Military Wiki
Eastern Fleet (1941-44)
East Indies Fleet (1944-52)
Far East Fleet (1952-71)
HMS Renown in 1944 with other Eastern Fleet ships
Active 1941-1971
Country United Kingdom
Branch Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.png Royal Navy
Garrison/HQ Trincomalee, Ceylon
Engagements Loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse
Indian Ocean raid
Battle of Madagascar
Operation Dukedom
James Somerville
Bruce Fraser

The British Eastern Fleet (also known as the East Indies Fleet and the Far East Fleet) was a fleet of the Royal Navy which existed from 1941 to 1971. In 1904 the First Sea Lord, Sir John Fisher, ordered that in the event of war the three main commands in the Far East, the East Indies Squadron, the China Squadron and the Australian Squadron, should all come under one command called the Eastern Fleet based in Singapore. The Commander-in-Chief on the China Station would then take command. During World War I the squadrons retained its distinct commands and 'Eastern Fleet' was used only as a general term. The three squadron structure continued until World War II and the beginning of hostilities with the Empire of Japan, when the Eastern Fleet was formally constituted on 8 December 1941, amalgamating the East Indies Squadron and the China Squadron.[1] During the war, it included many ships and personnel from other navies, including from the The Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. With the creation of the British Pacific Fleet in 1944/1945, the Eastern Fleet became the East Indies Fleet until the end of the war, when it became the Far East Fleet and operated in all Far East areas, including parts of the Pacific Ocean.


Until World War II, the Indian Ocean had been a British "lake". It was ringed by significant British and Commonwealth possessions and much of the strategic supplies needed in peace and war had to pass across it: i.e. Persian oil, Malayan rubber, Indian tea, Australian and New Zealand foodstuffs. Britain also utilised Australian and New Zealand manpower; hence, safe passage for British cargo ships was critical.[2]

At the outbreak of World War II, the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) used auxiliary cruisers (converted merchant ships) and the "pocket battleship" Admiral Graf Spee to threaten the sea lanes and tie down the Royal Navy. In mid-1940, Italy declared war and their vessels based in Italian East Africa posed a threat to the supply routes through the Red Sea. Worse was to come when the Japanese declared war in December 1941 and, after Pearl Harbor, the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse, and the occupation of Malaya, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies, there was an aggressive threat from the east.[3]

This became reality when an overwhelming Japanese naval force operated in the eastern Indian Ocean, sinking an aircraft carrier, other warships and disrupting freight traffic along the Indian east coast. At this stage, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke wrote:[4]

We were hanging by our eyelids! Australia and India were threatened by the Japanese, we had temporarily lost control of the Indian Ocean, the Germans were threatening Iran and our oil, Auchinleck was in precarious straits in the desert, and the submarine sinkings were heavy.

Early war years

Until 1941, the main threat to British interests in the region was the presence of German commerce raiders (auxiliary cruisers) and submarines. The fleet had trade protection as its first priority and was required to escort convoys and eliminate the raiders. The Germans had converted merchant ships to act as commerce raiders and allocated supply ships to maintain them. The location and destruction of these German raiders consumed much British naval effort until the last raider - Michel - was sunk in October 1943.[5]

On 10 June 1940, the entry of Italy into the war introduced a new threat to the oil supply routes from the Persian Gulf, which passed through the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. The Italians controlled ports in Italian East Africa and Tiensin, China. The Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) presence in the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and the western Pacific Ocean consisted of destroyers, submarines, and a small number of armed merchantmen. The majority of these were based at Massawa in Eritrea as part of the Italian Red Sea Flotilla, primarily seven destroyers and eight submarines. Damage to British destroyers at this time included HMS Kimberley which was crippled by Italian shore batteries.[6]

The Italian naval forces in East Africa were caught in a vice. To put to sea invited heavy British reaction, while to stay in ports threatened by British and Commonwealth forces became impossible. In 1941, during the East African Campaign, these ports were captured by the British.[7]


Before the fall of Singapore, the Eastern Fleet's naval base at Singapore (HM Naval Base) was part of the British Far East Command. British defence planning in the area was based on two assumptions. The first was that the United States would remain as an effective ally in the western Pacific Ocean, with a fleet based at Singapore, and that the Philippines would be available as a forward base for British warships.[8] Secondly, the technical capabilities and aggression of the Imperial Japanese Navy were overestimated. In these circumstances, with the Japanese fleet engaged by the United States Navy (USN), the Admiralty sent four obsolescent Revenge-class battleships to Singapore to provide defensive firepower and a British presence. The British assumptions were destroyed on 7 December 1941: the impact of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor denied substantial USN support to the British defence of the "Malay barrier" and made impossible the relief of American garrisons in the Philippines. Furthermore, Japanese capabilities exceeded expectations.[9]

