After many months of apparently unstoppable Japanese advances a joint American-Australian naval force finally hit back decisively. In the first naval engagement in which the two sides never saw each others ships the carrier based aircraft from USS Lexington and USS Yorktown engaged the Japanese invasion force heading for Port Moresby on New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
The nature of the fighting can be understood from the citation for the Medal of Honor won by Lieutenant John Powers. The determination of the carrier based bombers to press home their attack in the face of sustained anti-aircraft fire was to be crucial to this type of battle:
For distinguished and conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, while pilot of an airplane of Bombing Squadron 5, Lt. Powers participated, with his squadron, in 5 engagements with Japanese forces in the Coral Sea area and adjacent waters during the period 4 to 8 May 1942.
Three attacks were made on enemy objectives at or near Tulagi on 4 May. In these attacks he scored a direct hit which instantly demolished a large enemy gunboat or destroyer and is credited with 2 close misses, 1 of which severely damaged a large aircraft tender, the other damaging a 20,000-ton transport.
He fearlessly strafed a gunboat, firing all his ammunition into it amid intense antiaircraft fire. This gunboat was then observed to be leaving a heavy oil slick in its wake and later was seen beached on a nearby island.
On 7 May, an attack was launched against an enemy airplane carrier and other units of the enemy’s invasion force. He fearlessly led his attack section of 3 Douglas Dauntless dive bombers, to attack the carrier. On this occasion he dived in the face of heavy antiaircraft fire, to an altitude well below the safety altitude, at the risk of his life and almost certain damage to his own plane, in order that he might positively obtain a hit in a vital part of the ship, which would insure her complete destruction. This bomb hit was noted by many pilots and observers to cause a tremendous explosion engulfing the ship in a mass of flame, smoke, and debris. The ship sank soon after.
That evening, in his capacity as Squadron Gunnery Officer, Lt. Powers gave a lecture to the squadron on point-of-aim and diving technique. During this discourse he advocated low release point in order to insure greater accuracy; yet he stressed the danger not only from enemy fire and the resultant low pull-out, but from own bomb blast and bomb fragments.
Thus his low-dive bombing attacks were deliberate and premeditated, since he well knew and realized the dangers of such tactics, but went far beyond the call of duty in order to further the cause which he knew to be right. The next morning, 8 May, as the pilots of the attack group left the ready room to man planes, his indomitable spirit and leadership were well expressed in his own words, “Remember the folks back home are counting on us. I am going to get a hit if I have to lay it on their flight deck.”
He led his section of dive bombers down to the target from an altitude of 18,000 feet, through a wall of bursting antiaircraft shells and into the face of enemy fighter planes. Again, completely disregarding the safety altitude and without fear or concern for his safety, Lt. Powers courageously pressed home his attack, almost to the very deck of an enemy carrier and did not release his bomb until he was sure of a direct hit.
He was last seen attempting recovery from his dive at the extremely low altitude of 200 feet, and amid a terrific barrage of shell and bomb fragments, smoke, flame and debris from the stricken vessel.
Although the USS Lexington was sunk by bombs and torpedoes, and the USS Yorktown seriously damaged, the engagement is regarded as a victory for the Allied forces, leaving them with a strategic advantage. The invasion of Port Moresby was prevented and the Japanese position for future operations was significantly weakened by the loss of the Shokaku and the loss of most of the planes from the carrier Zuikaku .
On 18th April 1942 sixteen B-25 bombers took off from the USS Hornet and headed for Japan. The unprecedented use of medium bombers from an aircraft carrier enabled the surprise attack on the Japanese homeland. Even with modifications and extra fuel the bombers were at the limit of their range and would not be able to return to the carrier. Instead, after bombing, they were to continue their flight over Japan and attempt to land in China or Russia.
When the USS Hornet was spotted by a Japanese patrol vessel the mission was brought forward, and the margin of error in the range was reduced even further. The crews all took off in the knowledge that they were very likely to have to crash land or ditch in the sea.
