‘The Profit That God Shall Give’

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A typical 12th century Genoese trader, at this time merchant ships relied on sails rather than oars. Such vessels displaced between 10-30 tons and were crewed by 40-60 men.​

The principal route followed by the First Crusade bypassed the Mediterranean and took the army overland through the Balkans and Anatolia; many crusaders never saw more of the sea than the Bosphorus at Constantinople until, much reduced in numbers through war, disease and exhaustion, they reached Syria. And even in the East their target was not a maritime city but Jerusalem, so that its conquest in 1099 created an enclave cut off from the sea, a problem which, as will be seen, only Italian navies could resolve. Another force left from Apulia, where Robert Guiscard’s son Bohemond brought together an army. The Byzantines wondered whether he was really planning to revive his father’s schemes for the conquest of Byzantine territory, and so, when he reached Constantinople, he was pressed to acknowledge the emperor’s authority, becoming his lizios, or liegeman, a western feudal term that was used because Bohemond was more likely to feel bound by oaths made according to his native customs than by promises made under Byzantine law. When in 1098 he established himself as prince of Antioch, a city only recently lost by the Byzantines to the Turks, the imperial court made every effort to insist that his principality lay under Byzantine suzerainty. It was amazing that a vast rabble of men, often poorly armed, proved capable of seizing Antioch in 1098 and Jerusalem in 1099, though the Byzantines were more inclined to regard this as a typical barbarian stroke of fortune than as a victory masterminded by Christ. Seen from Constantinople, the outcome of the crusade was not entirely negative. Western knights had installed themselves in sensitive borderlands between Byzantine territory and lands over which the Seljuk Turks and the Fatimid caliphs were squabbling Bohemond’s religious motives in joining the crusade should not be underestimated, but he was a pragmatist: he saw clearly that the crusader armies would be able to retain nothing without access to the Mediterranean, and without naval support from Christian fleets capable of keeping open the supply-lines to the West. He would therefore need to build ties with the Italian navies. He could count on the enthusiasm that had been generated in Genoa and Pisa by the news of Pope Urban’s speech, conveyed to the Genoese by the bishops of Grenoble and of Orange. The citizens of Genoa decided that the time had come to bury their differences and to unite in a compagna under the direction of six consuls; the aim of the compagna was primarily to build and arm ships for the crusade. Historians have long argued that the Genoese saw the crusade as a business opportunity, and that they were hoping to secure trade privileges in whatever lands the crusaders conquered comparable to those the Venetians had recently acquired in the Byzantine Empire. Yet they could not foresee the outcome of the crusade; they were willing to suspend their trading activities and pump all their energy into the building of fleets that were very likely to be lost far away in battles and storms. What moved them was holy fervour. According to a Genoese participant in the First Crusade, the chronicler Caffaro, even before it, in 1083, a Genoese ship named the Pomella had carried Robert, count of Flanders, and Godfrey of Bouillon, the first Latin ruler of Jerusalem, to Alexandria; from there they had made their way with difficulty to the Holy Sepulchre, and had begun to dream of recovering it for Christendom. The story was pure fancy, but it expresses the sense among the Genoese elite that their city was destined to play a major role in the war for the conquest of Jerusalem.

Twelve galleys and one smaller vessel set out from Genoa in July 1097. The crew consisted of about 1,200 men, a sizeable proportion of its male population, for the overall population of the city of Genoa may have been only 10,000. Somehow the fleet knew where the crusaders were, and made contact off the northern coast of Syria. Antioch was still under siege, and the Genoese fleet stood off Port St Symeon, the outport of the city that had functioned as a gateway to the Mediterranean since the Bronze Age. After the fall of Antioch in June 1098, Bohemond rewarded the Genoese crusaders with a church in Antioch, thirty houses nearby, a warehouse and a well, creating the nucleus of a merchant colony. This grant was the first of many that the Genoese were to receive in the states created by the crusaders. In the early summer of 1099 members of a prominent Genoese family, the Embriachi, anchored off Jaffa, bringing aid to the crusader army besieging Jerusalem – they dismantled their own ships, carrying the wood from which they were built to Jerusalem for use in the construction of siege engines. And then in August 1100 twenty-six galleys and four supply ships set out from Genoa, carrying about 3,000 men. They made contact with the northern French ruler of the newly established kingdom of Jerusalem, Baldwin I, and began the slow process of conquering a coastal strip, since it was essential to maintain supply-lines from western Europe to the embattled kingdom. They sacked the ancient coastal city of Caesarea in May 1101. When the Genoese leaders divided up their loot, they gave each sailor two pounds of pepper, which demonstrates how rich in spices even a minor Levantine port was likely to be. They also carried away a large green bowl that had been hanging in the Great Mosque of Caesarea, convinced that it was the bowl used at the Last Supper and that it was made of emerald (a mistake rectified several centuries later when someone dropped it, and it was found to be made of glass). Since the bowl is almost certainly a fine piece of Roman workmanship from the first century AD, their intuitions about its origins were not entirely wrong. It was carried in triumph to the cathedral in Genoa, where it is still displayed, attracting attention as one of several candidates for the title Holy Grail.

The green bowl was, for the Genoese, probably as great a prize as any of their commercial privileges, all of which were celebrated in the city annals as signs of divine bounty. The Genoese made friends with the rulers of each of the crusader states (Jerusalem, Tripoli, Antioch) that needed help in gaining control of the seaports of Syria and Palestine. In 1104 their fortunes were further boosted by the capture of the port city of Acre, with an adequate harbour and good access into the interior. For most of the next two centuries, Acre functioned as the main base of the Italian merchants trading to the Holy Land. The Genoese produced documents to show that the rulers of Jerusalem promised them one-third of the cities they helped conquer all the way down the coast of Palestine, though not everyone is convinced all these documents were genuine; if not, they are still evidence for their vast ambitions. They were even promised a third of ‘Babylonia’, the current European name for Cairo, for there were constant plans to invade Fatimid Egypt as well. To all this were added legal exemptions, extending from criminal law to property rights, that separated the Genoese from the day-to-day exercise of justice by the king’s courts. The Genoese insisted that they were permitted to erect an inscription in gilded letters recording their special privileges inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Whether or not this inscription was ever put in place, the demand for such a public record indicates how determined the Genoese were to maintain their special extra-territorial status in the kingdom of Jerusalem, which never developed a significant navy of its own.

WWII USN Torpedoes

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“Damn those exploders…damn them all to hell!” exclaimed the skipper of submarine Jack, Lieutenant Commander Thomas Michael Dykers, on June 20, 1943, as he watched through the periscope and saw a torpedo, fired from an excellent position and at the optimal range of 1,000 yards, “premature” (explode before reaching its intended target), a 1,500-ton trawler. “Son of a bitch from Baghdad!” Dykers roared as the other two torpedoes he fired also failed to reach their target, either missing or failing to detonate.

This flawlessly executed attack, the premier combat for both the Jack and its skipper, failed because of faulty torpedoes. Very unfortunately for the U.S. war effort in the Pacific, its submarine campaigns were plagued for fully the first half of the war with torpedo problems. These problems included premature detonation, running depths deeper than specified, and failure to explode upon contact with a ship’s hull. Often one of these problems masked another, with the solution of one problem seemingly leading to the emergence of another, unanticipated one. The full extent of the torpedo problems was not known or completely remedied until the fall of 1943.

