Japanese Maritime Blockade Tsingtau 1914

On August 27th, the Japanese took possession of some of the small islands at the mouth of the harbor of Kiao-chau, and on September 2nd they landed troops in Shandong Province at the northern end of the peninsula where the German settlement at Tsingtao was situated, initiating the Siege of Tsingtao. The Japanese army employed four Maurice Farmans and a Nieuport IVG2 while the Navy provided a three seater Maurice Farman and three two seater Farmans from the seaplane tender Wakamiya. On arrival to the area they launched the first naval air operations of the Great War.

The first step taken in dispossessing Germany of her ‘place in the sun’ was the assembling of a naval force, named the Second Squadron, under Vice Admiral Kato Sadakichi to enforce a maritime blockade. Kato had seen action during the Russo-Japanese War as commanding officer of the cruiser Akitsushima and his squadron was built around five obsolete vessels captured during the course of that conflict. He flew his flag in Suwo, which had originally been the ‘Peresviet’ class battleship Pobieda. A veteran of the Battle of the Yellow Sea, Pobieda had been sunk by artillery fire at Port Arthur before being salvaged and re-commissioned into the Japanese Navy. Another combatant from the Yellow Sea battle was Tango, originally the ‘Petropavlovsk’ class battleship Poltava, and a vessel also salvaged from Port Arthur. Arguably his most powerful unit, and certainly the most modern, was Iwami, constructed as the ‘Borodino’ class battleship Orel. Orel had been part of the 1st Division of the 2nd Pacific Squadron and had surrendered on the orders of Rear Admiral Nikolai Nebogatov the day after the Battle of Tsushima, the only modern battleship to survive on the Russian side. Two more survivors of Tsushima, members of the 3rd Pacific Squadron and unfit to fight in 1905, comprised the other heavy units of Kato’s command. The Mishima and Okinoshima were ‘Admiral Ushakov’ Class coastal battleships commissioned in 1897 and 1899 as Admiral Senyavin and General-Admiral Apraxin respectively. One more unit of somewhat similar power and vintage, to Kato’s better ships at least, was later added to the blockading force in the shape of the ‘Swiftsure’ class battleship Triumph. Triumph provided, along with the destroyer Usk, the British naval contingent.

Kato also had four armoured cruisers; the British constructed Chiyoda, Tokiwa and Iwate, and the, ironically, German built Yakumo. In addition were several old lighter cruisers, including the American constructed protected cruiser Chitose and the protected cruiser Akashi. Other notable warships were Takachiho, constructed in Britain and originally designated a protected cruiser but re-classified as a second-class Coastal Defence Ship in 1912, and his former command, Akitsushima, originally considered a light cruiser but similarly re-designated in 1912. One of the few modern vessels in the squadron was the second-class protected cruiser Tone. If, apart from the last mentioned, the ships of the Second Squadron were firmly rooted in the past, then an additional vessel could be said to very much represent the future; the seaplane carrier Wakamiya Maru, a British-built freighter, captured from Russia in 1905 and commissioned into the Japanese Navy in 1913, carrying four seaplanes.

Against this large, if largely outmoded, force Meyer-Waldeck had little in the way of assets. All the naval units scattered throughout East-Asian waters had been recalled to Tsingtau, but even though the majority successfully complied, the resultant force was very weak. There were four ‘Iltis’ class gunboats: Iltis, Jaguar, Luchs and Tiger. These vessels were not designed or equipped for fighting other ships; the heaviest weapon carried being the two 105mm guns of the latter two.

Of perhaps more utility was the minelayer Lauting, which had a capacity of 120 mines, and the Torpedo Boat S-90, it being the original of the design that had caused a step-change in the relationship between Torpedo Boats and Torpedo Boat Destroyers, known generally thereafter as just Destroyers. S-90 was designed to accompany the battle-fleet to sea, and was thus larger and more substantially constructed than previous types. In reply to this danger the Royal Navy had introduced the ‘River’ class destroyers, which were able to keep the sea in much tougher conditions than their predecessors, the Torpedo Boat Destroyers, and displaced some 560 tonnes as against the S-90’s 315 tonnes.

Augmenting this strength, if that is the correct term, was the Austro-Hungarian ‘Kaiser Franz Josef I’ class Ram-Cruiser Kaiserin Elizabeth. Austro-Hungarian Ram-Cruisers, also known as Torpedo-Rams, were envisaged as leading a division of warships, consisting of two light cruisers, two torpedo boat destroyers and twelve torpedo boats, in attacks on enemy battleships and heavy units. The philosophy of utilising torpedocarrying craft to attack larger vessels came from the French Jeune École (Young School). Arising in the 1880s, this school of thought argued that equipping the French Navy with large numbers of torpedo-carrying vessels would nullify the overwhelming preponderance of heavy units in the British Navy. This ‘strategy of the weak’ was taken up by several lesser naval powers including Austria-Hungary. The British constructed one such vessel, Polyphemus, which was not followed up. The ‘Kaiser Franz Josef I’ class was quite heavily gunned as originally constructed, being armed with two 240mm guns, in turrets fore and aft, and six 150mm broadside guns in casemates, though the primary weapon was, at least initially, envisaged as the five torpedo tubes. The ramming function was, perhaps, a hangover from the Austrian victory over Italy in the 1866 Battle of Lissa. During the engagement the deliberate ramming of the Italian battleship Re d’Italia by the Austrian flagship, Ferdinand Max, caused the total loss of the former. In 1905–6, Kaiserin Elisabeth and her sister ship Kaiser Franz Josef I were refitted at Pola Navy Yard, and their 240mm guns, which had proved too heavy for their mountings, replaced with modern 150mm pieces. The casemate-mounted weapons, having proved difficult to work in anything but a calm sea, were moved up to main deck level.

The Kaiserin Elizabeth, the only naval unit deployed by Austria-Hungary in East Asia, arrived at Tsingtau on 22 July following orders from the naval command; there being nowhere else friendly to go and, with war imminent, no prospect of making the long journey home. Also present, though unserviceable, were the ‘Bussard’ class light cruiser Cormoran, which had been with Diederichs during the acquisition of the Kiautschou Territory, and the torpedo boat Taku, constructed by Germany for the Chinese Navy, but taken following the Boxer War. Cormoran had suffered engine failure, which was considered irreparable, and Taku had been severely damaged by a collision the previous year. There were three other German warships in the theatre that were unable to obey the order to make for Tsingtau, the purpose-built ‘Vaterland’ class river gunboats Vaterland, Tsingtau and Otter. Constructed in Germany specifically for service on the Chinese rivers, these vessels were then broken down before reassembly and commissioning in China. They were laid up at various Chinese ports in 1914, though the crews attempted to make the overland journey to Tsingtau and several succeeded.

In order to maximise his defensive position from naval attack, Meyer-Waldeck had ordered mines be laid in the near approaches to the territory. The day before the Japanese ultimatum expired he decided to utilise the rest of the stock around some small groups of islands lying some 15–20km offshore to the southeast, during the course of which operation Lautung was covered by the S-90.

Unbeknownst to the Germans, units of the British China Squadron were at sea on that day engaged in setting up a patrol line in order to intercept ships attempting to leave Tsingtau before the expiry of the ultimatum. There were four destroyers engaged in this activity during the evening of 22 August, all, coincidentally, of the ‘River’ class built to counter the threat of the S-90 Torpedo Boats; the Colne, Jed, Kennet and Welland. Seeing the smoke of the German torpedo boat the Kennet, which happened to be closest, increased to full speed and moved to engage. The S-90 became aware of this vessel closing fast, and accordingly turned and made for Tsingtau at her full speed. The design speed of the S-90 was 27 knots as against the 25 knots of the Kennet. Both vessels were around a decade old however and it would appear that the Kennet was in better shape, inasmuch as she was able to close on her smaller opponent. Kennet was also the more heavily armed; carrying four 110mm (12-pounder) guns in comparison with the three 77.5mm (4-pounder) weapons of S-90, and with her heavier metal was able to open fire first.

Here then, some ten years and 20000km from the arena that they were originally conceived as joining combat in, the torpedo boat and the (torpedo boat) destroyer finally came to blows, though in anything but the circumstances as originally envisaged. It was essentially a stern chase for the British vessel, and one that she would have won eventually given the maximum speed her opponent seemed capable of was just over 20 knots. During the course of the chase the British vessel fired some 300 rounds, and scored no hits, whilst S-90 replied with 250, and hit Kennet several times. Notwithstanding this, what essentially saved S-90 was some cunning on the part of her commander, who lengthened the distance by forcing Kennet to avoid shallow reef water, and, ultimately, the coastal artillery of Hui tsch’en Huk Battery. This began firing on Kennet whilst she was still out of range and thus gave warning of what the vessel could expect if she persisted. She did not, and turned away allowing S-90 to escape; ‘So vigorous had been the pursuit that the funnels of the S-90 gleamed red-hot in the night.’ During the course of the engagement the torpedo boat suffered no casualties, whilst three men were killed and six wounded, including her commander, aboard Kennet.

With these events in mind no doubt, the next sortie by Lauting, carried out the following day, was afforded a more powerful escort consisting of S-90, Jaguar and Kaiserin Elizabeth; the 150mm guns of the latter being seen as powerful enough to discourage the attentions of lighter units. The operation remained unmolested by surface units and passed off successfully, but when the minelayer turned to return to port she was almost overwhelmed by a massive explosion some distance astern. The ship had clearly not hit a mine, weighing only some 580 tonnes she would have been totally destroyed by such an event, and, despite reports that a shard of steel marked with the word ‘Portsmouth’ was found on her deck after the explosion, indicating the presence of British ordnance, the most likely explanation is that one of her recently laid mines had malfunctioned and exploded. The damaged ship was able to return to port under her own steam, but required two days of repairs in the floating dock before she was fit for service again, though this was somewhat academic as, early in the morning of 27 August, Kato’s squadron appeared off the coast.

