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Lessons from the Last War at Sea Pt 1

September 14, 2009
Japanese Baka rocket-powered suicide plane. Photo credit Max Smith

Japanese Baka rocket-powered suicide plane. Photo credit Max Smith

Often overshadowed by the ship against ship fights of the Pacific War is the 1945 Battle of Okinawa. Though there were some enemy ship sorties in the struggle over the last Japanese island fortress before the homeland, these were small compared to the sea fights at Coral Sea, Midway, or even Guadalcanal. The real contention was on the ground but also in the air between the suicidal pilots of the Kamikaze, the Divine Wind, and the fully expanded US Fleet, the latter possessed of seemingly limitless power but forced to fight the greatest struggle in her long history. In the book Shield of the Republic, Michael T. Isenberg describes for us the Kamikaze as the Emperor’s forlorn hope:

The damage they inflicted came close to canceling out the entire operation. The toll, in this crimson dawn of guided missile warfare, was bone-chilling. Off Okinawa, the kamikazes caused far more havoc than Pearl Harbor had. They damaged 368 ships and sank 36. The naval carnage included the deaths of 4907 officers and men, six hundred more lives lost than the Army total for the entire battle and two thousand more than the Marines.

By mentioning the “guided missile” the writer brings the carnage home to us today. In this new era of push button warfare, it is the guided missile which gives the admirals the most concern. Whether fired against naval aircraft, cruise missiles launched against ships, or even now the dreaded and apparently invincible anti-ship ballistic missile, there is even a greater risk for the surface Navy today. In Battles Lost and Won, Hanson W. Baldwin carries this comparison further:

The kamikaze attacks on the fleet off Okinawa could be described as the preface to the missile age. The kamikazes, and particularly the baka bomb, were in a sense guided missiles, with human guidance mechanisms. They clearly foreshadowed the new menace to the surface man-of-war which has now, two decades later, come to fruition with the development of the homing missile.

Operation Iceberg, the invasion of Okinawa, was an 82 day battle lasting from March to June, 1945. It was the largest amphibious assault of the Pacific War, involving 40 aircraft carriers, 18 battleship, 32 cruisers, 200 destroyers, and 1400 aircraft. In support were troops transports, supply ships, mines ships, submarines, landing craft, ect. for a total of 1500 ships and 182,000 troops.  Only 340 miles from Japan, it was considered a crucial stepping stone in any future invasion plans of the home islands.

After destroying 500 enemy planes on nearby Kyushu, the carriers were steaming for home on 19 March 1945 when they were found by a flight of Japanese bombers. The Enterprise, Wasp, Yorktown, and Franklin were all hit, but only the latter vessel grievously so. Two 500 pound bombs enveloped the flattop in flames, and though she was saved, it was at a cost of 1000 casualties including 724 dead. On the 11th, the carriers were again attacked, with Enterprise and Essex taking damage, plus many escort ships.

The Kamikazes began on March 31st, with the flagship Indianapolis struck. The first major attack and also the largest was a wave of 355 suicide planes that assaulted Task Force 58 on April 6,7. The destroyer radar pickets took the brunt of 182 planes. Fortunately this day the line held, but at the cost of 3 destroyers and over a dozen support ships sunk, plus many other damaged.

From March 23-April 27, the USN deployed up to 16 fast carriers, 18 escort carriers, and 4 armored carriers, the latter from the British Royal Navy’s Task Force 57

USS Franklin (CV-13) burning and listing after a Japanese air attack, 19 March 1945.

USS Franklin (CV-13) burning and listing after a Japanese air attack, 19 March 1945.

Besides the thousands of aircraft loaded on ships for defense, there were also thousands of anti-aircraft guns from light-weight 20 mm Oerlikons to the formidable Mark 12 5″/38 caliber gun. Still hundreds of suicide planes slipped through.

The small ships on the picket line took the brunt of the attacks. Most ominous was the baka bomb, a jet powered kamikaze able to fly at 500 knots with a horrendous 2645 warhead. An attack by this weapon on the destroyer Abele on the 12th caused the ship to disintegrate with 100 casualties.

Another “small boy” was more fortunate, at least in not sinking. On the 16th the destroyer Laffey contended with 22 attacks and was struck by 6 Kamikazes. Even so, the stubborn greyhound managed to shoot down 9 enemy planes and limped back to port with 31 dead and 72 wounded. Repaired, Laffey enjoyed many years of service and is still in existence today as a museum ship in Charleston Harbor!

Tomorrow-A battle for the future.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 15, 2009 3:22 pm

    Thanks Tarl. This is my feeling as well. I had always thought the RN would have been better off with more of the excellent Ark Royals which herself escaped sinking numerous times. As the Americans found out, a good damage control team was often as good as extra armor, and the wooden decks could be repaired very quickly. This was proved with the Yorktown just making it to Midway, and with the Enterprise numerous times at Guadalcanal. A ship in rough but operational condition but present, was better than an armored ship in drydock. The Mediterranean experience of Illustrious also came to mind, for the fact this essential capital vessel, though it survived the German Stukas, was out of action for a year.

