Antisubmarine War WWI – Mediterranean 1916-17

Kaba departing Ryojun, 1925. She was deployed in the Mediterranean in WWI.

Japanese cruiser Akashi in drydock. Rear-Admiral Kōzō Satō commanded the “Second Special Squadron” with Akashi as flagship with the 10th and 11th Destroyer Units (eight destroyers) based at Malta from 13 April 1917. He was reinforced by the 15th Destroyer Unit with four more destroyers from 1 June 1917 to carry out on direct escort duties for Allied troop transports in the Mediterranean.

The Allies had abandoned exclusive use of patrolled routes in the Mediterranean shortly before the Germans adopted unrestricted submarine warfare. The Germans declared the great majority of the Mediterranean a Sperrgebiet (prohibited area) except for the extreme western portion off Spain, including the Balearics, and initially, the 20-mile-wide corridor to Greek waters. The Austrians promised to assist the Germans outside of the Adriatic. Their smaller submarines as they became available would now operate against Allied shipping between Malta and Cerigo. In the early part of 1917, the situation in the Mediterranean was deceptively favorable to the Allies, for in January the greater part of the Mediterranean U-boat flotilla was under repair and refit at Pola and Cattaro after the heavy demands of 1916. In January sinkings fell to 78,541 tons, only 24 percent of the total of 328,391 tons sunk in all theaters. It was the lull before the storm, for by 10 February the Germans had 10 U-boats at sea in the Mediterranean, along with an Austrian submarine, and that month submarines sank 105,670 tons of shipping. This, however, represented only 20.3 percent of the 520,412 tons sunk in all theaters, for with the introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare, the Mediterranean percentage of total sinkings inevitably declined. The successes of the Mediterranean U-boat flotilla declined again in March to 61,917 tons, just under 11 percent of the total of 564,497 tons in all theaters. April 1917 turned into a record month for the Mediterranean flotilla, just as it was a record month for U-boats in all theaters. The Germans had 14 U-boats at sea at the beginning of the month, joined by 2 Austrians. They sank in the Mediterranean 254,911 tons (3,724 tons by submarine-laid mines), or 29.6 percent of the 860,334 tons sunk in all theaters. The Austrians contributed another 23,037 tons.

The Admiralty were so alarmed by the heavy losses along the coast of Algeria, which they naturally attributed to the ineffectiveness of French patrols, that they ordered British shipping to abandon the coastal route in favor of hugging the Spanish coast from Gibraltar to Cape San Antonio and then use dispersed routes to Malta. The French, however, complained that they were using more than eighty patrol craft of all sorts on their patrolled routes in the western Mediterranean whereas the British were escorting all British troopships or ships with valuable cargoes and following routes entirely different from the French. Furthermore, the French charged that the British used their destroyers to escort troopships, leaving trawlers on the patrolled routes through British zones. These trawlers often lacked wireless receivers and could not be counted upon to divert ships from threatened areas. Admiral Gauchet, now French commander in chief, described the situation on the Malta-Cerigo route as “every man for himself.”

Allied merchant ships deliberately made use of Spanish territorial waters. This proved to be correct, if not very heroic, and it naturally added to the length and duration of a voyage. German U-boat commanders were ordered to observe the Spanish 3-mile limit, and, in fact, to avoid mistakes they were normally to observe a 4-mile limit unless there was a particularly valuable target in the fourth mile and they were quite sure of their position. On the whole, German U-boat commanders respected Spanish territorial waters and the Allies made extensive use of them. The Allies suspected the Germans were violating them, but careful analysis of sinkings generally established that the ships had strayed out of those waters when they were sunk. It was not hard to do; navigation so close to the coast could be difficult and hazardous, and merchant ship captains often were inclined to take a shortcut across the curve of a bay, which made them legitimate targets for the Germans. U-boat commanders were not angels; they obviously found more than enough targets in the Mediterranean without having to violate Spanish waters.

The Mediterranean situation could not be ignored by the Allied leaders by the spring of 1917. In early April General Sir William Robertson, chief of the imperial general staff, asked Jellicoe about a joint statement from the British naval leaders as to what reductions at Salonika would be necessary if the British were to continue the war in 1918. Jellicoe was a strong partisan of abandoning the Salonika expedition because of the strain on shipping and naval resources to support it. He recommended the immediate reduction or withdrawal of the British contingent, and he advocated a complete withdrawal if the cabinet expected the war to continue beyond 1917. This would then allow the British to recover a number of patrol craft for safeguarding commerce in home waters, free a large amount of shipping to build up a reserve of food and supply the French and Italians with coal and other necessities, and permit the British to give better protection to the sea communications with the army in Egypt. The French could be expected to strongly oppose what in their eyes was a British attempt to abandon the Salonika expedition, where France was preponderant, in favor of the pursuit of imperial gains in Palestine. An Allied conference with the Italians at St. Jean de Maurienne on 19 April took no decision on Jellicoe’s proposal, and one is inclined to believe that if the Allies did not succeed in mastering the submarine danger the issue was likely to be moot. It would then be a question of whether or not the British could continue the war.

The conflicting policies in the Mediterranean had made it obvious that another international conference was necessary. The Corfu conference took place during the crisis of the naval war. It was held in Gauchet’s flagship Provence at Corfu 28 April to 1 May. The Allies unanimously decided they would not return to the discredited system of patrolled routes created at Malta in 1916. They would navigate only by night and along coastal routes whenever possible, and those coastal routes would be patrolled along with certain strategic straits. The conference made a major change in procedure: on routes that ran far from the coast, ships would be protected by convoys and escorts following dispersed routes, that is, routes chosen by a routing officer at the port of departure according to the circumstances of the moment.

The Corfu conference had really created a hybrid system rather than one of general convoys or ships sailing independently. All ships entering the Mediterranean were now required to stop at Gibraltar for instructions and formation into convoys before proceeding to Oran, although the authorities sometimes allowed ships to navigate independently without escort if there was no submarine danger. Ships followed the patrolled coastal route between Oran and Bizerte, but they were not necessarily escorted in those waters. Ships were formed into convoys again at Bizerte for the remainder of their voyage eastward. Ships bound from Gibraltar to Marseille or Genoa continued to follow Spanish coastal waters as long as the Germans respected them.

The most important decision of the Corfu conference as far as its implications for the future were concerned was the establishment of a “Direction Générale” at Malta, which was composed of officers delegated by the different navies and was charged with the direction of everything concerning transport routes and their protection. The idea was proposed by Admiral Gauchet, but the British managed to turn it to their own advantage, for they proposed that, without modifying the present system of a French commander in chief for all the Mediterranean, all the British naval forces be placed under a single commander. The British commander in chief would have an officer of flag rank charged with protecting transport routes who would be the British representative on the Direction Générale that Gauchet had proposed. The effect of this would be to give the British the predominant role in the antisubmarine campaign. Gauchet remained the theoretical commander in chief with the largest number of dreadnoughts, seemingly preoccupied with preparing for that major naval encounter with the Austrian fleet.

The French and the Italians had by far the preponderance in capital ships, but the real action in the Mediterranean by this date was the antisubmarine war, and here the balance had quietly swung decisively toward the British. In May 1917 the total of patrol vessels of all sorts in the Mediterranean, from destroyers to sloops, from trawlers to small torpedo boats, was: British, 429; French, 302; Italian, 119; and Japanese, 8. The British had really learned that the Mediterranean was too important to be left to the French. British interests, whether they were shipping or overseas expeditions, were extensive, and they could not rely on others who, with the best will in the world, were apt to lack the resources to do the job. The British were forced to assume the leading part in the antisubmarine war.