The Japanese came no closer than about 25km, and requested, by radio, permission for an emissary to approach Tsingtau and land. This was refused; Kato’s next action was to proclaim, by radio and in English, a blockade:

I hereby declare that on the [27 August 1914] the blockade of the whole coastline […] of the leased territory of Kiautschou is established and will be maintained with the naval force under my command […] the ships of friendly and neutral powers are given twenty-four hours grace to leave the blockaded area and that all measures authorised by international law […] will be enforced […] against all vessels which may attempt to violate the blockade.

The Japanese also landed on and proceeded to occupy two small islands lying offshore, Taikungtao and Tschu tscha tau, upon which they constructed signals posts and navigation lights, and commenced minesweeping operations.

With the announcement of a naval blockade, and the cutting of the undersea cables to Shanghai and Chefoo (Yantai) on 14 and 24 August respectively by the Singapore-based Eastern Extension Australasia & China Telegraph Company (EEA&CTC) Cable Ship Patrol, the territory was cut off from maritime and cable communication with the outside world. Radio communication was also interdicted with the network of radio stations constructed in the Pacific territories, Anguar, New Guinea, Nauru, Samoa and Yap, having been, or in imminent danger of being, captured. Communication was possible with the Telefunken station in Shanghai, but either directly or indirectly with Nauen, the powerful station near Berlin that was the core of the network, much more problematical. There was of course still the inland telegraph and the Shantung Railway, though these would come under threat if the Japanese landed military forces.

Despite their inferiority the Germans were able to strike a blow, albeit minor, against the Second Squadron on 31 August with the assistance of the unseasonable weather. A severe storm had blown up the previous day and raged overnight; when the skies cleared somewhat they revealed a Japanese destroyer aground on Lien Tau Island some 10km to the south. The unfortunate vessel was the ‘Asakaze’ class Shirotaye, which had gone, or been driven, onto the island during the night. Other ships were undertaking a salvage attempt, but these were dispersed by the fire of Hui tsch’en Huk Battery thus allowing a foray by Jaguar, which was able to destroy the beached warship by gunfire before fleeing back to safety.

The improvement in the weather was temporary, which precluded any further naval action. It also did massive damage to the territory’s infrastructure with the swollen watercourses demolishing roads, bridges and several sections of the Shantung Railway. In respect of the latter, nature performed the work that German engineers were preparing to carry out, inasmuch as Meyer-Waldeck had ordered that preparations be made for demolishing several railway bridges. This was in order to prevent the Japanese capturing the railway intact, and, if they landed in the north, using it to facilitate their operations. The weather also benefited the Japanese, in the sense that along with the railway went the telegraph running alongside it. From the beginning of September then Kiautschou was effectively cut off in almost every sense of the word.




Ise 1944.  IJN Ise & IJN Hyuga, despite the expensive reconstructions, both vessels were considered obsolete by the eve of the Pacific War, and neither saw significant action in the early years of the war. Following the loss of most of the IJN’s large aircraft carriers during the Battle of Midway in mid-1942, they were rebuilt with a flight deck replacing the rear pair of gun turrets to give them the ability to operate an air group of floatplanes. A lack of aircraft and qualified pilots, however, meant that they never actually operated their aircraft in combat. While awaiting their air group the sister ships were sometimes used to ferry troops and material to Japanese bases. They participated in the Battle of Cape Engaño in late 1944, where they decoyed the American carrier fleet supporting the invasion of Leyte away from the landing beaches. Afterwards both ships were transferred to Southeast Asia; in early 1945 they participated in Operation Kita, where they transported petrol and other strategic materials to Japan. The sisters were then reduced to reserve until they were sunk during American airstrikes in July. After the war they were scrapped in 1946–47.

Admiral Ozawa Jisaburo

Admiral Ozawa Jisaburo put his worries about fuel on hold while feeling his way southward. A full set of searches went to a distance of 300 miles, ending with a 40-mile dogleg. The ships were alerted for battle from 6:18 a.m. 24 October 1944, onward, and antiaircraft positions were fully manned. The admiral, whose nickname in the fleet was “Gargoyle” for his stony countenance, showed no reaction when they received a sighting report of Task Force 38 carriers from the First Air Fleet in the Philippines, or when his own scouts confirmed the information with better location data. Then, and only when Ozawa had become confident his fleet had been spotted, did he send his own planes to add to the hell of the Princeton.

Here is a mystery of Leyte Gulf: Early this day Halsey had only suspicions about Ozawa’s presence. Yet the Japanese admiral acted based upon a belief that his lure had worked—that a scout had spotted him. But no U.S. aircraft filed any sighting of Ozawa before late afternoon. Oyodo noticed that scout at 4:42 p.m. Captain Mudaguchi added that it was an SB-2C Helldiver that made a strafing run on his ship from thirty degrees to port, giving the report a concrete character. U.S. Navy interrogators pressed Ozawa about the morning sighting and the admiral insisted he had it right. Ozawa said he had seen the scout planes himself.

“I expected complete destruction of my fleet,” Ozawa told U.S. interrogators, “but if Kurita’s mission was carried out that was all I wished.” He lacked confidence in the success of his decoy mission but knew it was the only thing they could do. That, too, was characteristic of Ozawa. His only sign of agitation was a slight shaking in his hands. The JNAF scout confirmed the Halsey fleet at 11:15 a.m. Half an hour later, Ozawa’s carriers turned into the wind to launch. Shortly after noon, the cool Ozawa came around to a northwest course, but no Allied attack materialized.

Out of options, at 2:40 p.m., the main body commander pulled his own version of forming the battleship task force. Ozawa directed Rear Admiral Matsuda Chiaki to separate, take most of the destroyers, and operate as an advance force to make a night torpedo attack. Matsuda complied. In the dusk, lookouts saw flashes against the horizon. Staff thought it could be from the pyrotechnics of JNAF attacks on the Halsey fleet. Admiral Matsuda thought the sky looked more like an electrical storm and felt that even more strongly as darkness gathered. Matsuda also had radar indications of aircraft, however. The occasional flashes persisted until about nine o’clock. Deciding to observe strict radio silence, Matsuda made no report. But he shaped a course toward the lights. Around 10:30 p.m., as Matsuda expected to close with the phantom fleet, Admiral Ozawa recalled the vanguard, planning an early-morning rendezvous.

Meanwhile, the main body turned due west toward Cape Engaño. This marked a departure from standard carrier tactics, in which the force launching a strike against an adversary heads away from the enemy to put maximum distance between the sides. Instead, Ozawa maneuvered so as to maintain a constant distance from Task Force 38.

But that did not last. Suddenly the Oyodo reported an American scout plane and its strafing attack. Admiral Ozawa turned the fleet due north. Elated, he dashed off a dispatch to Combined Fleet, Kurita, Mikawa, and everyone else that the Americans had found him and were tumbling for the lure. That transmission failed to go through. The Zuikaku’s communication problems cost the Imperial Navy dearly.

The Zuikaku overheard the message where Admiral Kurita reported his decision to withdraw temporarily in the Sibuyan Sea. This must have tried Ozawa’s stolidity when he learned of it at about eight o’clock. He had already sacrificed the carrier air groups, deliberately kept his fleet in harm’s way, detached his biggest surface ships as bait, all to enable the Kurita fleet’s penetration mission, and now they were turning away. Ozawa ordered a course change too, northeastward toward Empire waters.

With Admiral Matsuda’s advance force dangling, the main-body commander altered course again around midnight, coming around to the south-southeast to rendezvous with the vanguard unit. Admiral Matsuda had not been able to find the Allies in the dark, so his attack mission turned into a bust—probably just as well since his warships were no match for the escort of even one of Halsey’s task groups.

It was on Ozawa’s 140-degree heading that the night scout from Independence found him after two o’clock. There is no indication the Japanese were aware of this sighting, since Ozawa coolly maintained his course. Once the Matsuda vanguard unit rejoined, at about dawn, the admiral began evasive maneuvers for the first time. The fleet turned through many points of the compass to head, first northeast, then to the northwest, and the Zuikaku crew went to battle stations at 5:30 a.m.

A couple of hours after dawn, all doubt evaporated. At 7:13, lookouts saw American air scouts. Ozawa knew Halsey’s attack would begin shortly. The one bit of good news—a dispatch from Kurita showed he had gone through the San Bernardino after all and was engaging the Allies off Samar. At 7:45, Ozawa ordered his fleet to prepare for air attacks. The Gargoyle would need all his faculties.

Airman John Yeager of the Essex would always remember October 25 as the day he and his comrades raised a lot of hell. That wouldn’t be obvious at first—Mick Carney later admitted to Bill Halsey, “I chewed my fingernails down to my elbows,” while awaiting news of the first wave. But the combat power of the Third Fleet had grown enormously, and after the happy hunting against Kurita the day before, the pilots were on a roll.

The lead attack that Dave McCampbell managed set the tone. The Japanese detected about eighty planes inbound at 8:17 a.m. Barely ten minutes later, the strike arrived overhead. Ozawa launched what fighters he had, but the powerful strike force simply brushed aside the dozen or more interceptors. Ozawa’s only defenses would be maneuver and flak. He ordered fire opened at 8:23 a.m.

In contrast to the Musashi earlier, the Ozawa fleet had no compunction about using the dangerous sanshikidan shells from the 14-inch guns of Ise and Hyuga. Flak began assailing the strike aircraft as far as ten miles away. Enterprise fliers found the fire surprisingly accurate, and far enough downrange that the Japanese could take more than one shot. The powerful explosions were unnerving but not especially effective. The huge shells destroyed no planes, and the same went for the rockets the Imperial Navy had installed so assiduously on its big ships. Their firing angles and slant ranges were so restrictive that they served primarily to disrupt attackers’ aim. The conventional medium and light flak was another matter. Enterprise crews observed intense fire and shell bursts in many colors. Avenger pilot Robert Barnes decided the flak was “the most intense I have ever seen.” As he went in, “all ships were firing everything they had . . . every ship you flew by was shooting at you.” TBM crewman John Underwood of the Lexington remembered the flak as “awesome.” Given the fierce opposition, it is fortunate that only eleven American warplanes were lost—Halsey’s assault had involved 527 sorties (cruiser Oyodo claimed twenty-seven planes were shot down).

