'Japanese Carriers and Victory in the Pacific'
The Yamamoto Option
This new study (2021) considers in considerable detail an alternative history regarding the Japanese approach to war in the 1930s and 1940s. If the Japanese had spent more resources on building carriers rather than battleships would they have been better placed to fight the war that they fought in 1941? Did they have the capacity to build such carriers, did they have the planes and pilots to arm them properly? As such Japanese Carriers and Victory in the Pacific is very much for those deeply interested in the Pacific War.
The author ranges far and wide in his considerations of Japanese military capabilities with particular attention to the underlying philosophies that drove the Japanese Navy, not least the influence of Yamamoto.
The following excerpt concerns the thinking and tactics adopted by Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, the Japanese commander at the Battle of Midway. Did he take a massive gamble that he would have the time to launch a complete knock-out blow against the US carriers? What influenced that gamble?
The commander of the Kido Butai (the "Mobile Force", the main Japanese carrier battle group) , Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, appears to have been pessimistically aware of the lack of properly trained aircrew reserves.
After his victory in the Battle of Santa Cruz at the height of the Guadalcanal campaign in October 1942, he was in Truk lagoon when visited by a destroyer commander who had distinguished himself in night battles at Guadalcanal. Both were long-time destroyer and torpedo men. Commander (later Captain) Hara congratulated Nagumo on his victory.
Nagumo confessed that it had not been decisive enough. As indeed it was not, for during the battle, most of the remaining elite fliers of the Kido Butai, including their leaders, were shot down in flames. It had been a Pyrrhic victory and boded ill for the conclusion of the war.
The Hara/Nagumo exchange at Truk after Santa Cruz is an insight into the mind of Nagumo when he faced impossible decisions during the Battle of Midway. He did not survive the war in order to explain his actions at Midway. The exchange indicates a possessive concern for his airmen, an awareness that after them lay little worth flying. Such may explain one of the great puzzles of the Midway battle - why he did not accede to the frantic signals of his 2nd Carrier Division commander, Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi. After a scout plane that had been catapulted from the heavy cruiser 'Tone' revealed at least one American carrier in ambush position, Yamaguchi wanted to dispatch immediately his near deck-ready squadrons of dive bombers against them from his pair of carriers, the Hiryu and Soryu.
Nagumo opted instead to accept the risk of an American strike, because the falsely reported position of the sighting had indicated the American force on the outside of its range. He thereby judged that he had time to ready full deck loads for a combined strike against the American task force from all four Japanese aircraft carriers, once the other two - the Akagi and Kaga - had completed rearming their Kate bombers with torpedoes. The dive bombers aboard the Soryu and Hiryu would be ready to strike much sooner.
Meanwhile, aircraft from the earlier strike against the American air base on Midway atoll could be landed and stowed below flight decks in the hangars for refuelling and rearming, so they could be hurled as a second strike against the American carriers.
‘Waiting in order to dispatch a full co-ordinated first strike was a risk, but there seems to have been a presentiment at work - his fliers being an irreplaceable force, a once-only capability for securing total and decisive victory against America.’
Waiting in order to dispatch a full co-ordinated first strike was a risk, but there seems to have been a presentiment at work - his fliers being an irreplaceable force, a once-only capability for securing total and decisive victory against America.
That could only be achieved with an all-out co-ordinated attack. There was also the precedent of the Battle of the Coral Sea the previous month, when a co-ordinated attack was thought to have sunk both American carriers (in actuality only the Lexington, because the Yorktown survived to fight at Midway).
A commander, if he is any good, prides himself on his men. While a destroyer man himself and unexpectedly placed in charge of airmen albeit well advised by the likes of his chief of staff Ryunosuke Kusaka, air commander Minoru Genda and leader of the Pearl Harbor raid, Commander Mitsuo Fuchida - Nagumo listened to his innermost fears. However reluctant he was to accept the new primacy of naval aviation, nonetheless he would have known how irreplaceable his aircrews were.
This and the record of his comments to Commander Hara in Truk lagoon may give insight into his much-criticized decision at Midway. One can assume that Nagumo was imbued with the IJN’s ‘decisive battle’ fixation. One can also surmise that as commander of the elite First Air Fleet, he had uncomfortably realized that nothing much to compare with its air crews lay beyond it. Consequently, would not anyone have accepted the risk he took?
For here were American carriers in range. They had cheated him at Pearl Harbor by their absence, but now at least openly lay under his paw to crush. It had to be all or nothing. Anything less than a totally decisive result would fritter away the winning card in his hand and leave the American enemy with a carrier ‘fleet in being’, as tenuously became the case after Nagumo’s hard-won victory at Santa Cruz. To give the man his due, he chose to take the risk he did because the sighting report received mistakenly placed the American fleet at or beyond the extremity of its air range. It seemed he still had time to act.
If asked, as Churchill did of General Weygand after the German panzer divisions broke through the French front in May 1940, ‘Where are your reserves?’, his reply would have been the same, ‘There are none’. But it was not Nagumo’s fault that Japan had failed to provide adequate reserves of aircrews.
In the 1930s, barely 100 pilots joined the fleet in any one year, such that, according to historian Arthur Marder, ‘when war came, there were between 3,000 and 4,000 navy pilots, of whom 1,000-1,500 were trained for carriers. There were not enough pilots to man all available aircraft and maintain a comfortable reserve.’ The reason for this lay in the extremely tough qualifications for flyers. According to fighter ace Sakai Saburo, he was one of only seventy accepted for flight training at Kasumigaura. There had been more than 1,500 applicants. The rigours of the training course weeded out more. The accident rate was also high in service due to the intensity of continued training in the most testing conditions. And then there was the China war, with its inevitable casualties.
The pre-war average number of flying hours in the IJN was two or three times that of Allied training. That was the measure of the human resource that flew in the open door at Pearl Harbor and raged all across the Pacific in 1942, the year that shook America and its allies to their core.
This excerpt from Japanese Carriers and Victory in the Pacific appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.