Go see Dunkirk. Seriously. I can’t say much more as I don’t want to spoil it, but go see the movie. Good cinematography, acting, scoring, and pacing. Yes, some rivet counters have complained about nitpicking things like the destroyers, Ju-87s’ sirens, and the actual Bf-109s used. (No, I’m not joking.) Ignore them and go see the movie posthaste.
So, remember way back when I said I was going to do fighter history and bombing history separate? Yeah, I refreshed my memory on bombing during World War I.
*insert yawn here*
I mean, it happened. There were even a few times it was effective in the “we made a big mess” kind of way. But compared to fighter combat, there’s not a whole lot of there, there. So, I’m making a command decision and we’re just going to go with general air warfare from here on out.
I have no idea how many parts this is going to be. Remember the Battle of Britain? Remember us hitting the 2,000 word limit so quick I didn’t even get to talk about Czechs, Poles, and other foreign pilots?
We’re going to try to skip that this time around. Well, that’s probably going to happen again…so some things are going to get short shrift, as things don’t get really exciting until 1943.
“But wait a second! You were just talking about the Battle of Britain, now suddenly we’re in 1943? What the Hell happened in between?”
Look, I’m not saying there wasn’t important fighting. I’m just saying that most of November 1940 through, oh, January 1943 in Western Europe consisted of RAF Fighter Command creating squadron and wing commander openings via ill-considered fighter sweeps. Followed shortly by the United States, after Pearl Harbor, deciding they wanted to jump on that bandwagon with largely symbolic raids through most of 1942. We’ll get to most of that fun in the next installment.
The sum effect of this on the war? Well, it created a lot of German aces…but not nearly as many as the Luftwaffe’s attack into Russia (Eastern Front is coming later in this series). It also provided convincing evidence that maaaaaaybe the Spitfire was not all that good of an escort fighter. Oh, and that home field advantage was a real thing when you added radar (also known as, “Were you bloody idiots paying attention to what you did to the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain?!!”). Finally, it drove home that there’s not a whole lot you can bomb in France when you’re fighting Germany.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself. That little problem about German factories being in, surprisingly, Germany had the Brits good and vexed as 1940 became 1941. First off, nothing like someone wailing on your country for several months during the day then continuing to do so at night to get the Vengeance Band warming up and looking for a lead singer. Indeed, some guy named Arthur Harris, while watching London burn one night in 1941 from the roof of the Air Ministry one night, started quoting scripture about “sowing wind” and “reaping whirlwinds.” Normally a bloke from Rhodesia muttering things from the Bible isn’t remarked upon by history. (Spoiler alert: This guy becomes important to our story in about 500 words.) In any case, Harris wasn’t alone, and as a matter of fact the RAF felt they had just the thing to get retribution: Bomber Command.
Now, some of you may be saying, in your best rendition of “The Bride’s”-voice: “And what, pray tell, is Bomber Command?” Well, you can read the Wiki here, or go with the short hand explanation of Bomber Command as the manifestation of 1930s aerial warfare theory put into practical use. In the 1930s, air planners assumed several things:
- The primary mission of a country’s air force was to drive home bomber attacks rather than support tactical ground operations.
- Bomber attacks were intended to destroy the enemy’s means of war production. In other words, rather than killing an enemy’s tanks, artillery, ships, etc., by the bushel in direct combat, a prudent nation would kill them by the gross (and incidentally a whole bunch of civilians, but “Shhhhh!”) in the factory.
- No escort fighter would ever be able to compete with a country’s interceptors due to the long ranges involved for the attacking air force.
- However, due to contemporary aeronautical engineering, multi-engined aircraft would always be faster, fly higher, and be more heavily armed than possible with single-engined interceptors.
The British, having formed the first independent air force, proceeded to double down by forming the first independent command designed to attack based on these theories. They then expended a great amount of research developing long-ranged, heavy bombers to equip it. Unfortunately, as you may recall, I’ve spent two blog posts detailing how the war had not gone according to Douhet up to this point for either side. The folks making the decision to bomb Germany lived through it in real time, and had practical experience from 1939-1941.
Despite this, the British still seriously tried to knock Germany out of the war via strategic bombardment once the Battle of Britain was truly over.
Operations started going poorly right from the beginning. Funny thing about bombing a strange, blacked out country at night while under threat of immediate violent death: It tends to make you miss. As in, the average British bomber crew was missing entire cities by over five miles. Nor were they doing so maliciously–I mean, Cologne probably looks like Wiesbaden when you’ve got anti-aircraft artillery fire bursting around you and some crazy guy in a night fighters is looking to impress the local Fraulein by turning your bomber into a blazing comet.
It did not help that the Germans, like the RAF, quickly started figuring out things like interceptor control and ways to mount radar on twin-engined fighters. Remember the Bf-110 squadrons and how they were sitting ducks during daylight? Well, turned out it just needed someone to turn out the lights to really shine, as the large airframe and heavy armament made it an excellent night fighter. Things started getting kind of bloody over Germany. Even worse, folks like the British Army and Coastal Command started pointing out that it was kind of wasteful digging German irrigation ditches with 500-lb. bombs when there were plenty of other things those aircraft could be doing.
Just as it seemed like Bomber Command was going to get sharply reduced, two things happened. First, in typical government agency fashion, Bomber Command decided to “rebrand” itself. Its leaders accepted that it was not going to win the war by attempting to encourage the union of a British ordnance with German machine tools in the middle of the night. No, in typical gentlemanly fashion the RAF was going to merely “dehouse” Germany’s population in a humane fashion using rather potent high explosives followed by incendiaries.
*We’ll pause while those unfamiliar with this story wait for me to explain how one blows up civilian houses without blowing up civilians only to realize that I’d just type Coventry about 10,000 times. In other words, this was all sophistry, the British sooooooo did not have any f*cks left to give*
The second thing that made this all work was that the Air Ministry put a fellow in charge of Bomber Command that they knew could get the job done. Someone who would not blanche in the face of heavy losses, would merrily bomb Germany from Konigsberg to Cologne, and yet could subvert his inner Visigoth long enough to seem semi-sane on the newsreels or sit in the pew next to Allied senior officials. A God-fearing man, the chosen flag officer also had an amazing ability to quote all the good Hellfire and Damnation parts of the Old Testament at will. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Sir Arthur “Bomber” / “Butch” Harris, the man
who replaced Peter Gabriel as singer of the Vengeance Band who took over RAF Bomber Command in February 1942:
“Wait a second, JY. This guy looks like someone’s genial grandfather. You’re making him sound like some crazed lunatic.”
You’re right, he does look like someone’s elder relative who always has the sweets, doesn’t he? But I assure you, behind that kind-looking exterior was a man who felt about Nazi Germany’s population about the way Mad Max felt about the man who murdered his family:
I mean, technically Max didn’t set the guy on fire himself, right? He was just “decarring” him.
When Harris took over, his command was equipped mainly with obsolescent twin-engine aircraft that did not carry much of a workable bomb load any appreciable distance. His crews could not navigate, tended to crash a lot, and they had few feasible electronic aids to help them see through the darkness. In short, your average bomber crew was just as dangerous to themselves as they were to the Germans. As in, “rednecks with a fridge full of tannerite” dangerous to themselves.
Three months later, Bomber Command was doing things like launching 1,000-aircraft raids. A couple months after that, it had replaced its obsolescent bombers with Handley Halifaxes, Short Stirlings and, the best of them all, Avro Lancasters. in large numbers. In order to better find targets, the RAF not only developed better radio aids, but also fielded a Pathfinder force to better mark the targets. Finally, in equipping their aircraft with ground mapping radar, Bomber Command proved serious about making sure the right Germans got bombed on any given night.
From the German perspective, the proverbial fecal matter was making sweet, sweet love to der lüfter as 1942 came to a close. While the Jagdflieger were more than holding their own in daylight, all of the above meant things were getting a little out of hand at night. Already tapped out fighting against the Soviets, dealing with the invasion of North Africa, and with the Battle of the Atlantic swinging like a pendulum, the last thing the Germans needed was to be dealing with a resurgent Bomber Command.
With this in mind, the Luftwaffe began to take things seriously after Operation Millenium and began shifting more resources to the Nachtjagdgeschwader. In addition to upgraded Bf-110s, the Germans fielded the Ju-88C, which was basically an excellent day bomber with a nose full of cannons. Realizing that the RAF had decided bombloads were more important than belly turrets, they also developed “Schräge Musik” weapons kits that allowed a Bf-110 or Ju-88 to fire upwards.