But, as if to compensate for this American failing, the Japanese committed an equal or greater strategic blunder of their own: they chose not to make extensive use of submarine warfare against U.S. shipping. Throughout most of the war, Japanese submarines and torpedoes were superior to their U.S. counterparts. Japanese submarines, or I-boats, were bigger than the U.S. submarines, and their torpedoes were vastly superior. Even after it was perfected, the U.S. Mark-14 torpedo had a range of 4,500 yards, a warhead of 668 pounds of Torpex (a specially designed mixture of TNT, other explosive compounds, and beeswax), and a speed of 46 knots. (Fired at 31 knots, the Mark-14 theoretically had a range of 9,000 yards, but this setting was seldom used, except against anchored ships.) The electrical Mark-18–1 torpedo, which came into increasing use toward the end of the war, had a range of 3,500 yards, a top speed of only 33 knots, and a warhead of 500 pounds. By contrast, the typical Japanese submarine torpedo, the Type 95, had a range of 10,000 yards, a speed of 49 knots, and a warhead of 900 pounds. It took only three such torpedoes, fired from Japanese submarine I–19 on September 15, 1942, in the Coral Sea, to fatally cripple aircraft carrier Wasp. On the same day a Japanese torpedo blew a 32-foot hole in the hull of battleship North Carolina.

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The Mark-14. The standard Mark-14, the torpedo most commonly used by U.S. submarines in World War II, had three problems: running too deep, exploding prematurely because of faulty magnetic detonation devices, and not detonating at all upon contact with a ship’s hull, because of poorly designed mechanical detonators. The first fault to be detected and corrected was running below set depths. When this problem was solved, the issue of premature detonations came next, and when this in turn was resolved, faulty mechanical detonators had to be reworked until they performed satisfactorily.

In June 1942 navy technical personnel placed a large fishnet across a bay in Western Australia and then fired three torpedoes at it. Two torpedoes set to run at 10 feet tore through the net at 18 feet and 25 feet, respectively, and a third, set to run on the surface, pierced the net at 11 feet. The U.S. Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd) questioned the unsophisticated protocols of this test, but its own more careful tests confirmed that the torpedoes were indeed running deep. The reasons involved, among other things, weight differences between live and dummy torpedoes tested, improperly calibrated equipment, and inaccurate record-keeping. Instead of addressing all of these problems, submariners simply set torpedo depths for 10 feet less than they needed.

The next major problem with the Mark-14 torpedoes was the Mark-6 magnetic exploder, a device copied from captured German U-boat torpedoes and designed, at least in theory, to detonate the torpedo’s warhead just as it passed through the magnetic field beneath the keel, usually the most vulnerable and least armored part of a ship. Unknown to the Americans, the Nazis had encountered so many problems with their own magnetic exploder device that they eventually abandoned it as unreliable.

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The Mark-6 Exploder. The most infuriating quirk with the Mark-14 torpedo equipped with the Mark-6 exploder was not that it never worked, but that it worked unpredictably. When this torpedo/exploder combination did perform as designed, it was devastatingly effective, and severely damaged or sank any vessel unfortunate enough to be its target because it broke up the ship exactly at its most vulnerable part, the keel. These successes happened with just enough frequency to convince BuOrd that the torpedoes were largely problem-free.

Predictably, skippers very quietly deactivated the magnetic exploders on their torpedoes and set them to detonate on contact only. Most did not reveal that they had done so, because tampering with the government’s ordnance was, technically, a serious offense that could get them courtmartialed. Admiral Charles A.Lockwood, commander of the Pacific Fleet submarines, eventually learned of this practice and sided with the skippers. He also decided to take his case against the faulty magnetic exploder to the commander of the Pacific fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz. After hearing Lockwood’s grievances, Nimitz directed Lockwood to issue orders for the deactivation of the faulty devices, and this Lockwood did in June 1943.

Disabling the magnetic exploders did greatly reduce the premature explosion problem, but an equally serious fault emerged: dud torpedoes. Instead of exploding prematurely, many torpedoes did not explode at all, even when they hit an enemy hull with a solid thud.

On July 24, 1943, Dan Daspit, skipper of Tinosa, was on the trail of a huge tanker of 19,000 tons, Tonan Maru III. Two of the first four torpedoes he fired at the vessel were solid hits, and smoke began billowing from the tanker. Finding no surface or air escorts for the tanker, Daspit had a matchless opportunity to send it to the bottom. In all, he fired fifteen torpedoes, the last against a Japanese destroyer. All failed to detonate. Daspit saved his last torpedo to take back to Pearl Harbor as proof that something was drastically wrong with U.S. torpedoes. At Pearl Harbor, Lockwood and others soon concluded that the contact detonators were malfunctioning, and a team of investigators was soon looking into the problem. Dummy warheads fitted with the defective exploders were dropped 90 feet from a crane onto a thick steel plate. When the warheads hit the plate at the perfect angle of 90 degrees, the contact detonators were crushed by the impact before they could strike the fulminate caps. But when the warheads were dropped onto a plate angled at 45 degrees, only about half were duds. It was clear that the detonators were poorly designed, and torpedo experts at Pearl Harbor immediately began reworking them. (Ironically, the new and improved detonator devices were fashioned out of very tough metal obtained from Japanese aircraft propellers found in the Hawaiian Islands.) Lockwood directed that all Mark-14 torpedoes thereafter be equipped with the new detonators, and told submarines still at sea to try for angled shots instead of the ideal 90 degree approaches.

By the late summer of 1943, all of the torpedo problems were remedied. Only now could submariners confront the enemy with full confidence in their ordnance. The reworked torpedoes soon led to dramatic increases in submarine sinkings of Japanese shipping, and by the first quarter of 1944, more than 1,750,000 tons of Japanese shipping were destroyed, which nearly equaled the figure of 1,803,409 sunk for all of 1943. By the end of 1944, the destruction of Japanese shipping was truly devastating: more than 3.8 million tons sunk.

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The Mark-18. Early in 1942 the Allies had captured a German electric torpedo, and eventually Westinghouse was producing copies. One of the main advantages of the electric torpedo was its wakeless track, which made it much more difficult to spot. Westinghouse’s Mark-18 electric torpedo also proved to have none of the depth control or detonation problems of the Mark-14s, and its production costs were less. Its main immediately discernible drawback was its slower speed of about 30 knots. But as the Mark-18 was taken into combat situations, problems emerged. For one thing, it ran slower in cold water because the cold reduced the power of its batteries. Hydrogen leaks from its batteries led to several fires and explosions, and ventilating the torpedoes of hydrogen became a frequent precaution. (Later, hydrogen-burning technology right inside the torpedo itself made this unnecessary.) Torpedo technicians at Pearl Harbor quickly identified and remedied these and other problems, and by 1944 the Mark-18 was gradually gaining acceptance from submariners. Gradually a consensus arose: they would use the electric Mark-18s by day and the now reliable Mark-14s by night. Some 30 percent of the torpedoes fired from U.S. submarines in 1944 were electric, and by war’s end the figure had risen to 65 percent. By the end of the war, the Mark-18 had definitely proven its worth: it had sunk nearly a million tons, about one-fifth of the total sent to the bottom by U.S. submarines.

The torpedo was the submariners main tool of war, and its improvement was the single most important technological development in U.S. submarine warfare during World War II. But other items of equipment and improvements in them also contributed to the stealth and deadliness of the U.S. submarine.

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German Schnellboot (S-boat)

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Schnellboot S-80 torpedo boat

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Operations with the Kriegsmarine

S-boats were often used to patrol the Baltic Sea and the English Channel in order to intercept shipping heading for the English ports in the south and east. As such, they were up against Royal Navy and Commonwealth (particularly Royal Canadian Navy contingents leading up to D-Day) Motor Gun Boats (MGBs), Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs), Motor Launches, frigates and destroyers. They were also transferred in small numbers to the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea by river and land transport. Some small S-boats were built as boats for carrying by auxiliary cruisers.

