USS Robin: It’s the US aircraft carrier that never was.
It’s also the closest the USN really got to the mythical “Project Rainbow”, where experimentation with teleportation was supposed to have made ships 'vanish into thin air' before reappearing somewhere else.
So, what’s in a name?
At first glance it seems to be what it claims. It was a ship under US command. Its aircraft bore the USN white star. Its crew wore USN clothing. Its radio operators spoke with US accents. Many of its aircrew also had those distinctive twangs.
But the name didn’t match that in the USN inventory: USS Robin was supposed to be a minesweeper / ocean-going tug.
This one was an aircraft carrier.
And the ship itself was flying the flag of the Royal Navy.
The cause was the battle of Santa Cruz Islands.
USS Hornet had been lost. Enterprise had simply accumulated too much battle damage to be effective.
This left Saratoga. And her repairs were to keep her out of the front line until November 1942.
The effect was a US Pacific Fleet need for another carrier to appear, as if out of nowhere.
Eventually, this ‘miracle’ was to materialise in the form of USS Robin.
It’s one of World War II’s forgotten tales – when the United States asked Britain to help reinforce its diminished Pacific Fleet after the heavy losses of 1942.
What little reference is made to “USS Robin” is usually confused, incomplete – or simply a re-hashing of yet another poorly compiled summary.
As always, the story is much more mundane – and complex – than is generally understood.
An initial appeal for carrier assistance by the USN shortly after the Battle of Midway was to be declined by the Royal Navy: The struggle in the Mediterranean had reached fever-pitch.
The US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral King was particularly bitter about Britain's reluctance to commit heavy forces to the Pacific or Bay of Bengal. But he appears not to have been aware of how over-extended the Royal Navy was at this time.
Britain needed what few fully operational carriers she had to force the German-Italian blockade in the Arctic, North Sea, Bay of Biscay and Mediterranean. Then there was the need to discourage German and Japanese raiders among the supply lines of the Indian Ocean.
Operation Pedestal, in August 1942, had been a qualified success. It revealed the power of a few well-coordinated fighters in the face of overwhelming enemy opposition. But HMS Indomitable was bombed, putting this valuable carrier out of action for six crucial months. Then HMS Victorious joined Formidable and escort carriers led by Furious for the invasion of North Africa, at Algiers.
With only HMS Victorious in the Home Fleet, HMS Formidable in the Mediterranean Fleet and Illustrious in the Eastern Fleet - the RN did not have carriers to spare.
Nevertheless, when Admiral King, repeated his request for an aircraft carrier to be diverted to bolster the Pacific Fleet after the unexpectedly high cost of the Guadalcanal campaign, the Admiralty acquiesced.
We are far more heavily engaged in the Southwest Pacific than I anticipated a few months ago, Roosevelt reportedly told Churchill.
It was not entirely a benevolent act: The Royal Navy knew the type of warfare being fought in the Pacific was vastly different to that of the Atlantic and Mediterranean. This would give the fleet some much needed experience in carrier strike operations.
When HMS Victorious pulled into the Scottish port of Greenoch on November 23, 1942, she was hastily resupplied under a heavy veil of secrecy.
Some 40 Martlet fighters and extensive stocks of spare parts were loaded aboard before departure.
Victorious’ active air group at this time consisted of:
- 882 Squadron (12 Martlets) under Lieutenant Commander F.A. Shaw
- 896 Squadron (12 Martlets) under Lieutenant I.L.F. Lowe
- 832 Squadron (18 Albacores) under Lieutenant Commander W.J. Lucas.
Many of her crew had no idea of the carrier’s destination.
When HMS Victorious put to sea on December 20, she effectively vanished.
Only when the remainder of her air group had landed on would the ship’s new commanding officer, Captain L. D. Mackintosh, broadcast that Victorious had been detached from the Home Fleet and was headed towards Bermuda.
The carrier, escorted by the cruiser HMS Phoebe and the destroyers Quickmatch, Racehorse, and Redoubt, promptly sailed into a Force 9 gale for the majority of the crossing.
Send Her Victorious, by Michael Apps, reports one of her aircrew writing:
Rough, why on that trip even the rats got sick … On the second day out water started coming over the flight deck and down into the hangar deck, it was inches deep at times and splashed from side to side with every roll of the ship.
HMS Victorious’ Albacores were only able to resume anti-submarine patrols on Boxing Day, even though the ship was still pitching heavily. The risky flights were deemed necessary: Some 40 U-boats were believed operational in the Bermuda area.
The heavy weather had caused Victorious' escort to consume more fuel than expected. An attempt was made to refuel the destroyer HMS Redoubt. After starting well, the swell proved too great and the little ship was drawn into Victorious’ side - buckling the carrier’s radio masts upward as yet another hazard for nervous pilots.
“The Land-on was an experience similar to flying through a forest and hoping to miss the trees!”
The squadron reduced speed to provide the fuel-efficiency necessary for the destroyers to make landfall.
HMS Victorious would spend just eight hours in Bermuda (another source states six days) – though as something of a celebrity. US aircraft demonstrated a fascination for the “Limey flat top”, making many low passes to have a good look. Float planes even landed on the water and taxied slowly about the ship.
Again, once at sea, Captain Mackintosh broke the news to the quizzical crew. HMS Victorious would be headed to Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia.
Major structural alterations. The round-down at the stern of the flight deck was built up over the top of the original armoured round down, to add an extra 10 foot to the length of the flight deck, and flatten it out. This was to accommodate the American landing practices. Our Pilots sort of came in low, and rose on to the deck, where as the American Pilots came in high, and dropped on to it.
