The Conquering Tide – Ian W. Toll

The War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944

This is the second volume in a projected trilogy on WWII in the Pacific.  It follows his book “Pacific Crucible” which deals with the early stages of the war – primarily the battles of Coral Sea and Midway.  This book goes from the Guadalcanal invasion to 1944 and the conquest of Saipan.  This would allow the start of the B29 strategic bombing offensive against Japan itself to begin.

This period is the ‘swing period’ of the war.  The Japanese started with a significant advantage in trained pilots and the initiative that let them attack peacetime garrisons and weak and unprepared foes.  After a few months, the Allies started to get their bearings and start to be able to contest the Japanese fleet, especially when divided.  The battle of Midway ended the period where the Japanese could realistically continue expanding in the Pacific, but the US still needed time to collect their forces, get them into the battle.

That is the period discussed in this book – the US seizure of Guadalcanal was risky, as the Japanese could strike hard at the protecting naval forces and the troops, but the air base on the island increasingly took its toll on the Japanese ships and planes.  Surface actions came frequenty, from the disaster at Savo to others that were more even or even victories.  But regardless, the Japanese could not push the US away, and every month brought the arrival of massive US naval forces closer.

The US Navy (with some significant Commonwealth help, especially the Australians) needed time to gain experience meeting the Japanese, and took their lumps.  But every Japanese ship damaged or lost was gone for good, while the US kept getting more ships.

Finally, the US forced the Japanese out of the Solomons, and then began the Central Pacific offensives at Tarawa, Kwajalein and finally Saipan.  By this point, the Japanese Navy is hardly a threat to the assembled fleets – the latest battle was the famed “Marianas Turkey Shoot” where the air force was crushed and the newest Japanese carrier blew itself up from fuel fumes more than US bombs or torpedoes.

The book is big enough to give a more thorough treatment of the campaigns than standard one volume histories.  It has a little of the view of the Japanese side, but it is more the US view of the war than trying to show what both sides were doing equivalently.  Hopefully the third volume continues at this detail rather than slide off when the war gets totally one-sided as often happens.  I look forward to the third volume with some interest, as I am reading more about this part of the war these days.

Utah Beach – Joseph Balkoski

Utah Beach is a companion volume to the author’s previous Omaha Beach. Like its companion, it follows the first day, June 6, 1944 on this second American Beach in detail. It moves from conception as a late addition to the invasion to widen the front to the end of the first day.

The terrain at Utah was not as imposing as Omaha, with its high cliffs, but in many ways less suitable for an invasion. There was a fine beach, but the land behind was so low and flooded that all traffic inland had to cross narrow causeways.  These could be defended by as little as a handful of men with some guns indefinitely.  The planners tried to avoid this by having two airborne divisions drop behind these causeways at night before the invasion and seize the inland end that night to keep defenses from being set up.  So in addition to the complexities of a naval invasion of a defended coast, the plan needed to add airdrops and plans to relieve these troops as soon as possible.

Mass airborne attacks were a new thing, and like most new things they did not go off as planned.  There were high winds and mistakes in locating the landing zones that led to the two divisions being scattered all over the region.  While not as bad as the debacle in Sicily the year before, a confused series of battles broke out as the two airborne divisions landed in the middle of two German divisions. While the confusion in the US troops was considerable, with units in the wrong locations and often fragments of the planned size, the Germans found the situation incomprehensibly confusing, as there were pockets of paratroopers all over the place.

The dawn invasion did not go off like clockwork either.  The tides led to the landing craft drifting a mile off course.  This meant that units were not at the planned locations, so that attacks had to be reorganized on the fly.  Luckily, it was quickly done and the fire on the beaches was much less than at Omaha.  It was easier to reorganize without the severe losses at that beach, but it was just as essential to clear the beaches and move inland.

When the nearest causeways were reached, they found that the airborne forces had managed to regroup in the night and take the far end, allowing the troops to move inland rapidly and rescue the isolated paratroopers farther inland.

The first day lodgement was six miles inland, and would expand deeper when pockets of the 82nd Airborne were linked up with.  Casualties were only 800 for the sea landed forces – but the airborne forces lost but when you add in the airlanding the losses rise to 3450 men,  about half dead or captures.  This is approaching the losses at Bloody Omaha beach that same day.