Schräge Musik, which loosely translated to “slanted music” in English, was the German slang for jazz. However, as many a Lancaster crew could tell you, there was nothing smooth or mellow about two cannon dropping high explosive and armor piercing rounds upwards into a fully loaded bomb bay or unsealed fuel tanks:
Still, despite all these innovations and the ability to occasionally inflict severe losses on Bomber Command raids, at best 1942 ended with the Reich Defense Forces and Bomber Command at a draw. Which, given all the other crazy stuff that was going on for the Reich around that time, probably made Adolf Galland, now General of Fighters, breathe a sigh of relief. Indeed, in my minds eye, I see him laying next to some beautiful actress, smoking a post-“sortie” cigar, and thinking:
Ja, things are bad. I mean, my brothers keep getting whacked, the Russians are starting to figure out how to fly and shoot at the same time, and it’d be nice if the Fuhrer would stop declaring war on industrial nation after industrial nation.
*slow puff of cigar and pat of shapely behind off screen*
But hey, it’s not like anyone else is coming to the fight, right? I mean, what kind of idiot would attempt to bomb heavily defended German targets after how bad we kicked the RAF’s ass in 1939?
*completely apocryphal, utterly non-historical camera cut to General Ira C. Eaker, commander of the United States Eighth Air Force, turning his head as if Adolf’s thoughts are projected into his mind*
“Hey Butch, hold a brother’s pint for a second.”
*theatrical rolling up of sleeves*
“I think some Nazi just inquired about the Uncle Sam Special…”
Tune In Next Time For “Around the Clock,” a.k.a., Can’t tell Sam’s boys a damn thing.”
When last we left this journey through aerial mayhem, France had just been knocked out of the war, the British Army was busy thanking every boat owner in Southern England while wringing out their clothes, and the Luftwaffe had just learned how to say “Acthung! Spitfire!” In the (wholly apocryphal) words of Hermann Goering, “Don’t worry, this will be quick.”
*pause* Yeah, just like Hermann was a little premature in his boasting, I’m going to tell you up front I have no idea how long this one’s going to be. The Battle of Britain has probably been responsible for literally millions of gallons of ink being spilled. With so many authors out there choosing the final three books is going to be a bit, um, interesting. On one hand, you have the view that the Battle of Britain was the decisive battle of World War II. In the middle there’s the theory that the Germans could have pulled it off, but it would have required the luck equivalent of a strong run at the craps table. As in, hitting so many die rolls that the casino’s staff tells the gambler in question “Don’t come back here if you like your internal organs…”. Finally, there’s the school of thought that the Germans were never serious about Sea Lion, the British knew this, and it was all a propaganda stunt.
As for your humble host, I fully believe the German High Command was capable of saying, “Hey, here’s a great idea! Let’s take our tactical / operational air arm and try to set the conditions for an amphibious debacle that will make Gallipoli seem like a Sunday tram ride!” These are the folks who brought you Operation Barbarossa, so high stakes gambles were sort of baked into the cake. Similarly, given that France threw in the towel with most of its army still in the field and the Germans far from possessing overwhelming force, Great Britain was certainly capable of getting a case of the yips in mid-1940. Ergo, without further ado, let me tell you how Air Marshal Hugh Dowding was responsible for saving Western Civilization.
*angry murmur from other historians* What’s that? You think I’m disrespecting ol’ Winston “Foggy” Churchill, Wielder of the Tommy Gun and Chewer of the Cigar? Mmm, maybe. I mean, don’t get me wrong–Winston Churchill is certainly the reason that Great Britain didn’t say, “Oh eff this noise, we’re done…” in May 1940. Indeed, despite Churchill beating out Lord Halifax for the post of Prime Minister, half of his cabinet wanted to cut a deal in the interest of preserving the Empire…
*glare at internal editor*
…the British Empire. To which Churchill gave a long, blunt reply that basically broke down to:
“They are fucking Nazis. Negotiating with Nazis is like negotiating with a hungry lion. Have you bloody idiots not been paying attention for the last two years?”
Winston then followed this up with telling Parliament something about “fight them on the beaches, blah, blah, blah.” Subsequent to that speech, he regularly advised the womenfolk in his social circle that maybe they should resign themselves to taking out one last Nazi while ol’ Hans was ‘in the saddle.’ (I’m not kidding about that part. Seriously.) Finally, to demonstrate England’s resolve to the rest of the world, Winston proceeded to have the Royal Navy blast the living crap out of whatever French fleet units that did not immediately
surrender, erm, I mean go into “internment.”
All this makes great history and does show a head of state that is, in the vernacular, not messing around. Buuuuuuttt, it ignores the fact that Churchill had not been Prime Minister from 1938-1940, was not particularly air minded and, despite his meddling nature, was not secure enough in his position to start meddling around with aerial defense of Great Britain. That job resided with one man: Air Marshal Hugh Dowding, head of Fighter Command.
Hugh Dowding was not a dashing fellow. Indeed, he is generally described as giving off the air of a particularly boring school principal who did not necessarily mix with those under his command. If there is a spectrum of leadership styles for aerial generals, Dowding is likely on the opposite side from Curtis Lemay. This is part of the reason he gets one or two sentences in most general histories, with the other being that he was cursed with back stabbers for subordinates (more on that later).
However, one of the things Dowding was good at was organization. Another was remaining calm. Both of these were necessary in May 1940 as everyone in London was running around going “Holy shit, holy shit…the Germans are right across the bloody Channel. Holy shit!” like they’d just witnessed a horrible car crash. In the final years of peace, Dowding had already begun putting together what would later be called an integrated air defense system (IADS). This defensive network relied on radar to provide early warning (Chain Home), guns to keep the the Lufwaffe from coming over at too low of an altitude, interceptors to deal with the German aircraft and, most importantly, a series of control command posts to make sure said Spitfires, Hurricanes and *gulp* “other fighters” were in the right place at the right time. In large part, Dowding was calmer because, unlike France and Poland, geography meant that he didn’t have to worry about panzers on his runways.
The British defense system looked like this:
Now, if you’re looking at that map and thinking, “Whoa, the guys in 11 Group sure look like they’ve drawn the short straw…”, you would be absolutely correct. After a last, “Okay, are we really doing this?” check from Adolph Hitler, the pilots in southern Kent got to find out how annoying it is to get the notice to scramble…then end up with Bf-109s in your takeoff queue.
That being said, the Germans found out a few things very quickly. One, while the RAF would still have village idiot squadron commanders flying in vics throughout the battle, self-preservation and attrition helped weed many of these men out. Ergo, it started becoming harder and harder to find quacking fighters with roundels. That’s not to say squadrons rotated in from No. 12 and 13 group didn’t occasionally get smacked around due to inexperience, but as June became July, the RAF started figuring out what in the Hell it was doing.
Helping this process was the innate advantage of fighting over home turn. Although the British air/sea rescue process over the Channel was criminally negligent, things were far better inland. If a Fighter Command pilot ‘took to the silk’ in the morning and was not injured, it was not unheard of for him to be sitting in another Hurricane or Spitfire within forty-eight hours.
This fact underscores another point–the Luftwaffe, for the first time, found itself in an even fight. There are various ways of counting airframes at the beginning of the Battle of Britain, and most sources will choose a method that suits the historian’s overarching thesis. (We’re sneaky like that.) However, only recently have folks started taking into account things like German pilot fatigue, high engine hours, and the operational wear and tear of operating very far forward from their depots into account. As June turned to July, the Jagdwaffe was sucking wind like a welterweight that had been throwing nothing but haymakers for ten rounds.
This analogy is particularly apt when one looks back at the map above. Notice that blue line that indicates the 109s’ maximum range? Yeaaaaahhh, that’s kind of important. Like most bomber disciples, Hermann Goering and his chief of aircraft development, Ernst Udet, had not invested in the development of a long-range, single-engine fighter. (In this they were not alone–you’ll get to hear how the Americans dropped this ball in a later post.) This made sense, as the Luftwaffe was a tactical / operational air arm. Long story short, this meant most of the German fighter pilots had to keep one eye on the fuel gauge as they started mixing it up with Hurricanes and Spitfires. Once the red light started glowing, it was time to head for home…or figure out how long one could tread water.
“Wait a second, James. In the last blog post you told us there were two German fighters. What about the Bf-110?!” Well, funny thing about radar–it tells people you’re coming. At that point, things like slashing attacks from upsun become problematic, and people end up having to actually dogfight. The 110, which had seemed quite capable on the continent, quickly found itself the equivalent of a station wagon in an Indy race. Although it still occasionally managed to surprise an unwary RAF fighter or two, by June it became apparent the 110 could not even look after itself, much less escort German bombers.
Speaking of escorting, also hindering the Jagdwaffe were tactical decisions forced upon them by higher headquarters. As the German Kampfgruppen began getting repeatedly mauled, they began to complain to higher headquarters that the Jagdwaffe were off hunting kills rather than actually, you know, escorting. This would be a common bomber refrain throughout the war for all sides. The Luftwaffe head shed, horrified at their losses, were the first to make the critical error of tying their fighter pilots to within visual range of the bombers as opposed to giving them free rein. This was a major error, as it meant that the 109s could no longer “free hunt,” but were forced to fly fuel drinking weaving patterns above their slower bomber brethren. I’ll let Adolf Galland sum up the problem:
“[The fighter pilots’] element is to attack, to track, to hunt, and to destroy the enemy. Only in this way can the eager and skillful fighter pilot display his ability. Tie him to a narrow and confined task, rob him of his initiative, and you take away from him the best and most valuable qualities he posses: aggressive spirit, joy of action, and the passion of the hunter.”