After the fall of France in June 1940, Japanese pressure on the Vichy authorities in French Indochina resulted in the granting of base and transit rights, albeit with significant restrictions. Despite this, in September 1940, the Japanese launched an invasion of that country.[10] The bases thus acquired in Indochina allowed extended Japanese air cover of the invasion forces bound for Malaya and for the Dutch East Indies. In these circumstances, the Prince of Wales and Repulse were vulnerable to concerted air attacks from the Japanese bases in Indochina and, without their own air cover, they were sunk in December 1941.[11]

After the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse, Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton assumed command of the Eastern Fleet. The fleet withdrew first to Java and, following the Fall of Singapore, to Trincomalee, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In March 1942, Admiral Sir James Somerville arrived in Ceylon and assumed command from Layton.[12]

Indian Ocean retreat

When Admiral Somerville inspected the base at Trincomalee, its deficiencies were clear to him. He found the port inadequate, vulnerable to a determined attack, and open to spying. An isolated island base with a safe, deep anchorage in a suitably strategic position was required. Addu Atoll, in the Indian Ocean, met the requirements and it was secretly developed as a fleet anchorage.[13]

The Eastern Fleet was divided into two: Force A and Force B. Force A consisted of the modernised battleship HMS Warspite and two available fleet aircraft carriers.[14] Force B was based on the slow Revenge-class battleships of the 3rd Battle Squadron, based at the fleet's new operational base at Kilindini near Mombasa in Kenya and relatively safe from the Japanese fleet. Neither individually nor together could the two Eastern Fleet forces challenge a determined Japanese naval assault.

Following the Japanese capture of the Andaman Islands, the main elements of the Fleet retreated to Addu Atoll in the Maldives. Following Chuichi Nagumo's Indian Ocean raid and on Ceylon in early 1942,[15] the Fleet moved its operational base to Kilindini near Mombasa in Kenya, as their more forward fleet anchorages could not be adequately protected from Japanese attack. The fleet in the Indian Ocean was then gradually reduced to little more than a convoy escort force as other commitments called for the more modern, powerful ships.

In May 1942, the Eastern Fleet supported the invasion of Madagascar, Operation Ironclad. It was aimed at thwarting any attempt by Japanese vessels to use naval bases on the Vichy French controlled territory. During the invasion, vessels of the Eastern Fleet were confronted by vessels of the French Navy and submarines of the Imperial Japanese Navy.[16]

Indian Ocean strikes

After the departure of the main battle forces during February 1942, the Indian Ocean was left with mostly escort carriers and older battleships as the core of its naval forces. Allied advances in the Mediterranean and northern Europe during 1943 and 1944, however, released naval resources. As a result, more British aircraft carriers entered the area; plus the battlecruiser HMS Renown, the battleships Howe, Queen Elizabeth, Valiant and supporting warships. Preparations were put in hand for a more aggressive stance in the Indian Ocean and for British naval participation in the Pacific theatre. Agreement had been reached, after objections from Admiral Ernest King USN, but new procedures would need to be learnt by naval crews and Fleet Air Arm (FAA) aircrew. To this end, Operation Diplomat, a training exercise, took place in late March, 1944. The objective was for the fleet to rendezvous with a group of tankers (escorted by HNLMS Tromp) and practice refuelling at sea procedures. The ships then rendezvoused with United States Navy Task Force 58.5, the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga and three destroyers.[17]

Admiral King requested that, during April, the Eastern Fleet should engage Japanese forces in their area and hold them there to reduce the opposition to an American seaborne assault on Hollandia (now Jayapura) and Aitape on the north coast of Netherlands New Guinea. An airborne attack by the Eastern Fleet (including Task Force 58.5) on Sabang, off Sumatra was executed (Operation Cockpit).[18] Surprise was achieved: military and oil installations were heavily damaged by the attacks, aggravating Japanese fuel shortages. The American involvement was extended to capitalise on the success with a second attack, this time on Surabaya, eastern Java, on 17 May (Operation Transom). The distances for this operation necessitated replenishment at sea. Again, the defenders were unprepared and significant damage was inflicted on the port and its military and oil infrastructures. Saratoga and her destroyers returned to the Pacific from 18 May after what Admiral Somerville called "a profitable and very happy association of Task Group 58.5 with the Eastern Fleet".[17]

At the end of August 1944, Admiral Somerville was relieved as Commander-in-Chief Eastern Fleet by Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, former Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet.[12] The Eastern Fleet was greatly augmented by units intended for the Pacific and on 4 January 1945, two British carriers (HMS Indomitable and Indefatigable), carried out an attack on oil refineries at Pangkalan Brandon in Sumatra (Operation Lentil). The final attacks were flown as Force 63 was en-route for Sydney, Australia to become the British Pacific Fleet. Operation Meridian One and Operation Meridian Two were air attacks upon the oil refineries at Pladjoe, north of Palembang, Java and at Soengei Gerong, Sumatra. Although successful, these were not as smooth as earlier attacks. A number of Fleet Air Arm pilots were captured by the Japanese during the Palembang raid. They were taken to Singapore where at least some of them were executed by the Japanese military authorities.[19]

