USS Robin, the carrier that never was

Britain’s helping hand in America’s time of need

Waves breaking over the hurricane bow of “USS Robin” (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Waves breaking over the hurricane bow of “USS Robin” (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Ghost ships, mysterious vessels that appear and disappear without rational explanation, are a staple of maritime lore, with the Flying Dutchman being the most famous example. This article, however, is about a very peculiar kind of “ghost ship”: one that was very much real and crewed by the living, yet didn’t exist on paper – or at least not in the way other vessels did. And, unlike the ghost ships whose tales are used to frighten the listener, this ship was a beacon of friendship between nations and alliance between brothers in arms. Read on for the story of the USS Robin, the U.S. carrier that never really existed.

TBF Avengers aboard the “USS Robin.” The brighter square painted on the deck was a ruse: Japanese pilots would mistake for an elevator and aim their bombs at it, while in fact it was the most heavily armored part of the deck. (Photo: armouredcarriers.com)
TBF Avengers aboard the “USS Robin.” The brighter square painted on the deck was a ruse: Japanese pilots would mistake for an elevator and aim their bombs at it, while in fact it was the most heavily armored part of the deck.
(Photo: armouredcarriers.com)

In the autumn of 1942, the U.S. Pacific Fleet found itself in a dire need of carriers. In May, USS Lexington was lost at the Battle of the Coral Sea. In June, USS Yorktown sunk at the Battle of Midway. USS Wasp was torpedoed in September. USS Hornet went under at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in November.
 
USS Enterprise was operational, but heavily damaged during several operations and badly needed a serious overhaul in a shipyard. USS Saratoga was undergoing repairs at Pearl Harbor. USS Ranger was in the Mediterranean, supporting the Allied landings in North Africa, but she was deemed unsuited for Pacific operations. And the first of the new Essex-class carriers were not expected to enter service before late 1943.

USS Enterprise at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands (Photo: U.S. Navy)
USS Enterprise at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands (Photo: U.S. Navy)

A mysterious carrier stepped up to the plate. She was called USS Robin. She sported the standard blue-grey paintjob of the U.S. Navy, and her planes bore the distinctive white stars. Her sailors were dressed in U.S. Navy clothes and her radio operators spoke with an American accent. There was, however, no paper trail of this ship ever having been commissioned. Had the Japanese the option to check U.S. records, they would have found that the USS Robin was a minesweeper recently converted into a tugboat. In fact, had the same Japanese the chance to fly close enough to this mysterious carrier, they would have been surprised to see the White Ensign of the Royal Navy flying on it proudly. USS Robin was a ruse, and her real name was HMS Victorious.

“USS Robin,” also known as HMS Victorious (Photo: armouredcarriers.com)
“USS Robin,” also known as HMS Victorious (Photo: armouredcarriers.com)

Finding itself without carrier in the Pacific and facing the possibility of the Japanese Imperial Navy capitalizing on this weakness, the U.S. asked Britain for any help they could provide. This was no small thing to ask, as British carriers themselves were spread thin across the globe, supporting Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa, escorting Lend Lease convoys, and seeing combat in the Indian Ocean.  Nevertheless, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill pledged to do what he could, and offered President Roosevelt to either lend one carrier, or two if the British could have USS Ranger in exchange for the duration. After some wrangling the agreement was reached to lend one carrier, HMS Victorious.

A Supermarine Seafire over the deck of “USS Robin” (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
A Supermarine Seafire over the deck of “USS Robin” (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

The Victorious was a new vessel, only launched in September 1939, two weeks after the war broke out, yet she was already a battle-hardened veteran. She participated in the hunt for the German battleship Bismarck. She escorted convoys carrying vital supplies to the beleaguered Mediterranean island of Malta, and other convoys braving Arctic waters to get Lend Lease supplied to the Soviet Union.
On December 20, 1942, Victorious sailed from Scotland and crossed the Atlantic to Bermuda under the command of Captain Lachlan Donald Mackintosh and amid such secrecy that even many of her own crewmembers had no idea of her mission or destination. There are conflicting reports of her short stop in Bermuda, with some claiming she was there for only eight hours, other claiming six days. What’s certain is that she was treated as a celebrity and a source of curiosity by American servicemen. Numerous planes made low passes over her to get a good look, and some flying boats even landed in her vicinity and taxied around her to get a 360-degree view.

