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Japanese Carriers and Victory in the Pacific: The Yamamoto Option (Martin Stansfield, Pen & Sword Maritime, £25, ISBN 9781399010115); Leyte Gulf (2): Surigao Strait and Cape Engano (Mark Stille, Osprey, £15.99, ISBN 9781472842855); Royal Navy Torpedo-Bombers Vs Axis Warships 1939-1945 (Matthew Willis, Osprey, £14.99, ISBN 9781472852489)

24 Mar 23

None of these three volumes on naval aviation in the Second World War are conventional naval history books. The second and third are slim glossy paperbacks, full of pictures very much in the normal Osprey house style with a title that tells you exactly what it’s about and to be delivered in concise and effective style. The first from Pen and Sword is also nicely produced, and a pleasure to hold as their imprints usually are. But its faults are immediately obvious. It is written, presumably for effect, in an exaggeratedly jokey manner, bordering on facetiousness and which many readers will find extremely annoying. It has its fair share of mistakes. On the very first page we are told that Rodney and Nelson were built between 1918 /9 and the Washington Treaty of 1922. In fact both ships were built after that Treaty and specifically designed to conform to its terms. That was the whole point of them. A few pages on, the claim is made that ‘naval theory’ (whatever that is) was content for aircraft carriers to be the ‘eyes of the fleet’ in place of cruisers. This completely disregards all the other tasks for naval aircraft which had been accepted from before the First World War. The author is obviously perfectly aware of this; it’s just careless writing There are no exact source references and so no obvious way of checking the accuracy of what is being claimed.

These faults are a shame as the author’s main contention is quite an interesting one. His argument is that if the Japanese navy had listened more to what Yamamoto and his supporters had said about the prospects for naval aviation, it could have realised the potential of its ‘shadow fleet’ of liners and large merchant ships, converted them into light but useful aircraft carriers and swept all before it at the outset of war, even more that it did anyway. Also, instead of focussing so much attention on the delivery of super-battleships like the Yamato and the Musashi, the argument goes on, the Japanese could have developed more fleet carriers like the redoubtable Shokaku and Zuikaku and even introduced them before the American Essex class appeared. This increase in the already formidable power of the Japanese Navy would very likely have produced a new set of later giant carrier battles, the possible course and outcome of which are speculated about in a quite intriguing way. At all events such a change would have made the Japanese Navy a much harder nut for the US Navy to crack.

The problem with this kind of counterfactual investigation is that by isolating and changing one factor in the equation, it tends to reduce the relative importance of all the others, including the fact that war is a dynamic process between two or more adversaries and that the enemy gets a vote. For instance, if the Japanese had before the war been more focussed on carriers than they were, the British and the Americans would surely have noticed this and responded accordingly, thereby limiting the level of initial strategic advantage the Japanese could have hoped for. The author gets round this with the argument that the Japanese could have concealed the shadow fleet construction programme as successfully as they had the quality of the Zero fighter or the Long Lance torpedo. But there’s a difference between assessing the performance of an individual weapon system and the wholesale operational orientation of a navy. The latter is much harder to conceal.

Leaving that aside, banking everything on carrier aviation could have proved to Japan’s disadvantage because it would have reinforced the campaign of the US Navy’s air lobby (Admiral Moffett et al)  to expand US naval aviation. Judging by the extraordinary speed and success of the US Essex carrier class, when it came, the Japanese would have arguably been in even more trouble if the Americans had started that programme earlier. We need to bear in mind that according to Paul Kennedy’s recent Victory at Sea, in 1937 the Americans and the Japanese spent about the same amount on defence. The difference was that this represented 27 percent of Japan’s GDP but only 1.5 percent of America’s. Yamamoto was acutely aware of the fact that once the Americans got their act together, things were going to get very difficult indeed for Japan.

The author’s focus on the single variable of the carrier construction programme also tends to pay too little attention to all the other comparative weaknesses  of the Japanese Navy, such as its proclivity for complex if not convoluted operational plans based on a compliant enemy, its poor reconnaissance capabilities, its inability to produce an effective training system for its following generations of flyers, and its failure to keep up with the technical advances made by the US Navy. In part this was due to their general failure to strike a proper balance between the offensive and defensive elements in war, whether this was in individual weapons (like the Zero which was highly combustible and quickly outclassed by the Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat) or in strategies, such as its considered neglect of crucial SLOC protection.

Many of these failures emerge in Mark Stille’s account of the last two major engagements in the so-called Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Surigao Strait and Cape Enghaño. Since this little booklet is safely anchored in reality and confined to a single battle (though a peculiarly complicated one) rather than the war as a whole and looked at from two distinct angles, Stille’s task is much simpler than Stansfield’s. But it is well done and very much up to Osprey standards. It is sensibly and concisely arranged. The commanders, fleets and plans of both sides are described and compared and the battles themselves clearly explained and illustrated with good quality maps and photographs. Stille argues that the Japanese Navy, already crippled by a series of previous defeats, and perhaps especially the Battle of the Philippine Sea, meant that its deficiencies compared to the US were such that the former was bound to lose, and pretty much knew it. The only issue was how much damage the Japanese fleet could do as it went down.

Mathew Willis’s Royal Navy Torpedo-Bombers vs Axis Warships 1939-45 seems a world away from these ferocious carrier v carrier encounters in the Pacific War, and so in many ways it is, but Willis’s account complements the other two quite nicely. It is another part of the overall story of naval aviation and underlines the point that in preparing for it, fleet planners have to take an all-round encompassing approach which balances issues and choices against the context in which it has to operate. Willis deals with a very narrow aspect of the Fleet Air Arm’s operations, and provides a good deal of technical information about the aircraft, the torpedoes and the intended victims. Comparing the careers and experiences of the FAA personnel with the German and Italian AA gunners they had to deal with is an interesting new slant. He makes the point that the detailed development of this capability was focused on operations in European waters and had the perceived design of German and Italian warships, specifically in mind. When that threat was rendered manageable, torpedo-bombing lost priority. At the start of the Pacific war, torpedo attack from Singapore was the RAF’s responsibility with their ancient Vildebeests. Perhaps fortunately the FAA never had the chance to measure itself against Admiral Ozawa’s foray into the Indian Ocean in 1942. Thereafter its priority declined still further as the FAA component of the British Pacific Fleet focussed on air defence and land attack in the final campaigns of World War II in the Pacific.

So how to rate these three offerings? The two Osprey volumes are clear, handy and reliable summaries in a familiar and effective format. The Stansfield volume on the other hand is a quite different voyage into unknown waters. In a word it’s ‘heuristic’. It makes you think. So for all its faults, by all means investigate it. But handle with care.