A gallery was built about eight foot under this extension, the full width of the ship and curving around each end a distance of about six feet.On this gallery were mounted an extra twenty Oerlikons.( we already had 56 at various points around the ship). Each capable of firing 450 20mm shells per minute over a distanceof 2000 metres. They were placed to cover a field of fire from 145o Starboard to 145o Port, and from sea level up to 500 metres. Thus covering the favourite window for an attacking Japanese aircraft, particularly when the carrier was flying off, or landing on aircraft. In these circumstances the carrier was tied to a straight course and constant speed in to the wind. They had been known to try and join the carriers incoming aircraft.
Access to the gun platform was by a covered ladder from the quarterdeck. Not a nice place to be at action stations, perched 40 feet above the wake of the ship. The wake of a 32000 ton ship doing 25 to 30 knots can be quite impressive, plus the up and down motion if there is a dirty sea running. I was very glad I was not an Oerlikon gunner.
The armoured carrier arrived in the US on December 31, 1942. She was dry-docked at Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, to have US-standard TBS (Talk Between Ships) radios, the YB aircraft homing system and new radar equipment fitted (including a new vertical plot table). Also embarked was a USN liaison team of signals officers and code specialists.
As the Royal Navy had little in the way of suitable clothing for the tropics, the crew of Victorious was also issued USN gear; Khaki for officers and blue-jeans and shirts for the enlisted men.
Among the US liaison aboard Victorious was a ‘batsman’ to instruct RN flight crew and deck operations personnel the intricacies of USN deck landing signals and procedures.
This was the only formal request made of HMS Victorious by the USN.
FAA pilots were not impressed with what they saw as the unnecessarily complicated and blind straight-on US deck landing system. This was made worse as many of the US batsman’s signals were the exact opposite to their own. (For example, both arms raised and outstretched at 45 degrees high was ‘Go Higher’ for the FAA pilots. For USN pilots it meant ‘You Are Too High’)
But Captain Mackintosh insisted his pilots make the change. And make it effectively.
Captain Mackintosh was something of a rarity among the Royal Navy’s carrier commanders. He had been an FAA Observer, so he understood the challenges and technical considerations of naval flying.
The Captain had quickly become a regular presence among the aircrew in Victorious’ wardroom.
Such was his understanding that he had one of the new FAA Avengers hoisted aboard at the dockyard so it could be measured and weighed for appropriate lashing points to be installed on the deck and hangar.
Cross-deck operations were expected to be a vital part of Victorious’ operations from the outset. The senior US liaison officer, Commander Mitchell USN - previously a squadron commander on USS Hornet - was immediately engaged in a series of discussions relating to Victorious' operational requirements and the Pacific's tactical situation.
As mentioned above, the FDO was efficiently laid out to provide a quick and efficient means to coordinate the CAP. The four channel wireless system allowed a single radio channel to be dedicated to radar sightings of incoming planes and a second channel to be dedicated to fleet sightings, this system allowed for efficient dissemination of sightings to fighters in the CAP. The USN system relied heavily on radio silence due to surprise being of utmost importance in carrier-to-carrier battles and because the Japanese had an efficient radio direction finding system. This forced the USN to use different radio sets and many different radar sets within the carrier to detect the enemy, and use VHF sets that were restricted to a line-of-sight radius. Once a raid was detected the entire system was switched to a medium frequency, all of which was communicated through radio transmissions. The problem with the system was that other radio traffic was also transmitted over the same frequencies of the two sets, causing a lot of traffic over one channel.
All was not entirely for the benefit of the RN carrier. Captain Mackintosh had been instructed to make any and all information regarding HMS Victorious' Fighter Direction Office technology and techniques available.
Mackintosh and his staff arrived in Washington on the 4 January 1943, where he called upon Admirals Sir Percy L.H. Noble and Sir Wilfred French, both of whom introduced Mackintosh to the staff of Admiral King. While in discussions the Americans showed a great interest in the layout of the British Fighter Direction Office. Mackintosh gave them an advanced copy of C.B. Direction Fighters in H.M. Ships. The book was then forwarded to the Bureau of Aeronautics.
Several members of the Bureau were then invited aboard Victorious to assess the FDO's layout for further evolution and integration into USN ships. One of these men, Lt Commander Owen, would be assigned as a liaison for the FDO for the duration of the carrier's deployment in the Pacific.
One of the more significant upgrades to HMS Victorious while in Norfolk Navy Yard was the removal of the aerodynamic aft ‘round down’ of the flight deck. This was replaced with an extended, flush deck.
The change - planned by the RN but carried out with gusto by a USN eager to get the ship into the Pacific - considerably improved the deck area available for ranging aircraft.
Essentially, it enabled the armoured carrier to carry a US-scale deck park for the first time. To that end a new 16,000 pound mobile crane was brought aboard along with a tractor and two smaller towing vehicles to help speed up the juggling of aircraft on the carrier's deck.
Also incorporated into modification work was a platform beneath the stern overhang holding eight 20mm Oerlikon cannons. Another 12 had been distributed around the ship wherever space could be found - such as replacing the forward searchlights.
Additional changes included the upgrade of arresting cables to snare the heavy US Avengers, construction of a new mess space for the expanded flight deck crew, a hangar control station, the fitting of two US cipher machines in the Communications Office, the addition of three diesel fire pumps along with a new fog fire-suppression system in the crew spaces.
Storm damage to the bow was also repaired.
AVENGERS FOR THE FAA
When HMS Victorious slipped out of Norfolk Navy Yard in February, 1943, she was carrying a total of 52 aircraft: 36 Martlet IVs in 882, 896 and 898 Squadrons, as well as 16 freshly delivered TBF Avengers of 832 Squadron.