Dave McCampbell would be only the first Task Force 38 strike manager. This offensive was different from the fight at Philippine Sea. Engaño was carried out at such short range that Admiral Mitscher could rotate coordinators and keep up a constant, well-directed assault. Here, McCampbell had the leisure to fly home to refuel and return to resume his coordination role. Commander Theodore H. Winters, the Lexington’s air group boss, estimates spending six to six and a half hours orbiting the Ozawa fleet that day. The Japanese were less than 100 miles away. Mitscher sent his planes at Ozawa in five waves starting with this early-morning attack. McCampbell’s strike pitched the Ozawa fleet immediately into turmoil. First into Davy Jones’s locker would be Commander Yogata Tomoe’s destroyer Akitsuki. On that vessel Lieutenant Yamamoto Heiya was chief boilerman. He had a bad feeling about this sortie—third time, unlucky—as Akitsuki had survived a couple of tight scrapes already. In any case, there had been so many phony submarine and other alerts that he and the fifty-odd sailors in the boiler gang were exhausted. In addition, Ozawa had maneuvered so much throughout the day on the twenty-fourth that it had added to their burdens. Commander Yogata’s vessel sailed with Matsuda’s vanguard force. There had been no battle, but the chief engineer, maintaining eighteen knots, kept switching orders to prepare for twenty-four or not. The boilermen were constantly to-ing and fro-ing.

Suddenly Yamamoto heard the noise of flak, then sounds of battle. Moments later a bomb burst in the engine room. Before the battle, the boiler gang had neglected to close and seal the hatch between the compartments. More explosions followed; then steam and smoke poured in, causing real confusion. The space became unbearably hot, with fires above them too. When the fumes became noxious, Yamamoto and a few boilermen pushed their way up, despite how scalding the ladders were, and became the only survivors. The lieutenant reported to Commander Yogata, his ship otherwise undamaged, who wondered why Akitsuki had lost power. Yamamoto’s burn injuries stunned the skipper. Suddenly the destroyer lurched and listed. At 8:57 a.m. the Akitsuki rolled over and sank.

From the Oyodo sailors saw the destroyer emit innocent-looking white smoke, but the color changed to oily and black after just six minutes. Observers on the cruiser thought the Akitsuki had simply blown up. The entire episode took less than ten minutes.


Similar scenes played out elsewhere. Essex torpedo bombers went after the battleship Ise and claimed three hits. The Japanese recorded nothing more than near misses on her. Torpedo bombers from Task Force 38 carriers Belleau Wood and San Jacinto rolled into attacks on the light cruiser Tama. Captain Yamamoto Iwata’s (no relation to any of the others in our story) cruiser had been helping protect the Japanese light carrier Chitose. For her trouble she suffered a torpedo hit in a portside boiler room, which left the ship temporarily dead in the water.

Dive-bombers and torpedo planes from the Essex took on the Chitose. Captain Kishi Yoshiyuki’s carrier would be challenged by three events in quick succession. Sources differ on whether these were bomb hits, near misses, or torpedos, but Lieutenant John D. Bridger’s Helldivers claimed a dozen hits and the Avengers of Torpedo 15 insisted two of their fish struck home.

The carrier’s executive officer, Commander Yano Kanji, plunged into efforts to save the ship. He managed to right half of the steep thirty-degree list, but he could not restore power lost from two flooded boiler rooms. Then the rudder failed, and the vessel had to steer by engines. When an engine failed too, Chitose’s speed, which had already dropped to fourteen knots, fell off even more. Before Yano could accomplish anything else, the Chitose’s list increased more, and just an hour after her initial wounds, the ship sank. Captain Kishi and more than 900 crewmen went down with her. Captain Matsuda Gengo’s Isuzu plus destroyer Shimotsuki teamed up to rescue another 600 sailors.

In the Japanese formation, Captain Sugiura Kuro’s Zuiho steamed on the port quarter of Ozawa’s flagship. Emmet Riera of the Enterprise led his Helldivers to bomb her. There were three misses off the stern and a 500-pound bomb hit aft, which jammed the rear elevator. The ship took a slight list, rudder control failed, and a fire started in the hangar deck. But Commander Eguchi Itozumi’s repair teams were so effective that by 8:55 a.m.—within twenty minutes—the list had been righted, the fires stopped, and the steering restored.

Fleet carrier Zuikaku’s purgatory would be more intense as Rear Admiral Kaizuka Takeo maneuvered the ship. (Ozawa had no use for superseding his ship captain.) Kaizuka went twenty-four knots, turning violently. Lookouts counted forty bombers plus ten torpedo planes. Someone spotted a torpedo on the starboard beam. Barely five minutes later, another track appeared up the ship’s throat—from port, astern. Just then one or several 500-pound bombs hit on the port side, amidships. Then a torpedo impacted amidships. Fires started on the hangar deck. The number four generator room flooded. That and consequent damage disabled the rudder, cut power to the helm, and shorted out the secondary switchboard controls. Soon one of the port engine rooms flooded and the ship acquired a marked list, her speed depending solely upon a single propeller.

At first damage control worked effectively. By nine o’clock, when Admiral Kaizuka ordered a cease-fire, signaling the end of the air attack, helm control had been restored, the fires were out, counterflooding had corrected the port list from a dangerous twenty-nine and a half degrees to a mild six, and the vessel could make good speed again, albeit on only two shafts. On the other hand, the Zuikaku’s radio transmitters had ceased functioning altogether.

The latter seriously affected fleet commander Ozawa. Chief of staff Obayashi advised the admiral to transfer his flag. Ozawa refused. He expected the fleet to be destroyed, so he would go down with his flagship. Senior staff Ohmae appealed to his good sense, and Ozawa still resisted.

Seven Lexington torpedo planes had been too late for the first wave. Airman John Underwood was the belly gunner in one of those and had missed the launch because hangar crews had trouble slinging her torpedo properly. The planes finally got away, flying parallel to a small second wave from Enterprise. Big E Helldivers and Lexington Avengers went after Kaizuka’s carrier, which had just finished moving ammunition from the water-threatened aft magazines to the starboard side. Zuikaku mustered all her speed, and gunners poured out fire. Crewmen saw two torpedos off the stern. The carrier emerged unscathed, but the TBMs believed they had hit with three fish. Underwood and his crewmates received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Most of the second wave concentrated against light aircraft carrier Chiyoda. She was the vessel skippered by Captain Jyo Eichiro, one of the Navy’s kamikaze advocates and formerly aide-de-camp to Emperor Hirohito. The Helldivers were from Lexington and Franklin. They bored in from 10:10 a.m., slapping Jyo’s carrier with four bomb hits. Suddenly the Chiyoda lost power, like the others, but this time nothing that executive officer Kumon Shigenori tried seemed to work. The warship drifted. A few planes went after the Zuiho, and in one of the few instances where these proved effective for the Japanese, the carrier’s antiaircraft rockets were instrumental in driving them off.

With Imperial Navy warships being destroyed, and Zuikaku without radios, Admiral Ozawa finally listened to Captain Ohmae’s pleas. Thanks to swift repair work, Captain Yamamoto’s cruiser Tama had gotten under way again just as the second attack rolled in. Light cruiser Isuzu sailed with her. Rear Admiral Matsuda was trying to organize a tow for the crippled Chiyoda. What to do? The fleet still needed Ozawa’s leadership. When Captain Ohmae asked again if he would transfer—and said “Please!”—Gargoyle agreed. At 9:44 a.m. Zuikaku signaled Oyodo to come alongside, but they postponed the transfer minutes later as the gunners fired upon the new attack planes. Another transfer attempt failed at 10:14. A dozen minutes later, Captain Mudaguchi was actually able to stop and put a boat in the water. Admiral Ozawa and eleven staffers climbed down to the cutter, which also picked up a downed pilot. At 10:54, Ozawa raised his flag on board the cruiser Oyodo. He had come full circle.

The Zuikaku managed eighteen knots, but it was not enough for Rear Admiral Kaizuka to position his ship to recover CAP fighters. The nine remaining planes had to ditch. Ozawa instructed the Tama to head home independently and tried to regroup the remaining ships with him. A little after noon, the Zuikaku increased to twenty knots and an hour later to twenty-four. She seemed to be in good condition.

The Zuiho now held the port quarter position, with Rear Admiral Matsuda’s Ise completing a triangle. Battleship Hyuga now lay thirty miles to the rear, trying to protect the Chiyoda while Isuzu towed her. When Admiral Ozawa discovered a third attack wave headed his way, he reluctantly recalled those ships and left the light carrier to her fate.

This third mission, coordinated by Commander Ted Winters, put more than 200 aircraft up against the Mobile Fleet. Ozawa’s force, punier by the minute, was creamed. Winters set Lexington’s planes against the Zuikaku. Aircraft divided to hit from both sides at once. He thought the carrier smothered. Beginning at 1:15 p.m., pilots pressed home their attacks. Within the space of eight minutes, half a dozen torpedoes slammed into the hapless warship from both sides. The assault left the carrier powerless and settling in the sea. Rear Admiral Kaizuka ordered all hands on deck at 1:27, preparatory to abandoning ship. The captain addressed his crew, the Imperial Navy ensign was lowered, and a bugler played the “Kimigayo.” Crewmen began leaving just before 4:00 p.m. About a quarter of an hour later the Zuikaku slowly rolled over to port and sank, stern first. Destroyer Wakatsuki and escort Kuwa rescued a bit more than half the carrier’s crew. Some 842 sailors were lost, including Rear Admiral Kaizuka.

