The Carrier War Leyte Gulf to The End. I

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Hyūga after her 1943 conversion to a battleship/aircraft carrier.

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USS Archerfish sinks Shinano.

In any other war the Japanese defeat at Leyte Gulf would have brought as speedy an end to hostilities as had the even more shattering defeat of the Russians at the hands of the Japanese at Tsushima in 1905. It is true that at Tsushima the Russian fleet had been annihilated, whereas after Leyte Gulf the Japanese still had a ‘fleet in being’ – but it was one that posed no threat to later American operations.

After the war, Vice Admiral Ozawa would state that Japan’s warships ‘became strictly auxiliary’. Those doughty warriors Hyuga and Ise, for example, were used to ferry loads of petrol from Singapore to Japan. Destroyers continued to land men and supplies at Ormoc Bay to aid their soldiers on Leyte, but American air supremacy made this a costly business. On 27 October, the airmen from Essex sank destroyers Fujinami and Shiranuhi and on 11 November, Third Fleet’s carriers sank destroyers Hamanami, Naganami, Shimakaze and Wakatsuki, not to mention a number of troop transports.

Most major Japanese surface warships remained uselessly in harbour, though this would not save them. While Seventh Fleet gave close support to the American forces on Leyte, Third Fleet concentrated on targets such as Manila, the main Japanese naval base in the Philippines. Aircraft from Lexington sank heavy cruiser Nachi in Manila Bay on 5 November. On the 13th, Third Fleet sank five more Japanese warships there: light cruiser Kiso and destroyers Akebono, Akishimo, Okinami and Hatsuharu. The harbour facilities at Manila were also damaged and large numbers of Japanese warplanes destroyed on nearby airfields. And on the 25th, heavy cruiser Kumano was sunk at Dasol Bay to the north of Manila by aircraft from US carrier Ticonderoga.

Japan’s own carriers also usually stayed in harbour. On the rare occasions when they ventured out, they did so singly and with baleful consequences. A particular thorn in their flesh was US submarine Redfish. On 9 December, she put two torpedoes into Junyo, damaging her so badly that she was out of action for the rest of the war. Not content with that, ten days later, Redfish attacked one of Japan’s latest carriers, Unryu. This time she scored only one hit aft, but it brought Unryu to a halt, on fire. Evading counter-attacks by escorting destroyers, Redfish attacked again and scored another hit. Unryu sank 20 minutes later.

At the time of Unryu’s loss, two sister-ships, Amagi and Katsuragi, were still afloat and three others, Aso, Ikoma and Kasagi, were under construction. By then, however, Japan’s industrial capacity was also starting to fail as the severance of her supply lines caused a lack of suitable materials. Early in 1945, work on all three uncompleted Unryu-class carriers ceased, as it did also on Ibuki, a proposed 12,500-ton carrier being converted from a cruiser, and on five smaller vessels being converted from tankers.

Only one of the carriers on which work was proceeding at the time of Leyte Gulf would ever be completed. This was Shinano, converted from the hull of a Yamato-class battleship. Of 68,000 tons displacement, almost 72,000 tons fully laden, she had a flight deck 840 feet long by some 130 feet wide, made of steel more than three inches thick. The armour of her hull and her hangar deck was eight inches thick, increasing to almost fourteen inches around her magazines. Yet when she left Tokyo Bay on her maiden voyage at 1800 on 28 November 1944, bound for Matsuyama near Hiroshima where she would complete her fitting-out, she had been made ready so hastily that her watertight compartments were not in fact watertight. Moreover, about 60 per cent of her crew had never previously served on a warship.

Late that evening, Shinano was sighted by US submarine Archerfish. This doggedly pursued her, aided by the fact that she was steering a zigzag course, until at 0317 on 29 November, a perfect firing position was reached and six torpedoes sped towards their target. At least four, possibly all of them, found their mark but Captain Toshio Abe, certain that Shinano was unsinkable, maintained course and speed while flooding continued unabated. At 1055, she rolled over and sank, taking Abe and some 500 of her crew with her. She was the shortest-lived capital ship ever to have gone to sea.

The decline of Japan’s industrial capacity, the poor workmanship on Shinano, the ability of US submarines to sink a major warship so close to the coast of Japan, the lack not only of experienced aircrew but of experienced seamen, all pointed to the helplessness of the Imperial Navy. Realization of this prompted Admiral Yonai and many of Japan’s leading naval commanders (but not Admiral Toyoda) to join their country’s civilian ministers and their Emperor’s advisers in urging that a continuation of the war was pointless and peace should be secured as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, President Roosevelt, with the concurrence of Churchill, had demanded the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the Axis powers. While some historians have argued that this had no adverse effects, few of those military leaders who had to deal with the consequences agree with them. Admiral Nimitz, for one, points out that it meant: ‘Terms would neither be offered nor considered. Not even Napoleon at the height of his conquests ever so completely closed the door to negotiation.’

Moreover the demand contradicted the claims of Britain and America that they had no quarrel with the people of the enemy countries, only their leaders. Chilling utterances of senior American officers that after the war the Japanese language would be spoken only in hell or that killing Japanese was no different from killing lice, seemed to indicate that if Japan surrendered unconditionally, no mercy would be shown. In apparent confirmation, on 24 November 1944, Superfortresses from Tinian in the Marianas began a series of attacks on Tokyo and other Japanese cities such as Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe. These culminated on the night of 9/10 March 1945 in a raid on the capital by over 300 bombers, openly acknowledged by the Americans as intended to destroy not just factories but large areas of the city and its inhabitants; it set more than 25,000 buildings ablaze, drove about a million homeless to seek shelter in the countryside and burned to death at least 83,000 civilians.

As a result, even the most moderate Japanese leaders dared not advise surrendering unconditionally and this immensely strengthened the position of the die-hards, of whom the chief was the War Minister, General Korichika Anami, whose desire was to raise a citizens’ army of men and women alike to confront any American invasion of Japan. As Nimitz rather cynically notes: ‘To adopt such an inflexible policy was bad enough; to announce it publicly was worse.’

So the war continued and since after Leyte Gulf warships were all but useless, the Imperial Navy’s best, almost its only effective weapon was its Kamikaze Corps. The suicide pilots’ principal targets would always be carriers and in consequence, from late 1944 onwards, the US ‘flat-tops’ as well as supporting and guarding landings, had to pay increasing attention to their own protection. As an illustration of this, in December 1944, Lexington and Ticonderoga, followed later by other fleet carriers, increased the number of their Hellcats by about twenty at the expense of a corresponding reduction in the strength of their strike aircraft.

That this attitude was both wise and necessary had already been demonstrated. On 28 October, an orthodox bombing raid on Third Fleet was broken up by the Combat Air Patrol and thirteen enemy aircraft destroyed for the loss of four Hellcats. Whereas on the 29th, carrier Intrepid was hit by a Kamikaze and slightly damaged, and on the 30th, Kamikazes hit Franklin and light carrier Belleau Wood, the former losing fifty-six men dead, fourteen injured and thirty-three aircraft destroyed; the latter ninety-two dead, fifty-four injured and twelve aircraft destroyed; and both being put out of action. And on 5 November, a Zero rammed Lexington; she remained fit for combat but another fifty dead and 132 wounded were added to Third Fleet’s casualty list.

A culmination to these assaults came with a whole series of suicide attacks on 25 November. Of the six Zeros that made for carrier Hancock, the Combat Air Patrol shot down all but one and this was blown up just in time by AA fire, only a blazing wing falling on the flight deck. Another Kamikaze, however, did hit and slightly injure Essex, and a second hit and a third near missed light carrier Cabot, the former damaging her flight deck, the latter tearing a six-foot hole in her hull. Two more crashed into the flight deck of the unlucky Intrepid, causing so much damage that she could no longer operate her aircraft. The Fast Carrier Force was temporarily withdrawn from Philippine waters.

Fortunately by this time the Americans were slowly but surely gaining the upper hand on Leyte Island. The decisive blow was struck on 7 December when Seventh Fleet landed in Ormoc Bay, taking the Japanese forces in the rear and preventing any more reinforcements from reaching them. By Christmas Day, MacArthur could declare that organized resistance had ended. Professor Morison wryly points out that ‘Japanese unorganized resistance can be very tough’ and mopping-up operations would continue until May 1945, but MacArthur was correct in believing that the Japanese now had no chance of recovering Leyte. The larger but strategically less important island of Samar had already been secured on 19 December.

In the Ormoc Bay Landings, aerial support had been provided by Army and Marine aircraft from Tacloban aerodrome on Leyte but American carriers were again present at the next step forward – to Mindoro on 15 December. The invasion was uneventful as there was only a sparse garrison on the island but there were plenty of Japanese airfields in the vicinity from which the landing force could be engaged. It was therefore covered by six of Seventh Fleet’s escort carriers, while Third Fleet’s fast carriers made preliminary strikes on enemy bases both in daylight and during the hours of darkness. For the loss of twenty-seven aircraft, mainly to AA fire, these destroyed some 170 enemy machines on the ground or in the air. The escort carriers’ pilots shot down twenty more.

Mindoro was followed by major landings at Lingayan Gulf on the north-west coast of Luzon, planned for 9 January 1945. General MacArthur was again in command and under him was Lieutenant General Krueger’s Sixth Army, carried by Vice Admiral Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet, with five escort carriers among the covering warships. Twelve other escort carriers supported the six battleships of Vice Admiral Oldendorf that were sent ahead to bombard shore positions. Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet provided distant cover.

On 3 January 1945, Third Fleet began preparatory assaults on airfields in Luzon, Formosa and Okinawa. In addition to seven large and five light carriers for daylight work, Halsey had a special Task Group built around carrier Enterprise and light carrier Independence for night operations. Carrier Essex had thirty-seven Corsairs on board as well as fifty-four Hellcats. This was the first time that Corsairs would see combat from an American carrier, though for almost a year they had served with British ‘flat-tops’. Sadly, their poor deck landing qualities persisted and during the next month, Essex would lose thirteen of them in accidents.

In all during these preliminary raids, Third Fleet lost forty-six aircraft in action, again chiefly from AA fire, and another forty operationally. Its airmen shot down only twenty-two enemy machines in combat but they also accounted for almost 200 on their own airfields. They did not, however, succeed in removing the greatest threat to Seventh Fleet: the Kamikazes.

Chief targets for these were the vessels of Oldendorf’s Bombardment Force. On the afternoon of 4 January, one crashed into the flight deck of escort carrier Ommaney Bay, starting a huge fire that reached her magazines. As explosions shook her, flames spread throughout her length and enormous clouds of smoke rose high into the air there was no alternative but to order ‘Abandon Ship’. She was finished off by an American destroyer.

On the 5th, a formation of fifteen bomb-carrying Zeros, with two more acting as escorts, delivered another suicide attack. It was led by Lieutenant Shinichi Kanaya who had repeatedly volunteered for such a mission but had hitherto been refused because of his value as a tireless trainer of Kamikaze units. Having had his wish granted at last, he directed a very efficient assault that damaged seven US vessels including escort carriers Manila Bay and Savo Island.

