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Japanese Combined Fleet 1941-42: The IJN at its Zenith, Pearl Harbor to Midway & Japan’s Indian Ocean Raid 1942: The Allies’ Lowest Ebb

07 Jun 24

Prof Geoffrey Till

Although both of these books are in the deservedly well-known illustrated Osprey series and are written by the same author, they are nonetheless quite different. The author in question, Mark Stille, is a retired US Navy officer, and this shows, especially in the first of the two books, Japanese Combined Fleet 1941-42.  Basically, it reads like a briefing. It is concise (the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse gets barely six lines – though omitting ‘The’ from the title in the same spirit seems like a mistake), extremely well illustrated with maps, photographs, diagrams and reconstructed images and it is very effectively organised. The author describes, and to some extent explains, the fleet’s changing missions, its composition, the way in which it operated and in brief, its operational successes and failings.

As such, he provides us with an excellent, well-digested and easily accessed case study into the principles of fleet design. First comes the animating vision of what the fleet is for and has to do. This is to intercept and weaken an incoming and superior American battle fleet bent on recovering losses in the early stages of a surprise war in the Western Pacific and winning sea control. Before they got to the Western Fleet, the American battle fleet had to be ‘attrited’ in modern US parlance greatly improving the odds so that the smaller Japanese battle fleet could later finish it off, very possibly closer to home.

Hence the reliance on the early success of the ancillary elements of the fleet – carrier-based strike aviation, the fleet submarines, the destroyer and cruiser flotillas with their ‘Long Lance’ heavy torpedoes, all of whose ultimate purpose was to shape in advance the final decisive encounter between what remained of the US fleet battle and the main Japanese battle fleet. Like every other navy of the time, the Japanese retained their faith in the battleship as the final arbiter of victory at sea.

This emphasis on early interception explains the clearly offensive purpose that so characterised every aspect of the way in which the Japanese designed and operated their weaponry. The best example of this was the superb range, agility and firepower of the famed Zero fighter, but also its lack of protection for its pilots and fuel tanks which later turned out to be such a fatal weakness when operating more defensively. The author shows that the same offensive mentality appeared in the composition and relative effectiveness of the strike components of the carrier’s air group, when compared to the often amazingly lax ‘search and find’ component. This was to prove a real problem at Midway and elsewhere.

In summary, knowing they would almost certainly lose a long war with a hugely superior United States, the Japanese poured all their efforts into achieving a quick and decisive victory but at the expense of resilience and having a Plan B in case things didn’t work out as planned. Accordingly, for all its stunning and innovative success in the first months of the Pacific war, the Japanese Combined Fleet was in fact a gravely unbalanced one. Because he was all too aware of this, but also realising that Japan had little real choice given the enormous potential of the United States in a long war, Yamamoto thought it essential, and proved able, to switch the emphasis still further onto an even more ambitiously offensive plan, a pre-emptive strike on Pearl Harbor before the avenging US Pacific Fleet had even started its surge back across the ocean.

Stille describes that attack quite clearly, but in this first book, the emphasis is on exploring the core elements of the Combined Fleet not on a narrative of battle. This is much more the theme of the second of these two books, Japan’s Indian Ocean Raid 1942, which saw the victorious Combined Fleet having defeated the Americans forging into the Indian Ocean to do the same to the British. They had already of course wrested local sea control in Southeast Asa from the Royal Navy by sinking ‘Force Z’ in an encounter that had by then proved decisive in their campaign to seize Singapore and the oil of the Dutch East Indies.

But it is emblematic of Japan’s short-sightedness in their war planning, that it was far from clear what their ultimate purpose in the Indian Ocean actually was. Some Japanese planners had clearly hoped that this would be less of a time-winning ‘raid’ to inflict damage on the British, and more to affect a permanent transfer of strategic control over the whole theatre. Seizing Ceylon, with its harbours at Trincomalee and Colombo, would support the Army in its march through Burma, close down allied access to embattled China finally facilitating victory in that endless and exhausting war, and encourage the dismemberment of the British Empire. It would also gravely weaken the ability of Britain to keep control of Egypt, the Canal and the eastern Mediterranean and maybe enable a strategic link-up with Japan’s German and Italian allies. It was an alluring prospect but one they gradually realised was beyond their capability

Accordingly, the results were much less dramatic than they had hoped for. They sank two British heavy cruisers Cornwalland Dorsetshire, the small obsolescent carrier Hermes and a number of smaller warships together with over 30 merchant ships. They showed that their experienced first generation of flyers were superior to their newly trained adversaries, as were their aircraft, but even so, they could not locate Admiral Somerville and dispose of the main elements of his fleet. Moreover, the fact that the British at this time in the early months of 1942 were indeed at their lowest ebb helped conceal the fatal defensive weaknesses in the Japanese approach that were to appear so clearly later on.

Somerville however does not come out of this account all that well. Thinking that the Japanese only had two fleet carriers in the battle, he engaged in offensive manoeuvres which were actually reckless bearing in mind he was really up against five of them. Even so by the narrowest of margins at one stage, he evaded defeat and kept his fleet in being. So, once again the Japanese had failed to achieve a decisive knock-out blow they sought. This ensured in due course that there would be a second round, and that in all probability they would lose it.

Summing up, neither of these similar but also rather different books says much that is actually new but in both cases the subjects they address are meticulously, clearly and accurately described and explained. The illustrations are excellent and the writing effective. Readers who know a lot about either subject already will find them a very useful aide-memoire; for the readers who don’t, both make first rate introductions. These books are highly recommended.