— General Adolf Galland, Luftwaffe.
The change in tactics allowed the RAF the respite of largely taking off and forming up in peace rather than having to worry about “fights on” from the moment their wheels left the grass. Moreover, it often allowed the Spitfires and Hurricanes to gain advantageous positions and seize the initiative. It was a rude awakening for the Jagdwaffe, and a harbinger of things to come for them later in the war.
As opposed to Goering, Dowding managed his end of the Battle of Britain like a maestro. Ever cognizant of the fact that he just had to keep the issue in doubt until September 30th at the latest, Dowding conducted an aerial economy of force operation. Despite Churchill’s pressures, Dowding refused to overly commit to protecting Channel convoys when the same resources could be moved by rail. Squadrons were committed as they became available, with the initial combatants wearing down the 109s so that later entries had free runs at bomber formations. Despite the temptation to meddle in squadron tactics, Dowding let leaders figure their own methods.
As time went on, the respite from German bounces as the RAF climbed to altitude, the winning of the production war, and the German decision to switch to targeting cities all contributed to Dowding’s victory. After getting through the critical period of mid-July to early August when Fighter Command was losing pilots quicker than they could replace them, by August 31st Dowding had actually started getting enough pilots to flesh out the squadrons he’d rotated north due to their losses. When Hermann Goering got the bright idea to go after London in order to force Fighter Command into a final series of battles, the new numbers ensured that didn’t go well. To follow our earlier analogy, the hard swinging welterweight found out that their opponent not only had one hell of a corner man, but had somehow put on 20 pounds in between bells.
By September 30th, it was clear to everyone involved that the Luftwaffe would not be obtaining air superiority in 1940, if ever. Hitler, not having really wanted to force England to the negotiating table through invasion, began to look east. The Luftwaffe would continue to send fighter-bombers by day and their medium bombers by night for several months, but quickly became consumed in preparations for Operation Barbarossa. A couple of day fighter Gruppen remained in the West, but by March 1941 the majority of the Jagdwaffe were gathering in eastern Germany and Poland for a date with the Red Air Force.
Great Britain, bloodied and battered, had a brief moment where the cabinet once more suggested that the nation seek the best deal possible. Churchill, as was his wont, quickly squashed this idea. Possibly with physical violence.
(Note: I have no proof that anyone got DDT’d in that cabinet meeting…but I have visions of Winston Churchill coming across the table a couple of times. “Winston!” “I didn’t hit him in the face and he’s already had all the damn children he should! Amazed I was able to actually find them to kick given how much he’s been crying about surrendering…”)
Air Marshal Dowding, despite having overseen the first successful defense of Britain proper in centuries, was forced out against his will in favor of the former commander of No. 12 Group, Trafford Leigh-Mallory. Leigh-Mallory speciously claimed that Dowding had basically left kills on the table by not following his suggestions of forming RAF squadrons into “big wings” of multiple units prior to vectoring them against incoming German bombers. Of course, Leigh-Mallory conveniently failed to discuss just how his “big wings” would have formed in the face of free hunting Jagdwaffe 109s. Nor did Leigh-Mallory address the fact that said big wings, by virtue of being easier to spot, would likely have suffered mightily at the hands of even the bomber-bound German escorts.
In any case Churchill, unimpressed with Dowding’s lack of offensive spirit and demeanor, summarily sacked his head of Fighter Command in December 1940. Forced to retire…
*loud klaxon* Oh, hey, the Eschewing Easy Alarm is going off. Better wrap this up before I kill someone through rhetorical bludgeoning.
1.) For the first time, radar changed the course of a campaign. Without Chain Home, Spitfires and Hurricanes would have been forced to fly standing patrols and been unable to mass against German attacks. It wasn’t perfect, but after two decades of the aerial offense largely having its way, things appeared to have swung decisively towards the defense.
2.) The German Luftwaffe, for all its potency, demonstrated the perils of thinking all air power was the same. For various reasons, the Germans found themselves attempting to kick Great Britain’s door in with twin-engine bombers and tactical fighter aircraft. The 109 was arguably superior to both of the British front line fighters and had its way against just about everything else (e.g., the Defiant), but simply lacked the legs to gain air superiority over southern England. As the British would find out when they went on the offensive, gaining air supremacy required range.
3.) The devil is in the pilot and airframe replacement program. Whether one believes that Fighter Command was on the ropes or not (a topic of much recent debate), the fact remains that the Jagdwaffe could not regenerate fighters nearly as fast as the RAF could. Moreover, for the first (but certainly not the last) time, the Germans began to suffer decreasing effectiveness due to a lack of “bench.” Although several individuals (e.g., Galland and Moelders) ran up impressive kill tallies, many more Experten from the Polish and French campaigns were either killed or became prisoners of war. Concurrently, the Germans’ airframes also began to wear out due to a poorly organized depot system. Both of these issues were the proverbial canaries in the coal mine for the Luftwaffe.
4.) Firepower improvement was relative. The RAF’s decision to go to the “8-gun monoplane” was both vindicated and disproven by the Battle of Britain. As the Hurricane and Spitfire‘s designers had expected, their battery of machine guns were quite destructive. Unfortunately, all too often the level of damage tapped out at the “We’re going to need a firehose to wash the gunners’ blood out of the aircraft” versus the “Mein Gott, they just sawed off our wing…”-level. As mentioned above, aircrew being wounded but alive to kvetch about poor fighter protection ultimately led to German errors…yet the RAF expedited cannon armaments after the Battle of Britain for a reason.
5.) Overclaiming influenced the course of the campaign. Despite strenuous rules being put in place, the Jagdwaffe‘s victory claims led to less than optimal operational decision making by Lufwaffe leadership. Many histories of the Battle of Britain discuss Goering constantly referring to Fighter Command’s “last few Spitfires.” This is not hyperbole–the Germans actually believed it. While no small part of this miscalculation was due to Lord Beaverbrook’s strenuous efforts, in the main it was because German pilots often mistook a fighter diving away on fire as one that actually crashed.
Three books for the masses:
The Most Dangerous Enemy by Stephen Bungay. This one is borderline between a book for the masses versus the monkhood. Bungay’s got an easy writing style, but it’s a really thick work.
Fighter by Len Deighton
One book for the monkhood:
Luftwaffe Fighter Aces by Michael Spick. Another “But wait, this one talks about the whole war…”-tome that I’m fitting in now rather than later.
“The Axis have won the toss and will kickoff.”—Aries, Head Referee, Great European Rematch, 1939-1945
Four things I’m going to assume with this blog post:
1.) You read the last blog post on aerial combat and liked it.
2.) Everyone involved possesses a general knowledge of World War II, is willing to go to the Wiki article on it or, is so highly motivated they think Antony Beevor‘s or Max Hastings’ single volume histories are a worthwhile afternoon killer. (Both are excellent. Harsh, but excellent.) So the apocryphal quote at the top of things hasn’t totally lost you.
3.) In this same vein World War II is, to quote a Prolific Trek catchphrase, “my jam.” So I might occasionally throw out references to people, places, and things without a hyperlink. Mea culpa in advance, but these blog posts (yeah, it’s going to be plural) will start looking like a Smurf infestation if I link every name I drop.
4.) Readers will realize that The Usurper’s War-series is fiction. Meaning that I played with some things there that may not have reflected the actual history. So when I start talking about “This didn’t happen until 1944…” and it’s something I made happen in 1943 in Acts of War or Collisions of the Damned…that’s why they call it alternate history.
Without further ado…
All That Passed Before
When last we left the aerial arena, people were flying around in biplanes blazing away at one another. The Allies had been preparing to unleash a massive aerial armada, the Germans were going to valiantly try to stop it, and the war was going to end in bloody street fighting burg by burg. Except…the Germans, their resolve weakened by the blockade and the realization that Americans apparently liked to make babies circa 1895-1900, tossed in the towel on 11 November 1918.
The war’s end had the perverse effect of flooding the market with aircraft. People who had no business driving, much less flying a plane, plunked down good money to go break their necks. Permissiveness was the rule of the day, and lots of people who had no business flying quickly found out Sir Isaac Newton holds veto power over all matters aeronautical. Despite the appalling death toll, however, this period meant aviation captured the imagination the world over, with everyone from daring barnstormers to famous aviatrices keeping the public’s collective eye skyward. Thus even in the midst of the Great Depression, people were still finding funds to press the proverbial envelope faster and higher. However, in no way was this progression universal nor necessarily embraced by military establishments.