The FAA had been handed 21 Avengers direct from United States stocks. All still wore USN markings.
In fact, all aircraft aboard HMS Victorious were soon to carry the US white star.
Victorious’ 832 Squadron Albacores had flown off the carrier on January 1, 1943, and landed at Norfolk Naval Air Station. Here the biplanes became the object of much derision. Send Her Victorious notes that it was somewhat fortunate that the FAA aircrew’s practice of strapping bicycles to the wing struts as personal shore transport had been skipped for this occasion.
The FAA bomber crews had little opportunity for recreation anyway: They were quickly set to the task of coming to grips with the USN’s newest aircraft – the Avenger.
Training involved a series of dummy deck landings ashore before graduating to the real thing aboard USS Charger.
At the same time 898 Squadron was introduced to HMS Victorious. This group, under Lieutenant I.L.F. Lowe previously of 896 Squadron, had begun to be formed around a group of 12 Martlets in Norfolk in November.
While the FAA crew were now proficient in their US aircraft and landing procedures, many of the new pilots had not actually conducted real deck landings. It was for this reason Captain Mackintosh sought, and was granted, an extension of Victorious' stay on the US east coast.
The FAA fighter pilots also took their Martlets out to USS Charger to practice their new landing style. One spun into the deck, killing the pilot. Another went over the side and dangled by its wire. A third Martlet simply vanished – its pilot’s body being found washed ashore several days later.
HMS Victorious departed Norfolk Navy Yard on February 3, escorted by the US destroyers Pringle, Bache and Converse
Aboard the RN carrier were 35 USN officers and ratings. These men had taken up roles in the communications rooms, coding booths and radio mechanics areas.
Intense flying operations continued off Cuba as Victorious made her way to the Panama Canal. According to Chris Sheehy:
The Americans were security mad. Every dockyard worker on board had a rating allocated to watch him full time, and if he was welding on a bulkhead, he had two. One in the compartment he was in, and one in the compartment which backed on to it, both armed with fire extinguishers. As there were a lot of them, and they worked right through in shifts, they put quite a stain on our manpower.
The American Naval Authorities could not do anything about this arrangement as it was a civil law, and out of their hands. After much argument’ it was arranged that they would supply working parties to help with the handling of the re-armament stores And when they did, that started a real fire storm.
Remember we were in West* Virginia, the birthplace of rabid segregationists and the Klu Klux Klan, who were still, apparently alive and well. We had already found that public transport, restaurants, and every other public facility were plainly marked, ‘Whites Only’ and ‘Others’. So when the first working party arrived at the gangway, it was not surprising to see they were negroes, escorted by four white naval NCOs complete with side arms and batons.
When the O.O.W. refused them permission to come aboard carrying arms, in which he included the batons, he was asked, in less than polite terms,” how do you expect us to keep these black ‘B’s in order without guns”. The O.O.W. was adamant, and it finished up with a big con-flab between Capt. McIntosh and the base Senior Officer, with I believe, signals to and from Admiralty. They must have backed McIntosh, because from there on the work party arrived at the ship, complete with armed escort, who then turned them over to the O.O.W, did an about turn and departed, no doubt spitting and spluttering about the damm limeys giving the F**** black B**** ideas above their station.
These working parties worked with however many of the ship’s company could be mustered, but it took them a while to feel at ease working alongside, and doing the same jobs as ‘you mad whities’ as they called us. And they did work, hard. Perhaps we sowed the seeds of a cultural revolution, This discrimination caused quite a few fights ashore, and as the American Naval Police were so bigoted, we instituted our own shore patrols to work with them.
* Probably means Virginia, not West Virginia (Ed).
The passage to San Cristobal allowed the ship to exercise the deck crew and the pilots. A lack of wind over the flight deck delayed some of the exercises. When they were able to resume, tests on the Avenger, fully loaded, showed that it could be stopped by the arrester gear, but it exerted a lot of pressure on the system and the wire played out almost to the crash barrier. This was a major problem that had to be addressed upon reaching Pearl Harbor. During the trip two Martlets were lost during these exercises, one due to engine failure on take off, the other caught fire in the air and the pilot was lost. Four Avengers also hit the crash barrier upon landing.
Another incident involved an overly fast landing which caused the tubby little fighter to bounce over the first crash barrier and into the second. The deck-park forward was fortunately not affected.
ROBIN JOINS THE HUNT
It is about this point that Victorious was given the radio call-sign “Robin” as a half-hearted security/deception attempt. The name quickly caught on, with the ship frequently being called “USS Robin” tongue-in-cheek.
Whether “Robin” was a reference to the brightly coloured bird, or the legendary English outlaw Robin Hood, is unclear.
Nevertheless, a distinct trend evolved in communications involving the ship. Send her Victorious notes:
With a sense of humour and knowledge of ornithology, there was scope for some interesting signals.
HMS Victorious arrived at San Cristobel, the eastern entrance of the Panama Canal, on February 11.
A USN battleship signalled "what ship?". The carrier reportedly replied "USS Robin" - even though the White Ensign was flying proudly from her mast.
Transiting the canal involved some effort: Several guns, cranes and radio masts had to be removed to allow the carrier to fit in the canal. Nevertheless, she lost her port submarine lookout’s position when it struck a lock entrance. Many more bumps and scrapes later, she was through.
The crew was given two days in Panama City as Victorious had her gun sponsons and radio masts welded back on. Ray Barker comments in his book Victorious the World Over that a US Marine boarded the ship and presented a bill to Captain Mackintosh for damage done to the canal. Captain Mackintosh signed ‘LEASE LEND’ at the bottom of the report and nothing was mentioned ever again.