Crew members could earn an award particular to their work—Das Schnellbootkriegsabzeichen—denoted by a badge depicting an S-boat passing through a wreath. The criteria were good conduct, distinction in action, and participating in at least twelve enemy actions. It was also awarded for particularly successful missions, displays of leadership or being killed in action. It could be awarded under special circumstances, such as when another decoration was not suitable.

Schnellboote of the 9th flotilla were the first naval units to respond to the invasion fleet of Operation Overlord. They left Cherbourg harbour at 5 a.m. on 6 June 1944.[5] On finding themselves confronted by the entire invasion fleet, they fired their torpedoes at maximum range and returned to Cherbourg.

During World War II, S-boats sank 101 merchant ships totalling 214,728 tons. In addition, they sank 12 destroyers, 11 minesweepers, eight landing ships, six MTBs, a torpedo boat, a minelayer, one submarine and a number of small merchant craft. They also damaged two cruisers, five destroyers, three landing ships, a repair ship, a naval tug and numerous merchant vessels. Sea mines laid by the S-boats were responsible for the loss of 37 merchant ships totalling 148,535 tons, a destroyer, two minesweepers and four landing ships.

In recognition of their service, the members of Schnellboot crews were awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross on 23 occasions, and the German Cross in Gold on 112 occasions.

To the British and Americans these lethal boats were simply enemy boats, or E-boats.

To the Germans they were S-boots or Schnell boots simply fast boats. For a period during the Second World War they controlled a respectable portion of the Mediterranean Sea and a sizeable area of the English Channel, specifically the area between Smiths Knoll and The Wash called E-boat Alley. Any convoys venturing from the London docks north or the Firth of Forth south paid a penalty to the E-boats for doing so.

The Allies had their boats as well and in some way, they were similar. The British MTB (motor torpedo boat), the American PT (patrol-torpedo), and German E-boats were all heavily armed, capable of deploying either torpedoes or mines, and pound-for-pound some of the most dangerous vessels afloat. All of these vessels, including F-lighters and MAS boats were relatively small and unassuming. Far away; up close was a different matter.

By late in the war, E-boats in the Channel were painted a very functional combination of grays—probably to match the English weather. The hull, superstructure and bridge vertical surfaces were painted a pale gray. The deck, superstructure, and bridge and wheelhouse horizontal surfaces were painted a darker gray. This monochromatic theme with its ominous hints of darkness scattered about a 120-foot vessel made it appear, as it was, lethal.

The deck armament, compared to Pacific Theatre PT boats that carried everything except a re-enforced rifle company, was not exceptional. In the deck well forward was an Oerlikon 20mm cannon, mounted low in the hull. “Doorknockers” the crew called them for their remarkable inability to do anything to enemy vessels but announce the E-boats presence. In the center of the superstructure, just aft of the bridge was a twin mount 20mm gun with armored shield. Between amidships and the aft superstructure was a four-barreled 20mm gun, a 37mm gun, or a Bofors 40mm cannon. E-boats also carried 7.92 MG38 machine guns for anti-aircraft defense and close-quarter encounters. The 20mm guns, which constituted the bulk of the E-boats sting, were generally acceptable weapons under the right circumstances. They could pump out 240 rounds a minute with a maximum range of 12,000 meters, which gave enemy pilots reason to consider how best to approach an E-boat; and they seldom traveled alone. Doubling or tripling the 20mm rounds flying through the air, always made pilots a bit wary. Nothing increased one’s heart rate like a line of blazing green tracers coming straight toward one’s nose.

But two weapons in the E-boats arsenal kept convoy commanders awake at night. One was the E-boat’s torpedoes; the other was the E-boat’s speed. E-boats carried four torpedoes, two loaded in tubes (later E-boats had the tubes enclosed in the hulls); and two ready to be loaded—elapsed time to replace fired torpedoes, 45 seconds.

The second weapon available to the E-boat (with due respect given to the very capable 24-man crews that sailed them), were the three, supercharged Daimler-Benz 2500-hp engines. Subject to the vagaries of the sea, and the condition of the boats and engines, most E-boats could reach top speed of 42 knots, but for only 30 minutes at a time. Still, in the heat and confusion of battle, 30 minutes is a lifetime, and a short burst of power can mean a great deal to the attacker and the defender.

James Foster Trent, in his superb book E-Boat Alert: Defending the Normandy Invasion Fleet, points out two components of the E-boat’s secret weapon, her hull design and special rudders. The American and British torpedo boats were designed with a hard chine, or scooped out bottom. This concave construction is cost-effective and pulls the boat’s hull out of calm water at high—less contact, less drag, better speed. E-boats had a round bottom, which was costlier to produce but which gave it a speed advantage in rough seas. In place of rough seas insert: English Channel. Trent also points out just how effective the twin Lurssen rudders were. A PT boat roaring through the sea with the forward third of its hull suspended above the surface of the ocean and churning out an impressive wake, is a joy to watch. But it is not the most efficient means to move a boat through the water. The Lurssen Effect is created when two, small Lurssen rudders, mounted to either side of the main rudder and turned outboard, lowers the wake height, which, according to Trent “requires less energy, allowing the vessel to go faster.”

For a time E-boats (and smaller, slower but just as effective German coastal craft), controlled the English Channel. Contests between the British MTB, Coastal Command (air), and Coastal Forces (surface, and sometimes derisively known as Costly Farces), were deadly affairs with a third enemy taking its toll; the sea. Individual seamen often found themselves adrift after battles that might range over vast areas. In the best of weather a seaman might have a life expectancy of two hours in the cold water; other times, it was a matter of minutes.

As the war progressed and things began to go badly for the E-boats they sought refuge during the day in massive E-boat bunkers in Cherbourg, Boulogne or LeHavre; coming out at night to practice Lauertatik, simply loitering around at night near possible convoy lanes, waiting. If they were lucky they could return to base before dawn (the light was anathema to them; too many enemy aircraft), flying a Victory Pennant. The boats carried radar, not as effective as the enemy’s but still a defense against surface or air attack The Funkmessbeobachtungsgerat, or FuMB, was a passive detection unit, much like the early U-boats Biscay Cross. Its purpose was to detect the enemy’s radar impulses; thus alerting the E-boats to the presence of an unfriendly aircraft that was in turn, looking for them.

The Last Hurrah for E-boats was achieved quite by accident within sight of the English coast. Eight ships of Allied Convoy T-4 were scheduled to practice landings early on the morning of April 28, 1944. Slapton Sands in Lyme Bay was chosen because it closely resembled Utah Beach in Normandy to which the Americans had been assigned. A battalion of combat engineers and units of the 4th Infantry waited aboard their LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks, literally floating warehouses), for the exercise to begin when the first E-boats attacked. The LSTs were armed, but only with guns designed to withstand air attack, and the lone British destroyer attached to the convoy couldn’t protect the entire line of squat LSTs. E-boats raced in almost at will, firing their cannons and launching torpedoes. At a top speed of 12 knots, the men aboard their LSTs realized that the vessel’s nickname was apropos; Large Slow Targets.

Nearly a thousand men died, killed in the attack or drowned, including ten who had been “bigoted.” That is, they knew enough about the upcoming invasion to be of real value to the Germans, and of great concern to the Allies, if captured. There were no losses among the E-boats. This attack and the desperate shortage of LSTs added one more nightmare to the long list facing Allied commanders responsible for moving hundreds of thousands of men and thousands of ships across a narrow, inhospitable body of water. What about E-boats? The Luftwaffe had virtually been eliminated, the U-boats of the Kriegsmarine neutralized, and broad lanes had been, or would be, swept through the dense minefields in the Channel. The Channel was, despite the fact that the Allies controlled it, a haven at night for E-boats.