The raid was led by Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, his post action report was completed in May 1942, by which time he had been promoted:
The first enemy patrol vessel was detected and avoided at 3:10 a.m. on the morning of April 18. The Navy task force was endeavoring to avoid a second one some time after daylight when they were picked up by a third. Although this patrol was sunk it understood that it got at least one radio message off to shore and it was consequently necessary for us to take off immediately. The take-off was made at Latitude 35° 43’N Longitude 153° 25’E approximately 824 statue miles East of the center of Tokyo. The Navy task force immediately retreated and in the afternoon was obliged to sink two more Japanese surface craft. It is of interest to note that even at this distance from Japan the ocean was apparently studded with Japanese craft.
Final instructions were to avoid non-military targets, particularly the Temple of Heaven, and even though we were put off so far at sea that it would be impossible to reach the China Coast, not to go to Siberia but to proceed as far West as possible, land on the water, launch the rubber boat and sail in.
Upon take-off each airplane circled to the right and flew over the Hornet lining the axis of the ship up with the drift sight. The course of the Hornet was displayed in large figures from the gun turret abaft the island. This, through the use of the airplane compass and directional gyro permitted the establishment of one accurate navigational course and enabled us to swing off on to the proper course for Tokyo. This was considered necessary and desirable due to the possibility of change in compass calibration, particularly on those ships that were located close to the island.
All pilots were given selected objectives, consisting of steel works, oil refineries, oil tank farms, ammunition dumps, dock yards, munitions plants, airplane factories, etc. They were also given secondary targets in case it was impossible to reach the primary target. In almost every case primary targets were bombed. The damage done far exceeded our most optimistic expectations. The high degree of damage resulted from the highly inflammable nature of Japanese construction, the low altitude from which the bombing was carried out, and the perfectly clear weather over Tokyo, and the careful and continuous study of charts and target areas.
The best information available from Army and Navy intelligence sources indicates that there were some 500 combat planes in Japan and that most of them were concentrated in the Tokyo Bay area. The comparatively few fighters encountered indicated that home defense had been reduced in the interest of making the maximum of planes available in active theaters. The pilots of such planes as remained appeared inexperienced. In some cases they actually did not attack, and in many cases failed to drive the attack home to the maximum extent possible.
The anti-aircraft defense was active but inaccurate. All anti-aircraft bursts were black and apparently small guns of about 37 or 40 mm size. It is presumed that the high speed and low altitude at which we were flying made it impossible for them to train their larger caliber guns on us if such existed. Several of the airplanes were struck by anti-aircraft fragments but none of them was damaged to an extent that impaired their utility of impeded their progress.
The successful bombing of Tokyo indicated that, provided the element of surprise is possible, an extremely successful raid can be carried out at low altitudes with great damage and high security to equipment and personnel.
Brigadier General, U.S. Army
The full report, detailing the experiences of each of the aircraft taking part can be found at Doolittle Raiders.
In an annex to the weekly Naval Military and Air Reports on the progress of the war, there was was a brief summary of the huge serviceability issues that arose from from warships being at sea for extended periods of time:
Typical Examples of Performance of His Majesty’s Ships.
Between the outbreak of war and 31st December, 1941, H.M.S. Renown was at sea 390 days and during this time she steamed 137,000 miles.
H.M.S. Victorious. Steamed 41,378 miles in the first 8 months of her service. 13,000 miles of this distance were steamed in the first 5 weeks of her service.
H.M.S. Cumberland. Steamed 195,876 miles from the outbreak of war to 31st December, 1941. From 18th November, 1940, to 18th May, 1941, H.M.S. Cumberland was at sea for 206 days out of a total of 213.
H.M.S. Forester. Steamed 172,000 miles during the war up to 31st December, 1941, and was at sea for 601 days during that period. One destroyer flotilla consisting of eight ships passed the million mile mark steaming during the war in June 1941.
One of our submarines covered a distance of 25,800 miles in five months, of which only 40 days were spent in harbour, and these mostly without a depot ship. During that time this submarine went from 660 N. latitude to 260 S. latitude. Another of our submarines spent 251 days at sea in one year of war.
From the Naval Situation Report for the week as reported to the British War Cabinet 19th March 1942, see TNA CAB66/23/9.
The U.S.S. Enterprise had been [permalink id=15118 text=”prepared for war”] even before Pearl Harbour. Now she was in at the start of offensive operations against the Japanese. Now two Task Forces mounted assaults on the Japanese naval garrisons in the Marshall Islands. The raids were a huge boost to U.S. morale and played a part in provoking the Japanese into seeking a major naval confrontation with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific.