Now for the Contest – William H. Roberts

Coastal and Oceanic Naval Operations in the Civil War

This book is part of, and may well be the last of, a series called “Great Campaigns of the Civil War”.  Each book takes a major slice of the war and treats it as a whole, at a higher level than usual studies – tying in political and strategic elements instead of tactical ones.  The books are short, a few hundred pages, but they still have a lot of information in them.  Thinking it over, the only major campaign not covered is Gettysburg and the autumn 1863 Virginia campaign.  Others could be the Transmississippi and the March through the Carolinas, I suppose. I don’t think the Peninsula and Seven Days are covered either, come to think of it.  Maybe there’s more life in the series than I thought.

It is a very good series, especially if you don’t want to dive into a few 500 page books to cover the same period, as each covers several battles

This volume is about the blockade and the Confederate raiding and blockade running efforts.  There is the usual discussion of the few battles, but more of the emphasis is on the Union production of ironclads and the Confederate efforts to have raiders and blockade busting ships built in Europe.  Similarly, as much time is spent describing life on the blockade and how the fleet tried to trap runners as is spent on one of the rare ship-to-ship battles.  It is a nice switch of emphasis that makes this book seem fresh.

Vanished Kingdoms – Aragon

This is latest chapter in Norman Davies‘ Vanished Kingdoms, about forgotten states in Europe.  Aragon is at least somewhat more familiar from the Christopher Columbus tale.  Its origins go back for centuries before that.

When the Moslems conquered Spain and drove on into France, most if not all of the original political rules were tossed aside.  Turned back at the battle of Tours, the Moslem tide receded and was pushed back.  By the time of Charlemagne in 800 AD, they had been pushed over the Pyrenees   Under lesser rulers this could not be sustained, and soon the mountain region gained its independence from both states and several tiny mountain states formed in this contested region.

With time Moslem power continued to wane and these border states expanded south.  Aragon did as well, and then unified with the County of Barcelona to reach the coast.  It basically covered current Catalonia, plus a smidgen of France north of the mountains.

Squeezed out of facing the Moslems, expansion began overseas. First the Balearic Islands were taken, then Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, Southern Italy and parts of Greece were taken into this naval empire.  But by the 1450s, attention began to shift to Spanish unification and then to the New World, and the island empire began to fall away.  This got even worse as the Hapsburgs took over Spain and most of Europe and in the reaction other nations began to detach these parts, and Aragon descended into just another province in Spain.  Even when resentment led to revolts, it was called Catalan rather than Aragonese.

Pacific Crucible – Ian W. Toll

As you can tell on this blog, one of the subjects I’m reading up on these days is WWII in the Pacific. There was Shattered Sword, a new view on Midway. and a book on Leyte Gulf.  Whichever one started the process, the good books on the campaigns  led me to get another and another.

The Pacific has three phases. There is the early period where Japan ran wild, a ‘swing period’ where the two sides contended on more equal terms, and then the island hopping advance once the US Navy had overwhelming force.  Most histories I’ve seen tend to follow the winners, talking about Japan up to Midway and the USN after that.  I have three books that cover Midway, but none that cover the Battle of Coral Sea or any battle before that.

This book drops right into that gap and it is a good book as well. It follows the Navy as it recovers from Pearl Harbor and tries to learn how to contend with the Kido Butai, the Japanese Carrier Force.  While no carriers were lost at Pearl Harbor, the USN was outnumbered in carriers substantially, they did not have the elite training in operating as a  unit, and the US aircraft were inferior to the point of obsolescence.  This is even aside from the inferior and defective torpedoes that often did not detonate,, due to differences in the sea conditions from where they were tested.

Trying to find ways to hit back and restrict the Japanese advance without losing too many carriers and men in the process was difficult.  If you sat and did nothing, the ships would be just as inexperienced at the next meeting.  If your forces were crushed, there wouldn’t be anyone left to learn from.  It is a difficult balancing act.

So the carriers were sent out to attack bases where the Kido Butai was absent to gain some experience without undue risk.  Then a pair of carriers were sent on the Doolittle Raid.  Again all of these were aimed at hitting where resistance was known to be light.