Next day, Oldendorf’s command reached Lingayan Gulf and thereby prompted a continuous series of suicide raids.1 Ten vessels including two battleships were damaged. One minesweeper was sunk, as were two more minesweepers on the 7th. On the 8th, Kinkaid’s main strength approached the Gulf and also came under attack, escort carriers Kadashan Bay and Kitkun Bay being rammed and so damaged that they had to withdraw from the combat-zone. Despite further attacks, however, the landings proceeded as planned next day. MacArthur, Krueger and their staffs went ashore on the 13th – on which date, Seventh Fleet had its last Kamikaze casualty: escort carrier Salamaua severely damaged.

While Seventh Fleet supported Sixth Army ashore and guarded its supply lines; Third Fleet, on 10 January, moved into the South China Sea, west of the Philippines. Here its aircraft continued to whittle down Japan’s surface warships. They had already sunk destroyer Momi near Manila on the 5th, and they now added light cruiser Kashii on the 12th, and destroyers Hatakaze and Tsuga on the 15th. They also sank a dozen tankers and over thirty other merchantmen. Third Fleet escaped any retaliation until it delivered a strike on Formosa on 21 January. This brought out the Kamikazes. First a Zero, then a Judy bomber crashed into carrier Ticonderoga, starting widespread fires and causing so much damage that she had to withdraw from the combat-zone. Other Judys rammed and damaged light carrier Langley and destroyer Maddox.

Soon afterwards, the whole of Third Fleet followed Ticonderoga out of the battle area and on 27 January, Admiral Spruance assumed command. Fifth Fleet as it therefore again became known, was somewhat different from Third Fleet because damaged ships had withdrawn, while new or repaired ones had replaced them; Corsairs had joined the Hellcats on Wasp, Bunker Hill and Bennington as well as on Essex; and Saratoga, like Enterprise, had become a night-action specialist. In all, Spruance commanded eleven fleet carriers and five light carriers; moreover Seventh Fleet, which remained in the Philippines to carry out a series of subsidiary landings, transferred its escort carriers, to become Fifth Fleet’s Support Force.

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The Carrier War Leyte Gulf to The End. II

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Aircraft carrier “Franklin” after Kamikaze attack. Battle of Okinawa.

Fifth Fleet also controlled two Amphibious Forces that were under orders to secure island bases for a final assault on Japan. Their first objective was Iwo Jima in the Volcano Group. Mention has already been made of the Superfortress raids on Japan. Their long journey to and from Tinian compelled them to reduce their bomb load to less than a third of its maximum weight; in addition, they could not be given a fighter escort and any damaged aircraft would probably run out of fuel before they could reach safety. But the capture of Iwo Jima, midway between the Marianas and Tokyo, would solve all these problems as well as depriving the Japanese of a base from which warning of the approach of the Superfortresses could be given and fighters sent up to attack them as they passed overhead.

Iwo Jima was known to be held by a strong garrison, headed by Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. An officer whose professional ability was rightly admired even by his enemies, he had designed an impressive system of interlocking fortifications, connected by tunnels and with the surface positions splendidly camouflaged. A few basic facts will show how grim a proposition was ‘Bloody Iwo’. Though the island is only 4½ miles long by 2½ miles wide, the United States Marines took over a month to capture it. They lost 6,000 dead, 17,000 wounded and over 1,600 ‘combat fatigue casualties’ – and they earned twenty-four Congressional Medals of Honour.

Fifth Fleet did all it could to assist them both prior to and during the fighting on the island. On 16 February, Vice Admiral Mitscher’s fast carriers became the first ones to strike at Tokyo since the Doolittle raid in April 1942. Their targets on this and the following day were airfields and aircraft plants; their aim was to distract Japanese attention from and prevent Japanese reinforcements to Iwo Jima. Bad weather and large numbers of enemy fighters handicapped their efforts and although the Hellcats proved their worth as usual, the Corsairs, admittedly flown by less experienced pilots, were again disappointing, claiming eleven ‘kills’ but losing ten of their own number in action or operationally.

Also on 16 February, the eight battleships and five heavy cruisers of Fifth Fleet’s Support Force began a preliminary bombardment of Iwo Jima that lasted for three days but achieved minimal results against Kuribayashi’s underground defences. The aircraft of Fifth Fleet’s escort carriers were more successful, dropping incendiary bombs that burned away vegetation and camouflage to reveal many hidden positions and then making precision strikes on them with rockets. The little carriers also conducted anti-submarine patrols and two of them, Anzio and Tulagi, formed the centres of Hunter-Killer groups similar to those that did such good work in the Atlantic.

Finally on 19 February, a tremendous barrage from the heavy gunnery units and constant attacks from all Fifth Fleet’s aircraft, including those from Mitscher’s carriers, heralded the landings and the start of the Marines’ ordeals. Mitscher then moved away to provide distant cover by attacking enemy bases from which help might come. The escort carriers remained to provide close support and fighter protection, and since it was not until March that aircrews experienced in night operations were received by them, specifically by Sangamon, Mitscher sent Saratoga to join them and attend to any requirements after dark.

Saratoga’s service was to be brief. Because of the distance from enemy air bases, there was never the same scale of attacks as at Leyte Gulf or Lingayan Gulf; but on 21 February, a series of raids took place with Saratoga inevitably as the prime target. The first, by Zero fighter-bombers in the late afternoon, hit her with three bombs, while one Kamikaze struck her on the flight deck and another on the waterline, opening a huge hole in her side. As the sky darkened, a mixed formation of Zeros and Bettys, led by Lieutenant Hiroshi Murakawa, chosen for his experience in more orthodox forms of attack, selected several targets. Another Kamikaze crashed into Saratoga’s flight deck, starting raging fires. These were eventually mastered but Saratoga was so damaged that she had to withdraw, ultimately to the United States, her place with the escort carriers being taken by Enterprise. Of her crew, 123 were killed and 192 wounded, forty-two of her aircraft were destroyed, and she took no further part in the war.2

Her accompanying escort carriers did not escape either. A Betty struck the flight deck of Lunga Point a glancing blow, skidded along it and plunged into the sea, causing only minor damage. Two others crashed into Bismarck Sea only a few seconds apart. Both exploded, causing fires that spread rapidly. A series of explosions followed as ammunition began to detonate. Finally the flames reached the after magazine that blew up, tearing off her stern. ‘Abandon Ship’ was ordered and two hours after the attack, she capsized and sank, taking some 350 men down with her.

Even before Iwo Jima was secured, preparations were being made to gain the Americans’ last objective prior to the invasion of the Japanese home islands. This was Okinawa, about 350 miles south-east of Japan that would provide a springboard for that final invasion and landing fields from which it could be supported. On the other hand, it was well within range of air bases in Japan, Formosa and neighbouring islands and it was guarded by 100,000 enemy soldiers, led by Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima.

The American carriers detailed to cover the Okinawa invasion, scheduled for 1 April, had come a long way from their original base at Pearl Harbour. Their base now was Ulithi Atoll in the northern Carolines that had been occupied without resistance on 23 September 1944. Even here they were not immune from attack and on the night of 11/12 March 1945, a dozen land-based long-range Yokosuka Frances bombers made a suicide raid on the anchorage, one of them striking the flight deck of fleet carrier Randolph, putting her out of action for a fortnight. On 27 March, the Americans secured an advance base by seizing the lightly held Kerama Islands, 15 miles west of southern Okinawa. Yet providing fuel, ammunition and spare parts for the carriers’ aircraft was still a colossal task that probably only the United States had the capacity to perform.

British carriers were operating even farther from home. The Indian Ocean was sufficiently distant but in October 1943, escort carrier Battler joined the British Eastern Fleet there to assist in operations against German and Japanese submarines. On 12 March 1944, her aircraft sighted the German tanker Brake refuelling a pair of U-boats and she was subsequently sunk by destroyer Roebuck, thus greatly hampering the enemy’s operations. Also in March 1944, escort carriers Shah and Begum arrived in the Indian Ocean, and gradually the submarine menace was mastered here as it had been in the Atlantic and the Arctic.

At the same time, the British were building up a force of fleet carriers. When Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, the officer who had commanded the forces that sank the Scharnhorst, took command of the Eastern Fleet on 22 August 1944, it already contained Illustrious, Indomitable and Victorious and in December, they were joined by Indefatigable. They could have presented a powerful threat to the Japanese position in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies but, understandably if probably mistakenly, Churchill was determined that the Royal Navy should fight alongside the US Navy in the final campaigns against the Japanese.

Accordingly in January 1945, the carriers of the British Pacific Fleet, as it had been renamed, prepared to leave the Indian Ocean. The work of the escort carriers in that ocean and particularly in the Bay of Bengal was far from over, however. Eventually built up to sixteen in number, they carried out anti-submarine patrols, photo-reconnaissance missions over Burma and Malaya, and searches for enemy warships. It was as the result of the sighting reports sent by Avengers from Emperor and Shah that a destroyer flotilla was able to intercept and sink the Japanese heavy cruiser Haguro in the early hours of 16 May.

As in the Mediterranean and the Pacific, escort carriers provided cover for amphibious landings. Ameer performed this duty at Akyab and Ramree Islands off the Burmese coast in January, and on 2 May, a landing at the mouth of the Rangoon River was protected by Emperor, Khedive, Hunter and Stalker, while Shah and Empress were included in a covering force that guarded against interference by Japanese surface warships. The Burmese capital was duly occupied next day, but it must be conceded that there was an element of farce in this operation since the Japanese had in fact abandoned Rangoon ten days earlier.

Much more successful were the final missions flown by the British fleet carriers before their departures from the Indian Ocean. These were strikes at Palembang in Sumatra, where the Japanese possessed the two largest oil refineries in South-East Asia, capable of supplying three-quarters of all their aviation fuel; they were attacked separately, one on 24 January, the other on the 29th.

For the first raid, it was intended to use forty-seven Avengers armed with bombs, sixteen Hellcats, thirty-two Corsairs and twelve Fireflies. The last-named were two-seater fighters designed as replacements for the Fulmars. They had a top speed of under 320 mph and a poor rate of climb but were surprisingly manoeuvrable and had a long range, making them very useful bomber-escorts. They also did well as night-fighters and on this and other occasions they carried eight rocket projectiles.

Despite problems that prevented two Avengers and a Firefly from taking off and caused five Avengers and one Corsair to return prematurely, and despite flak, fighters and – much to the annoyance of the airmen who had been assured there would be none such – barrage balloons, the attackers shot down eleven enemy aircraft, destroyed several more on their airfields and, best of all, hit the refinery so badly that its output was halved. The British lost two Avengers, one Hellcat and six Corsairs, with a further Corsair forced to ‘ditch’.

