Part 38 – Other Views
While the participants in the Convoy action had a fair idea what was going on there were others who were attempting to follow the action from a distance, relying on the information that came in over the radio.
Headquarters, Royal Indian Navy
Sir Herbert Fitzherbert was on the telephone to the Viceroy.
“No your Excellency nothing further yet. We know that an air strike was going in on the cruiser, and that the reinforcements should be joining up with the convoy soon, but we haven’t had any firm news since they signalled they were engaging the Japanese force … can they hold out? … Well sir it depends. If those Japanese are destroyers with their full speed and armament then I’m afraid not. If however they’re converted destroyer hulls turned into escorts then the odds improve and the convoy may hold out until the reinforcements arrive … I’m sorry your Excellency but without knowing more about the situation I simply couldn’t tell you. I understand your Excellency. I’ll call you the moment there’s news.”
Headquarters Eastern Fleet Coastal Forces
“No sir, 25th and 27th Flotillas report they’re closing at full speed, but nothing from Hero or Peel, just static.”
Commodore Armstrong nodded an acknowledgement, thinking through the implications. The lack of radio contact wasn’t a good sign, suggesting that the escort had been overwhelmed – oh there could be other explanations, radios knocked out by battle damage for instance, but realistically the most probable reason was the sinking of the escort and the destruction of the convoy.
Armstrong‘s mind started to work through the implications of that – how it could affect him. His recent interview with Somerville suggested that if worst did come to worst then the “Powers that Be” would require a sacrifice, and as a junior Flag Officer who hadn’t responded to Sir Alexander’s initial call for help then he was a potential candidate – especially if it turned out that Sir Alexander was being used to lure the cruiser out and they could somehow pin that on him.
“Have we had any further news from Commander Ballantray yet?”
USS Fogg, at sea
Both Fogg and Donnell were at General Quarters, their guns tracking incoming aircraft.
“Sir, they’re flashing today’s recognition signal.”
Lieutenant Commander Fredricks activated the public address system.
“All guns this is the Captain, approaching aircraft are friendly repeat approaching aircraft are friendly. Hold your fire repeat hold your fire.”
Putting the handset down he turned to a signaller and said.
“Check with Donnell that they saw that. Last thing we want is anyone shooting down a friendly.”
As the man hastened to comply Fredricks spoke to the Bridge at large.
“I don’t recognise the type, anyone recognise them?”
“I’ve been checking the recognition guide sir, those black ones look like Blenheims – light bombers. I can’t find anything that fits the other type. Big though aren’t they? Figure they’re some sort of bombers.”
“Must be going to support the convoy then.”
Tokyo, Navy Ministry
“Sir have you read Admiral Niimi’s latest signal? About the British operation and his appreciation of the situation?”
“Yes. I take it you have something to say about it?”
“Well sir not to disparage South West Resource Area’s staff but … well if the British are laying out a live bait squadron – which is most unlike them – and if they’re committing a cruiser squadron and backing it up with a major air operation then to me that indicates something more than a local operation. Army Intelligence have shared some of their radio intercepts and agents reports and the indications are that aircraft are coming in from all over India, and that their strategic bombers have suddenly shifted targets and are supporting this. It’s a major strategic realignment of their air power, that’s inconsistent with South West’s analysis.”
“I see. And your thoughts are?”
“There has to be a strategic purpose behind this, the sheer scale of forces involved means it’s not a local operation. If the British are trying to cleanse the area of our patrols then there has to be a reason. Maybe they’re planning something in the area and are clearing the way? We know they’ve been building up amphibious assault assets.”
“That is interesting. Write it up for me. If it hangs together we’ll send it as an appreciation to Combined Fleet HQ, 2nd Fleet and South West Resource Area.”
Operations Room, RAF Bentong
“Air Commodore is on the way again sir.”
“Thank you Timminds”
Wing Commander Grosman braced himself for another encounter with Air Commodore Temple. He could understand the man’s concerns, and to some extent he shared them. Unfortunately the Air Commodore didn’t seem to have grasped the fact that asking for an update every five to ten minutes didn’t actually speed up preparations. The door opened and the Air Commodore entered.
“Ah Grosman any news?”
“Harrows should be arriving soon, we’ll know more when we get their report. As for the strike against the cruiser we’re just waiting for a Beaufort squadron to refuel and then we’ll launch. Maybe fifteen minutes.”
“How big a strike are we sending?”
“Two Beaufort squadrons, one Blenheim squadron, a squadron of Australian Mosquitos and some Skuas – the squadrons are understrength, so about 40 odd strike aircraft, with all the Beaufighters we can muster as escort.”
“Good. Where did the Skuas come from? I didn’t know there were any in the area.”
“FAA based in the Andaman Islands sir. When the call went out to reinforce us CinC had a word with the Navy, and they sent them down. Arrived last night, hit an airfield for us this morning and were all set to hit it again this afternoon, only we managed to re task them in time.”
“FAA eh … Anti shipping strikes are their bread and butter, so much the better.
25th and 27th MTB Flotillas at sea
The air strike passed by the MTBs of 25th and 27th Flotillas. When the MTBs had recognised the aircraft as friendly they made radio contact – the Naval TBS was based on an airborne radio set and the two could talk to each other. The Navy and RAF had agreed on a common frequency for voice communications and the MTBs tuned their sets to that frequency while flashing a message by light to the aircraft indicating that they wanted to talk. The aircraft retuned their radios and the two forces exchanged messages before the aircraft – call sigh Firedrake – passed on and out of sight. Minutes later a single aircraft – one of the Blenheims - came back into view.
