This is the second part of a two part article covering the first and last actions of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm fighters during World War II. To read the part one covering the first air to air combat by a Fleet Air Arm fighter CLICK HERE
Supermarine Seafire III aboard HMS Indefatigable in 1945 carrying the roundel with bar markings of the British Pacific Fleet designed to distinguish them from Japanese markings.
August 15th 1945 and the deck of the British aircraft carrier HMS Indefatigable sailed through the waters to the east of Japan’s capital city, Tokyo. The deck was abuzz with activity just like any other day in the nearly six year old war as Fairey Fireflies and American built Grumman Avengers were being readied for an attack on Japanese targets around the Tokyo Bay area. Like his comrades Sub-Lieutenant Fred Hockley had no idea that they were passing through the final hours of the most destructive conflict in history.
Hailing from Cambridge, Hockley’s early life was every bit the story of middle class England. The son of a foreman with the water board and heavily involved in his local church the war in the Pacific against the Japanese was almost literally a world away from his home turf. A keen swimmer he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as the war broke out and worked towards his goal of becoming a naval fighter pilot.
Supermarine Seafire aboard HMS Indefatigable (armouredcarriers.com)
Hockley was now a section leader and was going to lead a flight of five aircraft whose job it would be to protect the larger Fireflies and Avengers from enemy fighters. His aircraft was the Supermarine Seafire III, the naval counterpart of the legendary Supermarine Spitfire fighter of Battle of Britain fame. Sitting in Indefatigable’s hangar with its wings folded up to make it easier to store inside the cramped confines of an aircraft carrier the Seafire looked nothing like its more glamorous land based forebear in this configuration. For the pilots of the RAF the Spitfire was often described as “love at first flight” but for the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm the Seafire’s reception was a little cooler.
At the outbreak of the war the Fleet Air Arm’s main fighter was the Fairey Fulmar supported by numbers of Blackburn Skua fighter-bombers and Blackburn Roc turret fighters. All three of these aircraft were large with at least two crew and were slower and less manoeuvrable than their land based counterparts as a result. What they were however was tough. They could slam down on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier as it surged its way through the choppy North Atlantic and probably do it a second time. And a third. And fourth. Pre-war thinking on naval air power within the Fleet Air Arm (which was still an RAF operation until 1939) saw naval fighters as a way protecting the fleet from long range maritime patrol aircraft and bombers with little or no fighter vs. fighter combat in mind – the Admiralty believed that land based fighters lacked the range to challenge them and no one else in Europe had carriers except for allied France. This quickly proved incorrect however and by the time the Royal Navy was heavily involved in the fighting in the Mediterranean it was obvious that the Fleet Air Arm needed modern single seat fighters to match the Germans and Italians.
The Seafire was a difficult aircraft to bring aboard a carrier (FleetAirArmArchive)
The Hawker Hurricane proved it had sea legs with its legendary robust design making it ideal for conversion to carrier operations but the Hurricane was also falling behind the competition. Therefore the Admiralty found itself looking at converting the Spitfire for naval use. Very quickly it was proven however that the Spitfire was hardly an ideal carrier aircraft. Its airframe was more fragile than a Hurricane or Fulmar and its narrow landing gear made bringing the aircraft back to the ship just as dangerous as fighting the enemy; it was like riding a unicycle compared to the wide landing gear arrangements of other naval fighters. The Fleet Air Arm demanded a whole host of changes to the naval Spitfire to make it suitable but there was no time. They were needed now and the first Seafires were simply Spitfire Vs with arrestor gear. Nevertheless in the air they did provide a more potent response to the Italians and the Germans and development continued.
By the time Fred Hockley climbed in to his Seafire III on August 15th 1945 the Seafire had certainly matured and was a tougher, faster and better armed beast more suited to carrier operations than the earlier variants although the main problem of the narrow undercarriage during landing remained a constant concern. In the Pacific against the Japanese the Seafire III, at that time the fastest Spitfire variant yet, had proven every bit the equal of the Japanese fighters such as the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero (an aircraft just as legendary as the Spitfire) especially in the hands of battle hardened British and Commonwealth pilots.