Ergo, when Great European Rematch began in September 1939, combatants had both single seat, high speed monoplanes in their inventory…and poor bastards who were puttering around in the sky in biplanes. As in, if you flew fighters for the Royal Air Force or Fleet Air Arm, your war potentially started off with this beauty as you primary mount:
Meanwhile, the Germans, allegedly limited by the Versailles treaty, were licking their chops at the thought of facing Gloster Gladiators while tooling around in their brand new Bf-109s and Bf-110s. They say a picture is worth a 1000 words (coincidentally where we’re at right now), so I’ll just put the 109 and 110 up for comparison:
The Western Front 1940
Thankfully for many British pilots, the Germans went east (Poland) then north (Norway) before coming west. The Luftwaffe, having sent “volunteers” to fight in the Spanish Civil War in the mid-1930s, had learned some things. First, without having the ability to really have an air force thanks to the Treaty of Versailles, they largely skipped bomber barons stifling fighter development to the degree that Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Corps (later United States Army Air Force) did. Oh, don’t get me wrong–Herman Goering and Nazi hierarchy made Byzantine aircraft development into a way of life. Buuuuuuuttt, there was no Trenchard (RAF) or Arnold (USAAC / USAAF) actively sacrificing single engine fighter developmental programs that would have saved lives in favor of heavy bomber programs. (More on that in a later post…it’s not quite as much a jerk move as it sounds.)
This free fighter development and Spanish warm up match led to the Jagdflieger developing the four-aircraft flight (Schwarm) as the most flexible formation for combat. In this flight, you had two leaders (#1 and #3) and their wingmen (#2 and #4), with each leader / wingman combination known as a Rotte. Each leader could choose a target, with the wingman making sure no one showed up and disturbed the leader while he went about his killing. Given the high closing speeds brought about by the advances in air technology, the Germans discovered that this was the best blend between not having a bunch of yahoos throwing themselves around the sky and formations so rigid they were basically a squadron leader looking for stuff to kill and his eleven subordinates trying not to run into him.
*pause as the reader goes through that last paragraph again*
“What? No one would be so stupid as to fly around like tha…”
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Royal Air Force. When the Germans turned west in May 1940, the standard Royal Air Force tactics were to fly around in squadron formation. These squadron formations, in turn, were divided into ‘vics’ of three. In practice, this was supposed to mean that the squadron technically had four groups by which to attack opposing bombers. Upon seeing the enemy, RAF squadron leaders were expected to call out a target, then a numbered attack. At this point, the vics would then proceed to attack said target in a proscribed, organized manner in sequence. Imagine a great waltz, except the orchestra is playing the “Death by Machine Gun, Aerial Movement” from the Spandau Ballet school of composition.
To be fair, in September 1939 this was a reasonable supposition. Fighters, at least to the RAF, were not supposed to be a primary concern. No one in the RAF had been informed that they’d be fighting in continental Europe (see part about Versailles Treaties, War to End All Wars, Appeasement, etc.) in the 1930s. Ergo, the good folks in Fighter Command drew a radius from Germany, looked at their own monoplanes’ performance, and said, “Well there’s no way the bloody Germans are getting their fighters here. At least, not more than once.” Thus, it was easy to see how the war could have been started still flying these formations, even with various individuals writing report after report about operations in Spain.
Still, by May 1940 the Germans’ methods should not have been totally a surprise. There were Polish pilots who had fled across Europe and were providing first hand testimony about how the Jagdwaffe just might know what it was about. British pilots had danced with their German counterparts during the so-called Phony War as well as in Norway prior to the storm breaking over France in May 1940. So perhaps even a circular or a “Hey chaps, the Germans tend to come in groups of four, with two of those four having every intent of collecting scalps. Might be time to throw out these stilted attack plans and get your heads on a swivel…” would have saved lives.
Instead, the RAF and their French counterparts got an aerial skull dragging. As in, most fights went pretty much like this clip from the miniseries “A Piece of Cake”:
Except, rather than Spitfires, the RAF was flying the slower Hurricane. Having been slow to make changes in the eight months of relative peace, a few weeks of penning “We’re sorry your son got blasted to kingdom come because his eyes were on his leader…” letters made some folks change their methods. They decided it was a good idea to put a “rover” up behind the squadron vic’s, with this position intended to give the rest of the squadron some warning that they were being stalked by approaching German fighters.
*momentary pause and cut to Jagdflieger laughing uncontrollably while discussing how they blew the “rover” out of the sky, then proceeded on down to flame a couple more of remaining British fighters*
So dangerous did this position become, there were documented cases of squadron commanders having to write up officers for “lack of moral fiber” and insubordination. Which is a polite way of saying that pilots were starting to tell squadron commanders where to get off, they weren’t serving as the flaming canary in the proverbial coal mine. As many Hurricane pilots found out, having an unsealed fuel tank in front of the cockpit could end very, very poorly when 109s were about. Listen to your buddy scream the whole 10-15,000 feet down, suddenly “I will see to it that you are transferred to the infantry…” doesn’t seem so threatening.
From the German perspective, the Fall of France reinforced the Spanish Civil War’s lessons. The Schwarm had been validated as the base formation that allowed a squadron to put the maximum number of shooters forward. Almost as importantly, it allowed the maximum visual coverage of a given airspace, meaning that if everyone was doing their job it was very hard to surprise German fighters. The 109, even with its flaw such as poor landing characteristics, limited firepower, and short range, was proven to be more than capable to defeating anything it ran into. The 110, although not quite as effective as they had hoped, was also capable of conducting effective slashing attacks and escaping French and British fighters attempts to get it into a dogfight. Both fighters proved extremely capable bomber destroyers, with the British Fairey Battle and Blenheim along with everything in the French arsenal proving easy prey. As the German Army chased the British off the continent then proceeded to “march in the shade” when they got to Paris, the Jagdwaffe had achieved its primary mission of gaining then maintaining air superiority.
In some ways, the RAF got a blessing in disguise by just how quickly the Germans blitzkrieg rolled over the Allied ground forces. France fell so quickly and decisively that it took the Chamberlain government with it. Winston Churchill, being a much cold-blooded bastard than his predecessor, ignored French pleas to send the more advance Spitfire to try and retrieve the situation. As a result, the first time the Jagdflieger got a good look at the most advanced British fighter, it was over Dunkirk. Moreover, it was after Fighter Command had belatedly started telling squadron leaders “Hey, those numbered attacks? Maaaaayyyybeee not the best idea.” Being prewar officers rather than combat technicians, many of these leaders were loathe to change…but at least they’d been told. With the Luftwaffe now right across the Channel rather than well outside of fighter range, the crucible of combat would provide a lot more motivation for innovation.
What Changed, What Stayed the Same
1.) As noted in the last post, most kills were by surprise. Especially the poor bastards flying as rovers/weavers/sacrificial lambs. But even for the Germans, the cases where someone was not doing their job often led to a British Hurricane or French fighter getting their licks in and away before anyone knew what was coming.
2.) A big change was air combat’s speed. At the end of World War I, fighters topped out at 150 miles an hour. At the beginning of World War II, most fighters were either at or right around 300 miles per hour. Well, except for the Gladiators. *shudder* In any case, that dot on the windscreen turned into an angry fighter with its nose and wings twinkling much, much faster than it had in World War I. Conversely, this meant that combats took place over a much wider area. This could rapidly lead to what several pilots referred to as “empty sky syndrome,” i.e., a fight going from “Oh my God, we’re all gonna die in collisions…” to “Where the f__k did everyone go?” in a matter of seconds.
3.) Firepower relative to World War I made a massive increase. Not only did fighters now have to worry about bringing down heavily armored bombers, but the speed of combat meant a maneuvering target was only in the sights for a fleeting moment. More due to the first than the second, interwar designers had started hanging more and more machine guns on fighters (Britain) or switched to cannon / machine gun combinations (Germany). Whether it was the 8 x .303s (Spitfire / Hurricane) or 1 x 20mm / 2 x MGs (Germany) armament, World War II fighters opened the dance hitting way harder. Things would only get heavier as the war went on.
4.) Deflection shooting became a thing. This was not totally different than World War I. However, the amount of lead to blast someone crossing front to left at a relative velocity of 50-60 miles per hour is a whole different world than that of 300 mph. To quote German ace Hans-Joachim Marseille (who would later go on to fame in North Africa after the Battle of Britain)
“As long as I look into the muzzles, nothing can happen to me. Only if he pulls lead am I in danger.”
That’s right, if you were looking right into someone’s guns and your both in a turn, he couldn’t hit you. Or more correctly, if he was so close that he would be able to actually to hit without pulling the necessary lead, you needed to worry less about machine guns and more about the imminent collision. In some cases, pilots had to pull so much lead to account for the drop of their bullets that their target wasn’t even necessarily in sight beneath the nose of their aircraft. Although some services (e.g., the USN/USMC and Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had practiced this task as a course du jour, none of the European powers had given it much thought. Why? Bombers don’t maneuver (RAF) and the Jagdflieger generally assumed one either had it or they didn’t. By and large, the gunnery syllabi for these two services wouldn’t change much throughout the war.