The second raid followed a course very similar to that of the first one. Forty-eight Avengers, sixteen Hellcats, thirty-six Corsairs and two Fireflies (for armed reconnaissance) took off. One Avenger had to ‘ditch’ almost immediately, three Avengers and four Corsairs turned back early; but again numerous enemy aircraft were destroyed on the ground or in combat and the second refinery was damaged so severely that it ceased production for two months. Four Avengers, two Corsairs and a Firefly were shot down; six damaged Avengers had to ‘ditch’.

After these undoubted if costly achievements, the British carriers proceeded to Australia. Here Admiral Fraser followed the example of Admiral Nimitz and remained in Sydney to co-ordinate all aspects of his Fleet’s administration, of which the most difficult was keeping it supplied with all its requirements by means of a Fleet Train, formed in great haste from the limited number of ships available, regardless of their suitability for the purpose. The Fleet at sea was entrusted to Vice Admiral Sir Bernard Rawlings, who took it first to the appropriately-named Admiralty Islands and then, on 19 March, to Ulithi.

By that time, the Americans had already made their preliminary moves. On 18 March, Vice Admiral Mitscher’s sixteen fast carriers attacked the Japanese islands, their warplanes being directed against airfields on which they inflicted considerable damage. The Japanese counter-attacked; Enterprise and Yorktown being struck by bombs, and Intrepid by a Kamikaze. In all cases the damage was slight and Mitscher’s men were back on the following day, this time concentrating mainly on the ports of Kure and Kobe, at both of which they wrecked dockyards and at the former of which they also damaged light carrier Ryuho.

Later raids had been planned but before any could be delivered, five Judys hurtled down on Wasp and Franklin. It has been said they were suicide attackers but it seems they were orthodox bombers, though their reckless courage made the mistake easily understandable. One bomb hit Wasp’s flight deck and though she was able to continue operations, she suffered 370 casualties, 101 of them fatal. Two bombs landed on Franklin’s flight deck just as she was launching her aircraft. Both burst through into the hangar where they set off raging fires and explosions that killed 724 of her crew and wounded 265 more. Yet so high was the standard of American damage control parties and so efficient was their latest fire-fighting equipment that Franklin, though listing badly, was able to withdraw – ultimately to the United States for repairs.

The remainder of the Fast Carrier Force retired with her, successfully repulsing other small raids as they did so. On the 21st, Hellcats from Hornet and light carrier Belleau Wood made a particularly important interception of eighteen Bettys. These were led by Lieutenant Commander Goro Nonaka, a veteran torpedo-bomber pilot, but his aircraft on this occasion were carrying not torpedoes but Okas.

An Oka – the word means ‘cherry blossom’, a symbol of purity in Japan – was in essence a manned flying bomb with 2,645lb of explosive in the nose, specifically designed for suicide attacks. It was a fraction under 20 feet long with a wingspan of almost 16½ feet. It could neither take off nor land on its own, so was carried under a modified Betty, with which the suicide pilot could communicate by means of a telephone circuit. The Betty would take it to within about 20 miles of its objective before releasing it, after which its pilot would glide towards his chosen target, increasing speed if required by using five rockets fitted in the tail section. These enabled the Oka to reach the then enormous speed of 650 mph and this, together with its lack of size, made it almost impossible to stop by AA fire.

Theoretically therefore, the Oka presented a terrible threat and if the Americans gave it the mocking name of ‘Baka bomb’ – ‘baka’ being Japanese for ‘mad’ – this was in part at least to disguise the apprehension it inspired. Yet in practice the Oka/Baka never fulfilled anything like its true potential, partly because it was extremely difficult to control after leaving its Betty, but mainly because American radar, fighters and interception techniques were now so good that the lumbering Betty rarely had a chance to launch it in the first place. This was demonstrated dramatically on 21 March 1945, when all the Bettys carrying Okas were shot down at a safe distance. Twenty of their thirty escorting Zeros were destroyed as well. In all during the course of the US carriers’ sortie into Japanese home waters, their flak or fighters downed 161 enemy warplanes and though they lost 116 of their own aircraft, they had ensured that it would be some time before their enemies could mount really sizeable raids against the forces closing in on Okinawa.

These included an impressive number of carriers. On 23 March, Mitscher’s remaining ‘flat-tops’ began preliminary strikes on Okinawa. Fifth Fleet’s eighteen escort carriers joined in next day, and two days after that, the four British carriers arrived. They and their supporting warships were placed under Spruance’s command, designated Task Force 57 and given the responsibility for neutralizing airfields in Formosa and the Sakishima Islands, between it and Okinawa, and for intercepting any aircraft attempting to intervene in the Okinawa fighting.

The Carrier War Leyte Gulf to The End. III

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British Pacific Fleet 1945 – HMS King George V.

To perform these important if unglamorous tasks, Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian, who controlled the carriers under the overall command of Vice Admiral Rawlings, had a total of sixty-five Avengers, twenty-nine Hellcats, seventy-three Corsairs, forty Seafires, nine Fireflies and two Walrus amphibians used for air-sea rescue duties. This was less than the strength of any American Task Group and the variety of aircraft types meant that a disproportionate number of spare parts, and indeed of spare aircraft was needed; these were supplied by escort carriers Striker and Slinger, for which escort carrier Speaker’s sixteen Hellcats provided fighter protection. It is rather humiliating to recall that when Vian’s four fleet carriers had to leave the combat zone for a period of about a fortnight to be refuelled and replenished, their duties were undertaken, perfectly capably, by four small American escort carriers.

Nonetheless, the British carriers did have one advantage that was particularly important in the Okinawa campaign. On 1 April, the invasion of the island began; but curiously enough, although this was assisted by American fleet carriers, light carriers and escort carriers, the only ‘flat-tops’ subjected to air attack were those of the Royal Navy. The Combat Air Patrol broke up several small raids, but at about 0720, three bomb-carrying Zeros were able to attack Indefatigable. One of her pilots, Sub-Lieutenant Richard Reynolds, shot down two of them and fatally damaged the third – an achievement that made him the war’s highest-scoring Seafire pilot – but the crippled aircraft was still able to dive on Indefatigable and struck her flight deck squarely at the base of the island structure.

If this had happened to an American carrier with a wooden deck, it could have caused serious damage; but though Indefatigable had eight men killed and twenty-two wounded, six of whom died later, her steel deck only received a three-inch deep dent, a small fire that had been started was quickly extinguished and she remained in formation. The Americans with their unpleasant experiences of Kamikaze attacks were duly impressed.

They were soon to have many more such experiences. By this date, the Japanese, in desperation, were compulsorily allocating whole units to make suicide attacks. Yet this, as Captain Roskill notes, ‘brought few signs of any decline in morale and most of the conscript crews seem to have set out with the same selfless dedication as the volunteers’. They made few attacks at first, though escort carrier Wake Island was damaged on 3 April, but on the 6th, mass Kamikaze assaults began. They were called ‘Kikusui’ or ‘floating chrysanthemum’, like the cherry blossom, a symbol of purity.

The first of these was also the biggest. No fewer than 355 Kamikazes took part, accompanied by almost the same number of orthodox attackers. Though ordered, as usual, to make carriers their prime objectives, they achieved only near misses that caused minor damage to light carriers San Jacinto and Cabot – but they had other successes. Two of them crashed into ammunition ships, both of which duly exploded, while their main victims were the ‘radar pickets’, small groups of destroyers posted all around Okinawa at distances of up to 100 miles to give warning of approaching enemy aircraft. They sank two of these destroyers, wrecked two more so completely they had to be scrapped and damaged eight others plus two destroyer-escorts.

That same evening, Yamato, escorted by light cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers, set out for Okinawa. The giant battleship had only enough fuel for a one-way journey, but Admiral Toyoda – a convinced supporter of General Anami’s determination to fight to the bitter end whatever happened – preferred that she should perish in action after inflicting the maximum damage on her enemies, rather than skulk uselessly in harbour and perhaps be tamely handed over to the victors if the very worst occurred.

In practice, Yamato and her accompanying warships would have no opportunity to harm more than the US carrier-aircraft that would attack them. American submarines reported them on the night of the 6th/7th, and Vice Admiral Mitscher was certain that they would be making for Okinawa. However, his responsibilities with regard to supporting the landings meant that he could not move too great a distance from the island. He therefore decided he would steam as far north as was possible while still being able to fulfill this commitment and strike at the Japanese warships from long range. At dawn on the 7th, his scouts took off to search for the enemy. Four luckless Corsairs ran out of fuel and had to ‘ditch’, one pilot being lost, but at 0822, a Hellcat from Essex flown by Lieutenant William Estes sent the sighting report that Mitscher was eagerly awaiting.

It shows clearly how futile was the Japanese sortie when it is noted that, although Enterprise, Randolph and light carrier Independence had retired to refuel; Task Force 58 still contained Bunker Hill (Mitscher’s flagship), Essex, Hancock, Hornet, Bennington, Intrepid and Yorktown, and light carriers Bataan, Cabot, San Jacinto, Belleau Wood and Langley, with a total of 986 aircraft on board. At 1000, 439 of these began to take off. On their way to the target, the group from Hancock, fifty-three strong, lost touch with the others in bad weather and returned to their carrier, a Corsair from Bunker Hill crashed into the sea for no apparent reason, killing the pilot, and an Avenger and a Hellcat from Bennington turned back with engine trouble. That still left 383 warplanes in the attacking formations and their striking power was particularly great on this occasion, because to back up the Helldiver bombers and the Avengers, some armed with bombs but most with torpedoes, a majority of the Hellcats and Corsairs were also carrying bombs.

Their attack began at about 1230, and was made in three waves. The officer responsible for co-ordinating the first one, Commander Edmond Konrad of Hornet, was determined not to concentrate on just one target as had the pilots who had attacked Kurita’s Central Force at Leyte Gulf, but to sink not only Yamato, but all her escorts as well. At the very start of the action, destroyer Asashimo was hit by two torpedos, blew up and went down in less than three minutes. Ten minutes later, destroyer Hamakaze, struck by several bombs and at least one torpedo, probably more, also exploded and sank. Light cruiser Yahagi, her engines wrecked by one torpedo and her propellers and rudders smashed by another, slowed to a halt.

Not that Commander Konrad neglected Yamato either. Helldivers achieved at least two bomb hits, one of them going through two decks before exploding, as well as several near misses. Avengers put two torpedoes into her port side. These and the damage done by the near misses caused flooding and a consequent list to port that had to be rectified by counter-flooding.

During these assaults, Konrad had remained in constant radio communication with Commander Harmon Utter of Essex who was to co-ordinate the second wave of attackers. It seemed clear that Yamato was by no means crippled yet, so Utter ensured that most of the heaviest strikes by his wave were made on the battleship. She was hit by four bombs that left smoke pouring from her, and though the number of torpedo hits was grossly exaggerated, it seems that at least seven found their mark. Water poured into the doomed giant and her speed steadily fell away.

