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

Defending the Imperial Fortress

By Arrigo Velicogna

The result was the same of all other decisive battles. While the stubborn defense put up by the Japanese on the island’s southern half rugged terrain the “massive” counterattack was a disaster. The battleship Yamato was sunk in a suicide mission, the kamikazes failed to sink even one American capital ship and the ground counterattack of the 4-6 May was a waste of lives. In the end the island held on for some weeks until June, but the decisive battle failed to materialize. What was worse was that Okinawa also signalled the disintegration of Japanese morale, both at higher and lower levels. In some instances soldiers (often drunk) forced the suicide (if not committing outright murders) of civilians while in other instances surrendered themselves and civilians to the Americans in direct contrast to earlier instances.


The End, the super battleship Yamato manoeuvring wildly to avoid American air attacks en route to Okinawa

End of an empire

Okinawa was, for many practical purposes, the end of the war. Now Japan was surrounded, its remaining colonies and conquests cut off by a massive air, naval and submarine allied blockade and its cities burned each night as a result of a devastating incendiary bombing campaign conducted by American B29s based on the Marianna Islands. Even in the imperial general staff some voices were now arguing in favor of asking for terms of surrender. But many powerful individuals still weren’t ready for that. While the Foreign Ministry was trying to ask for terms with its ambassador in Moscow the Army and the Navy were gearing up for another decisive battle on Kyushu the southern main island of Japan. Again a determined defense would have paved the way for a massive counterattack that would have undoubtedly trashed the Americans. After that the emperor would have approached an American President debilitated by tens of thousands of KIA and asked for a settlement ending the war with still parts of the empire in Japanese possession.

It’s interesting to note that at this point of the war some real fixes on the tactical doctrine were attempted. First of all priority naval targets were switched from battleships and carriers to amphibious vessel and troop transports and some local Army commanders were eschewing offensive tactics and preferring instead to rely entirely on defense and, interestingly, the 57th Army Commander was acting in direct contravention to Tokyo orders and instead of using civilians as suicide militia, was instead arranging their evacuation from the combat zone both to save their lives and to spare his men the sight of uselessly butchered civilians.

But the last decisive battle wasn’t going to happen. President Truman, hoping to avoid a bigger scale Okinawa, to shorten the war and to scare Stalin dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima. It was the straw that broken the unity of the Japanese leadership. Again the ambassador in Moscow was ordered to seek terms (and again Stalin avoided to communicate this to Churchill or Truman) even if the action was disavowed by the government. Another bomb had to be dropped on Nagasaki.

This time the emperor took the situation in his hands and decided to surrender without terms as asked by the allies. A last ditch effort by some army officers to made a coup and fight to the last was repulsed.

Interestingly enough the Navy commander, Admiral Toyoda was still itching for a decisive battle arguing that the American atomic bombs were in short supply…


61 years after the events it was clear that the entire strategy was wrong like its operational implementation, even the Japanese were forced to realize that this was the case after the Marianna operation, if not after the Truk raid. Still the admirals and later the generals stuck to it with every available means, blindly believing that the decisive battles concept was the only solution. They refused to explore alternative concepts and instead relied on faulty assumptions for too long, even after they were clearly proven wrong. While Americans planners strove to learn from previous mistakes and improve, Japanese ones were still clinging to prewar “truths” for the entire war refusing to alter their way of thinking. Again and again the same errors were repeated.

While Iwo Jima was a relative success the subsequent battle was a reversal to the previous approach. In their ill fated counterattack the Japanese even went so far to employ a battalion size counter landing behind American lines in face of complete American naval and air superiority. It was again a blind adherence to a never questioned doctrine.

In many histories of the war the final Japanese defeat appears preordained by a combination of inferior industrial base and insufficient resources, and by an unmoving American thirst to avenge Pearl Harbor. Still, as demonstrated by the press and public opinion reactions after the bloodbath at Tarawa and Iwo Jima, there was a possibility that a prolonged and successful attrition strategy could have brought Washington on the peace table. But yet the Imperial General Staff (and especially the navy) denied that possibility by itself (while it was the basic tenet of its war policy) allowing an operational mean (the decisive battle) becoming the end of its thinking by itself.

If the conclusion of the Second World War in Asia was preordained it was preordained by the will of the Japanese high commanders to become detached from reality and to become trapped in their own mythology and hopes.

In the end the decisive battle of annihilation sought by the Navy happened, it was the battle of Philippine Sea in June 1944, but the result was different from the navy expected one and, worst of all, they refused to recognize it, forcing a countless series of additional defeats on themselves and on the people that it was their duty to protect.

In conclusion, from a strategic viewpoint, there is no doubt that the performance of the Japanese armed forces in the second half of the war was abysmal and that, despite their impressive achievement in the early part of the conflict and both against Russia and Germany in their previous wars the Imperial Navy and Army were two of the most unsuccessful war machines of the 20th century.

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