The Myth That “Eight Battleships Were Sunk” At Pearl Harbor
Mr. Neumann is a professor at the Hofstra University School of Law.
Every year as December 7 approaches we hear and read that eight battleships were sunk at Pearl Harbor. That is even repeated in a 2001 article by HNN staff on the HNN website debunking movie myths about Pearl Harbor.
Eight battleships were there. Two were &ldquolost in action,&rdquo the Navy&rsquos term for damage that permanently destroys a ship&rsquos usefulness. None were &ldquosunk,&rdquo which means disappearing below the sea surface (the most obvious but not the only way to become lost in action). Pearl Harbor is shallow, with only a few feet of water separating the battleship&rsquos bottoms from the harbor bottom. No capital ship could disappear below the waves in a shallow harbor.
Here is what happened to each of the eight battleships during and after the attack: Pennsylvania was in dry dock when the attack began and suffered only superficial damage caused when a destroyer in the same dry dock exploded. (Sinking a capital ship in dry dock is physically impossible, even if the dry dock is flooded.) Maryland was also lightly damaged. Both ships were seaworthy later that month. Tennessee suffered more damage, but was seaworthy early in 1942. California and West Virginia were torpedoed and settled onto the bottom of the harbor, their main decks well above water. If they had suffered the same damage at sea, they would have been sunk, but the shallowness of the harbor saved them &mdash illustrating the foolishness of attacking ships in port. Both were repaired, with many improvements, and went to sea again. Nevada was the only battleship in motion during the attack. Her crew ran her aground to prevent sinking. Oklahoma capsized, and the forward magazine of Arizona exploded. These are the two battleships that actually were lost in action. Visitors to the Arizona memorial see nothing above water, but that is because the Navy removed the ship&rsquos superstructures, guns and turrets, which would otherwise be mostly above water today.
The six surviving battleships fought in decisive battles later in the war. On D-Day, Nevada shelled German emplacements behind the Normandy beaches, with devastating effect. The other five survivors shelled many Japanese-held Pacific islands before the Marines and Army landed on the beaches. When the U.S. invaded the Philippines, the Japanese sent three naval forces to ambush American troop ships. One of them, with two Japanese battleships, came up the Surigao Strait, where West Virginia, Tennessee, California, Maryland, and Pennsylvania (all allegedly had been &ldquosunk&rdquo three years earlier at Pearl Harbor) were on shore-shelling duty, together with Mississippi. After U.S. destroyers sank one of the Japanese battleships with torpedoes, the U.S. battleships sank the other one with gunfire. This was only time in history that U.S. battleships ever crossed an enemy&rsquos &ldquoT&rdquo &mdash the maneuver for which battleships were originally designed and built. And it was the last time that any battleships of any navy fired on each other in battle.
Despite initial appearances, the attack on Pearl Harbor was an abject strategic failure. The Japanese attacked a fleet in port, where it is hard to cause permanent loss of a capital ship and where repair facilities are already nearby. They attacked obsolete ships and in so doing taught the U.S. Navy from the very beginning to rely on aircraft carriers rather than battleships. The Japanese attacked without any guarantee that the most valuable U.S. ships &mdash the carriers &mdash would be present, and all the U.S. carriers were safely elsewhere on December 7. At Midway six months later, those same American carriers sank two-thirds of the Japanese carrier fleet, inflicting a wound from which the Japanese navy never recovered. And the Japanese ignored the unglamorous target that truly would have crippled the U.S. Navy for perhaps a year or more: the oil tanks next to Pearl Harbor. Without the ability to refuel at Pearl, the U.S. Navy would have had to retreat to San Diego, San Francisco Bay, and Puget Sound.
What Happens if China Sinks Two U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers?
Sinking an American carrier would be an act of war, period. If Chinese like Admiral Lou are right, then America is finished as a major power. If 10,000 dead American sailors aren’t worth fighting over, then neither will the U.S. defend Taiwan, or Japan, or Israel, or Western Europe.
Admiral Lou Yuan is China’s Curtis LeMay.
(This first appeared back in January.)
LeMay, the U.S. Air Force general who torched Japanese cities and later headed Strategic Air Command, was notorious for his bellicosity. In the 1950s and during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he tried to get the U.S. to launch a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union: during the Vietnam War, he urged bombing North Vietnam “back to the Stone Age.”
Now comes Lou Yuan, deputy chief of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences and a prolifically hawkish military commentator who supports a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Last month, Yuan told an audience at a Chinese military-industrial conference that China could solve tensions over the South East China Sea by sinking two U.S. aircraft carriers.
This would kill 10,000 American sailors. “What the United States fears the most is taking casualties,” said Lou. “We’ll see how frightened America is.”
Lou has previously urged an invasion of Taiwan if the U.S. Navy uses the island, regarded by China as a renegade territory, as a naval base. “If the US naval fleet dares to stop in Taiwan, it is time for the People’s Liberation Army to deploy troops to promote national unity on the island,” he said.
LeMay was no fan of Communism, but he would have understood Lou’s sentiment.
Unfortunately, neither man seemed to know the difference between aggressiveness and foolhardiness. LeMay’s first strike on the Soviet Union would have triggered World War III against a nuclear-armed superpower: even if the U.S. had managed to destroy most Soviet nuclear weapons, it would only have taken a few bombs landing New York or Los Angeles to kill millions, not to mention a Soviet Army that would have wreaked vengeance on Western Europe.
Now comes Admiral Lou, who represents what seems to be a growing Chinese belief that America is too weak to fight. The Chinese are certainly not the first: the Germans and Japanese thought the same in 1941 (perhaps China should remember that the Japanese thought the Chinese were weaklings in the 1930s).
Lou says China’s anti-ship missiles are sufficient to destroy U.S. carriers and their escorts. Militarily, it may be true that hypersonic missiles, or ballistic missiles converted into anti-ship weapons, could do the job. Then again, they might not, because these weapons have not been tested in war.
Which brings up the real issue here: sinking U.S. carriers would be an act of war. Not a warning shot across the bows. Not a spy plane downed for crossing into Chinese territory. Not an accidental collision between an American patrol plane and a Chinese fighter.
Sinking an American carrier would be an act of war, period. If Chinese like Admiral Lou are right, then America is finished as a major power. If 10,000 dead American sailors aren’t worth fighting over, then neither will the U.S. defend Taiwan, or Japan, or Israel, or Western Europe.
But what if Lou is wrong, as he is almost certainly is? No U.S. president, no Senator or Congressman, could remain in office if they did not respond forcefully to the sinking of U.S. carriers, the very symbol of American power and prestige. To the American psyche, such an act would be equivalent to Pearl Harbor or 9/11.
“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve,” Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto said after Pearl Harbor. Admiral Lou would do well to heed the advice.
Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.
From 24 February 1930—when the Bureau of Aeronautics issued preliminary instructions pertaining to the identification of aircraft—until the beginning of World War II, the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps had some of the most colorful aircraft in the world.
Color photography was just becoming available to the general public at a reasonable price in 1940 when these photos were taken. The photographer was Lieutenant (junior grade) Francis F. Hebel, who flew from the Nevada (BB-36), which was based at Pearl Harbor. Shortly after these photos were taken, Lieutenant Hebel was transferred to a carrier-based fighter squadron, VF-6, and was killed while trying to land at Ford Island following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
While the carrier-based squadrons have always been looked on as the "glamour boys" of naval aviation, the ship-based squadrons were the "forgotten men." Based on board battleships and cruisers, with just enough personnel to operate the three or four aircraft attached to each ship, they were cut off from the mainstream of naval aviation and operated as a component of the ship's complement. Recognition for excellence in spotting for naval gunfire was dependent upon the proficiency of the entire ship's gunnery department, rather than being based solely on the flight crews' skills, as in the case of carrier- and shore-based squadrons.
When the ship-based squadrons were first introduced, they were greeted with something less than enthusiasm. The planes had to be launched before the main battery guns could be fired or the aircraft would be damaged by the blast. Upon completion of a spotting mission, the ship had to turn out of position in order to recover the planes. Then, too, there were some who just thought they cluttered up the decks!
The floatplane crews lived an exciting and dangerous part of naval aviation. Every takeoff was a catapult launch during a time when rolling takeoffs were the norm. Each landing was in the open sea with all the problems of wind and waves encountered by those flying the large flying boats. To lessen the problem of landing, the ship would make a turn so that her wake would create a slick for the aircraft to land on. A sled would then be towed alongside the ship, which the pilot would taxi up onto and cut the throttle. A hook on the bottom of the float would engage the sled so the aircraft would be towed at the same speed as the ship. The plane's crew then had to attach the hook from the ship's crane to be hoisted aboard. While this maneuver was being accomplished, the deck crew used long poles to fend off the aircraft so it wouldn't be damaged against the side of the ship.