Captain Mackintosh, commander of HMS Victorious during her stint with the U.S. Navy (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

After the stop in Bermuda, Victorious sailed to Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia, where the refit for her Pacific stint began. Beside U.S. radios and cyphers, a new radar system and numerous pieces of miscellaneous equipment and changes were added. She also took on a shipment of American tropical clothes, since the British sailors didn't have any on board, and a team of U.S. code specialists and signals officers. The vessel was also outfitted with 20 additional anti-aircraft (AA) guns to complement her original 56. The flight deck was extended to fit more planes on it, and to make landings easier for American pilots who had a different, more space-demanding final approach procedure. All these changes were carried out by enthusiastic U.S. crews who were grateful for the much-needed help in the Pacific.
 
The vessel’s plane complement was also changed. She was already carrying over 30 Martlets, the British designation for the American-built F4F Wildcat naval fighter. Her obsolete Albacore torpedo bombers were removed and replaced with new, American TBF Avengers.

A mixture of Avengers, British-specification Martlets and American Wildcats (originally from the Saratoga) aboard the Victorious (Photo: armouredcarriers.com)
A mixture of Avengers, British-specification Martlets and American Wildcats (originally from the Saratoga) aboard the Victorious (Photo: armouredcarriers.com)

Cross-training in deck operations and the flying of Avengers began immediately. Much had to be relearned, such as the batsman's signals to a landing plane, as British and American signals were often the direct opposite of each other. For example, in British practice, arms extended upward at a 45° angle signaled "Go higher" to a plane coming in to land. For U.S. crews, the same gesture meant "You are too high.”
 
The ship departed Norfolk in February 1943 and traversed the Panama Canal – with some difficulty, as the crew discovered on arrival that the ship was just a bit too wide to fit through the canal. Guns, cranes and antennae had to be removed for Victorious to fit through, and even then she lost a submarine observation turret when it hit a canal lock. During the transit, a U.S. Marine sent by the local authorities presented Captain Mackintosh with an invoice for the damage caused by the collision to the canal. Mackintosh signed the paper with the words “LEASE LEND,” and the matter was dropped.  

“USS Robin” entering a lock of the Panama Canal (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
“USS Robin” entering a lock of the Panama Canal (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

 It was around this time HMS Victorious she got the name "USS Robin" as a half-hearted attempt at deception, but it's not clear whether it referred to the songbird or the famous outlaw of English legend, Robin Hood. “Robin” was originally just the radio code for the ship, but radio operators spontaneously started referring to it as “USS Robin,” and the name stuck.
 
“Robin” reached Pearl Harbor on March 4. Exercises performed on the way, including an accident when an Avenger crew suffered fatal burn injuries in a crash landing, revealed that the arresting wires, designed for obsolete and much lighter aircraft, could not reliably stop the heavy Avengers safely. Once the ship reached Pearl Harbor, additional American wires were added, along with even more AA guns, following the American doctrine that there’s no such thing as too man anti-aircraft guns against the Japanese. The most popular additions, however, were three ice cream machines and a Coca-Cola dispenser. Additionally, the ship's disruption camouflage (irregular shapes painted on the hull to make its speed and heading harder to determine from a distance) was painted over with U.S. Navy blue-grey, and the roundels on her planes replaced by American white stars. This was not so much to mislead the Japanese, but to avoid friendly fire incidents by nervous American gunnery crews who might have mistaken the British Fleet Air Arm rondel for the Japanese “meatball.”

U.S. Navy sailors looking at the recently docked HMS Victorious on Ford Island, Pearl Harbor (Photo: armouredcarrriers.com)
U.S. Navy sailors looking at the recently docked HMS Victorious on Ford Island, Pearl Harbor (Photo: armouredcarrriers.com)

Sailing from Pearl Harbor, HMS Victorious served in Task Force 14 alongside USS Saratoga until the end of July. The ships didn't see much action, but Victorious had spent 28 continuous days in combat operations, setting a new British record. A sweep against Japanese ships came up empty. Later, the carriers supported the invasion of New Georgia, but again without any significant combat, as the Japanese failed to drive home their temporary carrier advantage in the critical time window. When it became evident that the Japanese weren't going to attack, Victorious returned home to Britain.

