The Battle That Never Was
By MacDonald Reid
The greatest naval victory in American history occurred in the battle that never was. On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked the sleeping American fleet at its base in Pearl Harbor. However, was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor a colossal strategic error? If the Japanese had waited for the American Rainbow 5 war plan to follow its course, could they have sunk the American fleet and won the war?
The first modern battleship was the USS Nevada (BB36). She was the first to eliminate the mid-ship turrets common to all the Dreadnoughts. Nevada's bridge and gun turrets were concentrated amidships, shortening the length of her armored belt, bulkheads and decks. The weight saved was converted into increased thickness of her armor, making her more survivable in battle.
Nevada was also the first ship to have more than two guns in a turret. Her forward and aft deck-level turrets each mounted three 14"/45 guns. The two superfiring turrets contained only two guns, giving Nevada and her sister ship Arizona (BB37) ten heavy guns, protected by a shorter but heavier armored belt. This layout became know as the Standard battleship. The seven battleships that followed were improved versions, either in their guns or their armor.
Colorado (BB45) was first major departure from Standard. She and her sister ships were armed with four turrets of dual 16"/45 guns. The South Dakota class would have been improved Colorados, armed with four turrets of triple 16" guns.
In 1923, the Washington Naval Treaty limited the numbers of each nation's ships, the sizes of those ships and their weapons. America's South Dakotas and all but two battlecruisers were scrapped. Lexington and Saratoga were saved by converting them into aircraft carriers. Japan's ambitious "8-8" program was terminated. The battlecruiser Hiei was converted into a training ship. Like the Americans, the Japanese saved two of their capital ships, Kaga and Akagi, by converting them into aircraft carriers.
The Washington Naval Treaty deterred the international naval armaments race for several years. Then, in the late 1920s, Japan came under the control of the Army and renewed its quest to dominate the East. In the 1930s, Japan reconstructed all of its battleships and battlecruisers, in defiance of international treaties.
Fuso, Yamashiro, Ise and Hyuga were old-style dreadnoughts that mounted six turrets of paired 14"/45 guns. Their hulls were lengthened and bulged. Their armor protection was increased by 3,500 tons, as permitted by treaty. Their machinery was upgraded to maintain their 25-knot speed. When completed, Fuso and Yamashiro displaced 34,700, while Ise and Hyuga weighed in at a whopping 36,000 tons, well above the 35,000-ton treaty limit.
Nagato and Mutsu, armed with four turrets of paired 16.1"/45 guns, were similar to the American Colorados. As rebuilt, these 39,100-ton, 25-knot behemoths were the largest and fastest battleships in the world.
The Japanese also had three 27,500 ton battlecruisers, laid out like the Nagato battleships but armed instead with 14"/45 guns. Their sister ship, Hiei, had been converted into a training ship in compliance with the Washington Naval Treaty. Beginning in 1933, all four were reconstructed to turn them into 30-knot, 33,500-ton battleships. When these modernizations were completed, every Japanese battleship and battlecruiser was larger and faster than every American battleship.
In 1937, America responded by laying down two modern battleships: North Carolina (BB55) and Washington (BB56). Commissioned in mid-1941, these 28-knot, 37,500 ton battleships were armed with nine 16"/45 guns in three triple-gun turrets.
But Japan was determined to become the dominant naval power in the Pacific. In the greatest of secrecy, Japan laid down the super battleship Yamato. Displacing 67,000 tons, Yamato was armed with nine 18.1"/45 in three triple-gun turrets and could achieve speeds of 27 knots. Commissioned in December of 1941, Yamato was bigger in every way than any battleship before or since.
Consider what might have happened, if the Japanese had not attacked Pearl Harbor. On December 10, 1941, Japanese forces would have invaded the Philippines. Japan would have seized Guam on December 11; landed 100,000 troops at Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines on the twenty-second; invaded Wake Island on the twenty-third and captured Hong Kong on Christmas Day.
The American War Plan
The American war plan called for the fleet to sail to the Philippines, destroy the Japanese fleet and rescue General MacArthur's beleaguered forces.