Zuiho’s cruise also ended in a nightmare. Captain Sugiura could hardly maneuver. Strike coordinator Winters directed the attack planes from the Enterprise, San Jacinto, and Franklin at her. At 1:17 p.m., Enterprise planes hit the carrier with a torpedo right under the bridge. Sugiura would be wounded. A bomb struck the after elevator. A little more than ten minutes later, the really massive strike washed over Sugiura’s weakened ship—a torpedo hit starboard, another bomb, and seven near misses, followed by dozens of claimed near misses from subsequent serials of aircraft. Lieutenant Wistar Janney of the Franklin’s VT-13 won the Navy Cross for putting the new torpedo into the Zuiho.

On the Japanese carrier, executive officer Eguchi Itozumi had little chance against the extensive damage. Speed dropped until the Zuiho drifted, only to be hit by Task Force 38’s fourth strike, with yet more near misses. Already by 2:10, every available sailor had been summoned to the pumps. Zuiho sank about an hour later, though Sugiura had time to save the emperor’s portrait and most of the crew—more than 750 men. It was Commander Eguchi, caught in the blasted bowels of Zuiho, who did not survive. He would be the senior-most of 215 men lost.

For Task Force 38’s fifth-wave attack, Admiral Mitscher considered the Japanese defenses so beaten down that he ordered the fighters to fly in a strike role, armed with rockets or 1,000-pound bombs. That assault connected around 4:15 p.m., to be credited with two torpedo and six bomb hits on the battleships, plus sinking a destroyer. The claims seem to have been illusory.

What is interesting about the last three Task Force 38 strikes—the ones that finished off two of the four Japanese aircraft carriers—is that they were mounted by an incomplete and reduced U.S. striking force. Admiral William F. Halsey no longer sailed alongside. The Bull had left—taking Jerry Bogan’s Task Group 38.2 and Ching Lee’s Task Force 34 with him. Halsey’s absence reflected the gravest emergency for the Allies at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

The Franco–Thai War (1940–1941)

The Battle of Ko Chang took place on 17 January 1941 during the Franco-Thai War and resulted in a victory by the French Navy over the Royal Thai Navy. During the battle, a flotilla of French warships attacked a smaller force of Thai vessels, including a coastal defence ship.
In the end, two Thai ships were sunk and one was heavily damaged. Within a month of the engagement, the Vichy French and the Thais negotiated a peace which ended the war.

Vichy versus Asia: The Franco-Siamese War of 1941

Dr. Andrew McGregor

Aberfoyle International Security

Toronto, Ontario

In 1940 the Vichy government of French Indo-China was isolated and threatened by the imperialist Japanese, the neighbouring Thais and by native rebel movements. The French had about 50,000 colonial and metropolitan troops stationed in the colony. They outnumbered the small French civilian population of 40,000 colonists in a territory of 25 million Indo-Chinese. The French collapse in the spring of 1940 resulted in the German occupation of 60% of France, but Marshall Pétain’s Vichy government retained control of the remainder, as well as France’s colonial empire. Indo-China was, however, cut off from re-supply from Vichy France. A British blockade proved effective, meaning that troops could not be rotated for the duration of the war, nor could parts be obtained for military equipment. Fuel supplies could also not be replenished so long as the petroleum-short Japanese Empire controlled the Asian theatre.

Vichy diplomats attempted to persuade Germany to allow them to ship arms and equipment to Indo-China, appealing to the Germans on racial grounds, pointing out the possibility of the ‘white race’ losing ground in Asia. The Germans would promise only to speak to the Japanese. At the same time Vichy was fending off offers from the Chinese to occupy Indo-China to ‘protect’ it from the Japanese. Aware of China’s own irredentist claims in the area, the French doubted they would ever get their colony back if the Chinese were allowed in.

The Japanese deliver a shock

As France fell, the Japanese began to make demands of the Governor-General of Indo-China, General Catroux. When the General acceded to demands that rail traffic to China be stopped he was promptly replaced. Vichy named the loyal commander of the FNEO (Forces Navales d’Extreme-Orient), Vice-Admiral Jean Decoux, as Governor General. By September Decoux was facing far greater demands from the Japanese, including the right to station and transport troops through Indo-China, the use of selected airfields, and the evacuation of a hard-pressed Japanese division fighting in China through the port of Haiphong. An appeal to the Americans for help was poorly received.

Aware of his predecessor’s fate, Decoux hesitated, signing the agreement just before the Japanese ultimatum ran out. The Japanese division was tired of waiting, however, and proceeded to cross the border on September 22, 1940, attacking the Tonkinese cities of Dong Dang and Lang Son with tanks and infantry. The Japanese navy made landings along the coast, Haiphong was bombed, and the Japanese Air Force flew repeatedly over Hanoi. The Japanese offensive came as a shock to some senior French officers, who still believed in natural European superiority and often talked about taking tough action against the Japanese. Dong Dang fell immediately, and Lang Son fell two days later, with many of the locally raised colonial units breaking and running before their first experience of artillery and disciplined infantry attacks carried out by veteran soldiers. French intelligence had reported that the Japanese were demoralized, but it was the French who collapsed under pressure. Local villagers revealed French positions to the Japanese, French artillery fired on French positions, ammunition ran out quickly, and over a thousand Indo-Chinese troops deserted.

A statement issued by the Japanese emperor on October 5 called the Lang Son attack unfortunate but not important. The French prisoners were released, but 200 German legionnaires who had been separated from the other French prisoners were not released until the 13th of October. The pursuing Chinese army made numerous forays across the frontier, and the French administration remained fearful of a full-scale Chinese invasion until the end of the war. The French had lost 800 men in two days of battle with the Japanese.

Nationalist rebellions

The fall of Lang Son had almost immediate consequences for French rule. Discontented locals had witnessed how easily an Asian army defeated the whites. Vietnamese nationalist Tran Trung Lap was able to raise some 3,000 men in the Lang Son region, many of them deserters from the Indo-Chinese units defeated by the Japanese. Their arms were provided from French stocks captured by the Japanese. The returning French demonstrated they could still deal with a poorly trained rabble, and quickly drove the revolutionaries into the mountains, where planes and artillery hammered them. Tran Trung Lap was ambushed, and though he escaped the massacre of his men by machine-gun, he was shortly after captured and executed at Lang Son in December.

In the south of Vietnam, then known as Cochin China, an even more dangerous rebellion broke out in late November. Thai troops had begun to deploy along the Cambodian border and most of the garrisons in Cochin China had been sent to the frontier. Fighting broke out in the My Tho region and French police found themselves overwhelmed. The rebellion spread to Saigon and a number of southern provinces. A battalion of the Foreign Legion and a battalion of Tonkinese colonial troops on their way to Cambodia were diverted to the south and, with the help of artillery, air and naval detachments, quickly repressed the rebellion with utmost ruthlessness. The French had made their point, and could now send their forces west to deal with the Thais.

War with Thailand

The French now had to deal with a growth of militarism and Thai nationalism in neighbouring Thailand (the name was changed from Siam in 1938). Just as Germany sought to regain the territories lost in the Treaty of Versailles, Thailand was eager to retake the ethnic Thai lands along the Mekong River it was forced to cede to the French colony of Laos in 1904. In 1907 the French had also forced Siam to cede the largely Khmer provinces of Siemreap, Sisophon and Battambang to French Cambodia. The pro-Japanese government of Marshal Pibul Songgram sensed an exploitable weakness in the now isolated French colony, and began a military campaign to retake these territories after the French rejected demands for their return in October 1940.

The Thais had signed a non-aggression pact with the French in June 1940, but failed to ratify it after the collapse of metropolitan France. By October Marshal Songgram had mobilized 50,000 troops (in five divisions) and obtained 100 modern fighters, bombers and seaplanes from Japan. The Thai air-force was now three times the size of that available to the French, with the new aircraft added to the 100 American planes obtained between 1936 and 1938 (mostly Vough Corsairs and Curtiss Hawks). The Thai navy had also been equipped with modern ships and outclassed the French colonial fleet on paper at least. Border skirmishes began in November and the Thais crossed the Mekong in December. Hard-pressed elsewhere, the French could only commit fourteen battalions to the defence of Battambang Province.

On January 5, 1941, the Thais launched a full attack with artillery and aerial bombardment of French positions. The Thai offensive covered four fronts:

1) North Laos, where the Thais took the disputed territories with little opposition

2) South Laos, where the Thais crossed the Mekong by the 19th of January

3) The Dangreks Sector, where confused fighting went back and forth

4) Colonial Route 1 (RC 1) in Battambang province, where the heaviest fighting occurred.

The initial advance on the RC 1 was repulsed by the Cambodian Tirailleurs (riflemen). The main Thai column ran into a French counter-attack on January 16, colliding with the French at Yang Dam Koum in Battambang. The Thai force was equipped with Vickers 6-ton tanks while the French lacked any armour. The French counter-offensive had three parts:

1) A counter-attack on the RC 1 in the region of Yang Dam Koum

2) An assault by the Brigade d’Annam-Laos on the islands of the Mekong River

3) Operations by the naval ‘Groupement occasionnel’ against the Thai fleet in the Gulf of Siam

The main thrust of the offensive was by Col. Jacomy’s forces along the RC 1. The attack at Yang Dam Koum was a debacle from the start. The assault forces consisted of one battalion of Colonial Infantry (European) and two battalions of ‘Mixed Infantry’ (European and Indo-Chinese). The forest made artillery operations difficult, French aircraft never showed, leaving the skies to the Thai air-force, and radio communications were poor. The French transmitted orders using Morse code, perhaps explaining why the Thais often anticipated their movements. A complete rout was prevented when the Thais ran into a battalion of the Fifth regiment of Legion infantry at Phum Préau. The legionnaires were hit hard by a Thai armoured assault, but brought up two 25mm and one 75mm gun for use against the tanks. The motorized detachment of the 11th Regiment of Colonial Infantry reinforced the line, and three Thai tanks were destroyed, the rest deciding to retire. The diversionary assault on the Mekong was successful, but the largest battle of the war was to be fought in the Gulf of Siam.

