Unternehmen Sonnenwende[Operation Solstice]and its Impact on the Soviet Command

Numbers of Soviet tanks and antitank guns were destroyed by German Tiger II heavy tanks of 503rd SS Heavy Tank Battalion, but the German heavy tanks also took losses.

Soviet IS-2 in Stargard, 19 March 1945

The Vistula-Oder campaign had ended almost as suddenly as it had begun. As Zhukov’s 1st Byelorussian Front and Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front hurtled toward the Oder, they encountered stiffening resistance on their flanks. For Konev, the threat came from his left (southern) flank, from German forces in Silesia; for Zhukov, it came from Pomerania on his right (northern) flank. In the first weeks of February, German garrisons were resisting Zhukov’s advance stubbornly inside a number of older fortresses like Thorn (Toruń), Schneidemühl (Pila), Deutsch Krone (Wałcz), and Arnswalde (Choszczno). As always, Soviet fronts attempting to fight deep battle weakened a bit more each day, as each forward bound took them farther from their base of supply. Konev, too, found the going much slower the more deeply he advanced into the urban and industrial districts of Silesia.

Moreover, a new German army group appeared on Zhukov’s maps: Army Group Vistula, assembled in Pomerania on January 24. The new formation was a typical late-war creation, made up of broken units from the Vistula Front (remnants of General Busse’s 9th Army), as well as from East Prussia (the 2nd Army of General Walther Weiss), along with a newly formed 11th SS Panzer Army under SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner. All these formations were thrown together hastily and were vastly understrength, and the entire army group barely possessed the fighting strength of a corps. Guderian and Hitler wrangled over the commander, with Guderian recommending Field Marshal Maximilian Weichs. The Wehrmacht currently had two army group staffs in the Balkans (Weichs’s Army Group F and General Alexander Löhr’s Army Group E), and Weichs seemed the logical choice—a man with “soldierly” qualities who was “clever, upright, and brave,” as Guderian put it. “If anyone could master the situation, Weichs could.” Being soldierly was the last thing Hitler cared about by this point in the war, and he instead proposed Himmler, then commanding Army Group Upper Rhine in the wind-down phase of Operation Nordwind. Weichs, the Führer said, “made a tired impression” and “didn’t appear up to the mission,” which was how he felt about the entire officer corps by now. Himmler was hopeless as a commander, but just as in Alsace, he was able to terrorize enough officials and civilians to fill the ranks and to scrounge up scarce supplies, even if he hadn’t the faintest idea of what to do with either one.

At any rate, Soviet reconnaissance patrols detected increasing activity out of Pomerania, and Zhukov had to detach troops from his forward drive to protect his northern flank. That task had originally been the mission of his neighbor to the right, Rokossovsky’s 2nd Byelorussian Front. Tough fighting in East Prussia had diverted Rokossovsky to the north, however, leaving Zhukov’s long flank open and vulnerable. On February 15, 1st SS Panzer Army actually launched a counteroffensive south from the Stargard region. Operation Sonnenwende (“Solstice”) looked impressive enough on the map—a three-pronged advance with every division and mechanized formation that the Germans could scrounge. The quality was mixed, including the 281st Infantry Division, a converted security formation just evacuated from Courland, and the 4th SS Polizei Panzergrenadier Division, which despite its name had almost no heavy weapons. Much of the army’s fighting strength lay with the III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps under General Martin Unrein. The corps consisted of three non-German volunteer divisions of the Waffen-SS, recruited from nationalities that were acceptably “Aryan,” according to National Socialism’s bogus racial theories:

11th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nordland—Norwegian and Danish

23rd SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nederland—Dutch

27th SS Volunteer Division Langemarck—Flemish

Another of the participating formations, XXXIX Panzer Corps, contained a foreign volunteer division, the 28th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division Wallonien, consisting of French-speaking Belgians, or Walloons. Commanded by the Belgian Rexiste leader Léon Degrelle, this “division” was never larger than a brigade and perhaps less than that in Sonnenwende.

Despite the disparate nature of the manpower, the planning was solid enough. Guderian had won a point with Hitler in the prebattle planning stage, urging the Führer to appoint Himmler’s chief of staff, General Walther Wenck, as the actual field commander (Feldkommando) for the offensive. Where Himmler was uncertain and indolent, Wenck was energetic and capable and, at forty-four years old, the youngest general in the German army. He launched the attack on a 30-mile front, with XXXIX Panzer on the right, III (Germanic) SS Panzer Corps in the center, and the ad hoc Korpsgruppe named for General Oskar Munzel providing flank protection on the left. The timing and precise location of the attack caught forward units of the Soviet 61st Army by surprise. With its assortment of Danes, Norwegians, and Flemings in the lead, Sonnenwende drove south seven miles and actually managed to relieve the besieged German garrison of Arnswalde. But this relatively impressive opening soon petered out into tough positional fighting over the next two days—the last thing the Wehrmacht could afford. The infantry component—German and non-German alike—was half-trained, and the precious Panzers suffered heavy and irreplaceable losses to Soviet antitank guns, mines, and artillery. Bad luck also played a role. After briefing Hitler personally on February 17, Wenck was driving back to headquarters. His exhausted driver had been on duty for two days straight, so Wenck took over, promptly fell asleep at the wheel, and slammed into a bridge. He spent the next few weeks convalescing in a hospital, and Sonnenwende never did get restarted. Whether Wenck’s presence would have made difference is an open question, but losing a good commander days into an operation is rarely a positive.

Failure or not, the counterstroke had an impact. Sonnenwende gave both Zhukov and the Stavka a case of the nerves. Final victory was in sight, so this was no time to be courting senseless risk. With a major river (the Oder) in front of Zhukov and unknown troubles brewing on his flanks, the time had come to halt. Konev’s front, as well, was going to be needed for the drive on Berlin, and he could hardly fight in Berlin and Silesia at the same time. Put simply, before the two Soviet fronts could strike at Berlin they had housecleaning duties to tend to on their flanks. Zhukov, along with Rokossovsky’s 2nd Byelorussian Front, spent the next two months squashing the remains of German resistance in eastern Pomerania (Hinterpommern—“Pomerania east of the Oder”). The campaign featured a tricky degree of interfront cooperation, with Zhukov’s right wing and Rokossovsky’s left wing doing most of the fighting. At first, the two fronts drove straight north, heading toward Kolberg and Köslin. After reaching the Baltic coast and splitting the province in two, Zhukov wheeled left toward Stettin and the mouth of the Oder, while Rokossovsky wheeled right toward Danzig and the Gotenhafen fortifications. By now, the German civilian population in this region was on the move, with hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes, desperate to evade rampaging Soviet tank columns. All the German military formations in Pomerania took in immense masses of civilians. Indeed, helping civilians flee to the west became the army’s unofficial raison d’être for continuing the war to the bitter end.

While Zhukov reduced Pomerania, Konev fought a bitter campaign to reduce German resistance in Silesia. On February 8, 1st Ukrainian Front launched a vast, two-pronged operation out of the Steinau and Ohlau bridgeheads (the Lower Silesian Operation). Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner of Army Group Center had two understrength “armies” under his command in Silesia: 17th Army standing opposite the Ohlau bridgehead and 4th Panzer Army guarding Steinau. Both were the remnants of German forces smashed on the Vistula, however, and Schörner had “only about as many field divisions as Konev had armies,” in the words of one analyst. Both German forces gave way within hours, and Konev’s tank armies were motoring 40 miles past their starting line by the end of the first day. Rather than push west toward Germany, however, Konev decided first to encircle Breslau, diverting 1st Guards Tank Army from its original westward axis, wheeling it 180 degrees to the east, and looping it around Breslau from the south. Breslau was encircled (and would withstand a siege and assault for three full months, until May 6—outliving even Hitler himself). But Konev’s decision gave the Germans just enough time for elements of 4th Panzer Army to firm up their defenses along the Neisse River (Lausitzer Neisse, or “Lusatian Neisse”). Konev’s attempts to establish bridgeheads over the Neisse led to fierce fighting against the six German divisions on the western bank and resulted in a bare sliver of a lodgment between Forst in the south and Guben in the north.

Konev now faced a German army immediately to his west (4th Panzer) and a second immediately to his south (17th) and was, for the moment, “contained inside a right angle of German forces.” He had pushed up to the Neisse on a 60-mile front and encircled Breslau, but German forces were still in the field and still active, launching a pair of small but vigorous counterattacks at Lauban (March 2) and at Striegau (March 9) that, although failing to achieve lasting success, served notice to Konev that the front was still active. Moreover, activity on his deep-left flank seemed threatening. Here lay Armeegruppe Heinrici (later, 1st Panzer Army), and once again Konev couldn’t concentrate on the Berlin axis far to the west when a threat lay this deep on his opposite flank. He now decided to redeploy 4th Tank Army from the Neisse front and insert it into battle 100 miles to the southeast in Upper Silesia. On March 15, he launched another massive offensive (the Upper Silesian Operation), both sides battling away in the mountains and industrial districts north of Mährisch-Ostrau (Moravska Ostrava). The initial breakthroughs managed to encircle the German LVI Panzer Corps southwest of Oppeln. The corps managed to break out of the ring—just in time for 4th Ukrainian Front to join the offensive on March 22—launching an attack on 1st Panzer Army from the east. Heinrici parried both thrusts, and the Soviets called off their offensive on March 31. They had pushed back, but not destroyed, 1st Panzer Army, and that may be all they wanted to do in the first place. Konev had neutralized the threat from Silesia, but it had taken him nearly two months, almost exactly the time Zhukov needed to overrun Pomerania.

Operation Solstice [OoB]

 

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The Plan Orange Disaster – A What If… Part I

Secrets abound in times of war, as does what Winston Churchill termed the “bodyguard of lies” surrounding any important military “truth.” Some sixty years ago the failure of American, British, and Russian military intelligence to penetrate Japan’s secret stratagems placed the U.S. Navy on the wrong side of the greatest naval debacle in history. How and why the United States suddenly implemented a version of War Plan Orange that had been abandoned as unfeasible in the 1920s is, perhaps, even more important than the story of the proud warships gutted by its implementation.

From War Plan Orange to Rainbow

In the 1890s, U.S. military staffs began to consider the Pacific a potential major arena for international conflict. Initially they envisioned Europeans as the anticipated enemy—one of the earliest plans called for the destruction of a weak French Asiatic squadron in support of America’s Open Door Policy in China. The joint U.S. Army and Navy Planning Boards, for the sake of secrecy and perhaps from the awareness that giving names to possible enemies tends to raise levels of international tension, soon devised a color-based system for identifying nations during planning. They designated the United States as “Blue,” the British as “Red,” the Germans as “Black,” and so forth. The acquisition of the Philippines in 1898 increased the emphasis on defensive operations in surrounding waters and necessitated giving consideration to the acquisition and protection of “stepping-stone” logistical bases from the West Coast of the United States to Manila Bay, and onward to the resources and markets of the Orient.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, a new potential enemy emerged in the Pacific. With the Meiji Restoration, Japan had embraced Western-style industrialism and the imperialism that inevitably accompanied it. A modern Imperial Japanese Navy, modeled on the British Royal Navy (not to mention trained by that navy, and often using ships built in British shipyards), played the key role in defeating Russia in 1904–1905. The naval successes at Port Arthur and Tsushima established the UN as a force to be reckoned with. In the eyes of U.S. military planners, this impressive display earned Japan its own designation, “Orange,” and afterward actions deemed necessary to counter future Japanese aggression in the Pacific could be found in War Plan Orange.

The rapid technological shifts resulting from World War I, coupled with postwar diplomatic initiatives and the economic difficulties of a worldwide depression, dictated numerous changes in War Plan Orange between 1919 and 1939. In various guises and with the occasional twist and turn, planning moved from a determined direct defense of the Philippines by the U.S. fleet in the early 1920s, to the anticipated loss of those islands to a superbly trained well-equipped, and (thanks to its Chinese adventures) veteran Japanese military in the 1930s. By early 1939, Plan Orange called for the recapture of the Philippines after a two- to three-year methodical advance across the Central Pacific, at which time Japan’s home fleet would be confronted and destroyed allowing a close blockade of the home islands (hopefully decisive without the need for an invasion). In mid-1939, with war in Europe threatening to erupt at any moment, War Plan Orange was incorporated into Rainbow 1, a unilateral defense of the Western Hemisphere against Germany, Japan, and their fascist minions.

By mid-1940 a new plan, Rainbow 4, offered a multilateral defense of the Western Hemisphere, assuming alliances with Great Britain and France. This plan forbade any Blue offensive action in the Pacific—a clear acknowledgment of Germany as the most dangerous of potential opponents. In essence, the United States would abandon the Philippines, Guam, and even Wake Island to a hopeless delaying action against superior Japanese forces. Rainbow 4 allowed Japan a free hand in Asia and the Pacific while the military assets of the United States and its eventual allies knocked Germany out of the war as quickly as possible.

Japan: Options and Planning Through 1939

The industrialization of Japan’s economy may have saved the nation from direct European domination in the late 1800s, but it resulted in a quandary for Japanese leaders. The home islands simply lacked the raw materials to support massive industrialization. Thus, the history of modernized Japan became one of aggressively seeking control of Asian resources. Through 1920, military success followed military success, yet European and American diplomats more often than not managed to strip away the fruits of Japanese victory. After 1920 the Japanese government became increasingly dominated by its officer caste, the same men who had found victory to be bittersweet, at best. They knew a reckoning with their foreign tormentors could not be avoided, and the greatest threat appeared to be the United States, a nation with seemingly endless industrial might.

Japanese naval thinking fixated on victory through a single great battle. Before the technological changes during and following World War I, planners envisioned the U.S. fleet being brought to battle near the home islands. As had the Russians at Tsushima, the U.S. Navy (USN) would be debilitated by its extended voyage, considerably improving the odds against a numerically superior American fleet. After the technological changes, the expected interception point moved south and east, its location varying with changing plans from the coasts of the Philippines to the Marshall Islands. With the distance traveled less of a debilitative factor (speed, range, and durability had improved dramatically), the IJN planned an attritional war against the advancing USN. Submarines, land and naval airplanes, and night attacks by light surface units equipped with the superb Type 92 “Long Lance” torpedo, would deplete the American forces by as much as thirty percent before the main battle fleets clashed and decided the issue.

The timing and location of the final battle, as well as the success of the UN’s strategy of attrition, depended upon which nation seized the initiative. If Japan struck first (first strike, the surprise attack, being prominent in Japanese military tradition), it could quickly seize the U.S. Pacific bases—the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island and perhaps even Midway Island and the Aleutians—forcing the USN into a protracted advance of one to two years’ duration. This would allow time for the attritional strategy to work; but a danger (almost a certainty) existed that the production capacity of the United States would so far exceed that of Japan that the USN would actually be stronger, despite a thirty percent attrition of its starting forces, once it breached Japan’s defensive perimeter in the Pacific. If the Americans struck first, especially with the UN scattered across the Pacific and along the coasts of Asia, disaster would result. Thus, by 1940, as the Imperial Army continued to advance in China, Europe dissolved in flames, and the American people prepared to elect a president to lead them away from or into war, the UN lacked a truly effective counter to an aggressive War Plan Orange.