5.) Despite heavier armament, most kills still happened at short range. This was partially a factor of the “never saw what hit him” as well as the lack of deflection training. How short is short? In ground combat, the average machine gun was capable of shooting out to 1000 meters, with most shooting taking place at 4-500 meters depending on line of sight. In the initial stages of World War II, the British set the convergence point of their guns, i.e. the point where all 8 streams should meet, at 300 meters…and found that people were just flat out missing targets at that range. With a few exceptions, most Experten (German aces) and their RAF counterparts found that shooting over 200 meters didn’t accomplish much other than warning your prey. This fact did not change even when engaging with 20mm cannon versus the British .303 machine guns.
6.) The bomber, contrary to what interwar pundits had speculated, did not “always get through.” In fact, beginning with the British daylight attack on Wilhelmshaven and going all the way until the French capitulated, bombers often took a mauling on both sides. Given the Germans achieved air superiority fairly on, this lesson didn’t quite have time to sink…okay, who am I kidding? Despite irrefutable evidence that bombers were vulnerable, everyone kept thinking unescorted bombing attacks had a chance. This…well, let’s just say this is going to become important next post.
Overall, fighter combat was largely taking up where it had left off in World War I, just faster, more lethal, and with new formations. The Schwarm was as revolutionary to the profession as the the forward pass was to North American football and was a large part of the reason Britain found itself alone. However, as will be shown in my next post, there was something to be said for playing a home versus away game when it came to vying for air superiority. Geography, in the form of the English Channel, was about to flip the script for the Jagdwaffe.
Three books for the masses:
One book for the monkhood:
Fighter Tactics and Strategy, 1914-1970 by Edward H. Sims As can be seen by the dates, this encompasses much more than the last two blog posts. But given the overwhelming number of books to choose from, I figured I’d slip this one in at this point.
*cough cough* Man, it’s kind of dusty in here. You’d almost think someone hasn’t been in this place for like weeks. Oh, wait…
Welcome to another edition of Warship Wednesday. Today, rather than talking about a particular class of vessel, we’re going to talk about something near and dear to ship to ship fights: damage control.
According to Luttwak and Koehl’s The Dictionary of Modern War, damage control is “[m]easures meant to limit or counteract the effects of battle damage. Naval damage control measures include firefighting, counterflooding to reduce listing, the shoring up of damaged bulkheads or hull frames, and ad hoc repairs. The effectiveness of such measures depends on crew training, as well as on design features, such as compartmentalization, duplication of key facilities, the number and location of fire mains, emergency electrical generators, and pumps; such provisions account for a significant portion of warship costs.”
Sounds like some complicated stuff, right? Well, that’s because it is and it isn’t depending on what era you want to talk about. Age of galleys? Damage control was basically, “Oh f*ck, we just got rammed and…dammit, dammit, that’s it, the rowing slaves are screaming, the ship is sinking, and I’m sitting here in a suit of full metal armor getting pointed and laughed at by the asshats who put a hole in the ship.” I mean, this is simplifying it somewhat, but both because the source material is kind of thin on the ground and the art of shipbuilding wasn’t all that and a bag of chips, if someone let Mr. Sea in, Mr. Fish and Mr. Crab were getting fed.
Oh and fire? Yeah… about that. Basically if you had the misfortune of fighting crazy bastards who were not only comfortable with having incendiaries on their vessels but lighting and launching from a pitching ship, you may have chosen enemies poorly. Because if those lunatics hit you and got a good blaze going, especially with something that adhered well to the hull? Well, suddenly that guaranteed trip to to the bottom didn’t seem like such an inconvenience. Something about “Drowning sure beats being the long pork at Mr. Arsonist’s Luau on the Sea…”
It was during the Age of Sail that things both got better and worse as far as damage control went. On the plus side, sturdier ships and actual compartmentalization meant that there was a fighting chance to repair the vessel. Cannons, relatively extended ranges, and improvements in the ability to maneuver (albeit depending on wind) also meant that there was increased time to effect damage control in many cases. Best of all, damage control could “make the magic happen” with your basic carpentry kit and the supplies most sailing vessels kept on hand. Mainsail get carried away because your opponent likes to aim high? That’s cool, the repair process is the same as if you got Neptune’s pimp hand from a storm. Since everyone knew Neptune was gonna want his money sooner or later, repairing / removing masts or filling holes with patches were drills that the crew performed on a regular basis anyway.
On the flip side–gunpowder. As in, things like this could happen:
That’s the French vessel L’Orient going sky high at the Battle of the Nile because of a moderate fire that got out of control. That’s right–you bring gunpowder to a gunfight, suddenly Mr. Fire becomes even more of a jerk about sinking your ship. Given the rudimentary pumps of the day, a fire getting out of control wasn’t all that uncommon. In many cases, the only thing that kept this from happening a lot more often was Mr. Sea won the “How Can We Make a Crew Homeless?”-contest by a few minutes.
Eventually the Age of Sail gave way to the Age of Iron. That, in turn, became the Age of Steel. Since I’m not Avalon Hill and trying to sell you wargames, I’m gonna lump the last two together. (“Just how many ages are there?” “Shhh, shhh…we’re not going to go to the Age of Missiles”) Without getting into a treatise on weapons’ advancement during this time, suffice to say things kind of got to be the suck for damage control during this era. Various nations perfected the means to reliably detonate explosives underwater. At first, this was only possible via fixed means, i.e. what were initially torpedoes (yes, as in “Damn the torpedoes!”) but now are known as mines. Then some genius (often attributed to one Mr. Whitehead, but there are others), figured out how to add propulsion–and thus the modern torpedo was born.
“But wait a second–I thought large warships had compartmentalization just to keep a single underwater hit from doing it in?” Yeaaaaahhh, about that. In theory, yes. But funny thing about mines and torpedoes–they seldom seem to hit just one compartment. For example, the British battleship H.M.S. Audacious, barely a year old and with the most advanced compartmentalization of the time, took a mine hit that opened up multiple compartments at once. This, in turn, led to “progressive flooding,” which is basically water finding all those passageways that have to left open for a warship to be able to function even at General Quarters. Even with good compartmentalization, a vessel that has three or four major spaces open to the sea will be swiftly in danger of capsizing. Throw in the secondary effects of a torpedo hit (e.g., fires, power disruption, bulkhead distortion, etc.), and its easy to see where things get hairy.
Modern gunfire also posed a much larger problem as far as damage potential went. Outside of the “Golden BB” of a shell going into the magazine (think L’Orient, but instantaneous), there was also the problem of shells passing through the ship’s armored belt or deck and hitting major systems. What do I mean by major systems? Oh, little things like flooding oil tanks, hitting the electrical generators, or sending the central communications box to Kingdom Come. These were all things that could and did happen in the midst of chaotic naval fights, and it was often a life or death matter for the crew to do so. After all, everyone likes a simple gunnery solution, and if the rudder wasn’t working that made things easy peasy for everyone shooting at one’s ship. (The crew of the K.M.S. Bismarck are all nodding sadly at this.)
So how did crews save themselves and their ships? Well, as in the Age of Sail, in both World War I and II most vessels had a kit put together with things like “collision mats,” dimensional lumber. This was buttressed by improvised stopping materials like crew hammocks or mattresses shoved into a hole. By the end of World War I, ship builders began to add things like multiple pumping stations to aid in getting water out of the vessel, followed by making some of these stations multi-functional in order to help get water into the vessel in order to fight fires. Although the Battle of Jutland was the only major fleet engagement, there was more than enough data from that incident to provide ship builders with thoughts on what went well (“Jolly good, the magazine flooding worked well on Lion…”) versus what went poorly (“Bloody hell, we really need to figure out better flash doors…”).
At the beginning of World War II, ship design had made another evolutionary lurch forward based on the threat of modern aircraft and submarines. Unfortunately, as became quickly apparent, damage control was still very hit or miss. The British lost the carrier Ark Royal to a single submarine torpedo despite being fairly close to their base at Gibraltar, and had several other vessels succumb to levels of damage their sister ships would later survive. The Italians, while not quite as incompetent as some sources like to portray them, seemed positively fatalistic when it came to what mitigating actions should be performed. The Japanese Navy’s relative indifference to damage control (with a few exceptions–see IJNS Shokaku‘s longevity) meant that their fleet units were knocked out longer when hit or, in all too many cases, had major damage become mortal due to officer incompetence (see IJNS Taiho). In short, damage control success / failure for most navies became as much a matter of how seriously the captain and executive officer took things prior to the hit as said strike’s location.
