In the middle of the Pacific Ocean on board HMS Indefatigable, a quiet 21-year-old from the Welsh Valleys called Denzil Booth was about to experience the most terrifying episode of his life.
It was Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, and while the war in Europe was entering its final chapter, conflict still raged 6,000 miles away as the Allies attempted to close in on Japanese forces determined to fight to the very last man.
At dawn, the United States launched a vast amphibious assault on the island of Okinawa, a Japanese stronghold from which they could launch the planned autumn invasion of the Japanese home islands, 400 miles to the north.
The Oscar-nominated film and television actress Carey Mulligan, knew nothing about it – until this gripping part of her own family history was revealed to her by Channel 4 series My Grandparents’ War
The Americans were supported by the British Pacific Fleet – the most powerful Royal Navy fleet of the Second World War – spearheaded by four aircraft carriers, bearing more than 250 aircraft and thousands of men.
By attacking Okinawa, however, the Allies had stirred up a hornets’ nest. Wave after wave of aircraft flown by fanatical Japanese pilots bore down on the British and American ships with one aim in mind – to use their planes as bombs and cause carnage. They were known as divine wind, or kamikaze.
And it was at about 7.30am that the Royal Navy suffered its first successful kamikaze assault of the war. Travelling at 350mph, a young Japanese suicide pilot evaded Indefatigable’s guns and slammed his plane into the carrier.
The explosion punched a hole in the steel deck and sent hot shards of metal through the air. Three officers and five ratings were killed instantly. Then the aviation fuel ignited and a huge blaze tore through the hangar below the punctured deck, maiming many more.
The actions of Carey’s grandfather may have helped save the ship from a much worse outcome, by training the guns on to the kamikaze to knock it off course
Standing less than 30ft from the impact, it was astonishing that Denzil escaped with hardly a scratch, but so horrific was this first taste of action that he barely spoke of it again.
Even his granddaughter, the Oscar-nominated film and television actress Carey Mulligan, knew nothing about it – until this gripping part of her own family history was revealed to her by Channel 4 series My Grandparents’ War.
As an author specialising in history, I helped piece together the details of this first kamikaze attack for the programme – which will be broadcast on Wednesday – and the details of Denzil Booth’s lucky escape.
‘It’s a lost chapter of my family’s history that I’ve always wanted to explore,’ Carey tells the show.
Sadly, she’d had little chance to talk to Denzil, her maternal grandfather, as he passed away when she was just five years old. All that remained from his time in the Navy was a collection of documents and photographs in a box.
But thanks to countless hours of research in the national archives and analysis of letters, personal diaries and Admiralty papers from the time, it has been possible to piece together the remarkable story of the Easter Day battle in the Pacific for the first time. Even today, the Royal Navy’s campaign in the Far East receives little attention and the British Pacific Fleet has been referred to as the ‘Forgotten Fleet’.
With her mother and brother watching behind the cameras, I showed Carey a giant plan of her grandfather’s ship and pointed out exactly where the kamikaze struck, ripping a massive hole in the room where Denzil had been working as a radar gunnery officer. In his position in the ‘island’, the narrow command tower on deck, he was as close as he could possibly be to the impact without being killed.
‘My heart’s been going a mile a minute ever since you started talking about this,’ Carey says on screen. ‘I knew that there had been some sort of incident but I don’t think I had any sense of the proximity. And it makes me think a lot about what he would have seen. It’s quite a lot to take in… it’s a miracle he survived, really.
Wave after wave of aircraft flown by fanatical Japanese pilots bore down on the British and American ships with one aim in mind – to use their planes as bombs and cause carnage. They were known as divine wind, or kamikaze
‘It must have just been overwhelming on a daily basis. Having learned of the pressure that he was under and the job he was doing and the stakes being so high, I can’t ever imagine being that brave – to operate under that stress and pressure.’
Today, 34-year-old Carey, star of The Great Gatsby and Far From The Madding Crowd, lives in the West Country with her musician husband Marcus Mumford and their children Wilfred and Evelyn Grace.
Her grandfather, the son of a coal miner, was brought up in a quiet mining village in rural Wales.
Denzil showed ability at maths and physics and, with the help of a grammar school education, became the first person in his family to go to university.
In his second year at Swansea, Denzil found himself studying advanced radio and elementary German and, by the time he was pulled out of his course in 1943, aged 19, Carey’s grandfather was armed with the skills needed for a war increasingly dominated by the new technology of the day.
As an author specialising in history, I helped piece together the details of this first kamikaze attack for the programme – which will be broadcast on Wednesday – and the details of Denzil Booth’s lucky escape
He trained as a radar gunnery officer before joining HMS Indefatigable in 1944, where he led a small team of ‘human computers’ responsible for calculating the exact position of incoming enemy aircraft via the radar screen.
