HOW CARRIERS FOUGHT: CARRIER OPERATIONS IN WORLD WAR II; US NAVY SHIPS vs JAPANESE ATTACK AIRCRAFT 1941-42

December 18, 2020
Posted by: Geoffrey Till

These days we are all too familiar with the three notional levels of war, the tactical where battles are fought, the operational where campaigns are conducted and the strategic where wars are waged. Military histories tend to be dominated by strategic and operational level analysis. Even campaign histories, such as that of the struggle against the U-boat in the First and Second World Wars or the conduct of the Dardanelles campaign of 1915-6, tend to be shaped by the historian’s attention to strategic considerations. This seems right and proper. It makes sense to look at things top-down. The country’s leaders decide the objectives of war and the strategy needed to achieve them. From this a set of operational requirements are deduced; in order to meet those requirements necessary battles are fought. It’s all very neat and logical. Directions cascade down the three levels of war and connects them in a way that helps us make sense of what could otherwise seem a pretty chaotic and, frankly, senseless phenomenon.

But there is another way of looking at those connections and that is bottom-up instead of top-down. It’s the famous ‘for want of a nail approach’. Missing a nail, the rider’s horse lost a shoe. Because of that, the message didn’t get through and the battle was lost. In consequence the kingdom was lost – and all because of the want of a nail.

Both of these books take this bottom-up approach, in a refreshing way. They look at the tactical minutiae, largely of the carrier battles of the Pacific War, and show that what happened at this level had huge consequences for the outcome of campaigns and the ultimate securing of strategic victory. They both also celebrate the importance of what the Russians call the military-technical dimension of war, namely the details of equipment used and consequent tactical procedures employed, and show how securing the related advantages that these could confer decided who won and who lost the battle.

Neither of these two books are ‘academic’ in the sense of providing as much reference to the source of what is being said as one would normally expect, although they both have bibliographies/further reading lists at the back. Celander’s book has an index but it’s very thin and very curiously doesn’t have entries for aircraft types so the reader can’t flip through to follow the career and fortunes, say, of Kates and Zeroes. Stille’s index is short but functional. Both books are written in a tone likely to appeal to modellers and war gaming enthusiasts, in business-like language with occasional lapses into jargon such as ‘acquiring target solutions’.  I wish Stille had copied Celander in referring to the code words for aircraft actually used in the war rather than one of the admittedly more informative technical descriptions. Somehow, reading of an attack in the Guadalcanal campaign by 18 A6Ms, 27 G4Ms and 15 D3AIs is harder than one of 18 Zeroes, 27 Bettys and 15 Vals! There was a reason for using code words after all!  It won’t help Mark Stille’s chances of getting the Nobel prize for literature either. Sadly, I also only had access to an e-book version of the Stille’s Osprey book and my variant of Adobe made for an uncomfortable read with the cursor jumping all over the place, between text, pictures and text boxes. This was a pity since some of the photographs used in his book are outstanding and Stille makes really excellent use of them to illustrate key points in his narrative. Here, they are not just used to break up acres of unrelieved text, as photos so commonly are. Celander has pictures and diagrams too, though not on such a lavish scale.

Despite the caveats, both books are thoroughly recommended. They both inspire all kinds of ideas and reflections, encouraging their readers, even ones who are happiest soaring in the higher reaches of strategy and operations, to think about those all-important details playing out far below. Both books are also worthwhile simply as reminders of the importance of tactical and technical detail for a fully rounded appreciation of why the Pacific War turned out the way it did.

Taken together, they challenge many of the generalisations made about the efficacy of various weapons and procedures. Both writers make the deficiencies of ship-board AA through much of 1942 very clear, in effect arguing that their chief effect was one of distraction. Only when the arrival of the 20mm Oerlikon cannon (at the suggestion of the Royal Navy apparently) and the Bofors 40 mm gun was wedded to accurate fighter direction was the US Navy’s AA defence really effective. Despite the dramatic picture on the front cover of the Osprey book, dive-bombing was generally much less effective than generally realised except against carriers with unarmoured decks. The real stars of the show were torpedo bombers but in the right circumstances, especially when able to conduct ‘hammer-and-anvil’ tactics on a ship from both sides at the same time. The fast battleship, heavily armed with AA gunnery, remains to the end of the war as a truly formidable fighting unit (though neither author mentions the grisly fate of Japan’s super-battleship the Yamato).

But for a successful airborne attack a hundred things had to go right. The target had to be securely located, identified and its future position determined (or a ‘target solution acquired’!).  Ideally, sufficient numbers of dive and torpedo bombers should arrive on target at the same time, together with defending fighters to present the defender with multiple conflicting dilemmas. How many fighters should be out on combat air patrol, when and where should they go?  Should the defender focus on AA or fighter defence in the immediate proximity of the fleet?  Should the ship stay on a steady course to help the AA gunners or weave about to avoid bombs and torpedoes. Which of these presented the worst threat and when?  Should the defender present his broadside to a dive bomber, or his prow or stern to a torpedo plane if both were present ? Any outcome depended on a whole chain of events like this and the success or failure of any of the links could make all the difference to the outcome.

