in the past few weeks of quarantine, I had the pleasure to read a few bits about the decision making process behind the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese strategy was built upon many questionable premises, however, I am interested in whether it was utterly false or not.
The main idea was that the USN Pacific fleet had to be neutralized by one, critical blow, allowing them to establish an economic sphere, the GEACPS.
However, they never really prepared to learn lessons from the British. They planned the attack much like the British neutralized the Italian fleet at the Battle of Taranto. However, when Lt. Commander Takeshi Naito, the Japanese naval attaché in Berlin visited the venue immediately after the attack to observe the damage, he might have been astonished by the sight of the sunken battleships. However, when a Japanese military delegation toured Italy half a year later (May 18 1941 - June 8 1941), and seen the Littorio as a flagship of the Italian Navy, they must have known that the damage was not critical. The two battleships Caio Duilio and Littorio were already back in service, and the Italians already started to pump out water of the hull of Conte di Cavour, refloating the damaged battleship on 9th of June 1941. It must be noted that the refloating efforts for Conte di Cavour were delayed by the lack of resources, and not by the lack of technology (something the US will never face in PH).Gordon Prange believed that Nagumo’s failure to “pulverize the Pearl Harbor base” and “to seek out and sink America’s carriers” was Japan’s “first and probably greatest strategic error of the entire Pacific conflict.”101 The destruction of Pearl Harbor or the invasion and occupation of the Hawaiian Islands would have compelled the Navy to operate from the American West Coast, adding another 3,000 miles of distance to be surmounted before grappling with the Japanese in the Central and Southwestern Pacific. After the war, Minoru Genda, the brilliant Japanese naval aviator who planned the details of the attack on Pearl Harbor, lamented the Japanese failure to invade Hawaii, which he blamed on the IJA’s preoccupation with eventual war against the Soviet Union and unwillingness to release (from Manchuria) the divisions necessary to take Hawaii. “After the attack on Pearl Harbor,” he said, “we could have taken Honolulu pretty easily. This would have deprived the American Navy of its best island base in the Pacific [and] would have cut the lifeline to Australia, and that country might have fallen to us like a ripe plum.” Japanese possession of Hawaii and Australia would have deprived the United States of the indispensable base from which to challenge Japanese control of Southeast Asia.
source: Angus Konstam: Taranto 1940: The Fleet Air Arm’s precursor to Pearl Harbor, p. 91
Also, the Japanese indeed were aware that Pearl Harbor had shallow water (~13m, 45ft), even more shallow than Taranto (20-22m, 66-72 ft) making refloating operations much more easier. The Japanese decision makers must have known that a simple attack by airplanes will not result the destruction of the USN naval power in the Pacific.
The only way to destroy a ship in a shallow harbour was to detonate its magazines, which only happened with USS Arizona.
source: Jeffrey Record: JAPAN’S DECISION FOR WAR IN 1941:SOME ENDURING LESSONSYet Yamamoto’s objective in the Pearl Harbor attack was limited: to knock out the U.S. Pacific Fleet for at least 6 months so that Japan could conquer Southeast Asia without American naval interference. Pearl Harbor was essentially a flanking raid in support of the main event, which was Tokyo’s southward move against Malaya, Singapore, the Philippines, and the Dutch East Indies. The possibility of occupying Hawaii was never seriously considered by either Yamamoto or the IJN’s general staff.
However, even that limited operation went wrong because the aircraft carriers, the new means to project navel power in the Pacific, were en route at the time of the attack.
source: https://www.history.navy.mil/research/l ... tions.htmlOn 7 December 1941, the three Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers were USS Enterprise (CV-6), USS Lexington (CV-2), and USS Saratoga(CV-3).
Enterprise: On 28 November 1941, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel sent TF-8, consisting of Enterprise, the heavy cruisers Northampton(CA-26), Chester (CA-27), and Salt Lake City (CA-24) and nine destroyers under Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., to ferry 12 Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats of Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 211 to Wake Island. Upon completion of the mission on 4 December, TF-8 set course to return to Pearl Harbor. Dawn on 7 December 1941 found TF-8 about 215 miles west of Oahu.
Lexington: On 5 December 1941, TF-12, formed around Lexington, under the command of Rear Admiral John H. Newton, sailed from Pearl to ferry 18 Vought SB2U-3 Vindicators of Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 231 to Midway Island. Dawn on 7 December 1941 found Lexington, heavy cruisers Chicago (CA-29), Portland (CA-33), and Astoria (CA-34), and five destroyers about 500 miles southeast of Midway. The outbreak of hostilities resulted in cancellation of the mission and VMSB-231 was retained on board [they would ultimately fly to Midway from Hickam Field on 21 December].
Saratoga: The Saratoga, having recently completed an overhaul at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, Bremerton, Washington, reached NAS San Diego [North Island] late in the forenoon watch on 7 December. She was to embark her air group, as well as Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 221 and a cargo of miscellaneous airplanes to ferry to Pearl Harbor.