This period ended with the Japanese plan to invade Port Moresby.  A base there would threaten the link to Australia, and code breakers determined that the two US carriers that could get there would only be met by 2 large Japanese carriers, and the least experienced ones at that.  So the Lexington and Yorktown were sent to face the Shokaku and Zuikaku at the battle of Coral Sea.

As you might expect, it was something of a mess.  Yorktown opened the battle by pasting a base at Tulagi.  This brought the Japanese out to hunt.  Bad spotting reports for both sides led to the US planes to attack the light carrier Shoho and sink her.  This mistake was matched by the Japanese sending a massive strike to a single tanker and destroyer.   The Japanese attempted a second strike at sunset that missed spotting the carriers in the overcast and darkness.  In trying to return, some of these planes tried to land on the US carriers!   Many planes and pilots were lost in the raid to no effect.

English: Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho is to...

English: Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho is torpedoed, during attacks by U.S. Navy carrier aircraft in the late morning of 7 May 1942. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The next day each side launched a full strike, which passed each other on the way.  The US flights scattered, each carrier separate from the others and the torpedo bombers separate from dive bombers.  Partly this was inexperience, partly due to the differing performance of the planes which made it hard to keep together.  The US damaged Shokaku.  The Japanese hit the Lexington and damaged the Yorktown.  Each side retired, and the invasion was cancelled.  So the US force gained its objective.

The two Japanese carriers were out of action for the battle of Midway – Zuikaku due to aircrew losses.  The Japanese did not shift squadrons from carrier to carrier as the US did.   The Lexington sank due to additional damage from exploding gas fumes.  This taught damage control how to minimize this danger going forward.  Yorktown alone was able to be repaired in time to be present at Midway, beefed up by a fresh torpedo squadron.

Damage to the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft ...

Damage to the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier Shokaku sustained on May 8, 1942 during the Battle of the Coral Sea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This turned out to be the difference at Midway.  Yorktown’s planes sank the Soryu, and it took the brunt of both Japanese attacks.  Damage control was so good the second strike thought she was undamaged and struck her again with what turned out to be fatal damage.  Enterprise and Hornet would have been met by two carriers after the first US strike without Yorktown present, and the loss of both would have been likely.

This would have made subsequent operations harder to face with a 2-1 carrier advantage.against us.  As it was, the Guadalcanal operations reduced the fleet down to 1 carrier before the Essex class units arrived in 1943.  The Japanese would have been a lot harder to face in this period without the losses they took in this period and the learning we did in the process.

Notable Historical Trials III – The Bounty Mutineers

“The Mutiny on the Bounty” is a famed incident, although I’m not sure why the collection of breadfruit seedlings should catch hold of the imaginaton.  Perhaps it is because it was such a ‘clean’ mutiny – nobody was cut to ribbons or tossed overboard to drown.  Captain Bligh and many of his followers were allowed to leave in an open boat, after which he sailed on to the East Indes, some 2500 miles.

The mutineers and that remained didn’t fare quite as well – many remained on Tahiti to await another ship and the remaining nine sailed to Pitcairn with a bevy of kidnapped ‘wives’ and guides.  A few years later, most of them were killed when the natives they had been abusing revolted.  Only one European was still alive when they were finally rediscovered.

The trials were interesting, as most of the results hinged on the moment when the choice came to try and get in the boat with Bligh.  Those that tried and were stopped were acquitted.  Those that did not, especially officers, were convicted.  The midshipmen that were convicted were recommended for a commutation due to their youth – in these days a midshipman could be in his early teens.  The sentence was set aside by the King and the midshipmen went on to decent careers.

There was an interesting tale about Heywood, one of the midshipmen and now a Captain, spotting a man appearing to be Fletcher Christian in Plymouth and chasing him down a street until the man escaped.  While it makes a nice story, you’d think that the Royal Navy’s main base would be the last place an escaped mutineer would go, assuming he somehow got back to England.  He probably was one of those killed in the revolt on Pitcairn in 1793.

The Destruction of the Bismarck – Bercuson and Herwig

This book is about the five-day cruise of the German battleship Bismarck from May 22 until May 27, 1941.  The ship, a huge 50,000 ton monster, was the pride of the German Navy and the terror of the Royal Navy, but like many peacetime projects turned out to be rather less effective in wartime.