The Japanese War Plan
Neither the American war plan, their fleet's disposition nor its time of departure was a secret. The Japanese had long known of the American Rainbow 5 war plan. Their agents on Hawaii would have counted the numbers and types of ships, noted their departure times and informed the Japanese government. The voyage across the Pacific Ocean would have taken up to three weeks, depending upon their exact route and upon the weather. The Japanese had reconnaissance aircraft on Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines. Vice Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto and his fleet would have been prepared
The American Fleet
America had 12 elderly, Standard battleships and two new ones. Of the eight stationed at Pearl Harbor, Nevada, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Arizona, California, Tennessee, Maryland and West Virginia were equipped with steam turbines, giving them a range of 12,000 nautical miles at 15 knots. Unlike her turbine-powered sisters, Oklahoma had retained her triple expansion steam engines. Although she could have sailed with the fleet, her engines were less economical and more prone to breakdown on long voyages. The Standard battleships New Mexico, Idaho, Mississippi and Colorado and the dreadnoughts Arkansas, New York and Texas were needed in the Atlantic. Although North Carolina and Washington had not yet completed their shakedowns, they could have arrived in Hawaii by mid-January, 1942.
An American battle fleet consisted of these eight old and two new battleships would have mounted ninety-two 14" and thirty-four 16" guns. At that stage of the war, no American battleship was equipped with radar fire control.
Of America's seven carriers, Lexington, Saratoga and Enterprise were already stationed at Pearl Harbor. Ranger was on duty in the Atlantic; Wasp in the Caribbean. Newly commissioned Hornet had not completed workups. Yorktown could have arrived in Hawaii by mid-January, 1942.
These four American carriers could have mounted an air group of some 306 aircraft, typically consisting of 126 Grumman Wildcat fighters, 90 Douglas Devastator torpedo bombers and 116 Douglas Dauntless scout/dive bombers. The Wildcats were faster than the Japanese "Zeke", dove faster, had better guns and armor, and had self-sealing fuel tanks. The Devastators had good range, but were slow, somewhat fragile and easily shot down. The Dauntless was a rugged aircraft, with good range with a reasonable bomb load.
American pilots were good, but untested. American air-to-air tactics were obsolete and based on the unfounded assumption of American superiority. American mechanics and deck crews were good but used to the slower pace of peace time.
The Japanese Fleet
The backbone of the Japanese fleet was their six modernized battleships. Because of the major reconstructions of Fuso, Yamashiro, Ise and Hyuga completed in the 1930s, they were evenly matched against the Standard American battleships in both their armament and armor protection. Nagato and Mutsu had the same armament as Maryland and West Virginia, but with much heavier armor protection. The four Japanese battlecruisers were unmatched by anything in the American fleet.
Then there was Yamato, which was commissioned in December, 1941. Under desperate circumstances, the British had deployed the unfinished battleship Prince of Wales to combat Bismarck. Would Vice Admiral Yamamoto would have been equally desperate to include the world's largest and most powerful battleship in the most important battle in Japan's history?
The six Japanese battleships and four battlecruisers mounted eighty 14" and sixteen 16" guns. Yamato was armed with nine 18.1"/45 guns. Although the Americans had the numerical advantage in the number of 14" and 16" guns, the Japanese would have had an insurmountable advantage if Yamato could be committed to battle.
Most importantly, the Japanese had an enormous speed advantage. Their six battleships were approximately five knots faster than the eight Standard American ships. Their four battlecruisers were two to three knots faster than the new American ships. The Japanese could force or decline battle on their terms.
Japan had more aircraft carriers with more aircraft than the Americans. They had six top-of-the-line carriers: Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu, Soryu, Zuikaku and Shokaku. Their combined air group had 432 aircraft consisting of up to 162 Mitsubishi A6M ("Zeke") fighters, 135 Nakajima B5N ("Kate") torpedo bombers and 135 Aichi D3A ("Val") dive bombers. In addition to their big carriers, Japan had two smaller and slower carriers, Ryujo, with 37 aircraft, and Zuiho, with 30 aircraft.