The Curtiss SOC floatplanes in these pictures show how colorful the aircraft could be. The red empennage identifies the plane as belonging to Observation Squadron One (VO-1B) assigned to Battleship Division One of the Battle Fleet. The white engine cowls and chevron on the top of the upper wing show they are the second section of the squadron which was based on board the Nevada (the second ship in the division). The first, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth sections were to be identified with the colors red,blue, black, green, and yellow. The ship's name is also applied to the rear of the fuselage. The colored band around the fuselage identifies the section leader, as does the fully painted engine cowl. Number two wingman has the top half of the cowl painted, while number three has the bottom half painted. The squadron number, type, and aircraft number are shown on the side of the fuselage, as is the squadron insignia. In the event a plane was forced down, the yellow top surface of the wing was an aid in locating the aircraft. Introduced in 1934, these SOC floatplanes served into the early days of World War II, and were the last combat biplanes in the Navy to serve with the fleet.
The training command painted their aircraft in accordance with a different set of instructions than the fleet. Everyone knew and recognized the aircraft used for preliminary training by its overall yellow color. This Naval Aircraft Factory-built N3N is a good example of the Yellow Peril.
Major Elliott is a historian in the Naval Aviation History and Archives branch of the Naval Historical Center. He is currently working on a four-volume series entitled The Official Monogram U. S. Navy and Marine Corps Aircraft Color Guide, of which Volume I, covering 1911 to 1939, has already been completed.
This MoH recipient led one of the most successful hand-to-hand assaults in WWII
Posted On January 28, 2019 18:43:22
Inspired by a WWI veteran, Robert Nett joined the Connecticut National Guard in 1941. Soon after, his unit was activated, and Nett found himself fighting in the South Pacific.
By the winter of 1944, Nett had led several attacks on Japanese forces in the Philippine islands and was already considered a seasoned combat veteran.
But one battle that took place on the island of Leyte proved to be one of Nett’s most significant accomplishments and one of the bloodiest.
Related: This is the only living African-American from WW2 to earn MoH
(Source: Medal of Honor Book/ Screenshot)
Two platoons were ordered to engage the enemy at once the first stormed toward the Japanese at full force as the second gave “support-by-fire” position in the rear.
As Nett and the first platoon advanced, they slid Bangalore charges through the enemies’ barb wired defense system, clearing their path. The flamethrowers operators then crawled through the detonated gaps and incinerated the enemy forces, allowing allied troops to create a stable foothold for themselves.
A flamethrower operator doing what they do best.
Nett’s objective was to clear a sizeable fortified enemy building just up ahead. He called to the forward observer to light the area up with 105mm shells to break the structure’s exterior security.
Just as the shells struck the building, Nett took a surprising neck wound — his jugular vein had been nicked.
Ignoring the pulsating wound, Nett crawled from squad-to-squad while engaging enemy that appeared nearby. Nett decided that it was time for him and his men to fix their bayonets.
With adrenaline pumping through their veins, Nett and his fellow soldiers carefully dashed toward their objective. Nett moved his machine gun teams to their new fighting positions while dangerously engaging the enemy in close quarter combat along the way. At that time, he took another enemy round, this time to his chest — collapsing a lung.
Also Read: This Vietnam War vet will receive MoH for saving 10 soldiers
Continuing to advance, Nett’s men made it to the fortified structure and burnt that sucker to the ground — mission complete.
Nett then noticed his feet were getting heavy as his internal blood loss appeared to be collecting there. He was wounded three times before returning to the rear for treatment.
He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery in battle on Feb. 8, 1946, in his birthplace of New Haven, Connecticut.
Check out Medal of Honor Book’s video below to hear this incredible story from the legend himself.
China 'Sinks' US Aircraft Carrier During War Game
China reportedly &ldquosunk&rdquo a mock US aircraft carrier with a state of the art missile during a war game in the Gobi Desert recently, fueling concerns that the newly emerging superpower is increasingly eyeing the United States as a military rival.
&ldquoThe People&rsquos Liberation Army has successfully sunk a US aircraft carrier, according to a satellite photo provided by Google Earth,&rdquo reports the Want China Times,&rdquo adding that, &ldquoA satellite image reveals two large craters on a 200-meter-long white platform in the Gobi desert used to simulate the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. The photo was first posted on SAORBATS, an internet forum based in Argentina. Military analysts believed the craters would have been created by China&rsquos DF-21D anti-ship missile, dubbed the &ldquocarrier killer.&rdquo
The article cites a report which appeared in the state-run Global Times boasting of how the new missile has the capability to strike aircraft carriers 2,000 kilometers away. The report was careful to add that the missile, which is being stationed at strategic locations around China&rsquos coastline, does not have the technical capability to reach America, a moot argument given that US aircraft carriers are located at numerous different points on the globe at any one time.
As Business Insider notes, the report&rsquos legitimacy is bolstered by the fact that, &ldquoThe China Times is a 63 year old Taiwanese paper slightly slanted toward unification, but with a solid reputation and accurate reporting.&rdquo
Although the test in the Gobi Desert was supposedly successful, defense expert Roger Cliff points out that targeting a real aircraft carrier at sea would be significantly more difficult.
&ldquoThe thing to keep in mind is that, in order for China to successfully attack a U.S. navy ship with a ballistic missile,&rdquo Cliff told The Diplomat, &ldquoit must first detect the ship, identify it as a U.S. warship of a type that it wishes to attack &hellip [then] over-the-horizon radars used to detect ships can be jammed, spoofed, or destroyed smoke and other obscurants can be deployed &hellip and when the missile locks on to the target its seeker can be jammed or spoofed.&rdquo
However, the fact that China is targeting a mock US aircraft carrier as the main focus of one of its war game exercises is sure to set alarm bells ringing, especially amidst an undercurrent of tension created as a result of China&rsquos recent spat with Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Last week, Japan warned that it would fire on Chinese aircraft to prevent violations of its airspace.
The Pentagon&rsquos recent geopolitical pivot made it clear that China was the primary military threat to the United States.
Threats on behalf of Chinese military officials to target the United States have increased in recent years.
In September last year, Zhang Zhaozhong, rear admiral at China&rsquos National Defense University, was quoted in the state-run People&rsquos Daily as bragging that China would comfortably defeat Japan in a war and that Beijing should prepare for the United States to become involved in the conflict.
In December 2011, Zhaozhong also warned that China &ldquowill not hesitate to protect Iran even with a third world war.&rdquo
Earlier this year, Zhaozhong reacted to the announcement that the United States had developed a new high-tech stealth destroyer warship by saying China could use fishing boats laden with explosives to carry out suicide attacks against the U.S. Navy.
&ldquoIt would be a goner,&rdquo Zhaozhong told state broadcaster CCTV&rsquos military channel.
In July 2005, Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu boldly threatened the United States with a nuclear attack if it became embroiled in a conflict between China and Taiwan, with which the US has a mutual defense pact.
&ldquoIf the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition onto the target zone on China&rsquos territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons,&rdquo Chenghu told reporters. &ldquoWe Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xian [in central China]. Of course the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds &hellip of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese,&rdquo he added.
In January 2011, China changed its military policy to allow pre-emptive nuclear attacks on other countries.
Aircraft Sinks US Battleship - History
There was a great transformation in aircraft carrier tactics beginning in August 1942. Although naval warfare naturally favors the attack, in just a short time new weapons and technology radically improved the power of the defense. By 1944, US Navy carriers were seriously threatened only by kamikazes - human-guided missiles - and even they failed to sink a single large American carrier.
Aircraft carriers were first developed in the 1920s, and although early air power partisans made extravagent claims, the threat to battleships was vastly over-stated. The bombing and sinking of the battleship Ostfriesland took two days despite its being stationary and having damaged bulkheads - further testing was required. The battleship Iowa was fitted with radio control to allow for evasive maneuvering - only two of eight bombs dropped from 4,000 feet hit the ship. The British also experimented with bombing a radio controlled battleship - there were no hits out of 114 bombs dropped while tests of anti-aircraft guns resulted in 75% hits on targets at an altitude of 4,000 feet. Armor against air attack was also added to battleships, and in a 1924 test, a 1,440 pound shell dropped from 4,000 feet was unable to pentrate the deck armor. (McBride 145-7) As a result of studies like these, the early mission for carrier aircraft was primarily spotting for the big guns of the battleships. In the interwar era, the US Navy concluded that aerial spotting improved gun accuracy by two to six times. (Hone 81) With such a great advantage, spotters became targets themselves requiring fighter protection. In the 1920s and 30s, detection of enemy planes was limited to visual detection by defending aircraft - a difficult proposition. Radios did not yet exist in aircraft, further complicating the situation. (Wildenberg 86) Strikes from aircraft on ships were possible, but as late as 1931 airstrikes from carriers were still cumbersome. Fleet Problem XII included airstrikes from Lexington and Saratoga on "enemy" ships, but the carriers had to close to 40 to 75 miles to launch an attack, a tricky proposition considering the speed of enemy ships and the need to turn into the wind to launch a strike. The Navy concluded that carriers had to operate under the protection of battleships. An exercise later in the year showed the difficulty of dive bombing a target moving evasively. (Wildenberg 92, 94) Exercises in 1933 raised doubt of the usefulness of torpedo bombers, and exercises the next year suggested that torpedo bomber attacks were destined to fail because of anti-aircraft fire. (Wildenberg 101, 107) Naval aviation spurred considerable study in Japan also - but there were few clear answers. During exercises in 1939 and 1941, Japanese dive bombers scored hits 53-55% of the time, but many in the Japanese Navy believed that anti-aircraft fire would lower wartime figures to just 1/3 that figure. (Peattie 141-3) In light of these unanswered questions, it was unwise for a navy to tie its future solely to either carriers or the traditional battle line. (Hone 178) Despite the murky situation, more carriers were built by both sides, and airplane development continued. By the beginning of the Second World War, there were two main schools of thought about naval aviation. The first was that carrier based planes would scout for the main battleship fleet, soften up the enemy fleet, and spot for the big guns of the battleships. With 20-20 hindsight it is easy to see the flaws in this theory, but at the time the vast majority of the navy's firepower came from its guns, with long range aviation ordnance accounting for only a small fraction of the total. The second theory, a radical one, was that carrier aircraft would destroy everything afloat. (Hughes 88) Combat experience would show that both of these theories were extreme.