“The immediate threat on D-1 and D-Day,” Rear Admiral Alan J. Kirk, USN said, “is considered to be the E-boat, especially after nightfall.” In fleet defense, preemptory strikes and planning, action was taken to ensure that the E-boat threat to the invasion was destroyed. Lyme Bay had proved one thing to the Allied planners; these small, fast craft, let loose in even limited numbers within the invasion fleet, could cause a disaster.

There were no E-boats captured during the war and those that came in under their own power to the Allies or were towed in, did so reluctantly. You can not get predators to renounce their predilections because somewhere, someone signed a piece of paper. It is not in the natural order of things. But as the war ended and E-boats were carried away to be studied by the victors, those that fought against them remembered tumultuous seas and gray skies. And the deep rumble of approaching death.

They were indeed enemy boats.

Variants

The Schnellboot design evolved over time. The first had a pair of torpedo tubes on the fore deck.

S-2 class

The first productions of the S-Boat in 1931 which were based on S-1.

S-7 class

They firstly built in 1933 and 3 of them were sold to China.

S-14 class

The improvement of S-7 in 1934. The enlarged hull.

S-18 class

Wartime types were:

S-26 class

Entered service in 1940. 40 m hull. Torpedo tubes covered by forward deck.

S-30 class

S-38 class

S-38b class

Improved S-38 class with armoured bridge. Various armament including 40mm Bofors or 20mm Flak aft, MG34 Zwillingsockel midships

S-100 class

From 1943. 1 × 20 mm in the bow, 2 × 20 mm gun amidships and 37 mm gun aft.

S-151 class

Type 700

Late war design proposal with stern torpedo tubes and 30 mm gun turret forward. Eight boats built, but completed to S-100 design specification

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Motobomba FFF

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The Motabomba, or more properly the Motobomba FFF (Freri Fiore Filpa), was a torpedo used by Italian forces during World War II. The designation FFF was derived from the last names the three men involved with its original design: Lieutenant-Colonel Prospero Freri, Captain-Disegnatore Filpa, and Colonel Amedeo Fiore.

The FFF was a 500 millimetres (20 in) diameter electric torpedo which was dropped on a parachute and was designed to steer concentric spirals of between 550 and 4,375 yards (500 and 4,000 m) until it found a target. It weighed 350 kilograms (770 lb), and contained a 120 kilograms (260 lb) warhead. Its speed was 40 knots (46 mph) and it had an endurance of 15–30 minutes. It was acknowledged by the Germans as superior to anything they had and American intelligence was eager to get its hands on it after the Armistice with Italy in September 1943.

Development

The initial development work on the torpedo was carried out at Parioli, near Rome. It was demonstrated in 1935 to Benito Mussolini, Admiral Domenico Cavagnari, General Giuseppe Valle and other high officials. Freri later demonstrated it at the Germania works at Travemünde, the Luftwaffe experimental trials centre, and the Germans were sufficiently impressed to order 2,000 examples.

500 were ordered for the Regia Aeronautica, the first planned uses for them in combat to be against the British naval bases at Gibraltar and Alexandria in 1940. The limiting factor was the fact that only the Savoia-Marchetti SM.82 bomber had the necessary power and range to deliver such a weapon over such a distance.

The first version of the FFF were designed to enter the water vertically, but it was found that a tilt device allowing it to make a gentler angled entry was less likely to upset the delicate mechanisms, and this was implemented on the second series.

Service history

The first attack using the FFF was made on July 17, 1942 when three SM.82s flew from Guidonia against Gibraltar, an effort repeated on July 25, both missions aborted before launch. On the night of August 20, a Major Lucchini conducted a successful mission against Gibraltar and this was followed by attacks on targets in Albanian, Libyan, and Egyptian waters. Aircraft of 32 Stormo attacked Gibraltar once more in June 1941 and in that same month Lieutenant Torelli (based at Rhodes) attacked Alexandria harbour on the night of June 13.

The largest use of the weapon was against the PEDESTAL convoy to Malta on August 12, 1942 when ten Savoia-Marchetti SM.84s of 38 Gruppe’s 32 Stormo launched them against the convoy south of Cape Spartivento, Sardinia. This made the ships of the convoy alter course, which allowed conventional attacks to penetrate the convoy’s defences.

By September 1942 the Italians had 80 of the improved Mk 2 version at bases in Sardinia, 50 in Sicily, and 50 more with their experimental (ASI) 5 Squadron.

The Luftwaffe made their first mass attack using the weapon on March 19, 1943 when Junkers Ju 88s launched 72 of them against shipping at Tripoli, sinking two supply ships and damaging the destroyer HMS Derwent. Derwent was subsequently beached with her engine room flooded and although salvaged and returned to England, was never repaired.

The FFF was subsequently used in attacks against invasion shipping at Bône in Algeria on April 16, 1943 and at Syracuse during the Allied invasion of Sicily later that year. On December 2 a force of 105 Ju 88s attacked Bari harbour with FFFs, destroying 16 Allied ships including the SS John Harvey, which had been carrying mustard gas.

Bibliography

Giuseppe Ciampaglia: “La sorprendente storia della motobomba FFF”. Rivista Italiana Difesa. Luglio 1999

Motobomba FFF

The first Italian bombers appeared on Gibraltar in 17 of July, 1940. three SM 82 Marsupiale dropped each 4 250 kg high explosive bombs on the harbour( not in the sea) that was not darkened because none in the British Empire knew the performances of this three-engine aircraft yet ( 4000 km autonomy, 4000 kg bomb load).The British night fighters didn’t succeed in striking the raiders.

Bombs on the sea? Maybe you are right, but some weapons MUST be dropped in the sea.

In July/august 1940 and in June 1941 the SM 82s bombed Gibraltar 4-6 times. A special weapon employed in this attacks was the Motobomba FFF ( Freri Fiore Filpa) torpedo. These were 50cm electric torpedoes which followed a circular course when dropped, the circle getting gradually larger. They weighed 350kg, of which 120kg was the warhead. The weapon was dropped as a bomb in the sea but it moved as a torpedo and was very useful against ships that were anchored in an harbour. Each motobomba was connected with a parachute , this is the reason why the wind took 2 bombs on a Spanish village.

In 13 July and 20 august 1941 two merchant ships in Gibraltar were sunk by the “motobombe” .

The Motobomba was also employed by the Luftwaffe ( FLT 400 torpedo was dropped by Ju-88 and Dornier 217 on Tripoli, Bona and Algeri harbours , some ships were sunk).

PT-Boats in Surigao Strait

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Battle of Surigao Strait – US Navy PT Boats, IJN Fuso & Yamashiro.

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PTs 130, 131, and 152, three of six boats positioned furthest into the Mindanao Sea, were the first to spot the Japanese on radar. As the Japanese ships drew close, the three boats revved engines and dashed south. By 11:50 P.M., they actually saw the Japanese ships and began transmitting contact reports by radio. Within moments, lookouts on destroyer Shigure spotted the PTs. While Fuso and Yamashiro hung back, Shigure turned on searchlights, lofted illuminating star shells over the PTs, and advanced to confront them. Seconds later, 4.7-in. projectiles from Shigure’s main batteries bracketed the PTs. The Battle of Surigao Strait began.