The operation, code-named “Rhine Exercise” was intended to be a commerce raiding venture, with several ships breaking out into the Atlantic to attack convoys.  But damage to the other ships from previous tries limited the sortie to the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, a cruiser.  Since the point, supposedly, was to overwhelm the possible response with numbers and mass, paring down the attempt to one small group would limit the success you would expect.  And given that battleships invite battles, the thought that the German ships could poke about the North Atlantic and sink cargo ships seems strange.

This uncertainty about the goal persists in the orders.  Previous expeditions had led to Admirals being accused of lack of aggressiveness in engaging the enemy on return. And the Navy was, as a service, desperate to have some success to match those the Army and Air Force were having.  But sending a few vessels with a limited operational range out would surely provoke a concentration of effort on that one opponent.  And so it did.

Reports of the sailing were coming in even before the operation began. Neutral ships leaked info to the British, and planes soon tracked down the ships near Norway, and then spotted the empty harbor after the operation started.  Bad weather made it difficult to track them more closely.

But now the hunt was on.  Light elements spotted and tracked them coming south out of the gap between Greenland.  The first major units, the battlecruiser Hood and the new battleship Prince of Wales met at the gateway to the North Atlantic on May 24.  The Royal Navy, egged on by Churchill to be even aggressive in turn, engaged at once.  The Prince of Wales suffered failures that made it virtually unable to fight due to its newness, and the Hood, its thinner armor no match for the heavy guns of the German ship, took a hit in a magazine and blew up, killing virtually everyone on board.

Tactically, the situation remained unchanged – the German units were located and tracked, and unable to attack commerce until they either evaded or destroyed their opposite numbers.  The British merely needed to assemble enough force to destroy them, or even wait for them to run out of fuel.

Isolated far from any bases, almost any damage would be serious, and the Bismarck had suffered a hit that reduced its already narrow fuel margin. The cruiser was in even worse state, and was released to refuel.  Evading the pursuit, the Prinz Eugen managed to shake the British and get back to Brest, in France.

The Bismarck remained the focus, and soon forces collected for a final battle.  A fortunate torpedo hit by carrier plane crippled the steering, and it was all over but the killing.  The ship was hammered to a ruin and sunk in a short action.

The surface vessels of the German Navy were something of a white elephant. There wasn’t enough of them to really affect the outcome of the war, but they were too powerful to ride out the war in port.  Some were run down and sunk in action, others were bombed in port and sunk there.

An interesting thread in the book was the extent to which the US Navy was ready to confront the Bismarck. Although outmatched, the US sent a fleet with the battleship Texas out to confront it.  If things had turned out differently, this might have been an early ‘Pearl Harbor’ and brought us into open warfare sooner.

Red Sun Setting – William T. Y’Blood

This book is about the Battle for the Philippine Sea, the 1944 battle between the US and Japanese navies.  It was the last true carrier battle in the war, as the losses incurred here made the carriers useless for real attacks.  In the last battle at Leyte Gulf, the surviving carriers were used as bait to lure Halsey away from protecting the transport fleet, as they had few planes or pilots.

The Japanese plan was tempered by the realities of their position.  Their aircrew were inexperienced, and fuel was difficult to get due to the ravages of US submarines.  The carrier fleet had to travel to Borneo to fill its tanks with raw unrefined oil.  It would not have the fuel for the fancy tactics that they liked – a single thrust at the US fleet was all they could do.  Another part of the plan was to move aircraft from other bases to Guam and catch the US between two fires.

The action was triggered by the US invasion of Saipan.  While the invasion proceeded, the US carrier task force bombed the airfields of the islands, and even sent part of the fleet to bomb the bases at Iwo Jima.  This did not knock out the airfields, but many of the aircraft that were supposed to attack the fleet were damaged or destroyed.

The Japanese fleet was spotted by US submarines en route, and the US fleet prepared for the action.  The recovery of the last missions to the island bases required the carriers to steam into the wind, away from the Japanese fleet.  The Japanese expected this and were staying beyond normal range of the US search planes.  When Admiral Spruance decided not to spend the night steaming towards the Japanese, this pretty much assured that he would be taking the first blow.

