08 January 2012

After Pearl Harbor Part 5: The First Battle - Coral Sea

Lexington explodes
The series starts here.

[Change of plan - I'm doing Coral Sea and Midway as separate posts and doing a final concluding post]

One of my favourite war novels is called The Sixth Battle by Barrett Tillman. Published in 1993, it revolves around a war in Southern Africa and features a supercarrier battle between US and Russian Eurasian forces. Early in the book, some of the characters are discussing how many battles between carrier groups there have been. Using the definition of a mutual exchange of air strikes, they come up with five, the first two being Coral Sea and Midway.

These two battles would prove pivotal in the war in the Pacific, as well as a much smaller, but no less audacious operation.

The Doolittle Raid

The Americans badly needed a morale boost and they got it on 18 April 1942 via the Doolittle Raid, where 16 B-25 bombers launched off the deck of USS Hornet and bombed Tokyo - a city that the Japanese had previously thought untouchable. It didn't do a lot of damage, but the psychological impact of the raid was immense - on both sides. All of the aircraft were lost - 15 crash-landed in China or ditched in the sea and the other one landed in the Soviet Union (which would remain neutral vis-a-vis Japan until August 1945), where it and its crew were interned. Three aircrew died during the raid, while eight of the others were captured - three being executed and one later dying of disease. Everybody else eventually made it back into operational service - James Doolittle, commanding the raid, ended up getting promoted two ranks to Brigadier General (he would eventually end up a full General) and getting the Medal of Honor.

The raid forced Japan to recall a raiding force from the Indian Ocean and delayed the launch of a new carrier that could have played a role in later events.

Target New Guinea

The Japanese were planning three major operations - against the Aleutian Islands, Midway and Port Moresby, New Guinea (now capital of Papua New Guinea).

The reason for Port Moresby (the offensive was codenamed Operation Mo) was simple - firstly it would provide a base for land-based aircraft to support any invasion of Australia and secondly, it would allow access to phosphate for Japanese agriculture. With the bulk of the carrier forces tasked for the other two, only modest forces were allocated for this particular operation. The invasion force sailed on 1 May, with two fleet carriers (Zuikaku and Shokaku) and an light carrier (Shoho) providing the key part of the strike force, escorting 11 transports that would make the main invasion.

The Americans knew that an attack was coming - they were reading the Japanese naval ciphers and so began to position their forces to counter the attack, two carrier task forces centered around Lexington (TF11) and Yorktown (TF17). They were still taken somewhat by surprise - as they were refuelling on 3 May, the Japanese started to land on Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, which was undefended as the local forces had been evacuated. TF17 heard the news and rapidly turned for Guadalcanal, where it would launch an air strike the following day against the landing force.

42 aircraft struck at the Tulagi landing force, sinking four vessels. It didn't stop the invasion (Japan would hold Tulagi until August)

The IJN promptly sent their two fleet carriers  south and recce planes into the area where they thought that the carriers were, failing to find anything. Each side spent the next three days looking for each other, mostly without success - American B-17s found Shoho but failed to hit it. Japan bombed Port Moresby in readiness for the invasion.

Day One - 7 May 1942

Early in the morning, Japanese patrol planes found something.

Misidentification of enemy vessels is something war games don't simulate enough. This is not just getting the ship name or class - this is completely misidentifying the type of vessel or its side. Easy to do in the dark or at a distance in a time with limited availability of radar (limited to large ships) where most scouts relied on Mark One Eyeball aided by binoculars. In addition, both fleets were 30 miles from each other and neither knew it.

So the Japanese scouts called in a light carrier and so the two fleet carriers launched against it... only it turned out to be a tanker and a destroyer. They disabled the former and sunk the latter, then, after dark started to come into land on what they thought was one of their carriers - only to discover they were trying to land on Yorktown. The Americans didn't realise the situation themselves until the aircraft were on their final approach.

That same day, American planes from TF17 found what they thought were Japanese carriers - but were in fact merchant ships. The Americans launched a strike at it and ran into the Shoho group, sinking the light carrier after a long dogfight, although most of that carrier's aircraft were able to recover to the other two carriers or dry land.

Both sides then held off for further attacks for the rest of the night.

Day Two - 8 May 1942

The second day of the battle began with both sides launching roughly 120 aircraft a piece. The Americans found Shokaku and damaged it at the cost of 43 aircraft. While they didn't sink the carrier, the damage caused made both fleet carriers turn back and resulted in neither being available for Midway.

The Japanese attack was more successful - their strike damaged Yorktown (although that damage was quickly fixed on return to Pearl Harbor) and wrecked Lexington's fuel lines. A chain of secondary explosions led to a conflagration and the second carrier was scuttled.

Both sides broke off at this point - the Japanese no longer had air cover for their invasion fleet and recalled it, while Yorktown made for Pearl.

The Japanese could at least claim a tactical victory here - but it was a pyrrhic one as they would never get near Port Moresby again.

They certainly could not call the next one a victory.

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