To Bob Clarkin on the 152 Boat, the next moments were a riotous blur. “The first thing I remembered was the boat hauling ass away. We hadn’t fired torpedoes and we were caught in a searchlight. The noise was incredible.” Bob heard an explosion forward. “Charlie Midgett, the guy on the bow thirty-seven-millimeter gun was down. He looked pretty bad to me. He probably died right away.” Fires flared topside and below decks. “Some of the guys carried Charlie and a couple of wounded down to the skipper’s cabin. The mattresses in crew’s quarters were burning, so I went below, hauled them up, and tossed them over the side.” By then, 152 was covered by screening smoke from the 130 Boat, but incoming rounds still howled and splashed around them. “The skipper signaled me to roll one of the stern depth charges.” The charge exploded behind them. It was meant to fool the Japanese, but Bob doubted they’d even notice.

This was the first of a string of brief, unequal duels—a nuisance for the Japanese, chaos for the PT crews. Caught under destroyer star shells, searchlights, and gunfire, most boats had no time to line up a good torpedo shot. The 152 Boat—on fire, her bow splintered, one crewman dead and three others wounded—was the worst hit in the first duel. But Boat 130 also was pounded when its skipper Ian Malcolm slowed to lay covering smoke for 152. “We took a hit on our port forward torpedo. It shaved off most of the warhead’s TNT and ripped up twelve feet of deck before it left through the bow. The fish’s detonator cap was hanging by a wire. I dove for it, but one of the gunner’s mates got there first, tossed the detonator cap to me, and I batted it over the side.” The concussion silenced 130’s radio gear. Unable to communicate what he’d seen, Malcolm nursed the 130 southeast to link up with the three PTs waiting near Camiguin Island.

In 127’s chart house, Tom Tenner picked up something on his radar screen. “I saw some blips and called them out. The skipper wanted to know more, but it was hard to judge course and speed; sometimes the radar picked them up sometimes it missed them, depending on how high the waves were. It seemed there were about eight ships: two large blips, one medium, and the rest smaller. We finally estimated their speed at twenty to twenty-two knots.

“Just then Boat 130 came over. They’d been shot up and lost their radio, but their skipper was able to tell us what he’d seen.” Sitting topside as pointer on the forty-mm, Don Bujold heard Jack Cady’s greeting to Ian Malcolm. “The boat captains had these Rudy Valle-type megaphones. I remember Jack Cady shouting across to Malcolm: ‘Mai, are you scared?’ And Malcolm shouted back: ‘Hell, no, I’m terrified!'”

When the 130 Boat arrived, 127’s radioman Jake Hanley left his topside GQ station and went below. “We moved bow to bow with the 130, and Malcolm came aboard. We crowded into the chart room. Ian was pretty excited, but Cady was a man who could calm anyone down. Cady took down Malcolm’s information; I got the code book out and converted the information into coded groups of four or five letters to transmit by voice on the radio. I had to repeat the code groups over and over before I got an acknowledgment. I could tell the Japanese were trying to scramble the signal, but I finally got a confirmation.”

It was the 130’s information and 127’s transmission, received just after midnight, that first alerted the battleship, cruiser, and destroyer lines exactly what was coming and when to expect it. Meanwhile, Nishimura radioed Kurita: “Advancing as scheduled while destroying enemy torpedo boats.”

ASDIC

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This pictorial illustrates the shape of the detection area for the 144 ASDIC, the ‘Q; attachment and the 147 Asdic. Click on graphic to enlarge.

From “Anti- Submarine Detection Investigation Committee,” dating to British, French, and American anti-submarine warfare research during World War I. Known as ASDIC (Admiralty’s Anti-Submarine Division) in British and Commonwealth navies until the 1950s and the most important underwater detection device since the interwar period. Sonar takes two forms: active, emitting sonic impulses and measuring distance and direction through receiving their reflections; and passive, determining bearing and range through comparative analysis of received sound.

The Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee produced an experimental set in 1918, but the first operational units went to sea only in 1928 (aboard British A-class destroyers). All were “searchlight” units using high-frequency emissions (20–40 kilocycles). They had short ranges (to 3,500 yards) and were ineffective at speeds much above 15 knots. Such sets also had a 200-yard dead zone and slow operating rates. They determined direction but not depth. Most navies, in consequence, relied heavily on hydrophones for submarine search and used sonar primarily for attack guidance.

All Royal Navy destroyers were fitted with ASDIC during the early 1930s. This underwater detection device to locate U-boats using sound echoes was refined before and during World War II by British and other anti-Nazi scientists. Improved hydrophones had long been able to detect a U-boat’s bearing. When grouped to receive echoes of sound pulses, they also determined range. ASDIC worked by sending out acoustical pulses that echoed off hulls of U-boats, but also sometimes off the sides of whales or schools of fish. The echoes were heard by grouped hydrophones on the sending ship, so that an ASDIC screen and operator provided the escort’s captain with estimated range and position of the enemy submarine. It was limited by the sounds of other ships’ screws, rough seas, and onboard machinery of its host ship. Such interference enabled U-boats to hide from escorts inside the “noise barrier” created by a convoy. More importantly, even in optimum conditions early ASDIC could not determine a U-boat’s depth.

British and Commonwealth ASDIC operators could locate U-boats to a distance of 2,000 meters by 1940. However, from 200 meters range to source, pulse and echo merged. That meant U-boats were lost to detection before the moment of attack, just as a destroyer closed on its position. Because forward-throwing technology for depth charges had not been developed, the explosives were dropped astern of the charging destroyer across the last known position of the U-boat. Loss of contact, stern attack, and the time it took charges to sink to explosive depth combined to permit many U-boats to escape destruction simply by turning hard away from the closing destroyer or corvette. Admiral Karl Dönitz, head of the Kriegsmarine U-boat arm, countered the threat from ASDIC by instructing U-boat captains to attack only on the surface and at night. That countermeasure was lost to U-boats once the Western Allies deployed aircraft equipped with Leigh Lights. Dönitz next ordered research into absorbent coating and rubber hull paints to reduce the ASDIC signature of his U-boats, but with little success. Similarly, release of a Pillenwerfer noise-maker only tricked inexperienced ASDIC operators. An advanced Type 147 ASDIC set was developed later in the war that tracked U-boats in three dimensions, giving readouts of bearing as well as range and depth. Note: All Western Allied navies adopted the U. S. Navy term for ASDIC in 1943: sonar.

Major wartime sonar developments attempted to address these deficiencies. Power rotation and improved displays enhanced operating rates, and streamlined steel domes raised useful search speeds. Dual-frequency sets (operating at either 14 or 30 kilocycles) enhanced ranges, and tilting transducers eliminated the dead zone. Britain also developed a specialized sonar (Type 147B) for accurate depth determination. A simultaneous line of development, the scanning sonar using an omnidirectional transmitter coupled to an array of fixed receiving transducers, offered a possible solution to the search problem. Such equipment required greater power to maintain its range but could be larger (since rotation was eliminated) and hence could operate at lower frequencies, enhancing performance.

Wartime submarines also carried sonar. Most navies relied on active sets for target detection, but Germany pursued a different course with its Gruppen-Horch-Gerät (GHG) equipment, a standard installation from 1935 on. An array of sound-receiving diaphragms on each side of the bow connected to a pulse-timing compensator provided bearings of received noise. This apparatus could detect single ships out to 16 miles and large groups to 80 miles, but the bearings it provided were insufficiently precise for accurate attacks. At short ranges, however, a supplemental swiveling hydrophone (Kristall-Basisgerät) generated bearings accurate to within 1 degree. Finally, to obtain ranges U-boats carried an active sonar (SU-Apparatus) developed from surface warship sets, although this device was rarely used because its emissions would reveal the submarine’s presence. Late-war trials, however, using GHG together with SU-Apparatus demonstrated that as few as three active impulses sufficed to determine target distance, course, and approximate speed.

