Never previously seen reports and plans marked restricted and classified have been sourced from Britannia Royal Naval College’s Archive. These documents have been published in an accessible format, with specially commissioned commentary by expert military historians, forming an important source in understanding the critical naval actions of the period.
On 7 December 1941 at Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Japanese Navy delivered a stunning lesson in the effectiveness of carrier aircraft against capital ships. The crippling of the US Pacific Fleet gave the Imperial Japanese Navy almost free rein in that theatre of operations until the turning point — the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway (1942).
The outcome was the first decisive naval victory for the United States Navy with big-gun battleships further eclipsed by carrier aviation. Much of the action in the Pacific became legendary, as the British and American public viewed the newsreels of attacks at Pearl Harbor and the fall of Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore.
At Midway, Commander Joseph Rochefort, USN, and his team cracked a Japanese code, which revealed Admiral Yamato’s plan of attack on Midway Island. Japanese losses were vast and many Japanese airmen who had carried out the attacks at Pearl Harbor would meet their end at the Battle of Midway. Turning the Tide details these key events of the Pacific War and how the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway allowed the US to be able to counter the Japanese at Guadalcanal.
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About the Author
Captain John Rodgaard served for over 41 years with the naval service of the United States, including 12 years as a petty officer and 29 years of commissioned service as a naval intelligence officer. He completed several active duty tours as a reservist, including two years in the Mediterranean on the destroyer escort, USS Courtney, DE-1021. He has also served on navy and joint intelligence tours with Submarine Group 8, Carrier Group 4, the Office of Naval Intelligence, the J2 Defense Intelligence Agency, Commander Submarines Mediterranean, the US European Command and the Navy Staff. Captain Rodgaard completed four years of active service with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency as a senior collection officer and strategist.
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Turning the Tide the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway
Britannia Naval Histories of World War II
By GH Bennett
University of Plymouth PressCopyright © 2016 University of Plymouth Press
All rights reserved.
Strategic Situation in April 1942
Decision by Japan to Expand the Defensive Perimeter
The advance of the Japanese to the south and east after the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 was so rapid that in the space of four months they practically completed Phase I of the Basic Plan for the Greater East Asia War, namely the occupation of the Philippines, Guam, Hong Kong, Burma, and the rich British and Dutch lands in the south, possession of which was to render Japan self-sufficient.
By the middle of April 1942 a point had been reached at which Phase II, the consolidation and strengthening of a defensive perimeter for the 'Southern Resources Area' and the Japanese mainland should have been put into effect. As originally conceived this perimeter consisted of the Kuriles, Wake Island, the Marshall Islands, Bismarcks, Timor, Java, Sumatra, Malaya and Burma.
The unexpected ease with which the first part of the war plan had been carried out caused the Japanese to underestimate the present strength of the United States in the Pacific, just as, when deciding upon war, they had overestimated their own war making capacity and underestimated the huge Allied potential. Many of their leaders were persuaded that advantage should be taken of the present situation, to embark on further expansion. Their argument received reinforcement on 18 April 1942 when U.S. Army bombers, flown from the aircraft carrier Hornet, raided Tokyo. Though no more than a token raid, it was used as an argument to point out the need for additional bases to the east; and it was eventually decided that the defensive perimeter should be moved outward to include the western Aleutians, Midway, Samoa, Fiji, New Caledonia, and Port Moresby in south-eastern New Guinea.
The decision proved an irretrievable mistake. The strategic sphere was already too large. Neither military strength, shipping, nor the Japanese national economy, were of a calibre capable of supporting further expansion; and the attempt used up resources which should have been employed in consolidating the already huge gains.
Vital areas were perforce left insufficiently organised for defence whilst operations were set in train for the capture of Port Moresby, Midway and the Aleutians. The strategy that inspired these operations might be defensive, but it entailed a tactical offensive and resulted in a situation the opposite of that which it was intended to bring about: instead of strengthening the Japanese position, the attempt at expansion actually weakened it. Losses were incurred which could not be made good and consequently hampered future operations; and the eventual return to the original plan found the Japanese with insufficient strength remaining to carry it through successfully.