While their torpedo-planes struck at Yamato, many of the American dive-bombers and fighter-bombers continued to assault the escort vessels. Three destroyers were badly damaged. Kasumi was left burning furiously and not fully under control. Isokaze was also set on fire and was shaken by explosions. Suzutsuki’s bow was shattered by bomb hits and apparently also by a stray torpedo. And a rain of bombs left light cruiser Yahagi with her superstructure in ruins, listing and blazing furiously. She was already slowly sinking when the third American wave arrived and again made her a target. It is believed that she took a total of twelve bomb hits and perhaps five torpedoes in this and the earlier attacks. At 1405, this tough little ship finally capsized and sank. As she disappeared, a last explosion lit up the sky with a huge ball of flame.

Meanwhile other American aircraft were seeking out Yamato. Two more bomb hits and numerous near misses increased her already serious list, and a torpedo-bomber scored a hit on her stern, jamming the rudder. As all power failed, her great gun turrets jammed as well. ‘Abandon Ship’ was ordered. A final strike by Avengers hit her twice more – but this was a waste of torpedoes. At 1423, Yamato turned over completely; then exploded. A tremendous cloud of smoke, thousands of feet high, visible over a hundred miles away, marked another triumph of naval air-power.

So ended the Battle of the East China Sea. It had cost the lives of the Japanese Fleet Commander, Vice Admiral Seiichi Ito, Yamato’s captain Rear Admiral Kosaku Ariga, and more than 4,200 officers and men, over 3,000 of them in Yamato. Destroyers Isokaze and Kasumi, too badly damaged to be saved, were finished off by Japanese torpedoes or gunfire. Suzutsuki, with 20 feet of her bow missing, crawled slowly back to port, stern-first. Two other destroyers had been damaged. The Americans lost fifteen aircraft shot down or forced to ‘ditch’, but only twelve airmen died. Lieutenant William Delaney, an Avenger pilot from Belleau Wood who had been forced to bale out and thereafter watch the action unfold while clinging to his life raft in the middle of the enemy fleet, was snatched to safety under the noses of the surviving Japanese destroyers by an American flying-boat.

Unfortunately, the victory did nothing to check the onslaught of the suicide pilots. Between 26 March, when the preliminary attacks on Okinawa commenced, and 22 June, when the island was declared secure, Japanese air raids sank twenty-eight ships of various types and damaged 237 more. Twenty-six of the vessels sunk and 176 of those damaged were victims of the Kamikazes.

Despite the official exhortations of their commanders and the unofficial action of one destroyer that had an arrow painted on its deck pointing over the side, accompanied by the caption ‘Carriers That Way’, the most common targets of the Kamikazes were still the ‘radar pickets’. One particularly dramatic attack on 12 April deserves special mention. A bomb-carrying Zero smashed into the engine room of destroyer Mannert L. Abele, leaving her dead in the water. As she lay helpless, another suicide pilot hit her amidships and she broke in half, to sink in five minutes. It was the first, and happily as it transpired, the only ‘kill’ made by the Oka/Baka.

Inevitably, though, the carriers could not escape the Kamikazes entirely. On 7 April, just as the American airmen were preparing to engage Yamato and her screening vessels, a Zero dived on Hancock, dropped a bomb that penetrated to her hangar and then crashed into her flight deck, setting nineteen of her aircraft ablaze. Damage control parties mastered the flames after a tense 40 minutes, but seventy-two dead and eighty-two injured was the high price exacted by one enemy fighter-bomber and one determined pilot.

There were plenty of other pilots willing to sacrifice their lives for the chance of hitting a carrier and some of them did just that. Enterprise was damaged on 11 April. Intrepid was struck on the 18th, and suffered ninety-seven casualties, ten of them fatal. Escort carrier Sangamon was hit on 4 May, set ablaze and so damaged that she had to withdraw from the battle area. And worse was yet to come.

On 11 May, Vice Admiral Mitscher’s flagship, Bunker Hill, was struck twice. First a Zero put a bomb onto her flight deck, itself crashed through the aircraft on her deck, setting them on fire – and fell over the side. Before anyone had had a chance to recover, a Judy bomber came down in a vertical dive to smash right through the flight deck at the base of the island superstructure. Swept by flames and listing badly, the great ship was saved by the heroic efforts of her damage control personnel but she too had to withdraw. Of her crew, 392 were killed and 264 wounded.

Vice Admiral Mitscher now hoisted his flag in Enterprise but the Kamikazes still pursued him. Two days later, one crashed into Enterprise’s forward elevator, causing an explosion that blew this high into the air, seeming to be balanced on top of a great column of smoke. Mitscher moved on to Randolph, while Enterprise, like Sangamon and Bunker Hill, had to leave the area to effect repairs – as did escort carrier Natoma Bay, crashed by a Kamikaze on 6 June. Yet the Americans remained firm and, as stated earlier, on 22 June, Okinawa was finally secured, whereupon the carriers retired to rest and refit in preparation for the final assault on Japan.

The British Task Force 57 also had its encounters with Kamikazes. On 4 May, a large number of raiders were shot down at a safe distance by flak or fighters but a Zero attacking Formidable – she had joined Vian’s strength in mid-April to replace Illustrious, badly in need of a refit – could not be stopped. Its bomb exploded on the flight deck, putting it out of action temporarily, and it then crashed among the aircraft on the deck, setting eleven of them on fire, killing eight men and wounding forty-seven others, many very seriously. A few minutes later, another Zero hit Indomitable but bounced over the side into the sea, where its bomb exploded. Damage was slight but Indomitable’s radar, an improved American version that was the only one in the force, was knocked out and could not be repaired since there were no spare parts available.

The Carrier War Leyte Gulf to The End. IV

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U.S. Navy carrier aircraft attack the Japanese battleship Haruna at her moorings near Kure, Japan, 28 July 1945. Photographed from a USS Intrepid (CV-11) plane.

Five days later, the Kamikazes came again. Of the five Zeros that made up the raid, one was destroyed by fighters, one by AA fire and two hit Victorious but her armoured deck prevented more than minor damage. Formidable was again the unlucky one. As on the previous occasion, the Kamikaze crashed on top of the aircraft on her deck. A fire swept over this but happily it was quickly brought under control. Seven of Formidable’s aircraft were destroyed, fourteen more were damaged, but the only fatal casualty was a luckless seaman who was decapitated by a wheel hurled into the air by an exploding aircraft.

Sadly, though, while the Kamikazes could be overcome, the British supply problems could not, and on the evening of 25 May, Task Force 57 retired, ultimately to Sydney. Here it was joined by another carrier, HMS Implacable controlling twenty-one Avengers, twelve Fireflies and forty-eight Seafires, for which satisfactory drop-tanks had at last been found, greatly increasing their range and hence their usefulness. She was quickly given a mission of her own and during 14 and 15 June, her aircraft attacked the Japanese base of Truk in the Carolines, both by day and at night with the aid of flares.

Truk had long since been bypassed and isolated and Implacable found few worthwhile targets but the operation did provide further examples of the various tasks performed by carriers and the varied experiences of naval airmen. Implacable was accompanied by escort carrier Ruler, to provide not only increased fighter cover but an additional deck for the large carrier’s aircraft to land on in emergency; on 15 June for instance, she received six of Implacable’s Seafires that had lost their mothership in a violent rain squall.

To illustrate the pilots’ experiences it seems fitting to quote that of Commander Alan Swanton. As a young sub-lieutenant on Ark Royal he had, as we saw, taken part in the attack that crippled the Bismarck and returned safely in a Swordfish damaged beyond repair. He was now CO of 828 Squadron and on 14 June, had just taken off from Implacable when engine trouble forced his Avenger to ‘ditch’ right in front of the carrier, then travelling at 30 knots. She had no chance of taking evasive action and simply trampled the Avenger under water. Happily, Swanton and his two crewmen were carried down the sides of the carrier and clear of her propellers by her bow wave and all were picked up safely by a destroyer.

By 16 July, Implacable had rendezvoused with the American Fast Carrier Force. This was now part of Third Fleet as Halsey had taken over from Spruance at the end of May, and since 10 July it had been striking at targets in the Japanese home islands. Indomitable and Indefatigable were refitting, but Victorious and Formidable also formed part of what was now Task Force 37, escort carrier Ruler again provided replacement aircraft and four other escort carriers were engaged in ferrying supplies. Once more, alas, the British ‘flat-tops’ were badly handicapped by having the use of only a few small tankers and in any case they formed only a minor part of the Allied strength compared with the sixteen fast US carriers, now under the control of Vice Admiral John McCain who flew his flag in Shangri-la.

This difference in strength was reflected in the duties the British and American carriers were allocated. On 18 July for instance, the former struck at airfields in the Tokyo area, inflicting minor damage; but the American carriers destroyed most of the installations at the Yokosuka naval base and crippled, though they did not sink, battleship Nagato. Third Fleet, incidentally, had already sunk destroyer Tachibana on the 14th, and now made preparations to complete the destruction of the Imperial Navy by assaults on other naval bases, especially the one at Kure, where most of those few major Japanese warships that still survived had been located.

After a delay caused by bad weather, a series of assaults began on 24 July and was followed by others on the 25th and 28th. The Japanese surface warships, without fighter cover, immobilized by lack of fuel and of value only as floating batteries, were easy prey. The exultant American carrier-pilots sank battleship Haruna, the two battleships with flight decks Hyuga and Ise, heavy cruisers Aoba and Tone, light cruiser Oyodo and destroyer Nashi.

Japan’s remaining aircraft carriers were still more pathetic, deprived not only of fuel but of aircraft for want of trained pilots to man them. The large carrier Amagi was hit repeatedly, capsized and sank. The sole remaining escort carrier, Kaiyo, was also sent to the bottom. Amagi’s sister ship Katsuragi was put out of action for the short remainder of the war. After the war, three badly damaged carriers were scrapped: Katsuragi, Junyo, already crippled by a submarine’s torpedoes, and light carrier Ryuho, an earlier victim of air attack. As was Hosho, Japan’s first-ever carrier, and the only one to survive the war undamaged. Such was the sad fate of the carriers built by the country that had been the first to make them her most important naval vessels; and thereby unwittingly taught her enemies one of the major means by which she could be defeated.

The carriers of the country that had first pioneered their use were not allowed to participate in these raids. Admiral Halsey, as he would admit after the war, did not want British ships to share any of the credit for striking these final blows at the once-mighty Japanese Navy. Since it is difficult to see what harm their participation would have done to American interests, his action would appear as unnecessary as it was selfish and ungracious. The seamen and airmen in the British Pacific Fleet, who had travelled a world away from home to render loyal support to their great ally, had every reason to feel aggrieved. The unkindness of fate had not ended either. Their finest moment lay just ahead, but it would pass almost unnoticed amid the world-shaking events occurring around the same time.