Fixed-array scanning formed the basis for active sonar development after World War II, while passive systems evolved from the original German GHG. In the process the two types converged; most modern ship-mounted sonars operate in both active and passive modes, often simultaneously.

Antisubmarine Warfare

The success of sonar led in the interwar period to complacency about the need for further ASW research, since echo-ranging appeared to compromise a submarine’s ability to remain undetected. The fact that most submarine attacks had actually occurred on the surface, where sonar was irrelevant, was not taken into consideration. Submarines of World War II were faster, able to sustain greater depths, and had longer range and more powerful weapons than submarines of the previous world war.

With the beginning of World War II in September 1939, German submarines were once again deployed around Great Britain. They were not charged with destroying shipping, but rather with attacking naval vessels. Over the course of the next year, however, the rules of engagement were expanded and U-boats began concerted efforts against shipping. The Allies instituted convoy tactics at the onset of hostilities, but the fall of Norway, the Low Countries, and France in 1940 gave German U-boats better access to the Atlantic convoy lanes, something conspicuously missing during the last war. This greatly expanded the area where submarine attacks could be expected.

Increasing numbers of Allied escort vessels, long-range aircraft, and small carriers to accompany convoys infringed upon submarines’ ability to attack shipping. Depth charges and launchers became more reliable and powerful. Sonar also greatly improved, and was ultimately able to determine a submarine’s approximate bearing and depth. Such information could be exploited by the newly invented ahead-throwing weapons, the hedgehog and squid. Airborne ordnance, including sonobuoys, homing torpedoes, and devices such as the magnetic anomaly detector (MAD), were becoming commonplace.

Radar, both on surface ships and in aircraft, proved the most important ASW device of the war; radio direction finding (HF/DF) was also extremely important against German submarines. Decoded intelligence also played a major role in the defeat of the U-boats. Whole convoys could be routed around known German wolf packs, while hunter-killer groups composed of escort carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts could intercept and sink U-boats. Germany developed countermeasures, but the sheer scale of Allied saturation techniques, combined with the extraordinary production of shipping, made it very difficult for diesel submarines to prosecute the war.

In the Pacific, American submarines waged an even more destructive war against Japanese shipping. Japanese ASW was markedly inferior to that of the Allies, partly as a result of deeply ingrained doctrine that submarines were fleet vessels and deployed only against other naval ships, not merchant ships. Consequently, the Japanese navy had few ASW measures to protect shipping in place before their 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

References

Brown, D. K. The Grand Fleet: Warship Design and Development, 1906-1922. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999.

Campbell, John. Naval Weapons of World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1985.

Friedman, Norman. Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapons, 1994 Update. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994.

SAMURAI OF THE SKIES

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The Imperial Japanese Navy began experimenting with aviation as early as the British and Americans. But because Japan did not see much combat in World War I, it had fallen behind the other powers by 1918. To catch up, it turned to its traditional mentors: for the army, the French; for the navy, the British. A British naval mission arrived in 1920 complete with over one hundred demonstration aircraft in a bid to boost the British aviation industry. British pilots formed the first faculty of the newly established Japanese naval aviation school at Lake Kasumigaura. British naval architects helped Japan complete its first aircraft carrier, the Hosho, in 1922. British aircraft designers helped Mitsubishi design its initial carrier aircraft. Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War and Air, was confident Britain and Japan would never go to war—“I do not believe there is the slightest chance of it in our lifetime,” he exclaimed in 1924—so what was the harm?

While the Japanese were always happy to learn from gaijin, they sought to achieve self-sufficiency as soon as possible. By 1941, they had succeeded—spectacularly so. At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, Japan had the finest naval aircraft, pilots, and aircraft carriers in the world, all overseen by its Naval Aviation Department, created in 1927.

Japan not only had more aircraft carriers than any other navy—ten—but the most modern of them, the Shokaku (Soaring Crane) and Zuikaku (Happy Crane), built after the lifting of treaty limits in 1936, were superior to anything the U.S. Navy would deploy until 1943. These 29,800-ton monsters could carry seventy-two aircraft and steam over eleven thousand miles without refueling—easily enough to get to Hawaii and back—with a top speed of over 34 knots (39 mph). Their completion by the end of September 1941 made the raid on Pearl Harbor possible, and their subsequent absence at Midway may have tipped the outcome of that critical battle against Japan.

The Japanese navy had at first tried building aircraft itself, but by the early 1930s it had settled on a better division of labor: Navy engineers would come up with specifications for airplanes and private firms would compete to build them. Japan did not have a large civil aviation industry, but three major firms—Mitsubishi, Nakajima, and Aichi—developed a high degree of sophistication as they became the primary suppliers for the navy. (The army, which rarely spoke to the navy, acquired its aircraft separately, mainly from these same firms.) Japanese industry boosted its airplane production from 1,181 in 1936 to more than 5,000 in 1941. This was still only a fifth of the U.S. total that year, but the Japanese navy deployed more aircraft on the eve of Pearl Harbor—over three thousand—than either the British or Americans, and their aircraft enjoyed, on the whole, a substantial qualitative edge.

The planes that would devastate Pearl Harbor were designed in the mid-1930s. The Aichi D3A1 Type 99 dive bomber, dubbed “Val” by the Allies, was similar to the Stuka on which it was modeled. The Nakajima B5N2 Type 97 (Kate) was a versatile three-man bomber that could drop either one torpedo or several bombs. Its maximum speed was 100 mph faster than its British counterpart, the Swordfish, and 30 mph faster than its U.S. counterpart, the Douglas Devastator. To go along with these carrier-based attack aircraft, the Japanese navy developed two potent land-based bombers, each with twin engines, a crew of seven, and the capacity to carry either bombs or torpedoes. The Mitsubishi G3M2 Type 96 (Nell) was adopted in 1936; five years later came the Mitsubishi G4M1 Type 1 (Betty), with a phenomenal range of 3,700 miles—greater than the B-17, though it lacked the Flying Fortress’s bomb capacity. They were not used at Pearl Harbor, but they would be employed with deadly efficiency in the western Pacific. All of these attack aircraft struck fear into the hearts of Allied seamen in the war’s early days as they sank one ship after another.

The most feared of all Japanese aircraft was the Mitsubishi A6M2 Type O (Zero) fighter, which entered service in the summer of 1940. The Zero’s brilliant designer, Jiro Horikoshi, created a sleek airplane that was faster, more nimble, and had greater range than any contemporary fighter, land-or sea-based. Its armaments—two 7.7 mm machine guns in the nose, two 20 mm cannons in the wings—were also more formidable than those of any comparable aircraft. This lethal combination of firepower and high performance was made possible by the use of a newly developed zinc-aluminum alloy that was stronger and lighter than the materials used to build other airplanes.

Upon its introduction, the Zero allowed the Japanese to wipe the Chinese air force from the sky. In the early years of the war in the Pacific, it also ran rings around British and American warplanes. Not until 1943 did the U.S. produce a superior aircraft. By that time the Zero’s weaknesses, which it shared with other Japanese planes, had become apparent: Built to maximize offensive power, it lacked basic defensive elements such as armor and antiexplosive, self-sealing gas tanks. This was in accordance with the bushido ethic which placed a low priority on individual warriors’ self-preservation. (For the same reason, many Japanese pilots disdained wearing parachutes in combat because they did not want to risk the disgrace of being captured.) It meant that, once hit, Japanese airplanes did not have much ability to survive; the Betty bomber was later nicknamed “Zippo” by U.S. fighter pilots for its tendency to go up in flames. But in the war’s early days this was not much of a concern, because Allied defenders generally lacked airplanes capable of keeping up with, much less hitting, their attackers.

