Compare and Contrast: Java Sea and Bismarck Sea…and Kendo

Taking place only a year apart, the battles off Java between 27 February and 1 March, 1942, and the air attacks on a Japanese task force in the Bismarck Sea between 2 and 4 March, 1943, could not have been more different in outcome or in net result.  Together, they also serve to show how Japan intended their Pacific War to be conducted: more like a kendo match than a struggle for survival.

The battles around Java took place only weeks after Japan started her Pacific/Dutch East Indies offensive in December 1941.  On 27 February, a Japanese escort of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and fourteen destroyers under Rear-Admiral Takeo Takagi, met a scratch force of two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers and nine destroyers under Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, commanding the naval contingent of the ABDA (American-British-Dutch-Australian) Command that was trying to attack a Japanese amphibious tack force approaching Java in the Java Sea.

The outcome was never really in doubt.  The Allied ships had never fought or maneuvered together; the largest group of them with any coherence was the four ships of the US Navy’s Destroyer Division 58.  The Japanese had trained together for a year, and had already fought two successful actions as a unit.  In a running battle over some seven hours on 27 February half the Allied fleet was sunk and Doorman killed to no Japanese losses.  Next day two of the Allied survivors were sunk at the Sunda Straights by another surface escort, this time two small Japanese ships were lost. At the Java Sea again on 28 February, three more survivors of the earlier battle were lost.  Ten ships and over two thousand men were lost to total Japanese personnel loss of probably less than a hundred.  The Dutch Asiatic fleet and the US Navy’s Asiatic Squadron were irreparably damaged.  The Netherlands never regained its prewar presence in Indonesia.

A year later the tables had turned.  After abandoning Guadalcanal and losing the Papua peninsula, the Japanese planned to reinforce their lodgement in New Guinea by sending a reinforcing brigade to Lae on eight troop transports and eight destroyers out of Rabaul.  The Australian/American Allies intercepted their messages and determined to stop them.

The Japanese convoy’s route was out of American aircraft carrier range, but well within range of medium bombers.  Commanded by Rear Admiral Masatomi Kimura, the convoy was to leave Simpson Harbor on 28 February skirt the northern coast of New Britain and round the island on the eastern end, running in to Lae by 4 March before the Americans knew they were there.  Even so, the Imperial High Command only believed the odds of success were about 50-50.

The Allies knew where the Japanese were most of the time due to their network of aerial observation, radio intercepts, coast watchers and submarine patrols.  By 4 March only 1,200 of the 6,700 soldiers that left Rabaul had arrived at Lae, and the rest were either killed in the five destroyers and eight transports sunk by American and Australian aircraft, or had gone back to Rabaul in the one destroyer that turned back.  The Allies lost less than twenty men.  In two days of free-for-all attacks on the convoy. Australian Beaufighters had strafed with 20 mm cannon, PBYs had dropped bombs, and medium bombers had strafed and skip-bombed their way into the history books as the second sea fight fought primarily by land-based land force aircraft (the first was when the Japanese sank HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales 8 December 1941).  The Japanese, as a result, elected not to reinforce New Guinea through Lae again.

Looking at these two actions, one is struck not only by the reversal of Japan’s fortunes in the Pacific War, but by the reasons for it.  Neither action depended on or were affected by the fast Japanese carrier forces–the Kido Butai— that had been devastated at Coral Sea and Midway.  So, was the Bismarck Sea fight affected by the loss of the Japanese carriers just three months after their decisive win around Java?  On the outside, no.  But Japan’s attitudes towards the war were.  At Midway, the Japanese task force turned around and went home after the fourth carrier was sunk.  Why?  They had nothing to do with the landings, and by some analyses the landing itself was bait for the American carriers.

The answer lies partly in the expectations of the samurai leadership or their Pacific War, and in the sport of wooden swords called kendo.  Japan earnestly believed that the Western powers, once they had felt the devastating power of  Japan’s navy and army, would shrink from any further violence and seek peace.  This, they believed, would take no more than a few months.  When the Allies kept fighting, even after the fall of Java and the bombing of Australia, Japan pushed harder, planning “final blows” in the Solomons, Alaska and the very end of the Hawaiian archipelago at Midway.  When the Americans had the temerity to attack Japan itself with the Doolittle stunt, these plans became reality.