Planes from the U.S.S. Enterprise took off before dawn and hit the Japanese bases after 0700. One of the official Action Reports summarises one of the attacks:
As Scouting Squadron Six commenced its attack on Roi, Bombing Squadron Six proceeded southward down the center of the lagoon searching for ships. At 0705 Enterprise Air Group Commander ordered Bombing Squadron Six to attack enemy carrier at Kwajalein Island. At 0725 the squadron arrived Kwajalein Area at 14,000 feet altitude. No carrier was present, but several large ships among the many that were present could easily have been mistaken for carriers in the early morning twilight.
As the squadron approached the target area an umbrella barrage of 3″-5″ A.A. fire was sent up, fuze setting 10,000. This barrage was directly over the anchorage and was not directed at the approaching planes. At the same time heavy machine gun fire was noticed which, of course, was an utter waste of ammunition. Although there was some large caliber A.A. fire from shore guns the greatest volume of fire came from an anti-aircraft cruiser in a central anchorage position. This cruiser was armed with twelve or more large caliber and numerous small caliber A.A. guns, and at least one multiple pom-pom was observed.
As the squadron was cruising in a three division attack formation and squadron doctrine thoroughly covered the situation, a single signal was all that was necessary to launch the attack. This signal was given at 0727, divisions separated, and each section choose a target. Normal dive bombing approaches were used and 500 lb bombs were dropped.
In several cases individual pilots, not satisfied with their dive, or observing previous hits on target selected pulled up and chose another target. As radical evasive action was required to escape the great volume of machine gun fire planes became separated and each pilot made his subsequent attacks individually. In the subsequent attacks 100 lb glide bombing and strafing were employed against smaller ships, large sea planes and shore installations. No enemy aircraft was encountered in the air.
The damage inflicted upon the enemy as observed by pilots and gunners of the squadron are as tabulated herewith.
One 2500 ton submarine sunk.
Large cargo ship fired.
Large cargo ship damaged.
A.A. cruiser damaged.
Two four-engine patrol seaplanes sunk.
Four buildings on Gugegwe Island destroyed.
Two small store houses on Kwajalein Island destroyed.
Three submarines, several ships, radio installation and shore facilities were strafed. A motor launch full of men was strafed. All hands jumped into the water leaving the motor launch running about in circles.
A confidential memo sent to US military commanders on the 27th November had warned them that Japanese hostile intentions were suspected. Prompted by alarming decoded Japanese signal intercepts, the following war warning was sent by the US Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, to all commands:
Japanese future action unpredictable but hostile action possible at any moment. If hostilities cannot, repeat cannot be avoided, the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act. This policy should not, repeat not, be construed as restricting you to a course of action that might jeopardize your defense….Should hostilities occur you will carry out the tasks assigned in Rainbow Five so far as they pertain to Japan
Some commanders took this warning more seriously than others.
When Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey took his carrier group to sea on the 28th, some of his fellow officers thought he was ready to start a war. Many of the men were only prepared for routine overnight operation and a quick return to base. They were quickly advised otherwise:
November 28, 1941
BATTLE ORDER NUMBER ONE
1. The ENTERPRISE is now operating under war conditions.
2. At any time, day or night, we must be ready for instant action.
3. Hostile submarines may be encountered.
4. The importance of every officer and man being specially alert and vigilant while on watch at his battle station must be fully realized by all hands.
5. The failure of one man to carry out his assigned task promptly, particularly the lookouts, those manning the batteries, and all those on watch on the deck, might result in great loss of life and even loss of the ship.
6. The Captain is confident all hands will prove equal to any emergency that may develop.
7. It is part of the tradition of our Navy that, when put to the test, all hands keep cool, keep their heads, and FIGHT.
The aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal had been reported sunk many times by German propaganda and had survived many near misses, including a bombing attack following the [permalink id=9268 text=”Battle of Cape Spartivento”]. She had played a crucial role in the [permalink id=11461 text=”sinking of the Bismarck”]. There were huge risks involved in operating in the Mediterranean, with the almost constant threat of aircraft and U-boats. These risks had been accepted for the latest operation – when Ark Royal had been engaged in flying off more aircraft to re-inforce Malta.
