On November 11, 1944, HMS Indefatigable hoisted the flag of Rear-Admiral Sir Philip Vian who had just been appointed Commander (Aircraft Carriers) for the new British Pacific Fleet.
One week later, after stowing the Avengers of 820 Squadron, the Seafires of 887 and 894 Squadrons and the Fireflies of 1770 Squadron, she set sail for the Far East.
Indefatigable appeared not to be a lucky ship. She had been beset with technical problems since her completion - culminating in the complete break-down of her arresting wires.
Perhaps it was a consequence of the conditions of a wartime build. Perhaps the constant modifications and changes to her design played a part. Regardless, she was still able to participate in several raids against the battleship Tirpitz and reported as ready when the time came to deploy to the Pacific.
HMS Indefatigable joined Indomitable (Vian’s new flagship) and Victorious during December for training manoeuvres before taking part in Operation Lentil, the attacks on the Pangkalan Brandan oil refineries in north-east Sumatra.
She also took part in Operation Meridian, the strike on oil refineries near Palembang, before the Pacific Fleet made its way to Sydney.
Her bad luck struck again.
On February 13 a fire broke out in the Engineers’ Office Flat. Several ammunition lighters tied up alongside the carrier were immediately ordered to stand clear. It took 50 minutes to extinguish the blaze. Six stokers suffered burns while attempting to douse the flames. They were sent to hospitals ashore as the crew raced to repair the ship before its scheduled departure.
Indefatigable followed Victorious out of Sydney Harbor on February 27. Joined by Indomitable, the three carriers exercised together as they made their way to Manus.
KAMIKAZE: APRIL 1
As Task Force 57’s early morning air strike made its way to Sakishima Gunto, radar operators alerted the formation to approaching aircraft at a range of 75 miles.
Despite being intercepted by the CAP, several kamikaze aircraft managed to break through.
One singled out HMS Indefatigable.
This Zeke had been chased into the fleet’s air defence zone by a Seafire LIII piloted by Sub Lieutenant R H Reynolds. He had already scored several cannon hits at high deflection angles and long range. Reynolds had to break off his pursuit at the last moment to avoid hitting the carrier himself.
A second Seafire pilot who had just taken off from Indefatigable, John Birtle, also took a snap-shot and scored several high-deflection hits (confirmed by his gun camera).
The kamikaze looped over the carrier before appearing to attempt a dive down the carrier’s funnel. Despite being seen to begin to break up from its damage, the kamikaze was not diverted from its path.
At 0728, HMS Indefatigable was hit by the 550lb bomb-carrying Zeke.
The kamikaze slammed into the carrier on the forward crash barrier where the flight deck joined with the island. The exploding bomb and aircraft lashed out over the armoured deck and smashed the sickbay, briefing room and a second flight deck crash barrier.
Sub Lt Bill Coster RNVR,
820 Sqdn. HMS Indefatigable
It was about 0735 hrs on Easter Sunday morning April 1st 1945 and I was sitting in ‘C’ for Charlie my faithful old Avenger waiting to take off on some strike (Can’t remember where we were supposed to be going) but I remember watching the first Seafire in the range leave the deck. Just as it got airborne something caught my eye above the Bridge and I saw another Aircraft. Probably suffering from a touch of the ‘night befores’, at first I wondered how the Seafire had got there so quickly only to suddenly realize that it had the wrong markings on it and that it was a Jap. I also remember that this thought to my mind . . . that I had joined the Navy at almost the same time, 7.30 in the morning at Lee-on-Solent on April 1st three years earlier and that I was ‘going out’ on the same day. As you know, the next few minutes were pretty hectic and getting quickly out of the plane on reaching the deck I trod on a piece of hound metal which looked as if it could have been a piece of a Jap aircraft. Also close by was a piece of what looked like a white bit of coconut shell but was probably a fragment of skull. Shall never know, but I did keep them for years - finally being lost in a ‘house move’. What did strike me more than anything else was the strict discipline - no one panicked - but simply got on with what had to be done although there were dead and dying all about. I shall always see in my mind the Jap turning over the bridge and diving into the island watching it all the way down.
Two Avengers and a Firefly in the aft deck park were also damaged by debris.
Burning fuel ignited and washed over the steel deck and into the island in a sheet of flame. Some spilled into the hangar below.