Aviation technology was improving dramatically in the interwar era. The Curtiss F8-C4 of 1929 was powered by a 450hp engine and could carry 200 pounds of bombs less than 400 miles. In contrast the SBD-2 of 1941 was powered by a 1,000hp engine and could carry 1,000 pounds of bombs nearly 1,000 miles - a dramatic improvement. By the late 1930s, navies understood that the first target of carrier planes should be enemy carriers. When World War II broke out in 1939, little was learned about carrier tactics because Germany and Italy had no carriers. Although a lucky hit by an air launched torpedo had damage the Bismarck's rudder, dooming her, and three Italian battleship had been sunk by air attack at Taranto, other events gave contrary indications. (McBride 201) In the 1940 Norway campaign, German bombers scored less than 1% hits against British ships, and a short time later two German battleships sank a British carrier, HMS Glorious, in a surface engagement. When the Pacific War started in December 1941, both Japan and the United States had little idea how the war would be fought, but they still had to formulate doctrine - a doctrine predicated on assumptions about airstrikes. Could an airstrike from one carrier sink several enemy carriers or less than one? The answer affected how carrier forces were organized and used. If we assume that a strike from one carrier could sink one enemy carrier - an assumption vindicated by Coral Sea and Midway - we can model the results of battle. In "Fleet Tactics", Wayne Hughes shows us on pages 94-95 the likely results of such battles - depending on who strikes first. In the table below, the top row is the number of carriers on each side at the start of the battle, so 2/2 means that Japan and the US both have 2 carriers. If Japan strikes first, they sink both American carriers - so 2/0 is the result. If the US strikes first, 0/2 is the result. Clearly, striking effectively first is key to victory.
Initial Number of Carriers (Japan/US)
|Japanese strike first||2/0||4/0||3/0||2/0||3/0|
|US strikes first||0/2||1/3||1/2||1/1||2/1|
|Japanese and US strike simultaneously||0/0||1/0||1/0||1/0||2/0|
In reality, there can be more than one strike from each side. If we look at Midway, for example, a first strike by the Americans from 3 carriers sinks 3 of 4 Japanese carriers. A strike from the remaining Japanese carrier sinks an American carrier, and a second American strike sinks the remaining Japanese carrier. In this case, the model represents historical reality.
Before the battles of 1942, many American naval aviators believed that an air strike from one carrier could sink two to three enemy carriers. Anti-aircraft defenses were weak. Because of this, it was thought that carriers should be dispersed in the theory that if the enemy could only find one carrier, they could only sink one carrier. Massing all the carriers in one screen would endanger them all unnecessarily. (Hughes 103) The US Navy kept their carriers within supporting distance. At Midway, the two carrier task forces were kept 25 miles apart - far enough away to make it unlikely that they would be be detected by the same scout plane, but close enough so that each group's fighter screen could support the other. (Lundstrum 323) Prior to the war the Japanese had also struggled to address the issue of dispersal or concentration. Seeing that radio messages were necessary for a dispersed force to attack, they saw that this would sacrifice the element of surprise. Ultimately the Japanese compromised, forming divisions of two carriers each with divisions spread out over vast stretches of ocean, operating in a V-shaped formation designed to encircle the enemy. (Peattie 75, 148)
Communication between ships was also a factor. Invention of high frequency radio in the 1920s allowed ships to communicate over long distances, allowing dispersal, and encryption made communication safe, at least in theory. How to command a large, dispersed fleet became an issue, and due to the complexity of their operatiopns, carriers were especially difficult to manage. (Wolters 125, 132) Radio traffic was necessary for a fleet to operate, but the transmission point could be located by triangulation, at least in theory, but in practice it was difficult - not the problem, and not the opportunity that it first appeared. (Wolters 154)
Japanese carriers made air strikes on US bases in late 1941, but it took until 1942 for combat between carriers. In 1942, carrier forces were split so that each carrier was escorted by approximately two cruisers and three destroyers. (Wukovits 39) These escorts surrounded the carrier at a distance in a circular "wagon wheel" formation. If the force needed to change direction, each ship would turn to the proper heading, maintaining the circular formation. This screen of escorts protected the valuable carrier with anti-aircraft fire. It would also fight off any surface ships which reached the task force and protect the carrier from submarine attack. (Hughes 88-90) This formation was an evolution of a formation used for surface cruising and scouting before deployment into battle line. (Hone 73) The ships were designed and manufactured so that their speeds were roughly comparable, and a carrier group could travel at about 30 knots.
Battleships were still a great danger to the carrier task force. At night, it was impossible for a carrier group to detect a force of battleships. Within the period of one night, a force of battleships could traverse the 200 mile range of aircraft and be within gun range of the carrier task force before morning. (Hughes 105) Even in daylight, where carriers were often forced to turn into the wind to launch and land planes, the threat from battleships was all too real. The decisive battle of Midway could have been very different had the Japanese deployed their numerically superior battleships in the front, and not in the rear, of their naval force. Still seeing the carriers as scouts for the battleships, their battleships would not enter the fray. On both sides, however, submarines were seen as important screening vessels for the carrier fleet, but because they were slower than surface ships, they had to move into position well before the carrier task forces. In several battles subs were able to sink enemy carriers, and for the Americans they were always useful in recovering downed airmen.
Carrier based planes were of three types: torpedo bombers, dive bombers, and fighters. Torpedo bombers carried a single torpedo which was dropped and propelled itself toward the target. In 1942, the United States used the Devastator torpedo bomber, which was being replaced by the Avenger torpedo bomber. (Reynolds 145) Dive bombers flew directly over the target, made a steep dive toward the target and released a bomb, then pulled out of the dive. The Dauntless dive bomber could carry 1,200 pounds of bombs. (Reynolds 79) The Wildcat fighter had more features to protect the pilot, but the plane was inferior to the Japanese Zero fighter in other ways. It was slower, had a shorter range, and couldn't climb as fast. (Reynolds 81) Due to its inferiority in dogfighting, the Americans developed a tactic called the Thach Weave in which two Wildcats flew in formation. If a Zero followed one of the fighters, the Wildcats weaved in and out so that one fighter could get a crossfire on the Zero. (Reynolds 64-5)
Model of Yamato Class Battleship - note float planes and hanger
As there was no advantage to remaining on the defense, when the enemy was located, an air strike was usually made immediately. The maximum range for an air strike with dive bombers and torpedo bombers was about 200 miles. These planes were escorted by fighters, but only 25% of a carrier's planes were fighters and some would be retained to protect the fleet. For example, in March 1942 two US carriers made a strike on Japanese ships conducting the invasion of New Guinea. The strike was composed of 48 dive bombers, 25 torpedo bombers, and 18 fighters. Fifteen planes were retained to protect the carriers. (Cressman 41) At Coral Sea, two American carriers sent 54 dive bombers, 21 torpedo bombers, and 24 fighters to strike the Japanese fleet. Forty-three planes were lost out of 99 planes, but a Japanese carrier was sunk. The Japanese sank an American carrier with a force of 69 planes. (Wukovits 37) At Midway, three American carriers sank four Japanese carriers at a cost of one carrier lost. In one instance, an American torpedo bomber force attacked the Japanese without fighter escort and was nearly annihilated, and on the whole casualties were high. After the battle, 126 American planes survived out of 233 planes, a 46% loss rate, and no Japanese planes survived out of 272. (Hughes 97) While making attacks, planes often came from the direction of the sun to make anti-aircraft fire less effective. Torpedo bombers would separate into two groups, approaching enemy ships and dropping torpedoes at 90 degree angles so that no matter evasive maneuvers, on side of the ship would be exposed.