The Japanese contribution needs a word of explanation. The British had long been anxious for Japanese assistance. The Japanese had been reluctant to send forces to European waters, although they had, as we have seen, provided considerable assistance in the opening months of the war and later in the search for the German raiders. In mid-April Rear Admiral Kozo Sato arrived at Malta with the Tenth and Eleventh Japanese destroyer flotillas, eight 650-ton Kaba class. Sato flew his flag in the cruiser Akashi, which served as headquarters ship. In August 1917 the Fifteenth Flotilla arrived with four of the new 850-ton Momo class and the armored cruiser Idzumo, which relieved the Akashi. The Japanese were nominally independent, but actually carried out whatever orders they received from the British commander in chief at Malta. The Japanese in fact worked very closely with the British, particularly in escorting troopships. They soon gained an excellent reputation. Their ships were new and well-handled, and the British paid them the ultimate compliment by turning over two of their own H-class destroyers to be renamed and manned by Japanese crews for the duration of the war. This Japanese contribution of fourteen destroyers at a critical moment in the war against submarines has been largely forgotten, but under the circumstances it was far from negligible.

The decisions of the Corfu conference were only recommendations; they naturally had to be accepted by the respective governments. The Admiralty, however, acted fairly quickly, and the Malta-Alexandria convoy was introduced on 22 May with four ships escorted by four trawlers. It proved a success; only two ships were lost between 22 May and 16 July. The French on 18 June formally established a special directorate for the submarine war. The Direction générale de la guerre sous-marine was to a large extent the result of pressure from the French parliament, where there were strong suspicions that the French naval staff had been too tradition-bound and had not paid enough attention to submarine warfare.

Admiral the Honorable Sir Somerset Gough-Calthorpe, second son of the seventh Baron Calthorpe, was appointed British Mediterranean commander in chief. He had formerly commanded the Second Cruiser Squadron and had been second sea lord in 1916. Calthorpe was hardly one of the household names of the war and was deceptively mild mannered. He apparently had a certain amount of difficulty getting his authority accepted by the other commands, but he grew in assurance as time went on. He also possessed good judgment, although he was unfortunately somewhat backward about realizing the value of convoys. At the end of the war he was destined to play a considerable role in negotiating the armistice with the Turks and subsequently became high commissioner in Turkey and the Black Sea. One of his staff officers considered him a man who never sought greatness but had it thrust on him.

The introduction of convoys into the Mediterranean proved difficult. The route structure was complex and the entire Mediterranean was considered a danger area, unlike the situation in the Atlantic where only about 350 miles required special protection for convoys. The British Isles naturally received priority in the allocation of escorts, and the Admiralty added to their own difficulties by insisting that convoys must remain small. There was also the problem of dealing with Allies, notably the Italians. The Italians proved extremely recalcitrant about contributing destroyers and escorts to the common cause, that is, convoys from Gibraltar, and Calthorpe really had no authority over their antisubmarine operations. The Italians insisted they were the only one of the Allies close to the enemy battle fleet, for Pola was only a few hours steaming distance from Venice. They therefore had to retain a significant destroyer force for the protection of Venice and needed their other antisubmarine forces for the protection of Italian traffic in the Tyrrhenian or on the routes to and from Albania and Libya.

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Japanese Seaplane Attack on the United States

B-1 1-15 type submarine

The states of the Pacific Northwest, such as Oregon and Washington, are covered with thick forest that stretches for hundreds of miles. These forests provided the Japanese with a plan to divert American men and resources away from other theatres of war, and to demoralize the American people by striking directly at mainland America. The Japanese attacks aimed to start huge forest fires throughout the Pacific Northwest, and the Japanese developed two methods to achieve this aim. First, seaplanes would be launched from Japanese submarines, the submarines surfacing undetected close to the Oregon coast. These seaplanes would deliver a small amount of incendiary bombs in an attempt to start a conflagration. Second, large balloons were designed and launched from mainland Japan, complex devices designed to cross the Pacific and release incendiary and antipersonnel bombs on America, code-named ‘Fugo’ by the Japanese or ‘windship weapons’.

The I-25 was one of eleven Japanese submarines that had been modified to carry, launch and recover the two-seater Yokosuka E14Y1 floatplane (code-named ‘Glen’ by the Allies). A large submarine, with a crew numbering ninety-seven and a cruising range of 14,000 miles, the I-25 had been constructed by Mitsubishi at Kobe, Japan, and completed in October 1941. Although she was positioned off Hawaö during the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, damage precluded her from launching her aircraft to conduct reconnaissance for the attack fleet. In order to carry an aircraft, the submarine had been modified with a waterproof hangar positioned in front of the conning tower. To fit the Glen, its wings and horizontal stabilizer were folded up, and the floats removed. The aircraft was launched by means of a compressed air catapult positioned on two rails running along the submarine. After completing a sortie, the pilot landed the Glen in the sea, taxied up to the submarine, and the aircraft and crew were recovered.

Lieutenant Nobuo Fujita of the Imperial Japanese Navy came up with the idea of utilizing the reconnaissance aircraft carried aboard the B-1 1-15 type submarines, of which the 7-25 was the sixth boat commissioned, to launch incendiary attacks upon mainland United States and the subsidiary target of the Panama Canal. The I-25 was given the first mission, and Fujita would pilot the Glen. However, the I-25 had already visited the shores of America once before and conducted attacks. On 27 May 1942 her Glen was launched on a reconnaissance flight over Kodiak Island, Alaska, preparatory to the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands. So important was the photo-reconnaissance data derived from this sortie that another I-15 class submarine, the I-26, was on station with an empty hangar, ready to recover the I-25’s Glen should a problem arise. The I-25 continued her mission, travelling down the American coast, attacking the freighter Fort Camosun with her deck gun off Washington on 20 June. On the night of 21 June, the I-25 launched the first attack on mainland United States since the British in 1814, when she fired seventeen shells from her deck gun at Fort Stevens, a US Navy coastal defence installation on the north coast of Oregon. Some damage was inflicted on the baseball backstop and a major security alert was started. Fears grew that a Japanese invasion of Oregon was about to commence.

Having completed its patrol, the I-25 then turned for Japan, arriving back in Yokosuka by 27 July. On 15 August 1942, the I-25 departed Japan again and headed back to the United States, this time to initiate Lieutenant Fujita’s audacious plan to bomb America. By early September the Japanese submarine had arrived in foul weather off the Port Orford Heads in Oregon. The seas were too heavy to launch the Glen until 9 September. Surfacing just before dawn, the crew of the I-25 hastily assembled the aircraft and loaded incendiary bombs. Using the Cape Blanco lighthouse as a navigational beacon, Fujita and his crewman took off at sunrise and headed north-east until they reached the lighthouse, then turned south-east and covered a further 50 miles, releasing an incendiary bomb onto Mount Emily, in Siskiyou National Forest. Flying east for several miles, Fujita dropped his second bomb, and then headed back to the I-25. Unfortunately for Fujita, the bad weather, which had delayed the launch of his Glen on the submarine’s arrival off the coast of America, had also saturated the forests – his two incendiary bombs proved ineffective. Fujita headed back towards the submarine at low-level, but as the aircraft and crew were being recovered from the Pacific, a lone US Army Air Corps A-29 bomber, on patrol from McChord Field at Tacoma, spotted the surfaced Japanese submarine and attacked. Completing recovery of the Glen as the American aircraft released its bombs, the I-25, with minor damage, dived to the bottom of the sea west of Port Orford.

A second sortie was planned and executed on the night of 29 September, the submarine surfacing just after midnight approximately 50 miles west of Cape Blanco. The American authorities along the Pacific coast enforced a strict blackout, but lighthouses remained in operation. Fujita took off and used the Cape Blanco lighthouse again as a navigation marker. He flew east for ninety minutes, released his two bombs, and then returned to the submarine. Fujita reported seeing flames on the ground, but the American authorities found no trace of the attack, although an unidentified aircraft was reported flying east of Port Orford.

The final two incendiary bombs were to remain on board the I-25, which reverted to attacking shipping along the American coast. On 4 October the I-25 sank the freighter Camden off Coos Bay in southern Oregon, killing one sailor. She struck again on 6 October, sinking the tanker Larry Doheny off Cape Sebastian. This success cost the lives of two sailors and four US Navy crewmen manning deck guns on the merchant ship. A few days later the I-25 departed the American coast for Japan, and on the way home sank the Soviet submarine L-16 off Alaska, the Soviet Union not being at war with Japan until 1945. The captain of the I-25 mistook the L-16 for an American boat.