I was still at my old station in the ADP and so had a grandstand view of the little surprise which the Americans sprung on us.
We were just getting up to speed, when, out from behind an island about four or five miles ahead of us, six US MTBs ( or PT boats as the Americans called them) suddenly appeared to make a dummy attack on us. Immediately Capt, MacIntosh, who had first hand experience with Italian MTBs, turned straight towards them, giving them the narrowest target, ordered full speed, and all hands to action stations. Action stations were closed up and reported within three minutes. By this time we were up to near full speed, going nearly as fast as the PT boats, which must have given them a bit of a shock. By this time the two antagonists were closing at over seventy five knots (85 mph).
The PT boats torpedoes are set so that they could only be fired 10o either side of the bow, and they normally tried to come in right angles to the target’s fore and aft line. At the speed we were closing they did not have a show, and as they passed down the ships side, we theoretical raked them with every PomPom, Borfor, and Oerlikan, that could be brought to bear. We even tracked them with the 4.5 LA-HA guns just to drive the message home. They sprung the surprise, but I think we had the last laugh. Captain MacIntosh gave a commentry over the public address system later, a thing he did on a regular basis., and estimated that we would have sunk at least four of the six. His closing comment, “That will teach them not to play with the big boys”.
He also commented, that had they waited till we were closer before they came out of hiding, it might have been a different story.
As Victorious and her three accompanying US destroyers made her way to the USN Pacific base at Pearl Harbor - freshly designated Task Force 22 by Commander in chief Pacific (COMPAC) - she continuously conducted a series of aircraft exercises to assess how the new equipment and training was shaping up. According to Chris Sheehy:
These exercises were also used to train the deck party that had never before had to deal with a deck park. When the crew first started to work together their time to ready the planes for takeoff and stowing landed planes was twelve minutes. They soon improved to five minutes.
By the time Victorious had arrived at Pearl, a further minute-and-a-half had been shaved off this average turnaround time.
During the passage, some 244 landings were made during which five accidents occurred. Two were fatal.
One early problem identified was with the Avenger’s tail-hooks. The ‘hook’ was too narrow for the RN-style arrester cables and the tension was not suited to the heavy torpedo bombers - especially when they grabbed a cable off-centre.
But the system itself had not been intended for such a heavy aircraft. If an Avenger did not catch any of the first four wires, the remaining wires would simply not be capable of pulling the bomber up short of the crash barrier.
Victorious’ deck crew would sit poised ready to instantly drop the barriers once an Avenger caught a wire: But this was a far from optimal workaround.
Finally, when an Avenger was unfortunate enough to go into the crash barrier, it was found Victorious’ mobile and fixed cranes were not capable of lifting a fully fueled aircraft.
On February 25, a serious deck landing crash caused a fire which needed naval yard attention.
Commander Mitchell, USN, noted:
The safety orders on the ship’s gasoline system had not been carried out. A British enlisted man had turned on a gasoline hose on his own volition, thinking, I suppose, that he was being helpful.
Avenger 4X came in too fast, caught the first wire off-centre and slewed off the port side. (The RN arrestor cables were supposed to help correct an aircraft's off-centre landing by 'pulling' it back towards the centre line. The Avenger was too heavy for this to be effective.) This aircraft’s wheel jammed into the structure and tipped the nose down, the propeller cutting the aviation fuel pipe. It caught fire.
The flames and smoke were drawn into the ship’s ventilators. The boat deck caught alight – destroying the admiral’s barge and a cutter. The Avenger’s depth-charges began to melt, but were safely ditched over the side.
It took 15 minutes to control the fires. All three aircrew died of their injuries.
After this all operations involving the Avenger were suspended.
This convinced the captain and the ship’s air department that something had to be done, which I had been telling them for some time.
But the incident was almost to be repeated two days later: A Martlet caught fire when its fuel tank was ripped open in a deck crash. Firefighters incorrectly used water – spreading the burning fuel over the deck. They switched to foam before the situation turned disastrous.
Chris Sheehy enhanced upon one humanitarian incident recorded in the book Send her Victorious:
While en route to Pearl Harbor, the crew of Victorious saw the efficiency of the USN in the treatment and concern for the men that served. A case of diphtheria aboard Victorious exhausted the supplies of serum on the ship and her escorts; radio silence was broken because of the fear of an epidemic among the crew. A Liberator dropped a waterproof case of serum in front of the screen, and the man was saved. The ship was 300 miles away from the closest land and the man would surely have perished before the ship had made a port.
FAA Pilot John Fay: Account in Voices in Flight: The Fleet Air Arm: Recollections from Formation to Cold War
At last we left Panama and entered the Pacific in company with three American destroyers. We were heading for Pearl Harbor, where the squadrons would disembark for working up. With the experience that the squadron had now acquired it was apparent that the ship in its present condition was not really suitable for landing Avengers safely. These were, after all, the largest and heaviest aircraft ever landed on a British deck. With a maximum setting on the arrester wire hydraulic system, the wires would still pull out for a considerable way. This meant that if an aircraft caught any wire forward of the fourth, it would go into the crash barriers. Our flight-deck personnel were becoming skilled at lowering the barriers as soon as the aircraft had caught an arrester wire and in this way had saved many aircraft from damage. Also, ‘Tommy’ (Lieutenant Thompson USN) the popular batsman who had been appointed to the ship, had been bringing the aircraft in on a lower approach in an attempt to prevent them landing too far up the deck. To a certain extent we were living in a fools’ paradise thinking that with the combined skills of the batsman, pilots and barrier operators everything would be all right until we reached Pearl, where suitable modifications could be carried out to the ship...