This advantage was lost due to Japanese inexperience.  Radar picked up the strikes very far out.  Instead of coming in at full speed, the flights had to orbit for a time to receive final strike orders from the flight leader – inside radar range.  This gave the defending fighters plenty of time to reach the strike and attack it well away from the carriers.  Most of the planes were shot down and never returned to the Japanese fleet. The results were so lopsided that the battle was called the “Marianas Turkey Shoot”.

Even more distressing for the Japanese fleet was that they sailed through a submarine patrol zone and two submarines fired at two carriers.  One, the Shokaku, was hit several times and sank.  Even worse was the one hit on the flagship Taiho.  While the torpedo hit did minor damage, blunders in damage control caused fuel and gas fumes to spread through the ship.  A spark set off huge explosions that gutted the ship and sank her.

Late the next day, the US struck back.  Because of the extended range, the attacks were poorly coordinated and hasty, but a third carrier, Hiyo, was sunk and the Zuikaku – the last surviving carrier from the Pearl Harbor attack, was heavily damaged.  A few other ships had slight damage.  Losses to the planes defending the fleet were heavy.

The US planes returned to the fleet in darkness and critically low on fuel.  Admiral Mitscher decided to risk turning on the fleet’s lights in full to aid recovery operations at the risk of attacks by enemy submarines.  In the confused operation, many planes were lost but most of the aircrews were saved.

This brought the battle to an end.  The US had destroyed the Japanese naval aviation, although they did not know it at the time.  Critics thought the carrier operations were a bit too tentative, despite the good results.  Of course, they were to find out that being over-bold can be just as bad in Leyte Gulf.

This is a good treatment of a battle that is usually glossed over in the histories.

Reading Update – February


Notable Historical Trials III
Starting into a chapter on Major Andre, the British officer hung for conspiring with Benedict Arnold.
Red Sun Setting – the Battle of the Philippine Sea
The World War II Naval Battle, often called the “Marianas Turkey Shoot” because of the great success in shooting down Japanese aircraft.  It nullified the value of the Japanese carriers from that point on.  Just starting.
A critical year in the antebellum era as seen through participants. So far it has been pedestrian, with chapters on the Lecompton battle and one on Lee.  I prefer the treatment in the book “1857” so far.  There are chapters coming up on the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  This prompted me to look up the re-enactments that were done in 1994 that are available on the web.
 Guns of Cedar Creek
The 1864 Battle of Cedar Creek.  Haven’t progressed much.
Wings of War – Airborne Warfare 1918-1945
Currently reading about the early German airborne operations in the Netherlands and about to start the Crete operation. 
The Secret War for the Union
Military Intelligence in the Civil War.  A very good book. It gives a lot of credit to Hooker for creating a professional intelligence branch and using it effectively. It turned out that the spy service is not as useful in the heat of battle, and that contributed to his failure. Now the service is helping detect Lee’s march North.
Kindle Books
I re-read most of the H. Beam Piper books and stories.  I started reading “Mysterious Island” by Jules Verne from one of the collections I bought a few months ago.

Notable Historical Trials II – Admiral Byng

This final chapter of the second volume of the Folio Society’s set on historical trials is of Admiral Byng, who was shot on his quarterdeck for not winning a sea battle.  Although this isn’t mentioned in the chapter, at the time the English Navy had adopted a set of rules for battle called “Fighting Instructions”.

These instructions basically were to line up one on one, and if you had extra ships they waited out the battle behind the line.  It more or less assured a drawn battle.  Apparently Byng, who was expected to relieve the English base at Minorca, did an even worse job than usual, only getting a fragment of his line into action at all.  With the French fleet still in action, Byng had to retire.

In his defense, the English were doing their usual thing of not being ready to fight at the start of a war, and when the French took advantage the popular ire was extreme.  Since Byng was a sour old guy, he seemed made to order for scapegoat.  The judges at the trial found him innocent of cowardice, but did find that he had not done his utmost.  The expectation that the King would commute the sentence to avoid death, but he let the execution proceed.

One surviving item from this trial is the quip from Voltaire that England shoots an Admiral every so often ‘to encourage the others’.  Voltaire actually sent a letter from the French Admiral asking that Byng not be exectuted for losing to him.