 

Before the Sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse I

Admiral Sir Tom Phillips (centre)

William G. Tennant of Repulse, shown later as a Vice Admiral. (Imperial War Museum)

Three days after Rear-Admiral Sir Tom Phillips arrived in Singapore to begin talks with Air Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, the C-in-C Far East, and the Army’s GOC, Lt-General Arthur Percival, the Prince of Wales and Repulse entered the Johore Strait and proceeded towards their berths in the new dockyard. The fact that the two capital ships had passed down the potentially dangerous Malacca Strait without fighter protection from shore-based squadrons in western Malaya did not appear to disturb the Admiral’s equanimity, although both Captain Tennant of Repulse and, somewhat surprisingly, the Army’s General Percival had some scathing remarks to make about the RAF’s failure to provide even routine air cover.

Phillips’ apparent lack of concern reflected his deeply held conviction that ships’ guns alone would defend the fleet from even the most determined air attack. In addition he shared Churchill’s low opinion of Japanese air power and had, some months earlier, expressed the view that ‘the Japanese air forces, both naval and military, were of much the same quality as the Italian and markedly inferior to the Luftwaffe’. For a man without first-hand experience of attack by either of the latter and who was, in common with everyone else, totally ignorant of the capabilitites of the former, it was a somewhat rash statement.

The arrival of the two capital ships meant that the Eastern Fleet – a grandiloquent mockery so far as the title was concerned – could now be constituted as planned. But even on paper it was a less than impressive force. Prince of Wales was not yet fully worked-up; Repulse, although a crack fighting ship in her own right, was, nevertheless, a First World War veteran and had only been partially modernized; the vintage cruisers Danae, Dragon and Durban were slow and woefully lacking in anti-aircraft defences, while the more recently built Mauritius was undergoing a refit; and of the Fleet’s eight destroyers: Vampire (RAN), Tenedos, Electra, Express, Encounter, Jupiter, Stronghold and Vendetta (RAN), the four last-named ships were out of service refitting or under repair. Simultaneously with the creation of the new fleet, and in accordance with the decision already made in London some months earlier, Phillips was promoted to the rank of Acting Admiral to give him the necessary precedence over Vice-Admiral Layton whose China Squadron headquarters had been transferred from Hong Kong to Singapore on 12 September.

At the opposite end of the social scale few of the sailors manning the Repulse showed any interest in the pecking order of their superiors. But they continued to be concerned by their own apparent anonymity. For, once again, the Repulse had not been named in the Admiralty’s latest communique and the announcement of the squadron’s arrival in Singapore referred only to ‘Prince of Wales and other heavy units’ – an unnecessary zeal for secrecy that could have easily affected morale aboard the battle-cruiser had she been commanded by a less understanding and persuasive officer than Captain William Tennant.

In the course of his whirlwind round of talks and conferences, and following a meeting with the AOC Malaya, Air Vice-Marshal Pulford, Phillips had discovered a number of disquieting and unpalatable facts about the Colony’s air defence. The RAF, he learned, had only forty-three Brewster Buffalo fighters – a machine obsolete by European standards – together with thirty-four obsolescent early marks of the Bristol Blenheim bomber, twenty-seven antiquated Vickers Vildebeeste torpedo-bombers, and a handful of Australian Lockheed Hudsons, with which to defend the whole of British Malaya. Of these a full squadron of Buffalo fighters was being held back for the specific defence of the island and city of Singapore, while most of the remainder had been dispersed up-country to recently constructed jungle airfields with few facilities and inadequate, often non-existent, ground defences.

Nevertheless at dinner that night Pulford assured Captain Tennant that he would be able to provide the Fleet with adequate air cover should a Japanese attack take place. Unfortunately he did not make use of the opportunity to correct Phillips’ mistaken view that, providing he kept his ships more than 200 miles from Japan’s newly-built airfields in Indo-China, his fleet would be safe from attack.

Rigged out in their regulation tropical uniforms with knee-length shorts and long white socks, Admiral Phillips and senior members of his Staff boarded an RAF Sunderland flying-boat in Johore Strait on Thursday, 4 December, to fly to Manila for a conference with General Douglas MacArthur and the C-in-C of America’s Asiatic Fleet, Admiral Thomas Hart. Talks between Britain and the United States on the subject of naval co-operation in the Far East had been first held in January, 1938, when it was agreed that, in the event of war, the US Pacific Fleet would operate from Pearl Harbor while the British Eastern Fleet – that beloved myth of the politicians – would concentrate at Singapore.

In May, 1939, however, the Admiralty warned the Americans that Britain could no longer guarantee the despatch of a full-scale fleet to the Far East if hostilities broke out and suggested that the United States should assume responsibility for the sea-defence of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Although the Americans made no comment on this unsubtle piece of kite-flying, the Pentagon prudently began drawing up an entirely new war plan – Rainbow One – which was based on the assumption that there would be no Royal Navy battle-fleet in Asian waters. It proved to be a realistic forecast.

Further staff conversations took place in London 15 months later and these were followed, in January, 1941, by formal talks in Washington. It was at this meeting that Britain came out into the open and urged the United States to divide its fleet and take over the defence of Singapore – a proposal which held little appeal for the Americans who viewed the so-called ‘island fortress’ as an outmoded bastion of Colonial power which was, in any case, indefensible. In the end it was agreed that a joint Australian and New Zealand naval force would protect the vital Australasian trade routes and that Britain would send six battleships to Singapore if the United States would provide assistance in the Mediterranean – a highly unlikely scenario as America was still neutral and was showing a marked reluctance to become involved in a European war.

By contrast, Anglo-Dutch talks at local level proved to be decidedly more fruitful, particularly after Hitler’s occupation of the Low Countries in May, 1940. And by February, 1941, the Dutch had agreed that, in the event of a Japanese attack, they would provide naval forces to help hold Malaya until the Royal Navy could despatch reinforcements. Finally, and not before time, British, Dutch and American discussions – known as the ADB Conference – were held in Singapore from 21 to 27 April, 1941.

This latter meeting was bedevilled by political uncertainties, for none of the participants knew the intentions of their respective governments should Japan assault only one of them in isolation. And while Churchill had pledged British support if the United States or its possessions were attacked by the Japanese there had been no reciprocal commitment from the American side. In fact many senior United States officers including Admiral Stark and General Marshall strenuously opposed the joint plan that emerged from the ABD Conference because its focal point was Singapore. And so great was American opposition that, at one point, the permission granted earlier to Admiral Hart to place his Asiatic Fleet under British strategic direction if the Philippines became untenable was withdrawn. Fortunately, the Dutch stuck loyally by their part of the bargain agreed in February and on 1 December, 1941, submarines of the Royal Netherlands Navy began operating under British control. It was a small but significant step towards the concept of a unified command structure. Nevertheless, such was the disarray of the three potential allies that they did not even share a common signal book – the first requirement for any successful joint operation.

The Manila talks opened on 5 December, 1941, and got off to a good start. The two Admirals quickly became friends and, somewhat to their surprise, found that they saw eye-to-eye on many aspects of Far Eastern strategy. Phillips, for example, agreed with Hart’s view that Singapore was indefensible and that Manila would be a more suitable base for fleet operations. Each, however, accepted that, as the British squadron had been sent to the Far East to protect Singapore, it must, for political reasons and at least for the time being, remain in Malayan waters. Both men also recognized that Manila could not be regarded as a viable alternative base until the air defences of Malaya were strengthened and the RAF could take over the Navy’s seaward defence role.