Yorktown (CV-5), Ranger (CV-4) and Wasp (CV-7), along with the aircraft escort vessel Long Island (AVG-1), were in the Atlantic Fleet; Hornet (CV-8), commissioned in late October 1941, had yet to carry out her shakedown. Yorktown would be the first Atlantic Fleet carrier to be transferred to the Pacific, sailing on 16 December 1941.
The naval military doctrine, the Kantai Kessen could only be achieved if the US capability to wage a naval war was utterly destroyed. We can safely conclude that only the carriers Enterprise, Lexington and Saratoga were in the reach of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (the Langley, already converted to a seaplane tender, was in Cavite, Philippines). So even if we presume the best scenario for a hypothetical attack on Pearl Harbor, we can calculate with the destruction of these three carriers (if the all-out attack commenced when all of them were at anchor in Pearl Harbor).
Also, the Japanese must have been aware that naval warfare became combined arms operation, where the quality and training of the airforce had a crucial role in success. The inexperienced naval aviators tended to target their own ships (as was seen in the disastrous Operation Wikinger, in the Battle of Calabria and at chase of the Bismarck), and were prone to get rid of their bombs and torpedoes instead of a proper attack. So if the Japanese were about to exploit their Kantai Kessen, they must destroy the experienced naval aviator units and sustain little damage to their own, well into 1942.
They also might have been aware of the "glass canon" nature of aircraft carriers. So far, the Germans sank HMS Courageous (17 September 1939), HMS Glorious (8 June 1940), and HMS Ark Royal (14 November 1941), and all of that with 1-2 torpedo(es) or 1-2 high caliber shells. So they might have been aware that their best and only chance to achieve a total, decisive victory was to attack an enemy that is not ready to attack back.
Now let's take a quick look into the future.
Given the fact that the later carrier battles were fought on more or less equal terms, it shows that the Japanese failed to concentrate their forces because the initial blow wasn't critical.
The Japanese aircraft carrier building program had the following results after the Pearl Harbor attack and before 1943:
- Jun'yō (42 planes) 3 May 1942
Hiyō (53 planes) 31 July 1942
Ryūhō (31 planes) 30 November 1942
- Ryūjō (48 planes) 9 May 1933
Zuihō (30 planes) 27 December 1940
Shōhō (30 planes) 30 November 1941
- Akagi 66 planes (+25 reserve)
Kaga 72 planes (+ 18 in storage)
Soryu 63 planes (+9 reserve)
Hiryu 64 planes (+9 spares)
Shokaku 72 planes (+12 spares)
Zuikaku 72 planes (+12 spares)
In OTL, 4 fleet carriers and two light carriers sunk before 1943, namely: Akagi (5 June 1942), Kaga (4 June 1942), Soryu (4 June 1942), Hiryu (5 June 1942), Shoho (7 May 1942) and Ryujo (10 November 1942).
The USN aircraft carriers started to arrive in numbers in 1943 (7 fleet carriers* and 9 light carriers, compared to 0 new Japanese carriers), but before that, they had the following capacities:
- USS Lexington (CV-2) 78 planes
USS Saratoga (CV-3) 78 planes
USS Ranger (CV-4) 76-86 planes, but never took part in operations in the Pacific
USS Yorktown (CV-5) 90 planes
USS Enterprise (CV-6) 90 planes
USS Wasp (CV-7) 100 planes
USS Hornet (CV-8) 72 planes
In OTL, 4 fleet carriers and a seaplane tender sunk before 1943, namely: the Langley (8 May 1942), the Lexington (24 June 1942), the Yorktown (7 June 1942), the Wasp (15 September 1942) and the Hornet (26 October 1942).
Here comes my theory, which I'd like to discuss with you guys.
What if the Japanese decision makers decide to launch an all-out attack on Pearl Harbor and succeed in destroying the better part of the US Pacific fleet?
So they destroy Lexington and the Enterprise (and maybe Saratoga), take the Hawaii Islands and thus deny the Americans to repair their damaged ships and push the American base of operations 3000 miles eastwards.
How would it affect the Pacific war?
Could the Japanese maintain a quantitative edge until 1943, and fight roughly on equal terms until 1944?
The USN aircraft carriers started to arrive in numbers in 1943 (7 fleet carriers* and 9 light carriers, compared to 0 new Japanese carriers), and they built 7 fleet carriers in 1944. In the meanwhile, the Japanese could reinforce themselves only with 4 fleet carriers and 2 light carriers, all of them starting their services in 1944.
Could they actually fight effectively in 1944?
Or in other words, could the Japanese grand strategy work (until the A-bomb was deployed) if they execute their Pearl Harbor operation perfectly?
*technically, the USS Essex was commissioned on 31th December 1942