'When I reflect how I have longed and prayed for the entry of the United States into the war, I find it difficult to realise how gravely our British affairs have deteriorated . . . since December 7th'. W. S. Churchill to F. D. Roosevelt,
5th March 1942.1
Map 1. Pacific and Indian Ocean Command Areas, 1942-43.
The Prime Minister's uncomplaining but ominous words stated no more than the bare truth. After two-and-a-half years of war, throughout which her maritime services had been strained as never before, Britain and the loyal Dominions found themselves, in the first six months of 1942, required to face a crisis compared to which all the currents of success and failure experienced since 1940 appeared comparatively trivial. Mr. Churchill certainly realised, and British fighting men instinctively felt, that we had only to survive those critical months, gaining time for the vast strength and lately-aroused resolution of our new Ally to be deployed, to see the storm clouds of defeat finally dispersed. Yet as each month passed, even the most resolute may at times have wondered whether we could survive-whether American help was this time going to come too late.
The first volume of this history ended on a note of crushing, far-spread disaster for Britain. If the reader should expect this second volume to open in happier vein, he must be immediately disillusioned. The balance had to tilt yet further, much further against us before it could be brought central; and as it was the sweeping tide of Japanese success which chiefly caused that adverse movement, it is to the eastern theatre of war that we must first turn.2
If ever students should, in the years to come, seek an example of the consequences of loss of maritime control over waters adjacent to countries in which world powers held great interests, they will surely need to look no further than the events in the Pacific and Indian Oceans during the early months of 1942. The process had begun in
December 1941 when a great part of the American Pacific Fleet was destroyed in Pearl Harbor, and the embryo British Eastern Fleet was extinguished in the South China Sea. In the succeeding weeks disaster followed hard on disaster, and disintegration spread rapidly over the whole theatre of British and Dutch responsibility. Neither Britain nor America possessed forces which could be sent out in sufficient strength, and with sufficient speed, to check the flood of Japanese success; nor, once Singapore was imperilled, was there a well-found and properly defended base from which such forces could have worked had they been available. The process of dissolution was, perhaps, accelerated by the lack of an integrated Allied command organisation, through the tendency of each of the countries concerned to place its own interests first, and their understandable desire to use what forces they possessed to defend their own territories, rather than to throw them all into one common pool for the protection of the whole theatre. Not until some weeks after Japan had struck was the first attempt made to create a unified command. At the Washington 'Arcadia' conference, held in late December 1941, A.B.D.A. (American-British-Dutch-Australian) and A.N.Z.A.C. command areas were agreed.3 On the 3rd of January 1942 General Wavell accepted command of the former, and a week later he set up his headquarters at Bandoeng in western Java. Rarely can a Commander-in-Chief have assumed great responsibilities in less auspicious circumstances. The Philippines had, except for the Manila Bay defences, already fallen; a large part of Malaya had been overrun; the enemy had landed in Borneo and the Celebes, and the threat to Java was plain. The naval command of the A.B.D.A. area was vested in Admiral T. C. Hart, U.S.N., the former commander of the American Asiatic Fleet. His deputy was Rear-Admiral A. F. E. Palliser, who had originally gone out to serve as Chief of Staff to Admiral Phillips in the Prince of Wales. The principal naval forces nominally serving under Admiral Hart are shown below.
Table 1. A.B.D.A. Command Naval Forces, January 1942
American British4 Dutch Cruisers Houston (8")
Danae (Old 6")
Durban (Old 6")
Dragon (Old 6")
De Ruyter (5.9")
Destroyers 12 6 7 Sloops --- 2 --- Submarines 25 --- 165 Seaplane Tenders 3 (Attendant on 25 Catalinas) --- ---
The British naval forces in the A.B.D.A. area were known as the 'China Force' and were under the immediate command of Commodore J. A. Collins, R.A.N. But they were to be regarded as a detachment from the Eastern Fleet of Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, who had transferred his headquarters firstly from Singapore to Batavia and then, after the A.B.D.A, command had been formed, to Colombo. These complicated command arrangements were not improved by the decision that Allied forces in the A.B.D.A. area would normally work under their own national commanders, whose activities Admiral Hart was expected to be able to coordinate.6
To turn now to the A.N.Z.A.C. area, the command of its naval forces was given to Vice-Admiral H. F. Leary, U.S.N., but their strategic direction was in the hands of the American Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, at Pearl Harbor. The Anzac Squadron, whose principal warships were the Australian cruisers Australia, Canberra and the much older Adelaide, the New Zealand cruisers Achilles and Leander and the American cruiser Chicago, was commanded by Rear-Admiral J. G. Crace.
So much for the scattered naval forces available early in 1942 to oppose the powerful southward thrusts which the Japanese were then developing. The western thrust was aimed at Singapore and Sumatra; the central one was coming down the eastern coast of Borneo towards Java, while the eastern one was seizing Allied bases in the Celebes, Amboina and the islands to the east of Java.7 A fourth thrust soon became apparent still further to the east, and was aimed at New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands. The method employed by the Japanese was to drive down each of their lines of advance, striking first at the air bases with shore-based or carrier-borne aircraft as might be appropriate, and then following up with sea-borne landings. Once each base had been secured they prepared for the next southward leap. The assaults were conducted with relentless efficiency and precision, though the opposition which Allied garrisons could offer was admittedly very weak. We will briefly follow the events in each command area in turn.
The main task of the surface forces of the A.B.D.A. command was initially to convoy supplies and reinforcements to Singapore. The Japanese advance down the Malay peninsula soon closed the Malacca Straits to our convoys, which thereafter had to be routed south of Sumatra and approach Singapore through the Sunda Straits.8 Between the 1st of January and the 8th of February, when it was
decided that it was useless to throw in more reinforcements, the British and Dutch warships escorted in seven convoys comprising forty-four ships, many of them large troop transports. In all 45,000 fighting men of all services, besides large quantities of stores and equipment, were safely taken to Singapore during those five weeks. Considering the scale of sea and air attack to which our convoys were constantly exposed, the achievement was remarkable. Only in the last one, when the liner Empress of Asia ( 16,909 tons) was bombed and set on fire, was a ship lost. It was when escorting one of these convoys that the destroyer Jupiter scored a success by sinking a large Japanese submarine off the Sunda Straits.
Not only were military reinforcements poured into Singapore, but the desperate need for more aircraft, and especially for fighters, had to be met. The convoy which arrived on the 8th of January carried fifty-one crated Hurricanes, which were at once erected and flung into battle. Next the fleet carrier Indomitable came round the Cape to Port Sudan, embarked fifty more there and at once sailed east. They were flown off to Batavia on the 27th and 28th from a position south of Java; and most of them went straight on to Singapore. Early in February the aircraft transport Athene delivered to Batavia forty more Hurricanes, which she had embarked at Takoradi on the Gold Coast. It is not the smallest of the many tragedies which scar this terrible period that all these successful sea-borne reinforcement operations were of no avail.
The Navy's success in escorting in the troops, equipment and aircraft was not its only service and, unfortunately, was not by itself enough. The Army's seaward flanks were completely exposed, and they appealed to the Navy to interfere with the Japanese landings which were being made behind our lines on the west coast of Malaya. To give this support was, of course, a traditional function of the Navy. But on this occasion we simply did not possess the forces to carry it out effectively; and because air cover was lacking, such little ships and craft as could be spared could only work by night. Though they failed to bring the Army any substantial relief, they did successfully evacuate 2,700 cut-off troops at the end of January. There can be little doubt that the failure to control the coastal waters on the Army's flanks contributed to the collapse on land.
By the end of January Singapore was under constant and heavy air bombardment, and the naval base could not continue to function. Preparations were made to destroy the immense quantities of stores, and to deny the enemy use of its facilities; but when the island fell much was actually left intact. Warships which had been refitting were towed away, but the big floating dock could not be removed and had to be scuttled. This great base, the only one on which we had expended any considerable money between the wars, was then
Map 2. The South Pacific, Showing Japanese Assaults Dec. 1941 - Feb. 1942.
closed. From the 3rd of February onwards shipping was heavily bombed in the approaches to Singapore and in the harbours. By the 9th the Japanese had gained a foothold on the island, and the inward flow of British reinforcements was stopped. Three days later all possible ships were cleared from the harbours, taking with them many persons who were not required for the defence of the fortress. These were the last ships to reach safety.
Thus was the stage set for the final tragedy. On the 15th of February Singapore surrendered. For the previous days and nights a stream of small craft poured across the Straits towards Sumatra, carrying unauthorised as well as authorised refugees. By then Japanese surface ships were working close off-shore; and they played havoc among these vessels almost with impunity. Some refugees reached the adjacent, and temporarily friendly islands only to die of starvation or disease; many of their craft were sunk; some had their occupants captured; few survived. An Army in retreat on land always brings cruel ordeals to its men and to the civilian population of the countries through which it passes; but fighting forces which, after a series of crushing defeats on land, find themselves cut off from retreat by sea, embarrassed by a large civilian population of many races, and in some units stricken by collapse of morale, are even more terrible to behold. Rarely in history can the consequences of defeat have been more bitterly reaped than at Singapore in February 1942. In the final days there were deeds of heroism and self-sacrifice; but there were discreditable episodes as well. There is no need to dwell on the latter, but that they occurred should not be forgotten; of the former one shining example will be mentioned.