Hockley was confident as he took off with his section from No.894 NAS that day that they could match anything the Japanese threw against them and that in the end it would be down to individual skill that would be the deciding factor in any combat. His five Seafires were supported by another three Seafires from No.887 NAS and the fighters along with the attack force headed for Tokyo Bay and in to the heart of Japan’s defences. To the east, somewhat poetically it could be said, the rising sun climbed in to the sky behind the British pilots as if signalling to them that in just a few hours at noon the Japanese Empire would fall to history.
It’s difficult to imagine what Hockley and his men in the formation must have been thinking as they approached Tokyo. The Americans had promised the war would be over by now after they had unleashed the most destructive weapon in history on Japan, the atomic bomb, not once but twice. Still, to the average Tommy the war seemed like it was set to continue for at least another year. The Japanese were fanatics. They had proven that they would literally fight to the last in Burma, China and the island hopping campaign throughout the Pacific so surely they would be even more committed when the final assault on the Japanese home islands began. Every single mile would be paid for in blood by the allies.
These thoughts may have played on some but as the formation of British planes made their way to Tokyo Sub-Lt Fred Hockley had another problem to contend with; the radio in his Seafire had malfunctioned. Nevertheless he decided to press on with his men even if he had to rely on hand signals to his number 2, Victor Lowden, who could then relay the instructions via his working radio.
Mitsubish A6M5 (commons.wikimedia)
Ahead of the British planes at Atsurgi air base just outside Tokyo the men of the 302nd Kokutai, one of the few remaining elite units of the Imperial Japanese Navy, sat on alert with their Mitsubishi A6M5 Zero-sen fighters. With no real carrier force anymore the Imperial Japanese Navy pilots were now almost entirely land based save for a few floatplane units. Even in these dire times with their country having been savaged by allied air power these men still believed that victory was possible and that any allied invasion would be defeated by the sheer spirit and determination of the Japanese people to resist. To die for the Emperor and Japan was a glorious prospect. They couldn’t have known what had been happening in their country during the previous week since a US Boeing B-29 Superfortress named “Bockscar” had dropped a nuclear weapon on the city of Nagasaki, the second city to be ravished by such a weapon.
The Japanese leadership had been locked in intense debate over whether surrender was an option and if it was then in what form it would take. The thought of surrender disgusted many of the military leadership and the day before Hockley and his comrades took off from Indefatigable for that one last mission of the war an attempted coup by the Japanese Army was discovered and crushed. Of course the men of the 302nd Kokutai would never be told this for fear of encouraging further rebellion. For them the opportunity to fight for and if necessary die for the Emperor now presented itself as the alarm was raised. British planes were coming!
The Fairey Firefly was a development of the earlier Fulmar (maritimequest.com)
The attack force of Fireflies and Avengers Hockley was protecting had orders to attack an air base near Tokyo to soften up defences for follow on attacks. However as they approached Tokyo Bay the orders were changed as heavy cloud obscured the target and instead they were to attack their secondary target; a chemical weapons factory in Odaki Bay. On approach to the new target however the menacing shapes of the Japanese fighters appeared in the sky. The Fireflies and Avengers pressed on to their targets flying at 1000ft while the Seafires flying 3000ft above them broke formation and attacked. Despite being the section leader his lack of a working radio proved a severe hindrance and Hockley felt alone. As the British and Japanese fighters merged they became locked in the deadly art of air warfare.
Suddenly, Hockley’s plane sustained hits from an A6M5. Unable to call for help or organize a response he realized his situation was dire and that his aircraft was mortally wounded. He therefore pulled the canopy of his Seafire back, undid his belt and bailed out near the village of Higashimura where a surprised air raid warden took the unfortunate Tommy prisoner.
