The aircraft carrier and its air group were the dominant naval weapon during the Pacific war, but there were only actually five full carrier battles. The focus of this book is on those battles in which both Japanese and American fleet carriers were present (and carrying decent air groups), although there is also a detailed examination of the attack on Pearl Harbor, as it demonstrated the abilities of the pre-war Japanese naval aviators at full strength.
At first glance it seems surprising that there were only five full carrier battles during the entire Pacific War, but in comparison the British and Germans only fought one full surface battle during the First World War, at Jutland, despite both fleets being out at sea on several other occasions. Given the vastness of the Pacific compared to the North Sea this is actually a sign of the increased range of combat made possible by air power – in several cases the surface fleets never even came within sight of each other, so without the carriers several of these battles would never have happened. Leyte Gulf is covered, but in less detail simply because the Japanese carriers were a hollow force by that point, carrying tiny air groups largely manned by inexperienced aviators. One other interesting feature of these battles is that the Japanese were generally the attackers – attempting to invade Port Moresby at the Coral Sea, attacking Midway to trigger the ‘decisive’ battle, fighting two battles to try and defeat the Americans on Guadalcanal, and finally launching a desperate attack on the American fleet at the Philippine Sea.
Both sides had much to learn in 1942, but the flaws in the Japanese plans were more cruelly exposed. Having demonstrated the overwhelming firepower made available by their six carriers at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese promptly divided them up, fighting with two fleet carriers at the Coral Sea and four at Midway. Their plans were famously over complicated – Midway is the best known example, with multiple fleets all operating outside mutual supporting distance, but the same was true at the Coral Sea.
One minor quibble is that the scale of losses of aircraft is sometimes overstated when compared to their achievements – if it cost 70 aircraft to sink a fleet carrier that was actually a good exchange – the carrier would have taken years to build and at least in 1942 would have been one of only a handful of similar vessels available on either side, while the aircraft were mass produced. The big problem for the Japanese wasn’t really the scale of their losses, but their reliance on their pool of well trained and experienced pre-war aviators, and the lack of any realistic plans to train their replacements. On the American side the outstanding feature is the transformation of their carrier force between 1942 and 1944. By the time we reach the Philippine Sea the main American carrier force was split into four separate task groups, each as pretty much as powerful as the fleet that fought at Midway!
This is a well researched book, with good material on both sides, so we get to see the planning behind each of the Japanese attacks and the American response to them, how the two fleets evolved under the pressure of war, and how the Americans learnt their lessons from 1942 to produce an almost un-defeatable carrier force by 1944.
1 – Ships, Aircraft, and Men
2 – The First Six Months
3 – Clash of Carriers in the Coral Sea
4 – Ambush at Midway
5 – The Battle of the Eastern Solomons
6 – Showdown at Santa Cruz
7 – Preparing for the Ultimate Carrier Battle
8 – The Battle of the Philippine Sea
9 – Conclusion and Analysis
Author: Mark E. Stille