The Victorious and the Saratoga (Photo: armouredcarriers.com)

The time spent together, however, was well-spent. Cross-carrier landings operations and visits to the other ship by officers and crewmen of both vessels gave the two allied nations invaluable insight into each other’s methods, strengths and weaknesses. During this exchange, the two navies realized that Victorious wasn’t quite capable of servicing the heavy Avengers even with her new arresting cables. The problem was solved by moving all her torpedo bombers over to Saratoga, while a fighter squadron from the American ship went over to Victorious. The British airmen who were sent over loved the spaciousness of the American carrier, but felt very vulnerable due to what they considered a dangerous lack of armor. In contrast, the Americans didn't understand why the British wasted so much space that could have been used to hold more fighters on “unnecessary” armor. If you’re wondering, the reason was that naval combat in Europe usually happened over shorter ranges due to fewer open expanses of water, and thus direct attacks by the enemy were more likely.

U.S. Navy Wildcat pilots stationed aboard HMS Victory posing with the Royal Navy ensign (Photo: ww2db.com)
U.S. Navy Wildcat pilots stationed aboard HMS Victory posing with the Royal Navy ensign (Photo: ww2db.com)

Comparisons also revealed that the Saratoga was able to launch and receive a large number of planes much more rapidly, as British doctrine and training concentrated on smaller-scale pinpoint attacks with fewer aircraft. On the other hand, American officers were greatly impressed by the British Fighter Direction Office, which was used to coordinate fighter operations in the air and was more efficient than the U.S. equivalent. The Americans took notes and also received a book on the system, incorporating the lessons into their future ships.

The Fighter Direction Office of HMS Victorious (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
The Fighter Direction Office of HMS Victorious (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Captain Mackintosh had to admit that U.S. naval fighter pilots seemed to be better trained, but added that American torpedoes were inferior to British ones, whose designs were based on several years of combat experience. Another thing that impressed the British was the American effort to keep crew morale high with nightly film screenings onboard and mail delivered in a timely fashion. Conversely, American pilots enjoyed the fact that the Victory was a "wet ship" (i.e. had alcohol available).
Another American feature that impressed the British was the speed and efficiency of refueling operations, with U.S. oilers being able to simultaneously service four destroyers or two capital ships in half the time British oilers could fill up a single vessel.

HMS Victorious and a U.S. cruiser refueling from the same oiler (Photo: armouredcarriers.com)

One area where the British carrier had a clear advantage over her companion was speed. In U.S. doctrine, the carrier was at the center of the fleet, and if it changed heading, for example by turning into the wind to launch or receive planes, the entire fleet followed suit to keep the carrier in the middle. The Victorious, however, could perform the turn with just a few escort ships, then turn back and use her superior speed to catch up with the rest of the fleet, thus saving time and fuel. Speed was also advantageous when returning home from a patrol. U.S. fleets tended to break up a few miles out of harbor, with every vessel dashing for a chance to dock quickly. As the fastest capital ship present, Victory was always assured of a timely docking procedure.

“USS Robin” launching a Martlet. Several Avengers are visible in the rear deck park. (Photo: armouredcarriers.com)
“USS Robin” launching a Martlet. Several Avengers are visible in the rear deck park. (Photo: armouredcarriers.com)

The service of HMS Victorious with the U.S. Navy came to an end on July 31, 1943, when she left New Caledonia in the southwest Pacific to head home, making stops at Pearl Harbor and Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia. When she arrived to Pearl Harbor, she was greeted by the brand new backbone of the Pacific Fleet: three fast assault carriers, three light fleet carriers an two escort carriers were sitting in the harbor, the products of America’s industrial might, ready to seize the initiative in the Pacific and take the fight to the Japanese. USS Robin was no longer needed; she could go finally go home as HMS Victorious.

Sailors manning the deck of HMS Victorious as she departs from Noumea, New Caledonia for the last time, leaving behind USS Saratoga (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Sailors manning the deck of HMS Victorious as she departs from Noumea, New Caledonia for the last time, leaving behind USS Saratoga (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Book your 80th anniversary tour in time

Book your tour for 2023 or 2024 with only $490 registration fee and pay the tour price later, or save 10% early bird discount by paying in full for selected tours now. Please note that popular departure dates are filling up fast. In 2024 we celebrate the 80th anniversary of D-Day and those tours which include the commemorations will be sold out about a year before the tour, and alternative accommodations will not be available in Normandy either.

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