But the 250kg (550lbs) bomb did relatively little damage, perhaps expending itself in forcing the deck armour down. Some accounts suggest the bomb had actually been dropped, and missed the ship, before the kamikaze crashed into the deck. But Indomitable's formal damage report lists the recovery of several bomb fragments, including the nosepiece.
A quick assessment of the damage revealed the following:
The exploding kamikaze had depressed the armoured flight deck by roughly 3in over a 15ft area, and a small fire was ignited in B hangar's overhead storage space underneath the point of impact.
The R/T office in Indefatigable island was wrecked, as were the flight-deck sick bay and pilot’s briefing room. Splinters peppered many other spaces and an intense fire had been started by the burning fuel.
PO Electrical Artificer Les Bancroft recalled:
God, it was a shambles. Fires were burning all round, steam was erupting from burst pipes at the rear end, water was cascading from others. Twisted steel and piles of rubble were everywhere. Four crewmen were trying to manoeuvre through this into an area which I now know to have been the island Medical Station. They had obviously been removing the injured; the dead remained.
In this instance, Indefatigable appears to have been spared much more severe casualties due to a stroke of fortune.
The fire which flashed through the island seems to have been largely suppressed by venting steam.
High-pressure pipes which fed the ship’s sirens had been ruptured by the explosion. This caused steam to fill the island, dousing flames and preventing the fires from taking hold.
Chief ERA Reg Beaver recalled:
The messenger said,. ‘Chief, you are required at the voice pipe’, on the other end was the Captain, who said, ‘Chief ERA, the Japs have just laid an easter egg on our flight deck. it must have damaged one of the sirens as there’s steam and water everywhere. Will you come up and do something about it?’
The island fires were quashed within four minutes.
Eight men had been killed immediately and 16 wounded. Six would die later. Among the dead were Indefatigable’s Lieutenant Commander (Flying), an Air Engineering Officer, the Flight Deck Medical Officer and many in the Operations Room.
Hangar Control Stoker Dennis Hickman recalls the scene below:
My Action Station was in the upper hangar and when the flames shot through from the flight deck into the hangar, the asbestos curtains came down and left us shut off to deal with the fire. I remember an officer shouting at me to empty the drip trays of petrol down the scuppers—was I scared?
The hangar fire (nothing more than a smoldering coil of rope) was quickly drenched and there was no need to activate the hangar salt-water spray systems.
Damage control parties worked furiously to restore the flight deck to operation.
INDEFATIGABLE, APRIL 1
Deck Landing Control Officer
Lt P.G.W Roome
“Two Fireflies were ranged waiting with crews in them for take-off. The Jap aircraft came straight for Indefatigable from five or six thousand feet and passed her to starboard. It then pulled straight up and looped off the top to come vertically into the ship. I imagine the pilot intended to go down the funnel but missed and hit the flight deck alongside the flight deck sick bay and into one of the barrier stanchions. As it made its first pass, Roger and I decided on discretion and leapt over the port side into the cat walk and immediately after the bang went back to the flight deck. The remaining bits of aircraft were burning and there was damage in the island sick bay. There was a lot of what I at first thought was smoke filling the entrance to the island and Lt Cdr pat Chambers, Lieutenant Cdr (Flying), emerged bleeding and shocked. I put him in the care of one of the aircraft handling party members and he was taken to sick bay. The aircraft handing party was soon assembled and the remains of the Jap aircraft were manhandled over the port side. One man produced an object for my scrutiny which turned out to be a piece of finger. That was all that was found of the pilot. “
WITNESS ACCOUNT: S/Lt (A) John Birtle RNVR, 887 Sqdn. Indefatigable
I don’t think we’d started up on 1st April when the Tannoy announced bandits approaching range six or seven miles. Blue flight took off and my aircraft was the last, after lifting my flaps and undercart I heard a call over the RT that the ship was under attack, I pulled round to port flicking on my gunsight and switching off the safety on my guns and, in a steep turn to port I saw a silver Zero diving on the ship from forward. At the bottom of his dive he released what I took to be a bomb which splashed into the sea some 10/15 yards off the port bow vvithout exploding. It seemed to me afterwards that if it was a bomb then the arming vanes hadn’t turned sufficient times to arm it or, on the other hand it might have been a long range tank. After diving down the flight deck the Zero pulled up into a vertical climb at the top of which he did an immaculate stall turn and commenced another dive onto Indefatigable. During this time I was tearing my aircraft round to get into a position to attack, by the time he was into his dive I was coming in at full bore from the port beam and had him in my sights although it was a full (ring and a half) deflection shot. I don’t know how long I fired, three or four seconds maybe, but I saw strikes on the Zero and my camera gun film confirmed this and fractionally before he hit, his port wing started breaking away. Discussing this with Erik Govaars (my flight leader) afterwards, we thought that he was trying to dive down the funnel (which the kamikazes were ordered to do if the lift shafts were not open - and fortunately they weren’t at the time) and losing control at the last split second the aircraft finished up diving into the base of the island. I hadn’t much time to observe a great deal more as every gun in the fleet (it seemed) was blasting away at me fortunately without success. I remember feeling sick as I saw the great orange blast of the explosion as the kamikaze hit and was more than surprised that we were able to land on some 45 minutes later.