Confronted with the need to decide the final steps necessary to complete their victory, the Americans considered they had only three alternatives. An invasion of Japan must prove terribly costly and would probably initiate the slaughter of all Allied prisoners of war since the Japanese would be unlikely to waste manpower guarding them. An intensified naval blockade and aerial bombardment would undoubtedly succeed but only after a delay, during which American lives would continue to be lost. And in mid-July, a new weapon had become available that should avoid the need for either invasion or delay.

Yet in reality there was a fourth alternative. The war could be brought to a swift end if the Japanese were allowed to surrender on terms, and this they were very willing and eager to do. In April, Tojo’s successor as Prime Minister, General Kuniaki Koiso, had resigned. His office and his seat on the six-man Supreme War Council he had created had been taken by Admiral Kantaro Suzuki, who was a convinced believer in the need for a speedy peace, and had resumed with increased determination Koiso’s previous attempts to persuade Russia to act as an intermediary between Japan and the western Allies.

This alone indicated that the Japanese expected severe terms. In November 1943, the Cairo Declaration by Britain and the United States had promised Chiang Kai-shek that Japan would be compelled to relinquish all captured territories. That the Russians, who had not forgotten or forgiven their defeat by Japan in 1905, would also insist on this as the price for acting as mediator was accepted even by General Anami’s extremists. Moreover, this was known to the Americans because they had broken the Japanese diplomatic code. Thus by the time the Potsdam Conference was held in July 1945 between Churchill, the Russian dictator Josef Stalin and the new American President Harry Truman,3 the British Prime Minister could declare: ‘We knew of course that the Japanese were ready to give up all conquests made in the war.’

On the other hand, as explained earlier, not even Admiral Suzuki’s Peace Party dared surrender on no terms at all – and this also was known to the Americans. Their code-breakers deciphered a message sent on 13 July, from Japan’s Foreign Ministry to her Ambassador in Moscow, stating that: ‘Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace.’ Even earlier, in talks with Truman’s personal envoy Harry Hopkins at the end of May, Stalin had declared that Japan would accept almost any terms the Allies cared to offer but would fight to the death before surrendering unconditionally. At Potsdam, Stalin offered similar advice to Churchill who thereupon asked Truman if it might not be possible to obtain ‘all the essentials for peace and security’, while leaving the Japanese ‘some show of saving their military honour and some assurance of their national existence’. When Truman retorted that the Pearl Harbour attack had shown the Japanese had no military honour, Churchill observed that ‘at any rate they had something for which they were ready to face certain death in very large numbers’.

It seems that this argument had its effect, because steps were now taken to explain what unconditional surrender would entail. The Potsdam Declaration, based on a memorandum written by Henry Stimson, the US Secretary of War, repeated that Japanese sovereignty should be limited to their home islands, and further stated that those responsible for Japan’s militarist policies must be deprived of all ‘authority and influence’ and ‘stern justice will be meted out to all war criminals’. The Japanese extremists were prepared to accept these terms, though they wished the war criminals to be tried in Japanese courts. They were less willing to contemplate an occupation of Japan until the Allies’ objectives had been attained but since the Declaration also confirmed that this would be temporary and the Japanese would not be ‘enslaved as a race nor destroyed as a nation’, it appears probable that if talks had now commenced, some face-saving formula could have been agreed.

Unfortunately, the Declaration expressly forbade further talks and warned that if its terms were not accepted without delay, ‘the alternative for Japan is complete and utter destruction’. Worse still, though Stimson’s memorandum had urged that it would ‘substantially add’ to the likelihood of acceptance if the Allies indicated that they would agree to a constitutional monarchy under the present Japanese ruling house, the Declaration made no mention of this vital point. Yet the Emperor was the symbol of the unity of the Japanese people in a manner far exceeding that of other heads of state, and the longevity of their Imperial family, ‘unbroken through ages eternal’, marked for them their uniqueness as a nation.

Consequently Suzuki announced that the Potsdam Declaration added nothing to the earlier Cairo Declaration and so was of no great importance. It appears that this cryptic utterance was intended as a hint that Japan would accept the conditions laid down provided other matters were clarified, but in the circumstances no one could possibly expect the Americans to have realized this, and it was surely unforgivable of Suzuki not to have ‘come clean’ and stated frankly the one matter that really made the Potsdam Declaration unacceptable.

For the Allied threats of destruction had not been idle ones. On 6 August 1945, an atomic bomb obliterated the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Two days later, Stalin, eager to partake of the spoils of victory, declared war on Japan and sent his armies into Manchuria. And on 9 August, a second atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki.

It was also on 9 August that Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray, a Canadian Corsair pilot of 1841 Squadron serving aboard Formidable, attacked an enemy warship in Onagawa harbour. Though usually described as a destroyer, this was in fact an escort vessel, the 870-ton Amakusa, armed with three 4.7-inch guns and a useful AA battery. Flying very low, the Corsair quickly became a target for the guns of several warships and shore defences alike. It was hit repeatedly and its port wing set on fire but Gray was able to drop his single 1,000-lb bomb with deadly accuracy. It struck Amakusa amidships and she exploded and sank. The Corsair climbed briefly, trailing a long tail of flame, then dived into the harbour.

Lieutenant Gray was later awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. This received so little publicity that most of the men who served in the British Pacific Fleet were quite unaware of the incident, and it merits only a brief footnote in Captain Roskill’s Official History. Nonetheless, it deserves to be emphasized because it was the only time that the supreme decoration was earned by an airman operating from a British aircraft carrier.4

It was a particularly sad incident as well. The war was so nearly over. During the night of 9/10 August, when after hours of argument, Japan’s Supreme War Council was still divided on whether or not to accept the Potsdam Declaration, Suzuki, ‘with the greatest reverence’, asked the Emperor for an opinion. General Anami, who was well aware of his sovereign’s wishes – and had steadfastly disregarded them – protested, correctly, that this was unconstitutional, but by now his supporters were grateful for any excuse to change their views. The Emperor stated clearly that ‘the time has come when we must bear the unbearable’ to avoid further futile ‘bloodshed and cruelty’.

Next morning, the Japanese government formally accepted the Potsdam Declaration ‘on the understanding’ that this would not ‘compromise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as sovereign ruler’. On 11 August, the Allies replied: ‘From the moment of the surrender the authority of the Emperor and the Japanese government to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers.’ The extremists argued that this qualification could not be accepted, but again the Emperor intervened decisively and demanded that it should be. On the 15th, on the conditions laid down in the Potsdam Declaration and the conditions agreed as to the Emperor’s authority, Japan surrendered ‘unconditionally’ – which is perhaps the best summary of that idiotic slogan.

There were a few last-minute convulsions. An attempt was made to prevent the surrender broadcast, but this failed and General Anami who knew of, but did not support the plot, committed ‘seppuku’. HMS Indefatigable had now rejoined the British carriers and in the last British air combat of the war, her aircraft shot down nine Zeros for the loss of one Seafire and one Avenger. The American airmen from Yorktown also had a fierce clash with Zeros, destroying another nine at the cost of four Hellcats. The last encounter came at 1120 on 15 August, when a Judy dropped two bombs very close to Indefatigable and was then downed by Corsairs from USS Shangri-la – a symbolic illustration of how it was America that now ruled the waves.

The formal ceremony ending the conflict took place on battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay on 2 September, six years and one day since the German attack on Poland had precipitated the Second World War. General MacArthur, who had been appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, signed on behalf of all the Allied nations; Fleet Admiral Nimitz on behalf of the United States. The British representative, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, had arrived in another battleship, HMS Duke of York. But as the formalities ended, it was appropriate that a triumphant fly-past of 450 carrier aircraft should have swept over the assembled warships, for it was naval air-power that in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the Arctic and finally the Pacific, had played the most important role in achieving victory at sea.

Notes

1 The last of these raids was carried out by five damaged but repaired Zeros that were the only ones their unit had available. The pilots, carefully selected on the basis of ability, were Lieutenants Yuzo Nakano and Kunitane Nakao, and Warrant Officers Kiichi Goto, Yoshiyuki Taniuchi and Masahiko Chihara. Their Operations Officer, Commander Tadashi Nakajima, later stated that as they taxied forward ready for take-off, each one called out his thanks for having been chosen for the mission.

2 Saratoga was used thereafter only for training purposes. In 1946, she was sunk by the Americans during their atomic bomb tests at Bikini. Also sunk at Bikini were Nagato, the only Japanese battleship to survive the war, and Prinz Eugen, the largest surviving German warship. It is worth recording that in April and May 1944, Saratoga had temporarily joined the British Eastern Fleet in the Indian Ocean and, together with HM carrier Illustrious, had carried out raids on targets in the Dutch East Indies.

3 President Roosevelt had died suddenly on 12 April 1945. The news had been greeted with loathsome glee in Berlin but it is pleasant to be able to record that the announcement on Radio Tokyo was brief, restrained and dignified.

4 It will be recalled that a posthumous VC had previously been awarded to a Fleet Air Arm pilot, Lieutenant Commander Esmonde, at the time of the escape of Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen from Brest. However, it will also be recalled that Esmonde had flown from a land base, not a carrier.

ROME’S GREAT RIVAL IN THE EAST

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Parthian Cataphracts (Fully Armoured Parthian Cavalry)

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Left: East Parthian Cataphract; Middle: Parthian Horse-Archer; Right: Parthian Cataphract from Hatra.

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A Parthian Horse-archer.

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The final stages of the Battle of Carrhae.

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The Parthians were also masters of the art of war, as they would show in the next period of conflict, with Rome. Driven on to ever-wider conquests by the ambitions of mighty patricians like Pompeii, Lucullus, and Crassus, leaders who saw conquest and military glory as necessary adjuncts to a successful political career, the Roman republic by the first half of the first century BC had taken over the eastern Mediterranean from its previous Hellenistic overlords and had begun to press even farther eastward. The Romans’ main area of conflict with the Parthians was in Armenia, Syria, and northern Mesopotamia.

In 53 BC Marcus Licinius Crassus, a fabulously rich Roman politician who had destroyed the slave revolt of Spartacus in southern Italy in earlier years, became the new governor of Roman Syria. Hoping to make conquests in the east to rival those recently achieved by Caesar in Gaul, Crassus marched an army of some forty thousand men east to Carrhae (modern Harran)—arrogantly rejecting the advice of the king of Armenia to take advantage of his friendship and follow a less exposed northerly route. At Carrhae Crassus’s army was met in the open plain by a smaller but fast-moving force of about ten thousand Parthian horsemen, including large numbers of horse archers, supported by a much smaller force of heavily armored cavalrymen on armored horses, each man wielding a long, heavy lance. The Roman force was composed primarily of armored infantry equipped with swords and heavy throwing spears, along with some Gaulish cavalrymen who were either lightly armored or not armored at all.

