Loading...

Naval warfare has never been fought on the scale it was during World War Two in all of human history. This article features a comprehensive history of WW2 navies, including the types of Axis and Allied ships that appeared in battle, the major naval battles in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of war, and indvidual ships that had major impact on the outcomes of these battles.

Scroll down to see more articles about the history of WW2 navies.

Loading...
Loading...

USS Enterprise (CVN-65): The Linchpin of the Pacific

From the 1930s to the early 1940s, five carriers joined the U.S. Fleet, including the fifteen thousand-ton Ranger (CV-4) in 1934, America’s first flattop built as such but limited in size by the Washington Naval Treaty. Most notable were the twenty thousand-ton sisters Yorktown(CV-5) and the USS Enterprise (CV-6) in 1937 and 1938, which would prove crucial to America’s war effort in the months after Pearl Harbor.

In the Pearl Harbor attack of December 7, 1941, USS Enterprise  had been spared a pier-side death, delaying its return from a ferry run to Wake Island upon receiving news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

THE USS ENTERPRISE IN WORLD WAR TWO

The Enterprise was involved in the most important naval battles of the Pacific Theatre in World War Two. In particular the Battle of Midway in 1942. This is because the most important tactical decision of the Battle of Midway was made by Enterprise’s air group commander, C. Wade McClusky, who found the Japanese carriers by following a hunch.

Enterprise put up a strong team: thirty-two SBDs, fourteen TBDs, and ten Wildcats. But the launch dragged on while Lieutenant Commander C. Wade McClusky orbited with his Dauntlesses, burning fuel. Finally, he was ordered to “proceed on mission assigned” and led his two squadrons southwesterly, expecting to find Nagumo 155 nautical miles southwest, heading toward Midway. The TBDs and F4Fs proceeded independently, while the Wildcats mistakenly tagged onto Hornet’s Devastators.

McClusky had graduated from Annapolis on June 4, 1926, and possessed considerable experience as a fleet aviator. A fighter pilot, he was new to dive bombers, but he was persistent in hunting Nagumo. When his formation arrived at the expected interception point, he found only sea and sky, and continued on a few minutes more. He reasoned that his prey could not have advanced past the briefed contact point, so he turned northwesterly, paralleling Nagumo’s expected track.

Still finding nothing after twenty more minutes, McClusky finally got a break. He found a Japanese destroyer headed northeast and reckoned it was joining the carriers. Taking his heading from the “tin can,” he proceeded on course until a pale break appeared on the horizon. McClusky raised his binoculars and saw the Japanese striking force.

Enterprise’s biographer, Commander Edward P. Stafford, described the ephemeral moment:

In a dive bomber’s dream of perfection, the clean blue Dauntlesses—with their perforated dive flaps open at the trailing edges of their wings and their bing bombs tucked close and pointing home, the pilots straining forward, rudder-feet and stick-hands light and delicate, getting it just right as the yellow decks came up, left hands that would reach down and forward to release now resting on the cockpit edge, gunners lying on their backs behind the cocked twin barrels searching for the fighters that did not come—carved a moment out of eternity for man to remember forever.

Loading...
Loading...

Several SBDs were chased by vengeful Zeros. One managed to wound McClusky, but he escaped. However, the USS Enterprise lost eighteen of her thirty-two scout bombers, including two out of action aboard Yorktown. “Yorky’s” Max Leslie and his wingman ditched safely, while the rest of his squadron recovered aboard The Big E.

The USS Enterprise at the Battle of the Eastern Solomons

Enterprise came under heavy air attack during the Eastern Solomons battle of August 24, 1942. The action was described by the Big E’s gunnery officer, Lieutenant Commander Elias B. Mott.

We were absolutely unable to see the planes due to the fact that they were so high and small, and that it was late in the afternoon and the sky was considerably bluer than it would have been earlier. . . . About 1712 [5:12 p.m.] the first Jap dive bomber commenced its attack.

One of our forward 20mm gunners opened up on him when he was at 10,000 feet, and this was the signal for the formation. Everybody opened up with five-inch and with automatic weapons. The attack lasted five or six minutes, and during that time they came down one after another starting from the port bow and working around to the starboard quarter. At one time I remember seeing five Japanese dive bombers in line all the way from about 2,000 feet to 12,000. . .

We had the old 1.1 inchers without power drive and about thirty-two 20mm and of course our eight five-inch guns. Five-inch on local control did very well. They hit several planes on the nose . . . and the planes disintegrated. The tremendous number of 20mms that we were able to bring to bear on each plane caused them either to miss or to drop in flames. . . . However, as they worked around toward the stern, where we had little firepower protection, when they came down although we hit them, they were able to take aim and we sustained three hits. One on fiveinch Gun Group Number Three; one on the flight deck aft, which penetrated down three decks; and another one just abaft the island structure on the flight deck. This was an instantaneous bomb. The one that hit Gun Group Number Three wiped out the entire group of thirty-nine men.

My impression of the battle was that if we had a little more firepower, it might have been different. It looked to me that if you had enough guns that the enemy planes would be in trouble, would have to swerve off or . . . the pilot would be killed. However, in a dive-bombing attack, it’s not just a case of getting one plane or ten or even fifteen. You’ve got to get them all, you can’t afford to get hit.

The USS Enterprise at the end of 1942

Unlike Eastern Solomons two months before, Santa Cruz was a clear Japanese tactical victory. But Tokyo’s combined Army and naval strategy failed to end the Guadalcanal campaign, where the bloodletting continued.

The U.S. Pacific Fleet was left with one fast carrier, the battered Enterprise, which counted forty-four sailors killed and sixteen fliers missing. Her damage control team again demonstrated its expertise, and she was back in action in two weeks.

Loading...
Loading...

Again the high price of carrier combat was evident: Kinkaid lost eighty-one aircraft (59 percent) and Nagumo ninety-nine (50 percent).

As PacFleet’s only available big-deck carrier, Enterprise was a priceless asset that season. Air Group Ten cycled in and out of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal during the November crisis, contributing to the ultimate defeat of Japan’s final effort to retrieve the situation. When Tokyo decided to withdraw its remaining troops in February, the vital six-month campaign reached its sanguinary end.

In early 1943 only Saratoga and Enterprise remained available in the Pacific, and Big E was overdue for refit. But help came from an unlikely source: the Royal Navy. Between January and May HMS Victorious had received modifications on the East Coast and at Pearl Harbor to accommodate American aircraft and support equipment. The veteran of the Bismarck hunt and Mediterranean convoys, codenamed “Robin” in Allied message traffic, filled the breach until newgeneration American carriers arrived later that summer.

The USS Enterprise’s  long war ended on May 11, 1945, when a well-flown Kamikaze dived into Enterprise’s deck, blowing much of the elevator 400 feet in the air. With more battle stars than any other ship, she was under repair when the war ended.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf: WW2’s Largest Naval Battle

The pace of the Pacific War accelerated after the Mariana and Palau Islands campaign, with the fast carriers at the tip of the spear. In a controversial move, the joint chiefs ordered the Marines to seize Peleliu in the Palau Islands to guard the eastern flank of the upcoming return to the Philippines. The First Division went ashore in mid-September, expecting to wrap up the craggy island in a matter of days. Instead, the operation lasted two and a half months, with critics arguing that it turned into an unnecessary, sanguinary meat grinder. Fast carriers supported the landings but had more urgent business six hundred miles westward in late October.

Army General Douglas MacArthur’s 1942 pledge to return to the Philippines prompted high-level discussion regarding the advisability of seizing the Philippines or Formosa. For a variety of reasons— including a national debt to the long-suffering Filipino people—a huge amphibious force set its sights on Leyte Gulf that fall. The stage was being set for the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

The engagement, fought in waters near the Phillipoine islands of Leyte, Luzon, and Samar, took place from October 23-26. The beliigerents were American and Australian forces against the Imperial Japanese. Historians consider the battle to be the largest naval battle of World War Two and perhaps the largest naval battle in history. Four separate engagements took place: The Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, the Battle of Surigao Strait, the BAttle of Cape Engano and the Battle of Samar. Because Japan had fewer aircraft than the Allies had sea vessels, it was the first battle in which Japanese pilots carried out organized kamikaze attacks.

Third Fleet sought to weaken Japan at the periphery before striking the Philippines. Therefore, carriers hit Okinawa on October 10 and Formosa on October 12. Carrier aircrews estimated they destroyed 650 planes at Formosa, while Japan admitted half as many—still a heavy blow. Yet Tokyo, still slurping its homemade brew, gleefully announced sinking three dozen American ships, including battleships and carriers. Even the normally level-headed Kamikaze master, Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, thought his airmen had destroyed three carriers and three other ships. In truth, two U.S. cruisers were badly damaged but survived.

Loading...
Loading...

“Bull” Halsey’s Third Fleet arrived off the Philippines with Task Force Thirty-Eight’s four groups deploying sixteen fast carriers. From bases in Japan and the East Indies the Imperial Navy launched a three-pronged response with carriers, battleships, and scores of escorts. The sprawling, four-day slugfest began on October 24.

Halsey had released two groups to head eastward for replenishment when the crisis broke. He recalled Rear Admiral Gerald Bogan’s Task Group 38.4, while allowing Vice Admiral John McCain’s 38.1 to proceed to Ulithi, taking five flight decks out of action until late in the battle. Thankfully, Marc Mitscher’s fast carriers were not the only flattops involved. Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, who had commanded at Santa Cruz, led Seventh Fleet including eighteen CVEs for close air support and antisubmarine patrol.

In the Sibuyan Sea—another front of the Battle of Leyte Gulf located on the western side of the Philippines—carrier airpower destroyed one of the largest battleships afloat. Three fast carrier groups launched multiple strikes against Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s five battleships, twelve cruisers, and fifteen destroyers. Some 260 blue aircraft swarmed the sixty-four thousand-ton Musashi for more than five hours, hammering her with seventeen bombs and nineteen torpedoes, heavily represented by Enterprise and Franklin’s air groups. Ten aircraft fell to Japanese AA, but it was the first time carrier planes sank a battleship underway, unassisted by surface combatants. It would not be the last.

Kurita had already lost two cruisers to submarines and another turned back with bomb damage, but after regrouping he continued his mission to enter Leyte Gulf, unknown to Halsey.

Meanwhile, Japanese land-based aircraft posed a serious threat to the fast carriers. Winging seaward in three large formations, they were intercepted by relays of F6Fs well managed by fighter-direction officers. But fighters were spread thin. In Task Group 38.3 Essex’s last two available Hellcats were launched with hostiles inbound, putting Commander David McCampbell and Lieutenant (jg) Roy Rushing onto a gaggle of Zekes. In the next ninety minutes McCampbell claimed nine kills—the all-time U.S. one-day record—and Rushing six. In all, Essex’s Fighting Fifteen was credited with forty-three kills that day.

In the same group Princeton’s shark-mouthed VF-27 fought hard for its ship, splashing thirty-six raiders. But a single Yokosuka Judy put a 550-pound bomb through “Sweet P’s” flight deck, igniting ordnance on the hangar deck. The light cruiser Birmingham (CL-62) came alongside to take off survivors when a huge secondary explosion swept the would-be rescuer, inflicting nearly seven hundred casualties. Princeton was scuttled after an eight-hour ordeal, losing 108 men. She was the first American fast carrier sunk since Santa Cruz and remained the last. Carrier aviators claimed 270 kills on October 24, the second highest count of the war.

But the Imperial Navy was not ready to give up the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Under cover of darkness October 24–25, Kurita transited San Bernardino Strait between Luzon and Samar, eastbound, intending to fall upon MacArthur’s vulnerable transports in the gulf. The Navy’s first full-time night flying unit, Air Group 41 in light carrier Independence, had Avengers airborne that night, tracking the large enemy force. Mitscher assumed that Third Fleet had the information, but for reasons still unclear, Halsey ignored it.

Loading...
Loading...

Additionally, that afternoon Task Force Thirty-Eight search teams had found Ozawa’s four carriers off Luzon’s northeast coast. That information, later combined with Independence’s report of Kurita’s eastward course, bothered some senior officers, who correctly deduced Ozawa’s purpose: to draw the fast carriers north, clearing the way for Kurita’s center force. Mitscher, informed of the developing situation, declined to intervene with Halsey.

Well to the south, the third prong of Tokyo’s offensive met Seventh Fleet units in Surigao Strait separating Leyte and Mindanao—everything from PT boats to battleships. In the world’s last major surface engagement, the annihilation was nearly complete, leaving the dogged Kurita pressing eastward while Jisabuo Ozawa—survivor of the Marianas—lurked well to the north with four partly equipped carriers.

THE BATTLE OF LEYTE GULF: DAY TWO

Shortly past dawn on October 25, Vice Admiral Kinkaid’s three escort carrier groups had patrols airborne. An Avenger sighted large ships with pagoda masts emerging from San Bernardino strait and radioed the alarming news.

All that stood in Kurita’s path was Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague’s Task Group 77.4.3, with six CVEs and seven escorts, off Samar’s east coast. “Taffy Three” turned away, making smoke, launching aircraft, and hollering for help. Sprague faced four battleships, eight cruisers, and eleven destroyers. But support from Taffy Two added more Avengers and Wildcats to Sprague’s numbers.

As the “smallboys” attacked with torpedoes and five-inch gunfire, aviators made repeated runs with bombs, torpedoes, and strafing passes. One Wildcat pilot made twenty-six runs, most of them without ammunition.

Unable to outrun the enemy, the 19-knot CVEs were chased down. Gambier Bay (CVE-73) succumbed to cruiser guns, as did three of the escorts. After HMS Glorious in 1940, she was only the second aircraft carrier sunk by surface ships. But Kurita, impressed with the ferocity of the “jeep” carriers’ response, and mindful of the pummeling he had taken the day before, called off the chase. Just as an historic victory lay on the horizon, he disengaged. Kinkaid’s transports—and MacArthur’s source of supply—were safe.

Still, Taffy Three remained in peril. That afternoon St. Lo (CVE-63), originally named Midway, was attacked by a single Zero that made no effort to pull out of its dive. Wracked by fire, the little flattop went down, first victim of the Special Attack Corps: the Kamikaze had arrived. Six more CVEs were tagged that day.

While the drama played out near Samar, the Japanese waved an irresistible target under Halsey’s nose. Ozawa’s four carriers steamed off the northeast Philippines, seemingly representing the third major threat after the surface forces in San Bernardino and Surigao straits. Once ComThirdFleet got the news, Halsey reacted predictably: he rushed to destroy Tokyo’s remaining flattops. In his haste, he committed a severe blunder, leaving San Bernardino unguarded. He assumed that battleships of Vice Admiral Willis Lee’s powerful Task Force Thirty-Four would prevent an enemy force from entering the gulf. He did not realize as he pounded north that all seven battleships and their screens in Lee’s contingency force remained integrated into the fast carrier task groups.

Loading...
Loading...

Bull Halsey was more a fighter than a thinker. An instinctive warrior, he rode to where he imagined the guns were sounding. Only when the stunning news arrived of Japanese battleships pounding Taffy Three did he realize that he had been snookered. Worse, he wasted an hour or more ranting and sulking before deciding on a course of action.

Ozawa lay more than four hundred miles from the Taffies, and Halsey was in between. The Bull finally ordered Lee’s battlewagons— racing ahead of the carriers—to reverse helm and move southward, although everyone knew it was far too late.

The four carriers in Ozawa’s Mobile Fleet had deployed with just 116 aircraft, but by the morning of October 25 they retained only twenty-nine. The ensuing clash could only go one way.

Starting at 8:00 a.m. Mitscher launched 180 aircraft, the first of six strikes totaling more than five hundred sorties. The on-scene coordinators were air group commanders from TG-38.3: first from Essex, then from Lexington. The F6Fs brushed aside the dozen or so Zeros trying to defend their flight decks as “99 Rebel” and “99 Mohawk” assigned targets. Lexington and Langley’s aircrews wrote the final log entry for Zuikaku, survivor of Coral Sea, Eastern Solomons, and Santa Cruz. Other air groups sank CVLs Chitose and Zuiho as well as a destroyer.

Ozawa shifted his flag to cruiser Oyodo.

SINKING OZAWA AT THE BATTLE OF LEYTE GULF

That morning Essex’s air group commander David McCampbell directed strikes that sank the light carrier Chitose. Relieving him as target coordinator was Lexington’s Commander Hugh Winters, controlling some two hundred aircraft. He recalled, “There was no chance for surprise, as the Japs were already bleeding some, so we didn’t have to shoot on sight, so to speak. We wanted all the carriers, with maybe a BB or CA for the cherry on top.”

Winters directed his squadrons against Zuikaku, Zuiho, and the larger escorts. He noted:

The heavy haze of AA smoke trailing off the quarter gave good windage for our dive bombers as we pushed over. . . . The ships were using new anti-aircraft stuff with wires and burning phosphorous shells which put up all different-colored fire and smoke around our planes. But we had faced so much deadly AA for so many lousy targets that it didn’t bother us too much, hunting this big game. The boys were as cool as any professionals working in a hospital or law office.

Loading...
Loading...

The Zuiho limped on, burning, but the Zuikaku stopped and started to die on one side. She needed no more, but hung in there for awhile, and her AA battery was nasty. In the excitement, I stayed down too low (not very professional), and got some holes in my left wing. I knew it would be a long afternoon, so I throttled back to almost stalling speed and leaned out the fuel to practically a back-firing mixture.

Winters assigned subsequent air groups according to his target priority, and watched Zuiho sink, then Zuikaku capsize. “No big explosions, no steam from flooded firerooms, no fire and smoke—just a few huge bubbles. Quietly, and it seemed to me, with dignity.”

Thus perished the last survivor of the Pearl Harbor attackers. The light carrier Chiyoda lingered a bit longer. Hugh Winters and wingman Ensign Barney Garbow had witnessed something unprecedented—they saw three aircraft carriers sink during one mission.