One of Indefatigable’s USN Liaison Officers famously (and anonymously) encapsulated his feelings of the experience in a media report from that time (several journalists were with the fleet) which has since been widely quoted:
“When a kamikaze hits a US carrier, it’s six months repair at Pearl. In a Limey carrier it’s a case of “sweepers, man your brooms”.”
Spatulas were also needed.
AB R. Jenkin would later write:
I recall the time after being hit by the kamikaze. Leading Seaman Mike Smith on the searcher sight suddenly remarking ‘I can’t see through my sight’. Quickly looking to see what was wrong he discovered his sight clogged up with human flesh which he removed quickly and resumed his position searching for the next target. We assumed when the action was all over that it was part of that Japanese.
Flight activity was suspended for only 37 minutes as the crew contained – then made good – the damage.
At 0816, Indefatigable landed her first Seafire with only one crash barrier in place. Flight Lieutenant Reynolds, who was credited with shooting down three Japanese aircraft with his Seafire during this action, commented on the sight before him: "This blackened flight-deck with a bloody great hole ... The sight on deck was unbelievable."
The lack of availability of two of the three crash barriers was to cause considerable difficulty. Indefatigable was forced to land its aircraft on a shorter section of its deck as crash barrier 3, which was not usually deployed, was within reach of the final two arrester hooks. Combined with serious pitching from waves, this contributed to three Seafires suffering collapsed landing gear and a further two going into the 3rd barrier. All were damaged beyond immediate repair.
It was a disastrous day for the Seafire: One which had been diverted to Illustrious was pushed over the side as the ship had no facilities to repair that type of aircraft. Another slammed into the safety barrier when landing on Victorious, killing the pilot.
WITNESS ACCOUNT: INDEFATIGABLE KAMIKAZE ATTACK, APRIL 1
AB Walter Powell, barber and messenger
My action station was the 279 long range Radar, which was situated on the deck above the flight deck at the top of the first ladder inside the door from the flight deck, so that I was only a few feet from the actual explosion caused by the kamikaze which was about to descend upon us! This morning routine as you know was quite the normal thing. but on this occasion we did not have time to begin operations because the Japs were already overhead, (Had somebody left a tell-tale Radar set switched on with stationary aerials all night giving away our position??).
Almost immediately, the stutter of the Oerlikon guns, let us, in the darkened office, know that the enemy was nearby, and when the pom-poms burst into life, we knew that we were about to be attacked.
Indefatigable began turning hard - was it to port or starboard? (Port) I can’t remember. She was vibrating as she did at speed. Two members of the 279 (radar) crew dived out of the office onto the stairwell to see what was going on - it was the last thing my friends Pete White and Ken Onion ever did.
There was a terrible scraping sound. The kamikaze had missed going down the funnel, but was scraping down its side. It hit the deck near the doorway in the island, but did not penetrate. The blast went straight into the doorway where it blew a huge hole, and up the stairwell causing death and destruction. The 279 office was largely destroyed and did not operate again. Lay on the deck amongst the ruins and not able to see a thing. Where were my- colleagues? Pete White had got his head through the porthole overlooking the flight deck when the Jap hit. I shall never forget what I saw of him after the event. Ken Onion died later in Sick Bay. I was there when he died, and his last words to the orderly were, “My name is Onion, not Onyon.” Many people thought his name couldn’t possibly be Onion (as Spanish onion) and politely called him Onyon.