The first operation in the expansionist plan was the capture of Port Moresby to form a southern outpost in the Japanese defensive system. The Japanese were already established on the north-eastern shores of New Guinea. Establishment on the Gulf of Papua would deprive the Allies of a potential base within air range of the main Japanese base at Rabaul (New Britain) and would place the Japanese in a position to dominate the entire island of New Guinea, and if they desired, to threaten northern Australia, though even in their present mood of inflated morale, they apparently did not contemplate this latter eventuality.
Whilst en route to Port Moresby the expedition was to seize Tulagi in Florida Island, South Solomons, and establish a seaplane base. Tulagi, which was lightly held by Australian forces, was a strategically important point from which the main line of communications from the U.S.A. to Australia and New Zealand could be attacked. It had one of the best harbours in the South Solomons.
Japanese Naval Forces (Appendix B)
The great conquests already made by the Japanese found them with their naval, military and air strength unimpaired, and that of the Allies severely reduced. In the air and on the ground the Japanese losses were insignificant; shipping sunk to date amounted to less than 300,000 tons; and losses of major naval vessels were no more than five destroyers sunk.
On the other hand, the attempt of the Allies to withstand the Japanese advance in Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies had resulted in the piecemeal destruction of the Dutch and British naval forces in the south-west Pacific and the withdrawal of the United States Asiatic Fleet to Australian and South Pacific bases, whilst even in the more distant waters of the Indian Ocean the British Eastern Fleet had been compelled to withdraw from the Ceylon area, thus enabling the Japanese to proceed with their war plan in the Pacific unhampered by a vulnerable western flank.
A feature of the Japanese operations, which was to set the pattern for the Pacific, was the spearhead employment of carrier-based aircraft with battleship and cruiser support. Japanese carrier-based aircraft had caused the most important Allied losses of warships to date, and had also sunk thousands of tons of auxiliaries and merchant ships and destroyed hundreds of Allied aircraft, as well as docks, hangars and base facilities, all with complete immunity to the carrier striking force; in fact, it had seldom been sighted. The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first occasion on which it was effectively attacked.
The Japanese Carrier Striking Force which wrought this havoc was made up from the First Air Fleet (six fleet carriers, four light carriers), with a battle squadron (two battleships), a cruiser squadron (two cruisers), and screen. Behind it stood the main body of the Second Fleet, two battleships, four heavy cruisers and destroyers, which supported the lighter forces – cruisers, light carriers, seaplane carriers, destroyers and ancillary vessels – engaged in carrying out the operations in the Philippines, Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies. This powerful striking force of fast battleships, aircraft carriers, and several cruisers and destroyers returned to Japanese home waters from operating across a third of the globe, from Hawaii to Ceylon, on 18 April, the day of the U.S. air raid on Tokyo, and a squadron was formed without delay, for the attack on Port Moresby, known as the MO Operation.
The forces for the Moresby expedition were under the command of Vice-Admiral S. Inouye, who flew his flag on board the light cruiser Kashima at Rabaul (New Britain). Only one of the three squadrons of the carrier striking force was available to operate in general support of the expedition, so heavy had been the drain of war on the air groups. This was Carrier Squadron 5, consisting of the Zuikaku, flagship of Rear-Admiral K. Hara, and the Shokaku. Their aircraft complement comprised fighters, bombers, and torpedo aircraft to the number of 63 and 72 respectively. The remainder of the 6th Squadron, as the supporting force was termed, consisted of the 5th Cruiser Squadron (the 8-inch cruisers Myoko, Haguro, and Ashigara) under Vice-Admiral T. Takagi, two destroyer divisions (six destroyers in all), a minelayer, the seaplane carrier Kiyokawa Maru, and an oiler. Had the expedition gone according to plan, the force would subsequently have carried out an attack on Townsville, in Queensland, where the Japanese had information that there were American and Australian ships and that aircraft were being delivered. The presence and near composition of this force in the area was known to the Americans.
The Occupation Force for Port Moresby and Tulagi consisted of two cruiser squadrons, the 6 with four 8-inch cruisers, and the 18th consisting of two light cruisers, the Shoho (one of the two light carriers of the 4th Carrier Squadron) carrying 12 fighters and 9–12 torpedo aircraft, and a destroyer; the 6th Destroyer Flotilla (light cruiser Yubari and six destroyers); an auxiliary seaplane tender and a minelayer. Five transports carried the troops. The task of the Shoho and her supporting cruisers was purely defensive, to guard the transports in the Occupation Force against submarine and air attack.
