The photo above from the ACG archive was posted on Armchair General’s Facebook page recently. Viewers were asked if they could identify the ship. Joseph Tremain didn’t just identify it correctly, he wrote the following article for ACG about about the unusual story of the U.S. carrier that didn’t exist.
It is not unusual for a ship to disappear at sea in wartime—but for a ship as a large as an aircraft carrier to suddenly appear from nowhere is noteworthy to say the least. That is exactly what it must have looked like to Japanese naval intelligence officers listening to American transmissions in the Pacific in early 1943.
This story begins in late 1942 when the United States Navy found itself in a precarious situation in the war with the Japanese Empire. At the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, the aircraft carrier USS Hornet was sunk and the USS Enterprise was severely damaged, temporarily putting it out of action. That left the USN with only one fleet carrier to carry on the South Pacific campaign in the Solomons. But in May of 1943, during Operation Cartwheel, which was intended to isolate and neutralize the Japanese base on Rabaul, a second fleet carrier suddenly appeared beside the only remaining operational US carrier, the USS Saratoga, which operated out of Noumea, New Caledonia. This new fleet carrier was being called the USS Robin, but it was not listed in the USN inventory, and it couldn’t be The USS Essex, which was nowhere near completion. Yet there she was—a full-sized fleet carrier complete with American Avengers and Wildcats on her deck. This mystery carrier, the USS Robin, might have become famous if it had taken part in any major fleet battle, but instead it has faded from all but the more detailed history books.
The truth was that the "USS Robin" as she was being referred to by many sailors, was actually a British carrier—the HMS Victorious (R38). It was never even really titled or re-named "USS Robin;" rather, it was code-named "Robin" for communication purposes, an intentional reference to the famous—or infamous—English outlaw Robin Hood. But with the lack of American fleet carriers to protect against potential Japanese carrier aircraft in the Solomons and provide cover for operations against Munda and Bougainville, the "Robin" was a much-needed addition to the weakened carrier fleet.
The short, strange story of the Robin began in December of 1942. The United States Navy found itself with only one fleet carrier operational and needed another large carrier to help assist in the theater until the first of the new Essex-class carriers became operationally available. The solution turned out to be simply making a request to the Royal Navy for a loan. The Royal Navy decided to loan the USN an Illustrious-class carrier, the HMS Victorious under the command of Captain L. D. MacIntosh, Royal Navy.
In January of 1943, the Victorious arrived at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Virginia, to begin modifications and upgrades necessary to handle the American aircraft and equipment. 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 Victorious temporarily 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.
The highlight of the Victorious’s very short career with the USN was her involvement in providing cover during the Munda landings on the island of New Georgia in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands. The Saratoga, with its larger complement of aircraft, supplied the strike force for the landing while the Victorious handled the air cover for the task group. Shortly after this, she supported the Bougainville invasion before leaving for home, and the name USS Robin was once again the sole province of its rightful owner, a long-time minesweeper recently converted to an ocean tug.
Although Victorious’s stint with the US Navy was not as illustrious as it could have been, that did not detract from her otherwise proud place in history. Before the USN loan, the Victorious was involved in the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck and, after returning to the Royal Navy, she took part in the sinking of Bismarck‘s sister ship, the Tirpitz. She would later return to the Pacific, once again working with the USN, and take part in the battle for Okinawa.