The smell of dead flesh stayed there and in that part of the island till the day I left the ship.
Although we were so close to the explosion, somehow the blast had left us alone and killed many who were much further away. When the smoke cleared, I left the office and although the ladder leading down to flight deck level had gone, I somehow got down below flight deck level and must have wandered around the ship in a daze. I remember some crew members were amazed that some of us had got out of the 279 office in one piece. Having read in Sakishima a footnote regarding the steam from the ship’s siren preventing a firey death to all in the island, I am even more grateful that I survived!!
WITNESS ACCOUNT: INDEFATIGABLE KAMIKAZE ATTACK, APRIL 1
. Lt Ivor Morgan, Seafire pilot of 894 squadron
"Group of four-plus aircraft - bearing 315 - range 26 miles, closing".
As usual, the contacts were followed until, at 16 miles, they disappeared off the screen.
We shook our heads sadly. Finger trouble again, we thought.
Only this time they had got it terribly right.
The first inkling I had of trouble was the sound of aerial firing and, looking upwards, saw two aircraft in the tail chase about 2000 feet above the ship. At first I thought they were two of ours and it had only just registered that the leading machine had a radial engine, whereas our Seafires had in-lines, when it turned on its back and I distinctly saw the 'Rising Sun' roundels on its wings as the pilot commenced a power dive directly at the spot where I was standing.
By this time all hell had broken loose. All of our guns, from 5.25's (sic, he means 4.5's) to pom-poms and additions, had opened fire, people were yelling. The Captain gave a helm order, I rushed on to the main bridge, closed the armoured door behind me—and flung myself down full length on the deck, together with everyone else. We waited. The engine roar got louder and louder. There was no escape. This was it, this was how it was going to end.
Pity, I thought, life is so enjoyable on the whole. I felt no fear, only a vague disappointment that the curtains were about to be drawn. And then another thought struck me. I'd like to be there, as some sort of disembodied spirit, when my father opened the telegram. He was a dogmatic person, who would never entertain any arguments but his own, some of which were quite preposterous, nor would he ever admit to being in the wrong' I suppose to hearten me he would always say, "They couldn't get me at Ypres, they won't get you either". The sheer illogic of this used to annoy me intensely. Well, at last, he'd be proved wrong. Yes, I did so hope that there was some way in which I could be a fly on the wall when he learned that I had been killed.
Then came the crash, followed immediately by flame and a searing heat. I choked. I could not draw breath. I believe I lost consciousness. I next remember opening my eyes to see all the recumbent forms near me. All immobile. All dead, I thought I must be dead too. I tried to raise my shoulders and found that I was able to move although no one else followed suit. Oh well, if this was being dead it wasn't so bad after all. Interesting to find that there was indeed a life hereafter a fact in which I had never had much faith.
The Captain's voice brought us to our senses and we shambled rather sheepishly to our feet. He above all, in his 'ice cream' suit, had remained erect and in command. This was the moment for which he had trained since joining the navy as a thirteen year old cadet in 1914. And he did not fail.
From then on things moved fast. With certain communication lines out of action I was ordered below to assess damage and casualties, for we could now see that the kamikaze had crashed into the bottom of the island at flight deck level. Flames engulfed both forward and after bridge ladders so I swarmed down the thick, knotted manilla rope which had been rigged for just such an emergency.
As I made my descent I saw Lt. Cdr. Pat Chambers, RN, Lt. Cdr. (Flying), staggering aft, his back covered with blood. Someone ran forward and guided him to safety. An Avenger, in the process of being taxied forward, had collided with the superstructure, engine and cockpit blown to smithereens. Of the pilot there was no sign.
The Damage Control Party was already hosing the flames and I could now see a gaping hole where the island sick bay had been. Being of small stature I was able to crawl through the wreckage and there they were my comrades At Vaughan and Bill Gibson, showing no sign of injury but both killed by the blast, which had removed most of their clothing. In the passage between the sick bay and the Fighter Ready Room lay Lt. Leonard Teff, RNVR, Air Engineer Officer, also killed by the blast which, miraculously, had left untouched the man on either side of him. Looking upwards I realized that the bridge mess was no more.
