Lessons in Coalition Warfare: Admiral Ernest King and the British Pacific Fleet

The genesis and strategy of British Royal Navy’s participation in the Pacific in 1945 is a little studied aspect of the Pacific campaign.  Prior to 1945 the participation of the Royal Navy in the Pacific ended at the Battle of the Java Sea.  After that the Royal Navy operated in the Indian Ocean in support of British operations in Burma and against German surface raiders. Michael Coles in “Ernest King and the British Pacific Fleet: The Conference at Quebec, 1944 (Octagon) published in The Journal of Military History January 2001, 65, 1 Research Library pp. 105-129 provides a good analysis of the Allied decision to allow the Royal Navy a role in the Pacific and the objections of Admiral Ernest King to the proposal.

The renewal of the Royal Navy’s Pacific role began at the 1944 Octagon Conference where the Allied Joint Staff made the decision to bring the Royal Navy back to the Pacific. Admiral Ernest King was the only dissenter in the question of Royal Navy operations in the Pacific.  The strategic aspects of this decision are seldom addressed by most who chronicle the Pacific war.[i] William Kimball in “Forged in War: Roosevelt Churchill and the Second World War” never mentions the naval strategy discussed at the Octagon conference. Samuel Elliott Morison in “The Two-Ocean War” described the decision for the Royal Navy to enter the Pacific as “important” and outlines King’s opposition to it without addressing strategic considerations.[ii] John Costello in “The Pacific War” described how Churchill insisted on the Royal Navy being committed to operations against Japan and how Roosevelt’s agreed to “to avoid a bitter clash.”[iii] Likewise Williamson Murray and Allen R. Millett in “War to Be Won” note that one of the goals of Octagon was “to determine the level and nature of British in the air-naval war in the Pacific.” However they do so as do the others without addressing the naval strategy.[iv] Max Hastings mentions Octagon in “Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-1945” again without specific reference to naval strategy.  However later in the book later discusses the Royal Navy’s limitations in ships, manning, logistics and operational art as it entered the Pacific campaign.[v] Other writers chronicle British operations in the Pacific but usually focus in the gallantry and determination of the Royal Navy and not its weaknesses.[vi]

Coles’ article is invaluable to understand the decision in relation to the political, military and economic considerations which influenced both King’s opposition to the deployment and the performance of the British fleet in the Pacific.  Coles analyzes tensions between King and the other participants at Octagon. He judges King to be more realistic and informed regarding Royal Navy capabilities and more importantly its limitations than British leaders especially Churchill.[vii]

King was surprised at Roosevelt’s decision to accept Churchill’s offer of the Royal Navy without prior discussion by the Combined Chiefs of Staff.  Coles notes that King may have kept silent at subsequent meetings of the Combined Chiefs, because he either assumed that his positions were logical and apparent to all or that he believed that Churchill was lying about his navy’s capabilities. Of course it was politically impossible for King to suggest such.[viii]

King’s realism on the subject was a directly related to the political tensions between American and British visions for the outcome of the Pacific war, and the pressing strategic considerations necessitated by Japanese offensives in Burma and China. The British goal of re-establishing colonial rule in Southeast Asia was a major bone of contention.  Many Americans believed that the British goals were “aimed primarily at the resurgence of British political and economic ascendancy in South East Asia and restoration of British prestige.”[ix] Yet the US wanted to defeat Japan’s formidable Army in Asia without the sacrifice of large numbers of American troops or material which necessitated British participation.[x] The introduction of large numbers of American troops on the Asian continent was impossible due to the lineation of the US Army to 90 divisions, most of which were engaged in Europe.  Likewise US domestic issues regarding war production and the Navy’s share of it in relations to changing wartime conditions was a major concern for King.  King and the Navy argued for high naval production while others including George Marshall were beginning to question it, especially if the British could provide “make substantial Naval forces available in the Pacific.”[xi]

American Lend Lease aid to Britain was another issue.  Roosevelt calculated that the US needed Britain to be active in post-war Europe, this required significant post war aid. Roosevelt viewed “vigorous participation” by the Royal Navy as a means to gain congressional support in spite of the fact that Britain could no longer play a global military role without US support.[xii] One of the problems faced in the Pacific was how British mandated modifications to weapons systems supplied by the United States caused problems in production and caused shortages in key weapons systems, especially naval aircraft.  Coles’ notes how King had problems with this and wondered if supplying the Royal Navy’s Pacific operations “represented the most effective use of American industrial capacity.[xiii] However King did not chose to argue this point at the conference, once again demurring to President Roosevelt.