Halsey dispatched four cruisers and nine destroyers as a pickup team to complete the execution. They sank Chiyoda late that afternoon and pummeled a remaining destroyer. Carrier planes continued scouring Philippine waters during October 26 and 27, picking off a light cruiser and four more destroyers. It brought Japanese losses in the four-day battle to twenty-six combatants, totaling three hundred thousand tons.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf officially entered the books as the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea, though most of the action occurred nearly one thousand miles from the June turkey shoot.

Despite an unprecedented level of destruction inflicted upon the Japanese WW2 navies, the Battle of Leyte Gulf left a sour taste in many American mouths. Halsey’s bungled arrangement for covering San Bernardino Strait resulted in the unnecessary loss of four Taffy Three ships and nearly six hundred lives. (St. Lo and Princeton could not be laid to Halsey’s account.) The fault was shared, however, with MacArthur’s unnecessarily complex communications structure and Kinkaid’s acquiescence to it. Halsey stayed, and as events would show, he remained beyond all accountability.

Historians still debate whether the Battle of Leyte Gulf represented the sixth flattop battle. Purists insist that it did not, because the carrier versus carrier phase was totally one-sided. By the time Halsey’s air groups got at Ozawa on October 25, the four Japanese carriers were nearly empty. Even upon deployment, many Imperial Navy pilots could only launch from their flight decks, being untrained in shipboard landings. In any case, Leyte was the last time that carrier-based aircraft—or any others—sank opposing carriers at sea.

From the period after the Battle of Leyte Gulf  through December, eight more carriers were hit by Kamikazes. The attackers sent Intrepid, Franklin, and Belleau Wood stateside for repairs that would take between two and four months. It was becoming increasingly obvious: the only way to defeat the Kamikaze was to kill him, as he could not be deterred.

Loading...
Loading...

Toward that end, the navy asked for help from the Marines. With a shortage of carrier fighters to combat Kamikazes, the Pacific Fleet began training leatherneck Corsair squadrons in carrier operations. The first two squadrons, VMF-124 and 213, were experienced Solomons units that reported aboard Essex at Ulithi in December. They had a rough initiation to Western Pacific weather, suffering heavy losses, but they paid their way. Eight more Marine squadrons joined them in the new year.

Meanwhile, nature reminded the U.S. Navy that Imperial Japan could be the lesser enemy. While refueling in mid-December, Halsey wanted to remain in position to support MacArthur’s forces on Luzon, but a major tropic storm called Typhoon Cobra spun up in the Philippine Sea, tracking north-northwest. Ignoring warnings from meteorologists—complicated by some inaccurate forecasts—Halsey continued refueling. Consequently, he took Third Fleet into the mouth of the storm, prompting comparisons to the original Divine Wind that saved Japan from Mongol invasions in the thirteenth century. The result was a disaster. Battling one hundred mph winds, three destroyers capsized and nearly eight hundred men drowned.

Light and escort carriers were especially vulnerable, rolling eighteen to twenty degrees, whipped by violent winds. Avengers and Hellcats snapped their flight deck tie-downs and tumbled into catwalks or careened overboard. One loose fighter or bomber could cause havoc, colliding with other planes, smashing into fuel lines, and starting blazing fires.

Five fast carriers and four CVEs suffered damage, with Monterey (CVL-26) forced to Bremerton, Washington, for repairs after a serious fire on the hangar deck. Nine other ships incurred major damage; six suffered lesser damage. More than one hundred aircraft were destroyed or badly damaged at no expense to the enemy.

Summarizing the damage of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Nimitz reflected that Typhoon Cobra “represented a more crippling blow to the Third Fleet than it might be expected to suffer in anything less than a major action.”

Halsey might have been relieved of command after the storm, coming so soon after the Battle of Leyte Gulf fiasco. But perceived needs of the service prevailed: a board of inquiry faulted him for poor judgment while declining to recommend sanction. Many officers and sailors grumbled about politics uber alles.

However, there had been more action at the expense of Japan. The last carrier sunk in 1944 was Shinano, third of the Yamato-class battleships, converted to a carrier, and slated for sea trials in November. On the night of October 29, en route to Kure, she fell afoul of USS Archerfish (SS-311), which put four torpedoes into her starboard side, sinking the seventy-one thousand-ton behemoth in about six hours.

Midway Class Carrier: The Behemoth of WW2 Navies

During the Second World War, the Navy evolved the concept of the “battle carrier,” bigger and more capable than the Essex class. Of six CVBs planned, three were ordered, with Midway (CV-41) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42) commissioned immediately after V-J Day, followed by Coral Sea (CVB-43) two years later.

Loading...
Loading...

The Midway-class aircraft carrier acted as one of the longest-serving aircraft carrier designs in U.S. naval history. The USS Midway was first commissioned in late 1945 and was not decommissioned until 1992, serving its final tour of duty in Desert Storm. Few ships saw as much change in warfare as her.

The Midway Class carriers were transitional ships. Originally displacing forty-five thousand tons, they were envisioned as embarking more than 120 aircraft. The concept proved unworkable, however, and in fact undesirable. Early experience demonstrated the difficulty of operating so many planes with four squadrons of Corsairs (sixty-three F4Us) and Helldivers (fifty-three SB2Cs). Because of their size, the CVBs were better equipped for operating jets and larger piston aircraft simultaneously. Midway, for instance, briefly flew twin-jet McDonnell FH-1s in 1949 but retained piston-engine fighters until 1950.

The three ships were assigned to the Atlantic Fleet for much of their careers, tentatively opposing the Soviet threat. Midway and Coral Sea served into the 1990s, with Midway becoming a museum ship in San Diego. The hard-used FDR (uncharitably called “Filthy Dirty Rusty” late in her career) was sold in 1977.

Battle of Okinawa: AKA Operation Iceberg

Operation Iceberg—the code name for the Battle of Okinawa and the occupation of the Ryukyu Islands—began on April 1, 1945. It was not only April Fool’s Day, it was also Easter Sunday. The northern portion of Okinawa lay only four hundred statute miles from Kyushu, and Iceberg was certain to draw a furious response.

The Battle of Okinawa shaped up as the penultimate battle of the Pacific War— the last step before Japan itself. Defended by about seventy thousand Japanese troops plus thousands of conscripted Okinawans, the islands were assaulted by the U.S. Tenth Army comprised of seven Army and Marine Corps divisions totaling some 180,000 men, plus reserves and support units.

To support Iceberg, the carriers had to remain in a limited area, usually no more than one hundred miles offshore. That requirement solved the enemy’s main problem—locating his target. For two months the fast carriers, ably assisted by the CVEs, fought a continuous battle against conventional and suicide air raids in addition to flying ground support missions for U.S. infantry.

The carrier airmen brought enormous power to Okinawa, with more than one thousand planes in Mitscher’s force, plus two hundred more in four British ships. As before, the fast carriers operated round the clock. Enterprise remained the sole night owl at the time among fourteen other U.S. carriers deployed in four task groups, with more ships on the way.

Eighteen escort carriers under Rear Admiral Calvin Durgin, “Mr. CVE,” embarked 450 planes providing close air support, antisubmarine patrol, and combat air patrol. Additionally, on D Plus Three, four jeep carriers delivered two Marine air groups of Corsairs and Night Hellcats to operate ashore as “plank owners” in the Tactical Air Force.

Loading...
Loading...

There had never been anything like it.

But there had also never been anything like Japan’s Special Attack Corps. The Kamikaze hatcheries spawned an unrelenting stream of suiciders that winged southward from their Kyushu nests. However, Japanese response on the first two days was surprisingly light: carrier pilots only splashed ten hostiles each day. Activity jumped on April 3, with nearly fifty shootdowns. Far worse was yet to come.

The Kamikaze master, Admiral Matome Ugaki, launched Operation Kikusui on April 6. U.S. Navy fighters claimed 257 kills, fourth highest daily toll of the war. Most heavily engaged were Essex’s VF-83 with fifty-six claims, and forty-seven by Belleau Wood’s VF-30. Three of Fighting Thirty’s pilots became aces that day, executing a succession of Vals and fighters bent on suicide.

Between early April and June 21, the Special Attack Corps lofted more than 1,400 “Floating Chrysanthemums” in ten waves. By sheer numbers they broke through the Hellcat, Corsair, and Wildcat pickets to sink thirty ships and damage more than ten times that number, with some five thousand sailors killed. The U.S. Navy had never absorbed so many fatalities as it did in the Battle of Okinawa, but off Okinawa and Kyushu the fast carriers proved “the fleet that came to stay.”

The British Pacific Fleet in World War Two

The British Pacific Fleet (BPF) had been activated in November 1944, replacing the Eastern Fleet. Most significantly the BPF struck oil targets in Sumatra in January 1945. But as the war drew closer to Japan, the Royal Navy’s carriers offered a capability that U.S. planners could not ignore. Consequently, four Royal Navy carriers joined Spruance’s Fifth Fleet as Task Force Fifty-Seven. The British flew a mixture of aircraft—their own Supermarine Seafires, Fairey Firefly strike-fighters, and Fairey Barracuda dive bombers, plus Corsairs, Hellcats, and Avengers. Ten fast carriers rotated in and out of TF-57, while two afloat maintenance carriers—HMS Pioneer and Unicorn—were based in the admiralties and Philippines.

George Bernard Shaw famously noted that the British and Americans are two peoples separated by a common language. That certainly applied to the U.S. and Royal navies, which employed different terminologies. The British equivalent of an LSO was a DLCO (deck landing control officer or “batsman”); RN carriers had lifts (elevators) and boosters (catapults), while aircraft (aeroplanes) had airscrews (propellers) and alighting gear (landing gear). Nevertheless, with common codebooks and communication procedures most of the wrinkles were ironed out. Apparently the exception was LSO signals, for the rare occasions when “crossdeck” operations occurred with Americans landing on RN carriers and vice-versa. Most American LSO signals were advisory (“high” meant “You are too high”) rather than instructive (“Go higher”).

Combined Anglo-American fast carrier strength was fifteen fleet carriers, six light carriers, nine battleships, twenty-three cruisers, and scores of destroyers. Nothing remotely like it had ever trailed a wake in any sea.

Royal Navy escort carriers also contributed over a wide area throughout the year. From January through July, seven British-built CVEs kept pressure on Sumatra, the Nicobars, Malaya, and Singapore. As many as four ships at a time operated together, embarking one hundred aircraft that produced results. Some of the major oil facilities lost 30 to 50 percent of production capacity for weeks or months.

Loading...
Loading...

Finally, the biggest Royal Navy CVE operation was called “Zipper,” with six carriers covering the re-occupation of Malaya and Singapore immediately after V-J Day.

Mariana and Palau Islands Campaign

The Central Pacific Offensive—a campaign whose goal was to neutralize Japanese bases and provide bases for a strategic bombing of Japan—had an obvious destination: the Marianas. Plans for taking the Marianas became reality in the Mariana and Palau Islands Campaign, also known as Operation Forager.

Located in mid-ocean, the Japanese-held islands boasted several airfields on Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. In American hands the bases would put B-29 bombers within range of Japan itself. There was no question of how Tokyo would react to the Mariana and Palau Islands Campaign

American assault troops invaded Saipan on June 15, evoking a predictably heavy response from the Imperial Navy. There had been no fleet engagements in the twenty months since Santa Cruz, but the mandatory defense of Saipan ensured the largest carrier clash of all time. It pitted fifteen Task Force Fifty-Eight flattops against nine of the Japanese Mobile Fleet.

Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa’s plan called for land-based aircraft to shuttle between Guam and the Mobile Fleet carriers, placing the Americans in an aerial vise. But after nearly three years of war, the Imperial Navy’s quality and quantity were diminished. On the other side, Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher’s TF-58 aircrews were thoroughly trained, combat-tested, and confident. The Fifth Fleet commander, Admiral Raymond Spruance, was required to defend the beachhead but gave his carrier commander considerable latitude.

The Mariana and Palau Islands Campaign opened shortly after dawn on June 19 when a sizable portion of TF-58’s 400 Hellcats flew CAPs over the task force and the islands. Several fights broke out as Japanese scout planes and fighters took off, but the major engagement began mid-morning. Ozawa’s carriers launched the first of four strikes at the American force, which lacked precise knowledge of the Mobile Fleet’s location.

It mattered little. With ample F6Fs on hand and expert fighter direction, each raid was intercepted and repulsed with severe loss. American fighter pilots had never enjoyed such good hunting. Of sixty-four Japanese planes in Raid One, only twenty-two survived. So it went throughout the day. Sailors standing topside on many ships could watch the progress of the air battle, as wispy white contrails circled in the bright Pacific sky, punctuated by greasy streaks of falling aircraft—nearly all bearing rising suns.

When it was over, nearly three hundred IJN aircraft had been shot down or wrecked. Seven Hellcat pilots had splashed five or more “bandits,” including Lieutenant (jg) Alexander Vraciu of Lexington’s VF-16. In a sizzling eight minutes, he downed six Yokosuka “Judy” dive bombers to become the Navy’s leading ace. The pilot who succeeded him in the top spot was Commander David McCampbell, leading Essex’s Air Group Fifteen. He shot down seven planes in two sorties.

Loading...
Loading...

A Hornet Hellcat pilot unexpectedly found himself presented with a gift. Circling a downed U.S. flier off Guam, Ensign Wilbur Webb— a Pearl Harbor survivor—awaited a rescue aircraft. Then he noted a large formation overland. Investigating, he discovered a flock of Aichi Val dive bombers, so he joined the traffic pattern. Keying his mike he broadcast, “This is Spider Webb to any American fighter pilot. I have about forty of ’em cornered over Orote Point and I could use a little help.” In minutes he shot down six with two more probably destroyed. His riddled F6F never flew again, but Webb joined the ranks of the instant aces. Small wonder that the battle entered history and legend as “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.”

Mitscher lost barely thirty planes, including seventeen Hellcats in combat. While a handful of attackers got through the CAP, they inflicted no significant damage. The Japanese were not so fortunate, as aggressive American submarines found the enemy force, sinking Pearl Harbor veteran Shokaku and Ozawa’s new flagship Taiho.

An Imperial Navy staff officer, Commander Masatake Okumiya, summarized his aircrews’ dilemma: “They never stood a chance against the determined defense of the Hellcat fighters and the unbelievable accuracy and volume of the ships’ antiaircraft fire.”

Pushing through in the Mariana and Palau Islands Campaign

Task Force Fifty-Eight scouts sought Ozawa’s retreating force through most of the day June 20. Enterprise TBFs located him well to the west in mid-afternoon, over three hundred miles distant. Mitscher calculated the odds of retrieving some 220 planes in darkness, but he could not pass up the first shot at Japanese flattops in nearly two years. Turning to his staff on Lexington’s bridge, he merely said, “Launch ’em.”

It was a long flight into the westering sun that evening, and darkness was approaching as the strike groups selected their targets. The priority had been chalked on ready room blackboards: “Get the carriers!” Though Wasp’s (CV-18) air group went for Japanese oilers, the others chose among Ozawa’s three carrier divisions.

The results were disappointing. Intense enemy flak and aggressive fighters reduced the effectiveness of the strike, which sank just one carrier. Belleau Wood (CVL-24) Avengers launched torpedoes against the twenty-four thousand-ton Hiyo. The division leader, Lieutenant (jg) George Brown, had promised a hit, and he delivered. One pilot, probably Lieutenant (jg) Warren Omark, put his torpedo into Hiyo’s stern, causing unmanageable damage. Brown did not return, but the “Flying Hawk” sank that night.

Having sunk one flattop and damaged another, the Americans turned for home. About twenty planes were lost in the attack, but nearly two hundred others faced a daunting challenge: finding their way back on a moonless night.

The Mariana and Palau Islands Campaign was a roaring success. Upon return to the task force, pilots found nearly every ship lit up. Mitscher, in a well-intentioned but counterproductive move, gave his famous order: “Turn on the lights.” The beams helped guide gasstrapped aviators home, but many could not distinguish between the lights of carriers and cruisers or destroyers. Pilots landed in the water after wasting precious fuel in passes at escorts. Others crashed on deck, preventing squadron mates from getting aboard.

Loading...
Loading...

When it was over, nearly half of the 216 planes on the mission were lost. Fuel starvation was the main cause, with only five of the fifty Helldivers returning safely. In vivid contrast, just three of the twenty-seven Dauntlesses were lost. The Navy had already decided to stop buying SBDs, however, and the Douglas production line shut down. After two and a half years the Dauntless’s contribution to America’s war effort in the Pacific could hardly be exaggerated.

In the mop-up operations of the Mariana and Palau Islands Campaign, Task Force Fifty-Eight ships and aircraft spent most of the next few days seeking downed fliers, with surprising success. More than three-quarters of the missing airmen were rescued.

The First Battle of the Philippine Sea produced strategic results. The Imperial Navy was finished as an offensive force, and before year end B-29s were flying missions against Japan from Marianas bases. The Mariana and Palau Islands Campaign was a success.

Meanwhile, the British Eastern Fleet grew in strength and purpose as its carriers struck Japanese oil targets in Sumatra (now Indonesia). Between July 1944 and January 1945 HMS Illustrious, Indomitable, and Victorious launched five operations, flying Corsairs, Avengers, and British “home grown” Barracuda dive bombers and Seafire fighters. In keeping with broader Allied strategy, an October strike against the Nicobar Islands ninety miles north of Sumatra helped draw Japanese attention away from the Philippines.

The Essex Class Aircraft Carrier

By 1943 momentum was moving in America’s direction against Japan in the Pacific Theatre of World War Two. But numerous battles had depleted it of ships, namely its treasured aircraft carriers. Only Saratoga and Enterprise remained available in the Pacific.

