Flying from an aircraft carrier in the Second World War was the most dangerous of pursuits. Even without the threat of enemy action, the likelihood of being killed or maimed was great and when faced with a determined foe, the chances of survival diminished even more quickly.
It wasn’t a life for the faint-hearted or the unskilled; naval aviators were the best of the best.
The British Pacific Fleet
By 1944, with the German seaborne threat diminishing rapidly, the Royal Navy could concentrate its carrier strength in the Far East. Here the Americans were island hopping their way towards Japan and meeting great resistance in the air and on the ground on the way.
And it was into this dangerous world that the British Fleet plunged to fight and suffer. But the aircrews didn’t flinch, fought bravely and sustained terrible casualties along the way.
Foremost amongst all them were 1839 and 1844 Squadrons, which together, flying Grumman Hellcats, formed the 5th Naval Fighter Wing on HMS Indomitable.
From mid-1944 to the last days of the war they fought with supreme gallantry and to great effect.
‘Engage from above, fast and hard’
Although these pilots fought under the banner of the Royal Navy they were, in fact, a multinational force. There were men from New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Holland as well as the British Isles.
But no matter from where they came they needed certain skills to survive, as Bill Foster, a pilot with 1844, recalled:
“Experience, good eyesight and quick reactions mattered a great deal. The novice saw little in the air and took time to see what was happening around them. When new to air fighting everything just seemed to happen too quickly.
Some never really acquired these skills no matter how hard they tried and were picked off before they knew what was happening. To others it came naturally and they prospered.
Our Commanding Officer, who was a very experienced fighter pilot by the time I arrived, constantly reminded us of the basic principles of air combat – engage from above, fast and hard, get in close, shoot accurately, aim for the pilot, and climb away quickly.
‘The quick and the dead’
But in addition to this, you needed to know the capabilities of your aircraft and how far you could push it. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy was also essential.
Flying fighters took a heavy toll on your body and there were no pressure suits then to protect you in high G turns. So being fit, avoiding late nights and alcohol were essential. For some this was a problem, especially in the cramped, noisy quarters on a carrier, where drink was readily available.
As your hours flying in combat added up so the risk of battle fatigue increased and, inevitably, you had to be taken off operations for your own good. Some managed to disguise the effects of creeping exhaustion and carry on flying when it had become unsafe to do so.
They were brave and didn’t want to let anyone down, but it was still foolhardy to let them continue. I’m sure some were lost because of this.
The saying ‘the quick and the dead`, though clichéd, held many grains of truth.”
For most of these men it took 18 months or so to reach a frontline squadron – such was the extent of their training. It was this programme that saw two thirds of them either failing to make the grade or being killed in accidents along the way.
The hazards of flying from carriers soon reduced their numbers even further – all this before they’d even engaged the enemy.
By the end of the war their casualty rates would exceed those incurred by the British Army during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, such was the price they paid for their bravery. Theirs was a cold, hard, brutal war and yet they didn’t flinch.
The 5th Fighter Wing faced all this and proved itself to be the finest exponents of this form of war, seeing action in all of the British Pacific Fleet battles in 1945.
Before that there had been some costly rehearsals against comparatively minor targets in the Indian Ocean, but in January the Fleet sailed to attack the strategically important oil refineries around Palembang, on Sumatra.
Over two strikes on 24 and 29 January they did considerable damage, but lost 41 aircraft (out of 244 available) and thirty aircrew in the process. In addition, many aircraft were damaged and nine men were also wounded.
It was a heavy price to pay, especially when the Fleet had only four fleet carriers at any one time and limited reserves to play with. The position with the United States Navy couldn’t have been more different.
With their greater industrial muscle, they seemed able to produce new carriers and more aircraft at will, so could afford to take losses in the drive towards Japan. But this didn’t deter the Royal Navy from participating fully even though it would be a war of diminishing returns and the loss of many good men.
Between January and August the 5th Wing would be in the thick of the fighting as the BPF hit targets in the Sakishima Gunto Islands, on Formosa and, finally, Japan itself.
Initially, their aim was to subdue any efforts being made by the Japanese to reinforce Okinawa, which the Americans were seeking to take as a preliminary to invading the enemy’s mainland.
And so the British Fleet began hammering away at airfields, port installations and anything of strategic importance between March and May.
But the losses in holding down a determined enemy were huge. 203 aircraft (98 in combat) were lost or written off from a complement of 218 and all the carriers were damaged by Kamikazes.
In all 85 Royal Navy personnel were killed and another 83 wounded, with an unrecorded number of aircrew suffering combat fatigue necessitating their removal from the front line.
Being in the forefront of these operations the 5th couldn’t avoid their share of casualties and their ranks were soon depleted, with an even heavier load falling on the survivors.
Farewell to the Indomitable
There was a brief respite in June as the Fleet sailed for Australia, its forward operating base, for essential repairs and replenishment. Within a month it again set sail for the front, with Japan now the sole remaining target.
HMS Indomitable wouldn’t be part of these operations however; the ship needed longer in dock to keep her operational.
The bulk of the 5th Wing remained with her, but a small detachment of her Hellcats did proceed with the Fleet on HMS Formidable. 1839 and 1844 had a number of pilots who had become specialists in night fighting and photo reconnaissance. These were roles that the Commander-in-Chief believed would be essential in the coming battles.
And so it proved to be. In a matter of weeks these highly skilled pilots provided protection for both the British and American Fleets during the hours of darkness destroying many enemy aircraft in the process.
The PR pilots were even more successful frequently overflying Japan taking many of thousands of pictures that helped plan future strikes and, more importantly, an invasion that two atomic bombs made unnecessary.
A remarkable generation
And so the carrier war came to an end and within 12 months most of these gallant young men had been demobbed and were making their way home to begin their lives anew.
They were conscious of leaving behind many friends and their youth but faced peace as bravely as they had the war, but their thoughts often went back to those days and the trials they had faced.
I had the privilege of meeting many of the survivors, to hear their stories and never failed to marvel at their courage and ability to endure, but also their modesty and humility.
They were a remarkable generation whose passing diminishes us all. I hope in some small way ‘Heaven High, Ocean Deep’ gives them with the fitting memorial they so deserve.
Tim Hillier-Graves is a retired Royal Navy officer and author who has written extensively about maritime and locomotive history. His book Heaven High, Ocean Deep will be published by Casemate UK in February 2019.