The Li Wo was a small auxiliary patrol vessel commanded by Lieutenant T. S. Wilkinson, R.N.R. Her armament was one old 4-inch gun. On the 14th of February, to the south of Singapore, she encountered the advance guard of a Japanese invasion force bound for Sumatra, and at once turned towards the immensely superior enemy to engage. For a time she was, almost miraculously, unharmed; but there could only be one end, and when he realised that it was approaching, Lieutenant Wilkinson rammed a transport which he had already hit and set on fire. Then the Japanese guns found their mark, and the disabled little ship was blown out of the water. Of the crew and the many passengers embarked in the Li Wo, only ten survived. When the story of her last fight became known after the war, Lieutenant Wilkinson was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Before Singapore had fallen an enemy invasion force, coming south from Camranh Bay in Indo-China, was sighted off the Anamba Islands.9 At A.B.D.A. headquarters it was estimated that it was
probably bound for southern Sumatra. Orders were therefore given to assemble at Batavia as powerful a striking force as could be collected. It consisted in all of the cruisers De Ruyter, Java, Tromp, Exeter and Hobart, four Dutch and six American destroyers. Rear-Admiral K. W. F. M. Doorman of the Royal Netherlands Navy was in command, with his flag in the De Ruyter. It was the 14th of February before he had assembled his scattered ships, and by then the Japanese expedition was approaching the Banka Straits, to make its landings at Palembang in south-east Sumatra.
Admiral Doorman sailed north on the evening of the 14th; next morning he was sighted from the air, and the Japanese turned away their main convoy, while the covering forces prepared to deal with the Allied squadron. Heavy air attacks from the carrier Ryujo's planes and shore-based aircraft followed. Though no Allied ship was hit, two American destroyers were damaged by near misses and had to withdraw. In such circumstances, Doorman considered it useless to persevere, and retired southwards. His decision certainly caused surprise at Allied Headquarters, and indeed now appears to have been a critical one; for it left the route for the invasion of Sumatra wide open to the Japanese. On the 16th they landed at Palembang, and thus they isolated Java, the key Allied position, from the west. Simultaneously the enemy's plans to assault Java from the north and east were taking shape. This was the function of the centre and eastern spearheads of the Japanese southward drives already mentioned. The former, coming down the Makassar Straits, did not have matters all its own way. It was attacked off Balikpapan in Borneo firstly by Dutch submarines and then by an American striking force of four destroyers, which found the enemy transports in the exposed anchorage in the early hours of the 24th of January and attacked for about an hour with guns and torpedoes.10 They sank four transports, one cargo ship and a patrol vessel without damage to themselves; but the success had no effect on the enemy's southward progress. The Japanese soon secured the bases in Borneo, and thus approached one stage nearer their objective of Soerabaya, the main Allied base in eastern Java. Next, further to the east, they assaulted the important island of Amboina in overwhelming strength on the last day of January; by the capture of its naval and air bases one more Allied outpost guarding the chain of islands running to the east of Java fell into enemy hands.
By this time Admiral Hart had formed a combined American and Dutch striking force, under Admiral Doorman's command, to oppose the threat to eastern Java. The problem of how best to use it was difficult, for not only were the distances from Soerabaya to the waters
so far reached by the enemy invasion fleets very great, but the striking force could never be given air cover at such distances from Java. The best hope seemed to lie in making night attacks, followed by immediate withdrawal.
On the 1st of February Allied reconnaissance aircraft reported a force of some twenty transports and numerous warships off Balikpapan, and it was guessed that a new lunge was intended against Makassar or southern Borneo. Admiral Doorman's squadron assembled at Soerabaya, and sailed for the Makassar Straits early on the 4th. Japanese aircraft quickly found it, and the American cruisers Marblehead and Houston were both badly damaged. Doorman then retired through the Lombok Strait to Tjilatjap on the south coast of Java. The Marblehead reached port, and eventually got back to America after a circuitous journey by Ceylon and the Cape of Good Hope. The Houston, though she had one turret out of action, stayed with the diminishing Allied fleet. But the enemy's intention to occupy Makassar and the south of Borneo was carried out unhindered, and he had moved another stage towards isolating Java from the east.11
The fall of Amboina brought imminent danger to the island of Timor, an essential link on the air route from Australia to Java. The air base in the Dutch part of the island was already being constantly bombed, so General Wavell decided that the anti-aircraft defences must, for all the slenderness of his resources, be strengthened. On the 15th a battery from Java arrived, and that same night a convoy with reinforcements sailed for Timor from Port Darwin, escorted by the Houston and four smaller ships. It, too, was at once sighted and attacked from the air, but no losses were suffered. When it was learnt at A.B.D.A. Headquarters that the assault on Timor was imminent, and that strong Japanese forces were in the vicinity, the convoy was ordered to return to Darwin. The enemy attacked the islands of Bali, just east of Java, and of Timor, on the 19th and 20th of February. He seized the bases on Timor on the 20th, but the Dutch and Australian garrison continued to resist stubbornly in the hinterland until January 1943. They received occasional supplies during their long resistance, and the survivors were finally evacuated by sea.
Admiral Doorman, whose forces had been scattered as a result of earlier sorties, sailed from Tjilatjap on the 18th to try to attack the Bali expedition. Lacking time to concentrate all his ships he decided to attack in two waves. But the enemy landing had already taken place when Doorman's first flight of two cruisers and three destroyers arrived off Bali, and they found few targets. Two Japanese destroyers were damaged, and one Dutch destroyer sunk in the ensuing engagement. When the second flight, consisting of the Tromp and four
American destroyers came in three hours later, another inconclusive action took place with enemy destroyers. In it the Tromp was badly damaged. She was sent to Australia for repairs. The attempt to frustrate the assault on Bali thus wholly failed, in spite of the Allied forces having, for once, been in superior strength; and more losses had been suffered for no appreciable gain. On the 20th of February the enemy occupied the island, and at once brought the airfield into use. Java was now entirely cut off from the east as well as from the west.
Meanwhile the Japanese had turned their attention to Port Darwin, the only Allied advance base on the Australian continent. A very powerful force of four carriers, two battleships and three cruisers under Admiral Nagumo's command entered the Banda Sea undetected and, on the 19th, launched some 150 strike aircraft with a powerful fighter escort at the base. A Japanese shore-based air flotilla from the Celebes also took part in the raid. At Port Darwin there were almost no anti-aircraft or fighter defences, and the harbour was crowded with shipping, including the convoy recently returned from Timor. Surprise was complete, and great damage was done to the port and to the shipping in it. Twelve ships were sunk, and Darwin was put out of action as a base for several months. The last reinforcement link to Java was thus broken.
General Wavell now realised that the culminating blow after all these preliminary enemy assaults and landings, namely the invasion of Java itself, was about to fall; and he was forced to admit that the island could not hold out for long. The security of Australia and of Burma were, he considered, more vital to the Allied cause, and he told the Chiefs of Staff that their defence should not be weakened to reinforce Java. On the 21st the Chiefs of Staff ordered the island to be defended to the last, but agreed that no more land reinforcements would be sent there. General Wavell was also told that A.B.D.A. Headquarters were to leave, and on the 25th his command was dissolved. The Dutch Commanders took over the surviving Allied sea, land and air forces, and General Wavell returned to India. Thus ended the first attempt to work an inter-allied command. It had been formed in a hurry to meet a situation which was moving from crisis to crisis; it was dissolved at a moment when it was obvious that the successive defeats which we had suffered could only end in complete collapse.
The surviving naval forces were all now placed under Admiral Helfrich, Royal Netherlands Navy, with Rear-Admiral Palliser in command of the British ships. There were in all eight cruisers and twelve destroyers left in Java; but all had been steaming and fighting under conditions of great strain and hazard for the past three months, and many had been damaged. Yet they were now required to defend
Map 3. The Battle of the Java Sea.
an island some 550 miles long against attack from either east or west, or from both directions simultaneously. To meet the double threat Helfrich decided to divide his ships into an eastern force, consisting of the American and Dutch ships based on Soerabaya, and a western force of British and Australian ships based on Batavia. On the 25th he considered that the threat from the east would develop first, and ordered the eastern force to be strengthened at the expense of the western. The Exeter, Perth and the destroyers Jupiter, Electra and Encounter all came at once to Soerabaya. On the two following nights the rest of the western force searched unavailingly for an enemy convoy reported to be approaching that end of Java, but sighted nothing. The Hobart (R.A.N.), Danae and Dragon and two destroyers ultimately reached Ceylon safely.
Admiral Doorman now had at Soerabaya quite a powerful 'Combined Striking Force'. Two 8-inch cruisers (Exeter and Houston), three 6-inch cruisers (De Ruyter, Java and Perth) and ten destroyers were under his command; but he was gravely deficient in air cooperation and cover, and his ships had never before worked at sea as an integrated force, nor had the chance to develop a common tactical doctrine. Communications were also unsatisfactory, while many of the ships were old and had already been driven too hard; lastly, their men were approaching exhaustion. It was not a force which could be expected to fight a triumphant and superior enemy successfully. Yet the attempt had to be made.
