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75th anniversary of the last RN ship lost in WW2

75th anniversary of the last RN ship lost in WW2
23 July 2020
Night falls rapidly off the Malay Peninsula.

The sun was already setting on the 4th and 7th Minesweeping Flotillas at the end of a third day of clearing the waters off the island of Phuket in Siam – today Thailand.

 

The four-day sweep – Operation Livery – was intended to pave the way for an invasion which never came; it was a feint to trick the Japanese.

 

Ruse de guerre or not, it was still a dangerous mission. Japan still possessed air power and, despite potent cover from the Fleet Air Arm – carrier-based aircraft flew nearly 160 sorties and knocked out at least 30 enemy aircraft on the ground – the kamikaze was a constant threat.

 

These suicidal pilots – brainchild of Vice Admiral Takijiro Ohnishi, who was convinced only by crashing his aircraft into enemy ships could the Allied onslaught be halted – had first appeared in the skies over the Philippines in October 1944.

The men, initially volunteers, were left in no doubt about the importance of their mission.

“Your mission involves certain death. Your bodies will be dead, but not your spirits. The death of just one of you will give birth to a million others.”

 

They wore distinctive uniforms – seven buttons adorned with three cherry blossom petals on the tunic and a naval anchor on the sleeve – and their families enjoyed preferential treatment as ‘very honourable’ members of Japanese society.

They wrought havoc among the naval forces mustered to deliver Japan the coup de grace – more than 30 ships sunk, in excess of 360 damaged, nearly 5,000 Allied sailors killed at a similar cost in lives to the kamikazes.

Success against the Royal Navy had largely evaded them; in early May the carriers British Pacific Fleet had become the focus of Japanese attention. Outstanding gunnery, fighter screens, armoured flight decks and superb damage control ensured even when hit, the ship was fit for operations again in minutes.

Another two months had passed and still no kamikaze had sunk a Royal Navy vessel.

Off Phuket, obsolete Mitsubishi Ki-51 bombers (known by the Allies as ‘Sonias’ and now the backbone of the kamikaze force) attacked the Royal Navy task group in the last light of day.

HMS Ameer brought one kamikaze down with her ack-ack – the bomber disintegrated in the sea just 500 yards from the escort carrier.

Three focused on veteran cruiser HMS Sussex only to be thwarted by concerted anti-aircraft fire; two plunged into the Andaman Sea, the third turned away… and spied HMS Vestal.

The Algerine-class minesweeper threw up a wall of fire and lead, but it was too late; the kamikaze struck the Vestal. The damage the 1,000-tonne vessel sustained was too much. The order was given to abandon ship. The crew transferred to HMS Plucky, leaving 20 fallen comrades behind.

Vestal remained afloat. Destroyer HMS Rotherham sent several torpedoes into the wreck to send her to the bottom which is where she remains today, sitting upright on the seabed.

HMS Vestal is the only British warship to be lost to a kamikaze. She was also the last Royal Navy warship lost in action in World War 2.

The toll of war with the Axis Powers was fearful: five battleships/battle-cruisers, eight carriers, 28 cruisers, 132 destroyers, 74 submarines, 40 minelayers/sweepers, 42 frigates/corvettes/sloops and well over 1,000 smaller vessels – all sunk.

The human cost was over 50,000 sailors and Royal Marines dead. And the bloodletting was not over yet.

There was no sign Japan was willing to surrender. The Allied powers were gearing up for a final onslaught against the home islands – Operation Downfall – earmarked for November 1945.

One million Britons were earmarked to take part in the invasion of Japan, alongside five million Americans; the scale of the operation dwarfed Normandy. The Japanese recognised they could hurl three million men at arms against them, plus a fanatical populace.

Planners reckoned the invaders could suffer as many as one million dead.

Thankfully, they would never have to make that sacrifice. Two atomic bombs would persuade Tokyo’s reluctant leaders to sue for peace.

But until they did, the Royal Navy would press home the fight – right to the moment of surrender.

 

This is the first of our commemorative articles on the end of the war with Japan to mark the 75th anniversary of VJ Day.

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