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By Robert Beckhusen, War Is Boring
This story originally appeared on Sept. 22, 2015.
One of the strange little stories of World War II involves the aircraft carrier USS Robin, which didn’t really exist.
There was a carrier that sailors called the Robin. She and her sailors were underneath U.S. Navy command, took part in American battles and launched U.S. planes with American pilots. She certainly was a carrier, not to be confused with another USS Robin, a minesweeper.
But the carrier Robin, generally speaking, was an illusion.
So what was going on? Turns out, Robin was the product of the Navy’s desperation in the Pacific theater during the tumultuous months of late 1942 and early 1943. Robin was actually the codenamed HMS Victorious, a British Illustrious-class carrier leased to the United States.
At the time, America needed every carrier it could get.
“Aircraft carriers had arrived at the point of technological development that they gave … a range-extension option that was not available to a battleship fleet,” historian Francis Pike wrote in his recent and exhaustive book Hirohito’s War.
“With overwhelming superiority in terms of numbers of carriers, quality of aircraft and above all, superb fliers, brilliantly led and trained, Japan needed to bring the U.S. Pacific Navy to battle as soon as possible.”
December 1942 was one of America’s low points. It was a year after Pearl Harbor and the Japanese fleet had not yet been crushed. In the South Pacific, the Navy had one fully operational fleet carrier, USS Saratoga. Japanese aircraft and destroyers sent the carrier USS Hornet to the bottom in October. USS Enterprise was battered.
Army troops and Marines had just begun expelling the last of Japan’s troops from Guadalcanal — the beginning of an island hopping campaign that would eventually extend thousands of miles into the Western Pacific. A renewed Japanese carrier assault could reverse these early, meager gains.
That’s when HMS Victorious came to rescue the American fleet.
Joseph Tremain, in a fascinating article for Armchair General magazine, described the Victorious‘ handover from the United Kingdom to her transformation into Robin. The carrier first arrived for her refit at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in January 1943.
After the Norfolk refit, the Victorious transited the Panama Canal and arrived at Pearl Harbor in March 1943 to join the Saratoga Battle Group, Task Force 14. Between March and May, the Victorious underwent additional modifications at Pearl to specifically handle the American versions of the Grumman TBF Avenger (or British Avenger) and F4F Wildcat (British Martlet). To complete the makeover and new look, the Victorioustemporarily shed her typical British Atlantic “admiralty disruptive camouflage scheme” (irregular patterns of dark and light tones) for the American standard navy gray.
On May 17, 1943, the Victorious, now code-named “Robin,” along with USS Saratoga, arrived at the Solomon Islands as part of Task Force 36 commanded by Rear Admiral DeWitt Ramsey, USN. The Saratoga and Victorious would become the core of Task Group 36.3 under Rear Admiral F. P. Sherman along with the USS North Carolina (BB-55), USS Massachusetts (BB-59), USS Indiana (BB-58), USS San Diego (CL-53), USS San Juan(CL-54), HMAS Australia (D84, a heavy cruiser) and several escort vessels. Her ship’s crew was British, but her aircrew and aircraft were American. No one involved had any illusions that she wouldn’t be identified as the Victorious by enemy pilots, so she proudly flew her British Jack throughout her time with the Yanks, even when only the Yanks were flying on and off her flight deck.
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