On the afternoon of the 26th, the very day that the Allied squadron had assembled, a large invasion force was reported some 190 miles north-east of Soerabaya. Admiral Helfrich at once ordered Doorman's striking force to sea to attack it, and he sailed at 6:30 p.m. that evening. After considering the various alternatives Doorman decided to cover the most likely landing places by patrolling off the north coast of Java. Having only occasional air reconnaissance to help him he was operating more or less blindfold. No enemy forces having been sighted by the afternoon of the 27th, Doorman set course for Soerabaya to refuel his destroyers. Just as he was entering [the] harbour, up to date reports of two enemy convoys, the nearer one only eighty miles away, were received, and the Admiral at once reversed his course. This was in fact the eastern Japanese invasion force under Rear Admiral Nishimura. It was covered and escorted by two 8-inch and two 5.5-inch cruisers and fourteen destroyers. On paper the opposing forces were evenly matched, but greater advantages than mere gun power lay with the enemy, for he had good air reconnaissance and co-operation, and his ships were an integrated and highly trained force. Admiral Doorman asked for air support for his fleet, but Allied headquarters ordered the only striking force available (nine old torpedo-bombers of No. 36 Squadron of the R.A.F., escorted by eight
Buffalo fighters) to attack the Japanese transports, which had turned away from Java as soon as a naval action appeared imminent.
At about 4:00 p.m. the Electra (Commander C. W. May), which was five miles ahead of the Allied cruisers, sighted smoke to the north and made an enemy report. Very soon the opposing cruisers were in sight of each other, and fire was opened by the heavy ships at long range. The smaller ships were out-ranged, and could take no part. It seems likely that Admiral Doorman decided to keep his cruisers concentrated and to fight in single line ahead because his ships had done no training together, and difficulties in communications made more complicated manoeuvres too risky to attempt. The enemy held the advantage in speed, and had Doorman continued on his initial course it is certain that he would quickly have found himself at a grave tactical disadvantage. In technical language the Japanese would have 'crossed his T'. It was probably to prevent this happening that, soon after opening fire, the Dutch Admiral altered 20 degrees to port; but to the great disappointment of Captain H. M. L. Waller, R.A.N., of the Perth, and probably of the Dutch cruiser captains as well, their ships were still out-ranged and unable to join in the battle.12 Only one shell hit, on the De Ruyter, was suffered by the Allied squadron in this phase. Next the Japanese destroyer flotilla attacked with torpedoes, but fired at long range and wholly without success. It may have been the torpedo threat which made the Admiral turn yet more to port at 4:29. For half-an-hour sporadic fighting continued, with the smaller Allied cruisers still out-ranged. Soon after 5:00 p.m. another enemy torpedo attack developed from fine on the starboard bow of Doorman's squadron, and at almost the same moment the Exeter (Captain O. L. Gordon) was hit in the boiler room by an 8-inch shell. Her speed was drastically reduced and she hauled out of the line. The Houston turned as well to avoid the Exeter, and the Perth and Java, thinking an alteration must have been signalled, followed them round. The De Ruyter for a time held on. Thus complete confusion was caused in the Allied line by one hit on one ship, and at a critical moment. Luckily only one enemy torpedo found its mark. The Dutch destroyer Kortenaer was hit and sank immediately.
While the destroyers screened the crippled Exeter with smoke, Doorman reformed his line and led the other cruisers between her and the enemy. At the same time he ordered the three British destroyers to counter-attack. Widely separated as they were they could only act independently, and in the next phase of confused fighting in and out of the smoke the Electra was stopped and then sunk, after having fought her guns to the end. An American sub
marine picked up fifty-four survivors nine hours later, but Commander May was not among them. The Exeter had meanwhile been ordered back to Soerabaya with one Dutch destroyer as escort, while the other ships continued to fire at enemies intermittently sighted through the smoke between 5:25 and 5:55 p.m. During this period a third Japanese torpedo attack was made; but this time no hits were scored.13
At about 6 p.m. Doorman ordered the American destroyers to attack, but quickly cancelled the order and instead told them to cover his retirement with smoke. The American ships considered that the best way to accomplish the Admiral's purpose was to attack; they therefore drove through the smoke screen they had just laid to seek the enemy heavy cruisers. They fired their torpedoes, though at too great range to have any chance of success, and then withdrew.
But the long day's fighting was by no means yet ended. By 6:15 darkness was falling and the opposing warships had lost touch with each other. Doorman now led his surviving ships north, presumably to try and work round towards the enemy convoy. But he was unaware of its true position, and as the Japanese Admiral had in fact kept it well clear of the field of battle, the Allied squadron never had any chance of finding it. Moreover, cruiser and destroyer reinforcements had now joined Nishimura's force.
Just before 7:30 contact was regained and the battle's night phase began with Japanese aircraft dropping flares to light up the Allied ships and betray their every movement. Doorman's predicament was now graver than ever, for his reduced force had no hope of concealing itself. At 7:45 he turned south for the coast of Java, and when he was close off shore at 9 p.m. he steered west along the coast.14 The four American destroyers now had to return to port for fuel. At 9:25 the destroyer Jupiter suddenly blew up. It is possible that she struck a stray mine, for the Dutch had that day laid a defensive field in the vicinity.15 Some of her crew reached shore, while others, including her Captain (Lieutenant-Commander N. V. J. T. Thew) were picked up later by the Japanese and made prisoner.
Soon after suffering this new blow Doorman turned north again. He now had only four cruisers and one destroyer, the Encounter (Lieutenant-Commander E. V. St. J. Morgan) with him. Then the squadron fortuitously found the survivors of the earlier sunk Kortenaer. The Encounter picked up over 100, and at about midnight she returned to Soerabaya to land them. At about 10:30 p.m. the
Allied squadron sighted enemy cruisers to port, and fire was at once opened. The De Ruyter was soon hit and turned away to starboard. While the others were following her round, first the Java and then the De Ruyter blew up. The Japanese cruisers had fired torpedoes, and this time they were only too successful. Captain Waller of the Perth now decided to break off the action, and with the Houston, which was damaged and almost out of ammunition, following him, he set course west for Batavia. They arrived there at 2 p.m. on the 28th of February. The Exeter, also damaged, the Encounter, one Dutch and five American destroyers were by that time back in Soerabaya. Admiral Doorman was lost with his ship; and the Combined Striking Force had ceased to exist.
Though it is possible that more skilful tactical handling could have inflicted losses on the enemy and made his object more difficult of accomplishment, the final outcome of the Battle of the Java Sea could hardly have been other than it was; for the enemy had great strength available to reinforce his spearhead, and held the advantage in the air. With the extinction of the Combined Striking Force the last glimmer of hope that control of the waters off Java could be disputed had gone. It now became a question of trying to extricate the surviving ships from the trap which had closed on them. The Perth and Houston were ordered by Helfrich to leave Batavia that night, and pass through the Sunda Strait to Tjilatjap. It was hoped that the way of escape was not yet barred. The two cruisers sailed at 9 p.m. Two hours later they ran right into the Japanese invasion fleet at the entrance to the Sunda Strait. There they fought the last of their many actions, and were sunk after doing much damage to the enemy transports. Their end was a glorious one, for they fought till not a round was left in their magazines. Of the 682 officers and men in the Perth's company only 229 returned home after the war. Captain Waller and Captain A. H. Rooks, U.S.N., of the Houston, were both lost with their ships. The young Australian Navy has every reason to remember with pride the story of the Perth's last battles.16 Meanwhile the final act was also being played out in the east of Java. Four of the five American destroyers got away from Soerabaya, and escaped by the narrow Bali Strait unscathed. They reached Australia on the 4th of March. The Exeter could not use the shallow eastern channel out of Soerabaya. She, the Encounter and the last American destroyer, the Pope, were ordered to sail north for some distance, and then turn west for the Sunda Strait. Admiral Palliser believed that to route them far from the coast gave them their best chance of escape; but it was a forlorn hope, especially as the Exeter's speed was initially only sixteen knots. The alternative of passing north of
Madoera Island, and then south by the Bali or Lombok Strait was considered by the naval command, but was rejected because enemy aircraft were known to be working from Bali.17 None the less it now seems that such a course involved the lesser risks.
The three ships sailed at dusk on the 28th of February, and the splendid repair work of the Exeter's engine room staff soon enabled her to work up to twenty-three knots. At dawn next day the sea and skies were clear, and hopes rose correspondingly; but not for long. At 7:30 a.m. warships were sighted ahead. Evasion was tried, but by 9:40 four enemy cruisers and a number of destroyers were closing in. Escape was no longer possible. For some time the unequal battle was fought without disaster, for the destroyers skilfully shielded the cruiser with their smoke. But at 11:20 the Exeter was badly hit, caught fire and eventually came to a standstill. She was then repeatedly struck, and finally sank at about 11:40. The destroyers did not survive her for long. The Encounter was sunk by shell fire and the Pope by dive-bombers, which the enemy had called to the scene. Over 800 survivors from the two British ships, including Captain Gordon and Lieutenant-Commander Morgan, were picked up and made prisoners-of-war. After their release in 1945 they and the senior surviving officers of other lost ships rendered their long delayed reports on these battles to the Admiralty. One cannot but marvel at the clearness and accuracy of these accounts, written as they were three-and-a-half years after the events which they described, and from such tenuous records as the officers had managed to secrete from the persistent searches of their captors. In all the annals of sea fights there can exist few more moving documents. Although for days, if not weeks, previously all those ships' companies must have known, with ever-increasing certainty, that there could be only one end, there is not the slightest sign that any man wavered.