Lacking radar early in the war, the Japanese were forced to use their fighter aircraft on combat air patrol, or CAP, to detect incoming enemy search planes and air strikes. This inefficient method could easily fail, especially in cloudy weather, and it meant that the fighters were spread out and not concentrated for an organized defense when an enemy airstrike arrived. With just a five mile visual range, there was little time to come to react. In contrast, American radar gave warning of enemy aircraft out to 80 miles. (Lundstrum 89-91, 228) Although radar was a big advantage, early on American CAP planes were frequently sent to confront friendly approaching aircraft which did not have Identification - Friend or Foe (or IFF) gear. On at least one occasion, Japanese planes were allowed to approach in the confusion. (Lundstrum 73) For the slow climbing Wildcat fighters, an altitude advantage in dogfights was critical. CAP was usually deployed on at least two different altitudes because attackers approached at high and low levels, and it was impractical for a high altitude fighter to intercept low level enemy planes then return to high altitude. Good coordination was important too, with interception best as far from the carrier as possible, 30 miles or so, to give the fighters maximum time to disrupt the enemy formation, preferably meeting it before the dive and torpedo bombers split up. (Lundstrum 304, 443)
By World War II, US Navy ships included a Combat Information Center to deal with the array of information involved in battle. Carriers included a fighter direction officer to coordinate the interception of enemy aircraft. These officers were trained at schools to learn the skills necessary - the training even included a British concept, the simulation of aircraft interception where pilots pedaled tricycles equipped with blinders to obscure their view. (Wolters 192) In February 1942, a Japanese air attack on USS Lexington was parried by effective use of radar and fighter direction - two attacks from two different directions were both intercepted and defeated. At Coral Sea in May 1942, the Americans were not as lucky. The fighter direction officer of one carrier had authority to control the planes of both carriers, however there were problems - IFF equipped only half of planes, Yorktown's radar broke, pilots failed to send back information to the fighter direction officer, radio was overused and information was slow to flow as a result. There was no uniform use of terminology or plotting symbols and radar plots were too small. Both US carriers were hit and Lexington was lost. (Wolters 196-198) By Midway in June 1942 improvements had been made. In an attack on Yorktown, only seven of eighteen attacking enemy planes got through. USS Enterprise sent four Wildcats to intercept, and these planes might have saved the Yorktown except that the guns of the lead Wildcat jammed, and a radio message to continue the attack wasn't received. The Yorktown was hit. In a later attack on Yorktown, differing assumptions between the fighter direction officer and the pilots about using either true bearing or magnetic bearing meant that six Wildcats failed to intercept ten torpedo bombers, and two torpedoes struck the Yorktown, dooming her. (Wolters 199-200) Reforms after Midway improved fighter interception, but since Enterprise and Hornet hadn't even been attacked, the Navy believed that dispersion of carriers was better than concentration. In the battles of Eastern Solomons and Santa Cruz, the dispersed American carriers could not coordinate their fighter interception, and Hornet was sunk and Enterprise was badly damaged. (Wolters 201)
Forming and escorting an airstrike was also a difficult proposition. The first option was a "normal departure" in which squadrons organized but the whole group didn't. This could lead to a relatively quick but confused attack. The second option was "deferred departure" in which the whole group organized. This allowed for maximum striking power and protection, but its time consuming nature limited the range of the airstrike. Escorting fighters typically would fly above and somewhat behind the attack planes. Since dive bombers were at a low altitude after their attack, and since torpedo bombers attacked at a lower altitude to begin with, two levels of fighter escort were required. (Lundstrum 194)
Early in the war ship losses were high. In the beginning of 1942, Japan had 10 carriers to America's 4. (Reynolds 63) By August 1942, Japan had 4 carriers to oppose only one American carrier. (Reynolds 121) But by August 1942, carrier warfare began to change. Before the war, the United States started production of 24 new large Essex carriers, 9 smaller Independence class carriers, and an even greater number of small, slow escort carriers which were used to support ground operations and provide anti-submarine escort, among other duties. (Reynolds 132) In 1943, the new American carriers began to enter service, but because of high Japanese pilot losses, no carrier on carrier battles ocurred for almost two years. Important changes were taking place, and battle in 1944 would prove very different from that in 1942. Due to factors detailed below, none of the new Essex class carriers were sunk, even to kamikaze attacks late in the war. Damage control was better in the US Navy from the start, and it improved during the war. Japanese carriers had enclosed hanger decks, a feature that prevented disposal of fuel and ammunition while under attack and increased blast pressures from bomb explosions, leading to more damage, especially of the flight deck. Unlike American aviation fuel lines, Japanese ones could not be filled with carbon dioxide, and fuel storage tanks were positioned so that damage to the hull could puncture the tanks and spill fuel. Although the Japanese made efforts to improve damage control during the war, their fuel system and enclosed hanger decks largely negated these efforts. (Peattie 65) The United States also had a great advantage in ship construction. Starting in August 1942, new fast battleships were attached to carrier forces. They were used to bombard shore positions, provide anti-aircraft protection, and they were detached at night to protect against the enemy fleet. New cruisers were especially designed as anti-aircraft gun platforms. (Hughes 105)
New aircraft were introduced, and the composition of air wings also changed. For the November 1943 raid on Rabaul, just over half of the task force's planes were fighters, a clear break from the practices of 1942. (Morison, Breaking 331) In 1944, 65% of US Navy air wings were fighters as opposed to 25% in 1942. The Japanese, in contrast, had changed relatively little, with only 34% of the air wings being fighters. (Hughes 102) The increased number of American fighter planes better allowed a multi-level, or stacked, CAP, which hadn't been as practical early in the war. (Lundstrum 443) New planes also changed carrier warfare, but advancements were much greater for the Americans. In 1943, the Japanese introduced a new dive bomber, but it was little different from past models in that it could carry only 1,000 pounds of bombs, the same as its predecessor. In 1944 the Japanese introduced a new torpedo bomber which flew at 300 mph. American improvements were much more impressive. In 1943, the US introduced the Helldiver dive bomber, capable of carrying 2,000 pounds of bombs, twice that of the Japanese dive bomber. In 1944, the US introduced the much superior Hellcat fighter with a range of 1,300 miles, much better than the 770 mile range of the Wildcat that it replaced. It could also be fitted with bombs and sent on airstrikes after air superiority was achieved. Also new was the Corsair fighter-bomber which could reach 417 mph and could be equipped with rockets and bombs to support amphibious operations. (Reynolds 145-9) Perhaps as important, the US Navy had a vast supply of well trained new pilots while the Japanese never adequately replaced the excellent pilots they lost early in the war - losses attributable in no small part to an emphasis on performance over staying power. Facing inadequate pilots, only 270 Hellcats were lost as they dispatched over 6,000 Japanese planes. (Dunnigan 218)
|Vought F4 Corsair - intend to replace the Wildcat, the project was delayed, so the F6 Hellcat instead became the standard fighter plane on carriers. Due to the large prop, the wings were shaped to raise the fuselage. The position of the cockpit made carrier landings difficult.|
|Lunga Point Class Escort Carrier - Small carriers like these, with only 27 aircraft, helped transfer aircraft and performed escort duties, freeing up larger carriers for more important duties.|
|Flight Deck - The US Navy differed from the Japanese in that they refueled, rearmed, and stored aircraft on the flight deck. This, as well as their greater use of folding wings, allowed them to carry more planes, and it mitigated damage from enemy bombs, which often passed right through the wooden deck.|
In 1944, the Japanese could scout to a range of 560 miles and attack at a range of 400 miles. In comparison, the US Navy could scout out to just 350 miles and attack to around 200 miles. (Reynolds 139) Earlier in the war this could have resulted in a decisive Japanese victory, but this American deficiency was largely negated by increased defensive abilities and technologies, not the least of which was the new invention of radar. Radar had many uses and was vitally important in carrier warfare. At Midway, because the Japanese lacked radar, their carriers were crammed with planes refueling and rearming when the decisive American airstrike arrived, leaving them extremely vulnerable at the worst possible time. As we have seen, in addition to detecting attacking enemy aircraft, radar directed intercepting aircraft and anti-aircraft fire and could even locate the enemy fleet. (Hughes 116) The Japanese were lagging in radar technology - their radar had a shorter range, communication with aircraft was poor, and perhaps most importantly, the Japanese lacked a central control system like the American combat information center. (Peattie 198)
Radar was also fitted on 5 inch anti-aircraft shells used for long range anti-aircraft fire. These proximity fuse shells exploded when near the target, instead of at a specific set time with previous fuses, which vastly improved the effectiveness of the guns. (Hughes 116,132) The Bureau of Ordnance estimated that guns firing proximity rounds were four times more effective than guns firing regular time-fused rounds and had an advantage of 8.1 to 3 over the 40mm weapon. (Rowland 286-7) The proximity fuze's performance in battle was impressive. Soon after their introduction, an American task force reported that it downed 91 planes of a 130 plane Japanese formation. (Rowland 287)
For medium range anti-aircraft duty, a quick firing Bofors 40 mm gun with exploding shells was adopted. These guns were later tied in with the fire control system used for 5 inch guns, bringing improvement to both gun types. (Rowland 386) Late in the war, half of all downed aircraft were shot down by the 40mm guns. (Rowland 234) For close-in anti-aircraft protection the newly adopted 20mm Oerlikon gun was 8 to 10 times more effective than the .50 caliber machine gun that it replaced. (Rowland 235) Up until September 1944, 20mm guns accounted for 32% of downed aircraft. New gyroscopic optical fire controllers which calculated a target's rate of change helped make the guns more effective than when used with a standard sight over the gun barrel. Improved fire control systems made AA weapons much more effective. An early indication of this was in October 1942 when the battleship South Dakota shot down ALL 38 planes of an attacking Japanese force. Electrical, as opposed to mechanical fire control computers were developed, and further improvements included the connection of fire control to the ship's radar equipment. This allowed "blind firing" at targets at night or approaching from the sun, a favorite tactic of the time. (Rowland 382, 392)
|Mark 37 Fire Control System - With a crew of six men, the range finder could collect information from either optical or radar devices and pass it on to a mechanical computer elsewhere on ship that then sent targeting directions to the 5 inch guns.|
|Mark 51 Gun Director - Used to direct the 40 mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns, the operator tracked enemy aircraft throught the sight ring, and using gyroscopes, the device determined the speed of the tracking. Assuming a certain range, the speed of the target was estimated, and this information was transmitted to the 40mm guns.|
Anti-aircraft protection increased not just because of the new proximity fuses and the improved QUALITY of the guns and fire control. The QUANTITY of anti-aircraft guns was drastically increased also. The battleship Nevada, an old Pearl Harbor survivor is a good example. It's 5 inch gun armament was doubled from 8 to 16 guns, its four 3 inch guns were replaced by eight 40 mm quad mounts with a total of 32 gun barrels, and its eight .50 caliber machine guns were replaced by forty 20 mm guns. The battleship South Dakota completed during the war is another example. Originally designed to have three 1.1 inch quad mounts, by March 1945 there were instead seventeen 40 mm quad mounts. Instead of its planned twelve .50 caliber machine guns, in March 1945 there were no less than seventy seven 20 mm guns! (Rowland 243, 246) Ships were crammed with so many anti-aircraft weapons that it became impossible to use each of these weapons up to its potential. The improved anti-aircraft defenses could even deal with the kamikaze threat of 1945.