I took over the watch just as some Avengers were landing on. I was looking at some items in the hooded chart table when I suddenly heard Commander Price, the Commander Flying, and Commander Mitchell USN, the American Adviser, shout ‘Put on the brakes’. I was not very interested as I thought it was something to do with an aircraft taxying up the deck; however, I walked over to Commander Flying’s position to have a look. As I did so I heard Commander Price shout ‘Good God!’ I looked out on to the deck and saw one of the worst sights of my life. The Avenger which had just landed was going up in a sheet of flame. I could just see the pilot starting to get out of the cockpit. I went to the voice pipe and told the Bosun’s Mate to pipe ‘Hands to fire stations’. The aircraft had caught the first wire, but had rolled gently towards the port side of the ship. The port wheel had gone over the edge and had cut a pipe supplying petrol to the flight deck. The fuel had then ignited. The observer had got out of the rear cockpit but then tripped over a wire and fell into the flames. He ran along the deck trying to put the flames out and had been taken into the Pilots’ and Observers’ Ready Room. The pilot had got out all right but was badly burned.
In the meantime the air gunner, also burned, had, unknown to anyone on deck, run down a companionway and gone straight to the nearby sickbay. His disappearance caused me considerable worry as Commander Flying sent me to find him and, as he was not to be seen anywhere, it was assumed that he was still in the blazing aircraft.
The fire raged. It was drawn into ventilators and smoke started to appear in various parts of the ship. It was a full hour before the fires were under control. I was not a little worried about the depth charges in the aircraft exploding, but they just melted and were ditched. Sadly, the observer and pilot died next day and the air gunner the day after. It was a severe jolt for us as we had not realized how much damage shock could do and we had been told that they all had a chance.
Ray Barker remembers the time spent at Pearl Harbor as a great adventure. He and others explored the islands of Hawaii, though there was much grumbling about the 6 pm curfew imposed on all military personnel. The people of the island, both military and civilian, were helpful and generous and made sure the crew were well entertained. Barker also recalled the changes made to the ship while at port, including the removal of rugs and carpets and repainting most of the interior with a non inflammable paint. The exterior of the ship was also painted the blue grey favoured by the USN. The final addition to the ship, that he considered truly made Victorious into a USN ship, was the installation of three ice cream machines and a coca-cola machine. The crew adopted the work dress of the USN, a request made by Commander Ross earlier in the voyage. The new dress of denim shirts and pants replaced the RN’s traditional tropical whites.
The time after the refit at Pearl Harbor was spent working up the ship and testing the new arrestor system and guns. Admiral Nimitz made an inspection of the ship and addressed the crew on 29 April.
Once HMS Victorious arrived at Pearl Harbour on March 4, 1943, her air group was flown off to Ford Island for further working-up exercises with USN counterparts.
As soon as the ship itself pulled alongside, dockyard workers swarmed aboard.
They quickly affected any remaining repairs to damage caused by the Panama Canal passage and the serious fires - as well as adding yet more 20mm cannons, as well as twin 40mm and quadruple 40mm emplacements in front of the seaplane cranes.
The flattened aft flight deck, as fitted at Norfolk Navy Yard, allowed the Pearl Harbour engineers to add two US-style arresting wires behind the original Number 1 wire. This increased both the number of wires available to be caught and the distance before reaching the first crash barriers.
The original equipment was modified to reduce the amount of pull out that occurred when the plane’s hook caught the wire. A great benefit was the installation of air conditioning in the Fighter Direction Office. Another complaint of Mitchell’s was remedied as well; a new loud hailer system was installed, as well as hinged plates over various indents in the flight deck to allow for a smoother surface, and a new deck landing officers platform.
Ashore, the FAA Avengers had their ‘hook’s enlarged to better catch RN cables.
I came to the conclusion, while in no way doubting their courage and dedication, that they had a shop window mentality, every thing was show. As I had seen in Norfolk and Washington, and from reading had found to be true of many other cities, big glossy buildings in the main street covered shanty town slums behind them. The ship (Saratoga) was the same when viewed from our conception of a fighting ship. A basic hull plated over to form the deck of the hanger. Steel pillars about twenty feet high every twenty feet around the edge, plus another row down the middle, supporting cross beams on which was built the flight deck of four inch wooden beams.
The sides between the uprights were filled in with steel roller shutters that would not stop a revolver bullet. Down below in the parts I saw, the mess deck was huge; with seating, I was told, for 500. The sleeping areas, bunks, not hammocks, were on similar scale. The number of ships they lost, was partly due to this type of construction. The amazing thing is that they did not lose more. One decent hole below the waterline, and they would go down like a bucket with no bottom, But I did very much enjoy my lunch. In that field they were light years ahead of the RN. They, on the other hand could not understand why we put up with the relatively crude condition aboard our ships.
Much of the US Navy’s dislike for the Royal Navy’s armoured carriers seemed to stem from the report submitted by chief USN liaision officer Commander Samuel Mitchell at this time. According to Sheehy:
Mitchell had some reservations about the design of the ship as well. Less aviation fuel storage would cause the ship to be refuelled more often than a USN carrier. The lifts were a tight squeeze for the larger Avenger, and time had to be taken to make sure the plane was in the lift just right to enable it to be raised or lowered; this time was precious in the big carrier battles of the Pacific. He also found the repair facilities in the ship to be inadequate to handle the number of aircraft embarked. There was no direct communication between a deck officer and the hangar, and the loud speaker system could not be heard over the warming up of the engines, so no last minute changes could be affected in emergencies. A major safety hazard of the ship was the steel floor of the deck and hangar, which would become extremely slippery with a bit of water and oil, which was always present, for it leaked out of the exhaust of the planes as they warmed up. The armoured hangar prevented the warming up of a second strike in the hangar due to a lack of vents, thus severely slowing the time between a first and second wave of a strike. The ship was ill equipped with portable CO2 fire extinguishers, and had no crash dollies, which could have prevented a lot of the fire damage done to the ship during two of the crashes during the exercises.