Naval war in the Gulf of Siam

The French navy was all important in Indo-China, as with any overseas colony. The modest force had a virtually non-existent role in the great Asian war of 1941-45, being unable to resist either Japanese advances or Allied blockades, but they were nevertheless to have one great, unexpected battle before meeting an ignominious end. The fleet in Indo-China was divided into two parts with separate levels of responsibility. The FNEO was assigned responsibility for the overall defence of French colonies in Indo-China and the Pacific, while the Marine Indochine with its river gunboats was responsible for interior security in Indo-China.

With the land war going badly for the French, it was decided to send the small French fleet to the Gulf of Siam to engage a Thai naval force supporting the flank of the Thai advance. The Thai ships had been spotted lying at anchorage in the Koh Chang islands by a French navy flying boat. The French task-force (or Groupement occasionel) consisted of the light cruiser Lamotte-Piquet, the two colonial sloops Dumont d’Urville and Amiral Charner, and the WW1 vintage gunboats Tahure and Marne.

During the night of January 16 the French ships closed in on the islands, dividing themselves into three groups to cover the exits from the island group. On the morning of the 17th the French roared in under cover of the mist to engage the Thais. The Thai ships included three Italian-built torpedo boats and the dual-pride of the Thai fleet, the two new Japanese-made armoured coastal defence ships with 6” guns, Donburi and Ahidéa. The French were surprised to find both coastal defence ships there, as they expected only the Ahidéa, but the Donburi had arrived the day before in a standard rotation. The French lost the advantage of surprise when an overeager Loire 130 seaplane tried to bomb the Thai ships. The Thais received the French with the opening salvoes of the battle at 6:14 AM. The Lamotte-Piquet quickly inflicted fatal damage on the Ahidéa with gunfire and torpedoes, forcing it to run aground. By 7 AM French guns had sunk all three torpedo boats.

The Donburi was spotted attempting to escape through the 200m high islands and the French cruiser set off in pursuit. The Donburi was set afire but continued to engage the cruiser and the sloops, which now began to pour fire into the Donburi. Badly damaged and listing to starboard, the Donburi eventually disappeared behind an island and the French broke off. Later in the day the Donburi was taken in tow by a Thai transport but capsized soon after. Throughout the engagement the French sailors were impressed by the courage of the Thai sailors under fire.

The French ships were unable to exploit their victory, however, due to the arrival of Thai Corsairs targeting the Lamotte-Piquet . Fierce anti-aircraft fire drove off the attacks, and by 9:40 AM the French turned for home. In a brief but decisive engagement the Thai fleet had been destroyed at negligible cost to the French. It appeared at the time to be a sudden and dramatic reversal of French fortunes.


The Japanese had seen enough and accompanied an offer to mediate the conflict with the arrival of a powerful naval force off the mouth of the Mekong River to encourage negotiations. A tentative armistice was imposed on January 28, but Thai provocations on the frontier continued until a formal armistice was signed aboard the Japanese battleship Natori off Saigon. The extent of Thai-Japanese collaboration was revealed when a Japanese-imposed treaty between Vichy and Thailand was signed on May 9, 1941. The disputed territories of Laos, part of the Cambodian province of Siem Réap and the whole of Battambang were awarded to Thailand. The conflict had cost the French over 300 men and a further loss of prestige amongst its colonial subjects. European troops and material losses could not be replaced due to the blockade. The French garrison remained highly demoralized until the Japanese coup in 1945 destroyed the Vichy colonial army in Indo-China.

In the end the Thais fared little better. The Khmers largely evacuated the lost Cambodian territories, preferring French rule, and Thailand itself was soon occupied by its more powerful ally, the Japanese. American Flying Fortresses bombed Bangkok in 1942. The Thais declared war against the allies in 1944, but there was some confusion over whether the declaration was actually delivered to the US government, and after the war the Thai government certified the declaration of war as null and void. The uncomfortable affair was mutually forgotten. The disputed territories in Laos and Cambodia were returned to the new Gaullist government at the end of the war.

The French light cruiser Lamotte-Piquet was laid up shortly after the battle of Koh Chang due to the shortage of fuel. In 1945 the ship was bombed by American planes before being scuttled during the brutal Japanese coup of March 1945. The remaining naval force continued to escort convoys up and down the Vietnamese coast as best they could from 1941 to 1945. In their sudden seizure of Indo-China, the Japanese sank a number of French ships with shore fire, while the remainder were scuttled by their crews, who were then imprisoned. The French colonial armed forces in Indo-China had ceased to exist by the time the British and Chinese armies arrived after the Japanese surrender. It was the British and Chinese, rather than the men of Vichy, who would turn over the colony to Gaullist France at the end of World War II.

Military History Online – The Franco-Siamese War of 1941

First Strike at Truk 1944

Almost two years underway, the war in the Pacific, the Navy’s war, was not yet total. Indeed, some were calling it a phony war. Such a term had been applied to the eight-month period of stasis in Europe between the declaration of war by the Allies and their first major operations on Germany’s Western Front in 1940. In the Pacific, the year 1943 had been, for the Navy, a year of rebuilding and waiting.

The invasion of Guadalcanal, the first Allied offensive of the war, launched in August 1942, had been carried out on a shoestring, using a back-of-the-envelope contingency plan. The six-month campaign of attrition ended in U.S. victory in February, but nine more months would pass before the Marine Corps attacked another Japanese-held island. While General Douglas MacArthur’s troops wore down the Japanese in New Guinea and the Army’s Kiska Task Force retook the Aleutians, the Navy endured an interval of gathering and adjustment, of preparation and planning, recruitment and training, construction and commissioning. Mostly the latter, and the shipyards would tell an epic tale.

The lead ship of the Essex class of aircraft carriers joined the fleet on New Year’s Eve 1942. The 34,000-tonner would emerge as the signature ship of the U.S. Navy’s combat task force. Four more would be launched before 1943 was out. A pair of Iowa-class battleships reached the Pacific that year, too, as four more of the 45,000-ton behemoths took shape in the yards. A horde of new destroyers and destroyer escorts—more than five hundred of them—were launched in the year’s second half alone. But the greatest economies of scale revealed themselves in the building of merchant ships. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had directed the Maritime Commission to produce twenty-four million tons of cargo shipping in 1943. The surge was so great that it might have strained the wine industry’s capacity to make bottles to smash against prows on launching day. Surprising shortages cascaded through the supply chain. When grease was rationed for the exclusive use of combat units, a shipyard in Beaumont, Texas, found a substitute to use in lubricating the skids of their ramps: ripe bananas. Personnel officers, short on applicants, hired women and minorities to work in the yards and looked inland from the traditional recruitment fields of the coasts on the hunch that farmers with wits enough to survive the Dust Bowl might be useful in building ships. Coming out of the Depression, no one missed the chance to earn a better wage.

It was this outpouring of manpower and industry that enabled the Navy’s long-envisioned drive through the Central Pacific to begin. Since 1909, the “Pacific problem” had been an important object of study, premised upon the Navy’s need to retake the Philippines after a Japanese attack. Since 1933, Ernest King had favored a path through the Marianas, which he considered the “key to the Western Pacific.” As commander in chief of the U.S. fleet, based in Washington, Admiral King had been pressing the Joint Chiefs to approve an invasion of the islands ever since the end stages of the Guadalcanal campaign. The size and difficulty of the island objectives seized to date—mere apostrophes of coral with little elevation or terrain—paled next to the Marianas, which lay within what Japan considered its inner defensive perimeter.

In November 1943, as Admiral William F. Halsey’s South Pacific forces attacked Bougainville, Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance’s Central Pacific Force began its oceanic march, falling upon the tiniest and humblest of objectives: Tarawa, a coral atoll in the Gilberts. The sharp, bloody fight was won quickly by the men of the Second Marine Division. The Marshall Islands campaign was next. Spruance took the fleet there in January, delivering the Fourth Marine Division and elements of the Army’s Seventh Division to conquer Kwajalein, an infamous prison island that had been the site of many executions of captured Allied pilots and sailors.

When Nimitz, delighted, asked Spruance for his thoughts about what to do next, Spruance proposed jumping ahead immediately to capture Eniwetok, an anchorage in the western Marshalls. It would be the farthest advance by American forces in the whole war. Spruance said he could do it, but only if the carriers handled an important preliminary matter first. Any ships assaulting Eniwetok, he said, would come within aircraft striking range of the greatest Japanese base in the Central Pacific. Spruance proposed sending the fast carrier task force to strike it. Its name was Truk.

The stronghold had never before been glimpsed, much less attacked. Located in the Caroline Islands, Truk was a massive, multi-island lagoon. Its gigantic outer barrier of coral heads traced a triangle that held eighty-four coral and basaltic islands, most of which were substantial enough to mount antiaircraft artillery. Four of the inner islands had airfields. The lagoon’s harbors and anchorages were deep enough for major warships, and the base’s capacity to support such assets, and its location on the boundary of the Central and South Pacific areas, recommended it as a forward naval base, fleet headquarters, air base, radio communications hub, and supply base as well. From Truk, the Imperial Navy could muster in defense of almost any point on the perimeter of its so-called Southeast Area, all the way into the deep South Pacific.

The question of how finally to deal with Truk would be decided only after Spruance’s raid was over. Two options were on the table. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff had approved two offensive paths across the Central Pacific: Either the Navy would assault Truk directly and seize it by June 15, to be followed by landings in the Marianas on September 1; or the Navy would bypass it, leaping straight to the Marianas, with D Day on Saipan set for June 15.

Nimitz thought Truk would have to be taken, but his amphibious planners considered it beyond their means. Truk’s barrier reef was a dangerous obstacle to assault, and its enormous radius kept the inner harbor out of range of naval gunfire from outside. The atoll’s principal islands themselves, Eten, Moen, Param, Fefan, and Dublon, were within mutually supporting range of each other and thus formidable objectives. The more Nimitz and his people looked at it, the less they liked the odds.