Democracy at Work

The Democratic Party nominated Franklin Delano Roosevelt for a third consecutive term as president in 1940. The Republican Party opposed the highly popular Roosevelt with Wendell L. Willkie, a major player in the corporate world but not a man expected to win the heart of the common man, still suffering from the Great Depression. It may never be known exactly who leaked details of Rainbow 4 to the American press, but on October 18 newspaper headlines across the United States screamed FDR PLANS TO ABANDON OUR BOYS IN THE PHILIPPINES TO THE JAPS! Gen. Douglas MacArthur, caught unprepared by reporters that morning, inadvertently added fuel to the political fire: “Gentlemen, no American president has ever willingly abandoned an inch of American soil to an enemy, much less thrown away the lives of American soldiers and sailors. Our good President would be the first person to agree with me on that. In fact, I have so much faith in President Roosevelt that I would willingly leave for Manila today.”

The Republican Party knew a possible winning gambit when they saw (or leaked) it, especially with less than a month remaining until the election. Hammered by Willkie on the only issue available, and with the polls only a week away, Roosevelt finally offered a statement to the American public via his Sunday radio chat. “I will no more abandon America’s sons than I would my own children. The United States Navy is one of the most powerful forces in the world; should—and I pray it never does—war come to the Pacific, the enemy will be met and destroyed in the Philippines.” Somewhat reassured, voters elected their president to a third term, though not by the expected landslide.

The day after the election, three things of note occurred. In Washington, naval planners dusted off old copies of an aggressive Plan Orange to use in preparing a new multilateral war plan, Rainbow 5. In San Francisco, a vacationing Gen. Douglas MacArthur received orders to take command immediately in the Philippines. And at his office in Tokyo, Adm. Isokura Yamamoto, the man commanding the Japanese navy, smiled as he read the news from the United States.

Yamamoto and Plan Z

Isokura Yamamoto towers above the great admirals of history, despite his five-foot-three-inch height. As a young officer he paced a deck at Tsushima, sacrificing two fingers to Imperial glory. Later, he attended Harvard and served as a naval attache in Washington, gaining a firsthand understanding of the overwhelming resources and industrial capability of the United States. Throughout his life he excelled at games of skill and strategy—bridge, poker, and shogi (similar to European chess). And it was with great skill that he tackled the problem of defeating the American giant.

In August 1939, Yamamoto found himself at the pinnacle of his profession, commander and chief of the Combined Fleet. Two months later he observed a demonstration of naval air power from the bridge of the carrier Akagi. Turning to his chief of staff, the admiral remarked “Impressive! If I can use our fast carriers to sink the American fleet in the mud of Pearl Harbor, I shall run wild in the Pacific for a year, maybe two.” From behind the two men, the absentminded (though brilliant) Capt. Kameto Kuroshima murmured “Be careful what you wish for, Admiral.” Pressed for an explanation of his less than artful words, Kuroshima replied “The mud of Pearl is shallow. If the Americans are the industrial geniuses that you have preached about so often, then they will simply raise the ships and repair them. Far better if the mud is deep, and the victory permanent.” Yamamoto agreed but lacking the ability to force the USN into a deep water engagement, he assigned Kuroshima the task of planning a preemptive strike on Pearl Harbor. The resulting plan, though offering a strong possibility of tactical success, left both men troubled because it would not force the United States to negotiate a peace treaty.

Roosevelt’s commitment to defend the Philippines changed everything. The strike at Pearl scrapped Yamamoto officially unveiled “Plan Z” to the army and navy in September 1941.The plan meshed well with the idea of a Southern Offensive then being championed by the army, one designed to secure quickly the Philippines and Malaysia as a stepping-stone to resource-laden India and the East Indies.8 Plan Z anticipated an immediate advance of the USN from Pearl following the line Midway-Wake Island-Guam-the Philippines, in order to secure American territory, avoid Japanese land-based air and light surface units in the Marshalls, and force the battle line of the IJN into a decisive engagement east or northeast of the Philippines. Without attrition of the USN, the Japanese Combined Fleet, divided as it supported the army, would face anticipated ratios of (USN: IJN) 13:9 in battleships, 20:12 in cruisers, and 60:40 in destroyers by M plus 20 (the earliest date on which the American fleet should near the Philippine coast). Only in fast carriers, 4:6, and naval air power, 400:500 planes, would ratios favor the IJN. Yamamoto, however, expected the Americans to split their light surface forces in order to support the British and Dutch, to escort troop convoys closely following their main fleet, and to cover the fleet’s large logistical train.

Central to Plan Z was a daring scheme to lull the Americans into misusing their carriers. Five old merchantmen would be converted to appear as flattops—including dummy planes on the decks. These vessels, accompanied by the light carrier Ryujo, would operate west of the Philippines. If they could fix American attention, Yamamoto’s Fast Strike Force of six carriers, supported by two battle cruisers and assorted lighter vessels, would have an opportunity to weaken the USN with repeated strikes once it reached Guam. The carriers would then drive the U.S. fleet through the southern approaches to Manila—either San Bernardino Strait or Surigao Strait—where Yamamoto would be waiting with a gauntlet of destroyers, cruisers, and battlewagons quickly concentrated from forces supporting the Southern Offensive. Surviving elements of the American battle fleet would undoubtedly reach Manila, where they could be pounded by land-based airplanes operating from newly captured fields on Luzon or those recently occupied in (formerly French) Indochina. To avoid a change of heart by the Americans, Guam and Wake Island would not be seized until after the defeat of the USN’s main fleet.

Though the Imperial Japanese Army did not smile upon Plan Z, arguing that the fast carriers would be better used covering the invasion of Malaysia and clearing the South China Sea of Allied naval forces, they could not disagree with Yamamoto’s logic: “Only the complete destruction of the American Pacific fleet and the loss of the Philippines will shock the citizens of the United States into a negotiated peace. It will take twenty years and the resources of Asia to allow our nation to achieve industrial parity with our enemy. Samurai of Japan! We must have that quick peace!” In the end, all present concurred that land-based aircraft and those surface units scheduled to rendezvous at Surigao Strait would suffice to cover the invasions.

In the following months, as negotiations with a U.S. government angry at continued Japanese expansion in China and obviously preparing for a showdown in the Pacific, moved toward collapse, Tokyo set December 7, 1941, as the date for its assault against Allied territories in the Pacific. Sunrise of that day found Yamamoto off the Philippine coast, aboard the hastily completed super-battleship Yamato, wondering how quickly the USN would sortie from Pearl Harbor.

Kimmel at the Helm

Roosevelt’s choice of the two key officers responsible for finalizing and implementing the War Plan Orange segment of Rainbow 5 has been debated by historians almost as much as it has been lamented by Americans as a whole. It is not difficult to argue that the self-proclaimed military genius MacArthur’s mouth earned him the hot seat; but the much maligned Adm. Husband Kimmel is a different story. War Plan Orange actively sought a big-gun confrontation, and Kimmel was a big-gun admiral, having served on a dozen battlewagons in his career. Though he lacked experience with naval aviation, carriers constituted a virtually untried arm of the U.S. Navy at that time. Without doubt, Kimmel was the consensus choice to implement War Plan Orange. Even Gen. George Marshall whole-heartedly supported the aggressive Kimmel for the role.

In early November 1941, Kimmel held a conference for his top officers at Pearl. There, he presented the plan that would be implemented as it happened the following month. In the Philippines, MacArthur, recently reinforced by fifty P-40 fighters and twenty-four B-17 bombers, would fight a delaying action, preserving Manila Bay as a primary fleet anchorage. A British fleet of two battleships, a carrier, and screening elements would similarly defend Singapore, the Gibraltar of the Pacific, as a secondary base for the U.S. fleet. Southward, the ABDA flotilla (a small U.S.-British-Dutch-Australian force built around two heavy cruisers) would be reinforced by the carrier Yorktown.10 It would secure a secondary supply route to the Philippines from Australia, distracting Japanese naval forces in the process.

Task Force 1—eleven battleships, three cruisers, and eighteen destroyers—under the tactical command of Kimmel, aboard the battleship Pennsylvania, would sail on M plus 2 to Wake Island via Midway, arriving on M plus 12. In case Wake had fallen, a battalion of Marines in APDs (old destroyers modified as high-speed transports) accompanied the task force. A convoy transporting a coastal defense battalion, fifty crated aircraft, and supplies for Wake, trailed the task force by approximately five days. TF 1 would sail from Wake for Guam by M plus 15. Guam, probably lost to the Japanese in the first days of the conflict, would be briefly bombarded and recaptured by the Marines. On or about M plus 21, the fleet would leave Guam for Manila, arriving off the Philippines no later than M plus 25 and taking a northern route around Luzon, hopefully forcing the IJN to give battle or face the interdiction of its forces engaged in the invasion of the Philippines. Elements of the victorious TF 1 would arrive in Manila by M plus 28, at the latest.

Task Forces 2 and 3, centered respectively, on the carriers Lexington and Saratoga, would sortie from Pearl immediately upon the opening of hostilities. The carrier groups, each protected by a screen of cruisers and destroyers, would scout ahead of the fleet (TF 2 to the north, TF 3 to the south). Through M plus 15, the task forces would operate approximately 300 miles forward of TF 1. After the relief or recapture of Guam, the carriers would be reined in, to fifty miles, allowing them to fly CAP (Combat Air Patrol) over TF 1 as Japanese naval and land-based aircraft became more of a threat.

Task Force 4, composed of the carrier Enterprise and the fast battleships North Carolina and Washington—the last-named warship rushed to commissioning as the Japanese threat loomed— would provide a diversionary force. From either Pearl or its normal cruising station southeast of the Marshalls, TF 4 would raid through the Japanese mandates; its high-speed run concluding with a daring assault on Truk, the major IJN base in the area. TF 4 would then rendezvous with TF 1 near the Philippines around M plus 22.

On M plus 30, a large convoy with men and matériel for Guam, Wake, and the Philippines, would leave the West Coast. Task Force 5, composed of cruisers and destroyers, would escort this force to the Philippines—if the Japanese had not yet sued for peace. “The Japanese will face us because they must face us—or abandon their invasion forces in the Pacific. And their battle line cannot stand against us!” Kimmel stated at the conclusion of the briefing. He was interrupted by the man who would command TF 4, William F. “Bull” Halsey: “Be careful what you wish for, Admiral!” Ordered by Kimmel to explain his outburst, the unrepentant Halsey warned, “Somewhere across that water a little yellow bastard is telling other little yellow bastards the same thing; only he’s saying that our battleships cannot stand against their carriers. And until those carriers are burning, I say be damned careful what you wish for!”  As it turned out, both men were correct to some degree.

At 0800, December 7, an aide awakened Kimmel at his office on Oahu with the news that Japan had just invaded the Philippines. He immediately ordered War Plan Orange to be implemented and prepared to board Arizona, rather than Pennsylvania. Kimmel had placed the usual flagship of the Pacific Fleet in dry dock only three days earlier for annual servicing of its shafts, and rather than sail late, the admiral ordered it to join the M plus 30 convoy as reinforcement for his by then theoretically victorious fleet.

An hour later Kimmel’s blood pressure soared when he learned that Douglas MacArthur had somehow managed to be taken by surprise. Most of his planes had been destroyed on the ground and the Imperial Army had landed at points across the Philippines with minimal resistance. Turning to Ensign Elmo R. “Bud” Zumwalt, his newly appointed aide, Kimmel snarled, “If MacArthur loses my base before I get there, he better have died gloriously—or I will kill him myself!”

As the U.S. fleet began its exodus from Pearl, a last telegram crossed the Pacific to Tokyo.14It read, “Hope to leave for Tokyo tomorrow. Plan to Climb Mount Niitaka next week.” Unknown to the American telegraphist, the sender, Takeo Yoshikawa, had been carefully observing the U.S. base for six months. His telegram, received at the American Desk of Japanese Naval Intelligence and forwarded immediately to Yamato, gave rise to cheers among Yamamoto’s staff. Their admiral, an avid climber, had picked the phrase “Climb Mount Niitaka” as the signal that the U.S. battle fleet had entered the fray.

A Stillness on the Sea

MacArthur had, indeed, been caught unprepared despite the obviously critical place of the Philippines in War Plan Orange. Clark Field outside Manila, bloomed with fires from the prettily arrayed rows of U.S. planes pummeled by Japanese bombers. By 2000 on December 7, only thirty-one fighters, twenty-seven bombers (including five B-17s), and three seaplanes remained operational.

Though MacArthur failed to contest the landings in the Philippines, that did not mean resistance melted away. On the contrary, Americans as well as the green Filipino Constabulary fought magnificently on the ground. As early as December 9, Gen. Nasaharu Homma, commanding the Imperial Army’s invasion of Luzon, sent a message to Tokyo demanding increased naval air support and additional troops. Yamamoto refused to release his carriers (now lurking west of Guam), partly out of fear that too rapid a success on the ground would cause the U.S. fleet to return to Pearl, thus evading his trap. As a result, considerable friction developed between the army and navy hierarchies. Fortunately for Japan, Yamamoto’s threat to resign, following on the heels of naval successes in the South China Sea on December 8, squelched that particular internal conflict.

On December 7 a British force composed of the battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales, with the carrier Indomitable providing air cover, sortied from Singapore to disrupt Japanese amphibious landings along the Malaysian coast. On the following day, Indomitable’s CAP found itself swamped by waves of Japanese fighters and bombers. The British lost all three capital ships, but not before scout planes from their carrier reported the source of their numerous attackers—six Japanese flattops, steaming just within maximum range of Clark airfield. For once, MacArthur acted with alacrity, dispatching every available plane to attack the enemy task force. The uncoordinated waves of U.S. planes began their attack as darkness fell across the South China Sea. Short on fuel and blanketed in darkness, few of the bombers and fighters managed to return to Clark, but those that did allowed MacArthur to send his historic message at 2330 that evening: “Tonight there is a stillness on the South China Sea where once the fleet of Japan roamed at will. I have avenged the brave crews of the Repulse, the Prince of Whales [sic], and the Indomitable. Five carriers of the Japanese Navy have been confirmed as destroyed by my heroic American aviators, and another is damaged and presumed sinking.”

Thus Yamamoto won a double victory that day—three British capital ships stricken from the Royal Naval list, and MacArthur’s reassurance to the world that the carrier might of Japan had been destroyed. Kimmel, steaming rapidly to Wake Island, is reported to have held a dinner party the following evening, neither the first nor the last warrior deceived into celebration while a trap waited patiently mere days ahead. Rear Adms. Wilson Brown (TF 2) and Frank Fletcher (TF 3), scouting far forward of TF 1, breathed sighs of relief. Until that moment, each man had wrestled with nightmares of their single carriers isolated and destroyed by the numerically superior IJN naval air power. Fletcher, always concerned about the fuel levels of his ships, even slowed his advance the following day to replenish.

Only aboard Enterprise, flagship of TF 4, did a senior American officer seem to have doubts concerning the veracity of MacArthur’s message. A young flier overheard Halsey, then suffering from a constantly worsening skin rash, snorted, “That son of a bitch was born an egotistical liar. Even those yellow bastards aren’t stupid enough to put six big carriers where his fliers could get at ’em. Doug couldn’t sink an outhouse, not even if he dropped a brick one in the middle of Subic Bay. I hope to God that Wil and Frank see through this crap. ‘Stillness on the sea’—shit!”

The Plan Orange Disaster – A What If… Part II

The Failure of War Plan Orange: Key Engagements

Truk-ing

It’s a military truism that no plan survives contact with the enemy, and it was certainly as applicable to Plan Z as to the ill-fated Plan Orange. Yamamoto faced two unexpected problems: the ABDA command reinforced by Yorktown, and TF 4 rampaging through the Marshall Islands. Both moves caught the Japanese admiral flat-footed (Yamamoto strongly believed that the USN would sensibly mass its carriers for battle) and demanded immediate attention.