Then came the Coral Sea, and then Midway.  To the samurai mind, their plans failed not because the Americans fought well, but because someone had failed their plans.  Their opponent would not recognize the superior skill of Japan’s sword masters and bow to their inevitable defeat.  The gods judging this global kendo match were not calling their death blows correctly.  Thus, strategically, the samurai leadership of Japan became confused and went into a defensive stance until their opponents grew weary.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look At Japan At War, 1941-45 examines the Japanese war in the Pacific, and how the swaggering swordsmen of Japan decided to take on the whole world.  Available in hardbound, paper and PDF.

The February 26th Incident: A Window on the Samurai Soul

It is sometimes puzzling to the casual observer how very caustic the attitudes of the samurai leadership of Japan were before 1945.  Most non-Japanese would meet the February 26th incident with either blank stares or some attempts at putting the event on some bridge in China or a railway in Manchuria.  Though these events are distantly related, they are not, ultimately, what happened on 26 February 1936.
It was on that day that a faction of the Japanese Army attempted to eliminate their rivals in the military and the government.  The faction, called the Kodo-ha or “Righteous Army” (sometimes, Kokutai Genri-ha, or “national principle”), was composed primarily of company grade and junior field grade officers who were convinced that the country had strayed from the traditions of the Meiji Restoration of 1876, and that the Emperor should return to direct rule, instead of governing through a constitution or a parliament.  This would restore national prosperity, return Japan to its rightful and natural place in the scheme of the world, and enable Japan to purge itself of all evil western influences.
It was easy for the rest of the Army to oppose this movement, partly on the basis that many of the “western influences” that enabled Japan to even get a seat at the table of negotiations with the United States and Great Britain were not on the list of “evil” that the faction decried.  Like many radical movements, parts of it simply don’t make any sense.  But others, like ensuring the Emperor’s peace of mind, carried the seeds of samurai arrogance that wished to spread beyond the bounds of the Home Islands.
The attempted coup failed after some four days of tension and violence, but not before the murder of two former prime ministers, Takahashi Korekiyo and Saitō Makoto, and a number of others.  The secret trials took eighteen months.  Nineteen of the conspirators were executed.  But rather than have any thought of a Showa Restoration be extinguished, it became what could be called today a meme, if a false one.  The Army would use the idea that everything they would do right up to 1945 was in the name of, and for the well being of, the Emperor.  Unfortunately, Hirohito was more than willing to go along with whatever they wanted, aware that there was not a lot he could do to stop it.  If provoked, the samurai leadership would either assassinate or imprison him, name his young son emperor and place some general in place as regent (as had happened to his father, the Taisho).  It would be 1945, under the direct threat of invasion of the home islands, before Hirohito would cast caution aside and stop the militarists by withdrawing his support for their actions.
What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan At War, 1941-45 examines the consequences of an isolated society dominated by a subgroup that saw themselves as “moderates” if they only wanted to exterminate one neighbor, as opposed to the “extremists” who wanted to dominate a third of the world.  Available in hardbound, paperback or PDF.

Kasserine: The Battlefield Experiment

There’s a great deal of confusion about the first major ground fighting between the Germans and Americans in Tunisia.  There is a distinct impression that it was one decisive, smashing battle, brilliantly executed by Erwin Rommel, the vaunted and fabled Desert Fox commanding the undefeated Afrika Korps, who humbled his primary opponents, American Lloyd Fredendall commanding US II Corps, and Englishman Kenneth Anderson, commanding the Allied First Army.