On February 12, Spruance and Mitscher led nine aircraft carriers to sea from Majuro, an anchorage in the Marshalls. Their mission was to stick an arm into the hornet’s nest that was Truk and rate the potency of its sting. If the raid, code-named Operational Hailstone, went well, no Japanese planes would remain on Truk to interfere with the landings on Eniwetok. The results would bear, too, on the choice of the next strategic objective.

Though Spruance had a reputation as a battleship man, he had won his greatest fame leading carriers. In June 1942, in the Battle of Midway, he exercised tactical control over the Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown while their aviators destroyed four Japanese carriers. For the loss of the Yorktown, the United States won a victory that would resound in history. Elevated thereafter to serve as Admiral Chester Nimitz’s chief of staff, Spruance commanded a desk at Pearl Harbor. It wasn’t until August 1943 that he returned to sea to command the Central Pacific Force. Its fast carrier element acquired its muscular size nearly coincidentally with Spruance’s rise. It dwarfed in every dimension the carrier group he had led at Midway. The Essex-class carriers were made mighty by their association with an air group of ninety planes, made up of a fighter squadron, a dive-bomber squadron, and a torpedo bomber squadron. By 1944 these squadrons used best-in-class aircraft, the F6F-3 Hellcat, the SB2C-1 Helldiver (or the older SBD-5 Dauntless), and the TBF-1c Avenger, respectively.

The argument about how to employ the Navy’s multiplying roster of carriers—singly, as in the past, or in groups—was settled not so much by persuasion or battle experience as by the surging output of the yards. As far as combat tactics went, the standard assumption that they had to hit, then run, because they were impossible to save against a determined air attack, was yielding to a new reality. Quantity was not merely a luxury but a revolution. By concentrating their aircraft and flak defenses, the carrier task force could hold an air attack at bay. Their planes had radio transponders that enabled specially trained fighter direction teams to recognize them and direct them using long-range search radars. New shipboard combat information centers collated and communicated this critical information. With common doctrine governing the use of combat air patrols, ship formations, and air defense tactics, the carrier task force acquired a flexibility that multiplied its reach and staying power. Several groups of three or four carriers, operating together, could quite well take care of themselves. Approaching Truk, Spruance and Mitscher were about to prove it.

They had arranged their nine carriers in three task groups, each steaming just over the horizon from the next. Spruance flew his three-star flag in the battleship New Jersey, riding in a great circle with the carrier Bunker Hill and the light carriers Monterey and Cowpens. Over the horizon to his north was the group built around the Enterprise, the Yorktown,* and the light carrier Belleau Wood. To his south came the Essex, with the Intrepid and the light carrier Cabot. Deployment in groups allowed concentration or dispersion as a mission might require. Typically the force could be seen in its totality only in an anchorage. At sea, such a spectacle required a few thousand feet of altitude.

Ninety minutes before sunrise on February 16, the fleet closed to within ninety miles of Truk and, on order from Mitscher, as tactical commander of the carriers under Spruance, turned into a force-five wind and began launching planes. One by one, with the release of chocks and the roar of Wright radial engines, a swarm of F6F-3 Hellcats took wing over the spray of onrushing whitecaps.

At the break of morning light, the leaders of each of the five participating fighter squadrons led their flights in a wide turn to the west and circled, allowing the others to join up. After the seventy Hellcats had gathered, they turned out on a heading that would take them west, harbingers of a two-day operation to neutralize Truk as a threat to U.S. ambitions in the Pacific.

The swarm had droned along for less than an hour when their target appeared before them. Illuminated by the sun just above the eastern horizon, it resembled a cluster of mountains contained in a huge coral-fringed tub. Truk’s barrier reef, a round-cornered triangle, encompassed a lagoon. As they came nearer, twelve planes from the Bunker Hill flew high cover at twenty thousand feet, while two divisions of four ranged more widely as scouts. Two dozen Hellcats from the Enterprise and the Yorktown, Mitscher’s flagship, formed the low-attack group. Like-sized contingents from the Intrepid and Essex came in at medium altitude. The boss of the Bunker Hill air group, Commander Roland H. “Brute” Dale, flew separately as the strike coordinator. His job was to make sure the remaining forty-eight planes, his strikers, found the right targets to strafe, assisted by three other air group commanders who served as target observers.

Twelve planes from the Intrepid’s Fighter Squadron Six circled the atoll at a distance, waiting for their high cover to reach its station. A pilot from this group, Lieutenant (j.g.) Alex Vraciu, was mystified to find no Japanese planes in the air to intercept. Little did the U.S. pilots know that the base’s naval commander had just relaxed his guard, a decision that was almost coincident with the arrival of enemy carriers off his shores. For the previous two weeks, Truk had been on high alert, ever since American search planes reconnoitered it on February 4.

Knowing that his pilots were exhausted, Vice Admiral Masami Kobayashi, commander of the Fourth Fleet, had ordered most of them to shore leave in the barracks district located across a causeway from the main airfield at Dublon. The subsequent lapse in air search allowed Spruance to approach Truk undetected and left a sizable portion of the available fighters on the ground when the American swarm arrived overhead before sunrise.

On a fighter sweep, U.S. Navy tactical doctrine boiled down to this: Keep your Hellcats high. Concentrate them in force. Clear out the enemy fighters first. Then get after the airfields. Don’t circle and tarry; it only gives the enemy a chance to scramble. Save for the initial five or so minutes of circling necessary to allow the Hellcats assigned to high cover to take station, this was exactly what Dale and his pilots did, if not necessarily in that order. It wasn’t until Fighting Six was pushing over to strafe that they discovered that some enemy fighters were airborne after all. Pacific Fleet intelligence had estimated that not fewer than seventy-five fighters would be on hand to defend Truk, along with twenty-eight scout bombers, twelve torpedo planes, twelve medium bombers, five large patrol planes, and fifty-eight floatplanes, a total of 190 aircraft. “Not fewer than” proved to be the operative words. The Japanese pilots indeed did in the end get to their planes. U.S. fliers would count more than three hundred of them in the air and on the ground during the day.

As flak puffed the sky around him, Alex Vraciu, with his wingman, Lou Little, found himself in the tail of a spiral of Hellcats bearing down on Moen Island, the site of one of Truk’s principal airfields. Ten Hellcats ahead of him were into their dives when, to be safe, Vraciu looked back over his shoulder. No rookie, he knew the clouds offered nooks and crannies for enemy pilots to use as cover for ambush. His caution likely saved his life. There he saw it at last, the dim form of a Mitsubishi A6M Model Zero, known as a Zeke, diving, its cowling and wings twinkling with gunfire.

Vraciu pulled back his stick, and Little followed him into a climb. Turning sharply toward the enemy plane, Vraciu maneuvered to bring the plane into his gunsight, then fired a burst that forced the pilot to break off and dive. That’s when he noticed the enemy planes above him—a gaggle of dozens that included every model the Japanese flew. The fight was on.

Alex Vraciu was just one among many similarly situated young pilots, full of ambition, in thrall of their tribe, in the grip of their squadron’s logo and mojo and full of stories about the wise old hands who had forged them. He entered pilot training while he was still a senior at Depauw University in Muncie, Indiana. Joining his first squadron at North Island, San Diego, Vraciu was singled out as a talent by the commander, Butch O’Hare, who made the rookie his wingman. The skipper proceeded to hand down the lessons of air combat as they had been taught to him—via the “humiliation squad.”

This powerful pedagogy threw new pilots fresh from training into mock dogfights against a cadre of experienced veterans. As O’Hare had learned from fighter ace legends such as John S. “Jimmie” Thach and Jimmy Flatley, now Vraciu faced his own learning curve. Flying against O’Hare, a Medal of Honor recipient, Vraciu performed well enough to raise eyebrows. And so O’Hare brought him into a new program to develop night fighting tactics. In a “bat team,” a pair of Hellcats flew with a radar-equipped Avenger to hunt enemy planes flying at night. And it was on just such a mission, one night off the Marshalls in November 1943, that O’Hare was killed while defending the Enterprise task group against a night air attack. His loss stoked Vraciu’s Pearl Harbor fever. The desire for revenge became the driving force of his life wearing wings. He was already an ace by the time the carriers reached Truk.

Sizing up the enemy formation, Vraciu knew that he had enough airspeed, about 250 knots, to lose any enemy fighter that latched onto his tail. The fast and sturdy Grumman fighter could outturn a Zeke at high speed. By diving down to gain speed, he could execute a chandelle, pulling up in a steep climbing turn that would cause his pursuer to shoot past him. By making a barrel roll, Vraciu could pounce down on the Zeke as it flew by. Vraciu had him right where he wanted him, this pilot who settled in on his tail.

As Vraciu’s opponent tried to follow him through the chandelle, the Zeke lost its grip on the air and spun out at the top of the turn. Vraciu was lining up a killing deflection shot when he noticed more enemy fighters turning down on him from above. His zeal gave way to prudence. He declined the shot, letting the enemy pilot dive out and escape while he figured out a better way to win.

Vraciu was pleased to find Lou Little faithfully holding on his wing. By scissoring back and forth in opposite interweaving S patterns, he and his wingman made the enemy think better of getting on their tails. Known as the Thach Weave after its creator, Jimmie Thach, the skipper of Fighting Three, the tactic allowed two fighter pilots to cover each other’s vulnerable six o’clock position against more maneuverable aircraft such as the Zeke. In this way Vraciu gradually coaxed the enemy to descend. Once the Japanese yielded the advantage of altitude, Vraciu noted, they seemed to lose their resolve. Gaining the tail of three Zekes in succession, he set them on fire and watched the brown-and-green-mottled aircraft splash into the lagoon. The morning belonged to the Americans. After a sharp ten-minute engagement, Vraciu noticed more than a few Japanese pilots swinging down slowly, suspended from silk. Some of them were still wearing pajamas.