Captain Gordon and his Chief Engineer, Commander (E) A. H. Drake, told with the utmost restraint how their ship - that same Exeter which had fought the Graf Spee off the River Plate in December 193918 - went out three years later, on the other side of the world, again to give battle to an overwhelmingly superior enemy; how, after hours of stubborn fighting she received injuries which almost incapacitated the ship; and how she was none the less repaired sufficiently to go to sea again next day and continue the battle.
Lieutenant-Commander Morgan, and the other officers of the Encounter who survived, wrote a parallel account of the loss of their ship. In it Morgan described how, right at the end, he went round the ship and 'found the mess decks clear, the engine-room flooded and at least one boiler room on fire. Having satisfied myself that
there was nothing further to be done, and that the ship was sinking, I told the remainder [of the crew] to abandon ship. When they had all done so I left the ship myself . . . I was still hopeful of being recovered by our own ships. The next day at about 10:00 a.m. [twenty-two hours after the ships had sunk] a Japanese destroyer re-appeared, and it was apparent to me that we were unlikely to have any forces in the vicinity. I therefore advised those who were with me in the water that their only hope of rescue was at hand. Having seen the remainder of the party recovered; I swam to the destroyer and surrendered myself'.
One more incident in this tragic series must be preserved. It was mentioned previously how, in the very early hours of the day after she was sunk, an American submarine found some survivors from the Electra. In his report the Captain of the submarine told how 'during rescue operations [in the dark] some difficulty was experienced in locating one man, who was swimming in a life-jacket. He, realising that there remained one more life-raft load to be picked up, sang out "Leave me. I can't make it. Get the rest". Needless to say, we got him as well as the life-raft load. His name was Benjamin Roberts, Able Seaman. His action made a tremendous impression on the officers and men of this ship'.
Thus fell the final curtain on the long-drawn agony of the Allied ships involved in the attempt to defend Java.
Meanwhile, the enemy had sent powerful forces to the south of Java to cut off the escape of ships from Tjilatjap.19 The destroyer Stronghold, the sloop Yarra (R.A.N.), two American destroyers and many valuable auxiliary vessels were lost; but four corvettes and two minesweepers, one of them carrying Commodore Collins, succeeded in reaching Australia. Admiral Helfrich resigned his Allied command on the 1st of March, when there were in fact no Allied ships left for him to command. He finally reached Colombo by air, while Admiral Palliser flew to Australia. On the same day that Helfrich resigned, the enemy landed at both ends of Java, and a week later the Allied land forces surrendered. By the end of the month the Japanese were in complete control of that immensely wealthy island, and had achieved the major part of the first phase of their vast scheme of conquest. The cost to the Japanese Navy had been almost trivial, but to the Allies it had been very much the reverse. Quite apart from the great losses of men and equipment suffered on land, and the far-reaching economic consequences of the surrender of such valuable territories, the Allied navies had in all lost two capital ships, five cruisers, one seaplane carrier and seventeen destroyers in the attempt to defend south-east Asia. Rarely can
so much have been won for so small a cost as was accomplished by Japan between December 1941 and March 1942.
The main Japanese fleet was all this time commanded by Admiral Yamamoto, but it had taken no part in the operations so far discussed.20 It had been the Striking Force of Admiral Nagumo, primarily composed of the fleet carriers, which had attacked Pearl Harbor in the previous December; and that same force had made the deadly attack on Port Darwin on the 19th of February.21 The operations against Malaya and the East Indies had been entrusted to the Southern Force commanded by Vice-Admiral Kondo. His zone of command had been divided into a western sector (the South China Sea, Malaya and Sumatra) under Vice-Admiral Ozawa, and an eastern sector (the Philippines, Straits of Makassar and the Java Sea) under Vice-Admiral Takahashi.22 For the invasion of Java, Ozawa and Takahashi had joined forces, to make the simultaneous western and eastern landings respectively. Admiral Kondo's heavy ships had lain in the background to give support if it had been needed, and Nagumo's striking force had joined him in late February and early March to deal the heavy blow at Darwin already mentioned, and had also swept the sea south of Java during the final stages of the campaigns. In spite of the weakness of the opposition offered to them, the way in which all these operations had been conducted left no room for doubt regarding the skill, power and efficiency of the Japanese Navy.
But the first phase of Japan's plans for aggrandisement went further than the seizure of the Philippines, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. The Bismarck Archipelago was to be their new bastion in the east23, and Burma was to be occupied in the west. The latter had been included in General Wavell's A.B.D.A. Command, but in Allied circles it had been widely held that Japan could not launch a full scale invasion there at the same time as she was driving southwards. By the end of January it was plain that this belief was wide of the mark, since a heavy attack was then being launched against Burma from Siam. It culminated in the fall of Rangoon on the 8th of March, one day before Java surrendered. There was little that Admiral Layton's tenuous Eastern Fleet could do to help the hard-pressed Army in Burma; for he wholly lacked the large numbers of light craft needed to control its long and shallow coastal waters; and even had he possessed them the lack of air cover would have prevented them working there effectively. The naval forces in the theatre consisted of the few motor-launches and auxiliary craft of
the Burma R.N.V.R., which had only come into existence in June 1940. Early in February 1942, when it was obvious that serious trouble was blowing up on the coast of Burma, Rear-Admiral Cosmo Graham, who had been doing excellent work as Senior Naval Officer, Persian Gulf, since the start of the war, was appointed Commodore, Burma Coast. He arrived on the 15th, four days before the removal of civilians from Rangoon started. There was little he could do except to organise the evacuation, and prepare for the inevitable demolitions. It is estimated that over 100,000 persons escaped from Rangoon to Calcutta by sea. Our maritime control was at least sufficient to make this possible. A party of about 100 Royal Marines was sent to Burma from Colombo, and they fought in support of the Army in traditionally amphibious manner from motor-launches working on the river. But they were too few to dispute control of the great Irrawaddy waterway effectively, and about half of them were lost.
At a conference held by the Governor on the 27th of February it was decided to go ahead with the military evacuation of Rangoon, and to prepare to destroy its important facilities. General Wavell reached Delhi from Java that very day, and almost his first act was to suspend the orders for withdrawal and demolition. He has stated that 'on balance . . . we gained by the delay'24, but to the men on the spot the reversal of orders inevitably caused confusion and difficulties. An Indian brigade was rushed in to try to stiffen the defences, but such eleventh-hour measures could not affect the issue. Graham and the demolition parties did not leave until the 8th of March, by which time they had done all that they could. Looting, treachery, arson and desertion were then rife throughout this great port and city. The Governor described the final apocalyptic scene in these words: 'All along the normally thronged foreshore not a sign of human life was to be seen . . . it was almost dark, and the flames topped by columns of dense black smoke rising thousands of feet into the air from the oil refineries presented an awe-inspiring sight. As night fell the whole sky was lurid with the glare of that inferno'. Two days after the final evacuation Graham summed up the tragedy in a letter to his wife. 'This melancholy experience-of sinking one's own vessels and blowing up a refinery . . . can be blamed on no one person. The indictment is against the whole nation for generations of neglect and comfortable living. We have had the butter'.25
Before the fall of Rangoon some partially completed motor-minesweepers were towed away to India, while others which could not be
shifted were destroyed. Graham and the surviving small craft of the Burma Navy then went to Akyab. There they were reinforced by two sloops and some smaller vessels from India. But the tide of dissolution could not be stemmed for long, and on the 4th of May Akyab also was abandoned.
While the campaign in Burma thus moved to its tragic but inevitable conclusion, far away to the south-east the Japanese had occupied the important bases of Rabaul and Kavieng in the Bismarck Archipelago, and others in New Guinea.26 Here were stationed the naval and air forces which were intended to command the north-eastern approaches to Australia.
Thus, in a matter of four months, was the first phase of Japan's vast ambitions accomplished, and with an ease which had surprised even her own rulers. But the ambitions of the conqueror were by no means satiated, and the very ease with which they had gained so much tempted them to try for more. Thereby Japan sowed the seeds of her own downfall. Instead of consolidating the gains so far made, her rulers decided at once to extend the perimeter of their conquests to include the Solomon Islands, the New Hebrides, the Fiji Islands and Samoa.27 In the central Pacific Japanese eyes were now on Midway Island, which commanded the approaches to Hawaii, and in the far north on the Aleutians, which commanded the shortest invasion route from America to Japan. All this rapacity showed, however, as great an overestimate of Japan's own strength as it revealed ignorance of America's determination, power of recovery and industrial capacity. It would have been hard enough to protect all that Japan had won; to disperse her strength still wider was to prove fatal.
To turn now to Allied plans, the collapse of the A.B.D.A. Command plainly demanded a complete recasting of the command organisation. Towards the end of March a new division of strategic responsibility was agreed between Britain and America. The United States assumed responsibility for the whole, vast Pacific theatre, including Australia and New Zealand; while Britain's foreign commitments became the Middle East theatre and the Indian Ocean, including Malaya and Sumatra.28 We will follow the course of events in the Indian Ocean first, and return later to the Pacific.