Operating from secure bases in the Netherlands East Indies, the ABDA task force pushed tentatively northward on December 8, threatening to disrupt the valuable convoys supporting the invasions of the Philippines and Malaya. Two days later Yamamoto dispatched a task force centered around the slightly damaged Ryujo and the light carrier Hosho to counter the threat. On December 17, after a week of sparring, fighters and bombers from Yorktown caught the Japanese carriers in the process of launching a strike against the ABDA task force. In the face of stiff resistance from a reinforced enemy CAP (fighters were already aloft for the planned strike against Yorktown), American dive-bombers hit Hosho five times, while two torpedoes and three bombs turned Ryujo into a flaming hulk. But this victory had a stiff price—Yorktown expended seventy-three planes in the attack, including all of its torpedo bombers and over half of its fighters. Adm. Karl Doorman, aboard the cruiser De Ruyter, had little choice but to order withdrawal until the depleted air wing could be reinforced; especially after Japanese submarine 1-17 sank Langley (once designated CV 1, then redesignated AV 3, an aviation transport), ferrying replacement aircraft to Yorktown, on December 19. Nonetheless, the ABDA provided the only true victory for the Allies during the brief Pacific War.

Unless he chose to weaken his Fast Strike Force, Yamamoto lacked carriers to send against the U.S. task force raiding through the Marshalls. Still, the fleet base at Truk, an obvious target for the Americans, offered an opportunity to attrit the USN. On December 9, Yamamoto dispatched a light force led by Rear Adm. Raizo Tanaka in the cruiser Jintsu to Truk. It included two additional cruisers, Myoko and Nachi, and eight destroyers. Tanaka had orders to attempt to develop a night action if the Americans approached the base.

Slowed by a boiler failure on the hastily commissioned Washington, TF 4 did not enter strike range of Truk until December 22. Even then, Halsey hesitated to commit his dwindling air group against a possibly heavy Japanese air defense. Holding a cruiser and four destroyers back to defend Enterprise, the admiral ordered the remainder of the task force to close and bombard Truk under cover of darkness. Capt. Tameichi Hara, skippering the destroyer Amatsukaze, describes what followed:

A seaplane reported two American battleships [North Carolina and Washington], two cruisers, and six destroyers steaming directly to Truk shortly before dark on December 22. Tanaka, perhaps the best in our navy at night actions by small ships, deployed us in parallel lines, an interior of three cruisers led by two destroyers, and an exterior of six destroyers. At 1123, [destroyer] Kuroshio spotted shapes approaching the front of our column at about 48°. A cloudy night, the Americans had approached to less then 3,000 yds before being spotted! Strangely, they seemed not to see us at all, until our division unleashed 48 torpedoes and turned quickly to port for reloading. At that instant star shells burst above the enemy battleships, and the leader, the North Carolina [actually the cruiser Chicora], was hit by concentrated fire from our cruisers. I was busy for the next few seconds as shell splashes swamped my frail vessel. The Kuroshio was not so lucky—at least one large caliber shell penetrated a magazine and it seemed to lift completely from the water. Seconds later, Murata [a spotter] screamed, “Hits! Torpedo hits along the line!” My heart almost stopped before I realized that he meant the enemy line, and not ours … By 0058, it seemed that the sea was covered in burning ships. A large American vessel, obviously out of control, bore down on us. I ordered our 5-inch guns to open fire—a mistake as an enemy cruiser quickly hit us once the flashes revealed our position, our first damage of the engagement… At 0153, Jintsu, burning and dead in the water, flashed a message to launch remaining torpedoes and disengage. It grieved us to so abandon our comrades, particularly my friend and mentor, Tanaka . . .

Clearly, our success against the vastly superior American force resulted from our constant training in night combat actions and proper use of the torpedo, aspects of war neglected by the enemy. But given time, the USN could match the training, if not the warrior spirit, of the Imperial Navy. Thus the advantage of our grossly outnumbered ships would be fleeting—I prayed to my ancestors that it would last long enough for Yamamoto to crush the enemy’s main battle line…

In the confused night action at Truk, both American battleships suffered severely. Each took two torpedoes, Washington’s already slow pace dropping to fifteen knots. All three USN cruisers sank before dawn, along with three destroyers. Halsey had little option except to return to Pearl—abandoning the damaged battlewagons to join Kimmel would result in their destruction. Even then, IJN submarine 1-221 managed to penetrate TF 4’s reduced ASW (antisubmarine warfare) screen and sink Washington on December 25.

Admiral Tanaka, his flagship reduced to a hulk by numerous large caliber hits, actually survived the battle, the vessel towed to Truk the following day. The other Japanese cruisers and three destroyers were not as lucky. Tanaka shifted his flag to Amatsukaze, and having effectively stripped two battleships and a carrier from the American fleet, began moving his battered survivors to join Yamamoto off Luzon for the final showdown.

What Damn Carriers?

Task Force 1 reached the vicinity of Wake Island on December 19, shortly after Kimmel received a belated notification of Yorktown’s successful action against the Japanese light carriers. Though Kimmel should have been puzzled by the failure of the IJN to seize the lightly defended islands of Guam and Wake, he apparently wrote the matter off to Yamamoto’s incompetence as a naval commander (perhaps understandably—Kimmel was operating under the delusion that Japan had lost as many as eight carriers). The task force tarried only briefly in the vicinity of Wake, and then only because of a torpedo hit on the old battleship Texas (screening forces sank three IJN submarines in the area, of which only one managed a torpedo attack). The battlewagon’s crew quickly fixed a temporary patch over the gaping hole in its bow, allowing it to remain with the task force when the latter turned for Guam on December 20.

As TF 1 neared Guam, IJN submarine contacts increased. By December 26, when the APDs unloaded their Marines as reinforcements for Guam’s defenders, screening destroyers had defeated over a dozen attacks. Despite four confirmed kills, exhaustion took its toll, and 1-214 at last managed to hit Nevada with four torpedoes before being forced to the surface and rammed by the destroyer Manley. Though valiant damage control efforts saved the battleship from sinking, its propellers and rudder had been smashed. When Kimmel began the last stage of his voyage on December 27, both Nevada and Manley remained at Guam. The APDs also stayed, to screen the damaged battleship.

Brown’s Task Force 2 and Fletcher’s Task Force 3 failed to find a single Japanese vessel in their rush across the Pacific, though Lexington’s air group bombed and strafed the small Japanese airfield on Saipan on December 24 and 25. War Plan Orange had called for the carrier task forces to close with TF 1 on the final leg of its journey, but Kimmel, thinking the threat from enemy naval aircraft had been minimized signaled Brown and Fletcher to unite their task forces on December 29, approximately 300 miles due west of Legaspi airfield on Luzon. They would then proceed, under Fletcher’s command, to the Formosa-Luzon gap, fixing the position of the IJN Combined Fleet for Kimmel’s rapidly approaching TF 1.

Had the carriers united at 0800 December 29, as ordered, a thin chance existed that they could have survived the onslaught that overwhelmed them individually; but Fletcher, on December 28, had again slowed TF 3 for refueling, despite the fact that the Saratoga’s tanks were well over half full. His first indication of a problem came at 0937 on the following day, while still eight full hours south of TF 2. When given a radio message from Lexington that read, “Under attack by large numbers of Japanese carrier planes. Where is TF 3? All the world wonders,” Fletcher could only exclaim, “Carrier planes! What damn carriers can they still have?” At last ordering the task force to full speed, Fletcher revectored his search planes and tried to contact Brown’s force.

The world will never know exactly what happened to TF 2. How did Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo’s “Ghost Fleet,” the six carriers of the Fast Strike Force, manage to surprise Wilson? Why did Nagumo continue to pound the task force after Lexington sank? And why was no effort made to rescue the thousands of survivors abandoned in the shark-infested Pacific waters? What we do know is that a carrier, three cruisers, eight destroyers, and two fast oilers succumbed to eight hours of repeated air attack. The suffering of their crews, until taken by the sharks or succumbing to dehydration, is perhaps better left unimagined.

The death of Saratoga seems almost anticlimactic after the horrors experienced by TF 2. At 1628 on December 29, one of Fletcher’s scouts (before being destroyed) reported four Japanese heavy carriers approximately 250 miles west-northwest of TF 3. Fletcher quickly launched a full strike, retaining only six fighters for CAP. While getting the strike into the air, Saratoga’s CAP killed a Japanese flying boat, but only after it had reported TF 3’s position. Though Nagumo’s fliers were exhausted after destroying TF 2, he nonetheless managed to deploy a small striking force of eight torpedo planes, twelve dive-bombers, and nine fighters (none would find their way home in the gathering darkness). These found Saratoga at 2010, quickly overwhelmed its CAP, and sank the carrier with three torpedo and at least four bomb hits. Fletcher died on his bridge. The remainder of TF 3, crowded with Saratoga’s survivors, made full speed for Guam. As for the American air group, it reported sinking two carriers attempting to hide in a rapidly advancing storm front, then disappeared plane by plane as each exhausted its fuel. Though Nagumo reported 112 of his 497 available planes lost on December 29, he never mentioned a U.S. attack on his force. Ironically, the two carriers reported destroyed by Saratoga’s air group may well have been the oilers attached to TF 2.

Der Tag

In the early hours of December 30, an exhausted Kimmel received word of the loss of Saratoga. With no word from Task Force 2, and every indication that Yamamoto had more carrier strength than originally thought, Kimmel was caught in a dilemma. Task Force 1 was only forty-eight hours from Luzon at top speed, and less than eighty hours from a presumed safe anchorage at Manila. To turn tail at this point would mean not only admitting the failure of War Plan Orange, but would not guarantee a safe return to Pearl for his battle line, which was mainly intact and still outnumbered the Japanese. Standing on the bridge wing of Arizona, accompanied only by his aide, Zumwalt, Kimmel talked aloud as he worked through his options. “First, Yamamoto will be waiting north of Luzon, guarding his convoys. Second he must have expended the last of his naval air today—what’s he got left, Zumwalt? A couple of escort carriers? Third—well, third I’ll be damned if I want to be remembered as a Scheer! You know that story, Ensign? From 1914 to 1916 the German navy waited for ‘DerTag’—’the day,’ when it would challenge the British fleet in one last battle, to victory or to the last ship. But the Germans never really had the advantage, and when Scheer finally had his chance at Jutland he turned and ran. I still have the advantage, Ensign! This is the most powerful battle line afloat, and I just can’t see running away with it.”

So Kimmel, wishing to avoid the condemnation of future naval historians, continued to Manila. Without air cover, however, he decided to use the most direct route to his anchorage— via Surigao Strait. Unfortunately, Kimmel and the remaining ships of TF 1—nine battleships, three cruisers, and seventeen destroyers—already stood among the damned thanks to the American public, a faulty War Plan Orange, and the genius of Yamamoto.

The Gauntlet

On December 30, shortly after being advised of the sinking of the last American carrier supporting Kimmel, Yamamoto ordered Nagumo to slowly scout southward find the USN’s battle fleet, and drive it to Surigao Strait. Nagumo did just that, using December 31 to rest and reorganize his weary but jubilant air groups. At 1143 on January 1, 1942, his scouts discovered the American fleet steaming at best speed for Luzon. Through the rest of the day, amid constantly deteriorating weather conditions, Nagumo managed to launch only two waves of planes against Task Force 1. One of these never found Kimmel’s fleet, and the other sank the cruiser Vincennes and two destroyers, disabled the aft turret on New Mexico, and started severe fires on Oklahoma and Tennessee. As darkness fell, Nagumo moved northwest and counted his losses: an additional seventy-two planes had fallen victim to heavy antiaircraft fire or accident, bringing his two-day losses to 184 of the 497 original aircraft. Secure in the knowledge that the fate of the American battle line now rested in the hands of his brilliant boss, Nagumo sailed for a rendezvous with invasion forces to be aimed at Guam and Wake Island.

With darkness more or less cloaking his battered TF 1 (both Oklahoma and Tennessee still flamed), Kimmel organized his fleet for a rapid advance through the relatively narrow waters of Surigao Strait. Three destroyers picketed his van of cruisers, Chicago and Augusta, followed closely by Idaho, New Mexico, and California. About a thousand yards separated the van from the remaining battleships led by Kimmel in Arizona, and trailed closely by the two burning vessels, shepherded by four destroyers. The remaining two destroyer divisions deployed 1,500 yards to port and starboard of the van. By 0130 on January 2 it appeared that TF 1, including the laggard battlewagons whose exhausted crews were at last getting the best of fires fed by prewar paint and furnishings, had negotiated the confined waters successfully.

Yamamoto had quietly gathered his Combined Fleet of six battleships—commanded by himself from the super-battleship Yamato—eight heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, and forty-two destroyers. Through the storms of January 1, his heavies, screened by a light cruiser and twelve destroyers, steamed back and forth across the west entrance to Surigao Strait. Closer to the entrance, three divisions of ten destroyers, each led by a light cruiser, waited to box the approaching task force. The weather had concerned Yamamoto, despite his commanding position and preponderance of light ships, but the front passed at midnight, and a floatplane launched from the cruiser Tone reported the Americans steaming full tilt through the narrow waters with two burning vessels trailing the main force. At 0148 on January 2, sitting firmly across the American T at a range of only 12,000 yards, Yamamoto flashed the code words, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” This signaled his destroyers, stealthily advancing along the flanks of TF 1, to launch their torpedoes at the enemy. The words of Captain Hara, whose Amatsukaze (still bearing the scars of the action at Truk) was in the division of destroyers some 4,000 yards to port of the American formation, capture the action:

Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! The moonless night and the dark shore to our rear hid us from the enemy as our division alone launched over eighty Long Lances at the enemy line. I targeted the third and fourth battleships in their second echelon. Within seconds, and long before our torpedoes would reach their targets, water spouts began to erupt among the enemy van and second echelon. Hits came quickly, the two burning ships at the rear, Oklahoma and Maryland [actually Tennessee] outlined those vessels in front of them. The Americans appeared to panic, two destroyers colliding in their port division—confusion to which we added with my gun crews’ rapid fire… Then the American battle line disappeared in a wall of water and flame! Apparently the torpedoes from both our port and starboard board divisions arrived at the same time. As the mist and smoke cleared, one American battleship had simply disappeared [West Virginia], a second was turning turtle [Maryland], and a third, minus its bow to the first turret, was surrounded by burning oil and rapidly settling [California].

Later I learned that every American battleship had been struck by at least one torpedo, and quite probably one cruiser and at least five destroyers had also been lost to our opening volley. Then and there I resolved never again to ship aboard a battlewagon. After this, my second night in action, I knew that the Long Lance had ended their day of ruling the waves …

What Hara had viewed as panic was instead the result of two large caliber shells, probably from Haruna, striking the bridge and flag bridge of Arizona. Every man on the bridge died immediately, and the flagship, helm untended, began a gentle turn to starboard. Though control of the rudder was restored in minutes, the damage had been done. The remaining vessels of the second echelon, as well as the destroyer division to port, apparently became confused as they tried to follow the unannounced maneuver.