The fighter sweep swarmed over the great atoll, devouring Japanese planes in the air and on the ground. Led by Fighting Six’s exec, Lieutenant G. C. Bullard, Vraciu’s squadron made twelve passes over the strip, burning row upon row of planes. Firing on a Zeke and setting it afire, Teddy Schofield of Fighting Five followed the enemy pilot in a descent toward the airfield on Eten Island. The Japanese flier was probably wounded, for he didn’t square his wheels on touchdown. His plane rolled enough to catch a wingtip on the runway, then started cartwheeling. Turning over and over, the Zeke rolled across a hangar apron, igniting three parked torpedo planes, and as Schofield watched, rooting hard for a few more turns, the Zeke came to rest, a wreck, just short of a big four-engine plane parked at the end of the flight line.

Lieutenant Bullard of the Intrepid was not among the pilots who joined up at the rendezvous area. En route to it, he had spotted a Japanese light cruiser hustling toward the atoll’s northern exit, North Pass. Rallying his division, he led a low-altitude strafing run. A burst of flak from the ship hit his Hellcat, and his engine lost power. Turning out to sea, the pilot descended and slowed, finally easing his fighter into the wave tops and jerking to a halt in an explosion of white spray. As it began to sink, he struggled free of the cockpit. Another pilot dropped a life raft and winged over to occupy the attention of the cruiser and its gunners. Strafing the ship, he set fire to its floatplane as it sat on a catapult. That excitement gave Bullard enough of a diversion to paddle toward a small islet about five and a half miles west of North Pass. He eventually made it, and he spent his considerable free time there spelling his name in rocks for the benefit of his eventual rescuers. Just a few miles away, several Japanese destroyers could be seen, apparently waiting to rendezvous with the light cruiser fleeing the harbor. These ships meant to make a break for it.


The Kurita fleet sailed from Brunei at eight o’clock in the morning on October 22—one event FRUPAC missed. The admiral appreciated the clouds that hampered Allied scout planes. Slightly after noon Kurita turned the fleet to a course just west of north to make the track off Palawan, and he altered at 6:00 p.m. to his final course. The fleet varied speed between sixteen and eighteen knots, alternating zigzag patterns, and for part of the day avoided zigzagging. Kurita’s course took him near where an Allied submarine, based on radio observations, was believed to be located. Several more were overheard on the radio. The sequence suggested a sub might actually be trailing Kurita. Jumpy lookouts reported periscopes. Around 9:00 p.m. light cruiser Yahagi made an emergency turn and fired a red flare, signaling a sub contact. Admiral Kurita considered these imponderables. The truth, about to blast the hull of his flagship, lay submerged right ahead.

Commander David H. McClintock skippered the American sub Darter. He led a mini-unit with another boat, Commander Bladen D. Claggett’s Dace, which clever sailors dubbed the “Double D’s.” They were on patrol between Palawan and the shoal area known as the “Dangerous Ground.” The boats, based in Australia, had been at sea for several weeks, and Claggett had already claimed two merchantmen from a Japanese convoy. McClintock had detected and chased Admiral Sakonju’s cruiser division but had not been able to get a good attack position. This night, McClintock had both boats riding on the surface, barely under way, signaling by lamp and megaphone to preserve radio silence. He contemplated heading home. But then, at 1:16 a.m., McClintock’s radar detected a gaggle of large ships, which resolved into two (actually three) columns of the Kurita fleet. The senior skipper passed the word to Claggett and both pursued the quarry.

Admiral Kurita’s warships were making sixteen knots, zigzagging. McClintock’s subs dashed from their port side, doing nineteen on the surface on a straight course, scrambling to get out in front. The chase went on for hours since McClintock wanted to strike from ahead—and from underwater. He sent a contact report, then two more, estimating at least eleven heavy ships (there were actually fifteen).

Aboard the Yamato radio operators overheard an urgent submarine report at 1:50 a.m. At about 4:30, Darter’s crew went for coffee; then Commander McClintock sent them to battle stations. He dived the boat, taking the Darter deep to check depth and water density, then brought her back to periscope depth. Bearing down on him, flagship Atago led the closest column of Japanese ships. Right behind her steamed heavy cruiser Takao. McClintock took quick glances through his periscope, describing what he saw to the sub’s exec, Lieutenant Commander Ernest L. Schwab. They set up torpedo firing solutions. The skipper planned to fire all six bow torpedo tubes, then swing the boat around to unleash the four tin fish in his stern tubes. He estimated the distance to target to be about 3,000 yards. Clocks registered about 5:30 a.m.

Suddenly the Japanese warships turned in a zig. The Darter needed to establish the new course and recalculate the solution. McClintock realized the enemy had turned toward him. He would be able to use torpedoes at point-blank range, less than 1,000 yards. The submariner could see a signal lamp blinking from the Atago’s bridge as he loosed his first fish. McClintock went through his sequence, then turned and emptied the stern tubes.

The sound of explosions was unmistakable, but crewmen were uncertain whether they were depth charges or torpedoes. McClintock thought torpedoes. He would never forget what he saw when he turned the periscope back to look at the Atago. “She was a mass of billowing black smoke from the number one turret to the stern. No superstructure could be seen. Bright orange flames shot out from the side along the main deck from the bow to the after turret. Cruiser was already down by the bow, which was dipping under. . . . She was definitely finished.”

From the Japanese perspective, disaster immediately overwhelmed the flagship. Rear Admiral Araki Tsutau, noticing his heavy cruiser had begun listing to starboard, ordered counterflooding of the port engine and boiler rooms, accepting that would mean a shipwide loss of power. Araki ordered full right rudder, but without electricity the rudder could not function. Then telephones died, and engineer officer Commander Domen Keizo could do nothing.

Four of the Darter’s torpedoes had struck home. One, near the bow, merely damaged storerooms, but the second strike hit the number one boiler room, broke steam lines, started fires, and opened the vessel’s seams. Junior officers’ quarters began to flood. The number six boiler room caught the third hit, with such force that the bulkhead buckled between it and the adjacent boiler room and the flames roared through. Above it lay one of the cruiser’s torpedo mounts. Its own fish had to be jettisoned, save for one that stuck and threatened to ignite from the heat. The last torpedo hit with the ship’s list already increased to thirty-two degrees, flooding the aft generator room, shorting out transformers, filling a propeller shaft, and sending a muck of seawater and oil through the crew’s quarters.

There could be no question of saving the Atago. She sank in just eighteen minutes. Commanders barely had time to summon destroyers Kishinami and Asashimo to take off the crew. Radiomen did have the time necessary to destroy Atago’s code machines and lock most secret material securely in spaces beneath the waterline. Remaining communications material would be sealed in weighted sacks and thrown overboard.

When sailors were summoned topside, water had begun pouring into the number five turret, killing crewmen there, and the list increased to fifty-four degrees, more than halfway toward leaving the cruiser on her beam ends. Admiral Kurita and his staff decamped amid this disaster, swimming to the Kishinami. Kurita was among the first over the side. Amazingly, skipper Araki managed to save 43 officers, 667 petty officers and sailors, and 2 civilians. Commander Domen was not among them, nor were 18 other officers and 340 men. Kurita later sent a destroyer back to ensure that none of those sacks of classified documents had survived. None were found.

Behind the flagship, heavy cruiser Takao suffered two torpedo hits. These opened large gashes in the ship’s hull, but the wounds were less grievous and Captain Onoda Sutejiro’s damage-control efforts were more successful. Though the engines stopped, the steering was lost, and the ship listed to the starboard side, Onoda was able to right the vessel, and the crew restored power and steerage. Only 33 sailors were killed and another 30 injured. Destroyers Asashimo and Naganami stood by, mounting depth-charge attacks on the Darter. The Asashimo rescued 5 sailors who were thrown overboard by the explosions. Combined Fleet sent the Mitsu Maru and torpedo boat Hiyodori from Brunei to assist.

Meanwhile, on the other flank Commander Claggett’s Dace got in her own knocks. The boat had used up the fish in her stern torpedo room in previous operations. Claggett listened to the sounds of the Darter’s battle with the enemy until 5:54 a.m., when the opposite flank column of warships entered his danger zone. Claggett thought he had a Kongo-class battleship; she was actually Captain Oe Ranji’s heavy cruiser Maya. The Dace loosed half a dozen torpedoes. Four of them hit, and the Maya began to break up almost immediately, capsizing in just seven minutes. Under the circumstances, it is astonishing that 769 sailors—more than 70 percent of the crew—were saved. Much of that had to do with destroyer Shimakaze, which reacted immediately and closed with the hapless cruiser, so that sailors could begin evacuating down makeshift gangways. The 29 seriously wounded men were sheathed in bamboo carriers. Fortunately the sea was calm.

At a certain point, the Darter, convinced the Japanese counterattacks were only going through the motions, returned to periscope depth. Commander McClintock found the Takao immobile, with assisting ships around her. Late in the day she seemed to come to life. If he got another crack, the submariner thought, he might finish her off. Bladen Claggett was of the same mind. In daylight, Japanese destroyers fended off their attempts to maneuver. The next night McClintock, seeing Takao had gotten under way, still slowly, decided to run in on the surface. The Dangerous Ground lived up to its name. Darter suddenly stuck fast on a reef known as Bombay Shoal. Hours of efforts failed to dislodge the boat. Commander Claggett abandoned his pursuit of the Takao to come to the rescue of McClintock and his crew.

After dawn, a JNAF scout found the two subs and identified one as hard aground. At that point the Dace, full with two crews, had to flee. Once the Takao neared Brunei, Captain Onoda sent Naganami and Hiyodori back to see what they could find. The intelligence taken from the boat included blueprints, instruction books, ordnance items, communications procedures, and radio and radar material. American sailors had destroyed their code materials, so the take lacked the dimension of the equivalent Japanese loss of sub I-1 off Guadalcanal in 1943, but it still amounted to a windfall for the Imperial Navy.