It was on the return journey when she was within sight of Gibraltar that she was finally torpedoed by U-81 at 1534:
When the torpedo struck most of the ship’s company were below decks, working in the hangars, or on watch in the machinery spaces and other compartments. Men off duty were in their messes having tea. Everything was as it had been hundreds of times before. Without any warning the ship was shaken by a violent convulsion. Decks seemed to whip like springboards.
Some of the lights went out and in places near the seat of the explosion smoke gushed from the ventilating trunks. After a very short pause the ship began to heel to starboard, so quickly that at first she seemed to be turning right over.
The torpedo had exploded abreast of the bridge on the starboard side. Here, many decks down and below the waterline, four men were on watch in the lower steering position, main switchboard room and main telephone exchange. The concussion was extremely violent.
The lights went out, oil gushed in, and fumes half choked them as they groped in pitch darkness, up to their waists in a mixture of fuel and water, for the hatch leading to the compartment above. Three men escaped, but Able Seaman E. Mitchell was never seen again.
Captain Maund was on the flight-deck when he felt his ship shudder violently and saw smoke pouring from the bomb-lift doors. As he made for the bridge he thought at first there might have been an internal explosion, as none of the seven screening destroyers had reported a contact. In the very short time it took him to reach the bridge the ship had already listed some ten degrees to starboard, or rather more than the heel of a particularly heavy roll.
His first thought was to take the way off the ship (she was steaming at twenty-two knots), so as to avoid spreading the damage unnecessarily, and to send his crew to action stations; but all communications between the bridge and the rest ofthe ship were severed-no telephone would work, the broadcaster was silent and the engine-toom telegraphs jammed.
Action stations were soon ordered by bugle and word of mouth, but some minutes elapsed before a verbal order passed to the machinery control-room reversed the engines and brought the ship to rest.
A valiant battle to control the flooding was fought below decks in order to bring Ark Royal to a state where she might be towed back to Gibraltar. It was a losing battle and all the men who stayed on board were evacuated the following day just before Ark Royal sank.
Getting a convoy through to Malta was a major undertaking in 1941. Principal responsibility for these operations fell to ‘Force H’ operating out of Gibraltar under Admiral Somerville. This was the largest Royal Navy force operating at the time and was almost continuously in action. They had been called out into the Atlantic in the hunt for the Bismarck where the Swordfish aircraft from HMS Ark Royal had played a crucial role.
In the Mediterranean they faced the continuous threat of attack from aircraft almost as soon as they ventured east of Gibraltar. The careful marshalling of resources was essential but deception also played its part. On the evening of the 24th Admiral Somerville’s flag was raised on HMS Rodney and the band played on the quayside as if the battleship were departing for home. She then sailed westward with an escort of destroyers. Admiral Somerville had in fact remained on HMS Nelson and would lead the main force into the Mediterranean after dark. Those watching from Spain and Algeciras in North Africa were duped for a time. HMS Rodney joined the merchant ships of the convoy and came back through the straits of Gibraltar.
Force H now comprised one aircraft carrier, three battleships, five cruisers and twenty destroyers. The nine merchant ships in WS 11 (Winston Special- the designation given to the most vital convoys) had the most formidable protection available.
Courtesy MaritimeQuest which has a fine collection of images of Royal Navy ships.
After sustaining damage from HMS Hood the Bismarck had reduced speed and range. Yet she had successfully shaken off the Royal Navy ships that had been tracking her on radar and was making for the French port of Brest for repairs. There seemed every prospect that if she remained undetected she could make it to the safety of port.
On the 26th May the hunt for the Bismarck involved every available ship in the Royal Navy. The British Home Fleet under Admiral Tovey led the charge from the North Atlantic ( after a detour north when the probable course of the Bismarck was miscalculated), “Force H” with HMS Ark Royal was coming up from Gibraltar and a large number of other warships had been detached from their Atlantic convoy escort duties and were making their way independently.
