural citadel for the Japanese defenders. Outnumbered by two-to-one, they made the Americans pay in blood for every foot of Japanese soil.”
But, this time, not all the Japanese were willing to fight on to the end – knowing that this time their country must be on the verge of surrender, and that their sacrifices would, therefore, be fruitless.
As the marines encountered the island’s civilians, it became clear that the image of the universally fanatical Japanese was inaccurate; and, for the Japanese civilians, so too were the propaganda stories they'd been told about the Americans.
One marine recalled:
“Once they found out that we weren’t going to do the things that they had always heard, well, they could understand, ‘Hey, this is just another human being’, and possibly they felt the same as we did, that we weren’t there because we wanted to be there … (rather) we were told that this is what we had to do.”
Another veteran remembered that:
“They showed kindness to their own people too, which we didn’t really think (was the case, we thought) life was cheap to them, but that’s not really true. They … showed a lot of kindness to their own wounded … they were people just like us.”
The program seems to suggest that, for all the savagery of the proceeding years, this encounter between those on opposing sides did at least give some abatement:
“To many Americans, at the end of their great advance across the Pacific, it now seemed that the animals, the faceless fanatics, eager to die for their emperor, were human beings like themselves.”
What The World at War also documents is the sheer political complexity that surrounded the decision by the Americans to use nuclear weapons on August 6 and 9, 1945.
This controversial decision (or, ‘decisions’, since both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were targeted) cannot be properly explored in any great depth here. President Truman’s reluctance to use atomic weapons again, in the Korean War, at least, has been explored elsewhere by the Forces Network, and helps to understand how nuclear weaponry was thought of at the time.
What can be gleaned from those interviewed in The World At War is the basic opposing viewpoints, and how much these overlapped each other.
One argument made is that dropping the bombs was unnecessary because the Japanese were close to surrender anyway.
Another factor is the American refusal to accept that surrender with the Emperor still on the throne, and the fear by some that even if the Emperor himself did choose to surrender, he might be overthrown in a coup, and that only the dropping of the bombs would have made military leaders accept his acknowledgement of Japan’s defeat.
(After the war, the Allies would issue the ‘Shinto Directive’, allowing for an emperor in Japan, but only in the context of a separation between him and the government. This mirrors the western arrangement – in the US separation of church and state is a key element of democratic government, meant to prevent the establishment of a state religion. And Britain, of course, is a constitutional monarchy in which the Queen can only exercise limited powers and where governing is done largely by Parliament).
A further complication was the use of the Russians by the Japanese as mediators, and the fact that the Russians and the Americans, though nominal allies, knew they’d soon be opposed in what was to be the Cold War.
It was useful for the Americans to end the Pacific war before the Russians could enter it, reducing their influence in the region. And use of the bombs, with their awesome power on display for all to see, could strengthen the US and Allied negotiating hand in post-war Europe as well – another theatre where the capitalist and democratic west would soon be at odds with communist Russia.
For their part, it was useful for the Russians to delay their facilitation of peace between Japan and the US so as to permit their entry into the Pacific campaign, and expansion in the region.
US Army Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who commanded the strategic (conventional) bombing campaign over Japan, had this to say:
“It was a hopeless situation for them, and the B-29s were flying over Japan at will, and they couldn’t do anything about it. We could destroy any target at will without much opposition. So, with this hopeless situation facing them, they just didn’t have the will to continue. As a matter of fact they’d been trying to get out of the war for about three months before they actually did. And that they had asked the Russians to be an intermediary to try to negotiate them out of the war and the Russians had been stalling … so they could get into the Pacific War before it ended.”
Not only does LeMay sum up many of the complexities in this quote, he is also noteworthy because his bombing campaign helps put the awful destructiveness of the nuclear bombs in context.
The bombing of Nagasaki killed roughly 80,000 people, and Hiroshima perhaps 100,000 or more.
But, at Robert McNamara points out so poignantly in the documentary ‘The Fog of War’, LeMay’s low-level firebombing raids were comparable in their level of destruction. His most deadly attack, on Tokyo, killed 100,000 people.
As it happens, McNamara served under LeMay as an intelligence officer, and one of the lessons he draws from this wartime experience is that ‘Proportionality should be a guideline in war’:
“In order to win a war should you kill 100,000 people in one night … ? LeMay’s answer would be, clearly, ‘yes’. ‘Mcnamara, do you mean to say that instead of killing … 100,000 Japanese civilians in that one night, we should have (killed) a lesser number? Or none? And then had our soldiers cross the beaches in Tokyo and been slaughtered in the tens of thousands? Is that what you’re proposing? Is that moral? Is that wise?’”
Sommerville, pointing to similar opposing arguments, states that:
“There is no doubt that Truman’s decision to use the bomb was made in large part in the hope that it would spare lives by making Japan surrender”.
Though he also says:
“However, the historical record is also clear that part of the motive was to intimate the Soviets and lay down a marker for the post-war world.”
McNamara likewise points out that:
“Killing 50 to 90 percent of the people of 67 Japanese cities (the number firebombed by LeMay), and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs, was not proportional, in the minds of some people, to the objectives we were trying to achieve.”
But then, again, even Sommerville, after having explained the larger political situation influencing Truman also lays out the potentially enormous cost of continuing the war by conventional means. Had the invasion of Japan commenced in August of 1945 and run into 1946:
“Casualty estimates (for it) varied widely, but typical figures were 400,000 Allied dead [including significant British Empire forces, not just Americans] and more than ten times that number of Japanese.”
The inference here is that dropping the atomic bomb may have saved not just Allied lives, but also Japanese ones.
As for the British role in these events, Hobbs says:
“The British Pacific Fleet achieved its aim and ensured that a British admiral was present to sign the Japanese surrender document on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945 (see the video above.) He was there by right with his flagship, HMS Duke of York, close by allowing him to act as host to notable allied leaders.”
He also says:
“In retrospect the BPF can be seen as a role model for the seamless integration of the Commonwealth Navies to achieve a strategic result greater than the sum of their individual contributions. They had played a significant part in the most powerful demonstration of Sea Power in the modern era. The mutually supporting three-dimensional blockade had brought Japan to its knees and reduced the large, and in some cases undefeated, Japanese armies in China and on island bases into virtual prisoners unable to return and fight in defence of their homeland. Japanese air forces were unable to oppose the carrier-borne aircraft that operated at will over the heart of the Japanese Empire.”
But perhaps it’s greatest contribution was the potential threat the BPF posed – helping the Allies to retain the possibility of launching an invasion of Japan, something it would have been instrumental in had this eventuality not been superseded by other events (namely, the dropping of the nuclear bombs and subsequent Japanese surrender.)
In fact, Hobbs says, the mere fact that the “achievement (of the capability of enabling an invasion of Japan) was made possible (is a testament to) the ingenuity and perseverance of thousands of un-named men and women from throughout the Commonwealth who served in the fighting ships, auxiliaries and in the shore establishments”.
It was, he says, “the Royal Navy’s greatest achievement of the war”.
Cover image courtesy of Osprey, from ‘Iwo Jima 1945: The Marines Raise the Flag on Mount Suribachi’ by Derrick Wright. Leyte Gulf map from ‘Leyte Gulf 1944: The World’s Greatest Sea Battle’ by Bernard Ireland. For more on the Pacific War, and military history in general, visit Osprey Publishing.
To learn more about the British Pacific Fleet, read David Hobbs’ book, ‘The British Pacific Fleet: The Royal Navy’s Most Powerful Strike Force’, from Seaforth Publishing.