The massive exception to this was the United States Navy. This is not to say that the USN was inherently better from start to finish. Indeed, this was inherently not the case. Given that the USN started the war after its major ally (the RN) had been taking knocks for over two years and sharing the information about said beatdowns, the Navy’s early war performance was shockingly abysmal. Pearl Harbor (surprise attacks are always bad) and the Asiatic Fleet (overwhelming force) can be eliminated from the narrative. However, from Coral Sea through the end of the Guadalcanal campaign, the Pacific Fleet lost at least four major combatants (Lexington, Yorktown, Astoria, and Northampton) due to damage control miscues when all four vessels could have been potentially saved. Other vessels were saved more through good fortune than necessarily excellent damage control work. In short, the IJN took the USN behind the School of Hard Knocks and proceeded to take their lunch money, their glasses, and their dignity.
The difference between the USN and most of its contemporaries is that the USN learned. The Department of the Navy collated all of the loss and damage reports and proceeded to distribute them regularly to the fleet. It forced officers and ratings to attend damage control schools and training until every member of the regular crew had at least been exposed to some degree of what to do when the ship got hit. It leveraged the United States’ incredible industrial advantage to produce literally thousands of portable pumps, breathing apparatus, hoses, and fire fighting equipment to issue to its ships. Finally, ship designs were changed while on the ways to improve fire main survivability, add sprinklers, and otherwise make it easier for a vessel to survive when hit by a torpedo or bomb.
Did it work? Yes. One need look no further than comparing the damage that put paid to the Yorktown at Midway versus the utter mauling suffered by the U.S.S. Franklin (newsreel footage here as well) and Bunker Hill. To their horror, the Japanese found themselves facing the nautical equivalent of Jason Vorhees, as ships they were certain they’d sunk just kept coming back…and back…and back again. Meanwhile, especially after the USN got its torpedoes to work, their vessels were getting sunk or knocked out of the war by one or two major hits due to their failure to propagate lessons.
So how does this all translate into writing? The obvious is that if you’re writing historical fiction and placing your character aboard a vessel, do a quick Wiki sweep to see what happened. If you’re doing alternate history, feel free to extrapolate actual ship damage in a notional battle that is analogous to what happened to a sister ship or similar size combatant in that navy. For science fiction, read through some of the war reports and get a sense of how vessels die, then realize that vacuum and advanced systems add “special sauce” to what you can do to place your characters in peril. Being an author means one gets to play a deity…and we all know deities aren’t always benevolent.
As I mentioned in my writing tips, sometimes research can be a substitute for experience. Going even further, the best research in the world is that done by someone else. One quick way to save oneself a lot of diving and sorting of what sources work the best for you is to find a historiographical essay. This is basically where a historian (either amateur or professional) looks at the sources available for a given field and gives a run down on what works and what doesn’t. An example of what one looks like (albeit dated from 2010) is attached below, with a Pacific War bibliography pasted behind it. While Combined Fleet remains my suggested go to for most things IJN-oriented, I stand by most of my assessments made below for the USN side.
Note: This one is really on the long side. Just so everyone knows in advance. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Ashley.)
From the Harbor to the Bay:
A Historiographical Examination of the United States Navy’s War in the Pacific, 1941-1945
The American-Japanese Pacific War began shortly after 0630 on 7 December 1941 as the destroyer U.S.S. Ward engaged and sank a Japanese midget submarine outside of Pearl Harbor. Nearly four years later, on 2 September 1945, it concluded with the Japanese delegation signing surrender documentation on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri, a battleship not even launched on that fateful December morning. In the intervening forty-five months, the United States Navy (USN) had grown in size until its strength was greater than that of the next ten navies combined. Moreover, this great strength had come about despite heavy initial losses incurred as the USN transitioned from an ill-equipped and improperly trained peacetime force to a lethal juggernaut that had all but annihilated the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), strangled the Japanese economy and set the conditions for a possible invasion of the Home Islands.
State of the Historiography: Foundational Works and General Histories
How this state of affairs came about has fascinated historians since the Second World War ended. As with many modern conflicts, the combatants’ derived their methodology from their prewar strategy and design philosophies. There is very little historiography that focuses solely on the IJN’s evolution, with David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie’s Kaigun and Peattie’s companion book, Sunburst, serving as the seminal works on this topic. For the evolution of the USN’s grand strategy, Frank Miller’s War Plan Orange outlines how America’s admirals planned to defeat Japan and is complemented by Thomas C. and Trent Hone’s Battleline and John T. Kuehn’s Agents of Innovation.
For those requiring a general understanding of the Pacific War’s course, Ronald Spector’s Eagle Against the Sun (1985) remains one of the best single-volume treatments of the U.S.-Japanese Pacific Conflict. First published in 1985, Spector’s treatment of the Pacific War is balanced and relies upon both Japanese and American sources. For those unable to obtain Spector’s book, Harry A. Gailey’s The War in the Pacific is a slightly more modern (1995) work whose treatment of the pre-war strategic factors is not quite as extensive as Spector’s.
Of histories whose sole subject is the USN’s Pacific War, the field remains dominated by the long shadow of one historian: Samuel Eliot Morison (1887-1976). A Massachusetts native who received his Doctorate in Philosophy from Harvard University, Morison became the USN’s World War II historian due to his relationship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many historians consider his final product, entitled History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, to be the definitive history of the United States Navy during the Second World War. Nine of the 15-volume set deals with American naval operations in the Pacific and, while a daunting read, more than adequately serves the purpose of providing a USN-oriented general history. Unfortunately, the works were published from 1947 to 1962 and, due to their age and the declassification of several USN documents, are starting to have their accuracy called into question by more recent works. In addition, Morison made very little use of Japanese sources and, in many places, directly contradicts the autobiographies of Japanese survivors (e.g., Commander Mitsuo Fuchida and famous ace Saburo Sakai). Therefore, Morison should not be relied upon for anything other than general knowledge and should be read in conjunction with a work such as Paul Dull’s A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy (1941-1945).
State of the Historiography: The Carrier / Air War
After reading one or more general histories of the Pacific War, it quickly becomes apparent that carrier and land-based aircraft dominated the conflict. If one accepts the typical narrative, i.e. that the Kido Butai’s strike on Pearl Harbor initiated the conflict and its outcome was decided once the USN crushed that same force at Midway, it is unsurprising that a large segment of the historiography focuses on aircraft carriers and land-based airpower. What is surprising, however, is the extent to which the aforementioned segment in turn focuses on these two engagements. Indeed, there are very few single-volume texts that engage the USN’s carrier war in its entirety. Of these, only Douglas V. Smith’s Carrier Battles: Command Decision in Harm’s Way has been published in the last five years. Unfortunately, Smith’s book does not adequately fill this historiographical gap because, as its title suggests, it focuses more on the influence of commanders’ interwar education on their actions than a narrative discussing World War II’s five carrier battles.
Pearl Harbor, by virtue of being the catalyst for America’s entry into World War II, has a very large historiographical footprint. Of the numerous books and articles on the Japanese attack, Gordon W. Prange’s trilogy is the most influential. Prange, a World War II veteran and history professor at the University of Maryland, did much of the research for his books while serving as a civilian historian on General Douglas MacArthur’s staff (1946-1951). In addition to having access to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s surviving records, Prange established a number of contacts with IJN veterans. Thus the first book in his Pearl Harbor trilogy, At Dawn We Slept (1982), was one of the first books on the attack to incorporate Japanese-language research. Like the subsequent works, Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History (1986) and Dec. 7, 1941: The Day the Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor (1988), At Dawn We Slept was published posthumously with the aid of Prange’s coworkers and widow. Therefore, there was little opportunity for Prange to explain points where his work contradicts Morison or other American sources. However, combined these three texts continue to dominate the discussion of Pearl Harbor, with most subsequent books on the subject citing them as a major source. In general, Prange’s narrative has stood up to time and further examination by international historians. While more recent works such as H. P. Wilmott’s Pearl Harbor have generally better presentation, they only finesse some details (e.g., the third wave controversy, midget submarines effectiveness) while not changing much of Prange’s narrative.
It is in recounting what followed in this first year, specifically the Battles of Coral Sea, Midway, and the Guadalcanal Campaign, that the historiography begins to show major gaps. First, there are less than five books that focus exclusively on the Battle of the Coral Sea, and of these none provide any insights that are not available elsewhere. By far the best treatment of the battle in a wider source is John Lundstrom’s discussion of the engagement in The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway. Lundstrom, a professional historian who is widely acknowledged as the foremost expert on Pacific air combat through 1943, not only deconstructs the decisions involved by both sides but also disects the actual engagement down to the individual airframe level. Other than Lundstrom and Sherman’s discussion, however, the Battle of the Coral Sea is usually treated in the same manner as an undercard bout before a heavyweight championship fight.
