From Taranto to Pearl Harbor

The template for the Japanese attack was a little known British victory in November 1940.
Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack
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From Taranto to Pearl Harbor

I’ve always been captivated by the daring and skill of the Fleet Air Arm’s attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto in 1940 and the much larger airstrike on Pearl Harbour, carried out a year later by the Japanese Navy. They were pioneering events that helped establish the supremacy of naval airpower over the battleship.

The Fleet Air Arm attacked the Taranto with just 21 obsolete Fairey Swordfish biplanes, launched from HMS Illustrious. Their target was the Italian’s principle naval base and the home of six battle ships, which posed an immediate threat to British convoys in the Mediterranean. The Swordfish attacked in two waves and despite facing a tremendous antiaircraft barrage sank three battleships for the loss of two aircraft .

The Taranto raid has been overshadowed by Pearl Harbour, but it was the first-time carrier-born aircraft had been used to attack enemy ships in a heavily defended harbor. Although it did not inspire the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor it proved to them that it could be done.

I wanted to make Taranto and Pearl Harbor the set peaices of a novel about America s entry to the war. The problem was how, when they were thousands of miles apart in two and carried out to different navies.

Dusko Popov

The eureka moment for my novel Rising Tide came when I discovered that Dusko Popov, a Yugoslavian national and a key British double agent, not only connected both events but also tried to warn the Americans of the coming attack.

Dusko Popov had originally been recruited by the Abwehr, German intelligence, to run agents in Britain and been set up in an import export business in Lisbon which along with his neutral status allowed him to travel between Britain and Portugal. However he’d been appalled by what he’d seen of the Nazi regime as a student in Germany and switched allegiance as soon as he arrived in Britain.

MI5 seeing the unique opportunity he presented recuirted Popov into their ‘Double Cross System’, that ‘turned’ German agents and used them to feed false information to the Germans. Popov invented a whole network of spies with his MI5 handlers and would travel to London to collect this fake news from Robertson and travel back to Lisbon to deliver the intelligence to his German handlers. All the while worrying that his deception might have been discovered and he would be handed over to the Gestapo.

It was on one of these trips to Lisbon that Popov met up with his friend Johnny Jebsen, a researcher for the Abwehr. Jensen told Popov that he had accompanied a delegation from the Japanese Imperial Navy around the scene of the Taranto attack. They had very specific questions about the methods used by the attacking aircraft and the damage inflicted during the attack. They both agreed this indicated that the Japanses were planning a similar attack, they just didn’t know where.

In 1941 Popov’s German handlers sent him to America, to gather information. He was given a list of questions about America to answer. A third of the questionnaire concerned Pearl Harbor and Hawaii. This included questions about the layout of its airfields, naval defences, ammunition dumps and anti-torpedo nets. This was part of a growing cooperation between German and Japanese intelligence as tensions grew between Japan and the USA in the Pacific. The Germans plan was to keep America occupied in the Far East and out of European affairs. This forms the principle storyline of my novel Rising Tide.

Popov believed that Jebsen’s information and the questionnaire both indicated that the Japanese were planning a Taranto style raid on Pearl Harbor. His handlers in MI5 agreed and arranged for Popov to meet with the FBI when he reached New York. In Rising Tide, the lead character Danial Nichols is wounded during the raid on Taranto and joins Naval Intelligence. He then follows in Dusko Popov’s real-life footsteps.

Popov was met by the FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, “looking like a sledgehammer in search of an anvil”. There was a culture class between Popov a flamboyant playboy and the deeply conservative Hoover, from the beginning. Hoover had a ‘policeman’s’ attitude the Espionage and dismissed his warning and wanted to use Popov as a “honey trap” to catch spies operating in America.

The FBI doubted the authenticity of the questionnaire, believing it indicated too clearly that Pearl Harbor would be the target of an attack and possibly thought it part of a British plan to entangle the USA in the war. The questionnaire had been given to Popov in microdot form, a new technology that could reduced it to the size of a full stop. Hoover and his deputies showed more interest in this technology than the information it contained. Popov was never allowed to travel onto Hawaii and meet up with German spies there. Denied the opportunity to gather further evidence of a possible attack he eventually returned to Europe and went onto play a significant role in Operation Fortitude, the Allied deception plan that paved the way for D-day.

Hoover could be forgiven for seeing Popov’s warning as tenuous, but he’d also received another warning of Japan’s interest in Hawaii from British intelligence. At the beginning of 1941 British censors intercepted clandestine reports sent from New York to Europe via Bermuda. This led to the exposing of the ‘Joe K’ spy ring, its discovery brought to light that the Abwehr had been gathering information on Pearl Harbour’s defences. It was still an ongoing case, that Hoover was personally overseeing, when he met with Dusko Popov.

He failed to connect Popov’s warning with the Joe K spy ring, which corroborated Popov’s story. If Hoover had investigated further he would have prevented the disaster of Pearl Harbor.

But that is not the end of my story. After being rebuffed by Hoover, Nichols takes matters into his own hands and goes onto Hawaii and discovers a conspiracy that threatens to keep America tied up in the Pacific and out of the war in Europe.

Alan Bardos is a novelist and the author of Rising Tide. This article first appeared in Historia.