That August the wartime generation of fast carriers began arriving in Hawaii. The spanking new Essex (CV-9) and Yorktown (CV-10) promised much and delivered on that potential. In the next two years they and their ten sisters, representing the new Essex class aircraft carriers, carried the main burden of PacFleet carrier requirements.

In fact, the Pacific War was waged and won in shipyards as much as in combat. Whereas prewar carriers such as Yorktown and Enterprise required between three and four years from keel-laying to commissioning, the wartime Essexes typically took sixteen to twenty months. The record was Franklin (CV-13), produced by Newport News in only fourteen months.

The Essex class aircraft carrier has been called “the DC-3 of aircraft carriers” for versatility and longevity. Twenty-four units were delivered from 1943 to 1950, and it remains the most-produced fleet carrier design of all time, the last being retired in 1991.

Loading...
Loading...

Although originally conceived as a somewhat larger Yorktown when ordered in July 1940, CV-9 possessed increased operability and survivability. As with Wasp (CV-7), the midship elevator was moved to port, allowing more flexibility in flight deck operations for a larger air group. The early design envisioned two flight deck catapults and a transverse “cat” to launch planes off the hangar deck—an option seldom used. Defensive measures included additional armor, greater compartmentalization, and much increased antiaircraft armament. Standard displacement rose from 19,800 in the Yorktowns to 27,100 for early Essex class aircraft carriers

The first three ships were laid down before Pearl Harbor, becoming Essex, Lexington (CV-16), and Bunker Hill (CV-17). Orders for ten more were placed before January 1942.

The Essex class aircraft carriers proved near-perfect weapons for the Pacific Theater. They displaced one-third more than the Yorktowns, possessing excellent range and room for nearly one hundred aircraft. More and better radars with a fully integrated combat information center gave task force fighter directors a 360-degree perspective almost from sea level to about thirty thousand feet. Combined with new four-channel VHF radios, the fast carriers’ 1943–44 air defense capability exceeded anything previously deployed.

Meanwhile, a hasty program to convert cruiser hulls to light carriers (CVLs) was producing results. The Independence (CVL-22) class got a head start with light cruiser hulls, the first five laid down by New York Shipbuilding of Camden, New Jersey, in 1941. They were commissioned at the rate of almost one a month through 1943, requiring a median eighteen months for conversion and completion.

When delivered, the CVLs displaced about 14,700 tons, operating thirty or more aircraft. Capable of 31 knots, they could steam with their Essex-class teammates.

The same month that Essex and Yorktown reached Pearl, Independence and Princeton (CVL-23) went operational. They were followed by Lexington, Bunker Hill, and three more CVLs through year-end.

Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands

The malarial Santa Cruz Islands bear three hundred miles east of the Solomons, and might remain unknown to history but for the fourth carrier battle of World War II’s Pacific Campaign, fought nearby in October 1942, and known as the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.

JAPANESE PREPARATIONS FOR THE BATTLE OF THE SANTA CRUZ ISLANDS

In a rare example of strategic cooperation, the Japanese Army and WW2 Navies put aside their bitter enmity long enough to plan a serious effort to end the Guadalcanal campaign. Coordinated with a large Imperial Army offensive ashore, the Japanese WW2 Navies sought to defeat America’s remaining carriers, depriving the Marines of essential support at sea.

Loading...
Loading...

Once again Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo headed the Imperial Navy force, sisters Shokaku and Zuikaku entering their third carrier duel. The twenty-four thousand-ton fleet carrier Junyo, recently converted from a liner, nearly matched “Sho” and “Zui” in tonnage, with fewer aircraft. Additionally, the eleven thousand-ton light carrier Zuiho faced her first action. In typical Japanese fashion, several surface units were dispersed ahead of the carriers, totaling forty ships.

ALLIED PREPARATIONS FOR THE BATTLE OF THE SANTA CRUZ ISLANDS

Commanding the U.S. carriers was Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, a veteran of Eastern Solomons. He was outnumbered as no other U.S. admiral ever would be: Enterprise (Task Force Sixteen) and Hornet (Task Force Seventeen) against four imperial carriers. Enterprise operated the new Air Group Ten, entering its first battle.

The Big E’s screen included the new battleship South Dakota (BB-57), two cruisers, and nine destroyers. Hornet was escorted by four cruisers and six destroyers.

Catalina patrol planes found Kido Butai on the morning of October 25, about four hundred statute miles north of Task Force SixtyOne. Kinkaid closed the distance, hoping to strike while daylight permitted. He sent off two dozen planes at mid-afternoon, but Nagumo, knowing he had been spotted, opened the range. Enterprise’s abortive strike returned in darkness, losing seven precious aircraft.

That evening, with two more flight decks, Nagumo’s air strength overshadowed Fletcher’s by 194 operational planes to 137, a 40 percent advantage.

Shortly before 7:00 a.m. on October 26, scouts from both sides found the opposition. Knowing that the first blow was crucial in carrier combat, Nagumo and Kinkaid both cleared their decks, eager to get in the initial strike. In barely forty minutes Kido Butai put up sixty-four aircraft led by Lieutenant Sadamu Takahashi, including twenty-one dive bombers, twenty torpedo planes, and a new “tracker” aircraft, designed to pursue any information obtained en route.

But the Americans got in the first blow in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. Two Enterprise scouts, having monitored other planes’ contact reports, diverted from their assigned sector, first to investigate a battleship report, then the carrier force. The leader was Lieutenant Stockton Birney Strong, one of the most aggressively capable aviators of his generation. During Eastern Solomons he had passed up a shot at enemy carriers to take his information directly to the Big E. He would not be doing that a second time. Together with Ensign Charles Irvine, he pushed his hunt eighty miles beyond his own sector—and his persistence was rewarded.

Zeros were harrying the on-scene scouts, handing Strong and Irvine an unexpected gift: a clear shot at what Strong called “a big carrier,” actually Zuiho, steaming near the cloud-covered Shokaku. The two SBDs rolled into their seventy-degree dives, tracked the target from astern, and expertly put both five hundred-pounders through the flight deck aft. “Auspicious Phoenix” was effectively out of the battle, unable to recover aircraft. Strong and Irvine’s gunners shot down a pursuing Zero, then both pilots squeaked back to Enterprise on fumes, finishing one of the finest missions ever flown from aircraft carriers.

Loading...
Loading...

However, Zuiho’s contribution to its first strike in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islandswas already airborne. So was Kinkaid’s first launch, a hasty scramble of twenty-one Hornet SBDs and TBFs escorted by eight F4Fs. They were followed by twenty-four more planes, while Enterprise put up a fighter-heavy launch of ten bombers with eight Wildcats. The Americans now had seventy-one aircraft outbound, but they lacked Kido Butai’s institutional integration.

The opposing air groups crossed paths before 9:00, each side eyeing the other. Zuiho Zero pilots hit the Enterprise fliers from six o’clock high, knocking down two Avengers and three Wildcats while losing four Mitsubishis. Three other American pilots had to abort with battle damage, reducing the strike to ten planes including the new fighter skipper, Lieutenant Commander James H. Flatley, a Coral Sea veteran. The Big E’s fliers found no carriers, so they attacked Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe’s vanguard force and damaged the cruiser Chikuma.

Hornet’s second strike in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands also came upon Abe, adding one more bomb hit. At that point two-thirds of the U.S. offensive capability was spent.

But the first Hornet launch struck gold. The SBDs were led by Lieutenant Commander William J. Widhelm, who had missed the chance to bomb carriers at Midway. He set his sights on the nearest undamaged carrier.

However, Shokaku’s newly installed radar revealed the Hornet strike at a reported ninety-seven miles—incredible performance for the period, and far better than the Type 2 set’s official range of sixty miles on formations. Undoubtedly the atmospherics favored the Japanese in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands with exceptional readings, as “ducting” possibly funneled the beam along an unusually narrow front, possibly yielding inaccurate figures.

No matter: Shokaku gained precious time to prepare for action with damage control crews taking precautions. Nagumo’s CAP set upon the Hornet formation as twenty-three Zeros splashed three escorting Wildcats and two SBDs, including the flamboyant “Gus” Widhelm who ditched nearby and cheered his friends from his raft. The air battle cost Nagumo two fighters before the Dauntlesses began pounding half-ton bombs into Shokaku’s ancient pine deck.

Left to lead the attack was Lieutenant James M. “Moe” Vose, who recalled, “I was first to dive. Widhelm’s people had joined on mine and I saw three hits on Shokaku. As we pulled out we were taking evasive action, under continued Zero attack.”

Shokaku took at least four, possibly six, hits in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, mostly aft. Serious fires erupted, requiring five hours to extinguish, and leaving the deck “looking like an earthquake fault zone.” She lost 140 of her crew and more than fifty fliers in the battle.

Loading...
Loading...

Meanwhile, Task Force Seventeen knew that trouble was inbound. Alerted by airborne pilots, Hornet prepared for action, but U.S. radar only registered the raiders at forty statute miles. Few of the thirty-seven available F4Fs could be vectored onto the Japanese formation, leaving Hornet’s main defense to the force’s AA guns, which opened fire shortly past 9:00.

Lieutenant Takahashi’s sixteen attacking pilots were pros: they hit Hornet with three bombs in as many minutes. A fourth plane, obviously crippled, dived into the ship’s island, spewing flaming gasoline.

Then the twenty Nakajimas arrived. Expertly splitting port and starboard for an “anvil” attack, they torpedoed Hornet twice. She went dead in the water, an easy target for a remaining Aichi that suicided into the hull.

While the cruiser Northampton prepared a tow line for Hornet, the second Japanese strike in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands rolled in: nineteen bombers, sixteen torpedo planes, and eight fighters. Several Fighting Squadron Ten “Grim Reapers” intercepted, living up to their name. One stellar pilot, Lieutenant Stanley “Swede” Vejtasa, expended all his ammunition on two Nakajimas and five Aichis, an unheard of feat for U.S. airmen. Nevertheless, the dive bombers hit Big E twice and landed a plate-rattling near miss.

Zuikaku’s Nakajima squadron bracketed Enterprise, seeking to duplicate Hornet’s fate. On the bridge was Captain Osborne Hardison, only five days in command. His expert bridge crew neatly dodged nine torpedoes that boiled past the hull, likely an American record.

One heroic Nakajima pilot, his plane aflame, flew into the escorting destroyer Smith, setting her on fire. The skipper steered into the battleship South Dakota’s wake, dousing the flames. South Dakota’s gunners claimed twenty-six shootdowns in the attack—clearly an exaggeration but indicative of the abrupt role reversal of battleships and carriers. The battle wagons now served as high-powered escorts for the flattops.

Nagumo’s second strike in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands had taken crippling losses: twenty-one of thirty-five bombers versus six American.

Meanwhile, returning Hornet pilots from the Shokaku attack drew “friendly fire” from American ships. Lieutenant “Moe” Vose summarized, “This was understandable, as the force had been under severe attack. The Hornet was badly hit and unable to take us, and although Enterprise was on fire forward with a bomb hit aft, we still recovered aboard. On landing, the aft elevator was jammed in the down position so it was necessary to catch the number one wire.”

Loading...
Loading...

Kido Butai’s third launch was seventeen Junyo bombers escorted by a dozen Zeros, arriving overhead Task Force Sixteen at 11:20. They near-missed Enterprise and hit South Dakota and the cruiser San Juan, to little effect. That minimal success cost them eleven planes.

Dozens of TF-61 aircraft remained overhead, gasping for fuel. Enterprise’s talented landing signal officer, Lieutenant Robin Lindsey, took aboard pilots from both carriers. He continued landing planes until the flight deck was nearly full. The last pilot in the pattern was Swede Vejtasa, whose trust in Lindsey was justified. The LSO gave him an early “cut” signal, and the new ace skillfully snagged the rearmost wire, “locking” the deck: there was no more room. Sixteen remaining pilots ditched or headed for distant Espiritu Santo.

While Northampton was laboriously towing Hornet, Junyo and Zuikaku’s persistent air groups flung three more attacks at the Americans in the final stages of the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. They totaled fourteen torpedo planes, six bombers, and nineteen Zeros, adding another torpedo and bomb hit, leaving the pummeled carrier without power. There was no option but to scuttle Hornet, though she resisted, taking torpedoes and hundreds of shells from her escorts. Finally, two Japanese destroyers put her under in the early morning hours. She sank with 118 crew and twenty-two fliers dead or missing.

Kido Butai had sent 138 sorties against TF-61 in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, more than Nagumo launched at Midway and Eastern Solomons combined. But in exchange for sinking Hornet and damaging Enterprise, the Japanese incurred crippling personnel casualties, losing 145 experienced pilots and aircrew—even more than at Midway. The attrition could be replaced in numbers, but never in quality.

Unlike Eastern Solomons two months before,the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands was a clear Japanese tactical victory. But Tokyo’s combined Army and Navy strategy failed to end the Guadalcanal campaign, where the bloodletting continued.

The U.S. Pacific Fleet was left with one fast carrier, the battered Enterprise, which counted forty-four sailors killed and sixteen fliers missing. Her damage control team again demonstrated its expertise, and she was back in action in two weeks.

Again the high price of carrier combat was evident: Kinkaid lost eighty-one aircraft (59 percent) and Nagumo ninety-nine (50 percent).

As PacFleet’s only available big-deck carrier, Enterprise was a priceless asset that season. Air Group Ten cycled in and out of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal during the November crisis, contributing to the ultimate defeat of Japan’s final effort to retrieve the situation. When Tokyo decided to withdraw its remaining troops in February, the vital six-month Guadalcanal campaign reached its sanguinary end.

Loading...
Loading...

Battle of the Eastern Solomons

The Battle of the Eastern Solomons on August 24, 1942—part of the Guadalcanal Campaign in the Pacific Theatre of World War Two—was the third carrier battle between the United States and Japan. All attacks were carried out by land or carrier-based aircraft; the two sides’ ships were never within sight of each other.

It was fought over a wide area: Nagumo well to the north of Guadalcanal and Fletcher to the north and northeast. Action began that afternoon with Ryujo launching a small strike of Nakajima level bombers against Henderson Field that was intercepted by Marine Wildcats. Both sides lost three planes, but radar plots gave Fletcher a good idea of Hara’s location.

Though Frank Jack Fletcher, riding Saratoga, had overall command of the U.S. carriers, the Enterprise operated semi-independently. Commanding the Big E’s Task Force Sixty-One was Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, who led Yorktown’s escorts at Coral Sea and Enterprise’s at Midway. Though not an aviator, like Fletcher he had Nimitz’s confidence.

Both main carrier forces found each other about the same time, but Japanese communications proved superior. Nagumo lofted a strike shortly before 3:00, twenty-seven Shokaku and Zuikaku dive bombers with fifteen Zeros. Two Enterprise scouts nosed into an attack that scratched Shokaku but left her intact. Other Big E search teams also found enemy ships and attacked cruisers.

Fletcher stood by to repel boarders as his radar detected Nagumo’s bombers inbound. The Japanese encountered fifty-three Wildcats airborne, but some were poorly positioned to intercept. Sara and Big E quickly launched aircraft on deck to reduce the fire hazard, moments before the Aichis rolled in at 4:30. They concentrated on Enterprise, which put up a spirited defense, but the Japanese pilots were determined. Two put 550-pound bombs within feet of each other, holing the hull and detonating ammunition. A third bomb struck forward, blowing a ten-foot hole in the flight deck but causing little structural damage.

Four Aichis, thinking the carrier doomed, diverted to attack the escorting battleship North Carolina (BB-55). All four were shot into the sea.

Wildcats and AA guns took their toll on the attackers—twenty six in all. During the Battle of the Eastern Solomons five F4Fs were also downed, including victims of “friendly” antiaircraft gunners. Zuikaku alone lost her entire nine-plane bomber squadron.

AA ACTION AT THE BATTLE OF THE EASTERN SOLOMONS

Enterprise came under heavy air attack during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons of August 24. The action was described by the Big E’s gunnery officer, Lieutenant Commander Elias B. Mott.

Loading...
Loading...

We were absolutely unable to see the planes due to the fact that they were so high and small, and that it was late in the afternoon and the sky was considerably bluer than it would have been earlier. . . . About 1712 [5:12 p.m.] the first Jap dive bomber commenced its attack.

One of our forward 20mm gunners opened up on him when he was at 10,000 feet, and this was the signal for the formation. Everybody opened up with five-inch and with automatic weapons. The attack lasted five or six minutes, and during that time they came down one after another starting from the port bow and working around to the starboard quarter. At one time I remember seeing five Japanese dive bombers in line all the way from about 2,000 feet to 12,000. . .

We had the old 1.1 inchers without power drive and about thirty-two 20mm and of course our eight five-inch guns. Five-inch on local control did very well. They hit several planes on the nose . . . and the planes disintegrated. The tremendous number of 20mms that we were able to bring to bear on each plane caused them either to miss or to drop in flames. . . . However, as they worked around toward the stern, where we had little firepower protection, when they came down although we hit them, they were able to take aim and we sustained three hits. One on fiveinch Gun Group Number Three; one on the flight deck aft, which penetrated down three decks; and another one just abaft the island structure on the flight deck. This was an instantaneous bomb. The one that hit Gun Group Number Three wiped out the entire group of thirty-nine men.

My impression of the battle was that if we had a little more firepower, it might have been different. It looked to me that if you had enough guns that the enemy planes would be in trouble, would have to swerve off or . . . the pilot would be killed. However, in a dive-bombing attack, it’s not just a case of getting one plane or ten or even fifteen. You’ve got to get them all, you can’t afford to get hit.

Nagumo’s second wave, almost equal to the first, might have done severe damage to Enterprise, if it weren’t for poor Japanese communication during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. The follow-up strike returned to CarDiv Five minus five planes.

