The British Pacific Fleet and the End of the War

The end of the fighting did not mean the sailors of the British Pacific Fleet could relax.

At first, Royal Navy warships were kept busy taking the surrender of isolated Japanese garrisons in former British possessions from New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore. The task was often complicated by local resentment about the sometimes unwelcome return of the colonial power, and American concerns about restoring the British Empire.

In almost every territory, and in Japan itself, the sailors were responsible for finding, feeding and bringing home thousands of British and Allied prisoners-of-war and civilian internees. Admiral Cecil Harcourt was responsible for Hong Kong:

‘We had a most unforgettable welcome [with] a very touching ceremony…the Union Flag had been produced by an ex-naval rating who had hidden it in his bedding when Hong Kong was captured. The morale at Stanley Camp was extremely high despite the obvious effects of malnutrition which could be seen on every face.’

The repatriation mission was titled Operation Magic Carpet by the US Navy. British Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers were stripped of their aircraft and much of their equipment, so that their cavernous hangars could be filled with bunks and camp beds. Everything possible was done to make them feel welcome after their years of hardship.

The Colossus hanger deck converted for repatriation of Prisoners of War 

When HMS Implacable brought back 2,000 Americans and Canadians, the journey to Pearl Harbor was broken up with flight deck sports tournaments, a carnival and other entertainment. HMS Glory organised deck hockey and a ‘horse race’ using wooden horses and huge dice, along with film screenings, concerts and a tombola. 

A PoW race onboard Colossus

The prisoners’ physical condition was often poor, and sadly some died on their way back home.

A nurse treating a PoW

HMS Victorious had perhaps the most unusual passenger list: 619 ‘war brides’ from Australia, who had married Royal Navy sailors and were on their way to join their husbands.

Aircraft ditched overboard from Colossus

The joyous trips home masked a grim economic reality: Britain was nearly bankrupt after six years of war, and the British Pacific Fleet was a very expensive asset. The government wanted the bases dismantled and the ships home, so that they could be ‘paid off’ and their costly crews returned to civilian life.

Colossus ditching aircraft overboard

Another complication was caused by American lend-lease equipment. The British had only three options for lend lease kit: pay for it in dollars (unaffordable), take it back to the US at British expense (ditto) or write it off as a war loss (free.) So sophisticated aircraft which had been built and transported to the Pacific at huge cost, were simply tipped off the sides of the carriers.

Colossus ditching more aircraft overboard

In August 1945, the British Pacific Fleet comprised eighteen aircraft carriers of various types, four battleships, eleven cruisers and over 140 smaller warships, plus countless more supply and support ships from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and Merchant Navy. By August 1948, it had shrunk to just two cruisers and 25 other warships. Peace had definitely returned.

The Evening Standard reporting on repatriation

 

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