The organisation also included six submarines of the 8th Flotilla. The Battle of the Coral Sea developed whilst these six submarines were off the east coast of Australia. They concentrated south of the Solomon Islands to attack the Allied task force, but although there appeared to be close co-ordination between the Japanese air reconnaissance and the submarines, the latter obtained no results.
The Occupation Force and its escort sailed from Rabaul on 30 April, part of the escort being provided from Truk.
At Truk the Japanese had a naval base which, since the Caroline Islands were under their mandate, they had been enabled to develop in peace time, directly contrary though this was to the provisions of the Washington Conference, 1922. Their main base for operations in the Solomons, Bismarcks, and New Guinea was Simpson Harbour (Rabaul) in New Britain, though there were numerous anchorages in the area which could be used by naval ships, e.g. Gasmata (New Britain); Kavieng (New Ireland); Salamoa and Lae (New Guinea); Watom, Ulu and Dyaul Islands (Northern Bismarcks). Manus Island in the Admiralty Islands was occupied by the Japanese on 4 April 1942, but the Allies had no information whether they were using the great Sea Eagle Harbour. For the most part, however, naval units remained at sea at this date.
Japanese Air Forces
In addition to their carrier-based aircraft, the Japanese had in the Bismarcks a naval air flotilla, the 25th, shore-based at Rabaul, and estimated by the Allies to number 12 fighters, 20 bombers, 17 patrol aircraft, and four small seaplanes, total 53. American intelligence indicated that air reinforcements to Rabaul from the Marianas and Marshall Islands were being hastened. The airfield at Kavieng, in the adjacent island of New Ireland, was known to be used by enemy bombers. The only airfield known to be used by the enemy in New Guinea was Lae, at the head of Huon Gulf, where it was estimated that 15 heavy bombers, 30 fighters and four patrol aircraft were based. Patrol seaplanes used Salamoa on Huon Gulf, and were also based at Shortland Island, south of Bougainville in the Solomons, long range aircraft of this type being employed by the Japanese for reconnaissance, thus relieving the carriers of this task. There were no other land-based naval air forces nearer than Kendari in the Celebes, where the 23rd Air Flotilla was established in February 1942; and no Army air forces nearer than the Philippines (Fifth Air Army) and Malaya-Burma (Third Air Army).
The concentration of Japanese ships near Truk and Palau (West Caroline Is.) at the end of April was reported by Allied intelligence in sufficient time for the Americans to assemble a strong force to oppose the expected move through the Solomons. Admiral C. W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, had operating under him in the central and south Pacific areas three American task forces, two of them, Nos. 17 and 11, containing each one fleet carrier and the third, No. 16, two carriers. Task Force 17 (Rear- Admiral F. J. Fletcher) consisted of the carrier Yorktown (flag), the three 8-inch cruisers Astoria, Portland and Chester, and six destroyers. The ships had been at sea continuously since leaving Pearl Harbor on 14 February, operating against Wake, Marcus and Lae-Salamoa, and were returning to the Coral Sea after a week spent in maintenance and replenishment at Tongatabu in the Tonga Islands. Task Force 11, consisting of the carrier Lexington, the 8-inch cruisers Minneapolis and New Orleans, and seven destroyers, under Rear-Admiral A. W. Fitch, had proceeded to Pearl Harbor after the raid on Lae-Salamoa on 10 March, and sailed from there on 16 April for Christmas Island. The third carrier force, Task Force 16, which included the two carriers Enterprise and Hornet, did not return to Pearl Harbor until 25 April after the air raid on Tokyo. The Australian Squadron, including the 8-inch cruiser Australia, which had taken part in the Lae-Salamoa operation, and the light cruiser Hobart, under the British Rear-Admiral J. G. Crace, was at Sydney, Australia.
The aircraft complement of the U.S. carriers was some ten less than that of the Japanese, the difference being accounted for by the greater number of fighters, 27 against an average of 17, borne aboard the Japanese carriers. Both the Japanese fighters and torpedo aircraft were superior in performance to the American types. The U.S. torpedo aircraft were obsolescent and their low performance reduced the effectiveness of their attacks. The Commander-in-Chief U.S. Pacific Fleet was not satisfied with the effectiveness of the U.S. bombs and torpedoes; the speed of the latter was so low that the Japanese stated they could turn and run from them.