Admiral Hart entertained no illusions about the current situation in South-East Asia and, aware of the vulnerability of the Philippines, had already begun dispersing his forces. The destroyers Whipple, Alden, John D. Edwards and Edsall were despatched to Balikpapan on the east coast of British North Borneo on 24 November, while another group of four destroyers, led by the cruiser Marblehead, had been ordered even further south to Tarakan. During his talks with Phillips at Manila, Hart agreed to send the Balikpapan force to Singapore as a much-needed reinforcement for the British fleet, although he insisted, as a quid pro quo, that Phillips should recall the three old destroyers, Scout, Thanet and Thracian from Hong Kong – a bargain to which Phillips readily assented for the presence of American warships in Singapore would almost certainly lead to the involvement of the United States if the Japanese attacked. The years he had spent in the corridors of power at the Admiralty had made Tom Phillips very much aware of such political considerations and was, indeed, one of the more cogent reasons why he had been picked to command the Eastern Fleet.

The two Admirals also confirmed the decision taken at the ABD Conference eight months earlier that the defence of the antipodean trade routes should be left in the hands of a combined Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) squadron. This particular unit, under the command of the Australian Rear-Admiral John Crace, had been originally formed to combat German surface raiders and it was both suitably placed and adequately armed to protect the seaward frontiers of the Australian continent. It was a powerful force comprising the 8-inch gunned cruiser Canberra, acting as flagship, plus four 6-inch gunned ships – the New Zealand Navy’s Achilles and Leander and the Australian Perth and Adelaide – together with three destroyers: the Free French Le Triomphant and the Australian Stuart and Voyager, although these two latter ships were refitting and out of service. Three sloops, Swan, Warrego and the French Chevreuil, completed the squadron. Had these well-armed and modern vessels been sent to join Phillips at Singapore the Eastern Fleet, together with the four US destroyers from Balikpapan, would have been a formidable surface fighting force capable of smashing the Japanese invasion armada at sea although the absence of an aircraft carrier must cast considerable doubt on its ultimate effectiveness in the face of Japan’s air power.

But despite the spirit of friendly co-operation engendered at Manila the inability of the politicians to act in similar harmony meant that the uncertainties remained. And, unable to pledge themselves to support each other until such time as their respective governments undertook formal treaty obligations, it was impossible to appoint an overall commander capable of welding the three navies – British, American and Dutch – into a single cohesive unit. It was a failure that was to dog the Allies throughout the first six months of the Pacific war.

Even before Phillips had arrived in Manila the military situation in South-East Asia was a cause of increasing concern to the Western powers. The number of Japanese troops, ships and aircraft arriving in Indo-China had been building up steadily for several weeks and it was clear that some form of attack was imminent. The only element of doubt was its likely objective – the choice resting primarily between Siam, Malaya, or the islands of the Dutch East Indies. And even when the main landing force of 26,640 troops aboard eighteen transports and accompanied by Vice-Admiral Ozawa’s close escort of two cruisers and twelve destroyers left Hainan on the morning of 4 December its ultimate destination remained obscure.

The concentration of aircraft in Indo-China should have warned the authorities that Japan was contemplating something considerably more ambitious than the invasion of a ‘soft’ target such as Siam. Indeed all the evidence pointed to a major assault on a far more formidable objective. And the arrival in Saigon of Rear-Admiral Sadaichi Matsunaga’s 22nd Air Flotilla, or Koku Sentai, was clear confirmation that the Japanese were preparing for an important operation.

The 22nd Air Flotilla, as originally constituted, comprised the Genzan Kokutai with thirty-six twin-engined Mitsubishi Navy Type 96 G3M2 (Nell) bombers which had flown to Saigon from Formosa; the Mihoro Kokutai with a further thirty-six Mitsubishi Navy Type 96 machines, also from Formosa, and which was now based at Tu Duam, an airfield to the north of the capital; and a further thirty-six fighter aircraft and six reconnaissance machines at Soc Trang south of Saigon. The Japanese evaluation of the threat posed by the Prince of Wales and Repulse is apparent from the fact that the arrival of the two ships in Singapore led to the 22nd Air Flotilla being reinforced by twenty-seven Mitsubishi Navy Type 1 G4M1 (Betty) bombers from the Kanoya Kokutai – a unit forming part of the 21st Air Flotilla in Formosa previously ear-marked for operations in support of the invasion of the Philippines. Yamamoto thus contemptuously rated Britain’s two capital ships – Churchill’s much-vaunted deterrent – as being worth no more than twenty-seven extra aircraft – an increase of only 25% in the original number of machines allocated to the assault on Siam and Malaya. It was a piece of arithmetic that Phillips would have dismissed out of hand.

Before the Sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse II

As the Allied admirals and their advisers gathered in the US Navy’s air-conditioned conference rooms in Manila to discuss their strategic options on the morning of Friday, 5 December, the Japanese were already stepping-up their activities and, throughout the day, groups of transports together with covering forces of warships sailed from various secret anchorages in Indo-China in accordance with Japan’s master plan – possibly the most complex and ambitious series of landing operations ever undertaken in modern history, embracing, as it did, virtually simultaneous attacks by land, sea, and air, on objectives situated along a perimeter of some 6,500 miles.

Before flying to Manila, Phillips had come under pressure from the Admiralty to disperse his capital ships and move them away from Singapore – the War Staff in London apparently feeling jittery about reports of Japanese submarines converging on the base which they feared might presage an orchestrated submerged attack on the big ships if they tried to leave harbour after war had broken out.

In deference to the Admiralty’s fears, the Repulse, escorted by the destroyers Vampire (RAN) and Tenedos, sailed from Singapore on 5 December with orders to proceed to Darwin – a trip which many on board hoped would lead to the ship continuing on to Sydney in time for Christmas. Although underwater ambushes rarely succeeded – Vice-Admiral Scheer’s U-boat dispositions before the Battle of Jutland and Japan’s cordon of submarines off Pearl Harbor being cases in point – the Admiralty’s concern at the possibility of a mass submarine attack was understandable. Phillips’ decision to send the battle-cruiser to Australia, however, seemed less explicable and appeared to be yet another example of a senior officer misjudging Japanese intentions. Bearing in mind the reason why the Repulse had been despatched to the Far East, it would have been more in keeping with her intended role as a visible deterrent to send the ship on a flag-showing tour of Sumatra, Java or perhaps Borneo – all of which would have kept her within steaming distance of Singapore in an emergency. But as usual the Admiral’s decisions and dispositions were subject to political considerations and his choice of Australia reflected a desire to impress the Dominion’s government with the Royal Navy’s on-the-spot presence and to persuade it to release the cruiser Hobart for service with the Eastern Fleet which, at that particular moment, possessed no operational modern cruisers whatsoever. The unfolding drama of the next 48 hours, however, was to prevent Phillips from putting his ploy into practice.

The calm atmosphere of the Manila talks was rudely interrupted on Saturday (6th) when news arrived that an Australian reconnaissance aircraft from Kota Bharu – a Malayan airfield close to the Siam border – had sighted a Japanese convoy of twenty-five transports escorted by a battleship (it was, in fact, the heavy cruiser Chokai), five cruisers and seven destroyers, steaming westwards through the Gulf of Siam. Whether it was heading for Malaya or Siam was impossible to determine at this stage, but it was clear that trouble was brewing and Hart responded by ordering his destroyer division at Balikpapan to raise steam and make for Singapore as a matter of urgency. The Eastern Fleet’s Chief of Staff, Rear-Admiral Palliser, who had remained behind when Phillips flew to Manila, showed similar initiative by immediately signalling Repulse: Return with all despatch – his prompt action being confirmed by Phillips’ similar instruction which arrived from Manila an hour or so later. And as the British C-in-C hurriedly boarded his flying-boat for the return flight to Singapore further sighting reports of Japanese troop convoys came in from the search aircraft winging through the gathering dusk of the rain-swept Gulf of Siam.

