Book Review: The Eastern Fleet and the Indian Ocean, 1942–1944: The Fleet that Had to Hide


by Charles Stephenson

Yorkshire / Philadelphia: Pen & Sword, 2022. Pp. x, 320. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $28.95 paper. ISBN: 1526797763

The Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean in W. W. II

This book reinforces a weak spot in the extensive literature on the Royal Navy in the Second World War. It examines its war in the Indian Ocean that has fallen in the gap between more extensively covered subjects including the sinking of the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse in 1941, the fall of Singapore in 1942 and the British Pacific Fleet of 1945, the largest and most capable combat force the Royal Navy was to assemble during the war. The narrative, as the title advises, concentrates on the years between the Eastern Fleet’s creation from the prewar East Indies Station and ending with its redesignation as the East Indies Fleet in 1944, whose 1944-45 actions, including amphibious landings in Burma, carrier strikes, submarine operations and the sinking of the Japanese heavy cruiser Haguro in a night destroyer attack, are not covered here.

The first 50 pages, by way of introduction, cover the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet in 1918 (and British disdain for its fleet-in-being strategy) and the British naval missions to Japan in the early 1920s that saw the birth of Japanese naval aviation. These are interesting but peripheral to the rest of the geographically and organizationally defined subject matter. This is followed by a discussion of interwar British naval strategy and early war British carrier operations, which serve primarily to point out its strengths and limitations that were revealed in 1942 when the Eastern Fleet and its carriers were confronted by a superior Japanese force. A sharp focus this is not. Again, worthwhile reading, but they appear rather than showing how the Indian Ocean transitioned from a secure Imperial lifeline, threatened primarily by the occasional surface raider, to the British Empire’s embattled first line of defense, in the wake of the fall of Singapore, the bastion that for decades had been central to British strategy in east Asia.

The operational focus of this book is on how the Japanese followed their successes in Singapore and Burma with the April 1942 Indian Ocean operation and their attack on Ceylon, using five of the six carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor. While the Eastern Fleet’s commander, Admiral Sir James Somerville – who is effectively the central character – remained committed to the offensive operations that characterized the Royal Navy, the author points out that even if he had succeeded in his objective of using his carriers to take advantage of their one asymmetric capability compared to the Japanese – radar-equipped torpedo bombers capable of night attacks – they would have had to close to such short range that even a successful attack would have exposed the British carriers to an inevitable retaliatory strike in daylight.

The difficulty the British experienced in operating slow old battleships to support fast carriers in April 1942 – something the US Navy avoided even facing superior enemy numbers – underlined why the outnumbered Eastern Fleet became “the fleet that had to hide”, withdrawing most of its force to east Africa. The Japanese sank a carrier, two cruisers and much merchant shipping before withdrawing to prepare for Midway, ending the Eastern Fleet’s only major naval engagement on p. 97 of the book, driven from the Indian Ocean without the decisive battle the Royal Navy had planned for decades.

The causes of the Eastern Fleet’s predicament, in many directions, went back through many years. The Eastern Fleet’s retreat from its bases in Ceylon was part a world-wide crisis of British sea power. The turnaround started, in the Mediterranean, with the Pedestal convoy to Malta and Operation Torch in late 1942 and, in the North Atlantic, with the defeat of the U-boats in spring 1943. But for the Eastern Fleet, at the bottom of the interallied priority list, it would be well into 1944 before more ships and resources were available and infrastructure expanded. The Germans made the Indian Ocean the center of U-boat activity in 1943 after their defeat in the north Atlantic. The Eastern Fleet struggled to respond, with much painful re-inventing of the organizations and tactics of effective anti-submarine warfare that had taken years to work out effectively elsewhere.

Once the Eastern Fleet returned to its bases in Ceylon and started to recover, it was targeted, not by the Japanese, but by Churchill’s demands for offensive action against the Burmese coast and, especially, northern Sumatra, which Churchill (and almost no one else) saw as a potential strategic target. The leadership, in London and Ceylon alike, saw only a diversion of scarce resources. Churchill’s objective was dismissed by Britain’s First Sea Lord, Admiral Andrew Cunningham as “recapturing their own rubber trees.” MacArthur initially welcomed the prospect of jump-starting offensive operations by creating an Eastern Fleet base in Australia, providing him with a naval force without having to compete with US Navy priorities, until he realized that British strategic goals were more concerned with recovering King George’s empire than helping him build his own.

The clash between Somerville and Lord Louis Mountbatten, Churchill’s protégé and supreme allied commander for the South East Asia Command, is a major theme in the second half of the book’s narrative. Yet the desire for the Eastern Fleet to transition from “the fleet that had to hide” to a force capable of carrying out an independent offensive remained, even though its realization – and its contribution to the British Pacific Fleet – is outside the scope of this book. The seeds for the 1945 invasion of Borneo (which postwar hindsight tends to see as pointless) and the preparations for Operation Zipper, the amphibious invasion planned for Malaya emerged from resource shortages and competing strategic visions. The US built a base for B-29 bombers in Ceylon – never used – to sustain a bombing campaign against the Japanese in Singapore.