  2. Chuck Hill permalink
    September 15, 2009 12:23 pm

    Tarl, thanks, great comment.

    I know that in the first half of the war, before lend lease American aircraft started arriving in numbers, that the British carriers frequently went to sea with fewer aircraft than their already limited capacity and that their launch rates were also very low.

    Then of course there were the aircraft themselves like the Fulmar.

  3. Tarl permalink
    September 15, 2009 11:11 am

    Glad to see you included reference to the Brits who gold plated, er, armor plated their carriers and showed us how to build them properly.

    Properly? I don’t think so. Here are two excellent critiques of British carrier design. Selected quotes:

    “In fact, the British designs failed. Off Okinawa, the resistance of the British carriers seemed impressive but in reality the damage they took was severe. Having the hangar inside the hull girder made the hull structure weak and the ships were deformed by comparatively minor damage. Note how quickly nearly all the armored carriers were scrapped postwar – surveys showed they had irreparable hull damage. In contrast, the Essex’s, which suffered much more severe damage, lasted for decades.”

    “In Nelson to Vanguard, D.K. Brown critiques the choices made by designers of aircraft carriers. “I would suggest that both the RN and USN were right for the wars they planned to fight, the RN in narrow seas, facing shore-based aircraft while the USN expected to engage the Japanese fleet in the open Pacific.”1 Defenders of the armor-box carriers inevitably cite these differing scenarios as justification for the Illustrious design, yet they do so without Brown’s support – his comment was directed toward the question of open hangars versus enclosed hangars, and he is no defender of the armored box. He states outright that his choice for a British carrier design in that period would be an improved Ark Royal.2 The armor-box hangar, for all its legendary virtue, never justified the legend.

    The box armor requirement dragged a crowd of design burdens on its coattails. Stuart has addressed the unforeseen structural issues. Lift configuration, freeboard, habitability, ship’s speed – the box restricted them all. But the salient fact, overshadowing all others, was the limit it imposed on air complement. Here, however, a fundamental misconception has clouded the armor debate; the leadership’s decision for smaller air groups preceded the flight deck armor, a feature subsequently superimposed on the preliminary design work.3 These two steps, though distinct, became inseparably meshed in the design’s wartime shortcomings and thus must be considered together. The small-group specification put the ships at an initial disadvantage, and the armor then canceled any hope for a remedy, cramping the hangars and reducing the space available for deck parks.”

    “So the armored box’s primary achievement in this narrow-sea setting was to detonate the two Formidable and Illustrious bombs high in the hull, which certainly enhanced survivability, though not in the way the designers intended. The hangars and their planes suffered increased damage, but crippling damage to the vitals became less likely. There’s no debating the advantage of this; yet debate continues, and properly so, because of the extra ounce of prevention the ships could have enjoyed with a larger CAP. Accepting a small fighter group meant accepting a greater probability of bomb hits, with the hopes of minimizing the damage those bombs caused – a strange set of priorities. Of course, the carrier’s escorts might dispute the entire notion of minimizing the damage – the armored box did them no good, in contrast to the universal blessing of a hefty CAP. And hangar armor, unlike fighters, could never counter a flight of torpedo planes. However, British planners had not foreseen that fighter interception would become an effective defense against fast, modern aircraft.

    Apart from this self-defense issue, a Yorktown-sized air group would have greatly increased the ships’ offensive capability. With a larger airgroup, how much more could the British have accomplished at Taranto? Would Vittorio Veneto have survived Matapan if attacked by twice as many Albacores? Throughout the campaign, British carriers suffered from limited offensive muscle, which in turn allowed the enemy to retain a greater ability to strike back. The armored carrier design seemingly argued that the best defense was a weak offense.”

    “It was in the open waters of the Pacific, late in the war, that the armored flight decks encountered a threat they could defeat – the kamikaze.14 The ensuing “sweepers, man your brooms” publicity properly underscored the potential benefits of flight deck armor, but also obscured the actual record; the Royal Navy’s own survey cited the flight deck armor as instrumental in defeating only one kamikaze. Even so, popular acclaim singled out the armor factor when the full story was much more revealing.

    The British received relatively tame treatment from the kamikazes, as noted in David Hamer’s overview of the Okinawa campaign: “The Americans were operating four times as many fast carriers as the British, and the weight of Kamikaze attacks against them was many times greater again: ten Kikusui (massed suicide attacks) being flung against them whereas there were no such attacks on the British carriers.”15 A tally of Japanese aircraft lost during this time illustrates the disproportionate burden; the American TF 58 (including fifteen fast carriers) destroyed 1,908 Japanese planes, while the British TF 57 with its four fast carriers managed only 75 kills.16 Despite this glaring disparity, kamikazes damaged four carriers in each task force – every British carrier suffered at least one hit. The only armored carrier to reach war’s end without kamikaze damage was Implacable, which arrived on station at the end of the Okinawa campaign. What would have become of the British carrier fleet if it had faced the same intensity of attack as the Americans? The prospects are sobering.