Two thousand miles to the east another Japanese invasion force had just set out from Palau – the islands that had witnessed Drake’s first historic landfall in 1579 – for the initial assault on the Philippines. And with equal stealth Nagumo’s Carrier Striking Force was approaching the unsuspecting Hawaiian Islands from the north with its torpedo-aircraft and dive-bombers ranged on the darkened flight-decks eagerly waiting to launch the attack on Pearl Harbor that would finally bring the United States into the war. That same night the submarines I-121 and I-122 laid a secret minefield off Singapore while two surface vessels, Tatsumiya Maru and Nagas, laid another across the entrance to the Gulf of Siam between Tioman and the Anambas Islands. This latter obstacle contained around 1,000 mines and was to claim the Dutch submarines 0-16 and K-XVII as its victims later in the month.

If the Eastern Fleet had been able to sail immediately the sighting reports were received and had successfully intercepted the Japanese invasion force at sea there is a good chance that the enemy might have been persuaded to turn back, for the stakes were high and the Japanese had not anticipated being discovered quite so early in the game. Had such a gambit succeeded, Churchill’s concept of deterrence would have been justified. But it was not to be. Phillips was in Manila and the fleet remained leaderless until he returned to Singapore during the early hours of Sunday, 7 December. Moreover, 50% of the fleet’s main fighting strength, the battle-cruiser Repulse, was absent from its war station and en route to Australia. On this particular occasion the disarray was really nobody’s fault. But it was to have disastrous consequences over the course of the next few days.

Bad weather had curtailed air search activities during this critical period and although Japanese ships had been sighted for brief intervals such fleeting contacts in poor visibility made it impossible to determine their courses and probable destinations with any degree of accuracy. In growing desperation the RAF despatched two Catalina flying-boats to extend the search area further north towards the Indo-China coast. One machine returned empty-handed. The other was sighted by a Japanese fighter and shot down at midday on the 7th (0430 GMT) before it could transmit any signals. The RAF had suffered its first casualties of the Pacific war – nearly 14 hours before the first American serviceman was killed at Pearl Harbor!

But the situation was still uncertain and, despite a prodding request from the Admiralty asking‘… what action would be possible …’ if the Japanese landed in Malaya, there was little Phillips could do. He had already considered and ruled out the politically dangerous option of intercepting the invasion force before positive evidence of its destination was available. Now all he could do was to wait for events to unfold.

It is not generally realized that the Japanese landed in Malaya a clear ninety minutes before Nagumo’s dive-bombers swooped down on the anchored US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Based on Greenwich Mean Time the landings at Kota Bharu began at 1655 on 7 December (0025 on 8 December local time) while the first bombs fell on Pearl Harbor at 1825 on 7 December (0755 on 7 December local time).

In addition to carrying out a number of landings in Siam the Japanese intended to occupy Kota Bharu, where the RAF had recently constructed an airfield, during the first wave of attacks. Another objective was the Kra Isthmus which General Yamashita was anxious to seize at an early stage of the campaign in order to prevent British military reinforcements coming overland into Malaya from Burma via Siam. The Malayan operation was therefore planned as a series of separate assaults and, to this end, the invasion armada divided up into its component units at midday on the 7th. One transport proceeded to Prachuap, another to Bandon, two more to Jumbhorn and another three to Nakhon – Siamese harbours which it was necessary to seize if the Kra Isthmus was to be secured. The main force of seventeen transports, supported by minesweepers, assault ships and submarine-chasers, continued towards Singora and Pattani in southern Siam while the remaining three transports with the cruiser Sendai and the 19th Destroyer Division steered for Kota Bharu.

The Siamese offered no resistance at either Singora or Pattani and the Japanese troops disembarked in parade order with bands playing and flags flying. By contrast the Siamese army strongly resisted British attempts to cross their frontier and gain control of the strategically important north-south highway. Although caught by surprise when the Japanese landed, the Indian troops of the 3/17th Dogra Regiment who were defending Kota Bharu fought back fiercely, heavy casualties being sustained by both sides. And, hitting back with commendable speed, a group of Royal Australian Air Force Hudson bombers took off from the airfield in bright moonlight and attacked the Japanese invasion force as it lay off-shore – sinking a 9,749-ton transport and damaging two others. But the enemy soon gained a foothold and the vital airfield fell within hours when the demoralized RAF ground staff set fire to buildings and equipment and then, climbing aboard their lorries, evacuated the base without orders.

It was an equally hectic night in Singapore and, while senior officers tried to make sense of the garbled reports filtering into the capital from up-country, a stream of radio signals and news broadcasts from around the world revealed the extent of the Japanese offensive. Pearl Harbor had been bombed at 0155 Singapore time and the entire US Pacific Fleet incapacitated – some reports said annihilated – and at 0430 came news that the British Concession in Shanghai had been occupied. Then, at 0800, came the first reports of air raids on Hong Kong and, an hour and a half later, the bemused staff officers learned that the Japanese had attacked the Philippines. It was like some horrendous nightmare. And the pressures on the harassed Singapore Staffs were not made easier when seventeen bombers of the Mihoro Air Corps raided the city soon after 0400 in an attack that destroyed three Blenheim aircraft on the ground, caused considerable structural damage to buildings, and inflicted some 200 civilian casualties. The raid, however, gave the Prince of Wales her first taste of action against the new enemy when her high-angle 5.25-inch guns were used to strengthen the dockyard’s anti-aircraft batteries. But the Japanese suffered no losses and the Mihoro Air Corps machines returned to their Indo-China bases unharmed.

In addition to the Main Fleet at Singapore the Royal Navy had another small group of ships, the East Indies Squadron under the command of Vice-Admiral G.S. Arbuthnot at Ceylon. This force, which included the carrier Hermes refitting at Durban, was mainly engaged on trade protection duties in the Indian Ocean. Although the heavy cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire were left on station to cover the transit of troop reinforcement convoys from Colombo to Singapore the Admiralty decided to transfer the third cruiser, the 8-inch gunned Exeter, to the Eastern Fleet and in the early hours of 8 December, Captain Gordon was ordered to leave the convoy he was escorting and to make post-haste for Singapore where he was to join Sir Tom Phillips’ flag. Gordon obeyed the order with alacrity and, leaving the convoy to make for Rangoon, he headed towards the Malacca Straits at 26 knots. He was, however, already too late to save Phillips and the two big ships of the Eastern Fleet.

Further to the south, and despite the earlier decision to give the ANZAC Squadron responsibility for protecting the Australasian trade routes, only two of the ships, Canberra and Perth, were sailing in company. The light cruiser Achilles – which had fought alongside Exeter during the Battle of the River Plate in December, 1939 – was at Auckland when news of the Japanese landings came through and although she was promptly ordered to join the Eastern Fleet at Singapore she was first given the task of escorting a contingent of New Zealand troops to Suva in the Fiji Islands. These islands of Melanesia formed part of Australia’s defensive perimeter the northern segment of which – New Guinea and the Solomons – was to become a fiercely contested battle-gound when Japan later tried to gain control of the Coral Sea and sever sea communications between the United States and the Australasian continent. Achilles’ departure and her unexpected allocation to the Eastern Fleet hardly augured well for the continued cohesion of the ANZAC squadron.

Phillips summoned a conference of staff officers and senior captains aboard the Prince of Wales on the morning of 8 December and, as bad news continued to flood in from all quarters of the Far East, they began to discuss how the Eastern Fleet should react to the events of the previous night. At an early stage in the proceedings the Admiral sent a written request to Pulford asking him to make reconnaissance machines available on the 9th and 10th and, most importantly, to provide fighter cover for the fleet off Singora at daylight on the 10th. Pulford did not reply until the late afternoon by which time he knew that the airfield at Kota Bharu was likely to be abandoned within hours and although he promised Phillips that air reconnaissance units could be provided as requested he was unable to guarantee fighter cover for the 10th.

It was cold comfort for the Admiral, but, still convinced that the Fleet’s guns could ward off an air attack and satisfied that if he remained more than 200 miles from the coast of Indo-China he would be beyond range of Japanese aircraft, Phillips went ahead. According to one officer, Phillips told the assembled meeting: ‘I feel we have got to do something.’ Another recalled: ‘Admiral Phillips summed up in words something like this – “We can stay in Singapore. We can sail away to the East – Australia. Or we can go out and fight. Gentlemen, we sail at five o’clock.”’