While Rommel did indeed plan the fight, for once he couldn’t do what he wanted to do.  It was his plan to severely drub the Americans in western Tunisia so he could fight Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army to his south.  But he an his men had been fighting more or less non-stop since September; his desert veterans were mostly gone.  In their place were replacements: capable, but not as savvy as the men who lay across a dozen battlefields from El Alamein to Tunisia.  Rommel himself was ill with a debilitating nasal condition that would compel his evacuation.  Since he failed, after a week of fighting, to completely eject the First Army from the Atlas Mountains, his attack only delayed the inevitable,.  The inevitable it was becoming clear, was the ejection of German and Italian forces from North Africa.
But American battle performance had been abysmal.  The 1st Armored Division’s M 2 tanks were completely outclassed by the German Pzkw IIIs and IVs; the M 3 tank’s riveted hull was poorly protected, even if the 75 mm main gun was better than most German tank guns in North Africa.  American infantry dug slit trenches instead of foxholes, could not (or would not) advance without considerable support, and generally acted like…green troops.
But they did not melt away, as British, French, Polish, Dutch and Russian troops did at first contact with German veterans.  At the end of the battle, a consolidated artillery group under the command of Stafford Irwin was able to pin down enough German assets forward to effectively starve them of ammunition and fuel, halting the offensive.  For the first time, American insistence on firepower and the Anglo/American polar plot fire control system combined with Anthony McAuliffe’s time-on-target barrage technique brought the German attacks to a halt.
As Rick Atkinson made clear in An Army At Dawn, the first clash at Kasserine was a portent of the future.  The Americans may not have been the best infantry in the world, but they were some of the most persistent, and they did have the best artillery fire control in the history of land warfare.  The Americans had fared poorly in nearly every “first battle” in every war they had ever fought.  But at Kasserine, the artillery that would mark their performance in future was consistently superb.

Two Events, One Result, Neither Planned

A century after the fact, we have to reflect on the German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare on 18 February 1915, and the British official release of the Zimmerman Telegram text to the United States on 23 February 1917 two years and five days later as little more than a coincidence.  At the time it was little remarked on, but still it gives pause, and raises a question: what joins these two events?

The answer is American relations with Germany.  By the end of 1914, it was clear to German planners that their earlier calculations for army planning and fleet building were based on gross miscalculations.  The army was too small to fight France (and its colonies), Russia and the British Empire all at once, and once Belgium was added the ground manpower advantage was nearly 3:1 against Germany.  Their long-dead architect of the “beat France, then Russia” motto of German strategic thinking, Alfred Von Schlieffen, would have been aghast at Helmuth von Molke’s dilution of the first offensives of 1914, and the arrival of a strong BEF at the frontiers had been, in his time, impossible to predict.

Worse, Alfred Von Tirpiz’ “risk fleet” theory that kept the German fleet just large enough to worry but not (theoretically) threaten Britain depended on a Royal Navy close blockade of the European coasts, so that the occasional German sortie could thin them out.  But, this didn’t happen.  This meant that German warships would always be outnumbered, and that the distant blockade of Europe, from the outset, was more effective at denying Germany vital foodstuffs and raw war materials.  While Europe could withstand a protracted war, Germany could not, either by design or by temperament.

But Britain was also dependent on food and raw materials from overseas.  In declaring that her submarines would no longer be bound by “cruiser” rules, Germany expected to be able to warn neutrals off of carrying cargoes to Britain, and to sink enough imperial shipping to bring Britain to the conference table with more sensible demands.  Though some Germans, notably Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, also felt that such a move would antagonize the United States, the risk was worth the gain…if it worked.

Unfortunately, a lucky shot on 7 May 1917 brought forth the very worst in the Americans.  Off Old Kinsale Head, Lusitania caught a torpedo from U-20 and sank, killing over a thousand people, including over a hundred Americans.  Germany had promised it would observe cruiser rules in regard to the fast liners; in turn, Lusitania was listed on the German identification books as a merchant cruiser or troopship (which she was to become had she survived).  Who was at fault here?

The American public and President Woodrow Wilson said Germany was.  After the sinking of Arabic with the loss of three American lives on 15 August 1915, the German government demanded that submarines observe cruiser rules with all ocean liners, and on 18 September the Imperial High Seas Fleet withdrew the submarines from commerce warfare.

