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Posted on Jun 26, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

Defending the Imperial Fortress

By Arrigo Velicogna

The theory put to test

The first test for the new strategic and operational approach was operation Flintlock, the American assault on the Marshall Islands. And from the start the Japanese theotheory went wrong. Instead of assaulting all garrisoned atolls and islands in the chain the Americans landed only on relatively few and, more importantly, they entirely skipped the strongest garrison located on the eastern atolls concentrating instead on the central and western ones. The massed airpower of the American carrier task forces quickly overwhelmed the Japanese land based one during the operation. In addition to these “peripheral” attacks a massive carrier raid on the main Japanese base in the South Pacific, Truk, neutralized the base in a single stroke gutting in the process precious merchant ships and hundreds of planes.


With operation Flintlock and Catchpole (the Truk raid) not only was the outer perimeter pierced in a single (and not even costly) blow, but the main Japanese bastion in the South Pacific area was military crushed and the entire Caroline island chain, now useless without the threat of Truk to subsequent offensives, deleted from the list of American objectives while still figuring on the list of areas to be defended by the Japanese.

In a single brilliant stroke Admiral Nimitz had proved wrong the basic tenets of the Japanese defensive strategy. Still the Combined fleet was unscathed due to the decision to withdraw it from Truk after the fall of the Marshalls. Thus the Imperial Navy was still persuaded that its strategy was feasible and so its devotion to the concept of the decisive battle.

In the meantime even the Imperial Army were feeling the faults ingrained in the accepted strategy. In New Guinea General MacArthur was implementing a modified version of Nimitz’s “Island Hopping” approach, bypassing the strongest Japanese garrisons and instead isolating them and forcing them into starvation via air and naval blockade. He quickly neutralized some considerable concentrations of Japanese field forces without even engaging them directly.

Of course, once deprived of the air and naval link between the strong points, links removed with the decision to withheld the bulk of these resources for the defensive battle, the entire perimeter was untenable, but even the basic assumption that the outer perimeter was to drain enemy resources was proving faulty when the enemy decided to take some risks and bypass them. In the end the outer perimeter was more a drain of Japanese resources than anything else.

The next massive allied move was in June with operation Forager, the invasion of the Mariannas islands. This time the target was well inside the inner defensive perimeter to warrant the employment of the combined fleet in its entirety. Again the flaws of the strategic and operational approach were fully evident. The considerable land based air assets based on the Mariannas were wiped out without being able to inflict damage on the American fleet and, more importantly, their offensive strength wasted in uncoordinated attacks before the combined fleet was even on the scene. Worse of all, the local commanders lied to Admiral Ozawa (the commander of the fleet) about losses and results, so when his aircraft reached the targets they were simply slaughtered by the American air defenses. And the submarine attrition played on the US side when two Japanese carriers (the newly commissioned Tahio and the veteran Shokaku) were torpedoed and sunk.

The results of the both the air-naval engagement and the landing on the Marianna Islands were unmitigated disasters for the Japanese. The inner perimeter was broken and, for the first time, their civilian population (in Saipan and Tinian) were witness to the defeats.

Alternative solutions

Still, even if in the end the battle of the Philippine Sea and the landing on Saipan, Tinian and Guam were to be the tombstones over the entire Japanese strategy of attrition and the concept of decisive battle, the Navy was unmoved and even the army was forced to accept it (not that the army wasn’t devoted to the same offensive spirit, but for the entire first half of the war it has been more prudent than the navy and shown a little more restraint in attaching itself to strategic or operational “truths”). Of course the Navy was aware of the shortcomings of the recent battles, but the fixes made were more a regression to its glorious past than true solutions.

First of all was the return to the big guns theory of pre-Midway times (in part due to the depletion of both available flight decks and trained carrier pilots) and again a leaning toward overly complex (I would say “oriental”) plans instead that the more streamlined (and cost effective) approach championed by progressive minded officers like Admiral Ozawa.

And, worse of all, there was a collapse of the strategic thinking of some key individuals from one devoted to win (or at least reach a favorable settlement) to one to die in glory.

All of this was made while the US Navy was changing the rules and previous assumptions of naval warfare maintaining powerful fast task forces at sea for long periods of time and using them to deal efficiently with the remaining Japanese airpower. In October the last true hope for a real balanced fleet was shattered when the navy command bit the American bait and dispatched its last batch of carrier pilots to operate from Formosa Airfields. Again the admirals underestimated the new capabilities of the American fast carrier forces. If the battle of Philippine Sea hadn’t changed the Imperial General Staffs’ minds, Formosa had to be the last straw, but it wasn’t the case. Again the Navy prepared for another decisive battle; this time in the Philippines.

And this time besides their planes, big naval guns and Long Lance torpedoes the Japanese would have unleashed their last secret weapons: the Kamikazes.

But the underlining truth was that the Navy was unable to learn from its previous mistakes. No effort was put to revise plans and doctrinal tenets and the Kamikazes were more an acknowledgment to the superiority of the American air Defenses than a real effort to turn the tide.

Map of the Leyte Gulf naval battle; the map clearly shown how unsupported were the 4 different Japanese formations and how the Japanese had planned a pincer movement on the invasion beaches

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