On the morning of May 9 1945, many Britons awoke feeling more than a little groggy after an evening of celebrations to mark the end of war in Europe.
But six thousand miles away in the Pacific Ocean, the largest fleet the Royal Navy had ever assembled since the days of Nelson 150 years earlier was getting ready for a ferocious battle.
Because if the Japanese empire was on its knees and nearing the end, then its death rattle was about to reverberate through the British Pacific Fleet in a new and terrifying way… the notorious kamikaze suicide air strikes.
The seeds of former Sunday Times journalist Will Iredale’s gripping and drama-packed account of the virtually unknown involvement of young British airmen in the dying days of the war in the Pacific were planted at a chance meeting at a village fete in Kent.
Having been persuaded by Hollywood that the Pacific was ‘America’s turf,’ he was interested to learn from ex-Royal Navy fighter pilot Keith Quilter that the Brits were there too, and in numbers. Six aircraft carriers, more than 250 aircraft and over 10,000 sailors and aircrew, to be precise.
‘If the armies of Burma were the forgotten army, then we were the forgotten fleet,’ said Quilter.
Using meticulous research and unique personal access to the remaining survivors, Iredale brings us the remarkable story of a group of fresh-faced young airmen serving with the Fleet Air Arm – many of them volunteers – from the moment they joined up through their initial training to the terrifying reality of fighting suicide pilots.
In the cruel last summer of the war, these desperate Japanese flyers chose death rather than risk their country’s dishonourable defeat, and deliberately flew their planes into Allied aircraft carriers.
In their Mitsubishi Zero planes (known as Zekes), packed with bombs and with fuel tanks under each wing to cause maximum carnage, they flew to 3,000 feet, dropped the noses of their fighters over the British ships below and dived.
In less than half an hour in that first attack on May 9, two Royal Navy carriers were hit by three kamikazes, five men were killed, 29 wounded and 20 aircraft on board were destroyed.
The attack opened the eyes of all those serving in the British fleet to just how frightening and how different the Pacific struggle was going to be to anything previously experienced in the Second World War.
As one officer later wrote, ‘There is… something unearthly about an approaching aeroplane whose pilot is hell bent on diving himself right into the ship. Wherever you are he seems to be aiming straight for you personally.’
During the short life of the British Pacific Fleet – formed as part of a diplomatic gesture to prove Britain’s commitment to the Allied cause in the final months of the war – 105 airmen were killed across 36 strike days. At least ten of those were executed by the Japanese after being shot down.
Iredale makes it clear that the Americans would undoubtedly have secured the Pacific alone but the British achievement was nevertheless momentous considering their Pacific fleet had not even existed a year earlier.
And the bravery and skill of the men, who flew sortie after sortie against kamikazes and over enemy territory, cannot be questioned. ‘The campaign was often neither glamorous nor particularly thrilling,’ Iredale reveals, ‘but the airmen’s esprit de corps and willingness to get the job done remained until the end.’
This book goes a long way to ensure these forgotten heroes now have their place in wartime history…
(Macmillan, hardback, £20)