THE Allied Eastern Fleet rules over five and half million square miles of ocean.
There are no lines of defence in this dominion, and no strongpoints other than the bases linked by the great sea roads. Once at sea, a fleet, or a convoy, or a single ship must be self-supporting until its journey’s end. Today this vast area is held as securely as if it were occupied by an army on the ground. Two and a half years ago this was not so.
Two and a half years ago the Japs came riding up’ out of the China Seas, mighty with victory. They had sunk the battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales, taken Singapore, Java and Sumatra, and occupied the Andamans and Nicobars as forward air bases. From here they struck at Colombo and Trincomalee, sinking the aircraft carrier Hermes and the cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire. It was considered wise to move the weakened Eastern Fleet to East Africa to prepare for the next phase. Even there no dock facilities comparable with Singapore existed. Madagascar was still in the hands of the Vichy French, prisoners of the enemy. There was a grave danger that they might let the Japanese enemy in, as they had done in Indo-China.
Why did the Japs not advance, as then expected, at least on Ceylon and Southern India? Had they reached the perimeter of their conquest plan? Did they hesitate as Hitler did after Dunkirk, and losing impetus, lose urge? Did they see the danger signal from the East in the developing might of USA and turn to deal with this threat, to their rear? We know only that they did not come.
They attacked the Ceylon ports, indeed, by air but their plan of surprise was forestalled and they found the fighters already in the sky awaiting them. Our pilots exacted very heavy toll for the intrusion. The situation was further stabilised in the Indian Ocean when a brilliant Combined Op seized Madagascar, substantially securing the shipping route to the Middle East and making possible the coming victories from El Alamein to Tunis.
But the Battle of Supply extended far beyond the confines of the Middle Eastern campaign, and even of that threatened invasion which still hung as a fearful thundercloud along the Burma border. The Army of India was crying out indeed, for modern armament of every kind. So too and even more was China, still fighting our common enemy, Japan, after five years and still almost with bare hands. But now mighty Russia bended before the Teutonic fury tho’ she never broke. The tide of the barbarians rolled to the foothills of the Caucasus, and beat upon Stalingrad. Russian valour and martial skill won that day, but Britain too, may take pride that her factories cast so many of the victors’ weapons and her faithful fleets carried them to Russia through the icy Arctic and the sweltering Persian Gulf. The heaviest part of this task was borne by the Merchant Navy, but each ship required escort through Indian Ocean waters, now infested with Jap and German U-boats. To the RN and RAF fell the duty of seeing the ships safe.
Even now there are U-Boats in the Indian Ocean, but the same technique of air-sea co-operation which gained the Battle of the Atlantic is winning the Battle of the Indian Ocean. With the threat to the Middle East long past and with the war marching inexorably to it’s ose, the entire massive production strength of the Allies can be switched to South-East Asia. Meanwhile, the carcasses of U-Boats are piling up on the ocean bed of these waters.
The Japanese did not escape the liabilities of their far flung conquests.
For them, too, supply became the overriding military problem—without the corresponding capacity of their opponents to meet it. In Burma this defect was, by 1944, decisive.
In Burma, under pressure by South East Asia Command, the Japs maintained a formidable army of 10 to 12 large divisions. To keep it supplied with arms and ammunition and transport strained the capacity of the Bangkok-Rangoon railway to its limits, and beyond. The Japs had the best of the road lay-out in Burma, but even so it was inadequate, for road transport develops its own appetites. Petrol and machine parts must also ‘be brought in. Every use, therefore, had to be made of sea routes. Since Pearl Harbour the Americans had sunk 750 cargo ships, so that by 1944 the Japs had fallen back on ferry boats, coasters, junks and sampans. Lumped together in grotesque partnership these motley armadas crept down the China coasts and through the Malacca Straits towards Burma. USN and RN submarines picked them off as they came, sometimes at the harbour gates where they had loaded.
