The Kamikaze Hunters
Fighting for the Pacific, 1945
Pegasus Books, New York, 2017, 400 pages
Book Review published on: September 13, 2019
When thinking of the Royal Navy in the Pacific, images of the ill-fated “Force Z” comes to mind. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a British naval squadron sailed from Singapore, home to the British Far East Fleet, to disrupt Japanese troop landings off the coast of Thailand. Ironically, the British squadron sailed with no air cover. Two days later, Japanese land-based bombers and naval torpedo bombers discovered the task force and immediately pressed the attack. Within two hours, battleships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales were sunk, marking the first victory by aircraft alone over capital ships on the open seas.
The Repulse and the Prince of Wales represented England’s steadfast resistance to innovate during the interwar period, demonstrated by their continued investment in the much diminished capital ship while ignoring the revolutionary concept of aircraft carrier warfare. Britain’s crushing defeat left a void in the Royal Navy’s Pacific combat actions that many students of World War II history believed remained unfilled for the rest of the war. In fact, three years passed before the Royal Navy fired its guns in anger east of Singapore, but when they reawakened, they fell under command of the powerful British Pacific Fleet (BPF).
Will Iredale, an investigative news reporter, hits a home run in his first book, The Kamikaze Hunters: Fighting for the Pacific, 1945, delivering a richly researched project including archives, diaries, letters, and interviews with veterans. He centers the book around three carrier pilots, beginning with their enlistment and then following them through two and a half years of training and nine months of combat in the far Pacific (all the while framing their trials and tribulations against the historical backdrop of aircraft carrier development, inadequate carrier planes, the need to train pilots in three different countries, and assembling a significant fleet under the Union Jack). This was a circuitous route to say the least for these pilots and hundreds of others charting a path through five continents, thus shedding a great deal of light on the Royal Navy’s mad scramble to get sea power back into the Pacific after devastating losses early in the war.
Dysfunctionality best describes British naval aviation in the years leading up to the war. Interservice obstinance left the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) stuck in the recesses of the Royal Air Force (RAF), thus ceding critical developmental years to the RAF while Japan and the United States significantly advanced aircraft design from folding wings to being capable of absorbing a controlled crash on a carrier’s flight deck.
The RAF could proudly point to the Spitfire and the Hurricane, both monoplanes that exceeded three hundred mph. Conversely, the FAA rumbled along with aircraft like the Fairy Swordfish, a British built torpedo biplane dubbed the “Stringbag,” which had an open cockpit for a crew of three to brave all weathers in and topped out at 125 mph (which crews joked was only obtainable downhill). The Swordfish and an assortment of other relics reminiscent of the Great War accounted for the 232 frontline aircraft and the 500 operational aircrew members the FAA could muster in September 1939. However, by the war’s end, the FAA boasted a strength of 59 carriers, 3,700 aircraft, and 72,000 officers and men.
Iredale superbly breaks down the scramble to create a fleet suited for the vastness of war in the Pacific while decisively locked in the Battle of the Atlantic. He provides a valuable assessment of the plethora of home-built carrier aircraft that reached sixty-two variants, at one point exposing their insurmountable shortcomings. The British never closed this gap but instead turned to the lend-lease program to fill squadrons with Corsairs, M18 “Hellcat” tank destroyers, and Grumman Tarpon I “Avengers” aircraft, accounting for seventy percent of the air fleet.
Most fascinating though was the path to becoming a British naval aviator. The author draws on extensive interviews, letters, and newspaper accounts to describe a pilot’s experience from puzzling entrance examinations, classroom training in England, flight training in Canada, and carrier landing training in Pensacola, Florida, which was the final phase and is where pilots still learn how to land on an aircraft carrier today.
Iredale provides a detailed and interesting account of the decisions and actions behind the BPF’s major combat operations, considering every level of command and telling the stories of the men who fought. In January 1945, operating as Task Force 57 (TF-57) under U.S. Fifth Fleet, the BFP received its baptism of fire when it launched Operation Meridian, conducting air strikes against oil production in Sumatra at the cost of forty-eight aircraft lost to enemy action. In March, Adm. Raymond Spruance, commander of the Fifth Fleet, assigned TF-57 a new mission: to attack the Sakishima Islands to protect naval operations supporting Okinawa, which included striking kamikaze staging bases.
Over the next three months, the Brits proved their mettle. Considering by the time the BPF arrived into the Pacific Theater of Operations, in November of 1944, most of Japan’s navy offensive power lay at the bottom of the ocean and its once fine corps of pilots had mostly perished at the hands of Americans, desperation gripped Japanese leaders. Kamikaze tactics, reduced to a math problem, seemed a logical choice for the decimated Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service.
By the time TF-57 rolled into Okinawa, as Iredale describes, the intensity of suicide attacks reached its highest, forcing “on the fly” tactics and requiring steel nerves. During this period, British fleet carriers suffered many kamikaze attacks, but due to armored flight decks, they never lost a carrier and quickly returned to the action when struck. In the words of a U.S. Navy liaison officer on the HMS Indefatigable, “When a kamikaze hits a U.S. carrier, it means six months of repair at Pearl [Harbor]. When a kamikaze hits a Limey carrier, it's just a case of ‘Sweepers, man your brooms.’” By May 1945, Allied forces secured Okinawa and the final push toward Japan had begun. Reassigned to U.S. Third Fleet under command of Adm. William “Bull” Halsey Jr. and now called Task Force 37, the BPF provided combat air patrol and launched air strikes on the Japanese mainland until the end of the war.
Aside from chronicling the creation of the capable BPF and its valiant record of combat against the Japanese on land, sea, and air, Iredale noticeably goes out of his way to compare the sacrifices of British aviators and sailors to those made by members of the U.S. Navy. (This is a difficult comparison to make considering the grand scale of operations of the U.S. Navy; nevertheless, the British suffered comparatively high losses.) Even though the BPF did not change the tide of the war, when Roosevelt gratefully accepted Winston Churchill’s offer of a British fleet “under the United States Supreme Command,” the English helped shoulder the burden of “smashing Japan,” which went a long way to tightening the British-American post-war alliance.
The Kamikaze Hunters fills an important gap in Pacific war naval history, dispelling the myth that the U.S. Navy had to go it alone, and it deserves a place on the bookshelf of historians, military professionals, and patriots alike.
Book Review written by: Ronald T. Staver, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas