Japan – Navy of the early 1890s

Battle of the Yalu River (1894)

For the most interesting practical lesson in tactics and the naval matériel of the early 1890s it is necessary to look east to Japan, another island nation with an industrious population in a mood of expansion. Although she lay in much the same position off Asia as Great Britain off the coast of Europe, she had until recently used the sea as a barrier instead of a highway; this had started in the seventeenth century when realization of the greater power of European guns and fighting ships had forced her into self-imposed total isolation. When in mid-nineteenth century she had been forcibly opened to western trade, the same realization of western fighting superiority had been the main spur behind a complete reversal of her former policy; she had plunged into forced industrial revolution and westernization, centred on ships, guns and heavy engineering. And as the European nations through the following decades penetrated into the neighbouring mainland of China and Manchuria, opening up spheres of influence for trade and annexing territories from that once great empire, Japan also developed an export trade, first in hand-made silks and cottons, then in machined products which undercut western goods in price and began to penetrate the rest of the Pacific to the west coast of America.

Meanwhile her shipping was able to prosper, as British lines had rather neglected the area, and from 1888 a system of shipbuilding and navigating subsidies provided further stimulation. At the same time she was acquiring a modern navy. She could not afford battleships, so she adopted a policy very similar to Italy’s, centred on fast but not-so-large cruisers with complete armoured decks below water, coal and cellulose or cork in cellular compartments about the waterline, and a heavy armament. The first of these were built by Armstrongs and launched in 1885. They were followed by six more powerful vessels, two built in France to French design, two in Britain, and two at her own yards at Yokosuka, as copies of each type. All these mounted broadsides of 6-inch or 4.7-inch QF guns; in addition the three to French design each carried one great 66-ton 12.6-inch gun in a 12-inch steel barbette on the upper deck. By 1894, with these advanced vessels as the spearhead of her fleet and with an equally well-equipped army, she felt able to take her new-found Western spirit of technology and commercial expansion a stage further, and like the westerners themselves lop off pieces of continental Asia for herself.

The first piece she chose was the peninsula of Korea, barely 100 miles from her southern islands and of great strategic value, flanking the southern entrance to the Sea of Japan, commanding the Yellow Sea and the northern Chinese commercial ports. She established disputes with China over this nominally independent territory, declared war with her guns in a manner to become familiar in the next century, and started landing troops in the north west of the peninsula. When the Chinese, finding they could not concentrate their own troops fast enough by land, also started moving them by sea, using their warships to cover the transports, they came in sight of the Japanese fleet off the mouth of the River Yalu, and battle ensued.

The main Chinese strength lay in two battleships, Chen Yuen and Ting Yuen, about 7,500 tons each, which had been built in 1881–2 as smaller versions of the Inflexible, but with their main armament mounted en barbette instead of in turrets. Their central citadels were protected by 14-inch compound armour and each mounted four 12-inch, 35-ton Krupp guns in two pairs arranged in echelon, so that they all had direct ahead and astern fire; their broadside arcs were, however, restricted by the opposite guns and the funnels and other obstructions. They also mounted a 6-inch breech loader at either end, some light guns and two torpedo tubes. Their unarmoured ends were closely subdivided, packed with cork around the sides, and protected below the water by a 3-inch armoured deck. They had been the Barnaby ideal of well-balanced second class battleships when originally commissioned. Now, their absence of QF guns and their speed, which had sunk to 10 knots at most, rendered them obsolescent. By contrast the latest Japanese cruiser Yoshino, built by Armstrongs, could make 23 knots.

Apart from the two big ships, the Chinese had another pair of smaller barbette ships each mounting two 8¼-inch Krupp breechloaders and protected by cork cellular subdivision and a short armoured belt whose top was flush with the waterline, therefore little use; and also six smaller cruisers. The fatal defects of all these ships were low speed and a complete lack of medium or large calibre QF guns; it was calculated after the battle that all together could only fire 33 rounds in 10 minutes, against the Japanese 185. Besides this the service was poorly maintained and corruption was rife in the administration; while the accommodation of the ships was exquisitely carved, lacquered and gilded, some of the shells for the heavy guns had been filled with sand instead of bursting charges, or left empty.

The Japanese fleet on the other hand was efficient to the point of fanaticism. Its officers had been brought up in the warrior code of the Bushi, which imposed knightly ideals of courage, simplicity, self-sacrifice and absolute loyalty to the Emperor above all personal interests. They despised luxury, even pleasure, as corrupting influences, and lived only for their profession, working longer hours than their men, exposing themselves to more danger, eating the same simple food, sleeping like them on a straw mat—all the time training and preparing for war. The naval service, like the army, was a simple extension of the intense nationalism of this emergent nation.

At the Yalu it proved its worth. The Chinese, led by Admiral Ting in the Ting Yuen, advanced to action at 6 knots in line abreast; no doubt because all the ships had been built in the ‘strong ahead-fire’ period. Ting had previously given three principal orders: that all ships should fight in pairs, fight bows-on if possible, and follow his movements if they could; thus he adopted the tactics of the French school, long since discarded in the British, German and even sections of the French service. He placed his two strong ships in the centre of the line, flanked by three smaller ironclads, flanked by the cruisers; the smallest, oldest and weakest were on the right wing.

The Japanese approached this formation in two divisions formed in one long line ahead. Leading was the fast Yoshino, with the Japanese-built cruiser of the same class and the two older Armstrong cruisers; these formed the flying squadron. After them came the main body containing the French-designed cruisers with 66-ton guns, led by the Matsushima flying the flag of Admiral Ito, and following them were four older and smaller ships which would have been better left out of the battle. Ito headed for the Chinese centre at first, but seeing the weak ships on their right, he altered course across their front and signalled his intentions to attack the right and fight at 2,000 to 3,000 yards; the fleets were then perhaps six miles apart, the sea between them smooth as glass. As the range came down to 5,000 or 6,000 yards the Chinese big ships opened fire, but the shots plunged harmlessly into the water and the Japanese did not reply until some 15 minutes later when the leaders came abreast of the Chinese right wing at something outside 3,000 yards. At the same time they altered to starboard. As they did so Admiral Ting led his two battleships out from the Chinese centre in an attempt to close and perhaps ram the main body of the Japanese.

Almost at once the Chinese force lost cohesion; trying to wheel their front round to face the Japanese attack on the right, they lacked the speed and simply turned in pairs to face the right, becoming hopelessly scrambled as rising waterspouts from the Japanese QF guns, at first several hundred yards short, moved up to them. The Japanese ships, mostly hidden in funnel and gun smoke, meanwhile kept perfect line ahead formation as they passed down the right wing. Then the flying squadron, running out of ships to fight, led around to port 180 degrees and opened their other broadsides as they came back to the weaker Chinese ships, many of which were already ablaze. In the meantime the main Japanese squadron turned to starboard and completed a full turn right around the Chinese, eventually returning to Ting’s pair of battleships, which they started to circle like hungry wolves at about 2,000 yards range, firing everything they had, and soon reducing the upperworks to shambles of torn, twisted metal and starting fires whose smoke made it difficult for the gunners to see. The Chen Yuen did, however, succeed in putting one 12-inch shell into the Matsushima’s battery, which burst with devastating effect, firing the ammunition, decimating the guns’ crews and forcing her to retire to put out the fires.

The flagship was the third Japanese to be so seriously damaged as to be out of the fight; previously two of the old vessels at the end of the line had come too close to the Chinese heavy guns. Meanwhile four of the Chinese had been destroyed by gunfire and one sunk in collision, and after over four hours of firing the Chinese admiral retired. Sunset was approaching and Ito decided not to pursue, possibly for fear of torpedo attack after dark. Nevertheless it was an undoubted Japanese victory, and while all except the three severely damaged Japanese ships kept the sea, the Chinese put into Port Arthur to effect repairs, only coming out again to retire across the Straits to the harbour of Wei-hai-wai.

As the first fleet engagement since Lissa, the battle attracted a great deal of professional comment and analysis, much of it restatement of previously held convictions. Probably the main verification was the great value of side armour; this was particularly noticeable in the engagement between the two Chinese battleships and the main body of the Japanese, for while these powerful cruisers had been circling and firing continuously, achieving some 200 hits with their QF guns on each of the big ships from short range, they had not destroyed the battleships’ flotation or stability, nor had they pierced the central citadel once—the deepest impression they made in the armour was about 3 inches, which makes it improbable that they hit at all with their 66-tonners—and although they had reduced the unarmoured portions to tangled, charred wreckage the total casualties from both battleships had only been 17 killed, 35 wounded. Against this the Matsushima had lost 57 killed and 54 wounded; she was however the heaviest sufferer. Among the jeune école, of course, the battle was held to prove that unarmoured ships could stand up to and even beat armoured ships. But this was an extreme and unscientific view as the Japanese had only been hit by 10 12-inch and some 60 smaller projectiles and many of these had failed to explode. For the British historical school the Japanese ‘hail of fire’ from ‘decisive range’ had been the battle winner—together with the spirit of their officers and men.

As for tactics, line ahead appeared to have proved indisputably the better formation; only a very few diehard theoreticians, noting the faulty disposition of the Chinese line abreast with the heaviest ships in the centre instead of at the wings, doubted it. Fewer still adhered to the ‘group’ ideas which had been tried by the Chinese, and had led to utter confusion, one fatal ramming and complete lack of cohesion. All in all, and despite the inequality in moral and matériel factors, the action suggested that in tactics, design and ordnance the battleship was developing along the right lines. It was noticeable, for instance, that neither ramming nor torpedoes had influenced the fighting at all; the Chinese had fired theirs at about 2,000 yards range, way outside any possibility of hitting and the Japanese had never approached closer than about 1,500 yards, three times Whitehead effective range.

After this action the naval war was confined to troop transporting, Japanese naval bombardments in support of their troops ashore, and torpedo boat attacks on the thoroughly demoralized remnants of Ting’s ships in Wei-hai-wei; here the Chinese boom and mine defences proved ineffective and as there were no anti-torpedo boat patrols nor net defences, nor medium calibre QF guns, the Japanese boats were able to get right into the harbour and sink the flagship, Ting Yuen, and one other ship for the loss of only two boats and twelve men.

The complete ascendancy that the Japanese Navy attained at the Yalu and subsequently allowed them practically undisputed movement by sea, and they used this to encircle and take Port Arthur and then Wei-hai-wei, where the only remaining Chinese ship of force, the Chen Yuen, fell into their hands. Then, holding all the keys to the Yellow Sea Japan imposed a treaty on China which gave her not only Korea and the island of Formosa way to the south, but also the spur of Manchuria just to the west of Korea known as the Liao-Tung peninsula which terminated at Dairen and Port Arthur; she also extracted a cash indemnity perhaps 50 per cent more than the cost of the war.

This sudden triumph of a colonial intruder came as an unpleasant shock to the European powers already in China, particularly Russia: Vladivostock, her principle maritime outlet in the East and the terminal to which the trans-Siberian railway engineers were slowly progressing, was now completely surrounded by Japanese territory and at the mercy of a Japanese naval blockade; moreover Japan had established a commanding foothold in Manchuria, which Russia had long disputed with China, and which she had expected to acquire for herself now that China had become, in the words of one of her contemporary statesmen, an ‘outlived Oriental State’. So when the established colonial powers protested at the Japanese treaty it was Russia, together with her friend and financial partner France, and also Germany in a violently expansionist and opportunist mood, who forced Japan to give up some of her gains, particularly the Liao-Tung peninsula. Russia and France then joined to pay China’s war indemnity, as a reward for which the Chinese allowed the trans-Siberian railway to be built straight across Manchuria to Vladivostok. This was a major triumph for Russian diplomacy; when complete the railway and its hinterland became an extension of Russian power in the heart of the disputed province, and gave her a new mobility of force and influence in the area. Not content with this, a Russian fleet two years later took over Port Arthur, the key base which their diplomats had denied the Japanese, and following this Moscow forced a railway concession up the length of the peninsula to become eventually the southern extension of the trans-Siberian.

These cynical and dangerous Russian gains not only increased tensions around the carcass of China, but thrust Japan firmly into what the French and Germans regarded as an Anglo-Saxon orbit: Great Britain and America wanted to preserve China so that she would be open to the trade of all nations, and as Russia became the most immediate threat to this policy, so their interests coincided with Japan’s, still smarting with resentment at being denied some of the chief fruits of victory.

Meanwhile Japan was on the way to becoming a first class naval power: in 1895 she had ordered from Britain two 12,300-ton battleships, virtually reduced ‘Royal Sovereigns’ with 12-inch main armament and 6-inch QF as a secondary battery, and two years later three 15,000-ton ships similar to the British class which followed the ‘Royal Sovereigns’. The Russians could scarcely allow such a strong force to go unchallenged if they wished to retain Port Arthur so they introduced a new naval programme in 1898, headed by eight battleships. In keeping with their French entente these were in the French style with long or complete waterline belts, great tumble-home, high and mostly unprotected sides, and towering superstructures. Like the French ships their stability was suspect: they were narrow and their main belts rose less than a foot above the waterline. Both main and secondary batteries were, however, protected in turrets.

From the British point of view the emergence of two battleship powers outside Europe, where they could not be blockaded or brought to battle by the Mediterranean or Home squadrons, threatened to compromise the policy of command given expression in the 1889 Naval Defence Act. Although the immediate response was to strengthen the China squadron with second class battleships and to build a class of smaller, lighter draft battleships which could traverse the Suez canal and quickly reinforce the eastern ships, realization was coming that complete sovereignty over the oceans of the world could not be maintained for ever. It was not expressed thus, indeed ‘navalists’ and ‘jingos’ were having a high time urging the British public to reckon up their battleships (‘Ten, twenty, thirty, there they go . . .’) but in the background there were voices in favour of a formal alliance with Japan to safeguard British trade and interests in the East.

Equally significant, there were stirrings within the Admiralty, again not expressed in policy, for an unofficial alliance with the United States Navy, or at least a pooling of information so that both services could act in concert in support of free trade and the status quo in the Pacific. No doubt behind this was a feeling that America and England should spread Anglo-Saxon ‘civilised’ values throughout the world, but it was also a practical response to the emergence of yet another ocean-going battlefleet outside Europe.


The Tactics of Despair I

By the autumn of 1944, many of the Japanese officers responsible for the day-to-day prosecution of the war against the Allies knew that the likelihood of victory was becoming remote. One of these men was Admiral Takijiro Onishi, a headstrong, arrogant commander who exuded a masculinity and drive contagious to the younger men who served with him. A cult of junior officers worshipped Onishi much as Americans had adored Teddy Roosevelt in his Rough Rider days. On the other hand, many officers equal or superior in rank to Onishi detested his aggressive, showy manners, his bluntness, his condescending attitude toward those who disagreed with him. Onishi was a zealot who impressed his own ideas upon others with unwavering self-confidence.

In 1941 Onishi had been instrumental in drawing up the Yamamoto plan for the attack on Pearl Harbor. Immediately after the attack he ordered the devastating assault on Clark Field, outside Manila, which virtually eliminated American air capability in the Far East. Onishi had given this order despite the considered opinion of his staff, who felt that weather conditions were bad enough to force a cancellation of the mission. The admiral, however, was not about to lose the initiative—he saw any opportunity to destroy the enemy as precious. The mission was effected despite the weather. Such boldness commanded fierce loyalty.

In October 1944, an American armada appeared near the eastern Philippines. Since the Americans had many aircraft carriers off Leyte, some way had to be found to immobilize these ships while Japanese battleships and cruisers closed in to deal with the outgunned enemy.

The situation was of desperate importance. If the Philippines went under, the Empire would be cut in two and its supply lifelines ripped away. Onishi was sent from Tokyo to Manila to take command of Japan’s First Air Fleet, now reduced to less than one hundred effective planes. His job was to remedy the tactical situation by whatever means available.

To the Japanese naval mind, carriers had always been the biggest menace in the war. Onishi concentrated on them with ferocious intensity. In so doing, he typified the blind spot that Admiral Weneker, the German attaché in Tokyo during the war, noted: “The Japanese admirals always thought of the U.S. carriers. They talked about how many were being built and how many were in the Pacific, and said that these must be sunk … their mission was at all times the American carriers.” Instead of devoting increased efforts to intercepting American supply lines, to attacking merchantmen and transports, the Japanese concentrated on the dreaded carriers.

Admiral Onishi was thinking of carriers on the evening of October 19, 1944, as he drove up to the main headquarters at Mabalacat Airfield on Luzon. Two men met him—Asaichi Tamai, executive officer at the base, and Commander Rikihei Inoguchi, senior staff officer of the First Air Fleet.

Onishi soberly outlined his plan: “As you know, the war situation is grave. The appearance of strong American forces in Leyte Gulf has been confirmed.… Our surface forces are already in motion … we must hit the enemy’s carriers and keep them neutralized for at least one week.” After this preamble Onishi broached a momentous idea: “In my opinion, there is only one way of assuring that our meager strength will be effective to a maximum degree. That is to organize suicide attack units composed of Zero fighters armed with 250-kilogram bombs, with each plane to crash-dive into an American carrier.… What do you think?” There it was, the bold desperate plan to stem the tide, to perform a miracle! It was worthy of an Onishi, a violent man given to violent solutions.

He struck the right nerve with his men. Stunned by the magnitude of this savage answer to the enemy’s power, his staff leaped at the opportunity to implement his strategy.

Four special attack units were formed immediately on Luzon. They waited for four days, then five, to strike at the enemy. Finally, a scout plane radioed back the sighting of a large American carrier force.

On October 25, at 7:25 A.M., nine planes rose from Mabalacat and headed east over the vast and lonely Pacific. The men in the aircraft were hoping, in fact eager, to die for their admiral and the Emperor. All wore white scarfs around their necks. Their helmets fitted snugly about their heads, almost concealing the white cloth each man had wrapped around his forehead. This was the hachimaki, a cloth worn centuries earlier by the samurai warriors of feudal Japan who used it to absorb perspiration and to keep their long hair from falling into their eyes. In 1944, the white cloth became the ceremonial emblem of the Special Attack Corps—the kamikazes.

Five of the nine planes were suicide craft. The other four went along to protect them from American interference. Lieutenant Yukio Seki led the mission.

At 10:45 A.M., the unsuspecting carrier force was sighted. It was a group of escorts protecting the beachhead at Leyte. The Japanese came at the perfect psychological moment. For hours the American fleet had been running before the brute power of Admiral Kurita’s force, which had burst out of San Bernardino Straits and turned south to destroy the fleet off Leyte. The carriers and destroyers had fought a tremendous delaying action against Kurita. It was only within the hour that the Japanese had turned and gone back, fearing a trap by other American units somewhere in the general area.

The St. Lo and her sister carriers had secured from general quarters at 10:10, and the crews were relaxing after the terribly close rendezvous with extinction. When Seki and his formation sighted them, the Americans had their guard down.

The Japanese bored in low. At 10:50, a warning went out to the carriers: “Enemy aircraft coming in fast from overlying haze.” At 10:53, a plane roared in over the St. Lo’s ramp, then went into a steep dive and crashed on the flight deck near the center line.

At 10:56, the gas below decks ignited. Two minutes later, a violent explosion rocked the ship. A huge section of the flight deck was gone. Flames roared up one thousand feet. By 11:04, the St. Lo was a mass of flames.

She sank twenty-one minutes later.

While the St. Lo burned, the other suicide planes banked and screamed straight into their targets. Not one missed. The Kitkun Bay, the Kalinin Bay and the White Plains were torn by explosions as steel smashed into steel at hundreds of miles per hour. Five planes had hit four ships. One carrier was sunk, the others badly damaged. This kamikaze mission was successful, as was another launched from Mindanao earlier that day. Onishi formed new units immediately.

During the next several months, the United States Navy became increasingly aware of the murderous suicide planes. In January 1945, when MacArthur sent an invasion fleet to Lingayen Gulf on Luzon, nearly forty warships were damaged by the new squadrons. Though the landings of General Krueger’s Sixth Army were successful, worried American admirals hoped the kamikazes were just a temporary expedient, not to be repeated on a wide scale. They did not know Admiral Onishi’s Special Attack Corps by name or organization. They did not know that equipment and personnel had been deployed to multiply its strength many times.

In March 1945, as Japanese intelligence sources reported increased enemy interest in the area around Okinawa, only 350 miles from Japan, Onishi had the satisfaction of having his Corps integrated into the defense plan of this island. Indeed, at the highest levels in Tokyo, Army and Navy staff officers were convincing themselves that the suicide planes could change the course of the war.

For some months after Saipan fell in July of 1944, American strategists had looked for the next most strategically desirable islands to invade on the way to Japan. Following the Honolulu conference that summer, MacArthur had carried out the occupation of Leyte in October. He now stood on Luzon. Once Iwo Jima was taken, Admiral Nimitz had wanted to invade Formosa—but Formosa was eventually ignored in favor of Okinawa. Sixty miles long and the largest of the Ryukyu Islands, Okinawa could be used by the United States both as a jumping-off point for the invasion of Japan and as a base for intensive bombings of the Home Islands of Kyushu and Honshu.

Fresh troops of the newly formed Tenth Army were to mount the assault on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945. Under the command of Simon Bolivar Buckner, the son of a Confederate general, the Tenth was composed of veteran outfits molded in the jungles of other waystops to Japan. Its divisions were already hallowed: the First Marines from Guadalcanal, New Britain and Peleliu; the Second Marines, as reserve, from Tarawa and Saipan; the Seventh from Attu and Leyte; the Seventy-seventh from Guam and Leyte; the Ninety-sixth from Leyte; the Twenty-seventh from the Marshalls and Saipan; the newly formed Sixth Marines made up of men from Eniwetok, Guam and Saipan. The soldiers and Marines, elite troops of the Pacific, would need the experience gained in countless confrontations with the Japanese; for even as they clambered into transports for the pitching ride to the shores of Okinawa, other Americans were suffering from the newly revised defense tactics of the Japanese on Iwo Jima.

The Imperial General Staff in Tokyo had decided that the tactic of the banzai charge was too costly, and the “meet them at the beach” theory was replaced on Iwo by “let the enemy come to us.” On that island, the Japanese stayed in caves and poured fire down on the heads of the Marines, who had trouble even getting a glimpse of them. Heavy artillery was used as an integral part of Japanese weaponry, and the corpse-strewn beaches of Iwo showed that for the first time in the long island-hopping trail to Tokyo, the Japanese were literally tearing the Americans to bits.

The same tactics awaited the Tenth Army at Okinawa, where General Mitsuru Ushijima, a tall, stocky veteran of the war in Burma and, most recently, superintendent of the military school at Zama, was in command. A realist, Ushijima understood the power that would be brought against him. Not wanting to squander his resources, he planned a bitter end defense on the southern part of the island. Japanese last-ditch strategy for Okinawa included kamikazes at maximum strength. Ushijima would wait to spring his trap until the kamikazes had come down from the Home Islands and destroyed the hundreds of ships standing offshore. With American land forces cut off from their apparently endless supply of manpower and material, Ushijima could attack and win a crushing Japanese victory. The kamikazes were the key. If they failed, Ushijima was as good as dead.

The general watched passively as United States Army combat teams occupied the offshore Kerama atolls in late March. He watched passively as the first soldiers strolled onto Okinawan beaches on April 1.

Forty-eight hours later, the American Ninety-sixth Division crossed the waist of the island and reached the eastern shore. Then, while the Sixth Marines wheeled north, other units moved south toward the capital city, Naha.

On April 5, the bulk of the Tenth Army ran headlong into General Ushijima’s concealed defenses. He unleashed his personal surprise, the largest concentration of artillery assembled by a Japanese army in one place during the whole war. Two hundred and eight-seven heavy fieldpieces began to fire at American soldiers burrowing frantically into shallow foxholes. The advance to the south stopped abruptly. The dying began.

On April 6, Onishi’s kamikazes came in great strength. From Oita and Kanoya, from airfields scattered throughout the island of Kyushu, hundreds of men lifted their airplanes into the sky for a final sortie against the enemy. Their foreheads were girdled with the white hachimaki; their farewell letters had been mailed to their families.

The first American units to detect the presence of suicide craft were picket boats, destroyers placed to the north of the invasion beaches. These graceful gray warships slipped through the calm seas, their crews listening carefully to electronic equipment on board or searching the skies for the telltale specks.

The destroyers were both guardians and sacrificial lambs. While alerting the main line of ships to the south, they would offer themselves as targets to the kamikazes in order to keep them away from the huge capital ships hovering about the beaches.

The Japanese came singly, in pairs and in large groups. Most of them concentrated on the small picket ships. A few drove farther toward the beaches. During the morning, the pickets suffered badly as the Divine Wind blew across their bows. The sky was filled with black clouds of flak and the sea was laced with white necklaces of pom-pom fire as the destroyers blasted the oncoming planes. Though the Japanese incurred severe losses, the destroyers too showed effects of the combat. At least fifteen ships received gaping wounds from hurtling aircraft.

The U.S.S. Bush was not one of those struck on the morning of April 6. Well into the afternoon, she and her complement of more than three hundred men had escaped any physical damage. Only the men’s nerves showed strain. Exhausted by hours at battle stations, they were forced to keep a constant, nerve-wracking vigil.

Then, at thirteen minutes after three, a single-engined kamikaze was sighted dead ahead and low on the water, headed straight for the Bush at Picket Station One.

The enemy craft was employing evasive tactics to upset the aim of the ship’s gunners. It dipped and rose, sometimes coming within ten feet of the ocean. Tracer bullets reached for it in vain. It bored in at the Bush, which twisted desperately to avoid a collision.

At 3:15 the kamikaze smashed into the destroyer at deck level between Number One and Number Two stacks, demolishing the galley, laundry, sick bay and repair locker, and rendering the automatic-firing guns inoperative. Although the Bush caught fire, it seemed possible to save her. Another destroyer, the Colhoun, moved closer to offer help.

For over an hour the stricken Bush labored in the swells as her crew sought to repair the damage. The dead were removed from the shambles. The wounded were treated as quickly and efficiently as possible. The Bush continued to ride the ocean in a reasonable state of seaworthiness. Knotted lines were hung over the side so that sailors could escape enemy planes coming directly for their positions. In this way, the affected crew members could avoid both machine gun attacks and an ultimate crash dive on their particular position. The captain hoped to spare lives by this unusual expedient.

At 4:35, the crew of the Bush was horrified to see American air cover disappear to the south without any prior warning. Crippled and exposed, the ship lay helpless as the kamikaze attack intensified. Ten to fifteen fighters approached from the north. They circled the destroyers below, then veered off. One headed unerringly toward the Bush, its guns blazing. It smashed into the port side, nearly cutting the destroyer in two. The Bush was now a derelict, both sides gaping, wreckage and death inside her hull. Just before twilight a single plane flew over at mast height and soared away to the port side. Then it wheeled slowly and began a last run, holding a level course just above the water. The men on deck were paralyzed at the sight. It tore into the middle section of the Bush. Her back broken by violent collisions with three aircraft, she settled lower in the water. The ship was finished. Sailors began to abandon her. The forward and aft sections of the picket each pointed toward the sky. As water rushed into the jagged tear amidships, the battered destroyer slid slowly beneath the sea.

In the twilight, survivors of the slaughter dotted the ocean. The grueling and ferocious struggle with a fanatical enemy had taken its toll among them. One after the other, officers and men were seen hysterically stripping off their life preservers. In a frenzy, they swam off to some imagined haven, some refuge from the maddening horror of the kamikazes. Thirty-three men struck out for safety without their life jackets, without any real hope. One by one they sank beneath the waves.

Others waited quietly for rescue ships to pick them up. As destroyers moved among them, the last tragedy of the Bush was enacted. Reaching out for lines, for a helping hand, several men smashed their heads against the hulls and sank in silence. Others were swept by waves into the screws of ship propellers and disappeared in a froth of blood. Ten sailors died in these last moments, bringing to a total of eighty-seven the men lost aboard the U.S.S. Bush.

The Tactics of Despair II

Altogether, twenty-four ships were sunk or damaged by the kamikazes that day. Though the suicide planes had not succeeded in penetrating to the beaches, the cost to the United States Navy had been high. And April 6 was only a prelude to mounting terror in the seas off Okinawa.

Onishi’s planes were not the only expedient by which the Japanese Navy hoped to turn Okinawa into a victory for the Emperor. From Tokuyama on the Inland Sea, the colossal battleship Yamato, displacing 72,909 tons, sped toward the Bungo Suido, between Kyushu and Shikoku. She was accompanied by two cruisers and six destroyers. Her destination was Okinawa. Her goal was the destruction of American transports and disruption of the beachhead. Since the Yamato carried only enough oil to take her to the island, she would have to be beached after firing her nine massive batteries of eighteen-inch guns at the American fleet. She had been sent out as floating suicide ship sui generis.

Shortly after five o’clock on the afternoon of April 6, the commanders of the submarines Threadfin and Hackleback watched in fascination as the monstrous Yamato moved across their periscopes. They noted her direction and signaled back to American carriers and heavy capital ships that nine ships were apparently headed south toward Okinawa. As darkness closed around the Japanese warships, they churned westward in a course designed to keep them away from American airpower as long as possible. The Japanese themselves had no protective cover in the skies.

Like chess players, the Americans maneuvered to thwart the enemy. Carriers and battleships moved up to intercept the Yamato at the first light of day. On the Yamato, nearly three thousand men waited tensely for the dawn and the ultimate confrontation.

At 8:22 A.M., a plane from the carrier Essex picked up the group, churning ahead at twenty-two knots. For the next four hours, Catalina flying boats hovered over the Japanese convoy as it ran due south toward Okinawa. Shortly after noon, massed carrier attacks began. Flying out of low clouds and rain, the American planes harried the Yamato and her escorts for over two hours. Repeated bomb and torpedo hits reduced the flagship to a shambles, yet she stayed afloat, firing continually at her tormentors.

When at last she was listing heavily, her captain ordered his men to abandon ship. Despite repeated protests from his aides, Captain Ariga refused to leave with them. Instead he had himself lashed to a support with heavy cord. Survivors recall one seaman remaining behind with him. From his pocket the seaman took a handful of biscuits, broke one, and held a piece up to the captain’s lips. Ariga looked at the man, then at the biscuit, smiled, and opened his mouth. The Yamato began to go under. Bound to his ship, Captain Ariga and his crewman died with her at 2:23 on the afternoon of April 7.

The last suicidal surface attack by the Japanese Imperial Navy had been a complete failure. Only four destroyers got back to Japan to report the loss of the most powerful battleship in the world.

In terms of overall strategy, the battle for Okinawa—the last land campaign of the Pacific war—was over before it began. American superiority was a foregone conclusion. But to the American Marines and soldiers struggling for survival there, it seemed that the Japanese had never fought as fiercely or as effectively. The land war was a savage killing match, fought on terrain which uniquely resembled Japan itself—familiar to the enemy, thus all the more alien to the Americans.

As April passed, the ruthless ferocity of the island war was evidenced on any given day. Marines running through gullies toward a rise called Wana Draw were attacked from the flanks by guns, pistols and mortars that fired and fired till all the men in the open had ceased to move. American flamethrowing tanks seared hillsides with gallons of liquid fuel, roasting hundreds of Japanese hiding in caves. As survivors ran out, waiting infantrymen fired clip after clip into them. Japanese shellfire was incessant, night and day, as never before in the Pacific war.

Ushijima’s heavy guns fired ceaselessly, searching out the Americans cowering in shallow depressions in the ground. Under the constant whine and roar of gunfire, sleep was fitful for the Marines and soldiers, and physical and mental exhaustion became commonplace. Cases of combat fatigue grew alarmingly, to a point where, before the campaign was over, thirteen thousand Americans had been brought to the edge of collapse.

Once a quiet haven for farmers, Okinawa soon stank of cordite and decaying corpses. The fields were torn, the roads pocked with holes. On both sides of the line, men crouched, waiting for the enemy to show himself and then rising up to beat him or shoot him or stab him again and again—until the next appeared. They lived in holes in the ground that were filled with water from the constant rain. Their clothes were continually soaked. Their boots and socks rotted. Their morale disintegrated and their minds were consumed with hatred and fear of the enemy just across the ravine or beyond the trees. Japanese and Americans alike wallowed in filth.

Out on the seas the immense American fleet continued to stand by. Here too nerves stretched beyond endurance as the Japanese pressed the kamikaze attacks throughout the month of April. Over a hundred American ships were damaged or destroyed. Nearly a thousand Japanese planes were lost in this period. But still Ushijima’s dream of routing the fleet and isolating the enemy on land remained unrealized.

Despite this disappointment, the kamikazes figured heavily in one last all-out effort undertaken by the Japanese command on May 3. The new strategy came into being painfully, born of bickering and bitterness among Ushijima’s staff. In headquarters one hundred feet below the ground, under the stronghold of Shuri Castle, an increasingly belligerent group of officers had tired of remaining on the defensive and were urging a massive counterattack. One of the radical leaders was Colonel Naomichi Jin, a staff officer who was disgusted at the conservative elements around Ushijima. As casualties mounted and the Americans inched down the island, Jin and his followers openly threatened the life of Colonel Yahara, chief proponent of a defensive strategy. General Ushijima faced a rebellion within his own ranks.

The inevitable showdown occurred in an acrimonious meeting in which General Isamu Cho, a man who for years had been an extreme rightist in army affairs in Japan, hotly argued for a strong attack on American fortifications. Hard-pressed by the shouts and threats of Cho, Jin and other diehards, Ushijima relented and gave weary approval to a massive offensive beginning May 4. The objective was to destroy the American Twenty-fourth Corps and to force back the entire American line. Arrangements were made with Admiral Onishi’s air arm for an intensive new kamikaze assault on the ships offshore to begin on the evening of May 3. Once more the Japanese hoped to effect a complete rupture of naval support to the army on the island.

Onishi’s squadrons came down from airfields in Kyushu as planned and managed to put eighteen ships out of action. One of them, the destroyer Aaron Ward, took five kamikaze dives, lost ninety-eight men killed or wounded, yet stayed miraculously afloat. But the vast bulk of American ships remained undamaged.

The land fighting that began at dawn on May 4 was chaotic, costly, and for the Japanese, hopeless. A thunderous initial bombardment by Japanese artillery was followed by the confusion of close-quarter fighting, where friend and foe passed each other in the fluid battle zones without realizing it. An entire squad of Japanese soldiers marched in close order right into the automatic rifles of the Seventy-seventh Infantry Division and was annihilated on the spot. A column of American soldiers, smoking and talking, their rifles loosely slung, walked toward the front lines under the eyes of Japanese infiltrators and were all killed in seconds. One Japanese advance late in the afternoon of May 4 succeeded in penetrating over a mile behind American positions. It was quickly blunted by superior firepower.

This action of May 4–5 represented the full extent of the last Imperial Army offensive in World War II. Japanese resources could not sustain another. On the next day General Ushijima ordered his badly beaten forces back into their caves and bunkers, and his army resumed a defensive posture. The influence of Cho and Jin and their supporters broke against the hard facts of reality.

In the deep shelter under Shuri Castle, General Ushijima tried without much hope to encourage his aides. On the other side of the lines, General Simon Bolivar Buckner ordered his forces to go over to the offensive. By May 8, V-E Day, the initiative had passed forever to the Americans.

The Japanese situation deteriorated steadily through May and the early part of June as American forces slowly pushed into the southernmost area of the island. General Ushijima’s forces were unable to withstand the relentless pressure of superior firepower. When Shuri Castle, the last bastion, fell on May 31, the battle was nearly over.

American infantrymen walking into that former headquarters of Ushijima’s Thirty-second Army witnessed a scene of utter devastation. Heavy shells and bombs had torn apart the town which ringed the castle grounds. Only a Methodist church and a two-story concrete building still stood. Shuri Castle itself was demolished. In this fortress from which former kings of Okinawa had ruled, nothing lived. The Japanese had left their dead and retreated to the south. The last center of organized resistance had dissolved.

In the next three weeks, the retreating General Ushijima managed to perform a minor miracle by organizing another zone of defense, but he knew it could hold only a short time. The end was close.

By now even Japanese soldiers knew it. Bombarded by millions of leaflets which assured them of fair treatment, they considered the idea of laying down their arms. Many decided against it and instead committed suicide. But for the first time in the war, hundreds of tattered and dirty soldiers came out of caves and walked toward American lines with hands held high over their heads. Eventually over seven thousand Japanese surrendered.

Inside a cave under Hill 89, General Ushijima read Allied surrender leaflets and laughed. His assistant, General Cho, relaxed with a bottle of Scotch as he listened to late reports coming in from the scattered units in the field. The front line had disintegrated. Japanese troops had become a disorganized rabble, skulking in holes and trenches, wandering through the countryside looking for food and water. They were without hope.

In an open field near Kadena Airbase more than a hundred shrouded bodies lay in neat rows on the grass. All of them were American sailors washed ashore from the wreckage of ships blown to pieces by kamikazes. Soldiers passing by paused, many of them aware for the first time of the price paid by the Navy in supporting the foot soldier at the beaches.

A huge cave inside the Japanese lines was serving as a field hospital where three hundred badly wounded Japanese Marines were being treated. Their commander, Admiral Ota, feared that the enemy would pour fire and gasoline into the cave before asking questions. He ordered the senior doctor to make sure that the patients did not suffer further, that they had an honorable death.

The doctor and his assistants readied hypodermic needles and walked through long rows of sick men. With tears rolling down their cheeks, they methodically squeezed syringes into three hundred outstretched arms. Finally there was no sound in the hospital except the sobbing of the medical staff.

Another Japanese doctor, named Maehara, had given up trying to cope with the mounting disaster and had sought refuge among Okinawan natives who were prowling through the battlefields. Maehara fell in with a group of men and women living in a series of caves gouged from the side of a hill. In these close quarters, he fell in love and shared his bed with a small, bright-faced native girl. In the midst of death, they clung together and spoke of an uncertain future.

In the third week of June, the Americans surrounded the hill. Maehara and the girl planned to escape by one of the several tunnels burrowed through the hillside to open ground hundreds of yards away. Fearful, they delayed leaving. American soldiers stalking the enemy came eventually to the mouth of the cave and threw in satchel charges of dynamite. Maehara retreated into the deepest recesses. The girl followed. When a flamethrower shot a burst into the entrance, the Japanese doctor shouted for the girl to follow him out through one of the escape hatches. Scrambling, twisting, he reached the cooling breezes outside. Behind him, nothing stirred. Shocked, Maehara retraced his steps into the blackness and came upon a crumpled form. The girl had been caught by the searing heat of the flamethrower and died in the dirt. Maehara wandered dazedly out of the cave and surrendered to the enemy. He was beyond caring.

On the eighteenth of June, General Simon Bolivar Buckner came to the forward positions to oversee the mop-up. Standing in an observation post, he watched the battle for the caves. Suddenly, a Japanese dual-purpose gun fired a shell which struck a rock formation above him. A jagged piece of coral flew down and hit Buckner in the chest. He died within minutes.

On the evening of the twenty-first of June, Generals Ushijima and Cho sat down to a sumptuous meal in their home under Hill 89. Overhead the Americans walked on top of the escarpment, where Japanese soldiers continued to resist them by fighting for every rock and tree.

The generals ate quietly. As their aides offered toasts, the two leaders drank to each other with dregs of whiskey preserved for this moment. A full moon shone on the white coral ledges of Hill 89 as a final tribute rang through the cave: “Long live the Emperor.”

At 4:00 A.M. on the morning of the twenty-second, Ushijima, cooling himself with a bamboo fan, walked with Cho between lines of crying subordinates to the mouth of the cave. There Cho turned to his superior and said, “I will lead the way.” The two generals emerged into the moonlight. They were followed by several staff officers.

Outside the entrance a quilt had been laid on top of a mattress. Loud firing sounded on all sides as American infantrymen, no more than fifty feet away, sensed movement. Ushijima proceeded to sit down and pray. Cho did the same.

Ignoring the guns and grenades, Ushijima bowed low toward the ground. His adjutant handed him a knife. The general held it briefly in front of his body, then ripped it across his abdomen. Immediately his adjutant raised a jeweled sword and brought it down across his neck. Ushijima’s head toppled onto the quilt and blood spattered the onlookers. Within seconds, General Cho died the same way.

The battle of Okinawa had ended. Over 12,000 Americans and more than 100,000 Japanese were dead. The American flag flew only 350 miles from Japan.


The Age of the Shoguns

There are seven emotions: joy, anger, anxiety, love, grief, fear, and hate, and if a man does not give way to these he can be called patient… I have practised patience.

Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616)

Japan, after the death of its feudal overlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1535–98), was threatened by anarchy. A council of five co-regents had been nominated by Hideyoshi to rule Japan after his death and during the minority of his son Toyotomi Hideyori. Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616), as head of the regency council, emerged as a dominant figure but Ishida Mitsunari (1563–1600), another council member, challenged his authority.

Mitsunari and Ieyasu were supported by the war lords of, respectively, western and eastern Japan, and came to do battle at Sekigahara, a narrow pass of strategic importance between Lake Biwa and Nagoya in central Japan on 21 October 1600. At about 8 a.m, as the mists cleared after a night of driving rain, the first shots of musketry were heard. The contest between the 80,000-strong army of the west and the slightly smaller army of the east was even until midday. But Ieyasu’s espionage network, ahead of the battle, had already persuaded elements of the ‘army of the west’ to defect. A force on the hill above that army’s southern line advanced on its own allies and delivered the victory to Ieyasu.

Mitsunari’s defeat led to his execution and Ieyasu either banished the nobles who had supported him or deprived them of their lands. He then redistributed the fiefdoms among his own supporters. But since many feudal nobles supported Hideyori’s legitimacy the ambitious, but cautious, Ieyasu allowed the seven-year-old boy to keep his father’s stronghold, Osaka castle, and gave him his granddaughter in marriage. The battle was the last major opposition to Tokugawa power. The emperor, whose power was merely nominal, confirmed Ieyasu’s authority when, in 1603, he appointed him shogun – supreme military ruler of Japan. When Ieyasu retired in 1605 he ensured that the title of shogun was transferred to his son Tokugawa Hidetada. A dynasty had therefore been established but Ieyasu retained effective control until his death.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century Japan had dissolved into a collection of some 400 effectively independent states and the emperor’s authority was just a formality. But Japanese attempts at establishing central authority dated back to the country’s emergence as a distinctive civilization in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. The constitution of 604 had asserted the emperor’s authority over the nobility, the national reforms of 646 established the emperor’s title to all Japanese land, and Nara became the country’s administrative capital. Buddhism, imported from China through the adjacent Korean peninsula, was used to elevate imperial power. But Japan, unlike Korea, failed to transplant the much-admired Chinese example of a hierarchical and centralized administration. Buddhist monasteries and great families were granted private estates as a reward for crown service and this diminished the imperial patrimony. In 794 the emperors decided to move their court to the new capital of Heian (Kyoto) in order to escape the political influence of Buddhist monks at Nara. However, they then found themselves dominated by the Fujiwara clan, whose members intermarried with the imperial family and became the country’s predominant power. The absence of a central army meant that the country’s provinces were run by the monasteries and by the private armies of nobles. Samurai soldiers roamed the countryside and observed their own chivalric code. By the twelfth century, a time when Fujiwara power was waning, the samurai were influential in court politics.