Oh Lord, what has happened to 'Wings'?
On regaining the bridge I was relieved to see Pat Humphries on the flight deck. A last minute dash to his cabin for some forgotten article had undoubtedly saved his life, in the same way as a faulty CSU had cost Gibson his.
Lt. Cdr. (E) 'Sandy' Sanderson RN, Flight Deck Engineer, and his party were already rigging a replacement for No. 3 barrier which had been destroyed. Twenty minutes later we were landing-on, S.Lt.(A) Dick Reynolds RNVR (894 Sqdn.) holding aloft a gloved hand to indicate two victories.
As soon as I was relieved, I went below to the hangar where maintenance crews were working with every sign of normality. They had thought their last moment had come when, unable to see what was happening, a terrible explosion occurred right above their heads. Flaming petrol ran down the hangar bulkhead, presumably through a fissure in the flight deck, threatening to engulf men and machines alike. Under the leadership of CPO 'jimmy Green, Senior Air Artificer, the fire was brought under control without having to resort to sprinklers.
"Right lads. Show's over. Back to work".
The Jimmy Greens of this world are worth their weight in gold. I proceeded to the sick bay, where the PMO, Surg. Cdr, Yates, RNVR, and his team—Surg. Lt. Cdr. Henry Towers RN, and Surg. Lt. Musgrave RI\IVR, together with their 'tiffies'—had been working non-stop since the kamikaze struck at 07.30. With over forty casualties dead, dying and/or seriously wounded, accommodation was hopelessly inadequate and the adjoining messdeck had been pressed into service as an auxiliary ward. There, upon mess tables, lay men too badly injured to survive. A steward with a hole in his head the size of a cricket ball, loosely plugged with cotton wool, a man with both legs missing. Between them were other casualties—men unrecognizable due to the burn dressings which covered head and body alike—and even as I looked for any of my own chaps, some were quietly slipping away into eternity. I did find one, however, Able Seaman Gay, 894's squadron messenger, who was well into his forties when he joined up. Quiet, polite, conscientious, he was popular and respected by all. He sat, staring at nothing, in an advanced state of shock. "I'm afraid his mind's gone, Sir," said the Chief SBA, "I've seen them before like this. They never make a complete recovery." If it had been the captain's moment, so had it been for the PM0. After fifteen hours at the operating table, he was ordered by his superior to take some rest. His reply was to order Captain Graham out of the Sick Bay in which, as a non-medical man, he had no authority. Only when, at 2300, it was obvious that he could do no more, did this 55 year old man consent to turn in. The final toll of eleven dead and thirty-two injured but surviving, was in large measure due to his skill and leadership. The subsequent award to him of the DSC was richly deserved and widely acclaimed…
Finally, 'Guns' (Tony Davis) requested over the Tannoy system that any bomb fragments he brought to him for identification in order that he might have some information on the type of missile being used by the enemy for this sort of attack. Among the pieces which were offered was the nose cone—in fact, that of a Royal Navy 15" shell, almost certainly captured at Singapore several years earlier!
Once TF57 arrived in San Pedro Bay, Indefatigable took up position near the Fleet Train repair ships HMS Artifex and HMS Resource.
The damage to Indefatigable’s flight deck, crash barriers and island was assessed and repaired by the Fleet Train’s engineers. Damaged armoured plates and steel work was removed and replaced within six days.
HMS Indefatigable was there for the final strikes against Japan, her Seafires, Fireflies and Avengers ranging deep into hostile territory. On August 15, Indefatigable’s air wing was launched against targets in the Tokyo area.
At noon that day, Emeror Hirohito announced a ceasefire. Flagship King George V ran the flags up her mainmast:
CEASE HOSTILITIES AGAINST JAPAN.
The fleet erupted in jubilation.
The Emperor’s surrender speech was due an hour after the ceasefire took effect.
About 40 minutes before this event, a Japanese dive bomber made an attack run on HMS Indefatigable. Two large bombs were dropped - landing in the water harmlessly nearby. USN Corsairs pursued and shot the bomber down off the carrier’s port quarter.
Several more attacks were attempted that afternoon, but they were quickly dispatched. They were to be the last attacks of the war.
But the threat was not over.
As Indefatigable Sagami Bay near Tokyo on August 18, a floating mine exploded off the starboard side.
It did no damage.