USS Texas pre-war - Note the relative lack of anti-aircraft weapons.
USS Maryland - This brass model gives some idea of the degree to which pre-war battleships were modified with massive additions of AA weapons.
|Montana Class - A planned successor to the Iowa Class, the slower, more heavily armed and armored Montanas were to have a fourth 16 inch gun turret and generous anti-aircraft defenses. By 1943, however, it was clear that there were higher priorities, and the class was cancelled, and two of the six planned Iowa Class were never completed.|
Due to increased anti-aircraft capability and the greater numbers of carriers available, new methods of forming carrier task groups was necessary. In the Fifth Fleet, there were now 15 carriers. It would be impossible to control 15 carriers if each had its own protective screen, but this was now unnecessary. As early as 1939, the Navy found ways to mass as many as nine carriers in a single task group and coordinate attacks by twelve air groups. (Hone 103) So by 1944, task groups consisted of four carriers protected by three to five cruisers and twelve to fourteen destroyers. With this method, there were only four separate carrier groups, making the entire carrier force much easier to control while the effective anti-aircraft protection made them safe from enemy attack. It was more difficult to coordinate the air power from within a four carrier task force, which resulted in somewhat clumsy air operations, but the increased defensive power made this a worthy tradeoff. The Japanese had fewer carriers, lacked escorting ships, and had not significantly improved their anti-aircraft defense. Unlike the US fleet, the major Japanese warships were often kept separate from the carriers specifically for use in surface actions, so their anti-aircraft firepower wasn't available to protect the carriers. Therefore, the Japanese provided a screen of 12 much less effective escorts to a group of two carriers. (Macintyre 255-6)
The battles of the Philippines Sea in June 1944 and Leyte Gulf in October 1944 saw the destruction of Japanese naval aviation. Even by the Philippines Sea battle the US fleet could fight more conservatively and be satisfied without actually sinking Japanese carriers - they destroyed Japanese naval air aviation, making the Japanese carriers themselves largely impotent, all the while protecting the beachhead and ensuring operational and strategic victory. While 1942 battles had been fights to destroy carriers, by 1944, the battle was more of one to destroy aircraft. Did the US Navy fully understand this? In reaction to the failure to sink flattops at the Philippine Sea, Nimitz changed priorities for Admiral Halsey at Leyte Gulf, making destruction of the Japanese fleet paramount. Halsey allowed himself to be lured away from the vulnerable troops transports that he was tasked with protecting. Although the Japanese carriers were destroyed, they were nearly merely sacrificial bait. For the Americans, disaster was narrowly averted at the beachhead. (Hughes 102-3) Who should command carrier task forces? Fully in charge until late 1943, non-aviators used carriers conservatively - Spruance for example, thought victory would come from amphibious operations and argued against attacks deep into Japanese waters due to logistical difficulties. He also believed that the Japanese would decline battle unless they saw that it was to their advantage. (McBride 183-4) Aviators complained - Admirals Towers and Sherman argued that carrier task forces should be commanded only by aviators. Ultimately a dual command compromise was reached whereby if an aviator was not in charge of an operation where air power predominated, the chief of staff would be an aviator, and that in the future, commanders would be trained in the use of all arms. (McBride 184, 204-8)
With the Japanese carrier threat eliminated, the US Navy's primary worry was attack from land based aircraft, with kamikazes becoming the greatest threat. The kamikaze threat was different from standard air attacks - small groups at a low altitude made them difficult to detect, and they came from many directions at once, not just from one or two. Electronic interference and IFF failures due to air congestions also posed problems. At Okinawa, radar picket ships helped solve the problem, with fighter direction officers in picket destroyers vectoring interceptions rather than officers in carriers. Picket ships took heavy losses - 15 sunk and 45 damaged out of 206 ships - and the fleet as a whole took heavy losses, but the system worked. Army Air Corps strikes on airfields also helped with kamikaze defense, and perhaps the capture of small outlying islands to establish radar stations might have been a useful option. (Wolters 215-219) Technology also continued to advance. By the end of the war, a new auto-loading 3 inch AA gun was in development which could fire 50 rounds per minute. Tests showed that it was as effective against kamikazes as five 40mm gun quads mounts with a total of 20 barrels. (Rowlands 267-8) By the February 1945 naval air raids on Japan, 70 % of carrier aircraft were fighters, and they protected the fleet by arriving early over Japanese air bases and dominating the skies. (Morison, Victory 21) Had the Japanese carrier force survived into 1945, it would have faced a vastly improved American fighter plane, the Bearcat, which was being delivered as the war was ending, and new attack aircraft like the Skyraider which could carry as much as 8,000 pounds of bombs. (Dunnigan and Nofi 210, 219) The Bat, the world's first radar equipped self guided glide bomb, a revolution in naval technology, was first used in 1945. (Rowland 342-3) But with the US fleet largely invulnerable to Japanese air power by 1944, poor Japanese anti-aircraft protection, and overwhelming US numbers, the Japanese fleet didn't stand a chance of surviving through 1944. With the destruction of Japanese naval aviation went any hope that Japan had of victory.
Cressman, Robert J., "Carrier Strike Through Mountain Passage." World War II Magazine. November 1986
Dunnigan, James F. and Albert Nofi., Victory at Sea: World War II in the Pacific. Quill., 1996
Hone, Thomas and Trent, Battleline: The United States Navy 1919-1939. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press 2006
Hughes, Wayne P., Fleet Tactics. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1986.
Lundstrum, John B., The First Team. Annapolis:Naval Institute Press, 1984.
Macintyre, Donald., Wings of Neptune. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1963.
McBride, William M., Technological Change and the United States Navy, 1855-1945. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press 2000
Morison, Samuel Eliot., History of US Naval Operations in WWII. Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, Victory in Pacific
Peattie, Mark R., Sunburst: the Rise of Japanese Naval Power
Reynolds, Clark G., The Carrier War. Alexandria, Va: Time-Life Books, 1982.
Rowland, Buford, US Navy Bureau of Ordnance in World War II. Government Printing Office.
Wildenberg, Thomas, Destined For Glory. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1998
Wolters, Timothy S., Information at Sea. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2013.
Wukovits, John F., "Scratch One Flattop:, World War II Magazine., September 1988.
Ship models are from the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, the US Navy Museum in Washington, and the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola.
Battleship Losses to Aviation: World War II
Since the first wooden-hulled, sail-powered warships, countries - particularly maritime nations - have vied with one another to build the largest, most heavily-armed ships. Politically, they served to give notice that the building country had claimed a place on the world stage:
In time, wood and sail gave way to steel and steam muzzle-loading cannon to the breech-loading naval rifle. Later, the turreted gun became the standard mounting, allowing greater flexibility of use. The first modern battleship was the British HMS Dreadnought, commissioned in 1906. But these modern battleships were hugely expensive to build and operate:
One way to reduce the expense was embodied in a type of ship called the battlecruiser. The same size as a battleship and mounting the same weapons, the battlecruiser economised by sacrificing armor and occasionally fuel tankage and supply storage, making the ship lighter and consequently slightly faster than the pure battleship, if shorter-ranged.