To carry on this analogy, the main event in question would be The Battle of Midway. Of all five carrier engagements in World War II, Midway by far has had the most works dedicated to it. Due to Morison, historian Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory, and Prange’s Miracle at Midway, a conventional narrative of the battle was rapidly established by the 1960s. The general course of this story was that the outnumbered USN, through code-breaking success and Japanese mistakes, was able to score a stunning victory by catching the Kido Butai as that force was prepared to launch a devastating strike. In turn, the casualties among Japanese aircrews at Midway crippled the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force (IJNAF) for the remainder of the war. Therefore, as of 5 June 1942, the Pacific War’s outcome was inevitable, as the Japanese were forever unable to recover the strategic initative.
This narrative went generally unchallenged until the publication of Lundstrom’s First Team and its sequel, The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway. Lundstrom, through extensive research, demonstrated that a majority of the four Japanese carriers’ aircrews not only survived but went on to participate in the subsequent Guadalcanal and Solomons campaigns. According to both First Team works, it was only through the attrition of the battles subsequent to Midway rather than that singular calamity that the USN blunted the IJNAF’s edge. Similarly, Parshall and Tully’s Shattered Sword not only questioned whether Midway truly eviscerated the IJNAF’s aircrew but also began to question whether the conventional narrative got the timing of the USN’s attacks correct. Using Japanese language sources in addition to pointing out Morison’s undue influence on subsequent historians, Parshall and Tully provide an argument that illustrates how Japanese doctrine would have precluded the Japanese carriers’ decks from being full of aircraft when Yorktown and Enterprise’s dive bomber squadrons arrived overhead. In turn, Dallas Isom’s Midway Inquest takes Parshall and Tully to task while acknowledging that the Morison/Prange/Lord narrative is generally incorrect.
It is subsequent to Midway that the number of works regarding carrier warfare sharply drops off to be replaced by books that focus on the Guadalcanal campaign as a whole. First, other than popular historian Eric Hammel, no other other author has written a work of note regarding the Battle of the Eastern Solomons or the Battle of Santa Cruz. Although not nearly as decisive as Midway, as noted by Lundstrom it was these two battles that largely broke the IJNAF’s carrier arm’s collective back and heralded the slaughter that would occur at the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944. Much like that last engagement (whose sole modern treatment is Barrett Tillman’s Clash of the Carriers), the historiographical gap around both of these battles is somewhat astonishing.
Likewise, despite books dedicated to individual participants or units, the contribution of ground-based USN air elements after Guadalcanal has received little attention. With the exception of a couple of units (e.g., VMF-214 “Black Sheep” and VF-17 “Jolly Rogers”) or personalities (e.g., Gregory Boyington and Tom Blackburn), there remains numerous opportunities for scholarly research on the Solomons Campaign’s aerial facets. Finally, there is also no single-volume treatment of USN land-based aircraft’s contributions in the last year of the war. Whether in the Philippines or at Okinawa, USN and United States Marine Corps (USMC) fighters played a crucial role in counter-Kamikaze operations, yet their efforts have not been addressed except in popular histories such as Gerald Astor’s Wings of Gold or Semper Fi in the Sky. This historiographical gap remains to be closed.
State of the Historiography: The Surface War
Like land-based aircraft, the USN’s surface fleet made several crucial contributions to the service’s ultimate victory in World War II. Like their land-based counterparts however, the officers manning the USN’s battleships, cruisers, destroyers and PT boats have had few scholarly works devoted to their efforts, with most of these concentrating on actions around Guadalcanal. In some respects this is understandable, as many historians consider these engagements to be the last time surface vessels made a decisive, rather than supporting, contribution to the USN’s larger victory. However, as with the destruction of the IJNAF’s pilot cadre, the attrition visited upon the IJN’s surface fleet in the Solomons contributed a great deal to subsequent American victories.
In one of history’s ironies, the Guadalcanal Campaign began with what remains the USN’s greatest defeat, the Battle of Savo Island. This engagement, due to its traumatic (for the USN and Royal Australian Navy (RAN)) outcome, has received much more attention from American, Australian, and Japanese scholars than any other surface engagement in the war. Disaster in the Pacific: New Light on the Battle of Savo Island, written by Denis Waner, Peggy Warner, and Sadao Seno, is a book representative of the genre. Like most of the other works, Disaster highlights the Japanese Navy’s preparedness, the Allies’ numerous mistakes (e.g., poor preparedness, failure to pass information between commands, poor C2) that made the IJN’s victory possible. Like much of the recent carrier historiography, Waner et al. take Morison to task on several of the battle’s details, but do not argue with the general narrative.
Outside of Savo Island, USN surface battles are fortunate to have one work published about them. Balikpapan, Java Sea, Sunda Strait, Cape Esperance, First and Second Guadalcanal, Tassafronga, Komandorski Islands, Vila-Stanmore, Kula Gulf, Kolombangara, Vella Gulf, Vella Lavella, Empress Augusta Bay, Cape St. George, Surigao Strait, and Samar have had less than a dozen books published about them in total. Of these, only four have been published in the last twenty years, with Tully’s Surigao Strait being the most recent. Furthermore, there is only one single-volume work (Vincent P. O’Hara’s The U.S. Navy Against the Axis) published in the last decade that addresses USN surface combat as a whole. Whereas many World War II historians are familiar with names such as Spruance, Mitscher, and Halsey, very few can tell you the role of Ainsworth or Merrill or their importance to the USN’s Pacific campaign. This is an area in which historians could do a great deal more work.
State of the Historiography: The Submarine War
Ironically, given their nickname as the “Silent Service,” USN submariners do not share their surface brethren’s lack of historical representation. There are several reasons for this. First, due to submarine’s impact on the larger war effort it would be hard to ignore submariners’ contributions to America’s victory. Second, many submarine commanders survived to write accounts of their actions for popular works after the war. Finally, as with carrier operations, the glamor and danger of USN submarine operations lent itself well to dramatic, tense movies by Hollywood. This meant that cinema introduced the American populace to submarine exploits through several wartime and postwar movies.
Given this popularity, the USN submarine war has received a great deal of scholarly attention. The first example of this was the USN’s own official history, written by Theodore Roscoe. With the workmanlike title United States Submarine Operations in World War II (later called Pigboats), Roscoe’s book used the postwar Strategic Bombing Survey as well as Japanese records to establish a narrative of submarine operations from Pearl Harbor to the end of the war. Written in dramatic prose, Roscoe’s work served as both a historical narrative and popular text for the American populace.
Despite the popularity of Roscoe’s work, Morison’s discussion of submarine operations overshadowed it. It would be another twenty-six years before the publication of what would become the definitive work on the USN’s World War II operations, Clay Blair’s Silent Victory. Oddly published in both single and dual-volume form, Silent Victory brought together Japanese records, recently declassified information, and Blair’s personal submarine experience to put together a rich historical narrative. Although Blair does not claim that the Silent Service won the war single-handedly, he does make a case that the USN’s submarines’ campaign did more to cripple the Japanese war effort than the rest of the Navy combined. Blair’s evidence is conclusive, and while further works focus on particular aspects of the fleet boats’ campaign, Silent Victory’s narrative is still the generally accepted one.
While Blair’s account fills in most of the submariner’s narrative, as noted above there are many gaps remaining with regards to surface and carrier/air operations. In addition to these, however, there are at least two areas of USN Pacific operations that historians have almost completely overlooked. First, there are no works on USN anti-submarine warfare (ASW) efforts in the Pacific. While many sources have pilloried the Japanese submarine fleet for not conducting an extensive campaign against extended American supply lines, this ignores the I-boats’ stellar performance through the first year of the war. In the first twenty-four months of the war, submarines sank or damaged several major USN combatants (with critical effects on several carrier and surface battles); yet after that point only managed one more major success (CA Indianapolis) while suffering extensive losses. No widely available text or dissertation focuses on this change or how it came about. While some historians have made allusions to this being a result of the Japanese Navy’s decision to use submarines to resupply cut off garrisons, this does not explain events such as the USS England destroying six Japanese submarines in rapid succession in 1944.
Similarly ignored are the USN’s logistical advances that allowed the Pacific Fleet to range the length of the Pacific. Whereas initially the USN had difficulty in supplying much more than fuel oil to individual task forces, by the end of the war the Third/Fifth Fleet was often away from its advanced bases for months on end. Furthermore, while at these advanced bases the USN was able to rearm and provision with such speed that their subsequent operations regularly caught the Japanese unprepared. Therefore the development of underway and in port replenishment operations were critical to the USN’s ultimate success and, by virtue of never giving the IJN time to recoup its aircrew losses, reduced the number of American casualties. Despite this, the only major work on Pacific logistics is Worral Carter’s Beans, Bullets, and Black Oil.
