Jan 4th 1942
Dawn finds the ten biplanes on Hermes’ deck ready and armed. Shiny, deadly torpedoes hang from the fuselage. The pilots, briefed, chain smoke cigarettes in the ready room. Just before daybreak, all of Darwin’s Hudson patrol airplanes took off seeking the enemy task force. Palliser’s ships continue on course, closing in on the enemy ships.
But they are not to be found.
The two enemy task forces vanished into thin air or, into the salty ocean.
The pilots, young and inexperienced, feel the strain. Hours pass by and still they do not receive the order to take off and seek the enemy. Lunch is served, but no one eats. Coffee and tobacco is all they want, that is all they can stomach.
The sun runs west and, in the tropical evening, plummets towards the horizon. It is too late now; the order comes to stand down. Palliser orders the task force to turn about. They slow down to a more reasonable, economic speed and head east, toward the coral reef clogged Torres straits.
Jan 5th 1942
The concept of a raiding task force, as thought of by the British, is tossed about. The raiding force created at Darwin had to flee before the superior Japanese forces and it is now half way to Port Moresby. The idea however might have merit.
Heavy cruisers, fast and powerful, may savage smaller enemy forces, those escorted by light cruisers and destroyers, if deployed to places unexpected. They may hit and run, punch and duck.
Necessity is the mother of invention and, at Pearl Harbor, RAdm Chas McAdams takes command of Raider force 1. CA Louisville, San Francisco, light cruiser Raleigh & Detroit, and the destroyers Hurly, Reid, Tucker, Selfridge. That is all that can be spared. The ships, at anchor, armed and fueled, wait at Pearl Harbor.
There is, of course one big problem. From Pearl, they cannot strike, fast and undetected, anywhere. They could do it from the south, Suva, or better yet, Noumea and Luganville. And here is the problem.
There is no fuel, down south.
Palliser, on Repulse, is now east of the tip of Australia. In waters under the command of the US Navy. But the US Navy gives him no orders, except to acknowledge his presence and say simply “Carry On.” In fact, the radio message tells him that there is a light cruiser force at Port Moresby, the Dutch cruisers with a couple of US light cruisers that he may use if needed.
What there isn’t, not at Port Moresby, or at Cooktown, nor anywhere north of Sidney is a drop of fuel to move those ships. Only what they have in their tanks. That is all.
And now, the Japanese task force makes an appearance. At Darwin. The battleships bombard the empty harbor, unhindered.
Dans çe pays, il est bon de tuer an admiral, de temps en temps, pour encourager les autres. "In this country, it is good to shoot an admiral, from time to time, to encourage the others." Voltaire.
Traditions die hard in the Royal Navy. It is true that they haven’t shot an admiral for a long time, but memories are long and Palliser carries, within, all the institutional memory and tradition of the Royal Navy. A navy that once shot an admiral who, provided with an inadequate force, on leaking ships, was shot for not doing “his utmost” to defeat the enemy.
Maybe Admiral Byng's fate is in his memory when he calls the captains of his fleet aboard the flagship.
“Respectfully sir,” Capt A. Newman, CL Boise, objects, “I must object. We cannot reach the enemy task force, and if we do, we shall be outgunned. Two battleships, heavy cruisers and destroyers, not to mention the two escort carriers.”
The admiral sighs, “We are not going to reach the enemy captain. We shall just protect Hermes with our flak. We just need to get Hermes near enough for the Swordfish to attack. A single torpedo will sink one of those small carriers. Two or three will get us a battleship.”
“I must still object sir,” Newman insists.
“Put it in writing,” Palliser says curtly.
The fleet turns yet again and steams back across the Torres straits.
Appear at places to which he must hasten; move swiftly where he does not expect you.