His opinions were backed up by visiting USN personnel. They could not understand the need for so much armour in the place of additional aircraft. Much later, the USN liaison officers assigned to the British Pacific Fleet would initially repeat this attitude. But experience with kamikazes soon saw the tone of their reports change.
While the armour was derided, the skills and techniques of Victorious’ Fighter Direction Office again drew much admiration.
But Admiral King made his displeasure known in a letter to General George C Marshall, dated April 7: He claimed HMS Victorious was in a poor state of general readiness, making her "so far of no use".
Meanwhile HMS Victorious’ original FAA aircraft received another modification. The red circle at the centre of the British ‘roundel’ was recognised as being too similar to the Japanese ‘Meatball’ from a distance for nervous US gunners. All aircraft were to be repainted with American-style markings, most notably the prominent white star.
Victorious had also exchanged her Admiralty disruptive camouflage scheme for a uniform coat of USN blue-grey paint.
With her modifications complete, Victorious was reunited with her air group via dockyard crane: Her Martlets and Avengers were hoisted aboard from the adjoining air base.
HMS Victorious departed Pearl Harbor on May 8, pointing her bows towards the South West Pacific with USS North Carolina and three destroyers in formation.
The purpose of the exercises was to familiarise us, with their fleet maneuvers, and the flying crews with their flying procedure. One thing that emerged from the exercises, was that when the Americans were flying on or off, the whole fleet turned into the wind, but with our superior speed, we could turn out of line with two or three destroyers, put the foot down, complete flying, then back to join the fleet, who, in the meantime, had continued on their original course, thus saving time and fuel oil.
The carrier deployed with 52 aircraft aboard: It had been intended for Victorious to carry 42 Martlets, but only 47 were available on the US West Coast. Victorious deployed with 36 to reduce overcrowding and provide a small stock of aircraft at Pearl for training.
- 882 Squadron with 12 Martlet IV (all F4F-4B standard)
- 896 Squadron, 12 Martlet IV
- 898 Squadron, 12 Martlet IV
- 832 Squadron, 16 Avengers
At the time, the much larger USS Saratoga was operating:
- VF-5 with 34 F4F4
- VB-3 with 19 SBD-3
- VS-3 with 18 SBD-3
- VT-8 with 16 TBF-1
The fresh arrivals joined Rear Admiral DeWitt Ramsey’s Carrier Division 1 - USS Saratoga – off Noumea in the New Hebrides on May 17. Together they were the only operational allied fleet carriers in the Pacific.
TASK FORCE 14
Initially USS Saratoga and HMS Victorious set sail on an offensive sweep north of the Solomon Islands barely 23 hours after the RN carrier arrived. Intelligence reports suggested the Japanese fleet had set sail north from Truk, but could swing south and attack the Coral Sea.
Overall Mackintosh was impressed with the handling of Saratoga and the strict deck drill when landing on and flying off of aircraft. He found the pilots to be better trained due to their longer training period and their dive bombing techniques to be all but unstoppable by even the most proficient of AA fire when they made their dive. Mackintosh remarked also that the RN torpedo and its use were superior to the USN, as was fighter direction used in the RN due to the four channel wireless in use at the time.The RN torpedo and its use were superior mainly because this was the main weapon of the FAA. The war in the European Theatre was two years older than that in the Pacific and the defects that were being discovered in the USN’s torpedo were long discovered and fixed in the Atlantic. The FAA’s superior employment of the torpedo came from the refusal of the RAF to develop a dive bombing sight in the inter-war period. The FAA made do with what they had and accomplished such feats as the attack on Taranto.
It was the first time a USN and RN carrier had operated together, though they were at this early point operating their air groups largely independently. HMS Victorious immediately adapted to the tight USN fleet formation, with the two carriers at the centre of a tight circle of escorts. Her 'point defence' was just 2000 yards away - an escorting battleship.
The armoured carrier's officers and crew were suitably impressed as USS Saratoga embarked 60 aircraft in 45 minutes as the Task Force headed out to sea.
Send Her Victorious reports John Fay’s account of the day:
“I watched from the goofer’s platform and was in mental agony when the deck was clear and the ship into the wind, before the aircraft were in position to land on. But every aircraft landed well and we had them all aboard in seven minutes which compared well with the Americans. Later that day I was watching some of our Martlets landing on; there was a misunderstanding when one of them wanted an emergency landing and the others did not realise it, but all was well until … it happened. A Martlet landed and as it touched down its guns went off. It was thought at first that the shots had gone into the sea without doing any damage, but in fact it quickly transpired that three people were hit, including the Navigating Officer. Apparently the bullets had ricocheted round Commander Flying’s platform before hitting him, but he was not badly hurt.
The British Fighter Direction Office was the major RN innovation the USN was most interested in. The design and layout were later incorporated in the USN Command Information System (CIC). The Fighter Direction Office (FDO) was updated to handle the landings of Operation Torch. The design of the room was based on years of RN and Royal Air Force (RAF) co-operation in standardization of a fighter control room that would allow the ship to direct planes of both services. The history of the FDO in RN ships was ably addressed by an internal paper written by Commander D.L. Pollack. The layout of the room allowed for a Senior FDO officer to oversee the entire operation of the office. A main air display plot with an officer and ratings was engaged exclusively in plotting and filtering the course of any incoming enemy planes. The information was passed on to two intercept positions at which two officers assigned fighters to engage the incoming planes. This system was the basis of all later systems, though improvements
were made by both the USN and RN throughout the rest of the war. Examples of his were the installation of air conditioning for the office, the installation of a vertical plot board to allow easier access to the board as well as cutting down congestion within the room, and always the inclusion of better radar systems.