Leading Enterprise’s air group was Lieutenant Commander Maxwell F. Leslie, skipper of Bombing Three at Midway. New to the Avenger, he nonetheless navigated to an erroneous contact report (waves breaking over a reef) and back again, reaching Saratoga to make his fourth landing in a TBF—his first such landing at night.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Turner F. Caldwell took eleven orphaned Enterprise SBDs to Henderson Field. Designated “Flight 300” in the Big E’s air plan, they remained ashore for more than a month, sinking a transport and a destroyer.

The action in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons was not over, however, as Hara’s Ryujo task force remained the focus of Saratoga’s air group, led by the tough, capable Commander Harry Don Felt, who had helped inaugurate the SBD to fleet service. Flying his personal Dauntless, “Queen Bee,” he orchestrated a coordinated attack of thirty dive bombers and eight torpedo planes against the enemy force.

Loading...
Loading...

Felt directed twenty-one SBDs and five TBFs to hit Ryujo while the others went for the large cruiser Tone. Attacking from fifteen thousand feet, Bombing Three and Scouting Three contributed to the tonnage dropped, but the Midway-experienced VB-3 did most of the damage. The carrier launched fighters just before bombs began to fall, too late to intervene.

The action report summarized, “Three direct bomb hits and several very close misses were observed. A torpedo hit was observed on the starboard side forward. . . . The carrier flight deck from amidships aft was smoking fiercely and flames were seen shooting out from the hangar deck. Planes rendezvoused in small groups and proceeded to their base.”

Tone dodged the torpedoes aimed at her.

Separately, Sara launched two SBDs and five TBFs responding to a report of a large surface force. Led by Lieutenant Robert M. Elder, one of the finest aviators afloat, the small formation found the battleship Mutsu with seaplane carrier Chitose and four escorts. Dropping out of the late-afternoon sky through heavy flak, the Dauntlesses put both bombs close aboard, opening Chitose’s hull and destroying aircraft on deck. In the wake of the Battle of the Eastern Solomons She was towed to Truk in the Carolines for repair and eventual conversion to a conventional carrier.

Enterprise reeled from her casualties, seventy-eight killed and ninety wounded. The toll was a shock: in the previous nine months of war she had lost fewer than one hundred dead. Clearly, carrier warfare would continue exacting a price.

The Battle of the Eastern Solomons gained the Marines on shore a valuable respite from Japanese reinforcement. Most of the Japanese troops stymied in their effort to reach Guadalcanal were delivered later, but lacking many weapons. Meanwhile, action continued at sea.

On August 31 Saratoga was sidelined for the second time that year. Another of Japan’s ubiquitous submarines caught her off San Cristobal Island and scored with one torpedo, keeping her ineffective almost until year’s end.

Meanwhile, carrier squadrons cycled in and out of Guadalcanal, code name “Cactus.” Apart from Enterprise’s Flight 300, Scouting Three joined the “Cactus Air Force” for six weeks in September and October. Wasp’s Scouting Squadron Seventy-One flew up from the rear area to remain from late September to early November. Their presence following the Battle of the Eastern Solomons was important to the perennially shorthanded air garrison.

Loading...
Loading...

Battle of Guadalcanal: Allies Strike Japan

Only sixty days after the Battle of Midway—in which Allied forces in the Pacific inflicted irreparable damage on the Japanese naval fleet in June of 1942—the strategic balance shifted in America’s favor. Following six months of playing defense, the Pacific Fleet launched the nation’s first offensive of the Second World War. It occurred in an obscure part of the world few people had ever heard of.

Guadalcanal was the largest of the Solomon Islands, nearly eight hundred statute miles east of New Guinea and bordering the sea lanes from Hawaii to Australia. Japan had already recognized the island’s worth, building a seaplane base at Tulagi, scene of the precursor to Coral Sea in May. Now, with an airfield on Guadal’s northern plain, the island was an obvious choice for conquest. The First Marine Division was assigned the task, with air cover from Enterprise, newly repaired Saratoga, and Wasp transferred from the Atlantic.

Battle of Guadalcanal: By Land and By Sea

Operation Watchtower, the codename for the Battle of Guadalcanal, kicked off August 7, 1942 with seventy-five ships in support. Now a vice admiral, Frank Jack Fletcher commanded the carriers; after Coral Sea and Midway he was the world’s leading practitioner of flattop warfare. His planes quickly overcame the meager defenders, but the Imperial Navy took immediate notice. From six hundred miles northwest, the airfields at Rabaul, New Britain, launched twenty-seven twin-engine Mitsubishi bombers (later codenamed Bettys) and nine Aichi dive bombers (Vals), escorted by seventeen expertly flown Zeros. The imperial fighters shot down ten carrier planes against two losses, and the bombers mortally damaged a transport while scalding a destroyer.

Combat continued the next day, and while Japanese losses exceeded American, Fletcher was concerned about his dwindling air strength. Additionally, the Marines were slow to unload the transports, exposing the precious flattops to greater danger. Fletcher asked permission of the theater command to pull out of range, and received it. While the Marines viciously condemned his action, clearly it was prudent. Hornet was the only other fleet carrier, and America would have no new flight decks until the following summer.

Meanwhile, Japanese surface forces intervened. Though outnumbered two to one, on the night of August 8–9, a powerful IJN cruiser force drubbed the American-Australian warships around Savo Island north of Guadalcanal. Four Allied cruisers were lost, leaving the transports wholly vulnerable. They had no choice but to hoist anchor and depart, still not fully unloaded.

The leathernecks ashore endured frequent bombing for several days until Marine squadrons arrived. On August 20 Wildcats and Dauntlesses landed at Henderson Field—named for the Marine dive bomber who died at Midway—delivered by the escort carrier Long Island.

Three days later Admiral Yamamoto set in motion a reinforcement effort. Nearly two thousand Japanese troops were embarked in transports heavily screened by escorts, intending to deliver the soldiers on August 24. Two Imperial Navy carrier forces were involved: Admiral Nagumo with Shokaku and Zuikaku, recovered from their Coral Sea drama, and the light carrier Ryujo operating independently under Rear Admiral Chuichi Hara.

The timing favored Japan. Fletcher, commanding Task Force Sixty-One, had detached Wasp for refueling when the crisis broke, again forcing him to fight outnumbered. Nonetheless, Enterprise and Saratoga turned toward the threat, their 154 tailhook planes opposing about 175 Japanese.

Loading...
Loading...

Throughout the late summer and the fall, the Japanese made many attempts to retake Henderson Field. In November their last attempt to bombard Henderson Field from the sea and land was defeated. They abandoned their efforts to retake Guadalcanal in December and evacuated remaining forces in February 7, 1943.

The Allies won the Battle of Guadalcanal, which has been called the turning point in the war against Japan.

U-505: The German Submarine Captured in 1944

In June 1944 USS Guadalcanal’s (CVE-60) hunter-killer group scored a spectacular coup off the African coast. The CVE skipper, Captain Daniel Gallery, was an innovative, outspoken leader who had pioneered night flying from escort carriers. On his third outing, with three kills to his credit, “Cap’n Dan” sought something more. He trained his force to maximize the possibility of capturing a U-boat, and got the chance on June 4. U-505 was depth-charged by destroyer escorts, forced to the surface, and strafed by Avengers and Wildcats. The crew abandoned ship after opening scuttling vents.

Gallery’s boarding team descended into the vacated sub and stopped the flooding. Guadalcanal herself rigged a line and towed the U-boat until a tug arrived. In the meantime, Guadalcanal’s LSO, Lieutenant Jarvis “Stretch” Jennings, became the only “paddles” to wave planes aboard while towing a submarine. U-505 was delivered to Bermuda, a priceless intelligence coup.

Bogue, first of the successful hunter-killers, also logged the last U-boat sunk by CVE planes. On August 20 her Avengers slew U-1229 on its first patrol.

STOPPING THE U-505 WITH HUNTER-KILLERS

The escort carriers’ vital role in the Atlantic plugged the fouryear “black hole” of the mid-ocean gap, beyond range of land-based aircraft. Therefore, the U.S. Navy formed dedicated antisubmarine units, hunter-killer groups combining flattops with destroyers. Bogue (ACV-9) inaugurated the concept in February 1943, when U-boats sank 600,000 tons of Allied shipping. The early hunterkillers learned their trade on the job, eventually finalizing the standard escort carrier loadout of Wildcat fighters and Avenger bombers.

Bogue escorted three Atlantic convoys through April 1943 without any submarine contacts. On May 21, while making the run from Britain to Nova Scotia, Composite Squadron Nine (VC-9) encountered U-231. The squadron commander, William M. Drane, executed the attack, damaging the submarine’s bridge and forcing it to return to France to be repaired. The next day, Lieutenant (jg) William F. Chamberlain dropped four depth bombs from his Avenger onto U-569 before it submerged. When the sub had to resurface, Lieutenant Howard Roberts straddled it with his bombs, inflicting mortal damage.

U-505 AND HUNTER-KILLERS IN WORLD WAR 2

More than 750 German submarines were lost to all causes in World War II. Those sunk by Allied carrier aircraft represented a small share of the whole, but the influence of escort carriers cannot be diminished. Their mere presence deterred innumerable attacks, and carrier planes such as Avengers and Swordfish located hostile subs for surface forces to pursue.

Loading...
Loading...

The success of the jeep carriers was proven every time a convoy arrived intact at its destination.

From 1940 through 1945 British carrier-based aircraft sank fifteen Axis submarines (eleven and one-half by Swordfish) and shared thirteen more with surface units. Although the Battle of the Atlantic peaked in May 1943, Fleet Air Arm carrier squadrons, alone and with ships, accounted for just three U-boats that year but sixteen in 1944, including those shared with ships and land-based aircraft. HMS Fencer set the RN record with four U-boats, three in one Arctic convoy during May 1944.

American CVEs were heavily engaged from 1942 onward, with their carrier planes sinking thirty-one enemy subs (one French and one long-ranging Japanese) while splitting four with destroyers. The most successful hunter-killers were Bogue’s (CVE-9) group with twelve confirmed sinkings and Card’s (CVE-11) with eleven. In the Pacific, CVEs notched seven submarines, including two shared with escort vessels.

Battle of Midway: Japan’s WW2 Navies Suffer a Mortal Wound

The Battle of Midway was a decisive blow to Japan’s naval supremacy in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. Between June 4-7, 1942, the United States WW2 Navies struck a blow to Japan’s fleet that was irreparable.

In April 1942, a month before the Battle of the Coral Sea, Admiral Yamamoto had convinced the naval general staff to launch Operation MI, the seizure of Midway Island 1,300 miles northwest of Oahu. Though prudence would have dictated waiting until Fifth Carrier Division with Shokaku and Zuikaku could join the four ships of CarDivs One and Two, Yamamoto was in a hurry. He wanted to destroy the Pacific Fleet’s remaining flattops before America’s enormous industrial power came to bear. His self-allotted six-month timetable after the Pearl Harbor triumph was ticking away.

The Japanese knew that the Americans had to defend Midway, thus forcing the Imperial Navy’s doctrinal decisive battle. The concept of “a Pacific Jutland” appealed to Tokyo—a titanic engagement based on the 1916 clash between the British and German fleets in the North Sea. Victorious in one conclusive battle, Japan would achieve its strategic aims. With Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu against an estimated two U.S. carriers, Operation MI shaped up as a near certainty, even considering land-based aircraft on Midway.

To a large extent, the Battle of Midway was won before the first aircraft launched. Admiral Nimitz’s gifted cryptanalysts gleaned the basics and many details of Yamamoto’s plan, allowing the PacFleet commander to deploy his forces accordingly. Enterprise and Hornet in Task Force Sixteen returned to Pearl Harbor, while Yorktown with Task Force Seventeen limped home with its Coral Sea bomb damage. In merely three days “Old Yorky” was sufficiently repaired for sea, her weary air group largely replaced by Saratoga’s, as “Sara” remained on the West Coast.

Nimitz knew that Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s carriers would approach Midway on June 4, part of a larger scheme involving the invasion force and supporting units, plus submarines. Task Forces Sixteen and Seventeen waited northeast of Midway, aided by longrange Consolidated PBYs from the atoll itself.

Loading...
Loading...

The senior American was Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, who had ridden Yorktown since early in the year. A non-aviator, he benefited from an excellent staff. Vice Admiral William Halsey was beached with illness, replaced by Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, whose cruisers had screened Enterprise for months.

With overwhelming surface strength—eleven battleships and sixteen cruisers—Yamamoto was confident of crushing the defenders if it came to a gun battle. He did not know that Nimitz deployed 232 carrier aircraft and 115 ashore, thus outnumbering Kido Butai’s embarked squadrons—though the Japanese enjoyed a qualitative edge.

Early on June 4 Nagumo launched 108 planes against Midway, which detected the inbound threat by radar. Marine Corps fighters scrambled to intercept but were badly mauled by combat-experienced pilots flying superior aircraft. Of twenty-five Brewster F2As and Grumman F4Fs, sixteen were shot down with most of the pilots killed. The Japanese lost eleven planes while bombing Midway’s facilities.

The defenders responded when Nagumo’s location was reported by PBY patrol planes. Between 7:10 and 8:20 a.m., Midway-based Army B-26s and B-17s, WW2 Navies TBFs, and Marine SBDs and SB2Us attacked Kido Butai. Faced with Zeros and flak, eighteen Marauders, Avengers, and scout bombers were downed without inflicting damage upon the enemy.

After an hour’s respite the Japanese faced three carrier-based torpedo attacks. Hornet’s VT-8 attacked at 9:20, losing all fifteen Devastators. Enterprise’s VT-6 lost ten of fourteen an hour later, shortly followed by Yorktown’s VT-3. Two of the latter escaped but ditched en route home. That morning ended the Devastator’s career, with four surviving of forty-one launched. Combined with VT-8’s detachment ashore, which lost five of six Avengers, the “torpeckers” sustained an 89 percent attrition.

THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY: DAYS TWO AND THREE

That night three air groups of proud and tired U.S. aviators reflected on what they had lost and won. Then their pride turned to incredulity. Admiral Spruance withdrew, following orders to defend Midway rather than pursue a beaten enemy. His prudence was warranted, as a nocturnal surface fight with Japanese battleships and cruisers would only have gone one way.

June 5 passed largely without action as the Americans tried to sort out confusing patrol plane reports, and Spruance pondered his options. Finally, late that afternoon Task Force Sixteen launched fifty-eight scout bombers against a phantom carrier and found nothing. On the return leg thirty-two of the SBDs had a go at the destroyer Tanikaze. Having evaded two B-17 attacks already, she escaped damage again while downing an SBD. The other Douglases reached their flight decks, logging the first night combat “traps” in U.S. carrier history.

The third day of the battle, June 6, dawned with another opportunity for Task Force Sixteen. During the night two Japanese cruisers, Mogami and Mikuma, had collided en route to shell Midway. They reversed course, vainly trying to get out of air range, but were spotted by scouting SBDs. From barely one hundred miles range, Enterprise and Hornet sent off three powerful strikes totaling eighty-one Dauntlesses, the last three Devastators, and twenty-eight unnecessary Wildcats. In successive attacks Mogami was battered with five bombs but survived. Mikuma took hits that ignited secondary explosions—fatal damage to the 13,600-ton warship. Two attentive destroyers also were lightly damaged.

Loading...
Loading...

But the Imperial Navy was nothing if not persistent. That afternoon, nearly four hundred miles north-northeast of Mikuma, the submarine I-168 penetrated the destroyer screen circling the crippled Yorktown and fired four torpedoes. One ripped apart the destroyer Hammann (DD-412) lashed alongside to support salvage efforts. Two more torpedoes smashed into “Yorky’s” tortured hull, inflicting a death blow. She lingered until dawn the next morning when she capsized and sank. I-168’s attack killed some eighty men, though she succumbed to an American submarine a year later.

The Battle of Midway was over.

THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY: MIDWAY RECAP

Yorktown’s loss hurt Nimitz; she was the most experienced American carrier, arguably with the finest staff afloat. But her sister Enterprise more than met the challenge and would prove essential to the Pacific Fleet in months to come.

The weak link in the American team was Hornet. Captain Marc Mitscher, a well-regarded early aviator, proved lacking as a carrier captain. In fairness, he lost much-needed training time during the Doolittle operation, but he relied on unqualified subordinates, and he made some poor decisions, such as launching his short-ranged fighters first. Under a new skipper the ship did far better in the time remaining to her.

For Japan, the Battle of Midway marked the fork in the victory road. Deprived of four carriers and 110 irreplaceable aircrew, Tokyo lost all its misplaced hope of forcing Washington into a settlement. While the Imperial Navy retained strong, capable players, it lacked America’s depth of talent to come off the bench. In football terms, Team America now had possession and would run the ball the length of the field. Chester Nimitz quipped that the epic battle put America “about Midway to victory.”

Additionally, the Battle of Midway removed all doubt that the aircraft carrier had supplanted the battleship as the dominant player on the world’s oceans.

The Battle of the Coral Sea: The Debut of Aircraft Carriers

The Battle of the Coral Sea was the world’s first naval battle in which aircraft carriers engaged each other. Japanese and Allied forces engaged each other, placing their pieces on the enormous chessboard of the Pacific Ocean.

Following the Doolittle Raid of 1942, in which American forces bombed Tokyo in retribution of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese high command became convinced that U.S. Pacific Fleet carriers had to be destroyed. A plan quickly evolved to force them into decisive combat against superior odds in Hawaiian waters.

Loading...
Loading...

Meanwhile, in early May the Japanese dispatched a convoy to land troops at Port Moresby, New Guinea, where long-range bombers could interdict sea communications with northern Australia, and extend the defensive perimeter for Japan’s major base at Rabaul, New Britain. American code breakers learned of “Operation MO” and provided Admiral Nimitz with ample intelligence. He countered with two task forces built around Lexington and Yorktown. Hornet and Enterprise were unavailable, just returned from the Doolittle raid.