The book covers some of the Eastern Fleet’s larger context, including the impact the Indian Ocean shipping situation had on the Bengal famine. But there is little on its relationship with the Royal Indian Navy, which, starting from a small prewar nucleus, greatly expanded by the end of the war, even though, unlike the Indian Army, it was not building on long-established institutions and organizations. The Eastern Fleet felt the impact of 1942 on a struggling Empire in the Indian Ocean littoral. Ceylonese gunners on Cocos Island and Mauritius troops on Madagascar mutinied, as did, after V-J Day, the Royal Indian Navy. It would have been interesting to see how this impacted Somerville and his command.

The Eastern Fleet was, throughout its existence, a coalition force. The book details one significant example, when the US carrier Saratoga was detached to Ceylon to help restart the Eastern Fleet’s offensive naval-air capability. It brought with it the combat lessons learned by the US Navy’s carriers and their air groups in 1942-43. The author shows this had a greater effect on British carrier aviation in the Indian Ocean than any top-down learning flowing from the Admiralty, even after the carrier Victorious had deployed to the south Pacific. However, with the Eastern Fleet’s 1942-44 rebuilding following in the wake of the defeat of ABDAFLOT at the Battle of the Java Sea in 1942, which remains a great historical example of dysfunctional naval coalition warfare, it would have been useful to see how Somerville was able to pull together not just the Saratoga, but French, Netherlands, Australian and other navies' ships and submarines. Even a Greek armored cruiser passed through on escort duties.

Nor is there much of the Royal Air Force’s buildup of maritime capabilities in the CBI that, like everything else, depended heavily on Lend Lease resources. The RAF also had to rebuild, its in-theatre capabilities at the end of a global supply chain, and had to coordinate operational priorities with many competing claims on its limited resources. How they all worked together – and what the others thought of the British organization, objectives and command structure – remains unanswered here.

The book’s focus remains throughout on the Eastern Fleet. It does not aim to provide insight on Japanese thinking (aside from the introductory material) during April 1942 or in the months that followed until, with the completion of the infamous Burma Railway, allowing resupply from Thailand, the Japanese were able, in 1944, to resume their offensive against India that had halted in 1942. Allied submarine operations also do not get much coverage.

One special operation, sinking German merchant ships anchored in the neutral Portuguese colony of Goa on India’s west coast, is treated in a chapter. Despite being the subject of a best-selling book (and a major motion picture in the 1970s), the author points out how little is known about this exploit. Other noteworthy small-scale actions in the Eastern Fleet’s area of operation in the period covered by this book are conspicuous by their absence. On Armistice Day 1942, the Royal Indian Navy minesweeper Bengal escorting the Dutch tanker Ondine, attacked by two Japanese armed surface raiders, not only survived the unequal battle but won the gunfight. In September 1943, when Italy joined the Allies, the Italian gunboat Eritrea arrived in Ceylon to join the Eastern Fleet. It escaped from Japanese-occupied Malaya, where it had been supporting blockade-running submarines after previously escaping from East Africa in 1941. Neither incident shows up in this book.

The book is extensively footnoted, with 983 endnotes that take up 87 of the 347 pages of text (plus a one-page apology for not providing a bibliography). The author’s research relied heavily on published sources, especially Somerville’s collected papers (cited some 108 times) and Arthur Marder’s two-volume study of the Royal and Imperial Japanese navies in war and peace, Old Friends and New Enemies; much of the latter half of its second volume concentrates on Somerville’s command of the Eastern Fleet. “Banging together” these two sources has provided much of the author’s narrative.

The book’s 13 maps and two track charts (for the Japanese attack on Ceylon), are appreciated and puts this book a cut above many works. It still could have used maps to show the U-boats’ 1943 Indian Ocean offensive and track charts of some of the Eastern Fleet’s offensive operations. Tabular data would have been useful to help make the author’s points, such as showing merchant ship losses in and out of convoy, as would have providing orders of battle or more than a glance at the Japanese side of the Indian Ocean.

Providing a worthwhile narrative on a less well-known subject, this book serves as a reminder that, even during a global conflict, kinetic action remains only a part of what navies ask warships to do. Even those ships that hide can project sea power and, in the case of the Eastern Fleet’s successors in 1944-45, contribute to final victory.


Our Reviewer: David Isby’s writings on current and historical airpower include The Decisive Duel: Spitfire vs. 109 (London: Little Brown, 2012) and Fighter Combat in the Jet Age (London: Harper Collins, 1997) and articles for Air International, Air Forces Monthly and other magazines. A veteran historian, defense analyst, and war game designer, Isby has quite a number of other books, articles, and games to his credit covering the Second World War, the military institutions of the Soviet Union, and military aviation in general. During the Soviet-Afghan War he observed the fighting on the front lines, and he is the author of Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires: A New History of the Borderland (New York: Pegasus, 2011). His previous reviews include A Military History of Afghanistan, The Elite: The A–Z of Modern Special Operations Forces, Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean, Airpower in the War against ISIS, Korean Air War: Sabres, MiGs and Meteors, 1950–53, How the Army Made Britain a Global Power, Modern South Korean Air Power, Dirty Eddie's War, and Air Battle for Moscow, 1941-1942.




Note: The Eastern Fleet and the Indian Ocean is also available in hard cover.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David C. Isby   

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