Readers of our first volume will remember that the Admiralty's strategy to counter the increasingly aggressive attitude of Japan had been to build up a substantial fleet in Ceylon, whence the vital routes across the Indian Ocean could be guarded.29 It had originally been
hoped to complete this plan by March 1942, so that the fleet would be able to move to Singapore as and when the situation further east demanded it. But it was not to be. The suddenness of Japan's onslaught, and the ruthless efficiency with which her carefully laid plans were implemented, rendered any such gradual development of British strategy impossible; and the first reinforcements sent east had met with immediate disaster. By the beginning of 1942 the need to build up a new fleet in the Indian Ocean, where the threat to our maritime control was all too plain, was greater than ever; but it was desperately hard to find ships for such a purpose while the Royal Navy's heavy commitments in the Arctic, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean remained unabated. As early as the 8th of March the First Sea Lord sent the Prime Minister a prescient warning that Ceylon was now threatened, and 'a similar state to Malaya [was] likely to arise'. Its loss would, in Admiral Pound's view, 'undermine our whole strategic position in the Middle as well as the Far East'. The new Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Fleet, Admiral Sir James Somerville30, would be told to use the battleships Ramillies and Royal Sovereign to protect Ceylon, keeping them at Colombo. Other reinforcements were being sent to him as quickly as possible. In the light of after events it certainly seems that the Naval Staff failed to realise the true nature of the threat to Ceylon, when they expressed a belief that it could be protected by a couple of old battleships. When this idea reached Admiral Somerville his reaction was to ask the First Sea Lord 'how is it considered that two R-class [battleships] under fighter cover can repel a landing? It seems to me that unless we have a balanced force we may get a repetition of Prince of Wales and Repulse'. On the question of co-operation with the United States Admiral Pound told the Prime Minister that he considered the 'idea of combining with the American battle fleet attractive but impracticable. We cannot', he continued, 'join the Americans in the Pacific, nor they [join] us in the Indian Ocean without uncovering our vital areas. Each must retain and strengthen its battle fleet where it is'.
While on his way out to his new command Admiral Somerville sent the First Sea Lord a letter in which he analysed his prospects. The loss of Ceylon was obviously the greatest danger, and if the Japanese launched an attack on the island with their whole naval strength he could do little against them. If, on the other hand, an attack was made on a smaller scale, he considered that 'the best counter is to keep an Eastern Fleet in being, and to avoid losses by attrition'. This purpose could be accomplished 'by keeping the fleet at sea as much as possible, and [by making] feints to the east of Ceylon from time to time'. Somerville also gave warning that if the
Japanese captured Ceylon 'it will be extremely difficult, but not necessarily impossible, to maintain our communications to the Middle East. But if the Japanese capture Ceylon and destroy the greater part of the Eastern Fleet, then . . . the situation becomes really desperate'.
In spite of the acute difficulties of these anxious days the Admiralty had by the end of March scraped together a force which on paper looked substantial. Admiral Somerville arrived at Colombo on the 26th of that month, and he then took over command of the Eastern Fleet from Admiral Layton. His fleet consisted of the two large carriers Indomitable and Formidable, the small carrier Hermes, the battleships Warspite (recently returned from repairing battle damage received off Crete in America31), Resolution, Ramillies, Royal Sovereign and Revenge, two heavy and five light cruisers (including the Dutch Heemskerck), sixteen destroyers and seven submarines. It was fully realised that in this vast theatre maritime air power would be of critical importance, and the Admiralty had done its best to meet the need by giving to Somerville a large proportion of our surviving carriers. None the less his air element was not nearly strong enough to deal with the main Japanese striking forces, whose power and efficiency had been demonstrated all too convincingly. His three carriers had between them only some fifty-seven strike aircraft and three dozen fighters. Furthermore, there were insufficient shore-based long-range reconnaissance aircraft, and almost no shore-based air striking forces. If Admiral Nagumo's carrier force came into the Indian Ocean it would heavily outnumber Somerville's air strength. Nor was that the end of his deficiencies. The R-class battleships were old, slow and ill-protected, and might well prove more of a liability than an asset; many of the cruisers were also old and unmodernised, and some of the destroyers were in urgent need of refitting. Lastly, the state of his main bases at Colombo, Trincomalee and Addu Atoll was such as might well cause any Commander-in-Chief concern32; and his fleet was far from being adequately trained to undertake co-ordinated and intricate operations.
Admiral Layton was one of the officers who came out of the successive disasters of Malaya and the East Indies with his reputation for forcefulness and resolute determination enhanced. When he reached Ceylon from Batavia in mid January he found much to cause him misgivings. There was, he considered, the same atmosphere of inertia and complacent optimism which had contributed to the debacle in Malaya. And he signalled to London that the greatest need was for a single all-powerful central authority. To his
surprise the British Government's reply was to appoint him as Commander-in-Chief, Ceylon, with wide powers over all the service and civilian authorities in the island, including the Governor. With characteristic energy he set about tearing down the barriers of narrow departmentalism, and welding all the numerous elements needed to give of their best in the defence of Ceylon into a closely knit team. It is now clear that he was given these great responsibilities just in time; the fact that Ceylon was successfully defended and came to serve satisfactorily as the central hub of our maritime power in those waters owed much to Admiral Layton's determination.
Admirals Layton and Somerville were both strong personalities, and although there were occasional differences of opinion, notably over whether the Commander-in-Chief, Ceylon, exercised any measure of control over the Eastern Fleet, these were easily resolved. Between them they formed a powerful team to work for the ultimate restoration of British maritime power in the East. Somerville warmly welcomed Layton's new appointment, and remarked of his colleague's work that he 'takes complete charge of Ceylon and stands no nonsense from anyone . . . He pulls all the Ministers' legs ... and they work for him all the harder'. With General Wavell the Navy's relations were excellent, and that great soldier quickly grasped the diversity and magnitude of the problems with which the sister service was faced. As Somerville expressed it when the three of them were in conference, the Eastern Fleet not only shared in the defence of India and Ceylon, but was responsible for the security of the sea routes 'from the Cape eastwards to Australia and northwards to Aden and the Persian Gulf'. It was moreover 'an important force to be used in the ultimate operations of ejecting the enemy from Malaya and the Dutch East Indies'. But in April 1942, such plans were almost visionary, for the first need was to defend what we still held.
Admiral Layton's expectation that Ceylon would not for long remain immune from attack was quickly proved correct. After occupying the Andaman Islands and northern Sumatra the Japanese fleet prepared to strike. Their purpose was to demonstrate their invincibility to the Indian continent at a time when Anglo-Indian relations were far from easy, to knock out the Eastern Fleet and to prevent its interference with the Burma operations. In the middle of March Admiral Kondo issued orders for a two-pronged drive into the Indian Ocean. The main blow was to be struck against Ceylon by Nagumo's well-tried and so far consistently successful striking force of five carriers with some 300 aircraft on board, four battleships, three cruisers and eight destroyers. His colleague Ozawa was meanwhile to sweep our shipping from the Bay of Bengal with one light carrier, six cruisers and eight destroyers. It was a bold plan, and
Map 4. Japanese Attacks on Ceylon and Bay of Bengal.
Somerville had nothing like the power necessary to counter it. He had in fact only just taken over his new command when intelligence regarding Japanese intentions reached him.
Admirals Somerville and Layton well knew that in their present condition the bases at Colombo and Trincomalee could not serve the fleet satisfactorily, and that, with the Japanese so close, its ships must be in constant danger while using them. It had, therefore, been decided to work from a secret base at Addu Atoll, the southernmost of the Maldive Islands, 600 miles south-west of Ceylon.33 There the fleet would be comparatively safe from surprise attack, and could train and exercise invisible to prying enemy eyes. But the atoll, though already in use as an anchorage and fuelling base, wholly lacked anti-submarine and anti-aircraft defences. We now know that the Japanese never learnt of the development of Addu Atoll as a base.
Intelligence indicated that the attack on Colombo and Trincomalee was to be expected on or about the 1st of April; Somerville expected it to be made at dawn from the south-east. He therefore concentrated his ships south of Ceylon on the last day of March, in a position from which his carriers could launch a night attack. He was determined at all costs to avoid being attacked by the enemy's carrier aircraft and, because of his inferior strength, to decline fleet action. He knew that whatever the weakness of his present fleet might be, it was the last that Britain could send into the Indian Ocean. The country simply could not afford that it should be hazarded. The time to take risks would, he hoped, come later. For the present he could only cling to the essentials, of which the greatest must be to preserve his fleet. The success of his plan depended greatly on early and accurate warning of enemy movements. Accordingly the six Catalinas, which were all that No. 205 Squadron of the R.A.F. had available in Ceylon, were ordered to fly patrols to a depth of 420 miles to the south-east. During daylight the fleet was kept outside the waters which enemy reconnaissance aircraft were likely to search. Somerville not only had a very difficult strategic problem to solve, but was beset by tactical troubles, the chief of which stemmed from the slowness of the R-class battleships. He decided to divide his fleet into a fast division (Indomitable, Formidable, Warspite, and the cruisers Cornwall, Emerald and Enterprise), and a slow division consisting of the R-class battleships and the remaining cruisers. His destroyers were shared about equally between the two divisions.
On the 31st of March fresh intelligence appeared to confirm Somerville's expectation that the attack would be made very soon; but the air patrols had so far sighted nothing. Next day his fleet was
cruising to the south of Ceylon, and the Dorsetshire, which had abruptly stopped a refit in Colombo, joined the flag. On the 1st and 2nd of April Somerville swept east by night and west by day, still awaiting reports from the reconnaissance aircraft. But nothing came in.