At the beginning of World War II, the steel-hulled, oil-fired, steam turbine-driven battleship with huge naval rifles mounted in turrets was generally considered to be the ultimate naval warship, despite that fact that battleships had actually faced each other in combat only twice: at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, when the Japanese fleet defeated a Russian fleet, and at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, when the British Home Fleet fought the German High Seas Fleet in what has come to be regarded as a tactical defeat for the British, although a strategic victory. Indeed, some strategists already considered the battleship to have been outmoded. At a naval conference in London in 1935, the Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (later the architect of the carrier raid on Pearl Harbor) proposed that the battleship, as a class, be abandoned:
He said the battleship was as useful in modern warfare as a Samurai sword. However, Yamamoto's words were dismissed by the governments participating in the conference. They still held to the belief that the battleship was the ultimate expression of naval power. Indeed, even Yamamoto's own country shortly afterward began construction of what would become the largest, most powerful battleships in the world - Yamato and Musashi. But the days of the battleship as the Queen of the Fleet were numbered by the appearance of a new warship - the aircraft carrier. The carrier, though new and untried in battle, had a single great advantage over the battleship. The battleship's main guns had a maximum range measured in tens of miles, which meant that it was within the range of the enemy's battleships as well. Additionally, the battleship was limited in the number of targets that it could engage at any given time. The carrier, on the other hand, had as it's main battery not guns, but aircraft - dozens of them. These aircraft, considerably less expensive than the ships that carried them or the ships they targetted, had ranges measured in hundreds of miles, and each one could carry bombs or torpedoes capable of severely damaging, if not sinking, battleships. And each aircraft could attack an individual ship, or several aircraft could engage a single ship from multiple directions. The ability of aircraft to best battleships was proven at places called Taranto, the North Atlantic, Pearl Harbor, the South China Sea and the Sibuyan Sea.
Below is list of all battleships (BB) and battlecruisers (BC) sunk from 1939 through 1945. Those not involving aircraft in a decisive role are faded .
Fairey Swordfish: The Glorious “Stringbag”
Built in 1941, the Royal Navy Historic Flight’s Fairey Swordfish W5856 is the oldest of its kind still flying.
The crew of the battleship Bismarck could be proud of themselves and their great ship. Two days earlier, on May 24, 1941, they had sent the pride of the Royal Navy, the battlecruiser HMS Hood, and all but three of its 1,419-man crew to the bottom of the Atlantic. Hit by three shells in return, Bismarck had set course for the port of Brest, in occupied France, to undergo repairs. The only warships that could pose a threat were hundreds of miles away.
Then, at dusk, out of a rainsquall, skimming just above the waves at a leisurely pace, appeared what must have seemed phantoms from the previous war: nine Fairey Swordfish biplanes from the aircraft carrier Victorious, their crews’ heads leaning out of open cockpits. Bismarck’s Captain Ernst Lindemann ordered the helm put hard over. He knew that while the biplanes might be obsolete, the torpedoes they carried were not. The battleship’s anti-aircraft guns unleashed an intense barrage. No planes were shot down, but only one torpedo scored a hit, amidships on the main armor belt, with negligible effect. Bismarck’s crew probably wondered why, in the third year of the war, the Royal Navy had only sent a handful of antique aircraft against them. Tomorrow, they would be close to France, protected by the Luftwaffe and a line of U-boats.
The battleship Bismarck, shown in September 1940, fell victim to a single torpedo launched from a Swordfish that jammed its rudder and left it steaming in circles. (Sobotta/Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)
For the British there remained one last, desperate chance to attack. With darkness falling, another flight of 15 Swordfish managed to take off from the wildly pitching deck of the carrier Ark Royal into 70 mph winds. One of their torpedoes again fruitlessly hit the armor belt, but, as Bismarck turned hard to port, a second struck its vulnerable stern. With its rudder jammed, the great ship could only steam in circles. The next day, May 27, the battleships King George V and Rodney, together with several cruisers, appeared on the horizon. Bismarck put up a brave fight, but eventually joined Hood on the ocean floor.
Britain pioneered naval aviation. The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) used seaplanes and land-based aircraft during World War I with some notable successes, including bombing the Zeppelin hangars at Cuxhaven, Wilhelmshaven and Tondern. A Short 184 seaplane made history when it sank a Turkish ship by torpedo during the 1915 Gallipoli operation. In 1918 Britain launched Argus, the first aircraft carrier with a full-length flight deck, allowing planes to both take off and land. The British were the first to begin construction of a purpose-designed carrier, Hermes, commissioned in 1924. It set the pattern for future aircraft carriers: a flush flight deck with command superstructure “island” to starboard.
The RNAS and Royal Flying Corps were combined to form the Royal Air Force on April 1, 1918—April Fool’s Day, as some disgruntled RNAS personnel observed. The bizarre result was the Royal Navy operating aircraft carriers with planes and pilots commanded by the RAF.
In common with every other naval power, a battleship mentality ruled at the Admiralty during the interwar years. The prevailing view was that future battles would still be fought by ships lining up to slug it out, like at Jutland in 1916. The notion that flimsy flying machines could sink great warships was considered absurd. Vast sums were spent on new battleships, but only a trifle for a few hybrid carriers based on the hulls of merchant ships or of battleships whose construction had been halted by the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. And nothing for developing carrier aircraft.
Admiral Lord Chatfield, head of the Royal Navy, called this “insanity” for an island nation whose very existence depended on its sea power. He threatened to resign unless naval aviation reverted to the Royal Navy, which it finally did in 1939. At the beginning of World War II, Britain had seven aircraft carriers, more than any other nation (reduced to six when Courageous was torpedoed with the war just 14 days old), but two were 15 years old and four had been launched in the previous war. Only Ark Royal, commissioned in 1938, was reasonably up to date. The government, now with a more visionary Admiralty, canceled battleship building and ordered the construction of modern carriers, 17 of which would enter service beginning in 1940. But the opportunity to develop advanced carrier-borne fighters and bombers had been irretrievably lost.
The Air Ministry had issued a specification for a carrier aircraft in 1930: a biplane with an open cockpit like its RAF contemporaries, such as the Bristol Bulldog. The Fairey Aviation Company responded with the prototype T.S.R. II (for Torpedo-Spotter-Reconnaissance), progenitor of the Swordfish, for which it received a contract a few months later. Significantly, the Swordfish entered service in 1936, the year the first Spitfire flew. Long after other countries had introduced modern all-metal monoplane carrier aircraft with enclosed cockpits, powerful engines and retractable landing gear, for most of the war the “Stringbag,” as it was affectionately known by its crews, was the only effective torpedo, bombing and anti-submarine aircraft available to the Fleet Air Arm. What it achieved in those six years defied all expectations.
Captain Lindemann and his officers had good reason to respect this apparent relic of a bygone era. In the April 1940 Battle of Narvik, off Norway, a Swordfish catapulted from the battleship Warspite, piloted by Petty Officer Frederick Rice, spotted 10 destroyers supporting the invading German army’s landing. Rice’s radio transmissions corrected the fall of shot from Warspite’s 15-inch guns and allowed British destroyers to ambush their German counterparts, seven of which were destroyed, along with three supply ships. He then dived on the 1,050-ton U-64, and although hit in the tailplane and floats by the submarine’s gunfire, released two bombs. U-64 sank in half a minute, the first sub to be destroyed by an unaided aircraft. Stringbags would go on to sink 15 more, and share in another nine.
The Swordfish’s greatest single achievement came seven months later. The Italian navy’s fleet of fast, modern warships—six battleships, nine heavy cruisers and multiple destroyers—was twice the size of the British Mediterranean fleet. From its main base in Taranto it could threaten key British bases such as Malta, Gibraltar and Alexandria cut off vital oil from the Middle East and jeopardize supplies for the British fighting the Italian army in North Africa. Taranto boasted one of the world’s most heavily defended harbors, with hundreds of anti-aircraft guns in shore batteries and on the warships themselves. Barrage balloon cables encircled the anchorage to snare low-flying aircraft, and tests had indicated the harbor waters were too shallow for aerial torpedoes, which simply plunged into the mud.
On the night of November 11, 1940, against this seemingly impregnable fortress, Illustrious launched 20 Swordfish, armed either with torpedoes (modified for shallow water), bombs or flares to illuminate the targets. Pilot Lt. Cmdr. John Godley wrote: “It’s hard to understand how such a decision was ever made. The Charge of the Light Brigade…can it really not have been foreseen that the entire mad venture would end in disaster?”
A post-strike photo of Taranto shows the devastation wrought on the Italian fleet by the aircraft carrier Illustrious’ Swordfish on November 11, 1940. (Imperial War Museum CM 164)
The element of surprise was lost when one plane arrived early, alerting gun and searchlight crews. In the face of intense anti-aircraft fire, the Swordfish torpedoed the battleships Littorio—putting it out of action for the rest of the war—Conte di Cavour and Caio Duilio, plus a cruiser and several destroyers. Conte di Cavour exploded. Caio Duilio took three torpedoes and sank. Despite 14,000 anti-aircraft shells being fired, only two planes were lost, with one crew surviving.
In March 1941, the Italian navy sought revenge against the British in the Mediterranean, leading to the Battle of Cape Matapan. The battleship Vittorio Veneto, eight cruisers and 14 destroyers set out to intercept Admiral Andrew Cunningham’s fleet. British cryptographers, having just broken the Italian naval code, alerted Cunningham. The heavy cruiser Pola was brought to a stop by torpedoes from Formidable’s Swordfish. Vittorio Veneto, hit in the stern and with one propeller smashed, almost suffered Bismarck’s fate, but limped back to its harbor, leaving orders for the cruisers Zara and Fiume and two destroyers to stand by the stricken Pola. That night Cunningham’s ships sank all five. The Italian fleet never again posed a threat to the Royal Navy.
