In the Spring and Summer of 1944, the Royal Navy had begun to make its presence felt in the Far East. Forced out of the Pacific by overwhelming Japanese naval power, and kept there by the political manoeuvrings of allies, the RN was finally able to stage a series of ambitious raids on Japanese targets in the Far East.
A series of three raids in April, May and June – Cockpit, Transom and Pedal – marked the beginning of the growing British role in the theatre, and set the scene for the rest of the war.
The main aim of these was to disrupt Japanese defences and communications in the region, and the raids typically featured air attacks on ports and airfields. Sometimes these were solely RN operations, while other operations were carried out in partnership with US forces.
Operation Cockpit, on 19 April, was an attack on targets in Sumatra, involving Fairey Barracuda dive bombers from HMS Illustrious and Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers from USS Saratoga, as well as fighters and strike fighters from both carriers.
A Fairey Barracuda approaches to land on an Illustrious-class carrier
The Barracudas concentrated on the port of Sabang while the Dauntlesses attacked the airfield. When the force arrived, it was with total surprise on its side and no Japanese fighters were in the air. The FAA aircraft dive-bombed ships in the harbour and, with the escorting fighters strafing the vessels, hits were scored on two merchant ships, two destroyers and an escort ship, and large fires in the dockyard were started. At the same time the harbour was bombarded by the RN battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth, and the battlecruiser HMS Renown, with the French battleship FS Richelieu. In addition, the Barracudas hit oil tanks and a wireless station.
The raid had been successful in its own right, and also in acting as a diversion from the US invasion of the Marianas islands.
Dauntlesses like these from USS Saratoga took part in joint raids with aircraft from HMS Illustrious
Barracudas did not take part in Operation Transom, a strike on Sourabaya, Java, in May 1944, their role being taken by Grumman Avengers of 845 Squadron which joined Illustrious briefly between May and July 1944. The raid followed the pattern of the earlier operation but was, according to later assessment, not particularly successful.
The Barracuda dive bombers from HMS Illustrious were reinstated for further raids. In June, Operation Pedal was staged. This was to be a raid on Port Blair in the Andaman Islands, and was remarkable not least for Illustrious operating no fewer than 57 aircraft from its decks, compared with around 33 generally carried in 1940.
The small complement of aircraft carried by UK carriers (and Illustrious in particular) was their single biggest drawback when compared with their US counterparts. With skilful arrangement of the hangers and use of a deck park, the number of aircraft that could be operated was increased from around a third that of US carriers to around two-thirds. On Illustrious, this included 15 Barracudas of the 21st Naval TBR Wing, with the rest being made up of Vought Corsairs. During Operation Pedal it was found that this complement could be handled without any great problems, although during the operation the flight deck was wet and very slippery and 57 aircraft was probably an absolute maximum for Illustrious. The proportion of Corsairs to Barracudas reflects that the RN, like the RAF, was very much moving towards the fast strike fighter as an offensive weapon in place of the lower-performing specialist light bomber.
The Corsair had, like the Barracuda, endured a troubled gestation. However, once excessive ‘float’ on landing, together with an unpredictable stall had been cured (both problems solved by the British) it became a valuable asset. It had very high performance for a naval fighter, with a great ability to carry heavy loads making it useful in the strike role also.
On this occasion the Barracudas benefitted in the raid from the additional fighters with strengthened escorts. As the chances of the task group, ‘Force 60’, being attacked were low it was decided to add a further eight Corsairs to the striking force, to bomb and strafe Japanese airfields, while two more Corsairs were added to the fighter escort making 16 Corsairs protecting the bombers. The fighter umbrella over Force 60 was reduced to an initial four.
The Chance-Vought Corsair provided the Fleet Air Arm with a top-class fighter with a significant strike ability
It had been hoped that the Barracudas could carry three 500lb MC (medium capacity) bombs, but trials with this asymmetric load were unsatisfactory. The Barracudas struggled to take off safely with the three 500 lb bombs, so the load was changed to two 500lb MC bombs and two 250lb GP (general purpose) bombs.
On the 21st June, the strike was launched. The Barracudas were flown off from a distance of 95 miles from the target. Unfortunately, when the bombers arrived, cloud hung at 1,500ft and rain was falling. This made bombing difficult and assessment of the results all but impossible as many of the bombs were not seen once they had been dropped. The Barracudas returned to the task group, a distance of 130 miles as the ships had moved out somewhat since the launch.
The Barracudas were airborne for times between two hours ten minutes, and two hours thirty minutes. The 225 miles flown by the Barracudas was not far short of the operational maximum of around 250 miles with a bomb load of 1,000lb in Far East climate, so the loss of a single Barracuda was light under the circumstances. Given the crowding on Illustrious’ deck, a landing crash or fire could have had serious consequences. The lack of any such incidents spoke volumes for the skill of the air and deck crews. Four officers and one radio mechanic were mentioned in despatches, including Barracuda Observer Temporary Lieutenant E.M. Maude who according to the citation had ‘by his example and enthusiasm done much to improve the standard of the other observers of his wing’. The excellent navigation displayed by the Barracudas said much for Maude’s contribution.
By the end of the summer, however, the Barracudas had been packed off home, temporarily replaced by Grumman Avengers which had a longer range and better performance in the hot climate of the Far East. By this stage, the RN was a power in the region again. A number of further raids hampered Japanese forces in the archipelago before eventually British ships joined forces with their US counterparts for the assaults on Okinawa and Formosa, then Japan itself.