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

Editor’s note: This is Part Two of  “USS Robin: When the CNO Needed a Royal Navy Carrier.” Read Part One here.

Victorious departed Norfolk on Feb. 3 en route to the Panama Canal—and assigned the U.S. Navy two-syllable call sign “Robin.” Intensive flight operations utilizing U.S. Navy procedures, both with Martlet IV (Wildcat F4F-4) fighters and the still-unfamiliar TBMs, continued during her transit to the canal and resumed once the ship had entered the Pacific and headed for Pearl Harbor. Difficulties were encountered with the Avengers, particularly during landing operations. Several accidents, two of them fatal, occurred. Moreover, the large aircraft were too heavy to be lifted by the ship’s cranes when fully loaded and required precise positioning to fit on Victorious’s elevators. Royal Navy personnel also became acquainted with the U.S. “deck park” arrangement, which required different methods of handling aircraft on the flight deck. 

HMS Victorious in port at Pearl Harbor shortly after her 4 March 1943 arrival. Soon after, the British disruptive camouflage was to be overpainted with sea blue, the U.S. Navy Measure 11 specification. Victorious was an object of curiosity and professional interest for U.S. Navy personnel of all ranks (National Archives 80-G-276610).

 

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN (right), accompanied by Captain L. D. Mackintosh, RN, commanding officer of Victorious, during Nimitz’s official visit to the carrier at Pearl Harbor, March 1943 (IWM © A 19654).

 

Victorious crew members are entertained with a hula demonstration, Pearl Harbor, circa March–May 1943 (IWM © 25687).

“Robin” arrived in port at Pearl Harbor on March 4. Here, she was fitted with two additional arrestor wires on the aft flight deck to trap the TBMs more effectively and the arrestor hooks of the embarked torpedo bombers were modified to better catch the preexisting British wires. More 20- and 40-millimeter antiaircraft guns were added. Her Royal Naval disruptive camouflage pattern was overpainted in U.S. Navy sea blue, matching Saratoga, which was slated to be the British carrier’s consort during upcoming operations in the central Solomons. On 8 May, together with USS North Carolina (BB-55) and two destroyers, Victorious departed Pearl Harbor and headed for the South Pacific.

On May 17, Victorious reached Noumea, New Caledonia, and joined Saratoga in Rear Adm. DeWitt Ramsey’s Carrier Division 1. At this point, “Robin” and Saratoga were the only operational Allied carriers in the Pacific. Barely a day later, both ships got underway when it appeared that Japanese fleet units were departing Truk. Although this reporting turned out to be erroneous and the carriers returned to Noumea on May 24, Victorious’s first deployment with an operational U.S. Navy task force was beneficial for both British and American crews. Victorious’s superior fighter direction, founded on extensive combat experience in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, was noted by all.

In early June, “Robin” and Saratoga conducted interoperative exercises off of Noumea using U.S. Navy flight procedures, including cross-decking each other’s aircraft. Despite her modifications, the space limitations of Victorious continued to affect the handling of the TBMs. Thus, it was decided to embark Saratoga’s VF-3 on Victorious, and Victorious’s 832 Squadron with its Avengers on Saratoga. Accordingly, during the time that the two ships operated together, Saratoga would provide naval strike assets (retaining 12 fighters) while Victorious would only embark fighters.

As part of Rear Adm. Forrest P. Sherman’s Task Group 36.3, the carriers left Noumea on June 27 to take part in Operation Toenails, the invasion of New Georgia. The Task Group was not involved in the amphibious landings themselves, but instead remained on station for 28 days to provide air cover for the transports and landing force. Victorious’s crew’s extensive training in U.S. procedures and the mutual exchange of practical experience paid off as U.S. and British sailors kept patrol aircraft in the air for nearly 12 hours per day. Surprisingly, no contacts with the enemy occurred during this period. The task group returned to Noumea on July 25.

Underway replenishment of Victorious (call sign “Robin”) by USS Cimarron (AO-22) during operations in the central Solomons, 12 July 1943. Note the disruptive camouflage retained on the flight deck and the false elevator painted next to the island. Partially visible in this view are the embarked U.S. Navy F4F-4 Wildcats and Royal Navy Martlet IVs. The U.S. Navy aircraft, from the USS Saratoga (CV-3) air wing, were in typical mid-war tricolor camouflage; the British aircraft of 882, 896, and 896 Squadrons, with U.S. insignia originally applied in Norfolk, retained their lighter, dual-tone Fleet Air Arm finish (IWM © A 21747).

 

U.S. Navy fighter pilots on board Victorious pose with the British naval white ensign and the ship’s emblem, June–July 1943 (IWM © A 19650).

 

Victorious on 27 July 1943, four days before departing Noumea, New Caledonia—and U.S. Navy service. The Royal Navy personnel mustered on the flight deck retain the U.S. Navy shipboard working uniforms originally issued at Norfolk: khakis for officers, dungarees for enlisted sailors, worn with Royal Navy covers. Saratoga, Victorious’s consort during the New Georgia campaign, may be seen in the background (IWM © A 19653).

 

On July 31, “Robin” detached to rejoin the British Home Fleet by way of Pearl Harbor and Norfolk, where her U.S. Navy communications, radar, and flight operations gear were removed. On Sept. 27, she arrived in Liverpool for a lengthy refit. Following strikes against the German battleship Tirpitz off Norway and operations with the British Eastern Fleet in the Indian Ocean, Victorious returned to the Pacific in early 1945. As a component of the British Pacific Fleet, she took part in Operation Iceberg, the invasion of Okinawa, where, on May 9, she was struck by two kamikaze aircraft. Her armored flight deck absorbed the blows and, despite fire damage, she resumed flight operations within hours of the strikes. In contrast, the unarmored Essex-class carriers USS Franklin (CV 13), severely damaged by a kamikaze in March 1945, and USS Hancock (CV 19), hit by a kamikaze during Iceberg, had to withdraw completely from combat operations.

Unlike many of her Royal Navy sisters, Victorious was retained on active service after the war. Extensive reconstruction during most of the 1950s modernized her and added an angled flight deck. She was withdrawn from service after an onboard fire in 1967 and broken up in 1969. Of note: All U.S. Navy carriers in use since World War II have had armored flight decks.

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