On May 15–16, 1945, the British carriied out Operation Dukedom; the 26th Destroyer Flotilla (HMS Saumarez, Venus, Verulam, Vigilant and Virago) sank the Japanese heavy cruiser Haguro in the Malacca Straits using torpedos.[18]


After the war, the Fleet was once again based at the Naval Base at Singapore. It took part in the Malayan Emergency and the Confrontation with Indonesia in the 1960s. By 1964 the fleet on station included HMS Victorious, Centaur, Bulwark, Kent, Hampshire, seventeen destroyers and frigates, (some drawn from the Mediterranean), about ten minesweepers and five submarines.[20]

The Flag Officer Second-in-Command Far East Fleet, for most of the postwar period a Rear Admiral, was based afloat, and tasked with keeping the fleet 'up to the mark operationally,' while the fleet commander, a Vice Admiral, ran the fleet programme and major items of administration 'including all provision for docking and maintenance' from his base in Singapore.[21] The Fleet was disbanded in 1971, and on 31 October 1971, the last day of the validity of the Anglo-Malayan Defence Agreement, the last Commander, Far East Fleet, Rear Admiral Anthony Troup, hauled down his flag.[22]

List of ships

During World War II, the British Eastern Fleet included, from time to time, a number of warships from other Allied nations, such as Australia, France (Free French Navy), the Netherlands, India (Royal Indian Navy), New Zealand and the United States. Major ships attached to the Eastern Fleet, or where indicated, East Indies Fleet, included:


Commanders-in-Chief have included:[12]
Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Fleet

Commander-in-Chief, East Indies Fleet

Commander-in-Chief, Far East Fleet

Flag Officers Second-in-Command

Flag Officers Second-in-Command have included:[23]

See also


  1. Jackson, p. 289
  2. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Indian Ocean and the Maritime Balance of Power in Historical Perspective". Retrieved 2 September 2012. 
  3. "Pearl Harbor Attack". Retrieved 2 September 2012. 
  4. "Citizens of London by Lynne Olson". Retrieved 2 September 2012. 
  5. Muggenthaler, p. 282 - 287
  6. O'Hara, p.103
  7. Hammerton, John (editor) (25 April 1941). "South Africans Won the Race to Addis Ababa". London: William Berry. pp. 424. 
  8. Jackson, p.290
  9. "The Intelligence Failure At Pearl Harbor". Retrieved 2 September 2012. 
  10. "L'Indochine française pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale". Retrieved 2 September 2012. 
  11. Shores, et al., pp. 120–21
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Whitaker's Almanacks 1941 - 1971
  13. "Secret Port T on Addu atoll Maldives 1945". Maldives Culture. Retrieved 2 September 2012. 
  14. Royal Navy in Pacific and Indian Oceans area
  15. Klemen, L. "Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo". Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942. Retrieved 2 September 2012. 
  16. "Battle of Madagascar". Retrieved 2 September 2012. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 "Chapter 23 - The New Zealand Cruisers". Royal New Zealand Navy. Retrieved 2 September 2012. 
  18. 18.0 18.1 Jackson, p. 303
  19. "Appendix V — Execution By Japanese Of Fleet Air Arm Officers". Royal New Zealand Navy. Retrieved 2 September 2012. 
  20. Grove, p. 266
  21. Hill, p. 219
  22. Grove, p. 307
  23. "Senior Royal Navy appointments". Retrieved 2 September 2012. 


  • Grove, Eric (1987). Vanguard to Trident: British Naval Policy Since World War II. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-0870215520. 
  • Heathcote, Tony (2002). The British Admirals of the Fleet 1734 - 1995. Pen & Sword Ltd. ISBN 0-85052-835-6. 
  • Hill, Richard (2000). Lewin of Greenwich. Weidenfeld Military. ISBN 978-0-304-35329-3. 
  • Jackson, Ashley (2006). The British Empire and the Second World War. London: Hambledon Continuum. ISBN 1-85285-417-0. 
  • Muggenthaler, August Karl (1980). German Raiders of World War II. London Pan. ISBN 0-330-26204-1. 
  • O'Hara, Vincent (2009). Struggle for the Middle Sea: the great navies at war in the Mediterranean theater, 1940-1945. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1591146488. 
  • Shores, Christopher; Cull, Brian; Izawa, Yasuho (1992). Bloody Shambles: The Drift to War to the Fall of Singapore. I. London: Grub Street. ISBN 0-948817-50-X. 

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