The RN carrier was tasked with anti-submarine duties, and put nine of her Avengers on the job. Martlets also contributed to the CAP rotation.
It again quickly became evident to the USN Task Force commanders that Victorious’ fighter direction team held a significant edge over their own.
The RN jad just come through Operation Pedestal where careful management of Sea Hurricanes, Martlets and Fulmars had managed to prevent damage from repeated and sustained air attacks to all but one of the vital supply convoy while under the care of the carriers.
US Liaison officers were tasked to pay attention and take notes.
Task Force 14, with the battleships USS North Carolina, Massachusetts and Indiana along with the cruisers USS San Diego, San Juan and HMAS Australia, returned to Noumea on May 24 once it became obvious the Japanese were not conducting a feint.
Here, six USN F4F-4 Wildcats were handed over to replace those lost in deck landing accidents since Victorious had departed Pearl.
The reserve FAA Martlets had suffered something of a disaster: A supply of these Wildcats modified to RN specifications had been wrecked by a hurricane while being ferried to Pearl Harbour.
Other supplies, including rum, were taken from Royal Australian Navy stores.
Rum had proved problematic for Victorious during her deployment with the USN: The ship had already run "dry" twice.
We went out several times with Saratoga and North Carolina though the rest of May, and into June including the first Cross-Carrier operation when we swapped aircraft with Saratoga. The weather was glorious, and the war seemed a long way away.
One trick we learned after our first trip out. Unlike the RN, whose ships entered harbour in orderly procession, the Americans got to within three or four miles of the entrance, then it was every man for himself. We got caught on the hop the first time, but after that, Capt. McIntosh put the foot down, and we were at anchor before the other big boys got in. This turned into quite a competition, and it was amazing that there were no collisions, but with our speed advantage, only the destroyers had any chance of beating us.
Between June 1 and 3 Victorious and Saratoga conducted training exercises off New Caledonia to ensure USN procedures were being habitually followed.
During the exercise Victorious welcomed Rear Admiral Ramsay and Captain Mulliner, commander of Saratoga, aboard as observers.
I was a bit disappointed, I’ll admit, in the results of that because I wanted the British to look good and although they did look fairly good it was a spotty operation due partly to the structural and space limitations of the ship. She never will operate as well or as fast or take the number of planes our carriers do.
Captain Mackintosh would next visit USS Saratoga during a four-day training manouvre.
Commander Mitchell again:
When we came back in we had a conference and the key British officers of the VICTORIOUS went out and watched the SARATOGA operate. Their eyes were opened as to what smart carrier operation is. I will say that I think SARATOGA has one of the smartest flight deck crews that I’ve seen in operation. They have been out there a long time; they are good; and the SARATOGA, with her slow elevators, was not held up a bit on fast operation, because the flight deck plane handling crews jumped on the planes and functioned beautifully as a team all the way through.
To further reinforce standards – as well as a spirit of cooperation – the ships swapped aircraft and aircrew on the final day of yet another set of exercises between June 16 and 20 (June 18 saw Saratoga and Victorious conducting joint night flying exercises).
Emergency cross-deck landing exercises were also conducted: Six FAA Avengers and 12 Martlets landed on Saratoga. Eight Avengers, six Dauntless and 12 Wildcats from Saratoga nested aboard Victorious.
The social and procedural experiment took place flawlessly.
As a result, the US Task Force commanding officers agreed that it would be viable to employ “USS Robin” as a dedicated fighter carrier, with an additional 24 Wildcats of VF-3 aboard and her own Avengers ‘re-based’ temporarily aboard USS Saratoga.
TASK GROUP 36.3
The fighter patrols began an hour and a half after dawn and lasted until a half hour before dusk: these two to two and a half hour patrols were flown by twenty-four planes of the deck park. These patrols required the utmost of the deck party’s endurance and stamina. The planes had to be shifted and parked five times a day as well as dealing with any emergency landings from both carriers’ compliments. The considerable amount of time learning the USN system of landings and signals paid off during this mission. The pilots that were exchanged experienced no difficulty in operating on the opposite carrier.
The Pacific force put out to sea on June 27 to cover amphibious troop landings on New Georgia in the Solomon Islands. Task Group 36.3 would take up a ‘covering’ station some 300 miles offshore in the Coral Sea, on hand in case the Japanese fleet attempted to intervene.
In her role as CAP and fighter carrier, HMS Victorious was operating 60 Martlets and Wildcats.
USS Saratoga retained 12 Wildcats along with her 36 Dauntless and 20 USN Avengers. The 15 FAA Avengers operated from her deck for the whole operations.
The carriers took no part in the actual invasion itself, but remained protectively on station for a full 28 days, as Task Group 36.3 under Rear Admiral F. P. Sherman.
An extensive search was conducted for Japanese naval forces, with aircraft fanning out more than 200 miles from their base ships.
Commander Mitchell, USN, was much more positive at this point:
That whole operation was indicative of what you could do with fairly well trained outfits and free interchange of information. The British squadron liked to work on the American carrier, and our boys seemed to like the British carrier, probably because they could get a drink before dinner in the evening, or perhaps for the novelty.