But it was a United States Naval Ensign who made the first crucial sighting. The United States, still being neutral at this time, were not taking an ‘active’ part in hostilities. They had attached seventeen airmen to the RAF, partly to assist with the familiarisation with the new Catalina flying boats. Ensign Leonard B. Smith was officially a ‘co-pilot and special observer’. He had taken off from Lough Erne in Northern Ireland at 0325. The long range of the Catalina meant that he was way out in the Atlantic at 1010 when he glimpsed the Bismarck through the clouds. He came round for a closer look – his report shows that he was not taking an entirely, neutral, passive role in affairs:
Upon reaching 2000′ we broke out of a cloud formation and were met by a terrific anti-aircraft barrage from our starboard quarter.
Immediately jettisoned the depth charges and started violent evasive action which consisted of full speed, climbing and “S” turns. The British officer [Dennis Briggs] went aft again to send the contact report. When making an “S” turn I could see the ship was a BB [battleship] and was the Bismarck, which had made a 90 starboard turn from its original course, (This was evident from wake made by his maneuvering), and was firing broadsides at us. The A.A. [anti-aircraft] fire lasted until we were out of range and into the clouds.
It was very intense and were it not for evasive action we would have been shot down. The barrage was so close that it shook the aircraft considerably (one man was knocked from his bunk) and the noise of the burst could be hear above the propeller and engine noise. Numerous bursts were observed at close quarters and small fragments of shrapnel could be heard hitting the plane. The fitter came forward to pilots compartment saying we were full of holes.
As soon as we were well clear of Bismarck we investigated the damage, which consisted of a hole in after port hull (about 2″ in diameter) and one in bottom hull directly below instrument panel (about 1″ in diameter). No other damage was visible at the time. I made short flight test (several turns, checked engines, etc) and finding everything satisfactory returned to area to resume shadow of Bismarck.
It was now only a matter of time before other aircraft could join the scene. The Swordfish aircraft from HMS Ark Royal very quickly joined the battle. Unfortunately they had not been advised that the cruiser HMS Sheffield was on the scene and in their first attack launched all their torpedoes at her. Only good fortune prevented an epic Royal Navy disaster because the magnetic torpedoes failed to explode. A second attack was soon launched, with torpedoes fitted with contact detonators, and this time found the Bismarck. John Moffat was piloting one of the Swordfish as it came round to attack:
In our briefing in the Ark we had discussed coordinating our attack, the first three flights coming in on the port beam from various bearings, with the second wave doing the same on the starboard side. This would help to confuse the anti- aircraft fire and would also make it difficult for Bismarck to manoeuvre into the torpedo tracks.
But it seemed that we had got badly separated in the high cloud; it was utter confusion. I felt that every gun on the ship was aiming at me. It was heading towards us, the lazily spinning tracer from scores of guns coming at us like hail. I do not know how I managed to keep flying into it: every instinct was screaming at me to duck, turn away, do anything – an impulse that it was hard to fight off. But I held on and we got closer and closer.
I went down, as low as I dared, though even that took an act of will to overcome my fear of hitting the rough sea. At training school I had been taught to assess the speed of the ship and lay off my aim by using a simple marked rod mounted horizontally along the top of the cockpit. But the nearer I got the larger the target became, so I decided to aim for the bow.
Then I heard Dusty Miller shouting in my ear, ‘Not yet, not yet!’ and I thought, ‘Has he gone mad? What is he doing?’ I turned and realized that he was leaning out of the cockpit, looking down at the sea, trying to prevent me from dropping the torpedo on to the crest of a wave, where it would bounce off or dive deep, either way knocked off any course that I might have fired it on.
We were getting closer and closer, the ship was getting bigger and bigger, and I thought, ‘Bloody hell, what are you waiting for?’
Then he said, ‘Let her go, Jock,’ and I pressed the button on the throttle. Dusty yelled, ‘I think we have got a runner.’
John Moffat makes it very clear that he did not sink the Bismarck alone – but the title that the publishers gave his memoir has attracted comment. Nevertheless John Moffat: I Sank The Bismarck is a very good account of the operation.
Whilst he did not think they were making a very co-ordinated attack, the Bismarck crew thought otherwise. The German view of the attack was obtained by subsequent interrogation of survivors:
A first air striking force had been flown off “Ark Royal” at 1500, but had failed to achieve any result. At 1850 a second force of aircraft was despatched for the attack which settled the fate of “Bismarck” and ensured her final destruction.