Shoguns, as supreme military rulers, ruled with the aid of provincial subordinates – the shugo. The flow of power to the peripheries proved to be a chronic feature of Japanese political and military life: the shugo established themselves as regional rulers and the shoguns’ power diminished. But the shugo themselves lost their authority in the provinces after the civil war (1467–77) caused by a quarrel about the shogunate succession. The real victors were a new class of feudal warriors and provincial power-brokers known as the daimyo. Samurai warriors provided the daimyo with private armies, which led to internecine warfare. They in turn, as befitted their vassal status, received their own small estates. In the west such feudalism had led to national legal and political structures but Japanese feudalism militated against any such authority. Daimyo castles dominated their particular areas as centres for trade, urban development and the arts. Within their fortresses some of the daimyo became influential patrons of the ritualized Noh drama, the tea ceremonies, painting and prose romances which gave Japan a national cultural style despite the fragmentation so evident elsewhere.

The man who ended the chaos by establishing a centralized despotism started life as a victim of the age of Japanese anarchy. Tokugawa Ieyasu was born into a struggling warrior family and his father’s alliances meant that Ieyasu’s mother was separated from the family when her son was two. At the age of seven he became a hostage of the powerful Imagawa clan and two years afterwards Ieyasu’s father was killed by one of his vassals. The Imagawa educated Ieyasu as both warrior and administrator and his earliest campaigns were waged on behalf of the clan. But the age’s dominant figure was Oda Nobunaga, with whom Ieyasu formed an alliance after Nobunaga’s defeat of the Imagawa. Nobunaga had captured Kyoto and started an anti-Buddhist campaign, slaughtering monks and destroying temples. The Portuguese had by now introduced firearms into the country: muskets were reproduced and tactics changed. Nobunaga exploited these developments. The castle of Azuchi, built as his base on the shores of Lake Biwa in central Japan, showed the novel quality of his power. Earlier castles were defensive citadels built in remote mountain strongholds but Azuchi, built on the plains, asserted political and administrative order rather than just military control. Ieyasu was able to return to his family’s estates, near Nagoya on the central east coast, where he established a tax regime and a system of civilian administration to run his small army. He replaced the Imagawa during the 1570s as the dominant regional power so that he became the daimyo in charge of a prosperous and well-populated area.

Nobunaga, following an attack by one of his vassals, died in 1582 and Toyotomi Hideyoshi emerged as his successor within the Oda territories. During the 1580s Hideyoshi extended his authority over the daimyo of south-west Japan and his defeat of the Hojo clan enabled him to consolidate control of eastern Japan. Hideyoshi suggested that his ally Ieyasu should surrender his coastal provinces in return for the Hojo lands further east and the Tokugawa vassals and army were therefore transferred to land centred on the fishing village of Edo (Tokyo).

Hideyoshi in his vast domain and Ieyasu in his compact one followed policies designed to sustain their authority. Hideyoshi disarmed the peasantry and insisted that the samurai should now live in castle towns rather than roam the countryside ever ready to lend support to rural rebellions. A land survey yielded new taxes and Hideyoshi moved to suppress the Christian faith established in Japan by the Portuguese in 1572. Ieyasu placed large tracts of land under the direct administration of his own officials, drew up land surveys, and confiscated villagers’ weapons. Artisans and businessmen were encouraged to come and work in his new castle town.

After his victory at Sekigahara Ieyasu issued regulations and established administrative bodies which controlled the activities of the nobility, the Buddhist clergy and the daimyo. His aim was the creation of a stable and self-sufficient state by autocratic means: farming and trade were segregated, private investment banned and different parts of the country were only meant to communicate with each other by travelling along the strictly controlled five Imperial highways which converged on Ieyasu’s court. The Japanese were stopped from travelling abroad and, after the ban on the building of large ships (1638), had few means of travel to tempt them. Japanese hostility to trade grew since they saw from the examples of Goa, Malacca and Macau how missionaries always followed in the traders’ footsteps. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary, had first arrived in Japan in 1549 and Christianization had been rapid. By 1615 some half a million of Japan’s eighteen-million population were Christian. Ieyasu embarked on a systematic anti-Christian policy which later culminated in the slaughter of 37,000 Japanese Christians at Hara castle near Nagasaki after Christian peasants, aided by samurai mercenaries, rose in rebellion. Three thousand one hundred and twenty-five officially recognized Catholic martyrdoms occurred during the Tokugawa era. All Japanese now had to register at local Buddhist temples and alien faiths were proscribed.

The need to control the daimyo ensured that both Ieyasu and his son kept them hard at work building, extending and embellishing the castle at Edo. By the time of Ieyasu’s death it was the world’s largest castle. Surrounding it were the mansions in which the daimyo lived as virtual hostages. The issue of the succession to Hidetada still plagued his father, especially when Toyotomi Hideyori attained his majority in 1614. The seventy-one-year-old warrior therefore led an army to seize Osaka castle and finally crush the Toyotomi clan with the help of Hidetada, who raised an army of 90,000 warriors. After a year-long campaign the castle fell and Hideyori, along with his family, committed suicide.

Ieyasu established the isolationism of the Edo period (1603–1867), which was dominated by the Tokugawa shogunate and as a prolonged period of peace is without parallel in advanced societies. Economically, the experiment was successful for a long time: cities boomed and agriculture expanded. The population grew to some thirty million by the early eighteenth century, but with virtually no foreign trade the state had to be financed almost exclusively from agricultural taxes whose burdens caused many peasants to leave the land. Samurai fell into debt and rural discontent spread. The peace meant that the army was largely redundant and the educated samurai joined the ranks of the bureaucrats who ran the highly centralized administration created by Ieyasu and which remains in place today. This concentration of power also produced enormous powers of patronage which proved to be another longterm national legacy. Japan’s introspective sense of its cultural uniqueness – and of its distinctiveness among its Asian neighbours – deepened during this period. But keeping the west at bay proved a high-cost policy. Japan could not assimilate western technology on its own terms. And western technology meant western power. A secluded society grew vulnerable to the feared ‘barbarian’.

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.

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.