“Firedrake 6 calling MTB”
“Hello Firedrake 6, MTB answering.”
“Firedrake saw smoke on the horizon, sent me back to tell you. Firedrake recommends you alter course between five to ten degrees to port, should put you on a direct intercept.”
“Thank you Firedrake 6. Any other information?”
“Negative, I got sent back to tell you when we saw the smoke, we hadn’t gotten close enough to see what was happening. I’m heading back now to rejoin the rest of Firedrake.”
“Understood Firedrake 6. Good luck and good hunting.”
“Thanks, and the same to you too. Get there as soon as you can will you … there was an awful lot of smoke.”
Eastern Fleet Operations Room, Colombo
“Can you spare me a minute sir?”
“Yes Carstairs, what is it.”
“I’ve been thinking sir. About the Japanese response to Walthrop-Channing’s op, something odd about it.”
“The cruiser sir, the one that there’s been all the fuss about. It’s been identified as a Tone class and that’s what’s odd.”
“Well sir the Tone’s normally do the recce for the Japanese main battle fleet or the carriers, so why is one turning up off Singapore and available to pot Sir Alexander? By rights you wouldn’t expect to see it there, unless …”
“Well we’re expecting the Japanese to make some sort of move soon. What if she’s an advanced scout checking things out for the main force?”
“There have been no indications they’re going to mount an operation there, if anything the indications are that …”
“Yes sir I know, and that’s what’s worrying me. What if those indications are false trail, something to misdirect us until it’s too late? If they rammed the battle fleet up the Malacca Strait they could go through any local forces we could put against them like a hot knife through butter, scatter our convoys, those that they didn’t mop up, and their battle fleet could pummel our logistics hubs. Set our offensive back months. And if they caught us by surprise with the fleet still in Colombo or out covering the other threats they could be in and out before out fleet got there.”
“There’s a nasty thought. But what are the indications they’re thinking along those lines?”
“Nothing sir … except for the fact that the Tome is there, where she’s no business being unless she’s part of a bigger op. Also look at where we found her – off the beaten track – like she was trying to remain hidden. Only reason we even looked in the area was Walthrop-Channing’s op. If it hadn’t been for that we’d have had no idea she was there, and she’d probably have completed her scouting undetected.”
“So you think we may have uncovered the opening moves of their next operation? Get the test of the team together and we’ll look it over on the chart.”
While all this was going on another battle were taking place on the other side of the world. This battle would be fought with words and paper rather than bullets and shells. The opening moves of this particular battle had already taken place, although this wasn’t yet apparent to one of the participants who remained unaware of what was unfolding, although they were starting to realise that something was afoot.
7.30am (London Time), 2.30pm (Singapore time), London, Australia House
The man entering the room was the Head of Chancery, the senior civil servant from the Department of External Affairs in the High Commission and de facto No 2 to the High Commissioner, Mr Stanley Bruce.
“Well he’s off, and he’s not happy that we couldn’t brief him properly. Where the hell is that report?”
“It was sent sir, Cabinet Secretary sent it himself.”
“Oh really?” To his experienced ears that sounded unlikely, probably a mistake or an exaggeration. Not too surprising really, with the rapid expansion of the Department due to the war most of the experienced men had been promoted and sent elsewhere, with their places and the new ones created by the demands of war were largely filled by inexperienced juniors. “How do you know?”
“I telephoned earlier this morning, while you were briefing Mr Bruce over breakfast. Switchboard put me straight through to Sir Edward’s office and they put me through to him.”
“Straight through … to the Cabinet Secretary?”
“Yes. He seemed a decent old stick, not what I expected. Said he’d put the paper in the box for us personally and knew it’d been delivered.”
The Head of Chancery paused, then looked around the room at the – very young – faces following the conversation. None of them looked surprised, even Dalkeith, the one he knew to be Rupert Long’s man. Skilled in skulduggery no doubt, but unused to the ways of bureaucratic chicanery.
“All right everyone, stop a moment. Anyone see something wrong here?”
“Come on think about it … what’s wrong?”
More silence, an embarrassed one this time.
“Look Jenkins here phones up the Cabinet Office about breakfast time, and they put him straight through to the Cabinet Secretary – the man in charge of the whole British Civil Service during the biggest bloody war ever – without notice, at breakfast time, over a minor administrative matter. Does that sound right to you?”
He saw the light begin to dawn on their faces – they weren’t stupid after all, merely inexperienced.
“Right then Jenkins, you spoke to Sir Edward, what did he say – think carefully now – what exactly did he say?”
“Well … he knew straight away what I was after, Walthrop-Channing’s report, and he said that he’d personally put it in the box and he’d had confirmation that it had been received, and signed for.”
“The Cabinet Secretary tells people to send things out, he doesn’t bother to put things in boxes or ask to see the receipts – he doesn’t interest himself in that level of detail unless … unless …”
“Unless he has a particular reason … like making sure that we received the report, but that Mr Bruce didn’t get the chance to see it.”
“But we haven’t got it.”
“If Sir Edward says we received it you can bet we have, and from the sound of it he’s even got a bloody receipt! That means that report is somewhere in the building. Is anyone using the conference room?”
“Good. I want everything, and I mean everything, every scrap of paper that we’ve received from the British - no make that from anyone - in the past twenty four hours brought to the conference room now. I want to find out what they didn’t want us to see.”