Nimitz had a good idea of Japanese forces. The Moresby convoy consisted of a dozen transports with escorts including a light carrier, while a covering force included the Fifth Carrier Division’s two flattops. A separate unit aimed at Tulagi, with an anchorage just north of Guadalcanal, largest of the Solomon Islands.

In the lead-up to the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Americans decided to strike Tulagi before turning to face the carrier threat. However, communications concerns prevented Yorktown’s Task Force Seventeen under Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher from coordinating with Lexington’s Task Force Eleven under Rear Admiral Aubrey Fitch. Nevertheless, Fletcher proceeded to launch strikes against Tulagi on May 4. In three waves “Old Yorky’s” air group swarmed the anchorage, sinking a destroyer and three minesweepers while damaging other vessels. The cost was three aircraft with all four fliers rescued. An exuberant news release claimed a major victory, with fourteen Japanese ships sunk. For the moment, the Japanese were forced off-balance.

Knowing the advantage of mass in the military equation, on May 6 Fletcher merged Task Force Seventeen with Fitch’s unit and Task Force Forty-Four, a surface force of U.S. and Australian warships. His combined strength was two carriers, eight cruisers, and thirteen destroyers, plus two vital fleet oilers. In addition to some 130 carrier planes, he benefited from long-range patrol bombers in Australia.

The Japanese, in typically complex fashion, deployed five naval forces. They included a covering group with the light carrier Shoho and five escorts, and Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi’s striking arm: Carrier Division Five with heavyweights Shokaku and Zuikaku screened by eight escorts. Combined Japanese air strength at the Battle of the Coral Sea was 141, with 127 under Takagi and fourteen in Shoho.

Mindful of the Moresby-bound force, on the morning of May 7 Fletcher detached Task Force Forty-Four to watch the passage off the east tip of New Guinea. At the same time both U.S. and Japanese carrier forces lofted scout planes, seeking each other. Around 7:30, multiple Japanese searchers, both ship and land-based, reported several sightings. At that point the situation became clouded in the inevitable fog of war.

A Shokaku searcher reported an unidentified carrier with escorts nearly two hundred miles south of Takagi’s position. With practiced efficiency, Shokaku and Zuikaku launched seventy-eight planes in fifteen minutes. The aircrews set course, unknowingly targeting the U.S. replenishment unit, oiler Neosho and a destroyer.

An hour after the initial Japanese sightings, their ship-based floatplanes found Fletcher. Within minutes it was the Americans’ turn as a Yorktown scout spotted the force screening the Moresby invasion convoy. The Dauntless pilot erred by encoding his contact report as two carriers and escorts—an early lesson in the importance of sending vital information “in the clear.” Fletcher, with no reason to doubt the intelligence, shot his bolt. Both air groups cleared their decks, with ninety-three planes winging outbound just minutes before the SBD pilot delivered a corrected, accurate assessment. About that time, the B-17s found the invasion force including Shoho. Fletcher radioed his strike leaders to proceed to the position plotted by the Army aircrews.

Loading...
Loading...

In the far-flung battle both sides began landing blows. Imperial Navy scouts realized that the tiny oiler force had been erroneously reported, and passed the word. Still, the tactical picture remained clouded, and after failing to find the U.S. carriers, Takagi directed an attack on the oiler unit. The two American ships were swarmed by three dozen Aichi dive bombers, which scored ten hits, instantly sinking the destroyer Sims and mortally wounding Neosho.

Meanwhile, sixty miles to the north, Lexington and Yorktown squadrons spotted Shoho. Her few Mitsubishi A5M and A6M fighters could not prevent a determined attack. Directed by Commander William B. Ault, “Lady Lex’s” pilots pummeled the little flattop with half-ton bombs and torpedoes. Next the Yorktowners piled in, savaging the target nearly dead in the water. Struck by as many as thirteen bombs and seven torpedoes, she sank with 630 of her 834-man crew. Reportedly Lieutenant Commander Robert Dixon, heading Lexington’s scouts, radioed, “Scratch one flattop!”—though his language may have been saltier.

The ninety remaining American planes returned to the task force, catching arresting wires on the two victorious carriers while Fletcher pondered his options.

The Japanese invasion force, deprived of air cover, reversed helm to await events.

That afternoon more communications complications arose. Japanese searchers reported Task Force Forty-Four, which became confused with the U.S. carriers. Shokaku and Zuikaku sent twenty-seven dive and torpedo bombers after Fletcher. But American radar proved a huge advantage, plotting the inbound raiders. A combat air patrol (CAP) of Grumman Wildcats clawed for altitude and pounced on the searching Japanese with lethal results. Nine bombers went down, as did three F4Fs. In the milling twilight confusion, some of the surviving Japanese overflew Task Force Seventeen. A few entered Yorktown’s traffic pattern but escaped the astonished Americans. The eighteen remaining Japanese bombers navigated 120 miles to their own decks and recovered at the end of a long, confusing day.

At sunset on May 7, 1942, for the first time in millennia of naval combat, a fleet engagement had been fought beyond range of sailors’ vision.

More action was due the next day.

BATTLE OF THE CORAL SEA AND JAPANESE TORPEDOES

Captain Kamero Sonokawa was a combat aviator and staff officer throughout the Pacific War. Interviewed for the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey in 1945, he reported:

Loading...
Loading...

Although the ordnance department claimed that the torpedoes could be dropped at an altitude of 500 meters, we found by experience that only 10 per cent would run properly at 200 meters and 50 per cent at 100 meters. Consequently, an effort was made to drop at from 20 to 50 meters. Since the aircraft torpedo was dropped at short ranges, the low altitude also afforded protection because of depressing limit of AA guns. Pilots were instructed to attempt to drop the torpedo in such a manner that it struck the ship immediately after it leveled off at set depth. Of course conditions varied but a standard drop was made from a range of 600 to 400 meters, at a speed of 160 to 170 knots and at an altitude of from 20 to 50 meters. The aircraft torpedo was armed immediately after striking the water. It weighed 800 kg. [1,760 pounds] and had a 145 kg. [320-pound] warhead. The above tactics were used by our carrier planes against your Lexington. After the battle of the Coral Sea the size of the warhead was increased to 220 kg. [485 pounds].

BATTLE OF THE CORAL SEA: DAY TWO

As before, Japanese carrier- and land-based aircraft began the day by seeking the U.S. force. Almost simultaneously the Americans lofted eighteen scout-bombers on a two hundred-mile search. Within minutes of 8:20 both sides learned the other’s location, nearly 250 statute miles apart. Though the Japanese planes outranged the Americans’, both forces turned to engage.

Shokaku and Zuikaku combined to launch fifty-one dive and torpedo bombers screened by eighteen Zeroes. In contrast, Lexington and Yorktown dispatched separate strike groups totaling sixty attackers with fifteen Wildcat escorts. It was a close race as both sides launched within ten minutes of each other.

The Yorktowners arrived first, finding the enemy force partially concealed by clouds. The strike leader, Commander William Burch, orbited his Dauntlesses to allow the Devastators to arrive for a combined bombing-torpedo attack. The SBDs rolled into their dives shortly before 11:00 a.m., opposed by sixteen Zeros. Zuikaku was obscured by clouds, so the Dauntlesses concentrated on Shokaku, inflicting major damage to the flight deck and forecastle. Two SBDs went down, including Lieutenant Joseph J. Powers who had vowed “to lay one on the flight deck”—and did it. Two Zeros also splashed, but the remaining TBDs missed with their nine torpedoes, leaving Shokaku damaged but operable.

Lexington Air Group was thirty minutes behind. By then Zuikaku was visible, and a few Lex SBDs split their attack, adding another hit on Shokaku. Cloud cover favored the defenders, however, and few Dauntlesses found a target. Again the TBDs were ineffective, scoring no hits with their eleven torpedoes. The Zeroes won a victory of sorts, splashing three Wildcats for no further losses.

Before the last American planes departed the area, their own ships were dodging bombs and torpedoes. At 11:00 Lex’s radar “painted” hostile aircraft inbound from the north, distance seventy-five miles— good performance for the equipment. It gave the defenders twenty-five minutes to react.

The Japanese targeted both carriers, about a mile and a half apart, with most attackers getting in above the CAP. Yorktown evaded the “fish” aimed at her, but Lexington, bigger and less agile, took two torpedo hits. Shipboard gunners downed four attackers before additional damage could be inflicted.

Aichi dive bombers then swarmed both flattops. Attacking from fourteen thousand feet, they committed nineteen on Lexington and fourteen against Yorktown. “Lady Lex” took two hits, starting fires that proved fatal. Yorktown’s attackers scored a serious center hit and perhaps twelve rattling near misses that sprung plates.

Loading...
Loading...

Exiting the area, the Japanese encountered Wildcats and Dauntlesses deployed on “inner air patrol.” The SBDs were unable to compete with fast, agile Zeroes—three Dauntlesses dropped into the water, and three Wildcats also went down. Japanese losses to U.S. flak and fighters totaled twenty-three aircraft, but Zuikaku also pushed overboard a dozen that were badly damaged or took up space for homing aircraft.

Tactically the Japanese won, as Lexington was far more valuable than Shoho, but strategically the battle was a victory for the Allies: the Port Moresby landing was cancelled.

The Battle of the Coral Sea proved that carrier warfare imposed a high price. Each side lost a flattop. The U.S. Navylost sixty-seven planes, and Japan lost at least sixty-nine as well as some patrol planes. Thus, the first carrier battle indicated that either side could expect to lose about half its embarked aircraft to combat, accidents, and wastage.

The battle of the Coral Sea cost the U.S. Navy 611 men from ships companies and thirty-five aircrew.

A Lexington SBD pilot, Lieutenant (jg) William E. Hall, survived the inner air patrol on May 8 to receive the Medal of Honor, while Yorktown’s Joe Powers and Lieutenant Milton Ricketts, a Yorktown engineer, were posthumously decorated.

Badly damaged, Shokaku was forced out of the area, en route to repair in Japan. Zuikaku sustained no material damage, but her air group had been depleted, effectively removing Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s CarDiv Five from the next crucial operation. The ninety prewar aircrew who died at the Battle of the Coral Sea began a slow hemorrhaging for the Japanese that could not be stanched.

War in the Pacific: American Naval Strategy in WW2

In December 1941 the Imperial Japanese WW2 Navies alone combined ships, aircraft, and doctrine in a unified package that would burst on the global scene in a stunning display of naval airpower. America and the U.S. Navy would have to shake off the shock of that blow, adjust to a new reality, and take the war to the enemy.

Only tailhook aviators could do so.

Loading...
Loading...

At the end of 1941, the world carrier census stood at twenty-nine. America had eight, including USS Long Island (AVG/CVE-1). Japan led the field with ten ships, including Hosho on training status. Britain deployed ten (two CVEs), and France’s Béarn lay idle. Japan had over a thousand front-line aircraft; the United States merely 668. The war in the Pacific would be fought on the sea and in the air, and the Allies were woefully behind in the race.

In vivid contrast, the global battleship census hung around sixty, including decommissioned and damaged ships, mainly French and Russian. But the ratio was about to turn.

The Pacific Ocean covers some sixty-four million square miles, more than twice the size of the Atlantic and containing nearly half the earth’s water. The 2,400 statute miles from San Francisco to Honolulu is 50 percent farther than the direct line from Paris to Moscow. The expanse from Hawaii to Tokyo is nearly three times farther still, making the Pacific the largest combat arena in history and war in the Pacific occupying the largest battlefield.

The oceanic chessboard was defined by squares composed of lines of longitude and latitude. On that strategic surface, aircraft carriers became the leading players—technically marvelous queens with range, mobility, and striking power. In the forty-four months between December 1941 and September 1945, the United States, Britain, and Japan committed immense resources to the naval contest, with the AngloAmericans dividing their flattops between the Atlantic and Pacific. But the huge majority of carriers of all types were produced in American shipyards. Including escort carriers delivered to Britain, the United States accounted for 71 percent of the world total from 1939 through 1945.

But before the enormous U.S. industrial base could take effect, the sudden war in the Pacific forced its chilling reality upon a marginally prepared fleet.

WAR IN THE PACIFIC: THE LEARNING CURVE

Heavy reliance upon aircraft carriers made 1942 a salient year in the history of naval warfare. The emergence of carrier versus carrier battles—four clashes in six months—was unlike anything previous. Whereas steel-hulled, big-gun battleships had slugged it out for decades, and submarines were well proven in the Great War, flattops were new arrivals.

Tokyo possessed two advantages: first, Kido Butai’s sophistication of operational technique and doctrine was unprecedented; and Japan had geography in its favor. In the fall of 1941, the Imperial Navy owned nine carriers while the U.S. Pacific Fleet had three, and Britain’s lone carrier proved irrelevant. Thus, Franklin Roosevelt’s two-ocean navy had to split its forces, with three carriers committed to the Pacific and four in the Atlantic. That ratio was about to change.

Following the stunning blow at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Pacific Fleet found itself on the strategic defensive, literally overnight. With the battleships sunk or sidelined, Admiral Chester Nimitz had few options for taking offensive action. In fact, he had only one offensive weapon for the war in the pacific: aircraft carriers.

Loading...
Loading...

USS Enterprise (CV-6) had been spared a pier-side death on December 7, delaying its return from a ferry run to Wake Island upon receiving news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Lexington (CV-2) also was at sea that morning, and Saratoga (CV-3) was embarking planes in San Diego. But three flight decks were wholly insufficient to counter Kido Butai. Therefore, Yorktown (CV-5) hastened from the East Coast to bolster PacFleet’s lineup. Of the other carriers, Ranger was inadequate for Pacific operations and Wasp had Atlantic and Mediterranean commitments. Hornet (CV-8), last of the Yorktowns, was working up on the East Coast.

Meanwhile, Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s accomplished airmen and sailors embarked on a wide-ranging Pacific tour, sweeping all before them. While land-based Japanese bombers sank the battle cruiser HMS Repulse and battleship Prince of Wales on December 10, imperial troops landed in the Philippines and Malaya, and seized Hong Kong and Singapore.

Nimitz’s carriers could only hit and run. Between February and April they launched strikes against far-flung Japanese garrisons in the Gilberts, Marshalls, and Solomon Islands. But Saratoga was quickly removed from the lineup when she was torpedoed in mid-January. She remained sidelined until early June.

HMS Hermes arrived at Ceylon in mid-February, the only British carrier east of Suez. Her small air group consisted of Fairey Swordfish, the biplane torpedo bombers that had crippled Bismarck nine months previously. But in the Pacific the Swordfish were largely antisubmarine aircraft, possessing limited strike potential.

Meanwhile, Nagumo’s carriers bombed Colombo, Ceylon, on April 5, missing Hermes but finding cruisers HMS Cornwall and Dorsetshire southwest of the island. Fifty-three Aichi dive bombers claimed about eighteen hits on the two ships, destroying both. Hermes sent her planes ashore and, with her escorting destroyer Vampire, steamed southward to avoid the next Japanese attack.

On April 9 a Japanese scout plane sighted the small force. The British, aware of being seen, directed Hermes back to Trincomalee where she could receive protection from Hawker Hurricanes. But Nagumo was fast off the mark, launching eighty-two Aichi dive bombers (“Vals”) screened by nine Zero fighters from Akagi, Hiryu, and Soryu. (Kaga was laid up for repairs.) Nearly three dozen Vals dived on the two British warships, hitting them with as many as forty bombs in twenty-seven minutes. A dozen land-based Fairey Fulmar two-seat fighters tried to intervene, to little avail. The remaining dive bombers sank three other ships and a corvette, completing a devastating display of competence, for the loss of four bombers. A moderate riposte from the RAF’s Blenheim light bombers missed their targets.

Hermes went down with her captain and 307 men, the first carrier aircraft sunk by an opposing flattop. It was an execution rather than a battle. The first true carrier clash was four weeks away.

War in the Pacific throughout the rest of World War Two

The war in the Pacific continued between Japan (the latter briefly aided by Thailand and to a lesser extent by its Axis allies Germany and Italy) and the Allied powers. It only ended in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with the Soviet invasion of Manchuria.

Loading...
Loading...

Naval power and naval air power played a crucial role in the war in the Pacific in ways not seen before or since in modern warfare.

HMS Avenger and Dasher

As the Guadalcanal campaign peaked in the Pacific, American carriers prepared for a major Allied offensive in North Africa. Operation Torch landed on the shores of French Morocco on November 8, 1942, with Ranger (CV-4), Suwanee (ACV-27), Sangamon (ACV26), and Santee (ACV-29) supporting U.S. forces north and south of Casablanca. In all, the four flattops embarked 109 Grumman F4F-4 fighters with sixty-two Douglas SBD-3 and Grumman TBF-1

But a catastrophic carrier loss occurred in Torch’s wake. On November 15 the American-built HMS Avenger was en route to Gibraltar for engine repairs when she crossed paths with the German U-151, which had already sunk seven ships that month. Once more a single torpedo destroyed an RN carrier, although all but twelve of her 528 crew survived. She was Kapitänleutnant Adolf Piening’s twenty-second victim.

It was a sad end to HMS Avenger, a Royal Navy escort carrier that was launched in 1940 as a merchant ship and convert to an escort carrier for the Royal Navy. She was commissioned in March 1942. The HMS Avenger held 15 aircraft and took part in a massive Russian convoy in September 1942.

On March 27, 1943, the escort carrier HMS Dasher was anchored in the Firth of Clyde on Scotland’s southwest coast. Though only eight months in commission, she had participated in Operation Torch, Mediterranean ferry missions, and a convoy escort. An internal explosion inflicted catastrophic damage that destroyed the 8,200ton ship in about three minutes. As Britain’s last carrier loss she was, in English terminology, an “own goal.” Dasher lost 378 of 528 men aboard, or 71 percent—an extremely high mortality rate for a ship at rest. No definite cause for the explosion was determined, but opinion tended toward the fuel system. In an eerie postscript, wood from the flight deck washed ashore at nearby Ardossan in 1999.