The most compelling factor discussed by Coles was the operational and logistic problems related to the deployment, supply and operation of the Royal Navy. There were a number of problems that the Royal Navy faced as it deployed to the Pacific.  First among them was the fact that the Royal Navy was in large part short-legged and cold water Navy.  Its ships were designed mainly for service in the Atlantic and Mediterranean and ill-suited for the Pacific. The Royal Navy did not have the operational experience of the Americans in regard to Fast Carrier Task Forces, especially coordination of refueling and resupply operations or coordination of air group operations.  Admiral Philip Vian insisted that “Before joining the Americans…we needed to be adept at using a great many more aircraft at a time, and for longer periods.”[xiv] Max Hastings’ noted that the Royal Navy was “overstretched and war weary”[xv] and Coles goes to great lengths to illustrate British weakness while analyzing tensions in the British-American relationship particularly the shift in the relationship as the Americans took the leading role.

King had the foresight to recognize that the British contribution would be more of a liability than help.[xvi] The principal Royal Navy purpose in the Pacific was political, not military and Coles asks if it helped or hindered “the achievement of the respective nations’ policy objectives.” Coles does not believe that it helped; that in fact the Royal Navy would not have been able to continue had the war continued.  He quoted a British liaison officer who wrote that the Royal Navy would have “been unable to continue operations because of lack of logistic support.”[xvii] Coles calls the Royal Navy’s effort in the Pacific an “expensive instrument of failed policy” and that Admiral King seemed to have recognized this better than others, arguing that King’s opinions were not based on simple personal prejudice.[xviii]

Coles uses an excellent mix of primary and secondary sources including diaries, operational reports, histories and journal articles from American and British sources to document his work providing ample references throughout his article. His work is important in recognizing the importance strategy plays in making political decisions in coalition warfare.  Likewise he places value on individuals such as King who are able to recognize the strategic aims and limitations in coalition warfare by various partners.

Though the Royal Navy’s participation in the Pacific War was a relatively insignificant in terms of its overall role in the war it provides lessons for our time. Coalition warfare requires that members of the coalition be able to function our time we can see a similar situation where many of the NATO forces in Afghanistan are dependent on the US for most of their operational and logistic support. It also requires that the members of the coalition have a firm grip on the overall strategy and understand the capabilities and limitations of each.  In Afghanistan the United States faces a situation where it needs capable alliance partners.  It does not have the force capacity to go it alone and political support for additional troops has weakened in congress and in the public.  It is a somewhat similar situation to the Second World War where the United States needed significant British participation in the Asian ground war to ensure that the United States would not have to make major commitments to on the Asian mainland.  Likewise it was needed to get congressional support for post war aid to Britain.  Likewise George Marshall and others wondered if the British could provide significant naval support which would alleviate the need for high naval production which they questioned.  Strategy and the desired end state must be central to how coalitions fight wars.


[i] See Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War With Japan. The Free Press and Division of MacMillan, Inc. New York, NY 1985. Spector nowhere mentions the British Navy in his history of the campaign  and in his short reference to Octagon he does not mention the debate over the Royal Navy’s inclusion in the campaign. p.419

[ii] Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Two Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Boston MA 1963. pp. Morrison does also mention some of the specific actions of Royal Navy in the Pacific. Pp.423-424.

[iii] Costello, John. The Pacific War: 1941-1945 Quill Publishers, New York, NY 1981. p.495.

[iv] Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War.  The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 2000. pp.484-485.

[v] Hastings, Max. Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-1945. Alfred A Knopf, New York, NY 2008. Originally published in Great Britain as Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45, Harper Press, London, 2007.  p.112-113 and 400-402.

[vi] “Ernest King and the British Pacific Fleet: The Conference at Quebec, 1944 (Octagon). By Michael  Coles.  Published in The Journal of Military History January 2001, 65, 1 Research Library. p.127

[vii] Ibid. pp.111-112

[viii] Ibid. p.111

[ix] Ibid. p.113

[x] Ibid. p.114

[xi] Ibid. p.117

[xii] Ibid. p.118

[xiii] Ibid. p.120 Coles describes several instances where the “Anglicized” systems delayed deliveries and lengthened transportation to operational British units.  Modifications included flight helmets, radios and aircraft modifications. He also discusses how ineffectively the British used the large number of Escort Carriers provided by the US.

[xiv] Ibid. p.123

[xv] Hastings. p.400

[xvi] Coles. p.127. This is something that Morison does with utmost deference to the British.

[xvii] Ibid. p.128

[xviii] Ibid. p.129


Filed under Foreign Policy, History, iraq,afghanistan, world war two in the pacific

8 responses to “Lessons in Coalition Warfare: Admiral Ernest King and the British Pacific Fleet

  1. James Daly

    very interesting article. Its nice to read a blog entry properly referenced too!