The Parthians confronted Crassus with a kind of fighting that the Romans had not previously encountered, and against which they had no answer. The Roman infantry advanced, but the Parthian horse archers withdrew before them, circling around to shoot arrows into the flanks of their column. Hour after hour the arrows rained down on the Romans, and despite their heavy armor the powerful Parthian war bows frequently zinged an arrow past the edge of a shield, found a gap at the neck between body armor and helmet, punched through a weak link in chain mail, or wounded a soldier’s unprotected hands or feet. The Romans grew tired and thirsty in the heat, and their frustration at not being able to get to grips with the Parthians turned to defeatism, especially when they saw the Parthians resupply themselves with arrows from masses of heavily laden pack camels.

At one point Crassus’s son led a detachment, including the Gaulish cavalry, against the Parthians. The Parthians pulled back as if in disorder, but their real intention was to draw the detachment away beyond any possible assistance from the main body. When the Gauls rode ahead to chase off the archers, the Parthian heavy cavalry charged down on them, spearing the lightly armored Gauls and their horses with their long lances. In desperation, the Gauls tried to attack the Parthian horses by dismounting and rolling under them, trying to stab up at their unprotected bellies, but even this desperate tactic could not save them. Then the full strength of the Parthian horse archers turned on the Roman detachment. More and more of them were hit by arrows, while all were disoriented and confused by the clouds of dust thrown up by the Parthians’ horses. Crassus’s son pulled his men back to a small hill—where they were surrounded and eventually killed, with the exception of about five hundred, who were taken prisoner.

The defeat of the detachment and the jubilation of the Parthians further demoralized the main Roman force. Finally, Crassus attempted to negotiate with the Parthian general, Suren, only to be killed in a scuffle and beheaded. The survivors of the Roman army withdrew in disorder back into Roman Syria. Meanwhile, as many as ten thousand Roman prisoners were marched off by the Parthians to the remote northeast of the empire.

According to the Greek historian Plutarch the head of Crassus was sent to the Parthian king, Orodes, and it arrived while the king was listening to an actor delivering some lines from Euripedes’s play The Bacchae. To the applause of the court, the actor took the head and spoke the words of Queen Agave of Thebes, who in the play unwittingly killed her own son, King Pentheus, while in a Bacchic trance:

We’ve hunted down a lion’s whelp today,

And from the mountains bring a noble prey

Some have suggested that the Parthian general, recorded in the Western sources as Suren, was the warrior-hero later remembered as Rostam and immortalized in the revered tenth-century Persian poet Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (Book of Kings). Like Rostam, Suren hailed from Sistan (originally Sakastan—the land of the Sakae), and like Rostam, he also had a troubled relationship with his king. Orodes was so resentful of Suren’s victory that he had him murdered.

The defeat at Carrhae was a great blow to Roman prestige in the east, and after it the Parthians were able to extend their control to include Armenia. But in the fiercely competitive environment of Rome toward the end of the republic, the defeat, humiliation, and death of Crassus were a challenge as much as a warning. To succeed where Crassus had failed—to win a Parthian triumph—became an inviting political prize. Another incentive was the wealth of the silk trade. While the hostile Parthians controlled the central part of the route to China, wealthy Romans were dismayed to see much of the gold they paid to have their wives and daughters clothed in expensive silks going to their most redoubtable enemies.

The next Roman to test the Parthians in a major way was Mark Antony. But between the expeditions of Crassus and Antony, the Parthians and the Romans fought several other campaigns, with mixed outcomes. In 51 BC some Roman survivors from Carrhae ambushed an invading Parthian force near Antioch and destroyed it. But in 40 BC another Parthian force, commanded by Orodes’s son Pacorus (with the help of a renegade Roman, Quintus Labienus), broke out of Syria and conquered both Palestine and most of the provinces of Asia Minor. Exploiting the chaos of the civil wars that followed the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, the Parthian invaders received the submission of many towns without a siege. But a year or so later Publius Ventidius, one of Mark Antony’s subordinates, rescued the eastern provinces with some of the veteran legions of Caesar’s army. He defeated the Parthians in a series of battles in which all the main Parthian commanders were killed, including Pacorus and Labienus. Back in Rome, Ventidius’s triumph over the Parthians was considered a rare honor. Seeing his lieutenant so praised, Mark Antony wanted the glory of a victory against the Parthians for himself.

In 36 BC he took an army more than double the size of that of Crassus into the same area of upper Mesopotamia. Antony soon encountered many of the same difficulties that had frustrated Crassus. The Romans found that their best remedy against the Parthian arrows was to form the close formation called the testudo (tortoise), in which the soldiers closed up so that their shields made a wall in front, with the ranks behind holding their shields over their heads, overlapping, to make a roof. This made an effective defense but slowed the army’s advance to a crawl. The Roman infantry still could not hit back at the Parthian horse archers, whose mobility enabled them to range at will around the marching Romans and attack them at their most vulnerable. The Parthians were also able to attack Antony’s supply columns, and the difficulty of finding food and water made the large numbers of the invading force a liability rather than an asset. Having suffered in this way in the south, Antony attempted a more northerly attack on Parthian territory, penetrating into what is now Azerbaijan. But he achieved little, and was forced to retreat through Armenia in the winter cold, losing as many as twenty-four thousand men.

Antony saved some face by a later campaign in Armenia, but the overall message of these Roman encounters with the Parthians was that the styles of warfare of the opponents, and the geography of the region, dictated a stalemate that would be difficult for either side to break. The Parthian cavalry was vulnerable to ambush by Roman infantry in the hilly, less open terrain of the Roman-controlled territories, and lacked the siege equipment necessary to take the Roman towns. At the same time, the Romans were vulnerable to the Parthians in the open Mesopotamian plain and would always find it difficult to protect their supply lines against the more mobile Parthian forces. These factors were more or less permanent.

Perhaps recognizing the intractability of this situation, after Augustus eventually achieved supremacy in the Roman Empire and ended the civil wars by defeating Mark Antony in 31/30 BC, Augustus followed a policy of diplomacy with the Parthians. In this way he was able to retrieve the eagle standards of the legions that had been lost at Carrhae. The Parthians seem to have used the period of peace in the west to create a new Indo-Parthian empire in the Punjab, under a line descended from the Suren family. But the wars in the west began again in the reign of Nero, after the Parthian king Vologases I (Valkash) had appointed a new king in Armenia, which the Romans regarded as a dependent state of the Roman Empire. The general Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo conquered Armenia in AD 58-60, but the Parthians counterattacked with some success thereafter, capturing a Roman force. It has been suggested that the Roman armor made of overlapping plates (lorica segmentata), familiar from films and children’s books, was developed as a counter to Parthian arrows around the time of the campaign of Corbulo. The outcome of the Armenian war was that the Romans and Parthians signed a treaty agreeing to the establishment of an independent Arsacid dynasty in Armenia as a buffer state, but with the succession subject to Roman approval.

Vologases I may also be significant in the history of Mazdaism and the beginnings of its transition into the modern religion of Zoroastrianism. Later Zoroastrian texts say that a king Valkash (they do not specify which one—several Arsacid kings took that name) was the first to tell the Magian priests to bring together all the oral and written traditions of their religion and record them systematically. This began the process that, several centuries later, led to the assembly of the texts of the Avesta and the other holy scriptures of Zoroastrianism. If indeed it was Vologases I who gave out those instructions (a conjecture supported by the fact that his brother Tiridates was known also for his Mazdaean piety), it would perhaps fit with other decisions and policies during his reign, which seem consistently to have stressed a desire to reassert the Iranian character of the state. Vologases I is believed to have built a new capital named after himself near Seleuceia and Ctesiphon, with the aim of avoiding the Greek character of those places. Some of his coins were struck with lettering in Aramaic script (the script in which the Parthian language was usually written) rather than in Greek, as had been the case before. And there are suggestions also that he was hostile to the Jews, which was atypical in the Arsacid period. Although his immediate successors did not follow through with all of these novelties, they do prefigure the policies of the Sassanids. The gradual erosion of Greek influence and the strengthening of Iranian identity are features of the reigns after Vologases I.

maskirovka

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The Soviets learned several very important lessons during the Great Patriotic War. The first was that it is virtually impossible to conceal one’s intent to attack, even at the outset of hostilities. However, masking the scale, timing and direction can be at least as effective as concealing the intent: an expectant enemy tends to have a more active imagination and will be more receptive to false indicators, especially if his intelligence service is inefficient. One weakness of Soviet deception planning, though, was its inability to know how successful its own measures were, along with a tendency to follow predictable patterns, especially in the early war years. The Soviets identified concealment of forces and operational concepts as the principal purpose of maskirovka, citing the following measures as being fundamental to achieving surprise: secrecy of force deployments; demonstrative actions to deceive the enemy regarding one’s actions; simulations to confuse the enemy regarding intent and location of real forces; and disinformation by technical means, false orders or rumour.

Soviet wartime experiences also proved the essential interrelation between tactical, operational and strategic deception measures. Although one could make tactical deception without planning operational and strategic measures, it was impossible to do the opposite. Successful strategic deception depended entirely on the effectiveness of measures at lower levels. Most important was the ability secretly and efficiently to redeploy numerous armies and corps, which depended on the ability to hide individual tanks and vehicles. Sloppy camouflage or radio procedure could jeopardize the whole process, as could overenthusiastic razvedka boyem or artillery registration. It took numerous failures to reveal a talent for maskirovka, but by the middle of 1943 that talent was evident. Since it relied on the most extensive application of their methods and techniques, strategic deception took the Soviets longest to master.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s strategic and operational planning was overshadowed by nuclear weapons, although surprise and deception remained key elements. In 1976, however, General-Lieutenant M. M. Kir’yan, a senior member of the Voroshilov General Staff Academy, wrote that ‘surprise is one of the most important principles of the military art’, and his list of methods to achieve it began with ‘deceiving the enemy concerning one’s own intentions’. He further elaborated on among other things, secrecy, camouflage and night movement.

Regardless of its form, the environmental or organizational aspects affecting it, maskirovka is governed by four major principles: activity, plausibility, variety and continuity. The first of these principles (activnost) states that offensive action is necessary to degrade the enemy’s observation capability: his ability to locate and identify troop concentrations and key weapon systems, particularly indicator systems, by the concerted use of electronic warfare, dummies and good camouflage and concealment. Plausibility and persuasiveness (ubeditel’nyi and pravdopodobnyi) are essential, but their success depends on timeliness (svoevremennost). In the large forces available to the USSR there was no need to create entirely false armies, since there were plenty of real ones. Nowadays, far smaller forces are deployed, although the same principles apply. Iraq used a Soviet-based doctrine during the Gulf War in 1991 and, despite deploying over half a million men, made effective use of decoys made of wood, cardboard, paper, cloth and fibreglass, including realistic models of tanks bought from an Italian company. Maskirovka must be varied (raznoobraznye), and this requires forethought and originality if it is not to become stale and predictable. It is this embedding of maskirovka in the very fabric of every other activity, this level of awareness and training throughout the structure, that perhaps most clearly differentiates maskirovka from Western concepts of deception. Finally, continuity (nepreryvnost) must be maintained both temporally and throughout all levels of command; a tactical deception error may reveal an operational or even strategic deception.

