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by Cmdr. Jeff Tall, RN (ret.)

map caption follows

Map showing the boundary between the British-led South East Asia Command and the American-led South West Pacific Area.

This article is adapted from The History of British and Allied Submarines in World War II, by Vice Adm. Sir Arthur Hezlet.

The fall of Britain's great naval base at Singapore on Feb. 15, 1942, exposed everything "east of Suez," to attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy, including Britain's Indian empire, oil shipments from the Persian Gulf, and even supplies for the British Eight Army in Egypt. Only American pressure in the Pacific kept the Japanese from wreaking greater havoc. The Royal Navy had its hands full closer to home. British submarines, for example, were busy hunting German U-boats, trying to get at menacing German "heavies" like the battleship Tirpitz, and cutting Axis supply lines in the Mediterranean. Half of the 94 Royal Navy (RN) submarines that served in the Mediterranean were lost. Forty-two failed to return from patrol, and German air raids destroyed another five, with men onboard, alongside at Malta.

In September 1943, the Italian Fleet surrendered, and explosives planted by British "X-craft" (four-man, 52-foot midget submarines) disabled Tirpitz. At last, the Royal Navy could begin to build up a Far Eastern fleet again. In mid-August, the Quebec Conference had established South East Asia Command (SEAC) to oversee all Allied operations in India (then including Pakistan and Bangladesh), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Burma, Malaya (now Malaysia), the island of Sumatra, and a large part of the Indian Ocean, as well as future land operations in Thailand and French Indochina (now Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). At the end of August, the British Admiralty had directed that all the new submarines of the S and T classes should be sent east. The first trickle of naval reinforcements to reach the new command was the Fourth Submarine Flotilla, consisting of six boats dispatched from the Mediterranean.

They found plenty to do. Japanese light cruisers operated from Singapore, at the southern end of the Malacca Strait, and from Penang, at its northern end. Penang was also a base for Japanese submarines and for several German U-boats that had arrived from the Atlantic. Regular submarine patrols in the Strait at last gave British commanders some hope of detecting any Japanese move into the Indian Ocean. Patrols off Penang made it riskier for enemy subs to prey on Indian Ocean shipping, and the presence of British submarines made it harder for the Japanese to supply their army in Burma by the direct sea route to the port of Rangoon, forcing them to make greater use of the inefficient overland route through Thailand. Submarines were also ideal for landing and recovering agents in occupied territory and for conducting beach reconnaissance for future landings.

Eventually, RN submariners hoped to join the American anti-shipping campaign in the Pacific. By late 1943, this was going extremely well. At the beginning of the war the Japanese had just over six million tons of merchant shipping. By September 1943, U.S. submarines had sunk 2,248,000 tons. The 123 U.S. "fleet boats" operating from Pearl Harbor and from Australia were working in "wolf packs," making the best use of their high surfaced speed, radar, and VHF voice radio. Confined to SEAC's area of responsibility, the British Fourth Submarine Flotilla could attack Japanese shipping only in the Malacca Strait, northward as far as Burma, and off the southwest coast of Sumatra. (Even the Sunda Strait, at Sumatra's southern end, was assigned to the South West Pacific Area, a U.S. command.) RN submarines consequently found few targets other than coastal traffic.

On Feb. 24, 1944, the arrival in the Singapore area of the Japanese Main Fleet—three aircraft carriers, five battleships (among them the two giants Yamato and Musashi, with their 18-inch guns), and no less than 19 cruisers—promised some meaty trade for RN submarines, but this hope soon faded. It turned out that the Japanese had no offensive intention in the Indian Ocean, but were fleeing devastating American carrier attacks on their base at Truk earlier in February, which did immense damage despite failing to catch the Japanese fleet in harbor. The Main Fleet set up its new base in Lingga Roads, south of Singapore, which was safe from American air strikes and close to the Sumatran oil center at Palembang and the ex-British dockyard at Singapore.

Disappointed British submariners continued their anti-shipping campaign in the Malacca Strait. Although they sank relatively few ships in the first five months of 1944, it was a substantial proportion of the local traffic, leaving mostly small ships, coasters and craft such as junks to carry Japanese goods. With plenty of submarines to work the Strait and more arriving every month, RN submariners obviously needed to expand their operations into waters east of Singapore, where they could watch the Japanese Main Fleet at Lingga Roads and attack the main Japanese supply line to Burma, whose seaborne leg passed through the Gulf of Thailand. Those waters were in the South West Pacific Area, however, and RN submarines would need American consent to operate there.

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HMS Stygian in surface action with a boarding party standing by. Courtesy of The Royal Navy Submarine Museum.

American submarines sank 216 enemy ships totaling 964,121 tons in the first five months of 1944. In June, they sank another 48, for 195,020 tons, while all British submarines could scour out of the Malacca Strait were four ships, for 7,719 tons. The targets were clearly in the American areas, and RN submariners were keen to participate. U.S. fleet boats were superior to British submarines in range, in speed and in their surface search radar, but they had one considerable disadvantage—their larger size, which limited their ability to operate in the shallow water often encountered to the east of Singapore and in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). British submariners felt they had an important role to play there.

Britain and the United States had been discussing a British Pacific Fleet since early 1943, and Adm. Ernest King, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet, was eager to have British submarines—especially the
-class—for use in shallow waters. The Allies eventually agreed that no British Pacific Fleet was required before 1945, but they also agreed that when SEAC received HMS Wolfe, its third submarine depot ship [tender], and its submarine strength reached 25 boats, it would dispatch a flotilla to operate from Fremantle, Australia, in the South West Pacific Area. The Royal Navy would provide all logistic support, and Commander, Submarines, U.S. Seventh Fleet, would have operational control. In August 1944, two groups totaling 14 submarines set out on patrol from the main British submarine base at Trincomalee, Ceylon. One group returned to Trincomalee. The other group — S-class submarines of the Eighth Flotilla — continued on to Fremantle.

Two other British submarines reached Fremantle about that time for specific missions. HMS Porpoise, a minelayer, was on a mission for Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE) similar to one in 1943 that had sunk or seriously damaged seven Japanese ships totaling 39,000 tons. Porpoise was to carry a 21-man party to Singapore, where they would penetrate the defenses in motorized canoes called "Sleeping Beauties." Sadly, their cover was blown, and all 21 were killed or captured. None survived the war. HMS Clyde, an aging River-class boat with a distinguished record in Norway and the Mediterranean, was to land a large party from Force 136 (an SOE organization that supported local resistance against Japanese occupation) with considerable stores on the east coast of Malaya. Clyde broke down and had to go into dock in Fremantle, but HMS Telemachus successfully replaced her.

Meanwhile, the Japanese Main Fleet had left Lingga Roads. After the June 1944 Battle of the Philippine Sea, the surviving Japanese aircraft carriers proceeded to Japan. Following the October 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf, the remaining heavy surface forces retreated first to Brunei Bay and then to Japan. This left only four heavy cruisers at Singapore, two of them with serious battle damage. The Japanese also moved their submarine base from Penang to Batavia (now Jakarta), partly due to the difficulty of getting supplies, spare gear and torpedoes through the Malacca Strait, but mainly due to RN submarine attacks on Axis submarines entering and leaving Penang.