USS Robin: When the CNO Needed a Royal Navy Carrier – Part I

By Carsten Fries, Communication and Outreach Division,  Naval History and Heritage Command.

In autumn 1942, Adm. Ernest J. King, the Chief of Naval Operations, faced a dilemma: The battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, and the still-ongoing Guadalcanal campaign had severely weakened the U.S. Navy’s fleet carrier presence in the Pacific. USS Lexington (CV 2) had been lost at Coral Sea, USS Yorktown (CV 5) at Midway, and Hornet (CV 8) during the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands. USS Wasp (CV 7) had been torpedoed and sunk south of the Solomons in September. Although she remained operational, USS Enterprise (CV 6) had been repeatedly damaged during the naval engagements around Guadalcanal and would eventually require repairs at a U.S. shipyard. USS Saratoga (CV 3), which had also been damaged in the Solomons, was undergoing repairs at Pearl Harbor. USS Ranger (CV 4), despite taking part in the Allied landings in North Africa in November (Operation Torch), was not deemed suitable for combat in the Pacific. The first new Essex-class carriers were not expected to join the fleet until late 1943. Saratoga would be operational again by the new year, but additional carrier support was needed to counter Japanese naval forces during the anticipated offensive drive up the Solomon Islands chain. This situation would ultimately lead to an interoperability arrangement that was unique in many ways for this stage of the conflict.

CNO Admiral Ernest J. King, USN, (at rear, second from left with Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Pacific Fleet commander in chief) was no Anglophile. However, in 1942, keenly aware of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier deficit in the Pacific, he requested assistance from the Royal Navy (NH 62957).


Immediately f
ollowing the Battle of Midway, King had requested assistance from the British Admiralty for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, but the Royal Navy’s flattops were heavily engaged against the Germans in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean at the time. Now, he again approached the British with a similar request, one that quickly made its way into communications between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Despite its continuing heavy operational commitments, the Royal Navy detached the carrier HMS Victorious from the Home Fleet for service with the U.S. Navy. After a hasty replenishment at Greenoch, Scotland, Victorious departed British waters on Dec. 20, making a brief stop in Bermuda, and arriving in port at Norfolk, Va., on the last day of 1942. 

HMS Victorious, circa 1941. A Fairey Albacore torpedo bomber is making its final approach (NH 73690).

 

Victorious, the second Illustrious-class carrier, had been commissioned on March 29, 1941. Contemporary U.S. Navy construction drew on lessons learned from war games notionally set in the Pacific and featured unarmored hanger and flight decks—the former to accommodate a maximum number of aircraft and the latter to facilitate temporary repairs of battle damage inflicted by opposing naval aviation during operations. This approach had proven itself through 1942. In contrast, the Royal Navy, its primary focus on future operations in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, integrated fully enclosed armored hangers and flight decks into its carrier designs. Although they embarked fewer aircraft, survivability of these units and their embarked air wings against attacks by capital ships and land-based medium and heavy bombers was a primary consideration. However, as British experience had already shown, battle damage by armor-piercing bombs to hardened flight decks often could not be repaired anywhere but in a shipyard. At this point, Japanese kamikaze strikes and their effects on either configuration were complete unknowns.

A view of Royal Navy Martlet IVs (F4F-4 Wildcats) in Victorious’s armored hangar deck, September 1942. The British pre–World War II decision to armor the flight decks and hangars of its aircraft carriers—contrary to U.S. Navy practice—was based on expectations of fighting a future war within relatively enclosed European waters (© IWM A 12556).

At Norfolk, Victorious was dry-docked from Jan. 1-31, 1943. She was fitted with the U.S. Navy’s TBS (“Talk Between Ships”) communications system, new surface- and air-search radars and respective vertical plotting board, the U.S. YB-type aircraft-homing system, and two U.S. cypher machines. The ship’s stern was modified witha ten-foot flight deck extension and an underlying gallery housing twenty 20-millimeter antiaircraft guns and extended internal mess spaces. A new fire-suppression system was installed in the crew spaces and a control station added to the hanger deck. Victorious’s obsolete Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers were flown off and exchanged for new U.S. TBM Avengers. Work-ups with these were conducted at Naval Air Station Norfolk. To accommodate these much heavier aircraft, some stronger arrestor cables were installed. All embarked aircraft received U.S. national insignia. A U.S. naval aviation liaison team was embarked to acquaint their British counterparts with U.S. take-off, landing, and shipboard aircraft-handling signals and practices. In anticipation of combat service in the tropics, Royal Navy personnel were issued U.S. Navy khaki and dungaree shipboard working uniforms to be worn in lieu of the British summer whites.

Read Part II of “USS Robin: When the CNO Needed a Royal Navy Carrier” here.

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