Worse for TF 1, the salvo had mortally wounded Kimmel, who died within seconds, apparently after whispering his last commands to Ensign Zumwalt. Then, for the first time in history, an ensign took command of a modern battleship in combat. As flames raged through the superstructure of Arizona, Zumwalt, severely wounded himself, ordered a petty officer to send a message to the fleet ordering independent advance to Manila at best speed. Afterward, he made his way, with two ratings, to the bridge. Discovering both wheel and intership communications intact, Zumwalt took control of the battleship, conning it through Yamamoto’s line and to Manila Bay while in constant danger of being roasted alive or falling unconscious from loss of vital fluids. Nor did Arizona flee without drawing Japanese blood; its surviving guns turned the cruiser Yubari into a sinking mass of scrap, and Zumwalt actually managed to ram the destroyer Shirakumo, cutting it completely in half as Arizona escaped Yamamoto’s trap.

Along with the flagship of TF 1, two destroyers and a miraculously undamaged Augusta escaped. Texas, closely following Arizona, also penetrated the Japanese battle line, but capsized an hour later when the patch that its crew had hastily installed off Wake Island gave way and added tons of water to what it had already taken on from two additional torpedo hits. If not for the heroic efforts of the van battleships, Idaho and New Mexico, none of these vessels would have escaped. With Idaho’s speed reduced to half by flooded boilers, Capt. Mark Smith turned his ship to parallel Yamamoto’s battlewagons rather than attempt an escape. Capt. Edward Coombs in New Mexico, despite a fourteen degree list that prevented his remaining primary guns from firing, followed. For a vital half hour the two vessels absorbed the fire of six Japanese battleships and their screen, while Smith pounded battleship Mutsu and Coombs’s secondaries lashed at any enemy vessel in range. As Mutsu drifted out of control, sinking (the only Japanese capital ship lost in the action), New Mexico finally succumbed to its earlier torpedo hits and rolled onto its side at 0222. Less than a minute later, a shell from Yamato apparently penetrated the aft magazine of Idaho. It broke into two sections and sank in minutes.

In the rear of TF 1, Oklahoma and Tennessee had never recovered from the damage inflicted the previous day by Nagumo’s air strikes. With several magazines voluntarily flooded on January 1, numerous secondary casemates ravaged by fire, and additional flooding from the opening barrage of Japanese Long Lances, the battleships attempted to disengage to the west. After destroying the American van, Yamamoto pursued. By 0430 both battleships and their escorts had succumbed to a barrage of torpedoes and large caliber shells.

Dawn found the waters of Surigao Strait smothered with the detritus of battle;—oil, lingering smoke, odd bits of wreckage, and sailors both living and dead. His victory won, Yamamoto counted his losses—one battleship, one cruiser, and fourteen destroyers—and then continued the war. The Japanese made only minimal efforts to rescue American survivors, though hundreds managed to drift ashore over the next four days. Most were immediately taken prisoner by the enemy, less than a hundred reaching the steadily diminishing territory controlled by MacArthur’s now demoralized army.

For the four surviving vessels of TF 1, Manila failed to provide the anticipated refuge. Their trial by fire continued. On January 4 a massive raid by Japanese land-based bombers resulted in a magazine explosion on Arizona. Sheathed in fire, it rapidly settled in the shallow mud of the harbor. The following day, both destroyers fell prey to torpedo bombers. Somehow, Augusta again managed to survive the carnage unscathed only to be scuttled by its crew on January 6, the day MacArthur finally abandoned the port.

A Day That Will Live in Infamy

On January 7, 1942, President Roosevelt authorized the release of information pertaining to the defeat of the American fleet in the Philippines. Panic swept through the United States, a nation that had never experienced sudden defeat on such a scale. Thousands of American families wept for the fathers and sons feared lost to enemy action. Newspapers fed panic and fear with rumors of Japanese fleets off the Hawaiian Islands and the Pacific coast. Radio commentators listed the few vessels remaining in the Pacific Fleet between their reports on Axis successes in Europe. And in Washington, Roosevelt and his advisors wrestled with one of the most difficult decisions ever faced by an American government.

They recognized that it would take months, if not years, to replace America’s matériel losses. Even then, the loss of naval cadre would lead to difficulties in training recruits to man the new ships. In addition, in prewar discussions with Great Britain, Roosevelt had already committed the United States to a “Germany First” strategy. Moral issues (and many existed) aside, fascist domination of Europe would hamstring the American economy, only just recovering from the Great Depression. The Philippines and U.S. islands near Japan could not be defended without a strong navy, nor could the United States provide adequate aid to the struggling British Commonwealth in the Pacific Theater without ships. Could Japan successfully invade Hawaii? Probably. Could it invade the West Coast of the United States with Hawaii secured as a fleet base? Probably not—but the UN could eradicate American shipping in the Pacific, shipping that provided raw materials to much of U.S. industry. On the other hand, could Great Britain survive Germany’s U-boats without the assistance of American shipping and the U.S. Navy? Possibly not. Would the American people fight? Could they rally from the fear and panic sweeping the nation? Absolutely! Ultimately, Roosevelt was left with one key question: Could the United States successfully lead the effort to free Europe from Axis domination while simultaneously fighting a war against Japan, a war that threatened American shores, a naval war that would drain men, matériel, and national wealth at an abominable rate?

On January 12, 1942, after a final meeting with representatives of the British government, an exhausted President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to seek a cease-fire and, in conjunction with British representatives in the Far East, open negotiations with the Japanese government. One month later, in words now immortal, he addressed the American people: “On February 12, 1942, a day that will live in infamy, General Douglas MacArthur and representatives of our European allies signed an armistice with Japan aboard the Nevada at Guam. This peace is necessary so that we may lead the struggle against fascism in Europe; but we shall never forget Surigao!”

War Plan Orange had failed. Japan claimed the Philippines as prize, though it allowed the United States to retain Guam and Wake Island (both demilitarized). Great Britain reluctantly agreed to a phased withdrawal from the Far East in exchange for trade concessions with India and guarantees that Australia and New Zealand would not suffer invasion. By the waning days of 1942, Japan managed to establish its Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, stretching from the Gilbert Islands to Indonesia, India, and China. With the collapse of Germany in early 1945, the world quickly polarized—Japan and its puppets arrayed against the rest of the world, led by the United States, Great Britain, and their uncomfortable communist bedfellow, the USSR. Winston Churchill’s 1947 speech, in which he referred to a “Bamboo curtain descending across Asia and the Pacific,” is generally taken to mark the beginning of the brief East-West Cold War that culminated in the wave of internal revolutions led by such heroes as Mao, Gandhi, and Ho, and in the misnamed Sixty Minute War of 1953. But that, as the storyteller invariably says, is another story.

The Reality

It is difficult to imagine any simple set of circumstances that would have allowed Japan to win any form of victory in World War II. Even Yamamoto, its premier naval strategist, knew that the industrial might of the United States must prevail in the long run. For Yamamoto, Pearl Harbor seemed the best chance in a very desperate scenario. And Pearl Harbor was little more than a bee sting on the foot of a sleeping giant, awakening both an industrial power and personal commitments to victory among Americans that eventually doomed Japan while allowing the United States to support their allies in the destruction of European fascism.

Only military rashness of an improbable nature could have offered Japan an opportunity of victory. To tie that rashness to U.S. politics seems more than reasonable in a nation where civilian guidance governs the ultimate deployment and strategy of its military forces (too often to the detriment of young, underpaid, and frequently unappreciated American servicemen). Everything following Roosevelt’s decision to implement a long-abandoned and seriously flawed version of War Plan Orange is, of course, fiction. In reality, the United States closely followed its prewar plan of a gradual erosion of Japanese power, which would have culminated in the invasion of the home islands had not the atomic bomb interfered. Fortunately, the discovery of the true industrial potential of the United States accelerated the course of the Pacific War—matériel was available to maintain Europe as first priority while still overwhelming Japan with ships, planes, and bombs.

A final idea (critical to this hypothetical victory) that must be addressed is the concept of civilian morale, or the “national will” to continue a struggle. War has definite learning curves associated with it. We are familiar with those present on the field of battle; the techniques, for example, that once learned, enhance individual survival. But civilians far removed from the field of battle seem to have a learning curve as well, a process of gradual inurement to increasingly long casualty lists as well as to individual material sacrifice. In reality, Pearl Harbor was a small shock that began a process of acclimatization to war. Without small shocks to prepare them for greater losses, could the American will to resist have been temporarily weakened by the horrific losses postulated in this alternative line of history? Quite possibly; at least, that will could have been weakened enough to accept a rapidly negotiated peace—which in the end was Japan’s only real hope for victory in the Pacific.

 

PRELUDE TO OKINAWA

Following the second Tokyo strike, Task Force 58 arrived 75 miles southeast of Okinawa on March 1 1945. The next month of operations would see the fast carriers strike this island, which was the final invasion target ahead of the invasion of the Home Islands, as well as making further strikes against Kyushu to cut off the defenders of Okinawa from support.

Essex launched her major morning strike at 0715 hours, led by new CAG Commander Upham at the head of 16 Avengers from Torpedo-4, 15 Hellcats from Fighting-4 and 16 Marine Corsairs led by Major Fay V. Domke and Captain Edmond P. Hartsock; their target was Naha Airfield on the west coast of the island. Over the target, Corsairs strafed antiaircraft positions to silence the defenses, followed by the Navy Hellcats. The Avengers made their glide-bombing attacks while the fighters returned for repeated strafing runs.

Essex sent a second strike against Naha with VMF-213’s Major Marshall leading 16 Corsairs, eight Hellcats and 15 Avengers. This attack was hindered by adverse cloud conditions. VF-4’s Lt(jg) Doug Cahoon was hit by flak; his Hellcat exploded on impact. The tail of the Avenger flown by Lt(jg) Scott Vogt was blown off by flak just as he dropped his bombs. As the bomber crashed on the airfield, one parachute was seen to open.

Air Group 4 pulled off from the attack and trapped back aboard to complete the last combat mission of their deployment successfully.

The Fifth Fleet retired to Ulithi at the conclusion of the Okinawa strikes, arriving at the fleet anchorage on March 4. While at Ulithi, Air Group 4 departed Essex and the ship welcomed Air Group 84, the last air group to serve aboard during the war. The Marines of VMF-124 and VMF-213 had shot down 23 enemy aircraft and destroyed 64 on the ground in two months of operation. Essex’s new fighter-bomber squadron, VBF-84, inherited the Marine Corsairs. The two Marine Corsair squadrons aboard Wasp also departed, with VBF-86 assuming title to their Corsairs.

Thirty-two of 54 pilots in VBF-84 were former SB2C pilots put out of a job when VB-84 and its Helldivers was disbanded at the end of 1944.

Intrepid returned to the western Pacific after repair for the damage suffered the previous November carrying Air Group 10, the only other naval air group besides Air Group 9 to fly three tours, and the only one to fly all three tours in the Pacific. Fighting-Ten had first flown F4F Wildcats off Enterprise and at Guadalcanal in the fall of 1942, when they were led by the legendary Jimmy Flatley. They had transferred to Hellcats on return from Guadalcanal and returned to Enterprise in time to participate in the fast carrier offensive that concluded with the Marianas Turkey Shoot. Now flying the F4U-1D Corsair, they were the only Navy squadron to fly Wildcats, Hellcats and Corsairs in combat. VBF-10 was the first fighter-bomber unit to take the new 11.75-inch “tiny Tim” rocket into combat. The pilots of both squadrons were also the first to utilize G-suits since VF-8 had pioneered that equipment a year previously.

Air Group 5 also returned for a second tour, now aboard Franklin (CV-13). VF-5, VMF-214 and VMF-452 all flew Corsairs. Hancock’s new VBF-6 was also equipped with Corsairs. In all, there were now seven Navy and six Marine squadrons flying the Corsair, a remarkable turnaround in less than four months.

The fleet now prepared for participation in the looming invasion of Okinawa, set for the end of the month. Admiral Mitscher warned his captains that they could expect the largest and most sustained kamikaze attacks experienced so far, since intelligence believed the Japanese had at least 1,000 planes in Kyushu for use in such attacks. The fleet’s first mission would be to neutralize that threat as much as possible with a series of air strikes on Kyushu, the southernmost of the Home Islands.

Mitscher’s warning was prophetic. As he and his commanders met aboard Bunker Hill, Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, now commander of the Fifth Air Fleet, bid farewell to the volunteer flight crews who were preparing to depart on a long-distance, one-way mission to attack the American fleet anchorage at Ulithi, 800 miles southeast. Ugaki, formerly chief of staff to the legendary Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and later commander of the Center Force battleships at Leyte Gulf, had come to see the deployment of Operation Tan, a preemptive strike against Mitscher’s fast carriers.

Twenty-four P1Y1 Frances attack bombers were launched that morning. Bad weather and mechanical problems along the way reduced their number to a handful, but one Frances swept into the lagoon just after sunset. The pilot spotted Randolph, which was loading ammunition under spotlights. The call to General Quarters came just before the bomber crashed into her flight deck aft, destroying 14 aircraft and setting her ablaze. Three hours later the fires were out, but Randolph would not be part of Task Force 58 when the fleet sortied three days later.

Unbeknown to American intelligence, there were more than kamikazes waiting for them on Kyushu. The Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force was ready to deploy its newest and best fighter, flown by a unit that had among its members the best pilots the service had left. The 343rd Naval Air Group had been organized only weeks earlier by Captain Minoru Genda, perhaps Japan’s most outstanding naval aviator and one of the best Japanese naval officers of the war; he had been chosen by Admiral Yamamoto to plan the Pearl Harbor attack. With his reputation, Genda had been able to get nearly every surviving IJNAF ace assigned to the unit, including Saburo Sakai. Because of these pilots, the unit was known as “the Squadron of Experts.” They were the only unit to be completely equipped with the Kawasaki N1K2-J Shiden-Kai, a new development of the fighter American naval aviators had first met over Guam during the invasion of the Marianas and named “George.”

The N1K1-J Shiden the Americans fought over the Marianas was a land-based development of the most powerful Japanese floatplane fighter ever designed, the N1K1 Kyofu. By the time that airplane had reached production status, the nature of the war had changed so much that there was no use for it. The N1K1-J had a very similar airframe to the earlier fighter, with long stalky landing gear owing to the position of the wing.

Finally introduced into combat in the summer of 1944 following a prolonged gestation, the Shiden quickly proved itself an outstanding fighter, remaining a potent adversary to the end of the war. However, it had several shortcomings, the primary problem being the unreliability of the Homare 21 engine, Additionally, the wheel brakes were so poor that pilots often landed on the grass next to a paved runway in order to reduce the landing roll without brakes. While American Navy pilots had encountered only a few N1K1 fighters in the Marianas and the Philippines, the opinion among those who had run into it was that when there was a competent pilot in the cockpit, the George was a dangerous adversary.

The effort to put right the shortcomings of the original design led to the N1K2-J Shiden-Kai (Kai: first modification), with a nearly completely redesigned airframe. The wing position was changed from mid to low, and all 20mm cannon were housed within the wing rather than the underwing fairing, as was the outer weapon of the earlier design. Effort was also put into simplifying the airframe for ease of production; the N1J-2-J had only 43,000 parts compared with 66,000 for the N1K1-J. While the Homare 21 engine was modified, it proved no more reliable in the N1K2-J, however, and continued to create problems for pilots and maintenance crews. Excellent results were found when the prototype N1K2-J first flew on December 31, 1943. While full-scale production was set to begin in the summer of 1944, the prototypes experienced prolonged development troubles that required changes, which inexorably slowed production. Further delays came in delivery of engines, landing gear assemblies, aluminum extrusions and steel forgings as a result of the B-29 strategic bombing campaign, which came into its own in November 1944. Only 60 N1K2-Js were produced in 1944, with only 294 in 1945 by the end of the war. The “Squadron of Experts” were mounted in an airplane that equaled their enemies’, but like their German counterparts flying the Me-262 in the JV-44 “Squadron of Experts,” they would be “too little, too late.”