In the skies above however the last dogfight of World War II was raging. Victor Lowden, Hockley’s number 2, was now in command of the Seafires and took the formation in to battle. The Seafires and the Zero-sen fighters twisted and turned firing only for the briefest of seconds at one another as the enemy aircraft appeared and then disappeared in their sights. The A6M5 Zero-sen was a manoeuvrable opponent but it lacked the armoured protection of most allied fighters. Lowden organized his men to support him and Sub-Lt W. J. Williams as they attacked the enemy formation by keeping the other Japanese fighters away from them. In this way Lowden quickly downed one Zero-sen and then another. Both he and Williams then shared in another kill while around five Japanese aircraft had sustained damage to the point where they had to retreat from battle.
Japanese Zero goes down in flames
The battle raged on in this fashion for several more minutes. Not to want to be outdone by their compatriots from No.894 NAS the three pilots of No.887 NAS led by Sub-Lt Gerry Murphy got stuck in to the enemy. With five Japanese planes already shot down (some sources claim it was six by this point) Murphy and his men attacked two A6M5 Zero-sens. The first was taken down and Murphy got locked in to a deadly turning battle with the remaining fighter. With g-forces pinning him to his seat he managed to bring the nose of his Seafire III ahead of the A6M5 and squeezed the trigger sending 20mm shells into the Japanese aircraft which quickly became uncontrollable and went plummeting to the ground.
He couldn’t have known it but Sub-Lt Murphy had just scored the very last air to air victory of World War II.
The Fireflies and Avengers made their attack on the chemical weapons factory and the whole formation returned to the Indefatigable. The Japanese had lost eight aircraft while Hockley was the only British casualty. For the Supermarine Seafire and indeed the Fleet Air Arm as a whole things had come full circle. The Fleet Air Arm started the war underappreciated and underequipped having to struggle against better land opponents. Now at the very end of the war it had proven it was every bit as capable as any carrier or land based air force in the world.
Not long after the aircraft returned to the carrier the Japanese Emperor spoke to his people;
After pondering deeply the general trends of the world and the actual conditions obtaining in Our Empire today, We have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure.
We have ordered Our Government to communicate to the Governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that Our Empire accepts the provisions of their Joint Declaration.
To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations as well as the security and well-being of Our subjects is the solemn obligation which has been handed down by Our Imperial Ancestors and which lies close to Our heart.
Indeed, We declared war on America and Britain out of Our sincere desire to ensure Japan’s self-preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from Our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.
But now the war has lasted for nearly four years. Despite the best that has been done by everyone—the gallant fighting of the military and naval forces, the diligence and assiduity of Our servants of the State, and the devoted service of Our one hundred million people—the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.
Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.
Such being the case, how are We to save the millions of Our subjects, or to atone Ourselves before the hallowed spirits of Our Imperial Ancestors? This is the reason why We have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers….
The hardships and sufferings to which Our nation is to be subjected hereafter will be certainly great. We are keenly aware of the inmost feelings of all of you, Our subjects. However, it is according to the dictates of time and fate that We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable
Unfortunately this story has one final tragic twist. Sub-Lt Fred Hockley should have spent just a few hours as a prisoner of war before being told of the surrender order. However, having been turned over to a Colonel of the Imperial Japanese Army’s 426th Infantry Regiment Hockley found himself being marched in to the nearby woods later that night many hours after Hirohito’s speech. There out of the sight of prying eyes he was executed out of spite on the unauthorised orders of a Japanese Major. It was senseless waste of life but reflected the hatred the Japanese had for the people of the west particularly in the aftermath of the nuclear attacks (the fact he was British not American didn’t matter). Buried in a shallow grave, those responsible later feared what might happen if the body was discovered by the occupying allied armies and so they returned and in a final indignity Hockley’s body was exhumed and burned. Their efforts to hide their crime failed and two of the officers involved were hanged following their trial.
Sub-Lt Fred Hockley RNVR (Soham Grammarians)
Since 1995, the 50th anniversary of the battle over Tokyo Bay and the end of the war itself the Daily Telegraph newspaper has had a memorial for Hockley placed in its pages as one of the last to die in the fighting during the most destructive conflict in history – World War II.