Above Rangoon the situation was no better. As the roads became impassable in the monsoon—and the Japs lacked mechanical road repair such as bulldozers—transport was driven back to the sea. But now it was within range both of British submarines and shore-based aircraft. From Ceylon, Sunderlands, Catalinas and Liberators ceaselessly patrolled the Bay of Bengal and far southward, while fighters scoured the coasts and creeks. If now and again a ship or a junk slipped through, unloading its cargo into the smaller craft which creep under the cover of night up the Arakan shores into the rivers, another danger lurked. Operating from secret bases, light coastal forces of the Royal Navy and the Royal Indian Navy swooped on the unarmed or lightly armed craft and sank them under the nose of the Jap shore positions.
The enemy could not replace his 700-odd sunken ocean-going cargo ships but he might hope to keep a wooden coastal fleet in being. The Andaman islands were ordered to produce the vessels. Royal Navy carrier-borne planes attacked the sawmills at Port Blair and left them in blazing chaos.
While all these troubles of supply were piling up, the Eastern Fleet which had long been massing in the Indian Ocean, moved over to the offensive. From a fleet in being it became a fleet in action. In April a powerful task force of battleships, cruisers, destroyers and submarines, accompanied by both British and American aircraft-carriers bombarded and bombed the Jap harbour base at Sabang. Dockyards, hangars, power-house and workshops were assailed: 30 aircraft were destroyed on the ground. In May another composite fleet struck Sourabaya main Jap base on Java. steaming 1500 miles into waters nominally commanded by the Japanese Navy. The bombing of the dry dock broke up the enemy ship repair programme. the demolition of the engineering works the sinking of 35,000 tons of shipping, and the blasting of his oil supply cut short all hopes of an improved sea supply for the Burma armies. Then Sabang caught it again, the Eastern Fleet sailing straight into the harbour and smashing up its installations, with 15-inch shells. When the shore batteries replied they were immediately silenced by a saucy little force of a Dutch cruiser and three British destroyers which steamed in to fire at point blank range.
The blows continued. The Indaroeng Cement Works near Padang in Sumatra which were supplying cement for pillboxes and tank traps against the threatened Allied invasion, were laid in ruins by the Eastern Fleet. The railway repair deport at Sigli was smashed. Parallel with this physical destruction of his bases, was the psychological destruction of the Jap’s boast of invulnerability in the East Indies.
Northward, things were in no happier shape for the enemy. His troops in the Burma jungle, short of supplies, and faced with armies growing in strength each day, were in retreat. Eastward, the deterioration was still more rapid as the Americans stepped with 700 league boots across the Pacific islands, marching on the Philippines. A well co-ordinated strategy of air-sea power had given Japan, in record time, an Empire riche and more extensive than, any ever before erected in the world A more thorough, and infinitely more powerful air-sea combination was now tearing it apart.
And what of the men of this Eastern Fleet who through the years endured heat and hardship, separation and routine and with little public recognition? It is not possible to single out its commanders and heroes. We can name only its old leader who in his genial and gallant person for so long reflected the magnificent spirit of the Fleet. Sir James Somerville conformed in every particular to what England expects of her admirals,’ He saw his little fleet of the gallant old Warspite four other “unrejuvenated” battleships (“my old ladies’) and a few cruisers grow into a huge armada of modern battleships, aircraft carriers and what Mr Churchill described to the House of Commons, as “an immense fleet train, comprising many vessels, large and medium, fitted as repair ships, recreational ships for personnel, munitions and provision ships, and many modern variants in order that our fleet may have a degree of mobility which for several months together will make them 1argely independent of the main shore bases.
To this magnificent Command Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser now succeeds, bearing the laurels of his two years’ triumphs with the Home Fleet against the German in Artic waters. He is here to carry ,the flags of South East Asia Command into Tokyo Bay.
Edited and published for the Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia, by Frank Owen. Printed by AMULLYA DHONE ROSE in the office of THE STATESMAN, Calcutta, who provided free facilities as a generous war gift.