Heaven High, Ocean Deep,  by Tim Hillier-Graves

Heaven High, Ocean Deep, by Tim Hillier-Graves

In 1944 the Fleet Aircraft Carrier HMS Indomitable was tasked to join the embryo British Pacific Fleet then assembling in Ceylon. Her fighter wing - 1839 and 1844 Naval Air Squadrons - was armed with American F6F Grumman Hellcats; the 1937 improvements in hangarage in 'Indom' and her sister HMS Indefatigable had resulted in a reduction in hangar deckhead height which precluded the embarkation of the more modern Chance Vought Corsair; Indom got the better bargain - 'Indefat' got the shorter endurance and more prang-prone Seafire.

This is Indom's and her fighters' story, presented using individual reminiscences by her aircrew carefully collected and collated by the author over many years, including some of their letters home written at the time, backed by his linking editorial that skilfully situates the individuals' experiences in a wider context. This is not just the pilots' story; it is also their memorial and has an immediacy, as one reads the steady litany of losses, that makes one realise what we owe to these very young men, so many of whom lost their lives, often as much to accident as to the Japanese. The loss rate overall was as heavy as that of their fathers' generation on the Somme.

Included are observations on 'twitch', and indeed a detailed focus on one particular case. It is clear that some of the lost pilots were flying long after their reactions and judgement were seriously impaired. As it is, the author has issues with Vian's willingness to incur losses via strikes at defended targets in Sumatra, by way of working up for the main war, although it is clear that huge issues of command and communication were exposed that needed fixing, not least the babel on the voice net. The stresses of battle never went away for some; one was still having nightmares in 1997.

The author devotes a chapter on how several aircrew from the last Palembang strike were taken PoW and starved and tortured before being murdered - some AFTER the Japanese surrender, as their vile Japanese captors tried to expunge the evidence of their atrocities.

It was late March 1945 before Indom took her place in the line as part of Task Force 57, interdicting the Shakashima Gunto airfields to support the battle for Okinawa - over 4,500 miles away from the main base in Sydney where she had first arrived in February. Eventually, after two tours of this, and shrugging off a Kamikaze attack, Indom and her aircrew were so shattered that she had to be withdrawn for refit in late June.

However for some the tour was not over, as the photo-reconnaissance and night fighter Hellcats were transferred to HMS Formidable where her submariner captain's hostility could hardly be described as leadership.

The technicalities are informed by the author's own RN service (although I was surprised by the odd terminological solecism). The author has rounded up an excellent set of illustrations including several in colour. This is a first-rate contribution to our naval history, focusing on a part of the greatest and most powerful Fleet we ever put to sea. But, as above, it is also a long-deserved memorial to some of the youngsters who helped make victory happen.

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