Late on the evening of the 2nd Somerville reviewed the situation. As no more reports of enemy intentions had reached him from Ceylon, he came to the conclusion that either we had been mistaken in expecting carrier-borne air attack, or that the Japanese had become aware of his concentration and had, therefore, postponed their plan. Some of his ships needed refuelling, and others were running short of water. He decided that the apparent lull gave him his best chance to replenish his fleet, and therefore returned to Addu Atoll. The Dorsetshire was ordered to continue her refit at Colombo, and the Cornwall was sent to provide onward escort for an Australian troop convoy due to arrive there on the 8th; the Hermes and one destroyer were sent to Trincomalee to prepare for the assault on Madagascar, to which the carrier had been allocated.34 Just after the main body of the fleet reached Addu Atoll on the afternoon of the 4th of April, a Catalina reported strong enemy surface forces 360 miles south-east of Ceylon and steering towards it.35 The long-awaited sighting report came at an unlucky moment. The fast division was in the middle of refuelling, and the slow division could not be ready for sea till next day.
Somerville decided that his best plan was to sail the fast division as soon as possible, leaving the slower ships to follow. He could not now intercept before the expected attack was launched, but he hoped to get in a night torpedo-bomber attack on the retiring enemy. Meanwhile in Ceylon Admiral Layton had brought the defences to the alert, and had cleared the harbours of all ships which could be got to sea. He knew that, with Somerville's fleet 600 miles away, the island's defences must stand entirely on their own legs. The two heavy cruisers, which had just reached Colombo, were sent south to meet the fast division, while the Hermes was ordered to sail from Trincomalee and keep clear to the north-east. At dawn on the 5th of April, which was Easter Sunday, air reports placed the enemy only 120 miles away. At 8 a.m. the attack on Colombo, by ninety-one bombers and three dozen fighters, started. The fighter defences of the island comprised three squadrons of Hurricanes, of which two were at Colombo and one at Trincomalee. There were also two squadrons of naval Fulmars ashore. Forty-two fighters took off to meet the enemy, and in the fierce air fighting which followed seven attackers
were destroyed for the loss of nineteen of our own aircraft. Unhappily six naval Swordfish, sent from Trincomalee as a torpedo striking force, arrived at the height of the fighting, and were all shot down. Shipping in the harbour and the port's equipment suffered relatively little, thanks to Admiral Layton's precautions. The attack had nothing like the deadly effect of the earlier one on Port Darwin, and Colombo was not put out of action.
The Dorsetshire and Cornwall had sailed late on the 4th to rendezvous with Admiral Somerville.36 Next morning enemy reconnaissance aircraft were sighted and reported by Captain A. W. S. Agar, V.C., of the Dorsetshire. Early in the afternoon a heavy attack by more than fifty bombers developed. Both ships quickly received many hits, and they sank in a few minutes. Once again Nagumo's carrier aircraft had shown how deadly they were against ships which lacked fighter cover. Survivors from the two ships collected around the few boats, rafts and wreckage. Late next afternoon, the 6th, the Enterprise and two destroyers detached by Admiral Somerville picked up 1,122 officers and men; but two valuable ships and 424 lives were lost.
To return now to the main fleet, the reports which came in on the 5th left Somerville in a good deal of doubt regarding the enemy's whereabouts. The slow division was still far astern, so the Admiral could not look to it for support. In the evening it seemed that the enemy might be making for Addu Atoll, so Somerville turned south. Then a more reliable report caused him to alter to the north-west.37 Searches were flown all that night; but nothing was sighted. Early on the 6th the slow and fast divisions met, but by that time the enemy had vanished. Somerville was still plagued by the possibility that Nagumo might be near Addu Atoll, either to attack it or to await the fleet's return to its vicinity. When Admiral Layton signalled that he estimated that a strong enemy force was between that base and Ceylon, Somerville decided that he must keep clear. Flying constant air searches he finally approached the atoll from the west, entered the harbour at 11 a.m. on the 8th and refuelled.
In fact Nagumo had withdrawn to the east after attacking Colombo, to prepare for a raid on Trincomalee. From the 6th to the 8th his reconnaissance aircraft did their utmost to find Somerville's fleet, but they sought him to the south-east of Ceylon, what time he was far to the west. We may be thankful that they never found him. On the afternoon of the 8th a Catalina reported a large force 400 miles east of Ceylon, steering once more towards the island. That night the harbour of Trincomalee was cleared of shipping. The Hermes, the destroyer Vampire and several merchantmen and fleet
auxiliaries were sent south and told to hug the coast. Early on the 9th the approach of enemy aircraft was detected. Their strength was about the same as at Colombo, but here only twenty-two fighters rose to meet them. A good deal of damage was done to shore installations. Nine R.A.F. Blenheims of No. 11 Squadron - all we had to strike back with - took off to find the enemy; but they got no hits, and five of their number were lost.
The ships sent out from Trincomalee were about sixty-five miles from the base when the attack took place. At 9 a.m. on the 9th they reversed course to enter harbour. By ill luck they were then reported by a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft, and at about 10:30 a.m. they were attacked by crushing strength. The shore-based fighters could not reach them in time, and forty bomb hits in ten minutes sank the Hermes. The Vampire soon shared her fate, as did the corvette Hollyhock and two tankers. Happily, over 600 survivors were rescued by a nearby hospital ship.
At the time we believed that the defending fighters had inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese carrier planes, especially over Colombo; but it is now plain that the claims were greatly exaggerated. According to Japanese records the whole operation only cost them seventeen aircraft.
Meanwhile the smaller of the two Japanese task forces, that of Admiral Ozawa, had been running riot in the Bay of Bengal, where our coastwise shipping was being sailed in small unescorted groups.38 In the short space of five days, between the 4th and 9th of April, twenty-three merchantmen of 112,312 tons were sunk. At about the same time Japanese U-boats started to work off the west coast of India, and in the first ten days of the same month they accounted for five more ships of 32,404 tons. Our trade and military traffic on both sides of the Indian sub-continent were completely disrupted. In the early hours of the 7th, two days before the attack on Trincomalee and the sinking of the Hermes, the Admiralty signalled to Somerville that their hope that the presence of his fleet and American pressure would together discourage the Japanese from sending powerful forces into the Indian Ocean had evidently proved vain. If the enemy cared to concentrate the forces which were scouring those waters, Somerville's fleet was, they realised, inferior in all respects. In such circumstances the R-class battleships might be 'more of a liability than an asset', and the Commander-in-Chief was given discretion to withdraw them to Africa. With regard to the rest of his fleet the Admiralty considered that it must not use Colombo for the present. This was very different from the hopes expressed five weeks earlier by the Admiralty regarding the defence of Ceylon.39
On the 8th Somerville replied agreeing to the Admiralty's proposals, and at the same time underlined the grim truth about his situation. He was in no doubt of the probable consequences of continuing to operate near Ceylon. Our shore-based and carrier-borne air strength was quite inadequate to deal with such numbers as Nagumo was able to throw in. The battle fleet could not at present be protected in those waters, and in such circumstances was only a liability. In the Ceylon bases his ships could find little security against air attacks; in Addu Atoll none at all. Accordingly he was sending his slow division to Kilindini in East Africa to guard the WS convoy route, but would keep the fast division in Indian waters, to be ready to deal with any attempt by the enemy to command those waters with light forces only. But he would stay clear of Ceylon. On the 10th, Somerville returned to the same theme, and urged his need for more carrier strength and for the slow battleships to be replaced by modern units of long endurance. The Malaya, which had been offered by the Admiralty, was rejected by the Commander-in-Chief because of her short endurance. The Nelson and Rodney, due to leave the Clyde in late May and early June and to reach Kilindini on the 7th of July, would be better.40 Until modern reinforcements reached him Somerville could only 'create diversions and false scents, since I am now the poor fox'. His needs were not disputed at home; but to meet them at once was a totally different matter.
In London the crisis which had suddenly, though not unexpectedly, blown up in the Indian Ocean aroused the gravest anxieties. On the 7th of April, Mr. Churchill told President Roosevelt that it seemed that the Japanese might be contemplating the invasion of Ceylon, and asked whether the Pacific Fleet could take such action as would compel the Japanese striking forces to return to the Pacific.41 Eight days later he returned to the same ominous theme with an outline of the strategic consequences of Japanese control over the Indian Ocean. 'With so much of the weight of Japan thrown upon us we have', wrote Mr. Churchill, 'more than we can bear'.42 He asked whether the American Pacific Fleet could at once move back to Pearl Harbor, whether United States naval reinforcements could be sent direct to Somerville or, alternatively, whether they could come to Scapa to enable us to release powerful modern ships to the Indian Ocean. In the Prime Minister's view, we needed eight or nine weeks' respite, at the end of which we should have ample forces (including the Illustrious, Valiant, Nelson and Rodney) available to reinforce the Eastern Fleet. On the 17th the President replied declining
to send American warships into the Indian Ocean, but he offered temporarily to replace some of the Home Fleet's battleships if they were sent east. He also said that measures were in hand in the Pacific which 'we hope you will find effective when they can be made known to you shortly'. The President may have been referring to the carrier-borne air raid on Tokyo43 or to the despatch of the task force which was soon to fight the Battle of the Coral Sea.44
To General Wavell in India the situation naturally appeared critical, and he complained to the Chiefs of Staff that he had been misled regarding the ability of the Navy to exercise such control of the Indian Ocean as would make the invasion of Ceylon or southern India impossible. While on passage in the Warspite from Bombay to Colombo to confer with Admiral Layton, he received Mr. Churchill's reply. It was as ever undaunted. The Eastern Fleet would, said the Prime Minister, be built up to such strength as would force the enemy, if they proposed to invade Ceylon or India, 'to make a larger detachment from their main fleet than they would wish . . . but if in the meantime Ceylon, [and] particularly Colombo, is lost all this gathering of a naval force will be futile'.45 In other words, the Commanders-in-Chief must hold on to the bare strategic essentials with hope and faith equal to the Prime Minister's, and must share his belief that a happier day would soon dawn.
