USS Robin, the Aircraft Carrier that never exixted
The aircraft carrier USS Hornet quickly tore through the South Pacific Ocean waters north of the Santa Cruz Islands at full flank speed of 34 knots. A massive "bone was in her teeth" as the bow of the ship dug deeply into the passing waves. Hornet's escorting ships were barely able to keep up and on station with her as she engaged in a series of violent hard turns to throw off the aim of the approaching squadron of Japanese "Val" dive bombers closing in from high above her. The Val's, with their distinctive fixed undercarriage, were still several miles off and just emerging after tangling with the Hornet's own protective combat air patrol screen of fighter planes. The guns of all the ships in Hornet's task force were already tracking the incoming enemy planes waiting for them to come into effective firing range. The Japanese planes now changed course and prepared to make their dive bombing runs. The Hornet's Captain, Charles P. Mason, watching their approach from the wing of the carrier's bridge, ordered the ship's helm put hard over to spoil their aim and present as small and narrow a target to the Japanese as possible. The outer ring of escorting warships in the Hornet's task force opened fire on the incoming planes while the much nearer US anti-aircraft light cruisers edged in even closer to the carrier to provide better fire support with their own 5 inch flak guns. The Hornet's dry mouthed, grim faced crewmen, standing near their open gun mounts in the gun galleries lining the flight deck awaited the firing order. As the ship's fire control computer continued to make corrective firing solutions on the Japanese planes with each change of the ship's course, the guns adjusted accordingly. Captain Mason squinted as he saw the sun glint off the wings of one of the dive bombers high above as it rolled over into its dive. "OPEN FIRE!!" he shouted into the ship's public address system. All 8 of Hornet's 5-inch guns roared as one, as her lighter 1.1" automatic flak guns joined in, loudly chattering away along with the newly installed 20 mm Oerlikon guns, sending thousands of high explosive rounds up towards the hated enemy planes. The guns fired as quickly as they could be serviced as the Hornet's angry gun crews blasted their bitter hatred skywards. The shells soon erupted high above the ship into plane-killing flak bursts like dozens of ugly jet-black flower blossoms. One Val lost its wing to a shell burst and its crew never left the burning plane, riding it all the way down in its terminal dive to the ocean surface. A second bomber vanished in a flashing direct hit, leaving nothing discernible behind. 16 Japanese dive bombers went into their dives, but few survived the hail of lead fired into them from the Hornet and her escorts on their way down. Still, three bombs slammed into the Hornet, killing some 90 of her ship's crew and causing fires to break out below decks. A flak damaged Japanese dive bomber deliberately flew his plane into the Hornet's signal bridge, high up near the smoke stack, killing seven more men and causing aviation gas fires to burn on the signal deck.
Meanwhile, a simultaneous Japanese torpedo attack by 20 "Kate" torpedo planes was mounted both to Hornet's port and starboard sides in a classic "hammer and anvil" attack; meaning that no matter which way the ship turned, it would sail into a deadly school of torpedoes. Two torpedoes struck Hornet knocking out her electrical system and engines, bringing the great ship to a halt. To add further insult to injury, yet another Japanese suicide plane deliberately flew his plane into the side of the Hornet up forward, destroying a five inch gun mount, killing its crew and causing more aviation fuel fires to break out. Damage control parties quickly brought the fires under control as the ship's "black gang" engine room crews frantically tried to repair damage to her electrical system and restart the ship's engines. The Hornet was rigged for towing by the heavy cruiser USS Northampton. Just as it appeared that the Hornet would live to fight another day, US radar caught sight of yet more incoming Japanese torpedo planes. 8 of the 9 torpedo planes were either shot down or missed their target, but the ninth plane's torpedo struck the carrier, knocking out the ship's electrical system once again and giving her a 14 degree list. Hornet was ordered abandoned and was later sunk, leaving the already severely battle damaged USS Enterprise as the last operational, functioning US aircraft carrier in the Pacific. The only other aircraft carrier USS Saratoga was still undergoing repairs after being hit by a Japanese submarine launched torpedo several weeks before. The dark, foreboding waters around Guadalcanal had now swallowed up two US aircraft carriers, USS Wasp and USS Hornet, while witnessing the damage to two others, the USS Saratoga and USS Enterprise. Upon emerging from the ship repair yard, the newly repaired Saratoga returned to the US Navy main staging base at Noumea, New Caledonia in December, 1942, while the still largely unrepaired, battle damaged USS Enterprise left for major repairs in the US in May, 1943.