Amongst these critical links, in what we would now call the kill-chain, were things like the key role of air defence radar in shaping the fighter direction so necessary for aerial interception; this point is well brought out by Celander. Stille emphasises that the offensive-mindedness of the Japanese pushed them into aircraft designs which underplayed the importance of protecting the pilot and his fuel tanks making them disastrously vulnerable to serious opposition. This further reinforced the effectiveness of aerial interception and AA gunnery. Things could go wrong in the kill chain in any number of ways, quite possibly with horrible consequences for attacker or defender. The performance of these links in the chain, moreover, could not be reliably predicted.

This tactical-technical level of analysis underlines just how complicated it was for the admirals in charge to make the operational decisions they did, and given the unavoidable imperfections of the information those decisions had to be based on, how unpredictable the consequences might be. For instance, should Admiral Nagumo have launched that third air raid on Pearl Harbor which might have destroyed the US Pacific Fleet’s oil stocks and won the Japanese much more time to prepare for the probably inevitable American Pacific counter-offensive?  This was a difficult one, but probably not. The thoroughly alerted American defenders had already punished the second wave more than the first. The prospective loss of scarce skilled aircrew in a third wave could have had serious consequences in subsequent operations. Celander makes the point that setting fire to the tanks of an oil farm isn’t all that easy anyway. You need to hit it with high explosives to rupture the tanks, then try to set the oil on fire with incendiaries. Nor would its loss have impeded the Americans as much as many, including Admiral Nimitz, thought at the time.

Reflecting on the offered results of all this bottom-up analysis leads to two important conclusions. The first is that we should be specially understanding of the complexities of command, at all levels. Take for instance Admiral Tom Phillips’ foray from Singapore with the Prince of Wales and the Repulse in December 1941. (Despite their titles, both books cover this, if briefly). All too often this used to be dismissed as the disastrous consequence of an admiral insufficiently air-minded. Perhaps. But no other navy anywhere had an equivalent of the Japanese 11th Air Fleet, a land-based force of Betty and Nell torpedo-bombers equivalent in striking power to several fleet carriers, and one moreover which had only just moved into theatre. Not taking this danger as seriously as it should have been when air intelligence suggested the local threat largely comprised army medium and high-level bombers, which so far in the war had proved a distinctly containable threat, becomes eminently understandable. Nor was the outcome necessarily doomed.

The assault when it came was ill-coordinated in a long sequence of long-range unescorted bomb and torpedo attacks with gaps between. Repulse was impressed by the skill of the first bombing attack – the tightly compressed Nells all dropped simultaneously complicating the problem of dodging the bombs; but still only one hit and that did no decisive damage. Repulse then successfully dodged 18 or 19 torpedoes, before finally succumbing to a hammer-and-anvil attack improvised at the last minute. Weaving about reduced the effectiveness of the AA so few Japanese planes were shot down but was a price well worth paying. The Prince of Wales was simply unlucky taking a torpedo hit on a propeller shaft which more or less knocked out her capacity to dodge or fire back. Would a few Buffalo fighters overhead have made a significant difference to the survival of Force Z? Probably. But this too remains a debateable issue.

The point is that none of this was predictable or inevitable. There is no certainty in war; nor should there be in our assessments of the performance of key commanders. The most practitioners and historians can aspire to is levels of likelihood, and balances of risk. Both books show why this was so and provide great substantiating detail as fuel for debate.  For this alone, they are well worth reading.

The second conclusion takes us back to the beginning. It’s not a question of either a top-down or bottom-up approach, but of both in the constant interplay up and down between all three levels of war. The reason why the Buffalos arrived too late over Force Z was because even the ones ear-marked for naval cooperation had been kept back to defend Singapore city. Here the operational level objective shaped the tactical outcome. In Japan’s case, the drastic decline in the quality of its aircrew from 1942 onwards derived from Japan’s assumption that the only war it could win was a short one. Accordingly, everything was staked on producing a relatively small cadre of highly trained aircrew (about 900 or so) and aircraft over-optimised for offence in the hope of early decisive victory. They got their victory, but it wasn’t decisive and strategic failure became as certain as anything can be in war. Here, then, the strategic level, determined the aim and nature of the operation and helped shape the tactical outcome.

So, to summarise, both books are well worth reading and even buying (they’re both cheap as books go these days). Whether you are primarily a war-gaming enthusiast or a historian of operations and strategy there is much for you in both. Unusual books, but highly recommended.  Oh, and by the way, if ever you have wondered how pilots ‘managed’ some of their basic human functions on those long, long flights Celander will tell you all about it, frozen tubes, smelly suits and all. Yuk.