The Japanese "Zeke" (Zero) was nimble, climbed well and had great range. However, it was lightly armed, poorly armored and did not have self-sealing gas tanks. "Kates" were the premier torpedo bombers of their day. "Vals" were equal to the Dauntless. The only shortcoming of either of these aircraft was their lack of self-sealing gas tanks.
Japanese naval airmen were the best in the world. They were experienced veterans. They knew their aircraft and how to fly them. They were under no misapprehensions regarding the relative performance of their machines in comparison with the American's. Their maintenance personnel and deck crews were battle trained and used to the higher paced tempo of war.
Battle in the Philippine Sea
By February, 1942, the Japanese had long-range bombers in the Philippines, Guam and Wake Island. They would have observed the American fleet's voyage across the Pacific, attacking whenever possible. Although carrier-borne fighters would have protected the US fleet, these raids would have forced the Americans to maneuver at high speed, wasting valuable fuel reserves and possibly scattering their ships. Most importantly, the Japanese would have known the exact position, course and speed of the American fleet.
Once they had assembled their fleet, Japanese fast carriers would have launched as many air attacks as possible, concentrating on the American carriers. They outnumbered the Americans and had the advantage of surprise. They could expect to be protected by Japanese Army fighters flying from bases in the Philippines. Further, as long as the Americans did not know their position, the Japanese carriers were unassailable.
When the American carriers were sunk or driven off, Japanese land-based and carrier-based aircraft would have swarmed the defenseless American battleships. These attacks would not only have weakened the American fleet but would have given the Japanese surface combatants time to maneuver into position for the kill.
Even without Yamato, the engagement between the American and Japanese battle fleets would have been one-sided. Vice Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto would have emulated the tactics developed by Vice Admiral Heihachiro Togo in his victory over the Russians at the Battle of Tsushima Straits.
The faster Japanese battleships would have chosen the time and place to close on the remnant of the American fleet. Then, they would have concentrated their firepower on one of the slower American battleships. When they had crippled it, forcing it to slow and fall behind the rest of the American fleet, the Japanese would have withdrawn to a safe distance.
The Americans would have tried to protect the damaged ship. However, by doing so, they would have slowed to the speed of the crippled vessel, increasing the Japanese fleet's principal advantage. Further, by defending their damaged sister ship, the Americans would have reduced their battleships' radii of action, compromising their defense and preventing concerted offensive actions.
The Japanese would have taken full advantage of the tactical situation. Using their speed, they would have darted into range and to concentrated their firepower on yet another American battlewagon. By ignoring their own losses and concentrating on the destruction of their enemies, the Japanese would have annihilated the American fleet one ship at a time, just as they had done to the Russian fleet in 1905. Yamamoto would have sought to cross the Americanís T, delivering a coup de grace worthy of his hero.
North Carolina and Washington would have used their 28-knot speed and 16" guns to defend the slower and more vulnerable battleships, just as the Russians had tried to do at the Battle of Tsushima Straits. Their efforts would have been stymied by the four Japanese battlecruisers. These two American ships could not have defended themselves as well as the Standard battleships from the faster Japanese battle fleet.
The battle that never was would have been short and decisive. Four of America's aircraft carriers and ten of her battleships would have been sunk in the Philippine Sea. More than thirty thousand American sailors would have died. United States naval power in the Pacific would have ceased to exist.
Freed from the threat of American naval power, Japan could have completed its conquest of China, French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies. They would have defeated the Australians, wrested India from the British and seized Suez to link up with their Italian and German allies. Together, the Axis might have conquered Russia. And, then ...?
Fortunately, that is not what happened. Of the six American battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor, four were raised and made major contributions to the war effort. Neither Lexington, Saratoga nor Enterprise was damaged. Lexington would be lost at Coral Sea, repelling a Japanese invasion force. Saratoga and Enterprise would participate in the greatest naval campaign in history and survive the war.
American was victorious in World War II because it won the greatest naval battle that never happened.