But the Japanese actually had no further designs for conquest in the Indian Ocean. Nagumo's carriers returned to Japan after the raid on Trincomalee, to prepare for operations in the central Pacific in May and June. Their recall remained, however, shrouded from British eyes for some time, and a paradoxical situation thus arose; for while the Eastern Fleet had mostly withdrawn to East Africa, the enemy whom Somerville chiefly feared had withdrawn beyond the Malacca Straits. Within a few days of the attacks on Ceylon four thousand miles of ocean separated the main forces of the two contestants for control of the Indian Ocean. Nor did the Japanese fleet ever again enter those waters in force. Our shipping was thereafter molested only by submarines and surface raiders, as will be told in a later chapter.46 As to conditions at Colombo and Trincomalee, although the air attacks caused a big exodus and a decline of morale, there was a rapid recovery. By the middle of May Admiral Layton was able to tell the First Sea Lord that 'the people have got their chins up and are pulling well together', that the tone of the local Press was confident, and that the working of Colombo harbour, which had been about one-third of its full capacity in February and
had dropped to nothing after the air attacks, was now greatly improved and rising daily. Though no one realised it at the time, the crisis had passed.
It is difficult to resist the temptation to speculate on the course which events might have taken during those critical days in the Indian Ocean. In the first place it must be remembered that the treacherous Japanese onslaught on Britain and the United States, though not wholly unexpected, caught both us and the Americans by surprise when it came; and that we both suffered severe losses in the first few days of combat with this new enemy. Nor can it be doubted that the efficiency of the Japanese Navy, and especially of its air arm, was greatly underrated in some British circles. But our inability to protect our interests in the east, and to control sea routes over which British trade had flowed unhindered for nearly two centuries, stemmed from deeper causes than these. Never since the end of the First World War had the Royal Navy possessed the strength to fight a major enemy in the Far East as well as in the Atlantic, the Arctic and the Mediterranean. We had already, when France dropped out and Italy came in, taken on far more than had been believed possible when the 1939 War Plans were framed47 - and had done so with triumphant success, though at the cost of very severe losses. No maritime nation can wage a world-wide struggle almost alone for nearly two-and-a-half years without suffering losses; but one has only to glance at the tragically lengthy toll of British warships sunk between 1939 and 1942 to realise that the price paid for keeping the seas open during those long years had deprived us of the fleet which could have fought Japan on something like equal terms. Thus, when the need to build up an Eastern Fleet arose, it had to be done hurriedly, and could only be done with what ships could be scraped together from other sources. The first attempt ended in utter disaster, and the second very nearly ended in a greater one. Admiral Somerville ran all and more of the risks which he could justifiably take by moving to the south of Ceylon to try to protect that indispensable island from the sea; and one may feel that the goddess of fortune aided his escape. His action in restarting normal movements within his command before the attack on Colombo had taken place now seems to have been premature, and it certainly led to the loss of the Dorsetshire and Cornwall. When the report on these events reached London Mr. Churchill remarked that in his opinion Admiral Somerville had imprudently dispersed his forces. The First Sea Lord declared that this could not 'be allowed to go unchallenged' and the First Lord sent to the Prime Minister a reasoned explanation of all the circumstances surrounding the Admiral's actions. But, even had Admiral Somerville kept those ships with his main fleet, he still
could not possibly have challenged Nagumo successfully, though the ships would in that case presumably have been preserved along with the rest. What Somerville chiefly lacked was, of course, adequate carrier-borne air strength; but the shore-based air reconnaissance and striking power were also far too weak, and his bases were inadequately defended against attack on such a scale. Given two or three more fleet carriers in substitution for the old and cumbersome R-class battleships, a dozen more long-range reconnaissance aircraft and a few squadrons of shore-based torpedo-bombers, he could have challenged Nagumo with confidence. The margin of his needs over his resources does not now seem very large; but to achieve success the needs had to be filled with modern ships and aircraft, not with the resurrected survivals of an earlier struggle. To Britain the sweeping of our shipping from the Bay of Bengal, and the unopposed incursion of a major force into waters over which we had so long held undisputed control, had presented almost as serious a menace as the forays of German warships into the Atlantic. A lifeline can, after all, be cut at either end or in the middle. But because this threat was far away from our own shores the need to prepare against it in peace time, and the provision of the necessary ships and money to do so, may have appeared less urgent than the numerous calls nearer home. Even today the full gravity of the events of April 1942 seems to have come home to us far less vividly than similar events in the Atlantic. The chief lessons are, of course, that a maritime power which is utterly dependent on sea communications must possess adequately equipped and defended bases at all the many overseas strategic centres from which she may at any time have to operate her defensive forces; and secondly that she will always need a strategic reserve of ships and aircraft capable of being quickly switched to the threatened centres. In the event we were saved from disaster in the Indian Ocean, though more by good fortune than by our own exertions. For when matters looked most grim for us the Japanese diverted their forces to the central Pacific. The advantage which they had gained in the Indian Ocean was thus never pressed home, and the transfer of their main strength to the east led, two months later, to the decisive battle of Midway, in which Nagumo's carrier striking force was destroyed.
At the end of May the Admiralty was planning for the Eastern Fleet to return to Ceylon late in July. That movement must, of course, be the first step towards re-establishing our control over the Indian Ocean. Colombo would, so they hoped, then be able to take six or seven big ships (battleships or carriers) simultaneously; but another nine months would be needed before Trincomalee could be made ready to receive a major fleet and also adequate shore-based air forces. Addu Atoll could not, in the Admiralty's view, be made
Map 5. The South West Pacific, Showing the Battle of the Coral Sea.
into a really satisfactory base in under one-and-a-half to two years, but work was proceeding there. A large programme of works of a greater or smaller nature was also to be undertaken at Kilindini, Diego Suarez in Madagascar, Seychelles and Mauritius,48 all of which had been very deficient in, if not wholly without base facilities when Japan entered the war. Admiral Somerville, in his reply to these proposals, expressed the view that Kilindini (Mombasa) should be made the principal base, for neither Colombo nor Trincomalee could wholly fill the function. Kilindini, on the other hand, was excellently placed for the defence of the Middle East supply route, and all the paraphernalia of a big fleet's shore organisation could be satisfactorily established there. Seychelles, Mauritius and Diego Garcia (in the Chagos Archipelago) all needed protection to enable them to be used as fuelling bases, and the Commander-in-Chief considered the first of these three by far the most important. Diego Suarez in Madagascar, where there was a dock, would be valuable to relieve the congestion at Durban and Colombo.49 But the outstanding need of his fleet was for 'action of some sort', and he was hoping to make carrier air attacks on Port Blair in the Andaman Islands or on Sabang in Sumatra as soon as he had enough strength, and had trained his fleet to the necessary pitch.
It was indeed inevitable that the establishment of well-found bases at such a distance from home should prove one of the most intractable of the many problems which faced the Admiralty; and it now seems all too clear that our acute difficulties in the Indian Ocean during the first half of 1942 stemmed largely from failure to provide proper bases in peace time.
We must now turn to the American strategic zone and retrace our steps a few weeks to follow the events which had taken place there since the fall of the Dutch East Indies. The main purpose of American strategy was now to prevent the Japanese capturing the chain of island bases running from Samoa in the east, through the Fiji Islands, the New Hebrides and New Caledonia to New Guinea in the west, and so bestriding the vital reinforcement route to Australia and New Zealand.50 Early in 1942 urgent steps had been taken to reinforce the garrisons in some of these islands, and to establish protected fuelling bases in them. At that time they possessed almost nothing to enable them to fulfil their new function, except the natural qualities of their extensive and well-sheltered harbours. The Australians reinforced Port Moresby in New Guinea; New Zealand
did the same for Suva in Fiji; and the Americans, besides shipping troops, stores and aircraft to Australia, developed bases in the Friendly Islands, Christmas Island, Canton Island, and at Noumea in New Caledonia.51 The last named, which possessed a magnificent harbour, was a French colony which had joined de Gaulle's cause. It was to become the first major advanced base of the forces assembling to stop further Japanese penetration southwards. But, for all the fiery energy and technical skill devoted by the Americans to creating these bases out of almost nothing, the great distances over which all the equipment had to be hauled made it an inevitably slow process; and meanwhile Allied strategy had to remain defensive.