Japan’s edge in the quality of its personnel was even greater than its edge in the quality of its airplanes. Naval aviators, known as the Sea Eagles, formed a small, elite corps of volunteers. Unlike in the U.S. or British navies, most were not commissioned officers. They were generally either NCOs drawn from the surface fleet or teenage boys recruited straight out of civilian schools. Competition for flight training was ferocious, and cadets were disqualified for the slightest failing. In the 1930s the navy graduated only one hundred pilots a year. The crème de la crème were selected for aircraft carriers; landing on a bobbing strip of steel in the middle of the ocean was rightly considered the most demanding task a pilot could perform.

The pilots, and the rest of Japan’s navy, conducted tough drills in harsh conditions, including stormy weather and darkness, leading many to comment afterward, “War is so easy, compared with peacetime exercises!” Through relentless practice, Japan’s naval pilots attained unparalleled accuracy in dive bombing, high-level bombing, and aerial torpedoing, as well as learning how to coordinate these different modes of attack into a coherent tactical framework. The performance of many pilots was further enhanced by their participation in Japan’s war in China, which began in 1937. This taught the Japanese, for instance, about the need to have fighters escort long-range bombers to their targets—a seemingly obvious point, but one that the British and Americans would not grasp until they had suffered horrific bomber losses during the first few years of the war.

The fliers who attacked Pearl Harbor had an average of eight hundred hours of flying time, almost three times as much as the average U.S. Navy pilot, and most had combat experience that the Americans lacked. There was no question that Japanese aviators were vastly superior; the problem was that there were not enough of them. On the eve of war, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps had 8,000 active-duty pilots; the Japanese navy had only 3,500, and just 900 of them were carrier-qualified. This was not because of America’s larger population size (which did not prevent Japan from having almost twice as many men in uniform overall in 1941); it was mainly because the U.S. Navy emphasized quantity over quality. Japan made the opposite decision, which meant that if its samurai of the skies could not win a quick victory, they would be bled dry in a war of attrition.

This was one of many dilemmas confronting the commander in chief of the Imperial Japanese Navís Combined Fleet as he contemplated the prospect of conflict with the United States. Since August 1939 that job had been held by Isoroku Yamamoto, an unlikely candidate to be one of the leading Axis commanders. Yamamoto had become familiar with America as a student at Harvard, 1919–21, and as naval attaché in Washington, 1925–28. He admired the American people—Lincoln ranked high in his personal pantheon—and disliked Japan’s new allies, the Nazis. Moreover, he was well aware of the vast advantages the U.S., with its larger population, richer economy, and greater industrial capacity, possessed in any confrontation with Japan. He counseled Tokyo to avoid awakening this sleeping giant. “If I am told to fight regardless of the consequences,” he warned Japan’s premier, prophetically, in 1940, “I shall run wild for the first six months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second or third year.” On another occasion he wrote, “A war between Japan and the United States would be a major calamity for the world.”

Such views, though widely held within the upper ranks of the more cosmopolitan navy, were heresy to the narrow-minded, nationalistic army officers who dominated the government. While serving as vice minister of the navy from 1935 to 1939, Yamamoto’s life was in constant jeopardy from right-wing assassins; there was a price of 100,000 yen on his head. The navy appointed him commander of the Combined Fleet, rather than navy minister, in large part simply to get him out of Tokyo and out to sea, where he would be safe from attack by his own countrymen.

By 1941, Yamamoto’s views were in a decided minority in the government. After President Roosevelt embargoed all oil and scrap metal sales to Japan in July in retaliation for the occupation of southern Indochina, Tokyo decided it had no choice but to go to war in order to, as the Foreign Ministry put it, “secure the raw materials of the South Seas.” Because all the decision makers assumed (perhaps wrongly) that the U.S. would not stand by as Japan gobbled up Dutch and British colonies, it was decided that war against the U.S. was inevitable. And since the Imperial Navy had only enough fuel for eighteen months of operations, the sooner the better.

The fifty-seven-year-old Yamamoto would be at the forefront of the war effort. Like his hero, Admiral Togo, he was not very big, even by Japanese standards—only five feet three inches, 125 pounds—but his broad shoulders, shaved head, and thick chest conveyed an impression of strength. As a young ensign at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, he had been severely wounded by an exploding gun. For the rest of his life he walked around with two fingers missing on his left hand and the lower half of his body badly scarred. “Whenever I go into a public bath, people think I’m a gangster,” he good-humoredly complained. Among the geishas of Tokyo, whose establishments he liked to frequent, the admiral was jocularly known as “Eighty Sen,” “since,” a biographer writes, “the regular charge for a geisha’s manicure—all ten fingers—was one yen.” That he would gladly take this kind of ribbing suggests that Yamamoto was notably lacking in the pomposity that often comes with high rank. He had a good sense of humor as well as a tendency to speak his mind.

Yamamoto gave up alcohol as a young man, making him a rarity in the hard-drinking world of the Imperial Navy. His only weakness, other than the geishas (one of whom became his mistress), was an obsessive love of games of chance. He would bet on anything, from bowling to blackjack. He was skilled at shogi (Japanese chess), bridge, and especially poker, which he would gladly play for thirty or forty hours at a stretch. He often told his subordinates that if he retired from the navy he would move to Monaco to become a professional card player. He would apply this gambler’s mentality—always carefully calculating the odds and not being afraid to risk everything on one roll of the dice—throughout his naval career.

Although not a pilot himself, Yamamoto had spent much of his career around naval aviation. After a brief stint as second-in-command of the Kasumigaura flight school, he went on to command the aircraft carrier Akagi and then two carriers arrayed in a carrier division. These sea commands were interspersed with stints as technical director of the navís Aviation Department and head of the entire department. In these assignments, he came to the conclusion that in the next war, carriers would be the most important elements of sea power.

This view did not win the assent of many other admirals. In the 1930s the navy continued building battleships, including two of the biggest ever made, the Yamato and Musahi. Their advocates boasted that these 72,000-ton behemoths, with their eighteen-inch guns, were virtually unsinkable and unstoppable. Yamamoto, who noted that each one cost the same as one thousand airplanes, was not impressed. He echoed fliers who jeered that the “three great follies of the world were the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, and the battleship Yamato.” Indeed, both the Yamato and Musahi would be sunk during the war without ever getting a chance to inflict a single blow on the enemy.

Japanese Pre-WWII Navy Part I

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Japanese battleship Kirishima

In China and later in the Pacific, Japanese amphibious assaults were marked by surprise landings, often at night, at several spots simultaneously or in rapid sequence. Air and naval superiority were always present at the point of attack. Japan had no marine corps as such. The army was responsible for amphibious warfare and the navy for getting the troops to the invasion beaches and supporting the landings with gunfire and aviation. But Japan did possess an elite corps of “debarkation commandos,” special forces whose mission was loading the landing craft, moving them to the beaches, and returning the empty craft to the transports offshore. One keen student of Japanese warfare has observed that the nation’s warriors had a tendency to overplan, and “the more detailed the landing guidelines, the more difficult it became to hold to them.” This was the case when unexpected bad weather, high winds and surf, or unanticipated enemy resistance was encountered. As long as unforeseen difficulties did not occur, Japanese amphibious operations “ran like clockwork. But once a problem arose, confusion ensued,” and Japanese troops were likely to respond with foolish daring such as human-wave assaults in order to “win back full freedom to act.” Nonetheless, Japan conducted a series of major amphibious operations in China and the Pacific between 1937 and 1942 that rivaled in size and success those later undertaken by the Americans in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Gilbert, Marshall, and Mariana Islands between November 1942 and June 1944.