Taranto was momentous in its implications. A handful of carrier aircraft had reversed the naval balance in the Mediterranean, literally overnight. Together with Cape Matapan, it signaled that the days of the battleship as supreme warship were over, that aircraft carriers would play the decisive role in future naval battles and that a powerful fleet in a heavily defended harbor could be devastated by aircraft. Taranto’s significance was recognized in Japan, but apparently not in the United States. A year later, the aerial attack was repeated on a grand scale at Pearl Harbor.
In all, 2,391 Swordfish were manufactured, with production simplified by their uncomplicated structure—wings of steel spars and duralumin ribs, steel-tube fuselage and fabric covering. The original 690-hp Bristol Pegasus engine, which Royal Navy test pilot Captain Eric Brown wrote “from appearances seemed to have been added as an afterthought,” was noted for its reliability, an important consideration to crews flying at night over water. “The Swordfish ambled along lazily at about 85 knots if the wind was favorable,” wrote Brown, but “it was unbelievably easy to fly…no aircraft could have been more tractable or forgiving.”
What the Stringbag lacked in speed it made up for in the multiplicity of armament and equipment it could carry, arguably more than any other aircraft: torpedoes, bombs, mines, flares, Air-to-Surface Vessel (ASV) radar, Leigh Lights (20-million-candlepower spotlights powered by a 300-pound battery), rocket-assisted-takeoff units (RATO) and rocket projectiles (on a fabric-covered plane!). Brown described taking off loaded with a Leigh Light, torpedo and eight anti-submarine bombs: “There was really no logical reason why it should ever have flown with this mass of stores, but fly it did.”
The elongated cockpit, holding pilot, navigator and gunner, tended to act as an air scoop. One test pilot, losing control of the prototype, bailed out, only to be blown back into the rear cockpit, from which he finally exited, becoming the only man in history to have bailed out of the same aircraft twice. The gunner was originally equipped with a WWI-vintage Lewis machine gun, but since its utility against modern fighters was limited, the ex-gunner became the radio operator. All were exposed to the elements, particularly the bitter cold of North Atlantic winters and subzero temperatures on the convoys to Murmansk, Russia. That they could still conduct patrols against U-boats under such conditions, constantly aware that ditching likely meant death, was remarkable. Pilot Lt. Cmdr. Terence Horsley wrote of the Swordfish: “[Y]ou know that you’ve got a friend. And a friend, when you are fighting your way through the darkness towards a lurching flight deck, or are 100 miles out over an empty waste, is something worth having.” Stringbags sank six U-boats on the Murmansk convoys—three on one alone—and shared in the sinking of five more.
Swordfish Mark Is of No. 785 Squadron from Royal Naval Air Station Crail in Scotland embark on a torpedo training flight in 1939. (Military History Collection/Alamy)
Intended to operate at night, or if by day hopefully beyond the range of land-based enemy fighters, the Swordfish relied on its exceptional maneuverability as its main defense when intercepted. In a vertical bank it could turn around almost in its own length. This or a sudden climb—essentially standing the plane on its tail—presented the attacking fighter pilot with an apparently stationary target disappearing behind him at 300 mph. Attempting to slow and follow these aerobatics would cause a stall. “It will maneuver in a vertical plane easily as straight and level,” Horsley wrote. “It is possible to hold the dive to within 200 feet of the water a gentle pressure on the stick pulls it out quickly and safely.” Several enemy pilots who tried to follow Swordfish ended up in the sea. But a torpedo attack required flying straight and level, leading to a most tragic, gallant and unnecessary episode.
As a result of continual RAF bombing at the French port of Brest, Adolf Hitler ordered the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen to safer berths in Wilhelmshaven on the North Sea. On February 11, 1942, together with 25 destroyers, and with aerial cover from several hundred fighters, they steamed up the English Channel in daylight. Hitler believed the British would be slow to react to such an audacious gamble. Due to ill luck, foul weather, radar failure at critical moments and poor communications, the fleet was only spotted when halfway through the Channel. RAF bombers failed to locate it in the poor visibility, bombed ineffectually or were shot down by anti-aircraft fire or fighters. RAF losses totaled 35 aircraft. As the ships passed the Straits of Dover, in an act of desperation Lt. Cmdr. Eugene Esmonde was ordered to attack with just six Swordfish. “He knew what he was going into, but it was his duty,” wrote Wing Cmdr. Tom Gleave. “His face was tense and white, that of a man already dead.” Escorting Spitfires, battling swarms of German fighters, were unable to protect them. Although several launched their torpedoes, all were shot down before coming close enough to achieve a hit. Esmonde was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Swordfish pioneered the use of ASV radar to attack ships and surfaced U-boats in 1940. It could detect a submarine up to five miles away and larger vessels up to 25. Operating from Malta, the RAF and Fleet Air Arm created havoc among convoys supplying the Italian and German armies in North Africa. A couple dozen Swordfish alone sank an average of 50,000 tons of shipping per month, with a record 98,000 in August 1941.
In August 1940 at the Gulf of Bomba, Libya, three Stringbags of No. 813 Squadron had the distinction of sinking four Axis vessels with just three torpedoes. One submarine underway was quickly sunk. The aircrews then spotted a destroyer, with another sub and a depot ship moored on each side. After the Swordfish torpedoed the outer vessels, the depot ship’s munitions exploded, sinking all three vessels.
Britain’s most crucial conflict, however, was in the Atlantic. The majority of the island nation’s food and raw materials, and all of its fuel oil and gasoline, came by sea. By 1942, U-boats were sinking half a million tons a month, rising to 700,000 tons in November. Britain faced a real risk of being starved into surrender. “The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril,” Winston Churchill later wrote. A 500-mile gap in the mid-Atlantic, beyond the range of land-based aircraft, allowed the subs to operate largely unmolested. From May 1943, operating from small escort carriers or merchant aircraft carriers (MACs—merchant ships with short decks built above their holds), Swordfish launched by catapult or RATO helped to close this gap. At night their ASV radar detected surfaced U-boats shadowing a convoy or recharging their batteries. Suddenly illuminated by the Leigh Light, they would be attacked with bombs or depth charges. As a result, the U-boats were forced to surface for battery recharging during the day, when they could at least see the attacking aircraft coming. But now they were prey to the Swordfish’s 30-pound armor-piercing rockets. Fired in pairs or a salvo of all eight, one or two hits usually sufficed.
From May 1943 until V-E Day, only one of the 217 convoys escorted by MACs was successfully attacked. Swordfish would fly 4,177 patrols, sink 10 U-boats and share in the destruction of five more. Already obsolescent when the first one landed on an aircraft carrier, this ugly duckling, outliving several designs meant to replace it, was the only naval aircraft in frontline service from the first day of the European war to the last. Amazingly, the glorious Stringbag was responsible for the destruction of a greater tonnage of Axis shipping in WWII than any other Allied aircraft.
Nicholas O’Dell served in RAF Bomber Command from 1958 to 1962. For additional reading, he suggests: Bring Back My Stringbag: A Swordfish Pilot at War 1940–1945, by Lord Kilbracken and To War in a Stringbag, by Charles Lamb.
This feature appeared in the March 2019 issue of Aviation History. Subscribe here!
What Warship Suffered the Most Casualties Without Sinking?
On March 19, 1945, the Essex class aircraft carrier USS Franklin while on station off the coast of Japan, was struck by a Japanese dive bomber flying virtually suicidal mission through intense defenses, causing massive damage, but not sinking the ship. Still, an incredibly high fatality count had been inflicted upon the crew of the stricken ship, with at least 740 men killed and perhaps more.
Is the Franklin the ship that suffered the highest death toll in a single battle that did not sink of damage inflicted in that battle? While we could not find a ship that could top the death toll on Franklin, we will list a few other notable cases of ships being horribly damaged in battle and suffering a large number of casualties without sinking. If you know of a ship that lost more men in a battle without sinking than the Franklin, please let us know.
USS Franklin, 1945.
The Essex class of aircraft carriers built by the United States during World War II was one of if not the greatest class of warships ever built. A total of 24 of the big flattops were built, and 4 survive today as museum ships. Originally built 820 feet in length with a beam of 93 feet, the ships were later converted to “angle deck” configuration and modernized, growing to over 880 feet long and 147 feet at the beam. Capable of over 32 knots and with a 20,000 mile range (more with at sea refueling), the ships carried a crew of about 3000 officers and men, and a complement of 90 to 100 aircraft. Originally armed with 12 X 5 inch guns and as many as 76 X 40 mm autocannon and 72 X 20 mm autocannon, these carriers were well equipped to defend against attack by enemy aircraft. No Essex class carrier was lost during World War II. Although heavily armed and carrying an enormous big fist in aircraft, the Essex class and the Franklin were lightly armored for such large warships. Designers traded heavy armor for a lighter ship that could travel at higher speed and could carry more aircraft than a more heavily armored vessel. The flight deck boasted armor of only 2.5 inches. Thus, although equipped with excellent damage control equipment and crews, the Franklin was vulnerable to attack from the air if an enemy airplane could get past the escorting ships, the defensive air patrol, and the hail of anti-aircraft fire put up by her crew. The Franklin had previously been hit by a Japanese “Kamikaze” suicide plane in 1944 off the island of Leyte, but suffered far less damage than the later attack. When the determined Japanese dive bomber made its attack with no real chance of survival and managed to elude all that considerable defensive firepower, the Franklin was susceptible to heavy damage. Witnesses disagree whether the fateful attack was by a Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” dive bomber or an Aichi D3A “Val” dive bomber, but in either case the plane was carrying 2 large bombs and was flown right down the middle of Franklin’s flight deck, one bomb hitting the center of the flight deck penetrating the armor and exploding in the hangar deck and the other bomb hitting aft. The 16 fueled and 5 fueled and armed planes on the hangar deck were all engulfed in flame and exploded, killing almost everyone in the area and causing the 31 fueled aircraft on the flight deck to go up in flames. Heroic efforts saved the ship and hundreds of crewmen that had been trapped below. Saving the ship took heroic and mind boggling efforts of skill and daring. Initial reports were that 724 men had been killed and 265 had been wounded, but later assessments indicate the casualty count was probably about 807 killed and 487+ wounded. Franklin was taken under tow to Ulithi Atoll for emergency repair, then to Pearl Harbor for more repairs, then back to the US to Brooklyn for refitting. Despite repair to seaworthy status, Franklin was kept in reserve and never went on patrol again. The great ship was scrapped in 1966.