American rage over policies “worse than piracy” lingered, for the most part, until Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare again on 1 January 1917.  But shortly afterwards, the Americans and British, at about the same time, became aware of a German plot to involve Mexico in a war against the United States.  The German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmerman, transmitted a telegram to the ambassador from Germany, Heinrich von Eckardt, In it, Zimmerman mentioned a plan for Mexico to go to war against the United States, with German help, so that they could reacquire lands that the Americans had won in the Mexican War four generations before.  On 23 February 1917, the British Foreign Minister, Arthur Balfour, delivered the text to the American ambassador to Great Britain, Walter Page.

It has been claimed that a precursor to the National Security Agency had already intercepted the cable (sent through a diplomatic wire via New York) and was waiting for the British to say something official.  In the shadowy worlds of signals intercept and wartime diplomacy, this is credible.  But the reaction to the content, when released to the public on 28 February, was nothing short of astounding.  Germany at first denied it, but finally admitted that the message was genuine.  But it had all the international credibility and validity of a treaty scribbled on a cocktail napkin.  Nothing was settled, Mexico had no knowledge of the overture and had not solicited any such alliance or agreement.  But the die was cast, and the road to war for America was, from that time onward, short.

Verdun: Operation Judgement

Erich von Falkenhayn’s offensive of 1916 was aimed directly at the traditional invasion route between the Rhine and Paris.  The area had been used often enough that the area called the Heights of the Meuse were heavily fortified by the French over the years to have culminated in a series of forts that, if nothing else, put the entire Meuse-Rhine plain under observation for artillery.

The German plan was simple: take the forts, make the French commit their strategic reserves protecting the route to Paris, build up behind the bulge, press on to Paris in the summer months until France gave up and march home in triumph before fall.  The strategic motivations, however, were far more complex.  German agriculture was suffering under the loss of so much of its manpower, and was sorely affected by the British blockade–far more than Germany could withstand.  Though Germany had suffered less than had Britain and France in the battlefields, combined the Allies had far more manpower than did the Central Powers.  Germany, the most powerful of the Powers, was in the second year of a war she had anticipated would last two months.  Knocking France out of the war was the key to Germany’s survival.

On 21 February, the Germans unleashed their Fifth Army on the French Second Army manning the nineteen fortresses of the Verdun complex.  The first French fort to fall, three days later, was Douaumont, the largest and highest of the outer ring forts, by a small German raiding party.   Even though it had been unoccupied for months, the French were scandalized, and in Gallic rage they threw more and more men into the face of the German offensive.

While most scholars feel that this was the German intention all along, German military theory and doctrine never, ever had attritional battle in mind.  Prussia/Brandenburg, the font of Imperial German military tradition, never had the numbers nor the temperament for a drawn-out brawl, and always preferred maneuver–preferably to encirclement–to merely adding up casualties.  Tannenberg, the August 1914 double-envelopment of the Russian Second Army in East Prussia, was far more to Prussian/German liking than was the long slog of Verdun.  It is likely that post-Verdun German commentators merely claimed that attrition was the German plan all along, when in truth the French defense, orchestrated by Robert Nivelle, was more persistent and successful than they had imagined was possible.

Verdun would rage on unabated for ten months, consuming the lives of some three hundred thousand men out of the million committed, and occupying the full attention of over a hundred divisions. It would have been impossible for the rest of the world not to notice, and it would have been impossible for the Americans not to look on in horror, and in contemplation.  American military men may have been forbidden by President Woodrow Wilson to prepare contingency plans, but that did not prevent preparedness plans from being put into action with some urgency.  The Plattsburg Movement, a civilian-driven (if military favored) program of camps that trained young collegians in various places in the country, had finally come to fruition in the National Defense Act of 1916, that created the Army Reserves.  Approval of NDA 1916 and the increase in American preparedness had been spurred, in part, by the specter of the 2,300 French and Germans casualties About a regiment) every day on the Verdun front alone.