Another CVE expedient was the Empire class of converted grain and oil carriers, merchant crewed with RN airmen, maintenance and support personnel, and shipboard gunners. Ten ships were delivered beginning with Empire MacAlpine in April 1943, but the four ex-tankers had no hangar deck. Mostly flying Swordfish, the Empires often carried cargo in addition to the small FAA “air party.”

HMS Audacity: The Royal Navy’s Jack-of-all-Ships

Probably no warship had a more varied career in the Second World War than HMS Audacity. Launched in March 1939 as the German cargo liner Hannover, she was intercepted in the West Indies in March 1940. Overtaken by Royal Navy warships, her crew tried to scuttle, but the British took her under tow to Jamaica. After repairs she entered British service as Sinbad, registered in Kingston, Jamaica. The admiralty saw other uses for a twelve thousand-ton, 440-foot ship, however, and in November renamed her Empire Audacity, one of seventeen “ocean boarding vessels” largely devoted to enforcing blockades.

While laid up at Blyth, the German-built vessel underwent another conversion, this time into the first escort aircraft carrier. When she emerged in June 1941 she bore yet another name, as the admiralty preferred simply HMS Audacity. She was a rudimentary carrier with no hangar deck, meaning her few aircraft had to be stored and maintained on the flight deck despite weather conditions.

Loading...
Loading...

Traditionally superstitious, sailors have long held that it’s bad luck to rename a ship. That certainly applied to HMS Audacity, which deployed under her fourth name. She embarked eight Grumman Martlets—Royal Navy versions of the F4F Wildcat—on her first convoy escort in September 1941. The fighters were intended to protect ships from air attack, but on convoy OG 74 from the United Kingdom to Gibraltar, Focke-Wulf 200 Condor bombers sank one ship while U-boats destroyed four more.

Then in late October, protecting OG 76 to Gibraltar, HMS Audacity’s fighters downed four Condors, a record. One Martlet fell to the FW’s heavy return fire, but Sub-Lieutenant Eric “Winkle” Brown became the champion Condor killer with two victories on the cruise. Thereafter HMS Audacity was marked for destruction by the U-boat command.

HG 76 left Gibraltar on December 14, with HMS Audacity embarking just four Grummans, supported by three destroyers. The convoy drew a U-boat wolfpack while Audacity’s planes downed two more Condors but lost one in an attack on a surfaced submarine. U-131 was damaged and scuttled.

More action came the night of December 21. Ten U-boats stalked the convoy, four actually attacking. Silhouetted under flares, Audacity appeared in the periscope of U-751’s Kapitänleutnant Gerhard Bigalk, a former merchant officer. In two approaches he put three torpedoes into her, igniting aviation gasoline and severing her bow. Sub-Lieutenant Brown, later the world champion carrier aviator, had just moments to order his priorities. Given a choice between saving pajamas recently purchased for his fiancée or his logbook, he did what any pilot would do—he wrapped up his log and abandoned ship.

The HMS Audacity sank in little more than an hour.

Additionally, the convoy lost two merchantmen and an escort while Admiral Doenitz wrote off three boats. It was a lesson for both sides in attrition warfare at sea.

Sinking the HMS Audacity

Kapitänleutnant Gerhard Bigalk logged his approach and attack on HMS Audacity the night of December 21, 1941:

Very dark night, overcast . . . moderate swell. . . . Spread of four, enemy speed 10 knots, inclination 80°, bows left, depth 3 m, range 1,200 m. After running time of 3 min. 20 sec. we see a detonation against the stern of the enemy— this also turned out to be clearly audible in the forward compartment.

Loading...
Loading...

Enemy alters course away from us to port. The light produced by some extremely bright starshell reveals her beyond all doubt to be an aircraft carrier. Now I understand why I got her range and speed so wrong.

I withdraw somewhat to reload torpedoes, keeping a close watch on the carrier. . . . After her course alteration to port (south) the carrier slows to a halt. . . . The first torpedo hit must have shattered her rudder and propellers because carrier seems powerless to manoeuvre [sic] herself out of an unfavorable position beam to wind. [Actually her engine room was flooding.] With just a single torpedo—all that remains loaded in my stern tube—there’s little chance of my sinking her. I’ll have to wait until at least two bow tubes have been reloaded. . . .

The shadow is so monstrously large that its breadth covers at least two periscope glass widths. Line of bearing 0°, range 800 m, enemy speed=0. Running time 50 sec, depth 4.5 m. Twin salvo from Tubes I and III. Tube I hits 25 m from the stern. Tube III 10 m forward of midships. Shortly after these hit there is a third powerful detonation accompanied by flames and a substantial quantity of smoke. . . . Carrier is firing red distress signals. Two destroyers approach at high speed. As one of them heads straight towards me I am forced to withdraw.

Bigalk and his submarine were lost to British bombers in July 1942.

Escort Carrier Program

Among the miracles of production in the Second World War was America’s escort carrier program. For scale and efficiency, few industrial achievements could match it.

When the United States abruptly faced a severe shortage of flight decks in December 1941, a quick fix was found. Merchant ship hulls could be converted to “baby” or “jeep” carriers capable of operating as many as thirty aircraft. The British had pioneered the concept, but could not meet the numbers required—hence the Royal Navy’s reliance on its “rich uncle in America.”

USS Long Island was the first American escort carrier, originally designated ACV-1 (auxiliary aircraft carrier). Commissioned in June 1941, she was capable of 17 knots and proved the merchant conversion concept, but saw little combat.

The next four escort carriers were the Sangamon class, converted from oilers to flattops in as little as six months. They were 11,600-ton ships with two elevators to operate twenty-five planes.

Loading...
Loading...

Next came the Bogue class, ten escort carriers serving in the U.S. Navy and thirty-four with Britain as the Attacker and Ruler classes. They were small, usually less than five hundred feet in length, but weighed as much as 14,400 tons and proved highly versatile. Most entered service between early 1942 and early 1944.

Finally, the immensely successful Casablanca class produced fifty escort carriers in twenty-one months. More remarkably, they were commissioned in the year between July 1943 and July 1944. It was a stunning accomplishment, as Henry Kaiser’s Vancouver, Washington, shipyard built not only escort carriers, but turned out Liberty transport and cargo ships in as little as ninety days.

Small and lightly armored, “baby flattops” lent themselves to grim sailors’ humor. Some insisted that CVE stood for “combustible, vulnerable, and expendable.” Others said they were “two-torpedo ships” because the second torpedo would pass over the flight deck.

Seeandbee, acquired in March 1942, was commissioned in August as USS Wolverine (IX-64). The IX designator indicated a miscellaneous vessel. Her partner emerged as Sable (IX-81) in May 1943, both displacing about seven thousand tons as carriers. Because they were based at Chicago’s Navy Pier, their lack of a hangar deck was of little concern.

Wolverine’s flight deck measured five hundred feet in length, while Sable’s was 535, both about ninety-eight feet wide. Thus, their decks were shorter than a Casablanca-class CVE (476 x 80) but somewhat wider.

Wolverine began qualifying carrier pilots in September 1942, and by war’s end she and Sable were credited with producing 17,820 aviators who logged nearly 120,000 landings. (Originally pilots needed eight landings to qualify, later reduced to six.) In those three years the ships also trained forty thousand flight deck crewmen—essential supporting players in the carrier aviation cast.

Pilots reported to NAS Glenview from around the country, regardless of their ultimate carrier assignment. Retired Captain Chuck Downey recalled his experience as an eighteen-year-old “nugget” aviator in 1943. “We were only there for about three days. We spent a couple days working with an LSO, practicing carrier approaches at a training field, and then when he felt we were ready, he sent us out to the carrier.”

However, unavoidable complications arose. Inevitably the smoke from coal-burning engines wafted ashore, depositing sooty residue over the urban area, including laundry hung out to dry. Beyond that, when operating within view of shore, the carriers caused major traffic jams as motorists slowed or stopped to take in the naval air show.

Loading...
Loading...

Some 140 carrier aircraft sank in the Great Lakes, with eight known fatalities. A few planes survived well enough in fresh water to be retrieved and restored for museum display, a reminder.

Bismarck Battleship — The Terror of the Nazi Fleet

The Bismarck Battleship was the first Bismarck-class battleships built for Nazi Germany’s Navy. The ship represented the clearest example of Germany’s military superiority in the run-up to World War Two. Bismarck and her sister ship Tirpitz both weigh in at 42,500 tons. The British battleships of the King George V (KGV) class under construction were nearly 12 percent lighter than their German counterparts.

When finished, Tirpitz and Bismarck would best the Royal Navy’s new ships in every department. They each mounted eight 15-inch guns against the 14-inch main armament of the King George V. They were faster and could travel much greater distances without refueling. They were also immensely well protected, with thick layers of steel armor encasing decks and hull, turrets, engine rooms, and magazines. Their enemies often said that the Germans had declared their battleships “unsinkable.” The claim does not seem to have been made officially. The builders revealed after the war that the Kriegsmarine often intervened during the building of Tirpitz and the Bismarck battleship to “raise their levels of unsinkability.” The result was that, in the case of Tirpitz, 40 percent of her overall weight was made up of armor plating. The belief grew that Tirpitz and the Bismarck battleship could survive any torpedo, shell, or bomb that the British ships or aircraft could hurl at them—and it was not unfounded. The British Navyhad been starved of funds in the postwar years and little effort had been made to develop new weaponry. Torpedoes and shells carried feeble charges and lacked penetrative power. The greatest failure to keep pace with technological developments lay in the area of naval aviation. The Admiralty was only now regaining control of the Fleet Air Arm from the RAF, whose equipment programs had given priority to fighters and bombers. The navy was entering the war equipped with biplanes that looked like survivors from the previous conflict.

The Terror of the Bismarck Battleship

News reached England in May 1941 that Bismarck was at sea. Simultaneously, a great threat and a great opportunity had materialized. Sinking her would count as a magnificent naval victory. It would also provide some longedfor good news after a succession of setbacks, failures, and disappointments. The relief of surviving the Battle of Britain had given way to the bleak realization that the nation was isolated and faced immense difficulties ahead. The country was now engaged in another struggle for existence, which Churchill christened the Battle of the Atlantic. Having failed to bring Britain to terms by the threat of invasion, Germany had switched its strategy and was trying to starve her into submission by cutting off the lifelines that connected her with the rest of the world. Churchill said later that “amid the torrent of violent events one anxiety reigned supreme . . . dominating all our power to carry on the war, or even keep ourselves alive, lay mastery of the ocean routes and the free approach and entry to our ports.”

It was the navy’s principal duty to defend these routes but the task was overwhelming. It no longer had the resources of the French fleet, a large part of which lay at the bottom of Mers-el-Kebir harbor, sunk by British guns. America gave all the help it could, but it had yet to enter the war. Early engagements in the battle for Norway and on the high seas had failed to neutralize the threat from the German navy. Instead, in the spring of 1941, the Kriegsmarine was setting the pace in the struggle.

The main battleground was the vital sea lanes of the North Atlantic. In March and April 1941, nearly half a million tons of Allied shipping had been sent to the bottom. Most of it was sunk by U-boats, whose effectiveness a complacent Admiralty had badly underestimated in the interwar years. Until now the surface raiders that Admiral Pound had feared would “paralyse” the sea lanes had played a secondary part in the campaign. That seemed about to change. A foray by the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in February and March had resulted in the destruction or capture of twenty-two ships totaling 115,600 tons. Now it was the Bismarck battleship’s turn and the transatlantic convoys, already ravaged by land-based bombers’ bombardment and prowling U-boats’ ambush, would be at the mercy of the most powerful German warship yet put to sea.

It was important for Hitler’s long-term war plans that the battleship make it through to the North Atlantic. He was about to turn his armies eastward against the Soviet Union and he needed a cowed and docile Europe at his back. The war at sea presented the best chance of bringing his last enemy in the west to heel. The original operation, code-named Rheinübung, or Rhine Exercise, had been correspondingly ambitious. Admiral Raeder’s plan had been to combine his four biggest ships in a powerful task force that could, temporarily at least, cause a suspension of the convoys, cutting off Britain’s maritime life-support system. The Bismarck and Tirpitz would sail from Germany and meet up with Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, now lying at Brest on the French Atlantic coast. One by one, though, his force had been whittled away. A lucky torpedo dropped from a RAF Coastal Command Beaufort had done Gneisenau enough damage to put her out of action for six months. Then the boilers powering Scharnhorst’s steam turbines needed replacing. The battleships would have to operate on their own. For each it would be their first maneuver.

The operation was led by Admiral Günther Lütjens, the commander of the German fleet. His reputation stood high. It was he who had led Gneisenau and Scharnhorst during their late winter rampage. Lütjens’s down-turned mouth and hard eyes seldom broke into a smile. He looked what he was—cold, proud, and utterly confident of his abilities, rarely feeling the necessity to explain critical decisions to those above or below him. His abilities were tied to a strict sense of duty. He could be relied on to follow the spirit of his orders even when he doubted their wisdom. Lütjens was quite aware of the dangers ahead. His ship outclassed any vessel in the British fleet. But the task force he was commanding had shrunk to a fraction of its original strength. It seemed to him probable— even inevitable—that it would eventually be overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers. Before the start of Rheinübung he had called on a friend at Raeder’s Berlin headquarters to say goodbye. “I’ll never come back,” he told him in a matter-of-fact voice.

Loading...
Loading...

The mood aboard Bismarck, though, was buoyant. The ship thrummed with excitement and anticipation as she headed out towards the Norwegian Sea. At noon, over the loudspeakers, the ship’s commander Kapitän Ernst Lindemann at last told the 2,221 officers and men on board where they were going. “The day we have longed for so eagerly has at last arrived,” he said. “The moment when we can lead our proud ship against the enemy. Our objective is commerce raiding in the Atlantic imperiling England’s existence.”

As Bismarck, along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, attempted to break into the Atlantic Ocean, the ships were detected several times. British naval units and the RAF were dispatched to block their route. Bismarck show its might when it destroyed the battlecruiser HMS Hood at the Battle of the Denmark Strait. It also forced the battleship HMS Prince of Wales to retreat.

Two days later the British prepared to attack the Bismarck with obsolescent Fairey Swordship biplane torpedo bombers. In the pre-operational briefing, the pilots had been given a detailed plan of attack. It followed the standard Fleet Air Arm method for firing torpedoes at ships at sea. The first three flights were to come in on the port beam from differing bearings. The second wave would do the same on the starboard side. The intention was to force the anti-aircraft gunners to divide their attentions between two targets and to bracket the ship with torpedoes, severely restricting its ability to steer out of their path.

As the planes approached, Bismarck fired with anti-aircraft batteries. One torpedo his the port side, causing minor structural damage.

On a second approach, pilot John Moffat came over the Bismarck. He was alone. “Even at this distance the brute seemed enormous to me,” he recalled. He turned to his right towards her. Almost immediately “there was a red glow in the clouds ahead of me about a hundred yards away as anti-aircraft shells exploded.” Then the gunners were aiming just ahead of him and their fire threw up “walls of water” in his path. Two shells erupted next to and below the Swordfish, knocking it 90 degrees off course. Moffat dropped to fifty feet, just above the height where he might catch a wave and cartwheel into the sea.

This seemed to be below the angle at which the flak guns could operate but, in their place, cannon and machine guns were pumping out red tracer bullets that flowed towards Moffat and his two-man crew “in a torrent.” As he raced towards the target he felt that “every gun on the ship was aiming at me.” He could not believe that he was flying straight into the hail of fire. “Every instinct was screaming at me to duck, turn away, do anything.” But he suppressed his fear and pressed grimly on as the target grew larger and larger.

His training taught him to assess the speed of the ship under attack and fire ahead, using a simple marked rod mounted horizontally along the top of the cockpit to calculate the correct distance to lay off. With the Bismarck looming ahead of him, Moffat felt he could not miss. “I thought, I’m still flying. If I can get rid of this torpedo and get the hell out of here, we might survive.” He was about to press the release button on the throttle when he heard his observer, Sub-Lieutenant John “Dusty” Miller, shouting “Not yet, John, not yet!” Moffat looked back to see Miller’s “backside in the air . . . there he was hanging over the side and his head [was] down underneath the aeroplane and he was shouting ‘not yet!’” Moffat realized what was going on. “It dawned on me that if I dropped that torpedo and it struck the top of a wave it could go anywhere but where it’s supposed to.” Miller was waiting for a trough. Then “he shouted ‘let her go!’ and the next [moment he] was saying ‘John, we’ve got a runner.’”

Relieved of the torpedo’s ton weight, the Swordfish leapt upwards and it was all Moffat could do to wrestle it down below the gunfire streaming overhead. It would have taken ninety seconds to follow the track of the torpedo to the target. Hanging around meant certain death. Moffat put the Swordfish into a “ski turn. I gave the engine full lick and I stood on my left rudder and I shuddered round flat.” It was a maneuver that only the slow-moving Swordfish could pull off and it kept them down beneath the lowest elevation of the guns. He headed away at maximum speed, keeping low until he judged it was safe to climb into the cover of the clouds. He had no idea of whether his torpedo had found its target or not.

Loading...
Loading...

There was one last hazard to face. When he reached Ark Royal the deck was still heaving. As he finally touched down “there was nothing more welcoming than the thump of the wheels on the deck and the clatter of the hook catching on the arrestor wire.” Clambering down from the cockpit, he felt light-headed from adrenaline and fatigue. He told the debriefing officers the little he could, then headed below for a special meal that he was too tense to eat.