With the final American victory on Guadalcanal in February 1943, US Admiral Halsey's forces planned to advance further north up the Solomon Islands chain, but were barred for lack of aircraft carrier units to both project air power into the region and protect his invasion forces against Japanese aircraft carrier counter attacks. Until the new Essex Class fleet carriers and lighter Independence Class carriers started arriving later in the year, the prospects of further strategic advances in the Solomon Islands appeared bleak. Therefore, in December 1942 a request was made to the British Royal Navy asking for the temporary loan of one of its aircraft carriers to the US Navy. The Royal Navy agreed to the request and the HMS Victorious, an Illustrious class carrier, set sail for Norfolk Virginia Naval Shipyard arriving there in January to be modified in order to service and maintain US Navy fighter, dive bomber and torpedo aircraft. Upon her later arrival at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in March 1943, she received additional modifications to handle the new TBF Avenger torpedo planes. Victorious also received a fresh coat of US Navy haze gray paint. She was given the code name of USS Robin strictly for communication purposes, and named for the storied man of Sherwood forest, Robin Hood. Although operating with a US task force and flying off American aircraft and air crews, she continued flying the British Jack at all times. After receiving her compliment of US aircraft and American flight crews, the USS Robin nee' Victorious and her British crew began joint tactical training and familiarization exercises along with US Naval Task Force 36 in the Solomon Islands under Rear Admiral DeWitt Ramsey. While the Allied carrier task force was still light in numbers of both aircraft carriers and planes, they possessed three new and powerful fast battleships, USS Indiana, USS North Carolina and USS Massachusetts. With the addition of the Australian heavy cruiser HMAS Australia, two US anti-aircraft light cruisers, USS San Juan and USS San Diego plus several escorting destroyers, the Allied task force constituted a respectable and potent force indeed. "Operation Cartwheel" and the planned isolation and eventual destruction of the Japanese fortress of Rabaul, New Britain, now beckoned and could go forward. The primary roles of the joint Allied carrier task force was to provide air cover for the coming twin US amphibious invasions of New Georgia and Bougainville, while preventing any intervention by Japanese aircraft carrier launched planes. Luckily for the US Navy the Japanese were in the very same strategic predicament as the Americans after suffering the loss or severe damage to several of their irreplaceable aircraft carriers, and the wholesale annihilation of many of their most experienced flight crews during the savage fighting and bloodletting around Guadalcanal during the previous six months. Sadly for the Japanese, they had no ally to ask for the loan of an aircraft carrier. As a result the Imperial Japanese Navy had nothing available with which to counter the coming US invasions of both New Georgia and Bougainville Islands and made no attempt to do so.
Even after her earlier modifications USS Robin still had problems operating the large Avenger torpedo bombers from her decks, so Admiral Ramsey decided to transfer and swap them for a roughly equal number of Saratoga's Wildcat fighter planes to better take advantage of the strengths of both carriers and allow the Robin to take over much of the combat air patrol flights. This turned out to be a win-win situation for both carriers as Robin was better equipped to handle and service fighter planes rather than the much larger Avenger torpedo bombers. During the amphibious invasions of New Georgia and Bougainville the carriers flew over 600 air sorties in support of the troops ashore and the Allied ships offshore, setting the stage for victory on both islands. After operating with the US Navy throughout most of the spring and summer months, and upon the arrival of the new aircraft carrier USS Independence, the USS Robin reverted full time back to her ship's original christening name. HMS Victorious was detached and set sail for home on 31 July, leaving 11 Avengers behind as reserves for the Saratoga. Victorious later returned to the Pacific in 1945 along with the British Pacific Fleet and fought with distinction during the Okinawa campaign in the final days of the war.
As the old saying of "One good turn deserves another.", so too the British requested the temporary loan of a US aircraft carrier in 1944 to operate jointly with the Royal Navy's Far Eastern Fleet to re-establish their presence to the region. Given the USS Saratoga's earlier experience in operating along with the British, she was chosen for the job. Saratoga left the US fleet base at Majuro atoll on 4 March 1944 along with her escorting destroyers and arrived at Trincomalee, Ceylon on the last day of the month. The Allied strike force consisted of some 22 warships from the Royal Navy, Royal Australian Navy, Royal Netherlands Navy, Royal New Zealand Navy, United States Navy and the Free French Navy. For the next two weeks Saratoga conducted training and familiarization exercises along with the HMS Illustrious and her task force of four battleships and escorts. The Free French battleship Richelieu arrived on 12 April, giving the Allied task force a truly "international flavor" as they prepared for a major air attack on the city and port facilities of Sabang Sumatra as part of "Operation Cockpit." The raid was scheduled for 19 April. Over 80 Allied aircraft took part in the early morning surprise air attack that caught the Japanese planes on the ground, destroying or damaging over 30 aircraft. The city's oil storage tanks and port facilities were heavily damaged, with a freighter ship sunk and another damaged. Two Japanese destroyers and an escort ship were also left damaged and ablaze. Although 12 Allied planes were hit by anti aircraft fire, only one was lost. The Japanese later managed to put 3, twin engined "Betty" bombers into the air to attack the Allied task force, but the carrier's combat air patrol quickly shot down all three of them. The patrolling British submarine HMS Tactician later reported that "large fires in the dockyard continued to burn some 12 hours after the Allied fleet had left the area." Task Force Commander Admiral Somerville later said of the surprise attack that the Japanese "had been caught with their kimonos up." The overall damage and destruction of the oil processing facilities and shipping there successfully contributed to the cessation of the Japanese offensives in the Arakan region of the China Burma India Theatre of operations. On 17 May, the Allied task force executed "Operation Transom." They attacked Soerabaja Java and bombed both the port and oil facilities there in conjunction with the efforts of seven B-24 heavy bombers operating out of Western Australia. British Admiral Somerville later wrote of the event, calling it “...a profitable and very happy association of the American Task Group 58.5 with the Eastern Fleet." The following day, the Saratoga was detached from British service. As she passed down the columns of the Eastern Fleet, the Allied ships rendered honors to and wildly cheered each other before returning to the US for a major refit and repair yard visit.
The foundations laid by these twin highly successful Allied co operative efforts paved the way to even more future efforts that saw the commitment of hundreds of British and Commonwealth fleet units to the far Pacific during the closing months of the war. British aircraft carriers were on station along with their American counterparts at both Iwo Jima and Okinawa, carrying out air strikes on Japanese airfields, ships and shore installations, while taking much of the same severe damage from Japanese kamikaze suicide planes as the US Navy. British battleships operated alongside their American cousins during the final battleship bombardments of the Japanese home islands. It is safe to say that all of this successful and happy co operation started with the temporary loan of one British aircraft carrier to the US Navy, the USS Robin nee Victorious, the aircraft carrier that never existed.
War Gamer Magazine Written by John B. Dudek.
"Profanity is but a linguistic crutch for illiterate motherbleepers"