Evan Mawdsley on Supremacy at Sea

Evan Mawdsley

The historian discusses the naval war in the Pacific theatre during WW2.
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Evan Mawdsley, by mid-44 in what state was the Imperial Japanese Navy?

In May 1944, the commanders of the American Pacific Fleet thought that it was unlikely that the IJN would sortie from the Philippines to defend the Marianas Islands. This was due to their estimate of the state of the Japanese fleet. The enemy were inferior in warships of all types, they had lost use of forward bases at Truk and Palau, and their oiler fleet was now much reduced. The Japanese, however, believed that their First Mobile Fleet, supported by island-based planes of the First Air Fleet, would be able to win a decisive victory which would change the war’s course. In any event the leaders of the IJN thought that the loss of the Marianas would be fatal to the Japanese war effort. They hoped that the longer range of their carrier planes and availability of airfields like Guam in the Marianas would allow shuttle tactics. This would allow the launching of air strikes against the American fleet without fear of retaliation. In fact the Japanese was indeed outnumbered and outclassed. Waves of attacking planes were destroyed, mostly en route to the American fleet, without causing significant damage. Although part of the Japanese fleet was able to return to its bases after the battle, losses in ships and carrier aircraft had been decisive.

The US Navy increased its number of carriers from six in 1942 to 18 in 1944. Was it sheer industrial might that meant the odds were weighted heavily in favour of the Americans?

It would be wrong not to take into account the great numerical advantage of the United States  in 1944, after six years of shipbuilding activity (since 1938)  and two years of Japanese losses. Japan was not prepared to fight a long war with an industrial super power. In mid 1944 the Americans had seven new heavy carrier of the “Essex” class, while the Japanese had only one new heavy carrier commissioned after December 1941 (Taihō). The US ships had better radar and communications systems, and by the 1944 it had a superior “fleet train” of oilers and other supply ships. All of this was made available by industrial might, but the quality of training, especially of the air groups, was also of great importance.

What was the advantage US carriers had over their Japanese equivalents?

The American “fast” carriers carried considerably larger air groups that their Japanese counterparts. The three big carriers that the Japanese had on hand at the Battle of the Philippine Sea  (Shōkaku, Taihō and Zuikaku) newly built and well designed ships, and Taihō had an armoured deck. American carriers, however, had better radar, better antiaircraft guns and gun directors, and better damage control. The last was a particular weakness of the Japanese ships, two of which were destroyed by  internal explosion during the battle, some time after they had been torpedoed by U.S. Navy submarines.

What made the naval campaign in the central Pacific during the first part of 1944 so effective? 

The campaign was effective because the U.S. Navy was by this time quantitatively and qualitatively superior to the Japanese. It had developed powerful amphibious forces. Its carrier planes were able to “neutralise” enemy air bases. Islands had been seized in the Marshall Islands, notably at Majuro and Eniwetok, well to the west of Hawaii. With the help of the service squadrons (“servrons”) effective advanced bases been developed there. The commanders of the Japanese Navy realised at the end of 1943 that they would have to fight a defensive war. They prepared plans to create a system of air bases, and a special air formation, the First Air Fleet. Unfortunately for them, they were given little  took time to train aircrew and finish their island bases. The U.S. Navy kept the initiative, and Japanese enemy were constantly kept on the back foot.

What was the talent level in command of the Task Force?

The commanders of the fast carrier force in 1943-44 were generally very able. Task Force 58 was made up of several “task groups”. Most of the task group commanders had trained as aviators in the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the other flag officers involved had some aviation training, albeit received in the later year of their careers; this was true for Admiral King in Washington, Admiral Halsey in the South Pacific, and Vice Admiral ‘Ted” Sherman. In contrast Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance had no pre-war experience with aviation, but he proved from the middle of 1943 to be was an effective overall commander of the Central Pacific Force (later redesignated as the Fifth Fleet). He had shown an ability to adapt in the later stages of the Midway carrier battle. “Pete” Mitscher, in command of Task Force 58, was a veteran “aviator” and an able and aggressive commander. The task group commanders were able and for the most part aggressive. There were, however, exceptions. Some officers could not take the stress of command and had to be transfer to posts away from the front line. These included Rear Admirals Pownall, Ginder, and Harrill. Some criticism has been levelled against Admiral “Bill” Halsey, but on balance he was a aggressive and inspiring leader who led elements of the fleets from the beginning of the war until the end.

How had naval warfare changed during the Second World War, so that by ’44 we see huge distances between fleets?

The carrier war was profoundly different from what had gone before. The attack range of aircraft was several hundred miles, and battles were now fought far beyond the range of the heaviest artillery. From the time of the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 the major fleets did not  come with gunnery range of one another.. Battleships, which had been the preeminent naval weapon before World War II were now used primarily for antiaircraft defence, costal bombardment, and the refuelling destroyers while underway.

Was it the effectiveness of the USN that left the Japanese to resort to kamikaze attacks?

Yes, the Japanese realised that the effectiveness of American task force defences (fighter planes, antiaircraft guns, and radar) were so powerful that conventional attacks were almost “suicidal”. The Japanese had always been prepared for one-way missions, for example the midget submarine attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Faced by the situation of mid 1944 they now adopted them on an operational level.  The kamikazes were put into action from October 1944 onward. They were not able to sink large armoured ships, and with the lack of after-battle intelligence the Japanese exaggerated the success of their attacks. But because of the kamikazes losses of smaller ships and the death and injury of American personnel was much higher than it had been in the Central Pacific in the first half of 1944.

What are you working on next?

As an historian I have never been narrowly focused on one subject or period. Originally, I worked on Russia, latterly in 1941-1945. For the last fifteen years I have written about World War II in general (rather than just on the Russian front). Most recently I have concentrated on maritime aspects. Having finished The War for the Seas and Supremacy at Sea I am taking a break to think about options. One is another naval subject; another is a British topic and one that takes in another long-term interest, urban history.

Evan Mawdsley is the author of Supremacy at Sea: Task Force 58 and the Central Pacific Victory, published by Yale University Press.