While Task Force 58 headed toward Japan, Hamilton McWhorter experienced the most terrifying minutes of his career as a fighter pilot.

With the Randolph having taken a kamikaze hit, while she was undergoing repairs, the squadron went ashore and was stationed at the Marine airbase on Falalop Island. We were sent out on a strike mission on Yap Island about 90 miles to the west. There was no aerial opposition, but the flak was still very intense. Just as I was recovering from a strafing run on a heavy antiaircraft gun position, I took a huge hit. I looked out and the right wing was on fire – the flames were going back past the tail! I unstrapped and opened the canopy to bale out, because I was sure the wing was going to come off immediately. Fortunately, common sense overcame the panic of the moment and I stayed with the airplane long enough to get out over the ocean, and then the fire burned itself out. I stayed unstrapped and kept the cockpit canopy open all the way back to Falalop, for fear the wing would still come off. When I got back and they checked the airplane, it turned out a flak round had hit in the right wing gunbay and set the gun charging hydraulic fluid on fire, popping all the ammo. On the terror scale of 1–10, that was about a 25.

The Fifth Fleet began its run-in to Kyushu the night of March 17. A scouting line of 12 destroyers positioned 30 miles ahead of the fleet split into two radar patrol groups to provide early warning of incoming attacks at dawn on March 18, one 30 miles west and the other 30 miles north of the launch point. Each group was covered by a CAP of eight fighters under the control of fighter direction officers aboard the destroyers. When an attack was spotted, the CAP was reinforced to 16 fighters. The first bogey appeared on the radar screens at 2145 hours on March 17; from that point the fleet was continually shadowed, though Enterprise night fighters shot down two. The destroyers also attacked two submarine contacts.

Task Force 58 was 100 miles east of the southern tip of Kyushu at 0545 hours on March 18 when the first fighter sweep was launched, composed of 32 Hellcats and Corsairs from each of the four task groups. The sweep was followed 45 minutes later by 60 Avengers and Helldivers escorted by 40 fighters from the four groups.

The Japanese were forewarned of the impending American attack and relocated many aircraft away from coastal airfields. In response, the afternoon strike targets were changed to locations further inland that were originally listed for attack on March 19. The afternoon missions made claims of 102 enemy aircraft shot down and 275 destroyed or damaged on the ground.

The Jolly Rogers of VF-17 had returned to combat when they came aboard Hornet at the end of January, mounted for this tour in the F6F-5 Hellcat, rather than the Corsairs they had flown the year before. Squadron commander LCDR Marshall U. Beebe, who had narrowly escaped death as commander of composite squadron VC-39 aboard the ill-fated CVE Liscombe Bay when the carrier was sunk during the Gilberts campaign, led the squadron on a sweep of Kanoya Airfield with his wingman, Lieutenant Robert C. Coats. The squadron repeatedly ran across Japanese fighter formations in the airfield vicinity, claiming a total of 32 victories. Beebe and Coats both returned to the carrier with “ace in a day” claims of five each.

Essex’s VBF-83 was the most successful Corsair squadron on March 18. In fighting over Tomioka Airfield, the Corsairs bagged 17 Zekes and a Judy, with a further nine probables. Major Hansen led four divisions of VMF-112 who ran into 20 Zekes as they headed toward Kanoya East Airfield at 19,000 feet. Five enemy fighters were shot down in the Marines’ first pass, with four more in the second. The Corsairs returned to Bennington to find none had been damaged in the fight.

Enemy attacks on the fleet were slight in terms of the number of aircraft involved, but the attacks were carried out in an aggressive and determined manner. With cloudy skies, single enemy aircraft used the cover to dodge the combat air patrols and make attacks on the fleet. While many such attackers were shot down, Yorktown and Enterprise were hit by bombs, while the recently-returned Intrepid experienced a near miss by a twin-engine plane shot down by gunfire. Yorktown’s damage was minor and the bomb that hit Enterprise failed to explode; thus all carriers continued flight operations. The problem was that little, if any, warning was being provided by radars; at times the first indication a ship was under attack was visual sighting by the close screen, with the picket destroyers providing invaluable warning with their visual sightings. The task group combat air patrols shot down a total of 12 aircraft, while shipboard antiaircraft fire got 21.

A photo reconnaissance mission flown by an F6F-5P from Bunker Hill found a large number of major Imperial Navy ships in Inland Sea harbors. Admiral Mitscher decided to attack the ships at Kure Naval Base and Kobe Harbor on March 19, while fighter sweeps flown against airfields on Shikoku and western Honshu would precede and follow the strikes to defend the fleet against attack.

A search flown by VT9N)-90 Avengers over the night of March 18–19 reported the possibility of a battleship and carrier leaving the Kure Channel, but a subsequent predawn search failed to find any ships. The first fighter sweep was launched at 0525 hours, followed an hour later by the strikes. They were about to run into an unexpected enemy.

Major Tom Mobley led 16 VMF-123 Corsairs on a dawn sweep of Kure and Hiroshima. Hearing pilots of VBF-10 calling for help, Mobley started to turn his formation when they were hit by 30 N1K2-J Shiden-Kai fighters flown by Genda’s “Squadron of Experts.” Two F4Us were shot out of the formation immediately. These Japanese pilots were vastly different from the sorry lot the Bennington Corsairs had clobbered the day before, flying two and four-plane units, using disciplined tactics and shooting accurately. The unfortunate Marines had just run into the best Japanese Navy pilots left. Outnumbered two to one, the Marines fought for their lives. Mobley shot down one enemy fighter, then took 20mm hits from a well-flown Shiden-Kai and had to pull out of the fight. He turned over command to Captain William A. Cantrel, a Solomons veteran who had shot at one Zeke over “The Slot” and missed. In two minutes over the Inland Sea, he shot down two Shidens. With his Corsair damaged and wounded in his foot, Cantrel organized a withdrawal. Eight of the Corsairs were badly shot up. During a 30-minute running fight, the aggressive Japanese hunted down cripples. Cantrel managed to hit two as he protected his charges. Finally out at sea and away from the Japanese, one Corsair gave out and the pilot parachuted near a picket destroyer. Back aboard Bennington, three of the surviving Corsairs were so badly damaged they were immediately pushed overboard. The Marines had lost six F4Us and two pilots, while they claimed nine shot down. Cantrel was awarded the Navy Cross for his leadership.

Among the 343rd pilots encountered by the Marines was Lieutenant Naoshi Kanno, who was the top-scoring Naval Academy graduate of the Pacific War. Based at Yap, Kanno first saw combat over the Marianas in June 1944, flying the N1K1-J Shiden with the original 343rd Air Group, and was credited with 30 victories that summer. While at Yap, he used the head-on attack to shoot down several Seventh Air Force B-24 Liberators. When Genda reorganized the 343rd, Kanno was named commander of the 301st Hikotai, which was the unit that initially took on the VMF-123 Corsairs during the battle of March 19. Kanno was one of the 13 unit members shot down when he was hit by a VBF-10 Corsair that came to the Marines’ rescue, though he was able to parachute safely. Kanno was credited with 13 more victories before he was killed attacking B-24s over Yaku Island on August 1,1945.

Under his command, the 301st had the highest casualties of any 343rd squadron, though it was also the top-scoring squadron.

The 343rd had received early warning of the approach of the American formations when the US planes were spotted by a C6N Myrt that managed to get the word back before it was shot down. All three squadrons took off from Kanoya Airfield. The Shidens of the 407th Hikotai were the first to encounter Americans when they came across VBF-17 Hellcats. Three aircraft were lost on both sides in the initial attack; one Hellcat and two Shidens were shot down by enemy ground fire, two fighters collided in mid-air, and one Hellcat later crashed while trying to land back aboard Hornet. In the end, the 407th Hikotai lost six fighters while shooting down eight VBF-17 Hellcats.

The Japanese had originally mistaken the VMF-123 Corsairs for Hellcats. Of the nine victories claimed by the Marines, not one was actually shot down. Kanno’s Hikotai then ran across the VBF-10 Corsairs. Two F4Us were separated and shot down, while the Americans claimed four N1K2s before they managed to escape. Hellcats of Fighting-9 shot down two Shidens when they attempted to land low on fuel. In the fighting, the 343rd Air Group claimed 52 victories, while the Americans claimed 63. Actual losses were 15 Shidens and 13 pilots, the Myrt with its three-man crew, and nine other fighters from other units. American losses were heavy: 14 fighters were shot down and seven pilots lost, in addition to 11 other aircraft shot down by the heavy flak over Kure. The difference was that the Americans would make good their losses in a week, while the 343rd did not regain full strength for six crucial weeks.

Avengers and Helldivers from Task Groups 58.3 and 58.1 concentrated on the warships at Kure, while those from Task Group 58.4 went after the ships that had been spotted at Kobe, and Task Group 58.2’s bombers concentrated on targets and installations in the Kure Naval Air Depot area. These attacks were only moderately successful, primarily owing to the extremely heavy and accurate AA fire encountered, with one group alone losing 13 aircraft over Kure. At Kure, slight damage was inflicted on the battleship Yamato, several hits were scored on the hermaphrodite battleship aircraft carrier Ise, while slight damage was inflicted on two aircraft carriers. Heavy cruiser Tone, which had last been encountered at the battle off Samar in October 1944, was set afire. The light cruiser Oyodo was severely damaged and last seen burning badly. At Kobe, what was identified as an escort carrier was hit by three 500lb bombs, and a submarine was slightly damaged.

Just after dawn on March 19, Task Group 58.2 was steaming 20 miles north of the other task groups, 50 miles off the coast of Kyushu, closer than any other unit of the fleet. Both carriers in the group had launched strikes shortly before dawn, with Franklin launching a fighter sweep to Kobe, followed 30 minutes later by a strike force of Avengers escorted by Corsairs to hit the ships in the harbor. Thirty-one Corsairs and Avengers, fully fueled and armed, were warming up on the flight deck for the next launch. The crew had been called to General Quarters 12 times in six hours over the preceding night and were already exhausted. The alert status was downgraded to Condition III by Captain Leslie E. Gehres, whose strict discipline and autocracy was disliked by many crewmen. This allowed the crew freedom to leave their GQ station to eat or sleep, while all gun crews remained at their stations. There was building cumulus in all quadrants, with 7/10 cloud layer at 2,500 feet.

At the ship’s most vulnerable moment, a D4Y Judy dive bomber suddenly popped out of the clouds directly overhead. It made a low-level run, dropping what were later identified as two 250kg bombs. The first hit the centerline of the flight deck and exploded after penetrating to the hangar deck. Sixteen of the aircraft in the hangar were fully fueled while five were partially fueled. They went up like bombs when the fire spread. Soon their guns began going off as the fire touched their ammunition. The hangar deck was devastated by the explosion of gasoline vapor. The fire spread through open hatches that allowed it to spread to the second and third decks, while the aircraft explosions shredded the flight deck overhead. It quickly spread to the Combat Information Center and Air Plot, which were knocked out. There were only two survivors of the near-instantaneous destruction.

The hangar deck explosions knocked the aircraft on the flight deck together, which caused further fires and explosions. One of the 12 “Tiny Tim” 11.75-inch air-to-surface rockets that were ignited, launched and struck a glancing blow to the island before it hit other aircraft. Franklin’s executive officer, Commander Joe Taylor, remembered that, “Each time one went off, the firefighting crews forward would instinctively hit the deck. I wish there was some way to record the name of every one of these men. Their heroism was the greatest thing I have ever seen.”

The second bomb hit aft, tearing through two decks before it exploded. Unfortunately, though the forward aviation gasoline system had been secured, aviation gas was still flowing in the aft lines. This explosion fanned the below-decks fires, triggering ammunition, bombs and rockets. Power throughout the ship was lost within minutes. The captain’s order to flood the magazines could not be carried out because the water mains had been destroyed in the explosions and fires. All shipboard communications were lost. The carrier drifted helplessly within sight of Kyushu as she took on a 13-degree starboard list.

Just before TG 58.2 commander Rear Admiral Ralph Davison left Franklin by breeches buoy to transfer his flag to Miller (DD-535), he suggested to Captain Gehres that he order the ship abandoned. Thinking of the many men still alive below decks whose escape was prevented by the fire, Gehres refused. Many had already been wounded or killed within minutes of the explosion, while others were blown overboard or forced to jump because of the fires. Surgeon LCDR George W. Fox, MD, was killed while tending the wounded and was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross. On hearing Gehres’ announcement that he was going to fight the fire, 106 officers and 604 enlisted men volunteered to stay and fight the fires with him.

Moments after the first attack, another Judy dived on Wasp. The defending gunners shot it down, though its bomb fell free and penetrated the flight deck before it exploded between the second and third decks. Fortunately, damage-control parties were able to put out the fire quickly and, within an hour, Wasp was able to resume flight operations, despite her top speed being reduced to 28 knots when a boiler room flooded and lost power.

Task Force 58 was attacked throughout the day as the enemy sent both conventional and kamikaze attacks against the fleet. Intrepid crewman Ray Stone later wrote in his diary that “the Japanese response to our raids was intense and fanatical.”

Shortly after 0800 hours, lookouts on Intrepid spotted a large twin-engine bomber low over the water and headed for the ship. 40mm battery commander Lieutenant William Lindenberger ordered his guns to open fire when the attacker was 6,000 yards distant and headed right at him. He described what happened next in his diary:

Our 5in [guns] let him have it, but he kept coming. My 40mm plus 2 two others got the range on him and set him afire at about 3000 yds. He kept coming. At 2000 yds, I saw my tracers going into him consistently, he was burning from wing tip to wingtip but he kept coming. I thought he was going to crash into us at my gun but just before he hit his right wing dipped and he paralleled the ship at 100 to 150 fleet. There was an explosion – water started raining down on us and then a thick smoke appeared. My gunner was as steady as a watchmaker during the run but afterward he shook like a leaf.

The attacker had been deflected at the last moment by the carrier’s massed antiaircraft fire. Burning debris spewed over the starboard side of the ship, damaging aircraft and starting fires on the hangar deck when it hit the water and exploded. A stray 5-inch round from Atlanta (CL-104) killed one and wounded 44 others when it hit Intrepid by mistake. The ship was fortunate that overall damage was minor with light casualties, but a shock was sent through the crew by the event that came so soon after their return to combat.

One of the heroes of the fight to save Franklin was LCDR Joseph T. O’Callahan, S.J., the ship’s Catholic chaplain. Before the war, Callahan was a Jesuit professor of mathematics and physics at Trinity College. He had reported aboard only 17 days earlier. Despite being wounded in one of the explosions, Chaplain Callahan moved through the carnage on the flight deck and administered last rites; a photograph of him engaged in this work is considered one of the iconic photos of the Pacific War. Once he was through with his religious work, he organized and directed firefighting and rescue parties. As if that were not enough, he led men below to the magazines where they retrieved hot shells and bombs that threatened to explode, bringing them to the flight deck where they were thrown overboard.

Engineering officer Lt(jg) Donald A. Gary was another of the men whose efforts were crucial in the fight. A former enlisted machinist’s mate commissioned a year previously, Gary discovered 300 men who were trapped in a blackened mess compartment filled with smoke. With no obvious way out, the men were increasingly panic-stricken from the incessant explosions. Lieutenant Gary took command and promised them they would escape. He left and groped his way through the dark, debris-filled corridors, ultimately discovering an escape route. Returning three times to the mess compartment despite menacing flames, flooding water and the possibility of additional explosions, he led men out in groups until the last was safe. That task completed, he organized fire-fighting parties to battle the hangar deck fires. He then managed to enter Fireroom No. 3, where he was able to raise steam in one boiler and restore partial power.