    The frequency of hits on British carriers did not equate to extensive casualties, and the hangar armor certainly saved lives once a plane actually struck, at least in one instance.17 But again, armor was not a solitary factor in limiting the casualties. The British never faced the prospect of a kamikaze hit amid an American-sized crowd of armed and fueled aircraft.18 The restricted air group had this ironic side-benefit; it provided less kindling in case of fire. Avgas storage, a proven killer of carriers, was severely limited19 as was aircraft weaponry.20 In this case, the fact that Illustrious presented a lesser threat to the enemy also made her a tougher target – analogous perhaps to sending a battleship into action with only a few rounds of ammunition in hopes of preventing a magazine explosion. Unlike a battleship, though, a fully stocked aircraft carrier can shoot down the enemy “shells” before they reach striking range.

    So the Mediterranean experience recurred in the Pacific, with the ships showing occasionally increased resistance to hits that an enlarged fighter group might have prevented altogether. By this time, however, no one doubted the value of fighter interception. Brown puts it in simple terms: “More fighters would have been better protection than armour.”21 Without an advantage in defense, the armor-box layout could not justify its weaker offense. British planners, seeing the correlation of America’s open hangars and offensive muscle, turned about-face in their final fleet carrier design of the war, the Malta project. Initially featuring the hangar armor of its predecessors, Malta eventually abandoned not only the armored box, but all flight deck armor and even the enclosed hangar itself.22

    Debates over the armor-box carriers can take many forms, focusing on the flight deck in particular, the armored box in general, the very concept of an enclosed hangar, or the entirety of the ship design. Discussions can account for external factors such as FAA mismanagement and radar advances, while noting the ships’ commendable war record and their inglorious postwar lingering. While the Illustrious design within its 1930’s context remains subject to varying critiques, it’s clear that in wartime the armored box limited the ships both offensively and defensively – and found no vindication during World War II.”

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 15, 2009 10:11 am

    Consider it done Chuck! And I’ll have more thoughts on the British armored carriers tomorrow!

    Here is more:

  5. Chuck Hill permalink
    September 15, 2009 2:20 am

    Can I delete that last paragraph? Rereading I see Mike had noted that.

  6. Chuck Hill permalink
    September 15, 2009 12:36 am

    Glad to see you included reference to the Brits who gold plated, er, armor plated their carriers and showed us how to build them properly.

    When a suicide plane hit the deck of a CVE there was a good chance it would sink. When one hit the deck of a US CV it was a month or two in the yard. When one hit a British carrier, it was, “Sweepers man your brooms.”

  7. September 14, 2009 10:22 pm

    Thanks for that. I like that web site.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 14, 2009 4:22 pm

    Thats right elgatoso! Thanks.

  9. elgatoso permalink
    September 14, 2009 4:00 pm

    Small and not transcendent correction:The real name of the rocket powered human-guided anti-shipping kamikaze attack plane employed by Japan towards the end of World War was Yokosuka MXY-7 Ohka meaning cherry blossom.Baka is a Japanese word meaning “fool; idiot; foolish”.The United States gave the aircraft the nickname Baka.

  10. Anonymous permalink
    September 14, 2009 2:09 pm

    Reminds me of my conversations with those who went south in ’82 and had the pleasure of playing goalie in lumpy seas while the carriers hardly bucked….

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 14, 2009 1:19 pm

    Hudson, the small boys as they were called took the brunt of attacks at Okinawa, sparing the bigger ships. Because we no longer believe such vessels have a place in modern war at sea, in a future conflict there, the larger ships will face the brunt of attacks, and I’m afraid the losses among them will be far greater.

  12. John Dykstra permalink
    September 14, 2009 12:14 pm

    Small correction – the Baka bomb was rocket powered not jet.

  13. Hudson permalink
    September 14, 2009 10:39 am

    One lesson that should have been learned from the Battle of Okinawa was the value light ships, mainly DEs, screening the capital ships in the center of the fleet. Most of the ships damaged or lost were DDs and DEs, that put up a wall of fire (if you have ever seen footage of that battle) including proximity shells fired from the 5″ guns. Still, the losses were horrendous as detailed above.

    I don’t know if today’s Navy has forgoten those lessons in defending the carriers at the center of the battle group with so few escort ships, or what. The Navy sounds very confident about its ability to defend its ships in the event of attack by salvos of missiles and other weapons. Maybe they know something we don’t. Maybe they are over-confident and need to invest in a more layered defense of smaller escort vessels at the periphery.

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