They then gave the ship’s gun crews the co-ordinates that allowed them to target the enemy planes.
By the end of 1944, with Germany in retreat, the Royal Navy shifted its focus to the war against Japan and, by March 1945, the British Pacific Fleet was steaming 4,000 miles north from its base in Sydney to support the American invasion of Okinawa.
Until that point, no British ship had been hit by the kamikazes and it was the job of radar officers such as Denzil to keep it that way, helping bring down the suicide planes before they could reach their intended targets. But for all the new technology, the Japanese still had a 15 to 20 per cent chance of getting through.
At 6.50am on April 1, the British fleet picked up a formation of about 20 enemy aircraft flying at 8,000ft and closing fast at 210 knots.
Royal Navy fighter planes were ordered to intercept, while others took off from the aircraft carriers to strengthen the air defences. A kamikaze attack was imminent. Code Red.
Forty miles from the fleet, the incoming raid split in half, to make it harder to defend against. Some Japanese aircraft were shot down by the fighters but others got through and headed for the fleet.
At dawn, the United States launched a vast amphibious assault on the island of Okinawa, a Japanese stronghold from which they could launch the planned autumn invasion of the Japanese home islands, 400 miles to the north
Denzil, his team and the carrier’s guns were the last line of defence. Outside, as the guns opened up with a roar, the sky was filled with hundreds of puffs of black smoke from exploding shells, but one kamikaze got through the bursting flak, smashing into the deck and the room where Denzil was working.
It was bad, but could have been worse. The actions of Carey’s grandfather may have helped save the ship from a much worse outcome, by training the guns on to the kamikaze to knock it off course.
Onlookers reported that, in the final seconds before the kamikaze struck, the aircraft shuddered and bounced repeatedly, pummelled by the ship’s guns. And instead of destroying Indefatigable’s hull, it hit the deck.
Denzil later returned to Swansea University to train as a schoolteacher, married in 1950 and he and his wife spent the rest of their lives in Wales.
Carey could not hold back her tears when I introduced her to Harry Anderson, now 95, who was a young sailor on Denzil’s ship at the time and was on the flight deck just seconds after the attack.
Harry still has a razor-sharp memory of the attack. ‘The smell, it was atrocious,’ he recalls.
‘It’s the bodies which are burning and it’s a sweet, sugary smell. You know. It’s a smell that never leaves you. You always remember that. Even today, all these years later, I can still smell it.’
There was black humour amid the carnage. One diary entry from Indefatigable’s squadron recorded: ‘APR 1st ‘ALL FOOLS DAY’ and did we buy it! Early in the morning the Japs attacked with a suicide – their first reaction… Diving from 2,000ft, it hit the bottom of the island doing no mean rate of knots. SPLATTTTT—–!’
For the Japanese, the kamikazes were the death rattle of a crumbling empire.
Losing men and aircraft rapidly, they knew their air force was no match for those of the Allies and, in desperation they decided that attaching 500 lb bombs to fighter planes would achieve more damage than conventional attacks.
If enough American blood was shed, Japan’s leaders believed that US President Roosevelt, bowing to public pressure, would reject an all-out invasion of Japan, and they could negotiate for peace.
Onlookers reported that, in the final seconds before the kamikaze struck, the aircraft shuddered and bounced repeatedly, pummelled by the ship’s guns. And instead of destroying Indefatigable’s hull, it hit the deck. The ship is pictured above
Almost 4,000 kamikaze pilots – 90 per cent of whom were aged between 18 and 24, with the youngest just 17 – died in defence of their homeland, but their sacrifice was futile.
In August 1945, two atomic bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and on August 15 Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender.
For Carey, the revelations of her grandfather’s role in the war are particularly poignant as the story was close to being lost for ever.
As was the case with many military men who returned home to try to live normal lives, her grandfather was a ‘quiet hero’ who didn’t like to talk about his time in the Navy.
Meanwhile, whatever she did know, Denzil’s wife – Carey’s grandmother – had been unable to keep his memory alive.
‘Nans, who I was incredibly close to, had Alzheimer’s for the last 17 years of her life,’ explains Carey, ‘so I never got to ask either of them what happened. Had Den not died so young and had Nans not had that disease, we might have gotten these stories. So, to get to learn all of it on behalf of her and on behalf of my mum… it’s very special.
‘Like so many young men of his generation, Denzil’s life was transformed by the war in ways that he could never have imagined. It’s made me feel closer to him.’
Will Iredale is author of The Kamikaze Hunters, published by Macmillan. My Grandparents’ War is on Channel 4 at 9pm on Wednesday, December 18.