Two years after the worst of the fighting at Verdun had been concluded, the Americans were fighting to throw the Germans out of some of the 1916 gains at the Meuse-Argonne.  This battle was the largest American campaign between Appomattox in 1865 and the invasion of Sicily in 1943.  Wiley-Blackwell’s A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, edited by Ed Lengel, contains an essay by John D. Beatty entitled “We Can Kill Them But We Cannot Stop Them: An Evaluation of the Meuse-Argonne,” which looks at American performance there, and the influences of American preparedness before 1917.  Available in hardback and E-book from fine booksellers everywhere.

Argument and the Death of the Luftwaffe Fighter Force

By late February 1944, the Bomber War over Europe had reached a crossroads.  Despite the large raids and the horrendous casualties (one in three Allied bomber crewmen became casualties in 1943), the Germans were still able to damage each attack.  Even though neither the Americans nor the British had been turned back an attack because of enemy action (weather often, but never because of German attacks) morale was less than good; for some units, the crews were merely going through the motions.

But the Luftwaffe, too, was suffering.  They had withdrawn their units from France almost entirely, and pulled back the fighters from Russia, Italy and other fronts to concentrate the interceptors in Germany.  Though the Allied bombers had not yet done a great deal of damage to industry, cities like Cologne and Hamburg had been devastated by heavy and methodical raids that were almost like laboratory experiments.

The Allied planners, starting with “Hap” Arnold and Jimmy Doolittle, had been storing up their strength since the disasters of Munster, Regensburg and Schweinfurt in the late summer and fall of 1943, they had been looking for a long period of clear weather over the North Sea and Germany to unleash the collective strength of four Air Forces (Eighth and Ninth US Air Forces and Bomber Command in England, Fifteenth US Air Force in Italy) against the German aircraft industry, using the bombers as bait for the German fighters.  Although the German fighters were not the menace to the bombers that antiaircraft artillery was, and the bombers were not as good at shooting down interceptors as prewar planners had hoped, the Allies had long range fighters like the P-47 Thunderbolt and the P-51 Mustang, and by January 1944 the had enough drop tanks for both so that deep penetration escorts were possible for sustained periods.  All the planners needed was good weather.

And so it was the weather forecasters that became the unsung heroes of the air war in Europe.  Using data from as far away as Archangel, the Black Sea, northern Canada and the Northern Cape of Norway, by mid January the weathermen (and a few women) were looking for a hole in the perpetual overcast.  By mid-February (sources vary, but operational orders went out to the ammunition dumps as early as 15 February), using some intercepted Russian and German data, they predicted clear weather over both the North Sea and Germany at the end of the month for as much as four days.  Operation Argument was on for 20 February.

The clear weather lasted five days.  The Americans and British launched over 3,000 sorties, lost over three hundred bombers and over thirty fighters.  The Germans over three hundred aircraft and about a hundred pilots.  But these are the raw numbers, and they don’t tell everything.

American losses represented about 7% for each mission, contrasted with 33% just five months earlier.   The Allies lost replaceable aircrews at infantry scales while training programs were pushing out pilots and crewmen with three hundred hours or more in the air as fast as the airplanes were rolling out of the factories.

The German losses were about 5% of the fighter force, but of those nearly half were Experten–aces.  Between them, these aces alone had destroyed over three thousand enemy aircraft between 1937 and 1944, from Ethiopia and Spain to Russia and Norway. But the Germans were losing their most experienced flyers, leaving behind frightened children of seventeen and eighteen who barely knew how to find their home fields, and tired old men in their mid-twenties who could fly and navigate, but were not as good at killing and at most had fifty hours of flying before they went out to meet the enemy.

The Luftwaffe was never the same after Argument, though by most measures the Allies barely won the campaign.  The Bomber War dragged on for another year and some, but German fighter strength never fully recovered.   Crop Duster: A Novel of WWII is the story of two pilots–one American and one German–who fought the Bomber War before the Big Week in February 1944.  Available in paperback, PDF and e-book at fine booksellers everywhere.