At the tactical level maskirovka includes the following categories: optical/light, thermal, sound, radio and radar. Optical/light maskirovka covers those measures, mainly passive, designed to deny enemy optical reconnaissance systems, including photography. This covers everything from nets, camouflage clothing and special paints to the use of small lights like miners’ lamps, worn on the head and pointing downwards so that light can be applied only where needed. But it also includes displays of dummy equipment that are designed to be seen, as thermal maskirovka includes both concealing heat sources and creating false ones. Equally, radar maskirovka involves methods of reducing signatures, from topographic analysis in order to locate radar dead ground which cannot be scanned, to the application of stealth technology and the widespread use of reflectors to create false radar images. These reflectors (corner, pyramid, spherical or dipole) can also form effective radar jammers. Suspended along a road or throughout an area in pairs, they can mask activity; placed besides a wooden dummy they can give it a radar signature, and they can be used to create false bridges and even to ‘alter’ the landscape. During the mid-1970s every Soviet motor-rifle battalion was issued with thirty corner reflectors.

From this it would appear that maskirovka permeated very aspect of Soviet military life (and by extension, that of modern Russia and other former Soviet states). Indeed, Soviet soldiers were ‘compelled by regulations to employ some form of maskirovka’. With the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, this was regarded as absolutely essential, as much to ensure the survivability of Soviet forces as to gain surprise. It was valued primarily for its ability to disrupt and delay the enemy’s decision-making cycle and his ability efficiently to target Soviet concentrations and build-ups. Similarly, it is designed implicitly to raise such dilemmas in the opponent’s mind as to whether to fire on what may merely be decoys or to accept the risk of a massing of forces close to hand which may later threaten to swamp the defences. Nevertheless, Western analysts were hard pressed when watching Soviet manœuvres to detect the widespread implementation of maskirovka. Whether this was proof of its effectiveness, or because the ‘real’ thing was being held back for operations, or because the practice was far less advanced than history, doctrine and assertion suggested is not clear.

One Soviet writer noted that

a more important condition for achieving victory than overall superiority in weapons and manpower is the ability to use concealment in preparing one’s main forces for a major strike and use the element of surprise in launching an attack against important enemy targets.

A major theme in post-war Soviet thought was the determination never again to be taken by surprise. In the 1960s and 1970s Soviet military writers began to stress the key role of surprise as one of the important principles of military art. A plethora of articles on the subject culminated in a major work by General S. P. Ivanov, The Initial Period of the War, which derived lessons from the events of 1940–41 and August 1945. This need to possess the capability for launching surprise attacks, and to defend against them, became a central theme. The Soviets never distinguished between the tactical, operational and strategic levels of deception, and instead emphasized variation of the means of deception. Among other recognized methods for achieving surprise were the use of exercises and manœuvres as cover for the deployment of forces, a method used in the invasions of both Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. This was facilitated by the centralization of deception planning in Department D of the KGB’s First Main Directorate in 1959, in order to manage high-quality deception operations worldwide.

The invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 demonstrated these operations superbly. Contingency planning began several months beforehand, when it was discussed at the highest levels. Although the Soviet Politburo was reluctant to order military intervention, Leonid Brezhnev later admitted that sometime in May they began to contemplate the option as a last resort and began a military build-up, partly as preparation and partly to bring pressure on the reformists to keep events under control. Military exercises also gave cover for the necessary logistic preparations and rehearsals. By late June Soviet divisions had moved from their peacetime garrison locations in Poland and East Germany to the Czechoslovak borders. The first Soviet deployment onto Czechoslovak territory occurred in June and July under cover of ‘staff military exercises’, following an understanding made between Alexei Kosygin of the USSR and Czechoslovakia’s Alexander Dubček, the leader of the ‘Prague spring’. Forces from non-Czechoslovak Warsaw Pact countries were not originally to take part in these exercises, and the first units to do so arrived in early June during a meeting of the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s Central Committee. They brought with them heavy equipment, including armour and EW assets. They first entered air bases capable of handling the Soviet’s heavy lift capability. Not only were Czechoslovak officers not informed of this development, but they were excluded from the post-exercise analysis, a breach of the May agreement about which Dubček complained. It later transpired that the Warsaw Pact command had introduced 16,000 troops into the country between 20 and 30 June. A troop withdrawal announced on 1 July was then delayed until negotiations took place later that month and in early August at Cierna-Bratislava.

These month-long manœuvres formed an unusual deception. They were not only unsealed but widely advertised, and thus served not only as preparation for possible intervention but also to create political pressure. Militarily, they were designed to desensitize the Czechoslovaks and Western leaders and analysts. When it became known on 23 July that the Soviet Politburo was to enter negotiations with the Czechoslovak leadership, the Soviet media announced the holding of the largest logistic exercise ever held by the Soviet ground forces under the Commander-in-Chief Rear Services, General S. Mariakin. During this exercise, code-named NEMEN, thousands of reservists were called up and civilian transport was requisitioned. The exercise started all over the western USSR and as the negotiations progressed was extended into Poland and East Germany. Immediately before the Cierna conference, major fleet exercises were conducted throughout the Baltic, and all of these exercises continued during the conferences. When NEMEN formally ended on 10 August, a vast air defence exercise began the following day, along with a communications exercise in western Ukraine, Poland and East Germany. From 16 August Hungary was included, and the following day the decision to intervene was made.

All this time the KGB was trying to provide ‘proof’ of counter-revolutionary behaviour to justify military intervention, such as caches of secret weapons ‘discovered’ near the West German border and fake documents to incriminate the CIA. Czechoslovak stocks of fuel and ammunition had been skilfully reduced by removal to East Germany and the USSR under the pretext of the exercises, and the Soviets arranged for a major exercise of the Czechoslovak Army to take place from 21 August – a day after the intervention was due to start – in order to divert the attention of the Czechoslovak military. Tight security measures were imposed, including radio silence and use of electronic warfare assets, to ensure the West knew as little as possible about what was about to happen. Certainly Dubček himself know nothing until it was too late. Huge forces were deployed, estimated at between a quarter and half a million men, but despite the prolonged logistical exercises the operation was dogged at several points by shortages of fuel and food and water. The Soviets had, however, learned from subjecting the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when they suffered some 720 dead and missing and 1,540 wounded: in Czechoslovakia they lost only ninety-six men killed.

The invasions of both Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan included the establishment of a military and KGB element to assist in the production of a cover and deception plan to divert attention away from it and allow them quickly to seize the essential facilities and key leaders and officials. In Afghanistan preparations for the Soviet invasion of December 1979 also began months earlier. In April General of the Army Aleksiy Yepishev, head of the Main Political Directorate, led a delegation to assess the situation (as he had previously done in Czechoslovakia). In August General of the Army Ivan Pavlovski (who commanded the Czechoslovak invasion), now Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Ground Forces, led some sixty officers on a weeks-long reconnaissance tour of Afghanistan. With the country in the throes of civil war following the replacement of the king by Afghan Communists, an exercise held in August involved transporting 10,000 troops from the USSR to South Yemen and Ethiopia and back again, in a fleet of Antonov-22 aircraft. In September they took the first steps towards influencing the military situation in Afghanistan during the visit to Moscow of President Nur Mohammed Taraki, and a meeting was arranged with Babrak Karmal, who in due course would adopt the position of president following the invasion. The Soviets were involved in intrigues aimed at eliminating Taraki’s rival the vice-president Hafizullah Amin. These backfired and the result was Taraki’s death and the ascendance of Amin to power. Forced to accept the coup, they pretended to court Amin and appear to have decided to intervene on a massive scale only as late as November, when they sent the First Deputy Minister of the Interior, General-Lieutenant Viktor Paputin, to Kabul, ostensibly to advise Amin on police and security matters but in reality to rally the supporters of Taraki and Karmal.

Changes to deployments along the Afghan and Iranian borders during this period were apparent to US analysts, who this time were not particularly surprised by the invasion when it came. Preliminary moves began on 8 and 9 December with the lift of airborne units to take control of Bagram airport to reinforce a unit sent originally in September. Their initial task was to secure the main road between Kabul and the Soviet border while other units moved concurrently to take control of Kabul municipal airport. The actual invasion was deliberately timed for 24–26 December, when most Western officials would be on Christmas holiday. On the ground Soviet advisors succeeded in disarming two Afghan divisions by persuading their commanders that they needed to take over their ammunition and anti-tank weapons for inventory and their tank batteries for wintering, and that some of their tanks needed to have a defect modified. Then between 24 and 26 December some 10,000 men of the 105th Guards Airborne Division landed at Kabul while two motor-rifle divisions crossed the border from the north and advanced to take control of key positions in the centre of the country, leaving control of the borders until later. In total, some 80–100,000 men were deployed, and the logistic problems that hampered the invasion of Czechoslovakia were avoided. However, simply taking control of the country’s main installations and infrastructure was not sufficient to calm the population and control the country. Although the invasion itself was accomplished with few problems, that was only the beginning.

The invasion was felt by many in the West to be the Soviets’ ‘Vietnam’, and with some justice. Soviet tactics in Afghanistan were very clumsy to begin with, and the poor training of many of the units involved meant there was seemingly little employment of maskirovka. As with the Americans in Vietnam, the emphasis was on firepower, using armour and large-scale troop deployments to destroy completely Mujahadeen villages and their associated agriculture. Later, with the introduction of Spetznaz (special forces), this changed towards observing arms supply caravans from the air and intercepting them. So Mujahadeen commanded by Abdul Haq took to setting up dummy caravans and assembling a counter-force. Having waited to see where the Spetznatz teams were deployed, they would ambush the ambushers. Not many of the Mujahadeen groups were capable of such operations, but only after 1986 did they adopt more subtle tactics.

In the autumn of 1987, during the largest Soviet operation of the war, MAGISTRAL, the 40th Army launched to drive to clear the main route to Khost district, which had been effectively cut off by the Mujahadeen. The key position was the Satukandav pass, thirty kilometres east of Gardez, and practically the only way through the mountains between Gardez and Khost. On 28 November, following unsuccessful negotiations with the guerrillas, General Boris Gromov decided to determine the enemy’s weapon systems (especially air defence) with a fake parachute drop using twenty dummy parachutists. This proved highly successful and the guerrillas revealed their positions for artillery observers to record. They were then attacked from the air and with a four-hour artillery programme. Although the deception was very effective, the artillery programme (which far exceeded Soviet norms) was not, and the pass was cleared only after heavy fighting.