Chaplain O’Callahan became the only man in World War II publicly to refuse the award of the Navy Cross, on the grounds he had done only what was expected. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in February 1946 after the personal intervention of President Harry Truman, the only Navy chaplain so honored during the war. His citation reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as chaplain on board the USS Franklin when that vessel was fiercely attacked by enemy Japanese aircraft during offensive operations near Kobe, Japan, on March 19, 1945. A valiant and forceful leader, calmly braving the perilous barriers of flame and twisted metal to aid his men and his ship, Lt Comdr O’Callahan groped his way through smoke-filled corridors to the open flight deck and into the midst of violently exploding bombs, shells, rockets, and other armament. With the ship rocked by incessant explosions, with debris and fragments raining down and fires raging in ever-increasing fury, he ministered to the wounded and dying, comforting and encouraging men of all faiths; he organized and led firefighting crews into the blazing inferno on the flight deck; he directed the jettisoning of live ammunition and the flooding of the magazine; he manned a hose to cool hot, armed bombs rolling dangerously on the listing deck, continuing his efforts, despite searing, suffocating smoke which forced men to fall back gasping and imperiled others who replaced them. Serving with courage, fortitude, and deep spiritual strength, Lt Cmdr O’Callahan inspired the gallant officers and men of the Franklin to fight heroically and with profound faith in the face of almost certain death and to return their stricken ship to port.

Donald A. Gary was also awarded the Medal of Honor in the same ceremony with Chaplain O’Callahan. The guided missile frigate Gary (FFG-51) was named in his honor in 1983.

Men jumped into the sea to get away from the fires and the light cruiser Santa Fe moved in close to rescue them, then approached Franklin to take off wounded and nonessential personnel. As the cruiser came alongside to fight the fires, Franklin rolled toward her, battering her superstructure with the carrier’s imposing flight deck overhang. As the carrier went dead in the water, Captain Harold C. Fritz kept Santa Fe close alongside. Wave action clapped the two together, with the rending sound of gun sponsons crushing and antennas snapping. Aboard the destroyer Hunt (DD-674) 1,000 yards off Franklin’s beam, a signalman monitoring the carrier with his 40-power telescope was witness to a hangar deck explosion so violent it shattered parked planes and sent their engines flying through the hangar. A large group of sailors near the bow were forced back by the flames and fell off the bow “like a huge herd of cattle being shoved over a cliff,” the sailor later reported.

Survivors climbed across radio antennas from the carrier to Santa Fe and slid down lines from the flight deck to the cruiser’s forecastle.

Commander Thomas H. Morton, gunnery officer of the battleship North Carolina (BB-55) was a witness to the ship’s desperate fight for survival as the battleship maintained formation behind the burning carrier. “The Franklin was a huge mass of explosions, flames, and a tremendous column of smoke. There must have been hundreds of her crew in the water. Some had jumped, some had been blown over, and some were badly injured.”

With the fires aboard Franklin finally brought under control in the late afternoon, Pittsburgh (CA-72) moved in and a towline was rigged. Franklin’s rudder was jammed hard to starboard, which limited the towing speed to five knots. The task group moved protectively around the stricken carrier, while the other task groups launched fighter sweeps against airfields on Kyushu to disorganize any attack as the fleet withdrew slowly south. That evening an attack by eight aircraft was intercepted 80 miles out by VF(N)-90 Hellcats from Enterprise and five aircraft were shot down.

Franklin and Task Group 58.2 were 40 miles to the north of Task Force 58 at dawn on March 20, 160 miles from the nearest enemy base. Japanese snoopers finally made their appearance at 1630 hours when 15 enemy aircraft came in low and very fast as they went after the ships, splitting up for individual attacks. Wasp’s fighters shot down seven, while seven others were shot down by shipboard gunfire.

Two Judys attacked Enterprise about 1730 hours in separate attacks. The near misses caused no serious damage. Moments after the second near miss, however, two 5-inch shells fired by another ship in the formation slammed into the 40mm gun tubs forward of the bridge, killing seven and wounding 30. Spreading fires set off 20mm and 40mm shells and threatened the fueled and armed planes on the hangar deck, where eight were destroyed. Damage-control parties fought the fire for 20 minutes, at which point she came under attack a third time with another near miss off the port quarter; 15 minutes later the fires were out for good.

By the end of the day, Franklin’s repair parties had managed to unjam the rudder and work up speed to 15 knots under her own power. More snoopers appeared at sunset, however. The night fighters were unable to intercept them owing to the snoopers engaging in radical maneuvers and use of window to jam radars. At about 2300 hours, an unsuccessful eight-plane torpedo attack was made on Task Groups 58.3 and 58.1, while shadowing aircraft continued to report the fleet’s position during the night.

The next day, a large bogey was detected by radar at 1400 hours, 100 miles northwest of the fleet. Reinforcements were quickly launched and 150 fighters were soon airborne over the fleet. Thirty-two Bettys and 16 Zekes were intercepted by 24 fighters from Task Group 58.1, 50 miles distant. All were shot down for the loss of two American planes. Task Force 58 had dodged a dangerous attack; the Bettys were each carrying a small plane under their fuselage. This was the combat debut of the Thunder Corps.

Franklin was able to proceed under her own power to Pearl Harbor, where she was cleaned up and repaired sufficiently to permit her to sail under her own power through the Panama Canal and on to New York City in an epic journey of 12,000 miles. She entered the Brooklyn Navy Yard on April 28. After the end of the war, Franklin was opened to the public for Navy Day celebrations so that civilians could see first hand what the Navy had faced in the last nine and a half months of war. Film footage of Franklin’s ordeal was later woven into the 1949 feature film Task Force, with Gary Cooper in the role of Captain Gehrens.

In addition to the 807 dead, there were 487 wounded. Franklin had suffered the greatest loss of life on any Navy ship in the war after Arizona at Pearl Harbor. She survived the most severe damage experienced by any US Navy fleet carrier that did not sink. Wasp had suffered an additional 200 casualties from the attack that damaged her.

For the first time in its year-long existence, Task Force 58 had fared poorly in a sea battle. As the fleet shielded the cripples, Admiral Spruance withdrew from Japanese home waters. The invasion of Okinawa was now less than ten days away and Admiral Mitscher sensed the task force faced an intense fight.

Task Force 58 arrived off Okinawa on March 23, 1945. The final great battle of the Pacific War was about to begin.

1941 – The Japanese Southern Road

As the oilfields of Borneo – and two weeks later, the oil fields of Sumatra – would fulfill a strategic objective on the Japanese Southern Road, other moves made on the Dutch East Indies chessboard were designed to address tactical concerns. As the Japanese closed in on Java and Sumatra, the Dutch, who had barely defended Borneo, were concentrating their resources, just as General Arthur Ernest Percival intended to do with his British Commonwealth assets in Singapore.

Just as IJA and IJN airpower was keeping pace with Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 25th Army on the Malay Peninsula, moving into abandoned RAF bases closer and closer to the front, the tactical plan for the ultimate battle in the Dutch East Indies required a network of airfields on other islands which were closer to Java and Sumatra. One such island was the major Dutch East Indies island of Celebes (now Sulawesi) to the east of Borneo and due south of the Philippines.

Offshore, the Celebes operation was supported by a naval force commanded by Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka which included the cruiser Jintsu, his flagship, ten destroyers, two seaplane tenders, and several minesweepers. An additional covering force under Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi included the cruisers Nachi, Haguro, and Myoko, and two destroyers. They were all part of the growing IJN presence in the nearly 3 million square miles of Dutch East Indies waters.

The IJN surface fleet in this area was divided generally into two operating groups. The Western Force under Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, commander of the Japanese Southern Expeditionary Fleet, was tasked with operations in the South China Sea, and had supported the campaign in Malaya and Singapore. The Eastern Force, commanded by Vice Admiral Ibo Takahashi, conducted operations from eastern Borneo, east through Celebes, Ambon, Timor, and eastward to New Guinea.

Operations ashore in Celebes were conducted entirely by the IJN Special Naval Landing Forces, and occurred simultaneously with the IJA and IJN landings on Tarakan. This ground action, which was a brief one that history treats almost as a footnote to the Borneo operations, is notable for including the first Japanese airborne operation in Southeast Asia. The latter was a precursor to tactics that were to be revisited a month later in Sumatra.

Under the command of Captain Kunizo Mori, 2,500 men of the 1st and 2nd Sasebo Special Naval Landing Forces conducted the initial amphibious landings near the northern Celebes cities of Manado (also spelled Menado) and Kema before dawn on January 11, overwhelming the outnumbered KNIL defenders.

Meanwhile, staging out of Davao, 28 transport variants of the Mitsubishi G3M medium bomber carried more than 300 paratroopers from the 1st Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force to a drop zone behind the invasion beaches. Landing at about 9:30 am on January 11, the paratroopers surprised the Dutch defenders, and began an assault on the airfield at Langoan and the seaplane base at Kakas.

The unexpected attack from above certainly reminded the Dutch troops of the use by the Germans of airborne troops in the conquest of their home country in May 1940. Indeed, Japanese tactical planners in both the IJA and IJN had made note of the successful use of German Fallschirmjäger, or paratroopers, as a spearhead during the Wehrmacht spring offensive of 1940, and had begun training their own airborne troops. Germany’s capture of the entire island of Crete, solely by airborne troops, in May 1941, must have been especially noteworthy as the Japanese planners pondered the island-studded map of the Southern Road. In retrospect, it is a wonder that the tactic was not employed on a wider scale.

A second airborne attack by the 1st Yokosuka on January 12 brought additional landing forces to Celebes, and assured the capture of the Langoan airfield. Though some of the Dutch troops managed to hide out in the mountains for about a month, northern Celebes was secured by the middle of the month.

With this, Captain Kunzio Mori’s 1st and 2nd Sasebo headed south. Just as Sakaguchi had leapfrogged down the Borneo coast from Tarakan to Balikpapan, Mori embarked from Manado and headed for Kendari, at the southeast corner of Celebes. His Special Naval Landing Forces, aboard six transports, were escorted by a task force commanded by Rear Admiral Kyuji Kubo, which included the cruiser Nagara, his flagship, eight destroyers, and support ships. As with the task force that had supported Mori at Manado, Kubo’s contingent was part of the IJN Eastern Force.

Mori went ashore under cover of darkness on the night of January 23–24, the same night that Sakaguchi had landed at Balikpapan. Within 24 hours, the defenders had been overcome, and the Japanese were in control of the strategically important airfield at Kendari.

Capturing airfields was a priority second only to the petroleum facilities in the Dutch East Indies, for they brought land-based Japanese fighters and bombers incrementally closer to future battlefields farther south on the Southern Road. The air base at Kendari was destined to be one of the most important. Centrally located within the Dutch East Indies, it would be an important refueling stop. It was also the base of operations for the devastating air attack on Darwin, Australia, which would terrify the land down under three weeks later.

Just as the airfields on Celebes were part of the Sumatra and Java strategy, other Dutch islands far to the east hosted airfields that would be useful in operations against Dutch- and Australian-administered New Guinea, which were scheduled for April. Centrally located between Celebes and New Guinea was 299-square-mile Ambon Island, part of the Molucca (now Maluku) Archipelago, 500 miles east of Celebes, 1,600 miles east of Palembang, and 250 miles west of New Guinea. The strategic importance of Ambon and the substantial, paved airfield at Laha on the island had been lost on neither the Dutch nor the Australians. They had agreed to jointly reinforce the island, but the first contingent of RAAF Hudson bombers had not touched down at Laha until December 7, 1941, less than 24 hours before the general outbreak of hostilities across Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

The Australians also sent troops, but they had few to spare. As we have seen, three of the four infantry divisions which comprised the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) were in North Africa helping the British fight the German Afrika Korps. Most of the 8th Division, except the 23rd Brigade, was helping the British defend Malaya.

The one brigade held back was given the precarious and impossible task of the forward defense of Australia itself. It was divided into what were known as the “Bird Forces,” having been given what the Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs historical factsheet colorfully describes as “ominously non-predatory names.” Forward defense of Australia meant outposts on islands north of that country and east of Malaya which were astride important sea lanes between Japanese-held territory and Australia. It was Gull Force that was dispatched to Ambon, while Sparrow Force went to Timor, and Lark Force went to New Britain, far to the east.

Each of the Bird Forces was essentially a single battalion, roughly a thousand or fewer infantrymen, reinforced with artillery and support troops. Deployed in 1941 before the full weight of the immense Japanese offensive had been experienced, each was sent to do a job that should have been done by a force a dozen times larger.

Deploying about ten days after Pearl Harbor, the 1,100-man Gull Force, centered on the 2/21st Battalion of the AIF, arrived on Ambon, joining a Dutch garrison on the island that consisted of the poorly trained 2,800-man KNIL Molucca Brigade, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Kapitz. Gull Force was initially commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Leonard Roach, but he was replaced on January 16 by Lieutenant Colonel John Scott, who was no stranger to amphibious operations, having participated in the Gallipoli campaign during World War I. Scott arrived to find his new command in pitiful condition, with malaria and other diseases rampant in the equatorial heat, which still swelters in January.

Both USN and Koninklijk Marine flying boats operated out of Ambon, flying patrol missions, as well as frequent evacuations of civilians, but they were pulled out in mid-January, against the backdrop of increasing Japanese air attacks. Air defense of Ambon consisted of a few Brewster Buffaloes, which rose to meet IJN seaplane bombers that began visiting Ambon early in January at the same time as the offensive against northern Borneo.

The Buffaloes held their own for a while, but they were no match for the carrier-based IJN Zeros that first appeared over the island on January 24, the same day as the invasions of Balikpapan and Kendari. For the Ambon operation, the IJN brought in the carriers Hiryu and Soryu, both of which had been part of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s Pearl Harbor strike force. At Ambon, they targeted Dutch and Australian aircraft, compelling Wavell to make the decision to pull out the last of the Allied aircraft to preserve them to fight another day. When the invasion fleet was sighted at dusk on January 30, the Allied ground troops knew they would have to face the enemy with no air cover.

The fact that the IJN had used seaplanes and carrier-based aircraft to conduct operations against Ambon is, in itself, an illustration of why the Japanese needed to have airfields at locations across the sprawling Indies.

The remainder of the naval escort for the ten transport ships of the invasion fleet to which the Hiryu and Soryu were attached was largely the same contingent that had supported operations against Manado on January 11. Commanded by Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka, this force was comprised of his flagship, the cruiser Jintsu, as well as eight destroyers and support vessels. The same covering force under Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi that had supported Tanaka at Kendari also accompanied him to Ambon.

As in Borneo, the ground operation at Ambon was to be a joint operation between the IJA and the IJN Special Naval Landing Forces. The latter contingent included 820 men from the 1st Kure Special Naval Landing Force, while the IJA contingent of approximately 4,500 men was centered on the 228th Infantry Regiment, one of three regiments in the 38th Division, which had taken part in the conquest of Hong Kong. This joint force was known as the Ito Detachment and commanded by Major General Takeo Ito, who had commanded the entire 38th Division at Hong Kong, and who operated at Ambon under the banner of the division’s headquarters.