State of the Field
Overall, given these gaps and those outlined above, it would be fair to say that notwithstanding the many works published on the USN’s Pacific Campaign, much work remains to be done. For aviators, a single-volume work that provides a narrative for all five carrier battles is a priority, while research on the efforts of the land-based aircraft is similarly pressing. With regards to surface warfare, more single battle and vessel histories remain to be written. Although American submarines have been well-covered, the efforts to stop their Japanese counterparts are deserving of treatment. Similarly, historians should examine the means by which the USN supplied its widely scattered forces while veterans took part in this effort remain living. Finally, and most importantly, universities that teach military history must begin to give seapower, its theory, and execution the same pride of place given to that of land campaigns and airpower so that historians are inspired to close these gaps. Until then, the USN’s Pacific Campaign will remain subject to a hodgepodge of works that focus on several famous engagements at the expense of presenting a larger narrative.
United States Navy (USN) in the Pacific Bibliography
Astor, Gerald. Wings of Gold: The U.S. Naval Air Campaign in World War II, Presidio Trade Paperback Edition. New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2004; Presidio, 2005.
_____. Semper Fi in the Sky: The Marine Air Battles of World War II. New York: Presidio Press, 2005.
Blair, Clay, Jr. Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan, Volume 1. New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1975.
_____. Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan, Volume 2. New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1975.
Brand, Max [Frederick Faust]. Fighter Squadron at Guadalcanal, Pocket Books Paperback Edition. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996; New York: Pocket Books, 1997.
Buell, Harold L., CDR, USN (ret.). Dauntless Helldivers: A Dive-Bomber Pilot’s Epic Story of the Carrier Battles. New York: Dell Publishing, 1991.
Buell, Thomas. The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, Paperback Edition. New York: Little, Brown Publishing, 1974; Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009.
Campbell, John. Naval Weapons of World War II, Naval Institute Press ed. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985; Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002.
Cook, Charles, CPT, USN (ret.). The Battle of Cape Esperance: Encounter At Guadalcanal. New York: Cromwell, 1968; Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008.
Cutler, Thomas J., LCDR, USN (ret.). The Battle of Leyte Gulf, 23-26 October 1944. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.
Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.
Dull, Paul S. A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy (1941-1945), Paperback Edition. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1978; 2007.
Dulin, Robert O. and William H. Garzke, Jr. Battleships: United States Battleships in World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976.
Evans, David C. and Mark R. Peattie. Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the IMPERIAL JAPANESE NAVY, 1887-1941. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997.
Fluckey, Eugene B., ADM, USN (ret.). Thunder Below! New York: Berkely Caliber, 1992.
Friedman, Norman. U.S. Aircraft Carriers: An Illustrated Design History. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1983.
_____. U.S. Cruisers: An Illustrated Design History. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1985.
_____. U.S. Battleships: An Illustrated Design History. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1985.
_____. Naval Firepower: Battleship Guns and Gunnery in the Dreadnought Era. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008.
Fuchida, Mitsuo and Masatake Okumiya. Midway: The Battle that Doomed Japan, Ballantine War Paperback Edition, 3rd Printing. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1955; New York: Ballantine Books, 1982.
Gailey, Harry A. The War in the Pacific: From Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1995.
Galantin, I.J., ADM, USN (ret.). Take Her Deep! A Submarine Against Japan in World War II. New York: Alonquin Books, 1987; Pocket Books, 1988.
Hammel, Eric. Guadalcanal: The Carrier Battles. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1987.
_____. Guadalcanal: Decision At Sea. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1988; Pacifica, CA: Pacifica Press, 1988.
Holmes, Harry. The Last Patrol, Airlife Classics Edition. Shrewsbury, England: Airlife Publishing Ltd., 1994; 2001.
Hone, Thomas C. and Trent Hone. Battleline: The United States Navy, 1919-1939. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006.
Hornfischer, James D. The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour. New York: Bantam Books, 2004.
Isom, Dallas Woodbury. Midway Inquest: Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007.
Kuehn, John T. Agents of Innovation: The General Board and the Design of the Fleet That Defeated the Japanese Navy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008.
Lockwood, Charles A., VADM, USN (ret.) and Hans Christian Adamson, COL, USAF (ret.). Hellcats of the Sea, Bantam War Book Edition. New York: Greenberg, 1955; Bantam Books, 1988.
Lord, Walter. Incredible Victory, Pocket Books Edition. New York: Harper & Row, 1967; Pocket Books 4th Printing, 1976.
Lundstrom, John B. The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway, 1990 Reprint Edition. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984; 1990.
_____. The First and the Guadalcanal Campaign: Naval Fighter Combat from August to November, 1942. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994.
Miller, Edward S. War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991.
Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Two-Ocean War: The Definitive Short History of the United States Navy in World War II, Ballantine Books Edition. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1963; Ballantine Books, 1972.
O’Hara, Vincent P. The U.S. Navy Against the Axis: Surface Combat, 1941-1945. Naval Institute Press, 2007.
O’Kane, Richard H., RADM, USN (ret.). Clear the Bridge!: The War Patrols of the U.S.S. Tang. New York: Rand McNally & Company, 1977; Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1989.
_____. Wahoo: The Patrols of America’s Most Famous WWII Submarine. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1987.
Parshall, Jonathan, David Dickson, and Anthony Tully. “Doctrine Matters: Why the Japanese Lost at Midway.” Naval War College Review 54, No. 3 (Summer 2001).
Parshall, Jonathan and Anthony Tully. Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005.
Peattie, Mark R. Sunburst: The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power, 1909-1941. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001.
Polmar, Norman. Aircraft Carriers: A History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events, Volume 1, 1909-1945. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2006.
Potter, E.B. Nimitz. Annapolis, MD: 1976.
_____. Bull Halsey. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1985.
Prange, Gordon W., Katherine V. Dillon, and Donald M. Goldstein. At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981; Penguin Books, 1982.
_____. Miracle At Midway. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982; Penguin Books, 1983.
_____. Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986.
_____. Dec. 7, 1941: The Day the Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988; Warner Books, 1989.
Roscoe, Theodore. United States Destroyer Operations in World War II, reprint ed. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1953.
_____. Pigboats: The True Story of the Fighting Submariners of World War II (authorized abridgement of United States Submarine Operations in World War II). Annapolis, Maryland: 1949; New York, Bantam Books, Inc., 1982.
Sherman, Frederick C., ADM, USN (ret.). Combat Command: The American Aircraft Carriers in the Pacific War, Bantam War Book Edition. New York: E.P. Dutton, Inc., 1950; Bantam Books, 1982.
Silverstone, Paul H. The Navy of World War II, 1922-1947. New York: Routledge, 2008.
Smith, Douglas V. Carrier Battles: Command Decisions in Harm’s Way. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006.
Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun , Paperback Edition. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.
Stafford, Edward P., CDR, USN (ret.). Little Ship, Big War: The Saga of DE 343, Jove Edition. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1984; Jove, 1985.
Tillman, Barrett. Clash of the Carriers: The True Story of the Marianas Turkey Shoot of World War II. New York: NAL Caliber, 2005.
Tully, Anthony P. Battle of Surigao Strait. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009.
Tuohy, William. America’s Fighting Admirals: Winning the War At Sea in World War II. St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2007.
Waner, Denis and Peggy Warner with Sadao Seno. Disaster in the Pacific: New Light on the Battle of Savo Island. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1992.
Willmott, H.P. with Tohmatsu Haruo and W. Spencer Johnson. Pearl Harbor. London: Cassell & Co., 2001.
Whitlock, Flint and Ron Smith. The Depths of Courage: American Submariners At War With Japan, 1941-1945. New York: Penguin Group, 2007.
So, as noted by The Prolific Trek, your humble narrator went to go see Star Trek: Beyond (Note: Spoilers) with the better half and a group of friends as a break from his *censored* dissertation. It was a needed break–I feel the urge to be snarky in response to some differing points fading to a dull roar. Editing–it’s not for the faint of heart.
What struck me as I was watching the movie was the writer/writers’ name choices for vessels in the film. Besides the titular Enterprise, there was the space station Yorktown and a U.S.S. Franklin. The historically astute will note that, in order, these names are the most decorated carrier in World War II, the lead vessel of the USN’s famous carrier class (of which Enterprise was part), and the most damaged USN carrier of the entire war. Suffice to say, in the case of the Franklin, the name choice was apt.
This got me to thinking about sci-fi vessel name choices in general. Some are pretty much oddball acronyms–see SDF-1 from Robotech / Macross and the TARDIS. Others appear to have simply been chosen out of a hat (e.g., Galactica or Millenium Falcon) or are clear references to mythology (Pegasus, Prometheus). In any case, it would be interesting to have a round table or panel at a con where folks discuss what ship names and why.
As for myself, starting this week there will be “Warship Wednesday” in which I explain my own naming conventions for the Confederation Fleet and Spartan Republic, discuss various ship classes, and otherwise unpack the Vergassy Universe a little bit. Every few Wednesdays (no I’m not committing to a regular schedule), I will intersperse historical warships from the Usurper’s War universe as well.