USS Bunker Hill, 1945.
Another American Essex class carrier, Bunker Hill was supporting the campaign at Okinawa when she was attacked by Japanese suicide “Kamikaze” planes, with 2 of the bomb laden A6M Zero aircraft getting through to hit the ship. At least 390 men were killed and another 43 missing, while about 264 were wounded, a terrible loss but far less than that on the Franklin. Bunker Hill was sent to Ulithi for emergency repair, then Pearl Harbor, then finally Bremerton, Washington for refitting for duty. While missing out on the rest of World War II, Bunker Hill served as a cruise liner to return American military men home after the war ended. She was decommissioned in 1947, remaining in storage and reserve until sold for scrap in 1973.
IJN Mogami, 1942.
Although the aerial attack by US Navy dive bombers at the Battle of Midway “only” killed 81 of her crew, the fact that this Japanese heavy cruiser survived 6 direct hits from 1000 pound armor piercing bombs is incredible. Taking on water and on fire, the Captain ordered all torpedoes to be jettisoned, thus saving the ship. It is unlikely any ship other than a battleship could survive 6 hits from 1000 pound aerial bombs. Mogami was later sunk at the Battle of Surigao Strait in 1944. Prior to the bombing, Mogami had accidentally rammed another Japanese cruiser, the Mikuma, which was subsequently sunk in the same aerial attack that so grievously damaged Mogami.
USS Nevada, 1941.
A great battleship we have previously written about, the Nevada was present at the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Hit by a torpedo, she managed to get under weigh only to be attacked by many dive bombers. Hitting the big, tough ship with as many as 10 bombs, she survived the attack and ended up surviving the entire war, only to be used for nuclear bomb target practice after World War II ended. Nevada survived that, too! She was later finally sunk with conventional weapons after enduring a pounding unlike any ship had ever taken. Nevada had survived the Pearl Harbor attack for 3 main reasons, including the Japanese dive bombers were armed with only 550 pound bombs, Nevada’s main gun (14 inch) shells and powder charges had been removed from the ship for later replacement, and the skillful and heroic damage control by her crew. Casualties from the Pearl Harbor attack amounted to 60 dead and 109 wounded, an incredibly light tally considering the pounding the ship took.
USS New Orleans, 1942.
During the Battle of Tassafaronga the heavy cruiser New Orleans was forced to take evasive action to avoid the stricken USS Minneapolis, putting New Orleans directly into the path of a Japanese torpedo. The torpedo hit the front of the hapless cruiser and completely blew off the front 25% of the big ship, including the forward triple 8 inch turret. Despite the horrific looking damage and the loss of 183 men, the ship remained afloat and actually was able to travel (only backwards) under her own power! She was sent for repair first to Tulagi and then to Australia, was repaired and returned to combat, 1800 tons of ship replaced, an incredible feat of naval repair. It is worth noting that the USS Minneapolis was also a New Orleans class cruiser, and also had her bow blown off by the torpedo strike! Minneapolis also survived and was repaired and returned to duty, proving the toughness of the New Orleans class cruisers. The New Orleans class cruisers were built in the 1930’s with a length of 588 feet and a beam of almost 62 feet, displacing 12,663 tons loaded and armed with a main battery of 9 X 8 inch guns in 3 triple turrets and a secondary battery of 8 X 5 inch guns, as well as a host of smaller anti-aircraft guns. These fighting ships had a crew of 708 officers and men. Of the 7 New Orleans class cruisers built, 3 were sunk during World War II, all 3 at the Battle of Savo Island in 1942.
Note: Other warships have had their bow or stern blown off and remained afloat, even repaired and put back into service. An example was the HMS Nubian, a British destroyer torpedoed by a U-boat during World War I. Her bow was replaced by the bow from another British destroyer, the HMS Zulu. While only 2 men aboard Nubian were killed in the torpedo attack and another 13 were wounded, the incident is worth mentioning if only for the renaming of the cobbled together ship as the HMS Zubian! The Zulu had lost its stern to a naval mine, so why not join the 2 half ships together and make a new ship?
USS Laffey, 1945.
A destroyer of the Allen M. Sumner class, Laffey was no laughing matter! The previous US destroyer to bear her name was sunk in 1942, and this time the new Laffey was commissioned in 1944, in time to see intense combat in the murderous final battles of the Pacific War during World War II when the Japanese were desperate to stop the American (and Allied) onslaught. Using mass aerial attacks against American shipping, including the dreaded Kamikaze suicide tactics, Laffey and other American ships were under relentless attack by Japanese planes at Okinawa in April of 1945. Attacked over a couple of days by dozens of Japanese dive bombers and fighter planes, Laffey’s gunners took a heavy toll of the Japanese airmen, as did the protective screen of American fighters. Still, many of the determined Japanese pilots managed to get through to strafe and bomb the valiant US ship, managing to cause some damage and injuries with near misses from bombs. Other planes were even more successful in attacks on Laffey, hitting the ship with 4 bombs and crashing 6 Japanese airplanes into the seemingly indestructible ship! Even an American F4U Corsair fighter hit the ship, and incredibly that pilot lived. Uncountable machine gun bullets and 20mm cannon shells from strafing attacks also covered the Laffey. In all 32 men were killed and another 71 wounded, and although that might sound like a small number, consider that the entire crew only numbered 336 officers and men, meaning about 1/3 of the entire crew was killed or wounded! Surviving this incessant attack earned the Laffey the title “The Ship That Would Not Die.” Laffey was decommissioned in 1947, recommissioned in 1951, and decommissioned a last time in 1975, one of the greatest ships in US Navy history. She now serves as a museum ship at Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.
USS Saratoga, 1945.
An American aircraft carrier of the Lexington class, on February 21, 1945, while supporting the US invasion of Iwo Jima in the Pacific, the USS Saratoga (CV-3) was struck by 3 Japanese suicide planes known as Kamikaze. Not only did Saratoga survive those devastating hits, she was also hit by 5 aerial bombs, and suffered extensive damage, 123 men dead and 192 wounded. Thirty-six of her 70 aircraft were destroyed, and the battle was not yet over! She was again attacked by Japanese planes, again hit, and again did not sink! Returned to Bremerton, Washington for repairs, she missed the rest of the war and ended her career as a training ship and a transport for Americans returning to the United States from the Pacific after the end of World War II. She met an inglorious end by being used as a target ship during atomic bomb tests after the war, though she did survive the first such test of an aerial atomic blast, and was finally done in by a second test of a nuclear attack by a subsurface blast.
USS Liberty, 1967.
Another American ship that lost a high percentage of its crew without being sunk was the USS Liberty, a Victory class cargo ship built during World War II that replaced the “Liberty Ships” that had preceded the newer, slightly larger cargo ships. Displacing about 7800 tons, the 456 foot long ship was acquired by the US Navy and refitted as an intelligence gathering ship, and put into service in 1964. Manned by a crew of 358 officers and men, the ship had only a very light armament of 4 X .50 caliber machine guns. While patrolling well off the coast of Israel in international waters during the 6 Day War between Israel and her Arab enemies (Egypt, Syria and Jordan) the clearly marked American ship was attacked by Israeli surface vessels and aircraft. Repeatedly raked with cannon fire and machine gun fire from both jet aircraft and the torpedo boats, Liberty was also struck by a torpedo, but did not sink. Israeli jets even dropped napalm bombs on the American ship during the hellish attack that lasted just under 1 hour. A total of 34 of the Liberty’s crew had been killed, one of which was a civilian. Another 171 men were wounded, well over half of the entire complement had been killed or wounded. During wartime, mistakes happen. Incidents known as “friendly fire” occur when friendly troops are accidentally killed or innocent people are mistakenly attacked. Despite Israeli protests that the Liberty incident was a tragic case of misidentifying the ship, many in the US believe the attack was a deliberate attempt to deny the US knowledge of what exactly was taking place in the ongoing war. Which theory do you believe?
Question for students (and subscribers): What ship in naval history do you consider the “toughest?” Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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The featured image in this article, a photograph by PHC Albert Bullock of Franklin listing, with crew on deck, 19 March 1945, is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 520656. This file is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain in the United States.
Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.