Success in guerrilla war is hard to define and body count is certainly a poor criterion. The Soviets appear repeatedly to have been engaging rearguards and the slow or uninformed guerrillas. Night patrols and ambushes were singular planned missions, not routine events. The Soviet concept of line-of-communication security appears to have been to establish a series of fortified positions, man them and then sit back and wait, without aggressive patrolling or reconnaissance. Similarly, they seem to have used air power primarily for offensive action and not reconnaissance, with little effort to shift forces, occupy temporary sites, or take actions to deceive or ‘wrong-foot’ the enemy. By the time the Soviets finally left Afghanistan in 1989 their casualties amounted to over 15,000 dead and a staggering 439,000 wounded and sick. Soviet command might perhaps have been more effective if it had read a book written at the end of the nineteenth century, Sir Charles Callwell’s Small Wars.

OBJECTIVE PEACH – The Drive for Baghdad I

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Captain Dan Hibner leads river assault.

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In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, American policy makers along with a small coalition of allies, decided that Saddam Hussein presented too great a threat to regional and global stability to remain in power. Whether the decision to invade Iraq was a correct one remains an emotionally charged and divisive issue. Little is gained by rehashing those debates here. Rather, it is the impact of that decision that concerns us.

Even as a separate war in Afghanistan was in its second year, the American military began rapidly concentrating significant power in the Gulf region. Despite the fact that the attack had much larger aims than the 1991 war with Iraq (Desert Storm), only a fraction of the force employed in that earlier fight was sent to the Gulf. Later, as the insurgency in Iraq took hold and spread, this lack of “boots on the ground” would appear to be one of the great mistakes of the war. For the purposes of defeating the Iraqi army and destroying the elite Republican Guard, however, it was sufficient. This was due mainly to the continued technological advancement of the American forces relative to the Iraqi army.

Precision weapons, which Americans had seen impressively displayed on nightly newscasts in 1991, had continued to improve both in quality and in quantity in the intervening years. Moreover, the U.S. military had made large strides in the communications and information arenas. Such technologies as “blue force tracking” allowed American commanders to see the precise location of almost every one of their combat vehicles that crossed the Iraqi border in something approximating real time. On a fast-moving and rapidly evolving modern battlefield, this dominant situational awareness proved decisive. The so-called Revolution in Military Affairs may not have lived up to the hype generated by its most vocal supporters, but it was not without huge benefits, particularly on a high-intensity battlefield.

The Coalition plan of attack called for the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division to attack along the west side of the Euphrates River toward Baghdad, while the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force attacked along the east side of the Euphrates toward Al Kut, before it too turned west for Baghdad. To the far east was Great Britain’s 1st Armored Division, assigned to capture and hold the Basra area in southern Iraq. Coming up behind the 3rd Infantry Division was the 101st Airborne Division, followed by other units as they rolled into the theater. In front of these divisions stood several divisions of the regular Iraqi army, designated by allied planners as being of inferior quality. Between these divisions and the final defensive lines around Baghdad were tens of thousands of Fedayeen irregulars, whose suicidal bravery made a significant impact on the minds of American commanders. Finally, Saddam entrusted the final defense of Baghdad to the six divisions of the Republican Guard.

For the most part, the Iraqi defenses were misaligned and ill prepared to resist the American onslaught. This was due primarily to Saddam’s belief to the very end that the Coalition would never dare to attack—and if it did, it would halt short of Baghdad, as it had in 1991. In fact, throughout the American buildup, Saddam considered Iran and a potential domestic revolt by the Shia as his two greatest security threats. An American-led invasion placed a distant third in his calculations. Saddam also fell victim to an American deception plan that convinced him the main Coalition attack would come from Jordan and not Kuwait. Owing to this erroneous belief, Saddam ordered the movement of several Republican Guard divisions to the west side of Baghdad, a decision that had a grievous effect on his defense. He never accepted that the main American attack would come from the southern desert until the 3rd Infantry Division began tearing apart his much vaunted Republican Guard divisions.

On March 19, 2003, the 3rd Infantry Division (3ID) blasted across the Iraq–Kuwait border. Initially, only the Iraqi 11th Infantry Division stood in its way, but it soon dissolved under 3ID’s first hammer blows. As the American forces raced across the Iraqi desert, they expected a joyous welcome from the majority population in the Shia-dominated south. There was no love lost between the Shia and the Sunni-dominated Saddam government. In fact, in the wake of the 1991 war the Shia had revolted. That revolt came within a hairbreadth of toppling the regime and was put down only by mass slaughter. Saddam’s Republican Guards killed an estimated one hundred thousand Shia as they battled to retake the region. Nevertheless, American hopes of Shia welcoming parades and celebrations in honor of their deliverers were soon quashed. Having endured years of persecution, the Shia were a defeated people. They simply were not going to take overt steps until they were absolutely sure Saddam was dead.

As the lead elements of 3ID entered the city of Samawah, revelers were nowhere in sight. Instead the Americans were set upon by hundreds and later thousands of Fedayeen irregulars. These troops were not well trained, were poorly led, and were usually equipped only with light arms. However, they were fanatically loyal to the regime and possessed suicidal courage. Over the succeeding days, 3ID soldiers were awed and, in the early going, a bit unnerved by the Fedayeen’s willingness to press assaults through murderous American fire. Some attacks were broken up only at the edges of the American line, while one brigade commander was even forced to shoot a Fedayeen who had climbed aboard his tank. In the end, though, it was all in vain. Fedayeen fanaticism proved inferior to walls of armor belching out thousands of rounds a minute. The Fedayeen put a scare into some senior leaders and caught the attention of the press, but after the initial contacts they rarely made an impression on the 3ID soldiers. The Fedayeen would come out en masse again at Najaf and Karbala and to contest the final “Thunder Runs” into Baghdad itself. The fighting was always fierce, but the result was the same. Thousands of Fedayeen were sacrificed in futile attempts to slow the pace of 3ID’s advance.

Outside of Najaf, however, 3ID was halted. This was mostly a result of massive sandstorms and the fact that the armored formations had outrun their logistics. A few days were needed to rest, rearm, and refuel before the next push. However, by now the Fedayeen had captured the public’s imagination, and the media presented the halt to the American people as a natural result of the unexpectedly high levels of Iraqi resistance. An air of pessimism was pervasive everywhere except among the American combat leaders, who were convinced they were on the edge of victory. As the commander of 3ID’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team (2BCT), Colonel David Perkins, said when asked about the Fedayeen, “I did not expect this many of them, but all that means is that I have to use more ammunition … and I have plenty of that.” When told that Time magazine was planning a cover story titled “Why Are We Losing?” he was reported to have said: “Today my brigade leaves Najaf and heads north. Tomorrow we rest, rearm and refuel. The next day I attack to annihilate the Medina Division. The day after that I will be in Baghdad.” But before Perkins could lead his 2BCT into Baghdad, 3ID’s 1st Brigade Combat Team (1BCT), commanded by Colonel William Grimsley, would have to secure the narrow Karbala Gap and seize a crossing on the Euphrates River.

The Karbala gap was the one place in Iraq the soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division feared. It was the narrowest choke point along their route from Kuwait to Baghdad, and everyone from private to general was sure that this was where Saddam would hit them with chemical weapons. However, by early morning on April 1, Grimsley’s 1BCT had moved unmolested through the gap and was consolidating on the far side. But the tedious passage coupled with the incredible tension of expecting at any moment to be hit by chemical weapons left everyone exhausted and looking forward to a planned twelve-hour rest before the lunge for the critical Euphrates bridges that would open the door to Baghdad.

Determined to take advantage of the rapid advance through the Karbala Gap, the division commander, General Buff Blount, was already forming new plans. He considered the lack of Iraqi resistance in the Karbala Gap to be evidence that the Americans had rocked the Iraqis back on their heels and was not inclined to give the enemy time to recover. He called Grimsley and ordered him to have his brigade moving forward before noon. Despite the troops’ exhaustion, Grimsley had Lieutenant Colonel Rock Marcone’s 3–69 Armored Battalion refueled and roaring toward the Euphrates bridge—Objective Peach—by 11:00 A.M.

Objective Peach (the al-Qa’id Bridge) was a dual-span bridge over the Euphrates River and the final obstacle before Baghdad. It presented the last chance the Iraqis would have to slow the American onslaught. The Iraqi II Republican Corps commander, Lieutenant General Raad Hamdani, had long recognized the importance of the bridge, which he termed “the Iraqi Remagen.” Almost two weeks before, he had put a company on the bridge under the command of one of his best junior officers and ordered him to blow up the bridge if he even suspected the Americans were approaching. A week later, he sent his chief of staff to the bridge to make sure the defenses were ready and the demolitions were in place. However, this officer took it upon himself to countermand Hamdani’s order, telling the bridge commander that Saddam had ordered that no bridges be destroyed and that if he blew up this bridge, Hamdani would be executed. Though one span of the bridge was damaged in an unexplained explosion, the officer charged with the duty of blowing up the bridge refused to carry out Hamdani’s orders as 3ID tanks approached. Hamdani later said, “Both men acted out of personal loyalty to me, but it was a big mistake. It cost us the war.”

Knowing the bridge was still standing, but not for how long, Rock Marcone’s combat-tested 3-69 Armored Battalion set a furious pace as it led the 1BCT’s drive to Peach. Along the way, Marcone’s troops met sporadic resistance, which only two weeks earlier would have caused the attacking columns to deploy and take precious time developing the situation. But something had happened to Marcone and the rest of the 3ID soldiers in the two weeks since invading Iraq—they had become veterans.

Now, encountering the enemy on the line of march was almost routine. Only the most determined resistance called for a halt. For Marcone’s veterans, enemy contacts merited only a quick radio report as his armored battalion destroyed everything it encountered and continued its advance. Radio traffic became a litany of targets spotted, engaged, and destroyed. Only at one point did the enemy make a serious stand, when two hundred Iraqis fired from behind fortified positions into the flanks of the onrushing armored column. Marcone’s Alpha Company veered out of the advancing column and annihilated the position, then rejoined the battalion fifteen minutes later. What Marcone’s troops were reporting as light and sporadic contact was actually the entire 14th Brigade of the Republican Guard’s Medina Division being ground out of existence. One Iraqi general later said, with this attack in mind, “The American soldiers are very disciplined. They fight like robots and engage and kill everything on the battlefield. The Americans did not even seem to react to our defensive plans. They simply fought their way through anything that stood in their path.”

Worried about reports that the Americans were through the Karbala Gap and that his front was collapsing, Hamdani rushed to the Medina Division’s headquarters north of Karbala. While being briefed by the Medina Division’s commander, Hamdani proudly watched the 1st Regiment of the 14th Brigade form up to launch a counterattack. A regiment in attack formation, however, was a lucrative and rarely found target, and U.S. sensors spotted it almost immediately after it formed. Before the regiment could move forward, American jets pounced. As Hamdani looked on, the regiment was annihilated in an instant of blast and flame.

Shortly after 1:00 P.M., Hamdani was called back to Baghdad for the most incredible meeting of the war. All he could do for the Medina’s commander was to tell him to hold on and that he would send whatever reinforcements were available. It was a comment of despair, because by that time Marcone’s leading tanks had already covered half the distance from Karbala to Objective Peach and the Medina’s 14th Brigade no longer existed.