This attack was made by 15 Swordfish aircraft, armed with torpedoes set to 22 ft., and lasted from 2055 to 2125. It was first reported that the aircraft had scored no hits and it seemed that the remaining chance for the British forces had gone; but at 2130 “Bismarck” suddenly turned north and soon after came the welcome news that one hit, and possibly two, had after all been scored. In point of fact at least two, and possibly three hits were made. One torpedo had struck amidships on the port side, one on the starboard quarter, and possibly a third on the port quarter. The torpedo which struck to port amidships, according to prisoners, exploded without doing damage, against Sections VII and VIII, but that on the starboard quarter wrecked the steering gear jamming the rudders at an angle variously estimated at between 10 and 15 degrees and causing “Bismarck to turn slowly in circles to starboard. This hit was stated by one prisoner to have been outside an unarmoured trimming compartment, below the steering motor compartment on the starboard side, and resulted in Section II being flooded to the main deck.
Throughout this attack a furious anti-aircraft barrage was kept up by the 400 men of the “Flak” first with the 10.5 cm., then with the 3.7 cm., and finally with the 2 cm. guns. This fire was supported by “Bismarck’s” secondary armament, but not on this occasion by the main armament.
This time, however, the defence of the ship proved far less effective. The north-westerly wind had been increasing all day and was now blowing at Force 8; a considerable sea was running, with a heavy north-westerly swell, and the ship had begun to roll making gunlaying difficult. In addition the guns crews, who had been on almost continuous watch since “Bismarck” left Bergen, were becoming exhausted.
It has been stated by one prisoner, that one gun-layer operating a 10.5 cm. A/A gun suffered a sudden nervous collapse and temporarily lost his mind. Practically all remaining A/A ammunition was used up during this action. The method of attack employed by the aircraft in approaching simultaneously from a number of points was most deadly.
Some torpedoes were avoided by turning the ship, but as a surviving officer explained, whichever way the “Bismarck” turned to evade one torpedo, she was constantly exposed to others. Another prisoner stated that the aircraft came down to the attack at an angle of approximately 50° and darted through the barrage like flashes of lightening, and the courage displayed by the pilots in pressing home their attacks in this fashion was beyond praise. This prisoner added ruefully: “If only Germany actually had sunk the ‘Ark Royal’.”
Extravagant claims were again made in “Bismarck” as regards the number of aircraft allegedly destroyed. It was announced that at least seven were shot down. In point of fact no aircraft was lost and only one pilot and one air gunner were wounded. “Ark Royal” reported A/A fire to have been heavy and accurate and was experienced even when the aircraft were in cloud at a height of 3,000 ft. As soon as this attack was over it was recognised in “Bismarck” that the plight of the ship was most desperate.
The campaign in East Africa is often overlooked, and the Naval campaign that supported it probably even more so. A lack of photographic record leaves some of these dramatic events quite forgotten, despite their significance at the time. HMS Formidable was the sister ship to [permalink id=9889 text=”HMS Illustrious”] and would soon be replacing her in the Mediterranean.
On the morning of the 13th fourteen aircraft from H.M.S. Formidable attacked the harbour at Massawa. The attack was considerably hampered by fighter opposition. It is probable that one hit was made with a torpedo on a ship lying at a jetty in the Northern Harbour, where a submarine and a supply ship had been reported by reconnaissance, and one merchant ship was sunk outside, also by torpedo. A second merchant ship was also sunk either by torpedo or bomb. In the bombing attack on the main harbour one probable hit was made on a large destroyer. Two of our aircraft did not return one of which made a forced landing 20 miles from Massawa owing to engine trouble.
H.M. Ships Renown, Malaya, Ark Royal and light forces operated off Sardinia on the 2nd February. Owing to unfavourable weather the original plans had to be modified, but at dawn 8 Swordfish made an attack on the Tirso Dam which holds the water for the hydro-electric station. Observation of results was impossible; but it is thought that 3 torpedoes hit the dam. Heavy A.A. fire was experienced and one aircraft failed to return. During this operation the Mediterranean Fleet demonstrated in the Eastern Mediterranean, but no enemy ships were encountered.