The mood among the crews was subdued. Everyone had been disoriented by the cloud and the attacks had all taken place in ones and twos. Only two, possibly three, torpedoes had been seen to hit the target. That was not a cause for celebration. Bismarck’s thick armor meant that even a direct hit amidships would not necessarily prove fatal, as the attacks from Victorious had shown. Moffat thought he might have been responsible for one recorded strike. A pilot who followed him in saw a torpedo exploding two-thirds of the way down the port side.

Visibility was too poor for another attempt that night, but the pilots would be sent off again the following morning. Someone gloomily remarked that “the Light Brigade had only been asked to do it once.” Then a stream of information started to arrive that lifted their spirits. Sheffield signaled that the Bismarck battleship had slowed down. Then came the astonishing news that she had turned around and was heading straight toward the battleship King George V, which was approaching from the north. A little later, two Swordfish returned to Ark Royal from a long reconnaissance to report that Bismarck had lost speed and had steamed round in two full circles. HMS Zulu, which by now had arrived on the scene, confirmed the news: the Bismarck had been stopped, less than five hundred miles from the French coast.

Moffat learned later that it was probably his torpedo that had stopped her. It had exploded at the battleship’s stern, jamming her rudders at 12 degrees and making steering impossible. With that, Bismarck’s fate was sealed. Throughout the night she was subjected to repeated torpedo attacks from fast destroyers which had now caught up. In the morning, King George V and Rodney arrived and closed in for the kill. The end was never in doubt but it still took forty-five minutes of pounding from the two British battleships and the heavy cruiser Dorsetshire before the Bismarck’s big guns stopped firing. By then Lütjens was dead, probably killed when a shell from King George V hit the bridge. Dorsetshire administered the coup de grâce. An able seaman on board, A. E. Franklin, watched two 21-inch torpedoes leave the cruiser’s tubes then saw “a tremendous explosion . . . the fish having truly planted themselves in the bowels of the Bismarck far below the water line amidships.” Dorsetshire closed in to 1,000 yards to deliver another torpedo, which struck squarely on the port side.

John Moffat was flying overhead when she went down. He saw a sight “that . . . remained etched in my mind ever since. This enormous vessel, over 800 feet long, her gun turrets smashed, her bridge and upper works like a jagged ruin, slowly, frighteningly toppled over, smashing down into the sea and her great hull was revealed, the plates and bilge keels glistening dark red as the oily sea covered her. Still leaping from her were men and sailors. There were hundreds more in the sea; some desperately struggling for their lives, others already inert, tossed by the waves as they floated face down.” Moffat was pierced by the knowledge that “there was nothing that I could do to save even a single one.”The Bismarck battleship finally sank, stern first, at 10:39 a.m., four hundred miles west of Brest, an hour and fifty minutes after the battle was joined.

Only 118 of the 2,224 men on board were saved. Most were taken aboard the Dorsetshire. Franklin recorded that with “the battle finished, the humanitarian instinct rises above the feeling of revenge and destruction . . . ropes come from nowhere. Willing hands rush to haul on board the survivors.” But then came a warning that an enemy submarine was in the area. The rescue work broke off and Dorsetshire and the destroyer Maori, which was also standing by, made for safety, leaving hundreds of men bobbing in the oil-stained sea to await death.

The relief in London was immense. Churchill’s desperation for a victory had caused him to issue some unfortunate instructions. The night before the end Tovey had signaled that he might have to break off the chase. King George V’s fuel bunkers were draining fast and if they ran dry his flagship would be dead in the water, at the mercy of any prowling U-boat. Churchill’s response, passed on by Pound, was that “Bismarck must be sunk at all costs and if to do this it is necessary for the King George V to remain on scene then she must do so, even if it subsequently means towing King George V.” Tovey was to describe this later as “the stupidest and most ill-considered signal ever made,”1 and the exchange deepened the mistrust developing between the two men.

Churchill broke the news to the nation in dramatic style. He was on his feet in Church House, where the House of Commons conducted its business while the Palace of Westminster was repaired from bomb damage, describing the battle raging in the Atlantic, when there was a commotion and a messenger handed him a piece of paper. He sat down, scanned it and got up again. “I have just received news that the Bismarck is sunk,” he announced and the assembly erupted in a roar of applause.

Loading...
Loading...

Battle of the North Cape — The North Sea Clash

The Battle of the North Cape — a naval battle of critical importance in the Second World War, took place on December 26, 1943 as part of the Arctic Campaign.

Allied forces sent Arctic convoys to offer supplies to a beleaguered Russia.  Arctic convoys which, in response to Stalin’s appeals to Churchill and Roosevelt, were ferrying substantial war supplies round the North Cape—Norway’s most northern point—to the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel. The first had sailed from Iceland on August 21, 1941, six more followed by the end of the year, and many more were expected in 1942.

The primary belligerents of the Battle of the North Cape were the German battleship Scharnhorst, which was sunk by Royal Navy forces, primarily the Battleship HMS Duke of York, along with several cruisers and destroyers. British cargo ships were returning from Russia and were escorted by a convoy of destroyers and other vessels. Home Fleet commander-in-chief Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser wanted to neutralize the Scharnhorst, which had attacked British convoys on numerous occassions.

At 8:45 a.m. on December 26, a blip on a cathode screen aboard Vice Admiral Robert Burnett’s flagship Belfast revealed a single ship steaming slightly north of west. The vessel was only fourteen miles away. At 9:21 a.m., lookouts on Sheffield glimpsed the outlines of a large ship, ghostly in the murk, on the port beam, about seven miles away. There was no doubt what it was. The signal lamps flashed the message to Burnett: “Enemy in sight.”

Beginning of the Battle of the North Cape

At this point in the Battle of the North Cape, Scharnhorst was outnumbered but she was not outgunned. She mounted nine 11-inch and twelve 5.9-inch guns. The heaviest guns the cruisers could muster were the eight 8-inchers on Norfolk. Belfast and Sheffield each had twelve 6-inch guns. The superior reach and power of Scharnhorst’s main armament should have been enough for her to do serious damage to one or more of the cruisers without getting within range of their weapons. Her slight edge in speed gave her the advantage in a chase. But Rear Admiral Bey and Captain Fritz Hintze were hindered by a serious handicap. The limited range of their radar compared with the British equipment meant they were unlikely to sight the enemy before the enemy sighted them. At 9:24 a.m. the gloom was pierced by the first star shell, fired from Belfast to light up the target. A few minutes later, real shells were plunging into the surrounding waters.

Scharnhorst was just turning south when she was spotted, and the shells from Belfast and Sheffield all missed. Norfolk was luckier. Her radar-controlled 8-inch guns fired six broadsides and scored three hits. One smashed Scharnhorst’s main radar aerial, and another wrecked the port high-angle gunnery director. In a few minutes her armament advantage had been severely reduced, and she was now operating in semi-blindness.

Bey ran for it. He turned Scharnhorst southeast, and hurried off at thirty knots, making smoke as he went. Despite the encounter, he was still determined to attack the convoy. He ordered his destroyers to steer northeast on a heading which he believed would take them onto the southern flank of the convoy. He, meanwhile, would race round to the far side, to attack it from the north.

Burnett decided not to give chase. His ships were too slow to overhaul their quarry. He guessed, correctly, that Scharnhorst was still full of fight and would make another attempt on the convoy. His place was therefore alongside the merchantmen, and he ordered his squadron north and west, from where JW.55B was approaching.

Loading...
Loading...

Fraser, aboard the Duke of York, received with dismay the news that Force One had lost touch with the enemy and was returning to the convoy. It seemed to him that Scharnhorst was more likely to return to Norway rather than continue the operation. A German flying boat had spotted Fraser’s flagship. News of the presence of a battleship in the area would surely cause Bey to beat a rapid retreat. If so, Fraser was still too far away to cut her off. The prospect of glory was fading. Fraser could not hide his chagrin. At 10:57 a.m., nearly an hour after the engagement had ended, he signaled to Burnett: “Unless touch can be regained by some unit, there is no chance of my finding enemy.”

Bey had indeed received a report of the flying boat sighting but it was shorn of a crucial detail that, had it been included, Dönitz was later to claim could have altered the whole course of the drama. At 11:00 a.m. he had been told that five warships had been seen far to the northwest of the North Cape. The original report had included the information that one of the vessels was “apparently a big ship.” The senior air officer removed this detail before relaying it to naval headquarters on the grounds that he did not wish to pass on what he regarded as conjecture.

The result was confusion in the Battle of the North Cape. Admiral Schniewind at Naval Group North in Kiel made the incorrect guess that the ships were probably the destroyers Bey had sent off when they could not keep up with him, and therefore no threat. Dönitz maintained that, had he been given the full message, he would “probably have immediately ordered the operation to be abandoned.” What Bey made of the information is unknown. Whatever his appreciation of the situation, he decided to carry on. By noon Scharnhorst was to the north and east of the convoy. So, too, were Burnett’s cruisers. Once again it was the Belfast radar operators who picked up a lone ship on their screens, and the Sheffield’s lookouts who first laid eyes on the target. At 12:21 p.m. the signal lamp once more flashed the message: “Enemy in sight.”

Burnett gave the order to engage. At the same time, he sent his destroyers darting forward, seeking a line on which they could fire their torpedoes. The sight of the advancing destroyers resulted in Scharnhorst making several violent course changes, before heading away on an east-southeast heading. As the first shells crashed around her, she returned fire, concentrating on Norfolk whose shells were not propelled with flash-suppressing charges. The great tongues of flame leaping from her guns lit her up and gave the German gunners, working without radar, a point for their optics to range on. Their aim was good enough to land one 11-inch shell, which struck a gun turret and knocked out the cruiser’s main radar sets, killing seven and seriously wounding five more.

Scharnhorst did not linger. She broke away, heading southeast, piling on as many knots as her turbines could muster. Once again her superior speed told and she was soon lost in the gloom and smoke. Although being slowly outdistanced, the cruisers were still able to shadow her for the next few hours by radar, and even as Scharnhorst was escaping from one set of pursuers she was running straight into the path of another.

By now Fraser was in a position to cut off her escape. His frustration had given way to cautiously rising hopes as he traced Burnett’s reports onto the chart before him. Then, at 4:17 p.m., a bright point of light glowed on the Duke of York’s long-distance radar screen. Scharnhorst was just over twenty-five miles away. When the distance had closed to eleven miles, he ordered his destroyers to prepare their torpedoes but to await his signal to attack.

It was only when the two ships were seven miles apart that he swung Duke of York onto a starboard course to give all his guns and those of Jamaica behind him their chance—a critical moment in the Battle of the North Cape. The bombardment opened with a salvo of star shells that hung in the dark sky, bathing the sea in a flat, harsh light. There, outlined like a great silver ghost, was the Scharnhorst. She had been taken by surprise. Her guns were still pointing forward and aft, away from her nemesis. At 4:51 p.m., Duke of York shook with the recoil of a full broadside. Shells flew from her ten 14-inch guns on an almost flat trajectory toward their target. One struck Scharnhorst’s forward turret, wrecking it. The ship swung away from its attackers, heading northward—back toward the guns of the shadowing cruisers of Force One. Soon she was under fire from Belfast and Norfolk and turned to the east, still firing at her pursuers from her rear turret as she fled. Scharnhorst still retained one advantage: she was a full four knots faster than Duke of York. As she pulled away, Duke of York fired broadside after broadside. The shocks swept through the ship, smashing the valves in the gunnery radar system, temporarily disabling it.

One of the 14-inch shells struck Scharnhorst’s starboard boiler room, slowing her down to ten knots until the steam pipes were jury-rigged to bring her back up to twenty-two knots. It was enough to draw her out of range. At 6:20 p.m., after firing fifty-two broadsides, the Duke of York’s guns ceased firing and her exhausted crews slumped back in a despondent daze. It seemed to be all over. Fraser signaled Burnett that he “saw little hope of catching Scharnhorst and am proceeding to support convoy.” His destroyers, though, had not given up hope. Despite the heavy seas they had managed to gain on the battle cruiser. Just as Fraser had decided pursuit was hopeless they arrived astern of Scharnhorst and began maneuvering to launch attacks on either beam, with Savage and Saumarez on the port side and Scorpion and Stord to starboard.

Loading...
Loading...

The Scharnhorst’s gunners soon picked up the portside attackers but, blinded by star shell, failed to notice the ones approaching from starboard until the destroyers were only two miles away. Hintze swung his ship toward them in an effort to comb the tracks of the torpedoes that would soon be racing her way. He almost succeeded. Sixteen torpedoes leaped from the tubes of Scorpion and Stord, and only one struck.

The change of course, though, brought him into the arcs of the torpedo tubes of Savage and Saumarez. At almost point-blank range they loosed off twelve torpedoes. Two exploded, knocking out another boiler room and bending a propeller shaft. Scharnhorst shuddered and slowed. Soon she was rolling and pitching, barely able to scrape ten knots. Duke of York and Jamaica swept toward her, opening fire again at six miles. Burnett’s cruisers, moving to join up with the Commander in Chief’s squadron, joined in. Under the pounding she staggered and slowed. The cruisers moved forward and lanced her burning sides with torpedoes. Then it was the turn of the Force One destroyers. The Allies were securing victory in the Battle of the North Cape.

The decks of Scharnhorst were strewn with the dead and dying. Among them, the survivors, smoke-blackened and deafened, mustered to abandon ship. She was wallowing, almost on her beam-ends. Hintze, who had led them with perhaps more kindness than skill, was fatherly to the end. “Don’t go overboard to starboard,” he told them through a megaphone. “Go over from the port side and slide from the rail into the water. Don’t forget to inflate your life-jackets and now one after the other, over the rail.”

Aftermath of the Battle of the North Cape

The loss of the Battle of the North Cape shook the German fleet. Dönitz struggled to understand why Bey broke off the first fight of the day when, in his judgment, he had it in his power to overwhelm Burnett and his cruisers. “The correct thing to have done . . . would have been to continue the fight and finish off the weaker British forces, particularly as it was plain that they had already been hard hit,” he wrote. “Had this been done an excellent opportunity would . . . have been created for a successful attack on the convoy.” Why, when he fled after the second clash, did he not use his advantage of speed and weight to steer a westerly course into the wind and heavy sea that would have made it very difficult for the lightly built British cruisers and destroyers to keep in contact? The answer would never be known. Bey and Hintze had been swallowed by the Barents Sea.

Battle of the Atlantic — Two Blockades Clash

The Battle of the Atlantic existed throughout nearly all the duration of World War Two—running from 1939 to 1945 and consisting of the Allied naval blockage of Germany and Germany’s counter-blockade of convoys from North America to the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. U-Boats and warships frequently clashed.

In late 1940 England was pummeled by German bombers in a major air campaign known as the Battle of Britain. The relief of surviving the Battle of Britain had given way to the bleak realization that the nation was isolated and faced immense difficulties ahead. The country was now engaged in another struggle for existence, which Churchill christened the Battle of the Atlantic. Having failed to bring Britain to terms by the threat of invasion, Germany had switched its strategy and was trying to starve her into submission by cutting off the lifelines that connected her with the rest of the world. Churchill said later that “amid the torrent of violent events one anxiety reigned supreme . . . dominating all our power to carry on the war, or even keep ourselves alive, lay mastery of the ocean routes and the free approach and entry to our ports.”

It was the navy’s principal duty to defend these routes but the task was overwhelming. It no longer had the resources of the French fleet, a large part of which lay at the bottom of Mers-el- Kebir harbor, sunk by British guns. America gave all the help it could, but it had yet to enter the war. Early engagements in the battle for Norway and on the high seas had failed to neutralize the threat from the German navy. Instead, in the spring of 1941, the Kriegsmarine was setting the pace in the struggle.

The Battle of the Atlantic: Freeing Up Vital Sea Lanes

The main battleground of the Battle of the Atlantic was the vital sea lanes of the North Atlantic. In March and April 1941, nearly half a million tons of Allied shipping had been sent to the bottom. Most of it was sunk by U-boats, whose effectiveness a complacent Admiralty had badly underestimated in the interwar years. Until now the surface raiders that Admiral Pound had feared would “paralyse” the sea lanes had played a secondary part in the campaign. That seemed about to change. A foray by the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in February and March had resulted in the destruction or capture of twenty-two ships totaling 115,600 tons. Now it was Bismarck’s turn and the transatlantic convoys, already ravaged by land-based bombers’ bombardment and prowling U-boats’ ambush, would be at the mercy of the most powerful German warship yet put to sea.

Loading...
Loading...

In the spring of 1941, as the crisis of the Battle of Britain faded and the Battle of the Atlantic intensified, Churchill had demanded a maximum effort from the RAF against the two enemy weapons that were wreaking most of the destruction. His words were repeated in the directive handed to Bomber Command: “We must take the offensive against the U-boat and the Focke-Wulf (Condor) wherever we can and whenever we can.” St Nazaire was listed as a target. It was not until the next year that regular raids were launched. The bombing was inaccurate and ineffective and operations were restricted by Churchill’s instruction that aircraft were to attack only when visibility was good enough to minimize the risk to French civilians. A chance had been missed. By March 1942, nine out of fourteen planned submarine pens were finished. Shielded from bombs by massive layers of reinforced concrete, there was no hope of destroying them from the air. A land attack would take enormous resources and involve considerable losses.

In March 1943, the Battle of the Atlantic approached its climax. German naval commander Karl Dönitz threw all his submarines into an effort to cut the transatlantic lifeline. The immensity of the odds dwarfed all other considerations. Every ship available was needed to stem the losses that the wolf packs were inflicting. The next planned outgoing and returning convoys were canceled. Churchill explained the decision in a letter to Roosevelt, who had maintained firm pressure on Britain to keep the convoys sailing whenever possible. In the middle of March one of the biggest convoy battles of the war was fought in the North Atlantic.