The Prince of Wales and Repulse, escorted by the destroyers Express, Electra, Vampire (RAN) and Tenedos, cleared the dockyard boom at 1735 that evening and slowly increased speed to a steady 17 knots. Now identified by the code-name Force Z the squadron was headed by the flagship with the Repulse following 4 cables astern, and the ruddy glow of a spectacular tropical sunset painted a lurid backcloth above the port horizon as the ships altered course north-eastwards.

Early War Japanese Air Supremacy – the “Zero”

After the battles of Midway and the Coral Sea, the lightning fast expansion was slowed. The road to Australia for the Japanese was blocked by Port Moresby. After unsuccessful landing attempts, whose failure was ensured by the cruel defeat in the Coral Sea, the attempt was made to take the target over land, and the complicated conditions of the New Guinea jungle and the Owen Stanley mountain range proved to be insurmountable.

As a result, the Japanese continued to press air attacks. These were made from bases along the north-eastern shore of New Guinea at Lae, Salamaua, and especially later from Buna.

The brunt of the combat with units equipped with the Airacobra was carried out in 1942 by the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force, notably by two units – the Tainan Kokutai1 and the 2nd Kokutai, besides the vanguard role played by the 4th Kokutai. This was a mixed unit with fighters and bombers in its inventory.

The unit arrived at Lae, just several days after the base was secured by Japanese ground forces on March 11th, 1942. Attacks on Post Moresby began immediately, and Lae had seven Reisens2 available. There was a reorganization of the unit on April 1st, with the 4th Kokutai becoming exclusively a bomber unit, and her fighter assets were formally turned over to the Tainan Kokutai. On dividing the aircraft, pilots were also reassigned accordingly. Tainan Kokutai is without question, the best known unit within the Japanese forces operating during World War Two. Out of its ranks came the greatest number of aces, including Saburo Sakai, and the most successful Japanese fighter ace of all time, Hiroyoshi Nishizawa. New Guinea was reached in April, 1942, and the unit arrived at Rabaul by the transport ship ‘Komaki Maru’, and then proceeded by air to Lae on April 17th. On April 25th, there twentyfour Reisens at Lae. From April to the early August, the unit conducted 51 raids on Port Moresby. Claims of victories were, as they were all over the world, more or less exaggerated. According to the pilots, there were 246 enemy aircraft shot down (of which 45 were probables). Other victories were claimed during combat directly over the bases at Lae and Buna. The majority of the opponents were identified as P-39s, which, in a maneuvering dogfight with a Zeke, had no chance. They themselves lost twenty aircraft to various causes, including crashes.

The turning point came with the American landings at Guadalcanal on August 7th, 1942. Tainan Kokutai dedicated all of its strength to the liquidation of the landings, and the battle for Port Moresby, while Australia took a back seat. The unit began using Rabaul as its base, since it was closer to Guadalcanal than Buna.

In the battle over New Guinea, the unit was replaced by the 2nd Kokutai. It was formed on the last day of May, 1942, as a mixed unit operating both fighters and bombers. After two months of equipping and training, this unit set out on the transport converted to escort carrier ‘Yawata Maru’, and headed southeast. Primarily, the unit was committed to fighting in the New Hebrides. The Japanese never did reach these islands, and the 2nd Kokutai landed at Rabaul in mid-August. The first meeting of these pilots with Airacobras came on the 24th of August on an attack on Rabi, southeast of Port Moresby. The Japanese, with no losses to themselves, claimed nine kills, two of which were probable. Further attacks followed on the 26th and 27th of August, but this time with the loss of two bombers and six Reisens (four from Tainan Kokutai). Attacks on Port Moresby continued by the 2nd Kokutai flying from Buna up to September 8th, and then came operations in support of counter offenses in an attempt to push the Americans back from Guadalcanal.

On November 1st, 1942, came a reorganization of the IJNAF, affecting the units in question, with Tainan Kokutai becoming the Kokutai 251, and the 2nd becoming the Kokutai 582.

Further combat, where units flying the Airacobra were met, came during Operation ‘I’ (in Japanese I-go Sakusen). This operation, personally overseen by the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the head of the Japanese Navy, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, took place between the 7th and 14th of April, 1943, and its goal was to regain the initiative in the southwest Pacific. Within this operation, the Japanese undertook massive attacks on Post Moresby (April 12th), and Milne Bay (April 14th). The entire venture ended in failure, despite minimal losses, Yamamoto was killed several days later thanks to the breaking of encryption codes and P-38s waiting for him as a result, and the Japanese forces found themselves strictly on the defensive, which eventual led to final defeat.

Over 1943, the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force also began to commit to New Guinea. Fighter units equipped with the Ki-43 Hayabusa (dubbed ‘Oscar’ by the Allies) and the Ki-61 Hien (‘Tony’), as well as bomber units equipped with light bomber Ki-48 (‘Lily’) and Ki-49 Donryu (‘Helen’) heavy bombers. These units suffered greatly at the hands of American fighters, notably the P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt.

Getting back to the most intensive fighting that occurred during the spring and summer of 1942 involving the Airacobra, claims by the two best known fighter aces of the Tainan Kokutai, Hiroyoshi Nishizawa and Saburo Sakai, included quite the list of the P-39. Nishizawa claimed 21 confirmed P-39 kills plus five probables between May 1st and June 25th, 1942. His best results came over Port Moresby on May 17th, when he claimed five Airacobras confirmed and one probable. Sakai claimed 22 confirmed Airacobra kills and one probable between April 11th and August 2, 1942. He also could boast about downing five P-39s in one day, on June 16th. Although these numbers are evidently inflated, there is no doubt that the Zeke in the hands of a capable Japanese pilot, had a definite advantage. The Japanese fighter pilots were aware of this fact and did not consider the Airacobra in the same league. The skies over New Guinea were not much safer even in 1944, when the Japanese air forces presented no great danger. Between January and August, the 71st TRG3 lost a minimum of nine Airacobras over the space held by the enemy.

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At the beginning of the Pacific war neither Japan nor the United States possessed large numbers of warplanes, despite unprecedented programs of prewar aircraft development and production. Thus, early Pacific war air operations on both sides were undertaken with what were small forces compared with those engaged in Europe. Most British aircraft were, of course, in Europe, although there were air assets in Asia, in such places as Singapore, and Commonwealth air forces in Australia and New Zealand.

With long lead times in aircraft production from inception to production—up to four years for airframes and more than that for engines—timing and strategic decisions were extremely important. Both Germany and Japan caught aircraft modernization at the right time, that is, during the decade of the 1930s, when aircraft technology changed faster and more profoundly than at any time before or since. Furthermore, Japan’s penchant for secrecy enabled that country to keep the West unaware of what it had accomplished. Washington discounted reliable reports about the quality of Japanese aircraft, including reports from Claire Chennault, then supervising the Chinese air force.

Even though the Japanese air force was superbly equipped and trained at the outset of the conflict, it was in fact too small for world war. In December 1941 Japan had fewer than 3,000 combat-ready aircraft (the army had about 1,500 planes and the navy another 1,400). The vast majority of these were, however, of modern design (although several models with fixed, “spatted” landing gear gave a deceptively obsolete appearance) and were well suited for long-range operations. Japan emphasized maneuverability and long range in its fighters, and long range and bomb capacity in its bombers.

The weak design point of Japanese aircraft was their engines, in large part because of materials shortages, inferior lubricants, and inadequate quality control. Japan also continued to rely on prewar aircraft designs. Its basic design types—the Zero, the Betty, and the Val—all flew throughout the war. And Japan largely ignored defensive aircraft. Japan wanted a strike force capable of carrying out long-distance missions and inflicting maximum damage. Japanese pilots were superbly trained and had gained extensive combat experience against the Russians and the Chinese in the late 1930s, but Japan lost air supremacy in the great land-sea battles of 1942. Midway cost the navy four carriers and the lives of hundreds of experienced airmen. Guadalcanal was even more expensive; it became a “meat grinder” battle, in which Japan lost perhaps nine hundred aircraft, and, because Japanese bombers had relatively large crews (the Betty required seven men), it lost some twenty-four hundred trained pilots and aircrew. After Guadalcanal the United States launched many more carriers and vastly more aircraft (many of which were newer types), while the Japanese were forced for the most part to make do with updated versions of earlier aircraft, without veteran pilots to fly them.