Japan’s preference for land-based naval aviation as an essential component of defensive warfare was given impetus by the war in China. Japanese forces followed up the Marco Polo Bridge Incident with a heavy air and land attack on the native sections of Shanghai. Within days, the army began a major thrust up the nearby Yangtze River valley toward Nanking and beyond, as Chiang Kaishek’s steadily retreating government lured the Japanese farther and farther from the coast.

Because of the vast distances involved, China inevitably became an air war— a strategic bombing campaign that in conception and scope if not scale prefigured those undertaken by the Allies over Europe after 1942. Such a campaign required the use of every plane and pilot in the Japanese arsenal. From the beginning, the navy consistently outperformed its army opposites in long-range bombing, often under terrible conditions of weather and terrain. Naval aircraft proved superb; the new Nell land-based bombers flew missions of up to 1,250 miles from Formosa and Kyūshū against targets in and around Shanghai, Nanking, Hankow (Hankou, now part of Wuhan), and other river cities. “The elation which swept the Japanese populace with the announcement of the bombing[ s] was understandable,” a Japanese historian recalled with chilling satisfaction. “We had a powerful, long-range, fair-and-foul-weather, day-and-night bombing force” with which to terrorize and kill thousands of civilians. Japanese casualties, however, were severe, especially during the first four months of the war, and until the end Japanese naval bomber aircraft, often unaccompanied by fighter escort until the advent of the Zero in 1939, were subjected to periodic savage maulings. Only in the crucible of battle did Japanese pilots learn the necessity of close-formation flying and at last master the art of dogfighting against skilled Chinese and Soviet pilots.

Carrier aircraft began making significant contributions to the Japanese offensive at Shanghai in August 1937 and continued to do so as the campaign moved up the Yangtze valley. The first generation of ship-based aircraft proved incapable of carrying out their missions, and the aircrews suffered terrible casualties. As late as the previous May, the fighter, dive-bomber, and attack aircraft aboard the Kaga were all biplanes. On August 17 the carrier launched its first strike against Chinese targets beyond Shanghai. A dozen Type 89 torpedo-bomber biplanes led by Lieutenant Commander Iwai roared down Kaga’s big flight deck and headed toward Hangchow (Hangzhou) to blast Chinese airfields. Only one plane returned. The bomber squadron failed to rendezvous with its fighter escort and had attacked alone.

The Japanese learned quickly from their mistakes. A year later Kaga had been joined by the smaller Hosho and the second-generation light carrier Ryujo, while Akagi completed a modernization program. From the beginning, the carrier air groups flying off Ryujo and Kaga were in the thick of the war. In late 1938 Akagi’s flyers joined the melee. The first carrier-based Type 89 attack bombers and then the Type 96 carrier-based fighters (Claudes) were badly mauled by the Chinese air force, increasingly manned with foreign volunteers and stocked with the best foreign aircraft. In response, Japan hurried new land- and carrier-based naval aircraft into production. “By importing many foreign aircraft and weapons,” two Japanese veterans of the campaign later wrote smugly, “we in Japan were able to gauge approximately what these weapons could and could not do. By keeping our planes and other armament within our borders and free from prying eyes, we led the world seriously to underestimate the combat strength of our naval aviation,” until the “China Incident” forced the Japanese to reveal how far their capabilities had advanced. In 1938–1939, Type 97 carrier attack bombers (Kates), Type 99 carrier dive-bombers (Vals), and the apex of Japanese aviation technology, the Zero fighter plane, all joined the fleet. As the Japanese army moved up the Yangtze beyond Nanking, chasing the always elusive Chiang and his forces, the carrier air wings moved ashore, following the army and bombing ahead of it in conjunction with the army air corps. By early 1940 land-based Nells, often escorted by Zeros or Claudes, were bombing Chungking, Chiang’s last haven of safety beyond the river gorges of the upper Yangtze more than a thousand miles west of Shanghai. Other bomber-fighter formations staging off carrier decks or, later, from advanced bases in Indochina ranged far and wide over southern China, ultimately closing down the vital Burma Road supply corridor.

The navy always boasted that its aviators were tougher and more adaptable than those in the army. Flyers and aircrew who trained ever more intensively for attacks against enemy surface fleets as the international situation shifted from Japan’s advantage in the late thirties nonetheless demonstrated from the earliest days of the China Incident an ability to strike land targets effectively. “Conversely, it was also determined that pilots trained specifically for maneuvers over land experienced great difficulty in over water operations, even in merely flying long distances over the ocean.”

In the mid-thirties as the carrier Ranger came into the U.S. fleet and Yorktown and Enterprise took shape in East Coast shipyards, the Imperial Navy bestirred itself to keep in step. Scarce funds were found to upgrade and modernize Kaga as well as Akagi. Training and war games had demonstrated that the best defense a carrier had was its own planes, and the unwieldy eight-inch batteries on both ships were removed. The crude three-deck hangar arrangement was abandoned, and the single flight decks were extended fore and aft to cover nearly the entire ship. As a result, Akagi’s and Kaga’s plane capacity increased from 60 to 90 (though both would normally carry about 72 planes in combat). At the same time, Japan pushed ahead with two ships roughly comparable to the American Yorktown class: the 34-knot Hiryu and Soryu, each 16,000–18,000 tons and capable of carrying at least 63 aircraft. A disastrous typhoon at sea in September 1935 damaged the fleet sufficiently to force designers to pay greater attention to strength and structural integrity. Both new Japanese carriers were built with higher hulls and forecastles. The carrier faction won an even greater victory in 1937 when it was able to place in the Fleet Replenishment Program orders for two superb 25,675-ton, 34-knot vessels to be named Shokaku and Zuikaku. Each ship embarked 72 aircraft, and each would be completed in 1941 in time to take part in the opening offensive of the Pacific conflict. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, Japan possessed six splendid frontline carriers—Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, Zuikaku, and Shokaku—that operating together as a fast mobile strike force, the Kido Butai, could deploy more than 350 aircraft. The Kido Butai displaced more than twice the tonnage allotted Japan by the Washington Conference.

Doctrinal and administrative progress kept pace with new construction. Experience in China had finally convinced Japanese carrier and fleet commanders that the attack aircraft at their disposal could best be employed—and protected— as a massed group. “Extending these realities to air war at sea slowly but inevitably led to the conclusion that carrier forces must be concentrated,” and by late 1940 the navy’s tacticians had hit upon the box formation as the best way to deploy carriers in a task-force configuration. Within months, Rear Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa had come up with another advance. Scattered as it was throughout the Pacific islands and on carriers, naval aviation in time of war would inevitably be employed incoherently and ineffectively. He convinced Yamamoto to create an air fleet within the Combined Fleet structure and to split it into land- and carrier-based components for maximum effect. At the end of 1941, the Eleventh Air Fleet, comprising eight land-based groups, was ready to lead the navy’s thrust southward toward the Philippines, Malaya, and the East Indies that would win Japan an empire within a few months. The First Air Fleet, encompassing all the aircraft deployed on the three carrier divisions, plus two seaplane divisions, composed “the single most powerful agglomeration of naval air power in the world,” including the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Just as each of Japan’s warships had to be qualitatively superior to fleet units in putative enemy navies, so Japanese naval aircraft had to possess greater speed, maneuverability, and, above all, range than comparable American—and British—planes. Japanese carrier aircraft were designed to deliver the critical first strike, to find and hit an enemy fleet before it could come in range to deliver aerial and surface blows of its own. Japanese carrier aircraft would have be lighter and more vulnerable than their U.S. opposites to achieve this objective, but as early as 1936 staff planners at Imperial Navy headquarters concluded that the key to success in any coming conflict “was to be mass attacks” by carrier aircraft “delivered preemptively because of the advantages of surprise and of ‘outranging’ the enemy.”