The first wave of IJA Ito Detachment came ashore during the night of January 30–31, with the IJN landing forces in the north, and the 288th mainly in the south. Ambon is nearly bisected by Ambon Bay, which cuts into the island from the southeast. The southern part contains the major population centers, while Laha airfield was across the bay on the northern part. Most of the defenders were located in these areas, but the initial Japanese landings were on the lightly defended north, and the least-defended area on the south side, well away from coastal guns guarding the entrance to Ambon Bay. Of course, established beachheads can be expanded more easily than landing troops under fire.

During January 31, the Japanese moved rapidly, reaching Australian-defended Laha from the north, and capturing Ambon City in the south by around 4:00 pm.

As the Allies shifted troops to face the landings, they left holes in their lines, which were exploited by the Japanese. A second wave of Ito Detachment troops came ashore at Passo (also written in some accounts as Paso) at the neck of the Laitimor Peninsula, effectively cutting the island in two. At the same time, the Japanese also snipped the telephone line which was the only way that the Allied troops could communicate with one another. The absence of communications isolated the various units and created confusion.

Kapitz ordered his men to continue fighting, which they did. However, shortly after midnight, the Japanese captured Kapitz, who had moved his headquarters close to Passo. For most of February 1, the action involved an Allied withdrawal, away from Passo and Ambon City, toward the southeast tip of the Laitimor Peninsula. These troops, with Colonel Scott still in command, had their backs to the Banda Sea, and realized that their position was essentially hopeless.

As this was ongoing, Admiral Tanaka ordered his minesweepers into Ambon Bay to clear the mines laid by the Koninklijke Marine, before they withdrew from Ambon earlier in January. This was in preparation for landing additional troops inside the bay. However, much to the immense joy of the troops fighting for their lives on the peninsula, one of the minesweepers struck a mine, blew up, and sank. Another was damaged.

Nevertheless, the jubilation that the Allied troops enjoyed at this juncture was certainly qualified by the pounding that was being dished out to them in the form of offshore naval gunfire and air attacks from the air wings aboard the Hiryu and Soryu. Throughout February 1, the naval bombardment also fell on the Australian and Dutch troops that were still trying to defend the airfield across the bay at Laha. On the morning of February 2, having encircled Laha, the landing troops, under Commander Kunito Hatakeyama, launched a ferocious assault aimed at dislodging the defenders. At around 10:00 am, Major Mark Newbury, commanding the joint force at Laha, decided that any further resistance would waste lives in an impossible situation, and ordered his men to surrender. Scott surrendered the defenders of the Laitimor Peninsula on February 3. About 30 Australian Diggers managed to successfully escape Ambon by canoe.

Newbury’s hopes of saving lives by his surrender were darkened when, over the ensuing two weeks, Hatakeyama randomly murdered around 300 prisoners at Laha. Newbury himself was killed on February 6. Scott survived the war as a POW, although most of the troops who surrendered on Ambon died in captivity. In 1946, witnesses and makeshift graves were located, and Hatakeyama was tried, convicted, and executed as a war criminal.

By the time that Ambon fell, Captain Kunzio Mori’s 1st and 2nd IJN Sasebo Special Naval Landing Forces had secured Manado in northern Celebes, and Kendari on its southeast corner. This left the airfield at Makassar on the southwest corner, the Celebes field closest to Java. His move on this final Celebes objective was supported by the same naval task force that had backed his landing at Kendari, this being commanded by Rear Admiral Kyuji Kubo, aboard the cruiser Nagara, with 11 destroyers – three more than at Kendari – and support ships.

Opposing Mori’s landing forces here was a 1,000-man Dutch garrison commanded by Colonel Marinus Vooren. Like so many in the KNIL officer corps, Vooren was born in Java of Dutch parents. He had spent only three of his 53 years in the Netherlands, so the Indies were his homeland. As February began, Vooren was overseeing the evacuation to Java of ethnic European women and children – most of them Indies-born – and waiting for Mori’s inevitable arrival. The only reinforcements coming the other way consisted of Lieutenant Colonel Jan Gortmans, who came in from Java to train Indonesian civilians to fight the Japanese as guerrillas.

On February 9, Mori’s 8,000-man Special Naval Landing Forces went ashore near the town of Makassar. Recognizing that resistance here was a lost cause, the Dutch withdrew northward into the interior, where the Japanese tanks would be ineffective, Vooren to Tjamba, and Gortmans to Enrekang, places that to this day barely show up on maps. They held out almost until the end of February, but when they found themselves in tactically untenable positions, they each surrendered. Gortmans was beheaded in captivity, but Vooren survived the war and remained in the Indies until 1958, when he retired to the Netherlands.

 

The Greco-Italian Conflict, 1940-1

Among the armour the Italians deployed in Albania were these L3/33 tankettes.

Italian artillery in action during the campaign in Albania.

There is no doubt that Mussolini was jealous of Germany’s annexation of Austria, so it came as no surprise when he asserted Italian control over Albania by sending in troops on 7 April 1939. This action prompted the Prime Minister of Britain, Winston Churchill, to offer to support the sovereignty of both Greece and Rumania should they be threatened and a month later a similar offer was made to Turkey. Not that that this was of any benefit to Rumania as in June, with Hitler’s encouragement, Bulgaria, Hungary and Russia stripped it off its frontier provinces. As a sign of things to come the governor of Albania began agitating the Greeks on behalf of the Cham Albanian minority in Greek Epirus. After the headless body of an Albanian bandit was discovered near the village of Vrina he blamed the Greeks and began arming some of the Albanian irregular bands. It was therefore just a matter of time before Mussolini made his next move against Greece.

Neither the Italian nor the Soviet Government received official notification of the entry of German troops into Romania. This was all the more surprising to Mussolini because Italy and Germany had given a joint guarantee to Romania. He was very indignant about being faced with a fait-accompli and decided to pay Hitler back in his own Coin by attempting to seize Greece Without giving official notice to Germany. Mussolini expected that the occupation of Greece would be a mere police action, similar to Germany’s seizure of Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939. On two preceding occasions Hitler had agreed that the Mediterranean and Adriatic were exclusively Italian spheres of interest. Since Yugoslavia and Greece were situated within these spheres, Mussolini felt entitled to adopt whatever policy he saw fit. ‘There was no reason why the man who had revived the Triage Nostrum concept should hesitate to demonstrate to the entire world that his twentieth Century Romans were as Superior to their Mediterranean rivals as their ancestor s had been to the Greeks 2,00 years ago.

In Mussolini’s opinion one of the main attractions of an attack on (Greece was that Italy would not have to depend on Germany s assistance for the execution of such all operation. On 15 October he decided to invade Greece, although he knew that the Germans would disapprove. The attack was launched on 28 October, and the almost immediate setbacks of the Italians only served to heighten Hitler’s displeasure. What enraged the Fuehrer most was that his repeated statements of the need for peace in the Balkans had been ignored by Mussolini.

The German military experts also disapproved the Italian plan of operations, but for other reasons. In their opinion any campaign in the Balkans would have to be executed in a manner similar to the one applied by the Germans in the campaign in Norway. The strategically important features would have to be seized in blitzkrieg fashion. In the Balkans these points were not situated along the Albanian border but in southern Greece and on Crete. The Italian failure to capture Crete seemed a strategic blunder, since British possession of the island endangered the Italian lines of communication to North Africa and assured Greece of a steady flow of supplies from Egypt. Moreover, the British bombers were now within range of the Romania oil fields that the Germans had secured at such great effort.

Hitler’s decision to intervene in the military operations in the Balkans was made on 4 November, seven days after Italy had attacked Greece through Albania and four days after the British had occupied Crete and Limnos. He ordered the Army General Staff to prepare plans for the invasion of northern Greece from Romania via Bulgaria. The operation was to deprive the British of bases for future ground and air operations across the restive Balkans against the Romanian oil fields. Moreover, it would indirectly assist the Italians by diverting Greek forces from Albania.

The plans for this campaign, together with the projects involving Gibraltar and North Africa, were incorporated into a master plan to deprive the British of all their Mediterranean bases. On 12 November 1940 the Armed Forces High Command issued Directive No. 18, in which Hitler outlined his plan for the conduct of future operations to the three services. He first mentioned that Vichy France was to be given an opportunity for defending its African possessions against the British and Free French. Gibraltar was to be seized and the straits closed, while at the same time the British were to be prevented from landing elsewhere on the Iberian Peninsula. German forces were to support the Italians in their offensive against Egypt, if and when the latter reached Mersa Matrull. The Luftwaffe, in particular, was to make preparations for attacking Alexandria and the Suez Canal. The Army was to ready ten divisions for the seizure of northern Greece, possession of which would permit German flying formations to operate against British air bases in the eastern Mediterranean and thus protect the Romanian oil fields.

One incident that the Greeks blamed on Italy was the torpedoing and sinking, with heavy loss of life, of their cruiser Helle by a submarine on 15 August 1940 when she was anchored off Tinos. Though taking no action against Italy, the President of the Greek Council, General Ioannis Metaxas, did ask what help Greece could expect from Britain; not that Churchill could offer much, other than naval support. The situation deteriorated further the following month when Italy sent three more divisions to Albania. This led Britain to discuss the possibility of a coordinated defence of Crete but the Greeks would not allow any landings on their soil without a declaration of war. Nor did the Italians have much luck either in their discussions with Germany. When they sought German support for an attack on Jugoslavia, Adolf Hitler was adamant that he did not want to see the war spread to the Balkans. As a result Mussolini switched his attention to Libya and on 13 September launched his forces on a drive into Egypt. Not that he turned his back on Greece entirely but, assured by the governor of Albania that there would be no difficulty in securing Epirus and Corfu if he decided to attack Greece, he drew up plans for the invasion. In preparation for this three more divisions were dispatched in September. Nevertheless, by October Mussolini had started to waver in his plans and it was only after Hitler sent a strong military mission to Rumania that he became aware of Germany’s true interest in the Balkans and finally resolved to proceed with his plans to invade Greece.

Thus it was at 3 am on the morning of 28 October that the Italian minister in Athens presented the Greek government with a note charging them with having systematically violated their neutrality, particularly with respect to their dealings with the British, by allowing their territorial waters and ports to be used by the British navy and their refuelling facilities to be used by the RAF. Metaxas’ immediate response was to reject these demands, with the result that 3 hours later the first Italian troops crossed the frontier into Greece.

The British response to this was to send a naval flotilla into the Ionian Sea on 29 October. It sailed as far as Corfu before returning to the west coast of Crete to await the arrival of a force charged with garrisoning Crete and setting up a naval refuelling base in Suda Bay. This force had been dispatched the same day from Alexandria carrying the 1st Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment. They arrived on 1 November and were followed soon after by what anti-aircraft, engineer and ancillary units the Commander in Chief of the Middle East, General Archibald Wavell, had reluctantly agreed to release. At that stage the only airfield was at Heraklion, 70 miles to the east, and too far away to provide air protection for the naval base so work began on another airfield for fighter aircraft at Maleme. Pleased with these moves, the Greeks withdrew the Crete Division from the island. However, their concern with the non-appearance of British aircraft prompted the British to arrange for the dispatch of Blenheims from 30 Squadron and Gladiators from 80 Squadron, though the Greeks forbade them from being stationed any further north than Eleusis or Tatoi to avoid provoking the Germans.

As it turned out the invading Italian forces were in for a rude shock. Expecting little resistance from the Greeks, the Italians launched their attack in the Epirus sector on the Greek Elaia–Kalamas River Line, with a flanking attack in the Pindus Mountains. Starting in the morning, 51 Divisione di Fanteria ‘Siena’ and 23 Divisione di ‘Ferrara’ backed by the Centauro Armoured Division thrust towards Elaia, prompting the Greeks to begin a slow withdrawal in that direction. On 2 November, despite being under bombardment from the air and artillery, the Greeks easily fought off repeated attacks, while the tanks of the 131 Divisione Corazzata ‘Centauro’ wallowed in the marshy terrain. More success was had to their right as the Littoral Group, after a slow advance along the coast, secured a bridgehead over the Kalamas River on 6 November. On their left flank the 3 Divisione Alpina ‘Julia’ pushed through the mountains to capture the village of Vovousa but was unable to secure the critical pass at the town of Metsovo. Unfortunately at this point disaster struck when their troops found themselves entirely cut off by the arrival of Greek reserves and were virtually wiped out in the subsequent fighting. However, by then the fight had gone out of the Italians and on 8 November their offensive came to a halt.

At this point the Greeks responded by launching a counter-offensive on 14 November. With in a week they had captured Koritsa and Leslovik and re-crossed the Kalamas River. To add insult to injury they not only regained their lost territory but carried the war into Albania, penetrating deep into the mountains in the northwest of Koritsa. In the south they took the port of Santa Quaranta, thus restricting the Italians to the port of Durrës and the size of the forces they could keep in the field. In the centre the Greeks made good progress towards Berat and by 10 January 1941 had secured Klissoura, though were still short of their goal of taking Tepelene. By now, however, the weather, with frequent blizzards, was taking its toll on their troops, with cases of frostbite common. This was not the only reverse Mussolini suffered. In North Africa the British launched their counter-offensive which not only drove the Italians out of Egypt but by January 1941 saw them in headlong retreat along the Cyrenaican coast.

The British were not slow to respond to the fighting in Albania but reacted in quite a different way. Noting the reluctance of the Italian fleet to force the issue at sea, Admiral Cunningham decided instead to launch an attack on the Italian battle fleet in Taranto harbour. Originally planned for Trafalgar Day, 21 October, the attack had to be deferred till 11 November thanks to a fire in the hangar of HMS Illustrious. The attack was carried out in two waves that night, two aircraft dropping flares east of the anchorage and bombing the oil storage depot, while Fairy Swordfish torpedo bombers, coming in from the west, attacked the main anchorage. As a result, two ships were hit and damaged for one aircraft lost. The second wave arrived at the harbour around midnight, hitting one additional ship, also losing one aircraft. By the end of the attack half of the Italian capital ships had been put out of action, two for at least six months. The success was not confined to this as later that night a raiding force sank another four Italian merchant ships in the Adriatic Sea.

The operations against Gibraltar and Greece were scheduled to take place simultaneously in January 1941, while the German offensive in North Africa was to be launched in the autumn of that year. The inversion of the British Isles was also mentioned in this directive, the target date of which was tentatively scheduled for the spring of 1941. The particular difficulty involved in the execution of some of these plans was that the German Army was supposed to conduct operations across the seas even though the Axis had not gained naval superiority in the respective areas. On 4 November even Hitler had voiced doubts as to the advisability of conducting offensive operations in North Africa, since Italy did not control the Mediterranean. That these doubts were well founded became apparent when, on 6 November, British naval fir forces inflicted a severe defeat on the Italian Navy at Taranto.

The German displeasure at the ill-timed Italian attack on Greece found its expression in a letter Hitler addressed to Mussolini on 20 November 1940. Among other things, he stated:

I wanted, above all. to ask you to postpone the operation until a more favorable season, in any ease until after the presidential election in America. In any event I wanted to ask you not to undertake this action without previously carrying out a blitzkrieg operation on Crete. For this purpose I intended to make practical suggestions regarding the employment of a parachute and of an airborne division.

After enumerating the psychological and military consequences of the Italian failure in Albania, the Fuehrer suggested a number of countermeasures to restore the situation. Spain would have to be induced to enter the war as soon as possible ill order to deny the British the use of Gibraltar and to block the western entrance to the Mediterranean. Every possible means would have to be employed to divert Russia s interest from the Balkans to the Near East. Special efforts would have to be made to arrive at an agreement with Turkey whereby Turkish pressure on Bulgaria would be relieved. Yugoslavia would have to be induced to adopt a neutral attitude or, if possible, be led to collaborate actively with the Axis in solving the Greek problem. In the Balkans any military operation that was to lead to a success could be risked only after Yugoslavia’s position had been fully clarified. Hungary would have to grant permission for the immediate transit of sizable German units destined for Romania. The latter country would have to accept the reinforcement of the German troops guaranteeing the protection of its territory. Hitler then continued by stating that he had decided to prevent any British buildup in northeastern Greece by force, whatever the risk may be.