By far the best and most famous Japanese fighter of the Pacific war was the Mitsubishi A6M Reisen (Zero, known as Zeke to the Americans but generally called Zero by all nations—eventually even by the Japanese, who nicknamed it Zero-sen). An excellent original design, it entered service in 1940. More Zeros (10,449) were built during the war than any other Japanese warplane. The A6M2 model that led the attack at Pearl Harbor had a speed of 332 mph and the exceptional range of 1,930 miles. It was exceptionally light; the fuselage was skinned with almost-paper-thin duralumin, and there was no seat armor; nor were its gas tanks self-sealing. At 6,264 pounds loaded, the A6M was almost half a ton lighter than the F4F Wildcat. It was also as maneuverable as any fighter of the war. The Zero had a surprisingly heavy armament—two 7.7-mm machine guns in the upper fuselage and two wing-mounted slow-firing 20-mm cannon. It could also carry 264 pounds of bombs. It was, however, deficient in structural strength. Based on bitter experience, U.S. pilots developed tactics to defeat the Zeros. Pairs of F4Fs, using the “Thach weave,” could handle four or five Zeros. The Zero went through a succession of models. The final (1945) A6M8 model had a 1,560-hp engine—60 percent more powerful than the engine in the A6M2—and could achieve 356 mph.

The main U.S. opponents of the Zero early in World War II were the army P-39 Airacobra and P-40 Warhawk and the navy/marine F4F Wildcat. The Bell P-39 Airacobra entered service in 1941. Its design centered on its unique armament—a 37-mm cannon firing through the middle of the nose cone—which dictated the entire structure of the aircraft. The engine was mounted in the center of the fuselage, behind the pilot, and the driveshaft to the propeller did double duty as a 37-mm cannon! The P-39 also had retractable tricycle landing gear positioned under its nose—the first such arrangement in a fighter. At 8,300 pounds, it was significantly heavier than the Zero, although its speed of 385 mph was faster. It had a range of 650 miles. The P-39 had one 37-mm cannon, four machine guns, and 500 pounds of bombs. No match for the Zero in one-on-one combat, the P-39 excelled in ground support operations. Of 9,558 P-39s produced during the war, fully half went to the Soviet Union for tactical support.

The Grumman F4F Wildcat entered service in December 1940. Powered with a 1,200-hp air-cooled engine, it was, at 7,000 pounds, only slightly heavier than the Zero and as fast as it (331 mph), but not nearly as maneuverable. Its range was 845 miles, and it was armed with six machine guns and 200 pounds of bombs. The F4F-4 (1941) had a speed of 318 mph and a range of 770 miles. The Wildcat was also quite strong. Although the Zero could easily outmaneuver the P-40 and F4F, U.S. Navy and Marine pilots developed tactics enabling them to utilize their heavy (.50-caliber) machine guns to cut the Zeros apart. The Wildcat was also faster than the Zero in a turning dive. The F4F remained in manufacture (8,000 produced) through the end of the war for service on escort carriers.

 

The Battle of Sibuyan Sea: The Sinking of Musashi

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Before the battle, Vice-Admiral Kurita, fully aware of the likelihood that his fleet would be annihilated, addressed his less than enthusiastic commanders:

I know that many of you are strongly opposed to this assignment. But the war situation is far more critical than any of you can possibly know. Would it not be shameful to have the fleet remain intact while our nation perishes? I believe that the Imperial General Headquarters is giving us a glorious opportunity. Because I realize how very serious the war situation actually is, I am willing to accept even this ultimate assignment to storm into Leyte Gulf. You must all remember that there are such things as miracles.

Admiral Kurita’s battle started badly. In the first of a litany of mistakes Kurita failed to take anti-submarine precautions after a radio operator on board the Yamato picked up signals from American submarines. On the morning of 23 October, Kurita’s flagship Atago was sunk by torpedoes fired from the submarines USS Darter and USS Dace. So rapidly did his ship go down that Kurita was forced to take an early morning salt-water bath in which he was forced to swim for his life. Less fortunate were 359 of his crew who died. Of Atago’s sister ships, the heavy cruiser Maya was sunk, while the Takao was heavily damaged. The Takao was escorted out of the battle taking with it two Japanese destroyers from the battles ahead. In reply, at the so-called Battle of Palawan Passage, the Japanese won a fortuitous, albeit token, prize when Darter ran aground and her entire crew had to be rescued by the USS Dace.

Pressing onward, Kurita’s surface force now faced the onslaught of Halsey’s carrier attacks. Deprived of McCain’s stronger airpower, Bogan’s group’s carriers concentrated their attacks on the battleships Nagato, Yamato and Musashi. Musashi became their principal target. The first torpedoes to strike Musashi barely registered on its heavily armored hull and it maintained its speed at over twenty knots. This was followed up just after midday by a second wave of VB-15 Helldivers and VF-15 Hellcats from the USS Essex (CV-9), USS Intrepid (CV-11) and USS Lexington (CV-16), the Essex Class replacement for the Lexington, (CV-2), that was sunk at the Battle of the Coral Sea. Over the next hour and a half Musashi was slowed to ten knots and listed five degrees to port and thirteen feet down at the bow; she began to drop off the back of the fleet.

Commissioned in the summer of 1942, Musashi, sister ship to Yamato, was the last of the behemoth Japanese battleships. They had been built as a result of the Japanese Navy’s strategy to build a navy that was qualitatively better than the US Navy—an outcome of the Washington Naval Limitation Treaty [1922]. Japan went to extraordinary lengths to conceal the building of the vast new battleships. The chief engineer, Kumao Baba and the director of the steel mill were notified accordingly in 1937. “This project has been classified top secret, and we have been ordered to assign only absolutely trustworthy employees to it. Each of you has been checked out by the secret police. Your political and religious beliefs, family backgrounds, and contacts with foreigners have proven to be acceptable for the project. However, in order to further assure absolute confidentiality from all of you, we would like you to swear an oath of secrecy.” When a blueprint plan of a section of turret was lost, six engineers and two blueprint makers were imprisoned and tortured. Compared to US battleships with their 16-inch guns, the Yamato and Musashi, each sporting nine 18.1-inch guns, twelve 6.1-inch guns and batteries of smaller caliber armaments, were fearsome weapon systems. Each 18.1-inch gun weighed 162 tons and their turrets, with 26-inch armor weighed 2,774 tons, more than many destroyers. Shells weighing 1.5 tons could be fired every forty seconds to a distance of twenty-six miles. The force of fire of one of these guns was enough to severely injure or kill a man standing nearby. In experiments, guinea pigs were blown apart.

At 72,000 tons displacement, Yamato Class battleships were double the displacement of any warships previously built in Japan. In spite of this weight the Yamato Class battleships could travel at twenty-seven knots and had a cruising range of 7,200 nautical miles at sixteen knots. In addition to their fearsome weaponry they sported heavily armored hulls to protect them from torpedo strikes. At least, that was the theory. Designed with a broad beam (a design feature not available to US warships because of the width of the Panama Canal), the battleships could box their enormous engine rooms with relatively short sides that could be heavily protected by 18-inch steel, enough to resist torpedoes. The deck was also heavily defended with 7.8-inch steel that could withstand 1,000-kilogram (2,204 lbs) armor-piercing bombs. These were formidable defenses but the allocation of armor to these critical areas meant that other areas had to be compromised, notably the under bow and stern sections. To compensate, a watertight compartment system was designed along with flooding and pumping systems. Events would show that the damage control calculations were over-optimistic. Nevertheless engineer Shigeichi Koga proudly reflected, “Looking at it taking shape on the slipway, it seems like this battleship could never be sunk.”