There were at this date the following Allied advanced bases in the area, outside Australia:–
a. Tongatabu in the Friendly Is., a limited monarchy under British protection, was in process of development as an intermediate operating base. The anchorage could accommodate 12 deep draft and 36 medium and light draft vessels, but pending the installation of minefields it was insecure. The shore defences were not strong, but were being increased. There was an airfield.
b. Numea in New Caledonia (French) had an excellent anchorage for ships of any draught, but until the defences were completed it was not considered a secure anchorage for carriers.
c. Efate in the New Hebrides, an Anglo-French condominium, was being organised as a defended base. There was known to be a landing field, but the report on its condition and suitability was still awaited.
d. Suva and Nandi in Fiji, and Tutuila, a U.S. protectorate south-east of Samoa, were considered suitable for ships of any draught and their entrances were mined and their defences well organised. They were considered secure anchorages for other than carriers.
The Allied task forces operated in strategical co-ordination with aircraft of the South-west Pacific Area based in Australia, at Port Moresby, and at Tulagi, Florida Island (Solomon Is.), until evacuation of the latter by the Australian forces on 1 May, two days before the Japanese began to move into the island. At Numea in New Caledonia there were fleet patrol aircraft and army pursuit squadrons.
These shore-based air forces obtained information of the enemy which was of much value, and their almost daily attacks on shipping were of cumulative assistance, but they did not co-operate tactically, for this problem had not at that date been solved. Numbers of aircraft were inadequate and the Australian bases were remote. Difficulties of communication were being overcome, but there was still much to be done in providing for the readiness and training of shore-based aircraft to co-ordinate their operations tactically with fleet units, to relieve carrier-based aircraft of long range reconnaissance as did the Japanese, and to be ready to attack, with full groups, any targets located.
The Action at Tulagi
Allied Forces Concentrate (Plan 2, Appendix C)
U.S. intelligence reports indicated that a Japanese airborne attack on Port Moresby might occur in the first week in May, and concentration of the available Allied forces in the Coral Sea, Task Forces 17, 11, 16 and the Australian Squadron, to oppose it was accordingly ordered. Task Force 11 had left Pearl Harbor on 16 April for Christmas Island; it was now diverted to the Coral Sea, where the Australian Squadron was also to join up. Task Force 16 at Pearl Harbor was unable, in the event, to arrive before battle was joined.
Task Forces 17 and 11 made rendezvous as arranged at 0545 on 1 May in latitude 16° 16' S., longitude 162° 20' E., some 300 miles west of the New Hebrides. Two of the three oilers used for servicing the fleet, the Neosho and Tippecanoe, were in the area; Rear-Admiral Fletcher directed Rear-Admiral Fitch to meet the Tippecanoe with her escort the Chicago and Perkins in latitude 16° 00' S., longitude 161° 43' E., and fuel, steering to rejoin Task Force 17 next morning, the intention being to retain the Neosho as a reserve and to send the Tippecanoe back empty to Efate (New Hebrides). Task Force 17 completed fuelling from the Neosho on 2 May, but Rear- Admiral Fitch reported that he did not expect to finish until noon on 4 May. With enemy action now reported imminent, Commander Task Force 17 could not contemplate remaining so far to the south-eastward; he set course to the north-westward, directing Rear-Admiral Fitch to fuel his destroyers, if practicable, at night, on the same course and rejoin Task Force 17 at daylight on 4 May in latitude 15° 00' S., longitude 157° 00' E., the position in which Rear-Admiral Crace had been directed to rendezvous with the Australia and Hobart from Australia.
Excerpted from Turning the Tide the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway by GH Bennett. Copyright © 2016 University of Plymouth Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Plymouth Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsBritannia Royal Naval College,
Foreword Captain John Rodgaard,
Introduction Philip D Grove,
U.S. Navy and Army Aircraft,
Strategic Situation in April 1942,
The Action at Tulagi,
The Action off Misima and Japanese Air Attacks,
Air Battles of 8 May,
U.S. Navy and Army Aircraft,
Situation After the Battle of Coral Sea,
Air Attack on Midway,
Midway Aircraft Attack Japanese First Air Fleet,
Destruction of First Air Fleet by U.S. Carrier Aircraft and Attacks on Yorktown,
Pursuit of the Enemy,
Last Contacts and Sinking of the Yorktown,
Lessons and Effects of the Battle,
Britannia Naval Histories of World War II,