Japanese Siege Weapons

Early Fortifications

Although fortifications were constructed in Japan prior to the feudal period, frequent conflicts associated with warrior ascendancy inspired new, distinctive temporary architectural forms as well as more lasting structures to protect against military attack.

Up to the beginning of the feudal era, three forms of fortifications were built, according to archaeologists. The grid-pattern city form was inspired by Chinese planning precedents, and included gates or walled enclosures. Mountain fortresses appear to be an indigenous form, and were typical of remote areas. Plateaus or plains often utilized the palisade, a semi-permanent defense. Typical defenses included a rampart, a ditch, and a palisade. Grid-pattern cities were surrounded by walls that served as a demarcation point rather than as true protection, and eventually such barriers disappeared. Remains of mountain fortresses found in northern Kyushu were a more effective means of protection, and may have belonged to ancient kingdoms that ruled parts of Japan in early times. Palisades were often constructed in the northeastern areas of the main island of Honshu. Although excavations have revealed only partial remains of such structures, they are significant since they offer prototypes for medieval fortifications.

Until the end of the Kamakura period, most fortresses built in Japan were relatively simple, and were designed for a particular siege or campaign. Terms such as shiro and jokaku (translated in later eras as “castle”) appear frequently in 12th- and 13thcentury accounts of warfare, but in the Kamakura era, these terms refer to temporary fortifications. Early medieval defense structures were more like barricades than buildings, and were not intended to house soldiers for extended periods. However, such fortifications could be elaborate and large in scale.

Many extant screens depict scenes from Tale of the Heike, the famous Japanese historical saga of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Its twelve volumes relate the long narrative of the rise and fall of two rival warrior clans, the Genji (or Minamoto) and the Heike (or Taira). This screen illustrates famous episodes from the saga, including the battle at Ichi-no-tani Mountain and the death of Taira no Atsumori at Yashima.

Literary and pictorial accounts confirm that extensive planning and earthworks projects were utilized throughout the medieval era for major battles. For instance, the defense works at Ichinotani erected by the Taira clan in 1184 included boulders topped by thick logs, a double row of shields, and turrets with openings for shooting. Even if descriptions of such structures taken from accounts of the Gempei War dating to the late Kamakura era exaggerate these defenses, they capture the labor, time, and ingenuity involved in such efforts.

As wartime construction continued, Japanese military architects became skilled in adapting civilian structures that offered multiple options for warrior defenses. Composite barriers utilizing timber and other materials that protected crops from intruders and animals were helpful in subduing infantry offenses. Military architects familiar with agricultural irrigation principles constructed ditches and moats to deter mounted troops. In sum, military construction of the early medieval period involved tailoring familiar forms to warrior needs to provide an initial line of defense.

Some temporary construction types afforded flexibility and served well in both offensive and defensive situations. Kaidate (shield walls) and sakamogi (brush barricades; literally “stacked wood”) were both in common use by the 13th century. Kaidate, formed of rows of standing shields, had been employed since the end of the Asuka period (eighth century), and were valuable as portable field fortifications. Sakamogi, which were most likely inspired by barriers for livestock, were useful in several contexts as well. These deceptively simple structures continued to be effective in the age of gunpowder as they remained difficult to cross and also resisted explosive shells. Barriers made of shields could be made more effective through deployment atop, or in front of, another defensive form. However, as the power of the Ashikaga shoguns declined in the Northern and Southern Courts era, combat conditions changed, and samurai clans confronted elevated fortresses where warriors on horseback were ineffective.

Azuchi-Momoyama- and Edo-Period Castles

After the feudal system was reorganized by the Tokugawa shogunate, castles (shiro) were erected in the center of a daimyo’s domain, so they would be easily accessible. Without natural defenses such as hills and plateaus, these structures required additional protection compared with the elevated shiro built during the late Muromachi and Momoyama periods. For security, builders developed walls of enormous boulders that often had smooth surfaces that would be difficult to scale. Moats (hori) also provided a means to deter an attacking force.

The castle was not only a means of defense, but also served as the hub of administration and commerce in the domain. Castles housed the domain lord and chief retainers. Towns developed around the structures, called “towns beneath the castle” (jokamachi) since the castle was often elevated, and both literally and figuratively overshadowed all other buildings nearby. Merchants and artisans became an important aspect of life in these castle communities, as daimyo and their retainers had more time and disposable income than in the past. Further, the rise of fashion and interest in display (in the sense of decoration and adornment) that arose in the cosmopolitan Edo period made it necessary for members of the warrior class to keep up appearances, and this led to healthy economic growth even in provincial castle towns.


In the late Kamakura and early Muromachi eras, locally powerful landholders did not yet have the resources to commission and train considerable numbers of mounted warriors. At this stage, extensive forces designed for long-distance campaigns were unnecessary as well, since battles in the provinces often culminated in localized sieges to gain control of a strategically positioned castle. Thus significant numbers of well-trained foot soldiers were necessary to enter the territory of an opponent and scale his fortress. While swordsmanship began to gain prominence among samurai skills in the early medieval era, the primary warrior weapon among foot soldiers was a long polemounted arm called naginata, and this was supplemented by archery. Military drills using polearms involved learning to pull a cavalryman from his mount and engage him in close-range combat. Other practical applications of such weapons included thrusting, or throwing, a spear or other polearms in order to hit a distant target. Archers and infantry equipped with spears were also trained to send arrows over castle walls to cover the approach of foot soldiers who sought to scale the walls and thereby gain access to the castle.


Siege Warfare

Japanese castles were adapted to siege warfare. Again the similarities between Western and Eastern warfare are evident and the sophistication of Japanese siege-craft is obvious.

If a samurai is on the defending force, the following items are things he would be familiar with as he moved in and around the castle.

Arrow and Gun Ports

Inset into the walls of castle defenses are small holes—they are normally rectangular, circular or triangular. Positioned at different heights, the defenders use them to shoot out over the field of battle. However, shinobi creep up to these apertures and fire burning arrows and flash arrows through them into the interior of the castle grounds to discover details about the interior layout. In addition to this, they would throw in hand grenades to kill those shooting out at the opposition.

Stanchions, Walkways and Shields

Along the inside of castle walls, wooden stanchions and frames would support multiple levels of walkways—similar to modern day scaffolding. Samurai would use these levels from which to shoot outward, either through arrow and gun ports or over the tops of castle battlements from between shields. In addition to this, bridges that could be retracted were set up at various positions; if the enemy breached the defenses these walkways could be retracted, allowing defending samurai to kill the enemy from the opposite side.

Killing Zones

Walls, turrets and enclosures were created to form killing grounds and zones, where the defending army could attack the enemy with crossfire and pin them into a corner and halt movement.

Turrets and Palisades

As discussed before, the castles of the early Sengoku Period and before were generally smaller; walls could be protected by turret towers, wooden shields and semipermanent buildings that were made of wood and were built along the tops of walls. Shinobi had various mixtures that would set fire to these, fires that would be difficult to extinguish, helping to break through the castle defenses.

Allied Help

A defending castle could set up a series of fire beacons and send messenger relays to request allied forces to counter the siege. Sometimes the relieving force could surround the besiegers, forcing them to defend their own rear and fight on two fronts.

Sallies and Sorties

The castle would send out night raids and attacks when they thought that the time was right. They may even evacuate a castle from an non-besieged section—if any—through gates and ports. Shinobi were trained to watch the smoke rising from castles. If the smoke from cooking fires and kitchens was too much, too little, or later than normal, a shinobi would know that the enemy had either started to evacuate or that they were preparing extra food for those going on night raids or that the food stores were diminishing. All of which was information the shinobi would pass on to his commander.

Those who were attacking the castle had certain weapons and tools to help degrade the height and protection advantages of the defenders.

Trench Warfare

Trenches at their smallest were three feet deep with an earth mound on the top of around two feet; this total of five feet covered the average height of a samurai. The closer to the castle the trench lines were the deeper they had to be dug, as arrows could be shot into the defenses from such an angle.

Towers and Constructed Turrets

As discussed previously, the enemy battle camp had collapsible turrets and towers; these were erected to see enemy troop movements and shinobi.

Battering Rams

Covered rams on wheels were used to take down castle doors and break open sections of defenses.

Shields and Walls on Wheels

Small platforms were placed on low carts with walls erected on the front. These walls had shooting ports and would be rolled into place, and from here attacking samurai could shoot at the enemy. This included walls mounted on arms that could be raised so that samurai could shoot out from below them and other such contraptions.

Shields, Bamboo Fences and Bundles

Human-sized wooden shields that stood erect with the help of a hinged single leg would protect samurai. In addition to this, bamboo was tied in large bundles and shooting ports were cut out of the middle. These bundles could be leaned against waist-height temporary fences so that samurai could shoot from behind cover.

Cannon and Fire

Cannon were used to launch fire and incendiary weapons and shot. Kajutsu—“the skills of fire”—included long-range rockets, flares and anything that causes flames in the enemy camp. Some shinobi were essentially agents who moved into the enemy castle and made sure that fires were set from within. One shinobi trick was to set a fire away from the main target to distract the defenders from the actual target and then to move on with their initial aim of setting fire to more important things like the main compound.


Tunneling was undertaken to undermine the enemy defenses. If done in secret and not on a war front, the tunnel had to start far from the target, or start from inside a nearby house. To discover if tunneling was taking place, empty barrels would be set into the ground to listen for mining below.

Moat Crossing Skills

Portable bridges and temporary structures were used to cross rivers and bridges. The shinobi’s task was to discover the length, width and depth of a moat and report the dimensions, or to cross it in secret at night.

On the whole, the samurai castle was a place of residence and the target of a siege. The samurai would defend and attack castles with ingenious tricks and tactics and shinobi on both sides would come and go, stealing information or setting fires to things, something that was quite normal in life as a samurai.