Dönitz concentrated a force of forty U-boats against convoys HX.229 and SC.122 sailing from New York. In two days, they sank seventeen ships. The disaster, wrote Churchill, was “a final proof that our escorts are everywhere too thin. The strain on the British Navy is becoming intolerable.” Roosevelt was sympathetic. At the end of March, convoys to the Arctic were postponed and the ships that would have protected them were transferred from the Home Fleet to Western Approaches Command, which had responsibility for the Atlantic routes. It would be the autumn before another Arctic convoy set sail.

There had been no sailings during the spring and summer of 1943. The middle of the year saw the climax of the Battle of the Atlantic. There was no question of the Royal Navy’s warships being diverted to escort duties in northern waters while the outcome hung in the balance. The result was that by the beginning of the autumn only a third of the volume of the previous year’s supplies had been delivered to northern Russian ports. This was bad news for Stalin. The tide had turned on the Eastern Front and he needed American and British tanks and aircraft if his armies were to exploit their gains. He was deaf to the Allies’ excuses, and Churchill and Roosevelt were subjected to continual badgering from Moscow as to when the convoys would resume. By the end of the summer, Allied air and sea countermeasures had begun to alter the balance in the Atlantic and pressure on the Home Fleet eased. Assets would now be available for convoy duty.

The German Navy in World War 2

In the 1920s and early 1930s, the head of the modern German fleet, Admiral Erich Raeder kept his distance from Hitler until he came to power. His first impression of him was favorable. Hitler seemed to him “an outstanding personality with a real claim to leadership. He had gained the Führer’s confidence and, once the strategic decisions had been taken, had been given a free hand and a generous budget to build up the WW2 Navies. Hitler had been presented with two choices for his navy. The first proposed a cheap, light, flexible force, centered on submarines and the small but powerfully armed long-range cruisers that the British had nicknamed “pocket battleships.” This plan had no pretensions to challenging Britain as a naval power but carried great potential to harm her. The second was to build a big fleet of modern surface ships that would establish Germany as a world maritime force. He had chosen the grandiose option, with Raeder’s approval. The result was “Plan Z,” which Hitler had finally agreed to only two months before. It envisaged a fleet with ten battleships at its core and four aircraft carriers to provide the air power that was becoming a vital adjunct of naval operations. Supporting them would be fifteen pocket battleships, over a hundred cruisers and destroyers, and an underwater strength of more than 250 U-boats.

A force of this size would take up to ten years to build. The plan had been designed on the assumption, reinforced by Hitler’s frequent assurances, that a war with Britain was still well over the horizon. Only four years before, the two countries had signed the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, which Hitler mentioned in his speech. Germany agreed to limit its surface ship-building program to 35 percent of the British fleet and its submarines to 45 percent of the Royal Navy’s tonnage, with a clause allowing it to rise to parity in special circumstances. The deal was negotiated in a friendly atmosphere. Historically, both sides had felt respect for one another. When the commander of the British Fleet at Jutland, Lord Jellicoe, died in November 1935, Raeder ordered all German warships to fly their flags at half-mast.

A confrontation with the Royal Navy had seemed a distant prospect when Plan Z was being worked out. Now, with Chamberlain’s guarantee to the Poles, it loomed suddenly and alarmingly into view. Raeder’s exalted title scarcely reflected the might of his fleet. As he waved his landlubber leader off at the end of his Wilhelmshaven jaunt, he knew very well that he had limited assets with which to face the coming crisis.

The German fleet that spring had only two big ships in service —the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, both weighing 32,000 tons. (All displacements are given as standard: minus the weight of fuel, water, and stores that would be carried on voyage.) There was a heavy cruiser, the 14,000-ton Admiral Hipper, which would be joined in the coming year by two ships of the same class, the Blücher and the Prinz Eugen. Three pocket battleships were in commission, the Deutschland, Admiral Graf Spee, and Admiral Scheer. Despite weighing only 12,000 tons, they packed heavy firepower in their six 11-inch guns. Of the four planned aircraft carriers, only one, the Graf Zeppelin, had been retired, but years of work remained. As for submarines, about fifty would be ready for operations by the summer’s end.

Loading...
Loading...

In numerical terms, this was a tiny force compared with the Royal Navy. It could muster twelve battleships with five more on the way, four battle cruisers, six aircraft carriers with another six under construction, and twenty-four heavy cruisers. Numbers were only equal below the waves.

But strength was not measured in numbers alone. The qualitative difference between the two fleets went a long way towards correcting the quantitative imbalance. The core of the German fleet was modern, whereas many of the British ships dated back to the previous war and only some of them had been updated. The new ships in the pipeline were inferior to their German counterparts. Britain, it would often be lamented in the years to come, had played the game squarely when it came to honoring the limitations agreements it had made in the interwar years. The Germans, on the other hand, had systematically and ruthlessly cheated.

All of Germany’s large ships were bigger than they were supposed to be. The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were actually 6,000 tons heavier than officially claimed. The extra weight came from the thick armor plating which reduced the danger from the British battle cruisers’ heavier guns. They were also faster than claimed and could muster thirty-one knots, which gave them the edge over their counterparts if forced to run.

It was in the top class—the battleships—that German superiority was most marked. Since Tirpitz and her sister ship Bismarck were retired in 1936, the German Embassy in London had lied to the Foreign Office about their specifications on Raeder’s instructions. Instead of being 35,000 tons—the upper limit decided upon in the Anglo-German Naval Agreement—they would both weigh in at 42,500 tons. The British, by contrast, stuck to the rules. As a result the battleships of the King George V (KGV) class under construction were nearly 12 percent lighter than their German counterparts.

It was not merely a question of size. When finished, Tirpitz and Bismarck would best the Royal Navy’s new ships in every department. They each mounted eight 15-inch guns against the 14- inch main armament of the King George V. They were faster and could travel much greater distances without refueling. They were also immensely well protected, with thick layers of steel armor encasing decks and hull, turrets, engine rooms, and magazines. Their enemies often said that the Germans had declared their battleships “unsinkable.” The claim does not seem to have been made officially. The builders revealed after the war that the Kriegsmarine often intervened during the building of Tirpitz and Bismarck to “raise their levels of unsinkability.” The result was that, in the case of Tirpitz, 40 percent of her overall weight was made up of armor plating.

U.S. Coast Guard History

With the longest unbroken service of all American armed forces, Coast Guard history traces its ancestry to the Revenue Marine of 1790, and after a series of subsequent designations it gained its present name in 1915. During World War II the Coast Guard was automatically absorbed by the Navy Department, having previously been administered by the Revenue and Commerce Departments.

Coast Guard History: Pre-WW2

From a 1939 strength of 10,544 men, the Coast Guard grew to 171,749 men and women (excluding medical personnel) in February 1944. Much of the service’s early wartime service was in the Pacific. The cutter Taney’s anti-aircraft guns deterred Japanese planes from bombing Honolulu’s power plant on 7 December 1941, and in July 1942 Coast Guard vessels claimed sinkings of enemy submarines in Alaskan waters. Coast Guardsmen also operated landing craft for U.S. Marine and Army troops in the Pacific.

From July 1942 until July 1944 Coast Guard beach patrols, often mounted on horses and using guard dogs, covered the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The threat was no idle one; a Coast Guardsman helped capture four German saboteurs landed by a submarine on Long Island in June 1942. Meanwhile, four cutters were lost to U-boats during the war. The commandant, Adm. Russell R. Waesche, consulted with U.S. and Royal Navy leaders throughout the war on a variety of topics, including better methods of saving naval and merchant seamen. A dedicated search and rescue agency was established in February 1944 at the request of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Loading...
Loading...

Though tiny by most standards, Coast Guard aviation played a role in World War II. Apart from patrolling coastal and sea lanes on antisubmarine and lifesaving missions, Coast Guard aviators helped pioneer helicopter operations and training.

Coast Guard History: WW2

Coast Guardsmen made significant contributions to D-Day, some of them by men who were far removed from Britain and France. Coast Guard personnel operated the Greenland weather stations that enabled General Eisenhower’s staff to predict the brief period of improved conditions in the English Channel. Off Normandy, they crewed landing ships and landing craft at all five invasion beaches. In all, ‘‘Coasties’’ manned ninety-nine vessels in the Normandy operation. The largest contingent was in Assault Group O-1 at Omaha Beach, where Capt. Edward H. Fritzsche, USCG, commanded USS Samuel Chase plus two transports, six LCI(I)s, six LSTs, and ninety-seven smaller vessels. The LCI crews of Flotilla Ten were well experienced, having delivered assault troops to Sicily and Salerno, Italy, over the previous eleven months.

At Utah Beach Capt. Lyndon Spencer, USCG, was skipper of the Force U flagship, USS Bayfield, while three other transports had full or partial Coast Guard crews. There were also Coast Guard LSTs at Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches in the British and Canadian sector.

An invaluable service was provided by the rescue flotilla composed of sixty Coast Guard patrol boats positioned across the length of the landing areas. In keeping with their service’s traditional lifesaving mission, Coast Guardsmen were credited with rescuing four hundred Allied soldiers or sailors on 6 June, and more than a thousand others in the next three weeks.

The US WW2 Navies

On VJ-Day in September 1945, the U.S. WW2 Navies boasted 408 surface combatants, 110 aircraft carriers, 203 submarines, and some ninety thousand auxiliaries, landing craft, and small craft. The navy and marine corps operated nearly twenty-four thousand aircraft. Personnel for the vast ship and shore establishments were 3,261,723 navy officers and men, plus 481,311 marines.

The two and a half years preceding D-Day forced the Navy to conduct defensive and offensive operations in three main theaters: the Pacific, Europe, and Mediterranean. Defeat of the U-boats in the North Atlantic was a primary concern, as the Normandy invasion could not occur without control of the sea lanes from the United States and Canada to Great Britain. However, beginning in late 1941 American seapower was faced with a long, difficult struggle in the North Atlantic, as German submarines held the upper hand well into 1942. Early American laxness in adopting a war footing— cities and navigation beacons continued burning lights on a peacetime basis—led to serious shipping losses. For this reason, combined with a reluctance to adopt the British convoy system, unnecessary casualties were incurred not only on the eastern seaboard but in the Gulf of Mexico as well.

Nevertheless, the early lessons were learned, with a tuition of blood. As Allied cooperation improved, the crucial Battle of the Atlantic slowly reversed, and by mid-1943 the U-boat menace had been largely negated. Over the next twelve months an increasing stream of men and materiel transited the Atlantic convoy routes to Britain with minimal losses. More escort vessels, long-range aircraft, and small escort carriers closed the mid-Atlantic gap until the predatory ‘‘gray wolves’’ of Adm. Karl Doenitz themselves became the hunted.

From D-Day to 17 June the U.S. Navy sustained fairly heavy losses, including 148 landing craft of all descriptions. Heaviest losses were among LCVPs, with eighty-one destroyed or damaged beyond repair at Omaha and Utah Beaches. Losses of ships (vessels more than two hundred feet in length) included three destroyers, a destroyer escort, an attack transport, and a sea-plane tender. Other losses were two minesweepers and five miscellaneous vessels.

Loading...
Loading...

Other naval personnel contributing to D-Day included naval combat demolition units, Seabees, beachmasters, and gunfire spotters (some of whom jumped with the two airborne divisions). An unheralded portion of the Navy was the Armed Guard, a naval detachment added to each merchant marine vessel’s crew to man the guns.

WW2 Navies: Strength on the Seas

WW2 navies represented the combined seapower of all nations involved, whether Axis or Allied. A proper sense of the strength of WW2 navies can be ascertained if we look at one critical moment in World War Two: The Invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

The Allied navies involved in Neptune-Overlord represented eight nations: the United States, Great Britain, Canada, France, Greece, Holland, Norway, and Poland. The commander of the naval forces was Adm. Sir Bertram H. Ramsay, who deployed 1,213 ships (vessels more than two hundred feet long), including seven battleships, twenty-three cruisers, ninety-three destroyers, and seventy-one corvettes. British and Canadian warships constituted nearly 80 percent of the total. More than 4,100 ships and landing craft were committed to the five assault beaches across a forty-mile front.

The main contributions of the affiliated navies were:

  • France: two cruisers and three corvettes
  • Norway: two destroyers and three corvettes
  • Poland: one cruiser
  • Greece: two corvettes
  • Netherlands: two sloops

Of the fifty-four bombardment and gunfire support ships assigned to Neptune, nearly three-quarters were wartime construction. Twenty-two had been commissioned in 1943–44, excluding the modified American minesweepers.

Aside from the critical mission of delivering Allied armies to France, the naval contribution was significant in providing gunfire support. Because limited artillery went ashore during the early days of Overlord, naval gunfire was an important aspect of the breakout from the beachhead. German generals had learned to respect the power and accuracy of Allied gunfire over the previous two years and deployed their mobile reserves well inland, beyond range of most Allied guns. Nevertheless, destroyers, cruisers, and battleships consistently neutralized or destroyed enemy strongpoints, permitting ground forces to advance inland.

German defenses included large numbers of coastal artillery batteries, but beyond the shoreline mines were the primary naval weapon. Allied mine-sweepers cleared paths through enemy minefields, permitting landing craft to reach shore with sustainable, if frequently heavy, losses.

Specially trained and equipped naval forces were vital to breaching the Atlantic Wall and providing logistics support. Naval combat demolition teams and other engineers landed ahead of the assault troops to blow a path through many of the landing obstacles. Meanwhile, naval construction battalions (Seabees) provided the means of moving large volumes of men and equipment ashore, most notably constructing and manning the Mulberry artificial harbors in the days after 6 June.

Loading...
Loading...

German WW2 Navies

Admiral Erich Raeder, chief of the Navy, was a competent officer who recognized the need for Germany to conduct a successful war at sea. Before the war he envisioned a naval construction program that would peak in 1948, at which point the Kriegsmarine would be expected to be able to accomplish its mission of isolating Great Britain from the New World. However, the fleet he advocated was conventional, oriented toward surface combatants, despite the evidence of British superiority from 1914 to 1918. German naval strategists knew that submarines lent economy of force; during the First World War some seven hundred Allied escort vessels had been occupied defending against a maximum of sixty deployed U-boats at any one time.

Although Raeder’s program provided for substantial numbers of submarines and even aircraft carriers, it was not the force to defeat the Royal Navy; at its peak the Kriegsmarine never possessed more than five battleships or battle cruisers, compared to Britain’s fourteen. Raeder’s astute subordinate Adm. Karl Doenitz recognized that only with a strong U-boat arm could Germany hope to win a naval war.

The narrowness of Hitler’s perceptions of naval matters was well illustrated at the end of the Scandinavian campaign of early 1940. The Kriegsmarine succeeded in transporting large numbers of German troops to Norway, but it lost thirteen destroyers in the process. Hitler is reported to have said that the operation had justified the Navy’s’ entire existence.

Over the next two years, in contrast, the U-boat arm went from strength to strength, enjoying mounting success during what the submariners called ‘‘the happy time.’’ Allied shipping losses soared; Winston Churchill later confided that the U-boat threat was the only thing that had seriously worried him throughout the war. Meanwhile, the Kriegsmarine’s superb battleships and cruisers were rendered irrelevant through loss, damage, and inactivity.

Raeder became weary of the bureaucratic and political infighting of the Nazi regime and retired in January 1943. Doenitz was the logical successor, and in him the Navy inherited a more forceful advocate. However, it was too late to reverse events already in progress. With America’s entry into the war, a massive Allied shipbuilding program was instituted that, with such British technical developments as electronic warfare and escort aircraft carriers, dramatically changed the Battle of the Atlantic. By May 1943 the previous midocean ‘‘air gap’’ in convoy coverage had been closed by carrier aircraft, and the crucial campaign was all but won. The ability of Allied convoys to travel freely between North America and Britain ensured the unimpeded buildup to Overlord a year later.

The German Navywas poorly equipped to resist the massive invasion force that the Allies assembled at Normandy. A success was scored by S-boats during Operation Tiger off the Devon coast in late April 1944, but otherwise Hitler’s Navy made little impression upon the huge Allied armada.

Two U-boat groups were prepared to resist Neptune: forty-nine submarines in Bay of Biscay ports and twenty-two more in Norway. However, twenty-six submarines were lost during June, sinking only fifty-six thousand tons of shipping. One boat was destroyed in the English Channel on D-Day, followed by seven more throughout the month; four were lost in the Bay of Biscay. Only one boat penetrated the massive Allied naval screen, sinking an LST before being driven off on D+9.

Loading...
Loading...

On D-Day German surface units sank a Norwegian destroyer, while British and Canadian destroyers sank one German destroyer and drove another ashore.

During the rest of June, the most successful German naval operations were the results of mine warfare. Eight Allied escorts were destroyed and three damaged beyond economical repair by mines, mostly from submarines or minelayers. However, German aircraft and shore batteries also contributed to the toll.

But the Allies gave more than they got. RAF attacks on Le Havre and Boulogne destroyed dozens of S-boats and small craft, and not even rail shipment of replacement boats could make up the deficit. German naval operations in the Bay of the Seine nearly ceased altogether. Although fortyseven one-man torpedoes were deployed in July, they sank only three British mine craft. Radio-controlled motorboats with high explosives also were only marginally effective.

By the end of the war the U-boat arm had sustained 80 percent losses in crews killed or captured. It was the heaviest casualty rate of any service in the war, including the Japanese kamikaze Special Attack Corps. Yet Doenitz’s exceptional leadership kept morale surprisingly high, and the German Navy of 1945 experienced none of the mutinous tendencies of the High Seas Fleet in 1918.

Cite This Article
"WW2 Navies – Ships, Tactics & Operations in the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters" History on the Net
© 2000-2019, Salem Media.
October 18, 2019 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/ww2-navies-2>
More Citation Information.
Loading...
×