In truth Pearl Harbor had demonstrated that the battleship, the weapon of choice during the interwar arms race, the subject of thousands of hours of negotiation at naval disarmament conferences in Washington and London, as well as miles of newspaper column inches, was now a dinosaur. For the Americans, battleships had proved mainly useful in the unglamorous role of offshore batteries to wear down defenders prior to beach landings in the Central Pacific and New Guinea campaigns. Japanese battleships had played a similar role at Guadalcanal. The aircraft carrier now represented a navy’s main strike capability—it lay at the heart of new Japanese naval tactical thinking.

In a shoot-out between battleships and aircraft carriers there could only be one winner. When at 3.30 p.m. a third wave of bombers from the USS Enterprise (CV-6), USS Franklin (CV-13), USS Intrepid (CV-11) and USS Cabot (CVL-28, a light carrier) hit the struggling Musashi with eleven bombs and eight further torpedoes, making a total of nineteen torpedo hits and seventeen bomb hits, her fate was sealed. A Helldiver rear gunner, Russ Dustan, serving on the Franklin recalled, “Musashi was huge! I had never seen anything as big in my entire life. It was a magnificent sight.” A ten degree list was corrected by pumping and counter-flooding to six degrees but the bow sagged down by 8 yards and sea water began to sweep over the main deck which was littered with dismembered bodies. Kurita ordered the struggling Musashi to be beached and used as a stationary battery. When her engines failed, the great battleship listed twelve degrees to port and an evacuation was ordered. At 7.36 p.m. Musashi capsized and sank by the bow taking 1,023 men to their deaths. Many of the young seamen could not swim and refused to jump into the sea. Others went down clinging to the propellers. Destroyers subsequently picked up 1,326 survivors. A further fifty of these died when 420 of their number were being shipped aboard the Santosu-Maru. To hide the shame of the sinking, survivors were relocated to a remote island in the Seto Inland Sea. Captain Kenkichi Kato, who was prevailed upon not to go down with his ship, wrote in his notebook, “… I am pleased that almost no damage was sustained by other vessels in the fleet in this battle. I somehow feel that, as the main target, the Musashi managed to save the fleet.” A Japanese seaman recalled that at 7.35 p.m. on 24 October, Musashi’s stern rose out of the water:

Crewmen started to jump off … the stern, which was sticking up like a tower from the ocean surface. Before they reached the ocean surface below, they were screaming with horror. Most of them hit the battleship’s huge screws before they reached the water. Crewmen were running along the battleship, and several men who jumped off the sides were sucked into the huge holes made by the torpedoes.

At a cost of just eighteen planes, Halsey’s Third Fleet had sunk the pride of the fleet, Admiral Yamamoto’s former flagship, and a ship that its designers and builders had believed unsinkable.

The carrier attacks, which had also inflicted damage on the battleships Yamato, Nagato and the heavy cruiser Myoko, forced Kurita to turn away and retreat, but in the late afternoon he turned his ships again toward the San Bernadino Straits. The 259 sorties flown by Halsey’s Third Fleet, denuded of McCain’s stronger Task Group 38.1, had not been enough to turn back the Japanese attack. In diverting American carrier aircraft from attacks on the rest of Kurita’s Center Force, the sacrifice of the Musashi may not have been entirely in vain.

The Formidable Power of One-Hit Sinking

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Damaged William D. Porter listing heavily. Landing Craft Support ships LCS(L)(3)-86 and LCS(L)(3)-122 (behind) are assisting.

On 28 May, Japan’s Navy Ministry for the first time made public the operations of the Thunder Gods, extolling them for their fighting spirit and “the formidable power of one-hit sinking.” Newspaper accounts also carried the names of 332 Thunder God pilots who had already sacrificed their lives. Despite the public adulation, most ka pilots now went about their duties under a cloud of despondency, often ignoring the frequent air raid alarms, instead staying in their quarters. Increasingly, petty officers were even sneaking off base to carouse at local inns.

For Ryuji Nagatsuka, meanwhile, May’s end marked the completion of suicide tactical training for Jun-no Special Attack Corps. Nagatsuka received his promotion to flying officer and now was in line for a posthumous promotion. Credible war news was sparse, but conditions were undoubtedly desperate. Each time flights of American Grummans headed for their base northwest of Tokyo, the pilots flew to safer airspace. Machine guns had been removed from their planes and the primary objective was to preserve them for tokko missions.

The rainy season was in full swing, and the only possible bright spot was a brief visit from his mother and two of his sisters. But even this reunion was awkward. Candor about the future went unspoken in the presence of the young girls. When Nagatsuka left the three of them at a nearby train station, he knew he was seeing them for the last time.

The horrid weather, while it curtailed American air attacks, also delayed launch of Kikusui No. 9. An announcement trumpeting the assault went out each morning only to be rescinded by afternoon. Finally, on 3 June, a break in the weather set Kikusui No. 9 in motion. The operation’s buildup vastly overshadowed its substance: in a scattered series of sorties, barely fifty suicide aircraft flew south toward Okinawa, most without escorts.

These handfuls of kamikazes were having a harder time sneaking through, and their attacks seemed to be odd sideshows. Though not any less chaotic or dangerous, the air-sea duels involved many fewer planes and ships.

On 6 June, eight bogeys set upon DMs J. William Ditter and Harry F. Bauer on patrol southeast of Nakagusuku Wan. One attacker’s wing clipped Ditter’s after stack and tore open a long strip of shell plating on the port side, flooding the after fire room and forward engine room.

A plane also crashed close to Bauer’s starboard beam, tearing a twelve-foot gash in her side. Bauer’s damage seemed to be limited to flooding, but crewmen also spotted a large hunk of metal submerged near the forward fireroom and worried it might be a bomb. After taking a look, a bomb disposal expert dispatched from Wiseman’s Cove assured Bauer’s XO Robert Morgenthau it might be the plane’s engine or its landing gear, but was no bomb.

Destroyer William D. Porter’s time off Okinawa did much to erase the stigma that plagued her CO and crew since the accidental but near disastrous torpedo shot at battleship Iowa. But then, on 10 June, bad luck caught up with Porter on RP15 when an undetected kamikaze Val dove at her through a low overcast. The plane struck only a glancing blow to Porter’s radar mast, but when its bomb exploded in the water nearby, the blast tore up the after half of Porter’s hull and unleashed uncontrollable flooding. Even the pumps on LCSs dispatched to help Porter could not stay ahead of the rising water, made worse by the explosion of several jettisoned depth charges. Porter’s sailors were finally evacuated to CO Richard McCool’s LCS-122. Lined up along LCS-122’s railings, Porter’s men watched their hard-luck ship sink at 1119.

On RP15 at dusk the next day, it was LCS-122’s turn, but almost a different kind of turn. After escaping a near miss crash by one Val, LCS-122 took a direct hit to its conning tower by a second Val. The crash and explosion killed 11 men and seriously wounded another 29, including McCool. Despite his wounds, with 122 on fire and sinking, McCool somehow managed to exit the conning tower, jumping first to the gun deck and finally the main deck. McCool rallied his crew to fight fires, hauled one man to safety, and helped rescue several others before 122 had to be abandoned.

This was to be the last kamikaze blow for a week—though by no means the last off Okinawa or the last of the war. Still it was almost a showcase—an attack that occurred in focus and isolation, instead of the thudding, relentless blur of April’s and May’s attacks (and, earlier, the attacks in the Philippines). The LCS-122’s casualties (over half the crew) and the actions of the survivors and the rookie CO somehow symbolized all the suffering, determination, and instinctive heroism displayed by thousands of men through the seemingly unending days of eight long months.

Lieutenant Richard M. McCool, captain of the landing ship LCS(L)(3)-122, received the Medal of Honor in part for assisting in rescue of survivors of William D. Porter.