    I think Winston Churchill had a long term track record of misjudging the capability of the Royal Navy, from Galipoli to his pressing for Prince of Wales and Repulse to be sent to Singapore without adequate air cover.

    I’m not sure to what extent Britain was attempting to re-establish colonial rule in the Far East. Maybe to old colonial figures such as Churchill it was an aim, but I suspect that many more grounded people realised that as the second war had essentially bankrupted Britain we could not afford to maintain an Empire any more even if we had wanted to.

  2. Roy

    A rather biased and one-sided article. What proportion of Americans are even aware that a sizable British fleet took part in the final stages of the Pacific war including supporting the landings in Okinawa? This article will does nothing to enlighten the ignorant about the Royal Navy’s contribution.

    The author does not even bother to mention that the British aircraft carriers proved far more resistant to Kamikaze attacks than the American ones.

    • padresteve

      I hate to disappoint you but some of the most damning information about the British Pacific Fleet came from the records of British Officers and British Hisotorians. I actually was once had the same opinion as you did because I simply focused on the more resilient armored decks of Royal Navy CVs. Unfortunately they were smaller, slower, carried fewer aircraft and were forced to relay on American made aircraft and dependent on the US logistics system. In fact had the war gone on the Royal Navy knew that its force could not be sustained. The ships were worn out from years of service and despite the valiant service of the Royal Navy it was ill equipped to deal with operations in the Pacific, a theater that its ships were not designed to serve in for extended amounts of time. I do appreciate your comments and welcome them anytime.
      Padre Steve+

  3. The main issue was one of supply, that is keeping the Task Force on station for extended periods of time. In terms of actual assets, the British Pacific Fleet was not insignificant, and if they were US ships with US crews do you think Halsey would hesitate to use them, or King would have difficulty supplying them? No, indeed. Japanese strategists had counted on the fact that it would be extremely difficult for the US Navy to operate for any length of time in the far reaches of the Western Pacific. The decisive battle they were looking for was supposed to be fought in the Central Pacific, with the Japanese fleet remaining safe in port until the moment came when they would sortie forth and engage the US Navy in a single war winning naval engagement. Surprisingly, the US Navy built and moved a major port facility across the Pacific, first at Majuro, then Entewawek, then the massive lagoon at Ulithi and finally at Letye Gulf. Between these Western Pacific bases were a constant series of convoys that kept the fleet supplied at sea. A US ship could remain at sea for a year or more before having to return to the major naval base at Pearl. No one could do what the US Navy was doing, certainly not the Japanese. No one had even thought it possible.

    The question then with the British Pacific Fleet was how would they operate across the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean. King did not want them there, and so he complied with Roosevelt’s directive, but insisted that the British Fleet had to be self sufficient, providing their own supplies. Of course, they could not do this, so the order effectively eliminated the BPF from engaging in the battles being fought in the final year of the war. Fortunately, (and to the surprise of the command officers of the Royal Navy), the theater American Naval officers felt the restriction impractical, and were content in following the strict letter of the law without paying any mind to the spirit of the thing. Their reply to British requests for help was that they would provide them with all those supplies they could, as long as it did not end up listed on some report on Admiral King’s desk. In the end, a great deal of supply was provided. At one point HMS King George V was refueling from a tanker at the same time as Halsey’s USS Missouri was refueling on the opposite side. Halsey was said to have shuttled across on a cable chair and drank a toast with the officers of the King George V. The BPF acted as a functional force of the Third Fleet (Task Force 37), suffering Kamikaze raids at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and participated in the attacks on Japan. Their contribution was not insignificant.

    Great post.

  4. j.-james clements

    admiral king was once described as should have been awarded a medal (the iron cross with oak leaves) his anglophobia caused the lives of many good ships and sailers..

  5. Jon j

    Regardless of your comments to support your views in the first reply, I feel this is still a tarnished and one sided view of the war. Unfortunately the U.S. (And I have considerable American family) have a very one sided US centric view of the world and of the war. Rarely do others matter and where they do it’s as a bit part.

    • padresteve

      Sadly the facts don’t lie. By early 1944 the British were a spent round. This was not their fault, two world wars had worn them out. Their ships were hardly capable of finishing the war in the Pacific, they were not designed for that war and there were not enough of them.

      Funny, I can be very critical of my own country, but the fact is that the USA has carried the ball for the free world since the Second Works a War. We rebuilt Europe and Japan, and guarded them for the bulk of the Cold War. Then when that was over our allies shed their defense capabilities as fast as they could, except for the Japanese. The Tory government in the UK is looking to cut more. How dare you condemn us for bailing you out and taking some credit.

      Your attitude is so full of hypocrisy that it makes my head swim, and I’m an Anglophile. Not that I don’t appreciate what NATO has contributed in the war on terror but we have carried the water in this war too.

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