In his reply of 29 November Mussolini expressed his regrets about the misunderstandings with regard to Greece. The Italian forces had been halted because of bad weather, the desertion of nearly all the Albanian forces incorporated into Italian units, and Bulgaria’s attitude, which permitted the Greeks to shift eight divisions from Thrace to Albania.

In December 1940 the German plans in the Mediterranean underwent considerable change when, at the beginning of the month, Franco rejected the plan for an attack on Gibraltar. Consequently, German offensive planning for southern Europe had to be restricted to the campaign against Greece. Upon insistence of the Luftwaffe, the entire country was to be occupied, not just the northern provinces. For this purpose the Armed Forces High Command issued Directive No. 20, dated 13 December 1940, which outlined the Greek campaign under the code designation, Operation MARITA. In the introductory part of the directive Hitler pointed out that, in view of the confused situation in Albania, it was particularly important to thwart British attempts to establish air bases in Greece, which would constitute a threat to Italy as well as to the Romanian oil fields. To meet this situation twenty-four German divisions were to be assembled gradually in southern Romania within the next few months, ready to enter Bulgaria as soon as they received orders. In March, when the weather would be more favorable, they were to occupy the northern coast of the Aegean Sea and, if necessary, the entire Greek mainland. Bulgaria’s assistance was expected; support by Italian forces and the coordination of the German and Italian operations in the Balkans would be the subject of future discussions. The Luftwaffe was-to provide air protection during the assembly period and prepare bases in Romania. During the operation the Luftwaffe was to neutralize the enemy air force, support the ground forces, and whenever possible capture British bases on Greek islands by executing airborne landings.

Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe was to assist the Italians in stabilizing the precarious situation on the Albanian front. This was to be accomplished by airlifting approximately 30,000 Italian troops and great quantities of equipment and supplies from the Italian mainland to Albania.

Even though Hitler had decided to attack Greece, he wanted to tread softly in the Balkans so as not to expand the conflict during the winter. If Turkey entered the war against Germany, the chances for a successful invasion of Russia would diminish because of the diversion of forces such a new conflict would involve. Moreover, at the beginning of December 1940 the British launched an offensive from Egypt and drove the Italians back to the west. Toward the end of the month the situation of the Italians in Libya grew more and more critical. By January 1941 their forces in North Africa were in danger of being completely annihilated. If that happened, Italy with its indefensible coast line would be exposed to an enemy invasion. To forestall such disastrous developments, German air units under the command of X Air Corps had previously been transferred to Sicily, and the movement of German Army elements to Tripoli via Italy was begun immediately. In February initial small contingents of German ground troops arrived in North Africa, and the critical situation was soon alleviated. The first German troops to arrive were elements of a panzer division under the command of General Erwin Rommel. Hitler ordered these forces to protect Tripoli by a series of limited-objective attacks, thus relieving the pressure on the Italian troops. The political objective of this military intervention was to prevent Italy’s internal collapse which would almost certainly result from the loss of her African possessions.

German Operations Against Yugoslavia – 1941 Part I

The Air Bombardment of Belgrade

The Luftwaffe opened the assault on Yugoslavia by conducting a saturation-type bombing raid on the capital in the early morning hours of 6 April. Flying in relays from airfields in Austria and Romania, 150 bombers and dive-bombers protected by a heavy fighter escort participated in the attack. The initial raid was carried out at fifteen-minute intervals in three distinct waves, each lasting for approximately twenty minutes. The weak Yugoslav Air Force and the inadequate flak defenses were quickly wiped out by the first wave, permitting the dive-bombers to come down to roof-top levels. Against the loss of but two German fighters, twenty Yugoslav planes were shot down and forty-four were destroyed on the ground. When the attack was over, more than 17,000 inhabitants lay dead under the debris. This devastating blow virtually destroyed all means of communication between the Yugoslav high command and the forces in the field. Although some elements of the general staff managed to escape to one of the suburbs, coordination and control of the military operations in the field were rendered impossible from the outset.

Having thus delivered the knockout blow to the enemy nerve center, the VIII Air Corps was able to devote its maximum effort to such targets of opportunity as Yugoslav airfields, routes of communication, and troop concentrations, and to the close support of German ground operations.

The Three-Pronged Drive on the Yugoslav Capital

Three separate ground forces converged on Belgrade from different directions. They were launched as follows:

First Panzer Group (Twelfth Army)

Early in the morning of 8 April, the First Panzer Group jumped off from its assembly area northwest of Sofiya. Crossing the frontier near Pirot, the XIV Panzer Corps, spearheaded by the 11th Panzer Division, followed by the 5th Panzer, 294th Infantry, and 4th Mountain Divisions, advanced in a northwesterly direction toward Nis. Despite unfavorable weather, numerous road blocks, and tough resistance by the Yugoslav Fifth Army, the 11th Panzer Division, effectively supported by strong artillery and Luftwaffe forces, quickly gained ground and broke through the enemy lines on the first day of the attack. The Yugoslav army commander was so greatly impressed by this initial German success that he ordered his forces to withdraw behind the Morava. This maneuver could not be executed in time because, as early as 9 April, the German lead tanks rumbled into Nis and immediately continued their drive toward Belgrade. From Nis northwestward the terrain became more favorable since the armored columns could follow the Morava valley all the way to the Yugoslav capital.

South of Paracin and southwest of Kragujevac Yugoslav Fifth Army units attempted to stem the tide of the advance but were quickly routed after some heavy fighting. More than 5,000 prisoners were taken in this one encounter.

Meanwhile, the 5th Panzer Division became temporarily stalled along the poor roads near Pirot. After the division got rolling again, it was ordered to turn southward just below Nis and cut off the enemy forces around Leskovac. When it became apparent that the Nis front was about to collapse, the 5th Panzer Division reverted to the direct control of Twelfth Army and joined the XL Panzer Corps for the Greek campaign.

On 10 April the XIV Panzer Corps forces were swiftly advancing through the Morava Valley in close pursuit of enemy units retreating toward their capital. On the next day the German spearheads suddenly drove into the southern wing of the withdrawing Yugoslav Sixth Army, which they overran during the early hours of 12 April. By the evening of that day the First Panzer Group tanks stood less than forty miles southeast of Belgrade. The two Yugoslav armies they had encountered were in such a state of confusion that they were no longer able to make any serious attempt to delay the German thrust or cut the German lines of communications that extended over a distance of roughly 125 miles from the point of entry into Yugoslav territory was subjected to a rain of bombs for almost one and a half hours. The German bombardiers directed their main effort against the center of the city, where the principal government buildings were located.

XLI Panzer Corps (Independent Force)

Timed to coincide with the armored thrust of the XIV Panzer Corps from the southeast, the XLI Panzer Corps drive led across the southeastern part of the Banat and toward the Yugoslav capital. This attack was spearheaded by the Motorized Infantry Regiment “Gross Deutschland,” closely followed by the 2d SS Motorized Infantry Division. After crossing the frontier north of Vrsac, advance elements entered Pancevo on 11 April. Having meanwhile advanced to within about forty-five miles north of Belgrade, the main body of XLI Panzer Corps met with only isolated resistance on the following day as it raced toward the enemy capital.

XLVI Panzer Corps (Second Army)

When the Luftwaffe launched its attacks on 6 April, the German Second Army was just beginning to assemble its attack forces along the northern Yugoslav frontier preparatory to its projected jumped on 10 April. In an effort to improve their lines of departure, some of the Second Army units took advantage of the interim period by launching limited-objective attacks all along the frontier zone. The troop commanders had to keep their forces in check to prevent major engagements from developing prematurely, which might subsequently have impaired the army’s freedom of action and jeopardized the conduct of operations.

The Army High Command was determined to seize intact the principal bridges in the XLVI Panzer Corps zone. Therefore, as early as 1 April, corps elements were ordered to capture the bridge at Bares and the railroad bridge about ten miles northeast of Koprivoica by a coup de Ann.

By early evening of 6 April, the lack of enemy resistance and the overall situation seemed to indicate that the Yugoslavs would not make a concerted stand along the border and the XLVI Panzer Corps was therefore ordered to establish bridgeheads across the Mura and Drava at Mursko Sredisce, Letenye, Zakany, and Barcs. The few local attacks carried out by the corps sufficed to create dissension in the enemy ranks. There was a high percentage of Croats in the Yugoslav Fourth Army units that were responsible for the defense of this area. Croat soldiers mutinied at several points of the Drava salient, refusing to resist the Germans whom they considered as their liberators from Serbian oppression. When strong German forces crossed the Drava bridge at Bares on the morning of 10 April and broke out of the previously established bridgeheads, the disintegration of the opposing Yugoslav forces had reached an advanced stage. Supported by strong air forces, the 8th Panzer Division, followed by the 16th Motorized infantry Division, launched the XLVI Panzer Corps thrust to Belgrade by driving southeastward between the Drava and Sava Rivers. By the evening of 10 April forward elements of the 8th Panzer Division, having met with virtually no resistance, reached Slating despite poor roads and unfavorable weather. Enemy pockets were quickly mopped up and the division drove on in the direction of the capital via Osijok, where the roads became even worse.

That the plight of the enemy was becoming more and more desperate could be gathered from the following appeal that General Simovic broadcast to his troops:

All troops must engage the enemy wherever encountered and with every means at their disposal. Don’t wait for direct orders from above but act on your own and be guided by your judgment, initiative, and conscience.

On 11 April the 8th Panzer Division reached the Osijek region, while the 16th Motorized Infantry Division farther back was advancing beyond Nasice. Numerous bridge demolitions and- poor roads retarded the progress of both divisions, whose mission it was to attack the rear of the Yugoslav forces that faced XIV Panzer Corps, and to establish early contact with the First Panzer Group.

At 0230 on 12 April, the 8th Panzer Division entered Mitrovica after two vital bridges across the Sava had been captured intact. The division continued its thrust with the main body advancing toward Lazarevac, about twenty miles south of Belgrade, which was the designated link-up point with First Panzer Group.

On the afternoon of 12 April, the XLVI Panzer Corps received new orders. According to these, only elements of the 8th Panzer Division were to continue their eastward drive to seize and secure the Sava bridge near the western outskirts of Belgrade. At 1830 the main body of the division turned southeastward and moved in the direction of Valjevo to establish contact with the left wing of First Panzer Group southwest of Belgrade. Simultaneously, the 16th Motorized Infantry Division, which had been trailing behind the 8th Panzer Division, turned southward, crossed the Sava, and advanced toward Zvornik. Thus both divisions were diverted from their original objective, Belgrade, in order to participate in the subsequent drive on Sarajevo.

Meanwhile, both the Second Army and the Army High Command were anxiously awaiting news of the fall of Belgrade. Of the three converging armored forces, XLI Panzer Corps was last reported closest to the capital, having reached Pancevo on the east bank of the Danube about ten miles east of the city. South of Belgrade resistance stiffened as the 11th Panzer Division, spearheading the First Panzer Group forces, neared the capital.

The fall of Belgrade

Since three separate attack forces were converging on Belgrade simultaneously, the Army High Command was not immediately able to determine which force was the first to reach the enemy capital. Toward early evening of 12 April, SS-Obersturmfuehrer (1st Lt.) Klingenberg of the 2d SS Motorized Infantry Division, finding all Danube bridges destroyed, took an SS patrol across the river in captured pneumatic rafts. The patrol entered the city unmolested, and at 1700 hoisted the Nazi flag atop the German legation. About two hours later the mayor of Belgrade officially handed over the city to Klingenberg who was accompanied by a representative of the German Foreign Ministry, previously interned by the Yugoslavs.

At Second Army headquarters, no word from the 8th Panzer Division elements, which were last reported approaching the western outskirts of Belgrade, had been received for twenty-four hours. Finally, at 1152 on 13 April the following radio message came through from the operations officer of the division:

During the night the 8th Panzer Division drove into Belgrade, occupied the center of the city, and hoisted the Swastika flag.

However, since better communications had existed between Second Army and First Panzer Group, the following flash was received shortly before the 8th Panzer Division message came in:

Panzer Group von Kleist has taken Belgrade from the south. Patrols of Motorized Infantry Regiment “Gross Deutschland” have entered the city from the north. With General von Kleist at the head, the 11th Panzer Division has been rolling into the capital since 0632.

Thus the race for Belgrade ended in a close finish with all three forces reaching their objective almost simultaneously. With the fall of the city, the First Panzer Group was transferred from the Twelfth to the Second Army, while the XLVI Panzer Corps was placed under the direct command of the panzer group for the next phase of the operation-the pursuit and final destruction of the remnants of the Yugoslav Army.

Secondary Attacks

Before and during the main drive on Belgrade a series of secondary attacks and small unit actions took place across the Austrian-Yugoslav frontier, where the terrain was unsuitable for motorized units. The following actions were of particular significance:

The “Feurzauber” Probing Attacks

Under the code designation “Feurzauber,” units composed of cadre personnel and recently inducted trainees were organized into several waves of special assault troops. The elements comprising the first wave consisted of four battalion staffs commanding nine rifle companies, two mountain artillery batteries, one self-propelled medium artillery battery, two mountain engineer platoons, four antitank companies, and three signal and four bicycle platoons. Additional waves were subsequently formed, involving altogether about two-thirds of a mountain training division plus some attached specialist troops.

Originally these units were merely to reinforce the frontier guards and cover the gradually assembling Second Army forces along the southern border of Carinthia and Styria. This purely defensive mission, however, did not satisfy the aggressive commanders of the special assault units. Between 6 and 10 April, they took upon themselves to conduct numerous raids deep into enemy-held territory and to seize and hold many strong points along the border, thereby contributing to the rapid success of the offensive proper.

The first wave of assault units moved south from Graz in the direction of the Yugoslav border on 27 March. One of them, designated “Force Palten” after the captain in command, was assembled near Spielfeld during the first days of April. Its original mission was to secure the frontier and the vital bridge across the Mura near Spielfeld. However, on the evening of 5 April the force started to attack bunkers and enemy-held high ground across the frontier. By the morning of 6 April several hills had been taken, and scouting patrols probing deep into the bunker line south of Spielfeld made contact with the enemy. They determined the enemy’s strength and disposition in the outpost area, and then broke contact. Most of the high ground remained in German hands as the enemy failed to counterattack. Then, toward 1600, mountain engineers destroyed isolated enemy bunkers without any preparatory artillery fire.

On 8 April, Captain Palten decided to personally lead a group of his raiders toward Maribor. He undertook this mission against orders from higher headquarters and despite the fact that virtually all bridges along the route of advance had been blown. Since there was hardly any enemy interference, troops and equipment could be ferried across the Pesnica stream on pneumatic rafts. The vehicles had to be left behind, and the men were forced to carry their equipment the rest of the way.

After forming raiding parties on the south bank of the stream, Captain Palten continued to move southward. During the evening he entered Maribor at the head of his force and occupied the town without opposition. Much to their disappointment, the raiders were ordered to withdraw to the Spielfeld area, where they had to sit out the remainder of the Yugoslav campaign performing guard duty at the border. Losses incurred by Force Palten were one killed and two wounded, while they captured more than 100 prisoners and much booty.