On a lighter note, the dehydrated potatoes and eggs did not get a vote of approval when they first appeared on the menu. The potatoes were like wallpaper paste and the eggs defied description. An SOS was sent out, and shortly thereafter a destroyer pulled alongside Saratoga, and two senior cooks were transferred, via the destroyer, to us, along with 80 one gallon buckets of ice cream as a consolation prize. The two American cooks stayed on board for two weeks, and by the time they left, we were being served with top quality creamed, mashed potatoes and delicious scrambled eggs. I don.t know what other magic the American cooks worked, but our overall menu was vastly improved, And the supply of ice cream became a regular thing.
It became a joke among us; their order of priority when taking on stores. First was the mail, then the latest films, then Ice Cream, followed by food stocks, and last of all ammunition.
On July 12, HMS Victorious was to conduct an underway replenishment from the USN tankers Cimarron and Kaskaskia. She successfully took aboard 3270 tonnes of fuel oil, 30,283 gallons of avgas, 625 gallons of lubrication oil – and 20 gallons of ice cream for her USN cohort.
But, by July 20, HMS Victorious had run out of potatoes.
A heavily burdened Avenger, dubbed ‘Spud Express’ in chalk on its fuselage, made an emergency flight from Saratoga carrying 800lbs of dehydrated potato powder in its bomb bay. In the navigator’s seat was a cook – to teach the RN how to whip up a ‘perfect’ pot of mash.
The USN, quite practiced at keeping ships at sea for about 80 days, demonstrated repeatedly the art of transferring stores at sea.
Jim Gallie commented:
But when it came to oiling, they left us way behind. The tanker would take station and with their high speed pumps and side by side configuration, they would oil four destroyers or two capital ships or any combination, in less than half the time we took with our own oilers.
When the oilier was servicing the smaller ships, cruisers and destroyers, they were on and off like calves on a milk dispenser.
The aggressive patrol found no targets. HMS Victorious and Task Group 36.3 returned to Noumea on July 25 after operating continuously at sea for 28 days, steaming 12,233 miles at 18.1 knots. This was a record for an RN aircraft carrier. The 614 sorties flown from her deck had resulted in only eight accidents - the lowest accident rate yet recorded.
In comparison, Operation Torch had lasted 22 days. Victorious had conducted 233 sorties and suffered six accidents.
The only taste of action came in the last days of the operation: A USN Dauntless pilot spotted a solo ‘Betty’ bomber some 50 miles out from the fleet. His guns had no effect and the ‘Betty’ escaped before the CAP fighters could arrive.
The cross-decking experiment had proved to be a success, though no doubt the FAA aircrew were glad to be back in Victorious’ “wet” (alcohol available) wardroom and the USN pilots pleased to return to their more spacious accommodation and ice cream.
By the end of July the first of the US Navy’s new ‘Essex’ and ‘Independence’ class carriers were reaching operational status in the Central Pacific.
It was decided HMS Victorious could return to her Atlantic theatre of operations.
Five of her 11 surviving Avengers were disembarked as reserves for US forces, while 52 of USS Saratoga’s aircrew and two Japanese prisoners of war were brought aboard for the passage back to the United States.
Victorious had during her three months in the South West Pacific steamed some 23,000 miles and conducted 2101 deck landings.
Now she was going home
On July 31, the Royal Navy carrier departed Noumea in the company of USS Indiana, Converse, Boyd and Halford as Task Unit 34.5.1.
Wildcats and Avengers from USS Saratoga attempted to ‘beat up’ (a nail-bitingly fast and low fly-past) HMS Victorious as a farewell gesture, but two collided. The damage was not severe (an Avenger’s propeller chewed up part of another’s tail – both managed to make it back to deck), but the metal debris rained down on the British carrier as an unexpected supply of souvenirs.
With an insider’s view of cutting edge of modern naval warfare, Captain Mackintosh was able to relate to the Admiralty how the USN operated, and what lessons if any the RN could learn and incorporate into the RN doctrine. The Victorious had used different techniques in deck landings, carried a deck park, used and observed the modern radar and gunnery of the USN, used a different screening method in repelling attackers from the air and a different refuelling system at sea. Curiously, few of these developments were adopted by the RN before the end of the war...
Many of the observations made by Captain Mackintosh were nonetheless acted upon when the war was over. Many of these dealt with the welfare of the crew. The use of ice cream, efficient mail service and other morale boosters such as movies, were instituted after 1945 by Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, who had commanded of the British Pacific Fleet in 1944-1945. Like Mackintosh, he observed the marked difference between the morale of the USN and the RN. He realized, especially when the RN needed to attract and retain its sailors, that a change had to be made to make the Navy a more attractive career, and when he became First Sea Lord, he set out to change the RN to take more regard for the state and welfare of its men.
HMS Victorious arrived in Pearl Harbour on August 9 to see the future of the USN Pacific Fleet arrayed before her. Three fast assault carriers, three light fleet carriers and two escort carriers were sitting in the harbour.
They were ready to join the fight.
Victorious remained only long enough to refuel, reprovision and shuffle passengers. While the 33 USN officers and men embarked at Norfolk to supplement her crew were surrendered, a total of 85 were now on board for the passage to San Diego
She set sail again on August 12.
The armoured carrier crossed back into the Atlantic on August 26 and arrived at Norfolk Navy Yard on September 1.
All USN radios, cyphers and and other equipment was stripped out.
However, fresh damage from the second Panama Canal transit was repaired. A new SG radar system was installed and the tired Wildcat and Avenger veterans of the Pacific operations replaced with fresh aircraft.
The carrier returned to the Clyde on September 26, 1943, before moving on to Liverpool’s Gladstone Dock for a refit which lasted until March 4, 1944.
During this period Captain Mackintosh departed the carrier, replaced by Captain Denny.