Whilst we are dealing with the essential, if slow, process of creating the necessary advanced bases in this vast theatre it should be mentioned that late in May the American naval and military commanders ordered the occupation of Espiritu Santo in the northern New Hebrides. This harbour was some 300 miles nearer than Noumea to the waters around the Solomon Islands, in which it was realised that the Japanese challenge would have to be seriously met. The first forces were taken to Espiritu Santo by the New Zealand cruiser Leander, and were flung ashore on what was at the time a peaceful coconut-clad tropical island occupied by a few French planters. It was difficult to realise that within a few months the Americans would have transformed it into one of the busiest maritime bases in the world. It played a very important part in the later heavy fighting for control of the Solomon Islands.52
Although in April 1942 the Allies could not yet afford to risk a major counter-attack, task forces had been formed around the four American fleet carriers, and they operated against the enemy from Wake and Marcus Islands in the north to Rabaul in New Britain in the south. No spectacular results were achieved, nor were they expected; but valuable experience was gained. This defensive phase included the well-known raid on Tokyo and other Japanese cities by sixteen United States Army bombers under Lieutenant-Colonel J. H. Doolittle. They were launched from the Hornet 680 miles from their target on the 18th of April, but could in no event have landed on to the carrier again. They were therefore ordered to fly to friendly airfields in China. Only four of the sixteen bombers got down successfully, but the majority of the aircrews who took part in this daring venture survived.53 The raid had the effect of making the Japanese hasten their plans to capture Midway Island.
That same month of April saw a reorganization in the Pacific.
General D. MacArthur was appointed Supreme Allied Commander, South-West Pacific, which included Australia, and Admiral C. W. Nimitz, U.S.N. became Commander-in-Chief of the vast Pacific theatre stretching from the Aleutians to New Zealand.54 Admiral Nimitz's responsibility was sub-divided into North, Central, and South Pacific, and Admiral R. L. Ghormley, U.S.N., was appointed to command the last named, covering the waters with which we here are particularly concerned.55 The naval forces under General MacArthur were commanded by Vice-Admiral H. F. Leary, U.S.N., and included the Australian Navy's warships which had originally formed part of the Anzac Force.56 The New Zealand warships now came under Admiral Ghormley. Hardly had this redistribution of responsibilities become effective when measures had to be taken to deal with the next Japanese move, aimed at the capture of Port Moresby in south-east New Guinea. On the 20th of April a strong enemy expedition escorted by cruisers and destroyers sailed from Truk in the Caroline Islands for Rabaul, whence it steamed southwards towards the Coral Sea. From it a small force was detached to occupy Tulagi in the Solomons, which was accomplished on the 3rd of May. The importance of Tulagi lay in its command of the excellent anchorage in adjacent Purvis Bay, and of the narrow waters between it and the island of Guadalcanal.57
The invasion force for Moresby was powerfully covered by the light fleet carrier Shoho and four heavy cruisers, while a striking force of two large carriers (Zuikaku and Shokaku), two heavy cruisers and six destroyers prepared to enter the Coral Sea from the east.58 The Japanese hoped to surprise the Allied forces sent to deal with the invasion fleet by attacking them from the rear with the striking force. By the 17th of April intelligence had indicated what was in the wind, and Admiral Nimitz sent down two powerful task forces formed around the fleet carriers Lexington and Yorktown, and a third force composed of cruisers. In addition the available Australian ships (Australia and Hobart) under Rear-Admiral J. G. Crace, and American ships from Admiral Leary's command, were put under Rear Admiral F. J. Fletcher, U.S.N., who was in charge of the actual operations. It was not the last occasion when timely and accurate intelligence enabled Allied forces to be moved over big distances to a critical point. Indeed, all the great battles in the Pacific, from the Aleutians to the Coral Sea, demonstrate the tremendous advantage
which the intelligence services can place in the hands of a nation's combat forces.
During the 4th and 5th of May the opposing fleets were still unaware of each other's strength and whereabouts, but early on the 6th the invasion force bound for Moresby was sighted by a reconnaissance aircraft off the eastern tip of New Guinea. On the morning of the 7th the American carrier aircraft found and sank the Shoho. Admiral Crace's force was heavily attacked by shore-based aircraft, but suffered no damage.
Throughout the 7th each side's search aircraft tried to locate the other's main forces. The Japanese succeeded, but the subsequent striking force failed to find Admiral Fletcher's ships in the prevailing low visibility, and returned to the carriers having accomplished nothing except the destruction of a detached fleet oiler and her destroyer escort. Early next morning the crisis came with simultaneous sighting by both sides of the other's fleet carriers. Striking forces were at once launched. The Shokaku was severely damaged; but both American carriers were hit. At first the Lexington's damage did not seem serious, but later a violent explosion occurred, uncontrollable fires broke out, and she had to be abandoned and sunk. But the Japanese force had also suffered heavily, especially in aircraft, and their commander decided to withdraw.59
In a tactical sense the Battle of the Coral Sea was a drawn fight, but in terms of strategy it was an Allied victory; for the enemy failed to gain control of the Coral Sea, or to seize the important base of Port Moresby. Not only did the battle mark the opening of a new era in maritime tactics, for not a single surface ship of either side sighted the enemy, but it was also to prove the turning point in the struggle in the south Pacific. But this was, of course, not at once apparent, and the loss of the Lexington at a time when superiority in carrier strength lay with the enemy caused a good deal of anxiety. The Hornet and Enterprise were sent south in case the challenge was renewed, but when intelligence of Japanese intentions in the central Pacific came to hand they were recalled. In the enemy's camp the Coral Sea battle was not regarded as a serious setback, and they went ahead with their plans to attack Midway Island and the Aleutians. They hoped to seize Midway which 'acts as a sentry for Hawaii', to provoke action with the main American fleet, and to destroy it piecemeal and finally. The Aleutian operations aimed at the occupation of Attu, Kiska and Adak60, but were chiefly intended to draw the Americans north and so aid the achievement of the main object of fighting a fleet action off Midway.
Map 6. The Battle of Midway, 4th July 1942.
By the middle of May the Americans had good evidence that a movement to the east, and in great strength, was intended by the Japanese Navy. In aircraft carriers the U.S. Navy's position was by no means happy. The Lexington had recently been sunk, the Wasp was on her way back to America after completing her invaluable reinforcements of Malta61, and the Saratoga, having just completed repairs, was not yet ready for battle. The Yorktown had been damaged at Coral Sea, but was rapidly made fit for service at Pearl Harbor. She, the Enterprise and the Hornet were all that could be mustered to meet the threat from four (or possibly six) Japanese carriers. The aircraft complement of the three American ships totalled 233. We now know that 272 aircraft were embarked in Nagumo's striking force. It was natural for the U.S. Navy Department to seek means of mitigating its inferiority in carrier air strength. It is clear from the Admiralty's records that neither the nature nor the quality of the American Navy's intelligence regarding Japanese movements and intentions reached London until the 19th or 20th May. On the former date Admiral E. J. King, the American Chief of Naval Operations, signalled an 'appreciation' to Admiral Pound and asked either for a British aircraft carrier to be moved from the Indian Ocean to the south-west Pacific, or for air attacks to be made on Rangoon and the Andaman Islands, or for action to be taken to interrupt Japanese communications between Singapore and Rangoon. Not until late on the 22nd when, at the First Sea Lord's suggestion, Admiral Little, the head of the British Admiralty Delegation in Washington, had an interview with Admiral King, did the Admiralty become aware that an attack on Midway Island and the Aleutians appeared from intelligence to be a really strong probability. Though it is true that the Admiralty was unable at that time to meet the American request for the transfer of a British carrier to the Pacific, it is important that the problem which faced the British authorities should be viewed in the light of their other world-wide commitments.62 The Eastern Fleet had recently completed the Madagascar operations, of which more will be said in a later chapter,63 and two of its carriers were undergoing repairs at Kilindini. Furthermore, a large proportion of its strength was about to pass into the Mediterranean to assist in the June convoy to Malta.64 None the less the Admiralty asked Admiral Somerville whether he could move a powerful force to Colombo, and possibly attack Sumatra or the Andaman Islands. Somerville considered that the best he could do with the ships left to him was to make a diversionary movement
towards Ceylon. He would sail for that purpose on the 27th-28th May. It is hard to see what other help we could have given to our American Allies at their time of anxiety. Lest it still be felt that British carriers could have quickly reinforced the U.S. Pacific Fleet, it should be pointed out that they could hardly have covered the 11,000 miles from Kilindini to Pearl Harbor by the south of Australia in time to take part in the Battle of Midway. If any misunderstanding arose on this occasion, it seems that it was brought about partly by American slowness in giving the Admiralty the full intelligence of which they were possessed by the middle of May.
As the month of May drew to a close Admiral Nimitz completed his preparations.65 Strong air reconnaissance and submarine patrols were established, and his striking power was built around Rear Admiral F. J. Fletcher's Carrier Striking Force. The enemy's orders were issued on the 5th of May, and said that 'the Commander-in-Chief Combined Fleet will . . . invade and occupy strategic points in the western Aleutians and Midway Island'. The Japanese fleet, which was superior in all classes, started to move out from its bases between the 24th and 27th. Nagumo was again in command of the fleet carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu, but he was this time supported by Yamamoto's full strength of seven battleships, a light fleet carrier and a host of smaller ships. The Midway Occupation Force under Admiral Kondo covered and escorted the transports, while a smaller fleet, which included two light carriers, looked after the assault forces destined simultaneously to attack the western Aleutians. Admiral Nimitz had already decided not to allow his slender forces to be drawn off to counter this northern threat.
The great enemy Armada bound for Midway had the good fortune to be shielded by low visibility until the 3rd of June. Rear-Admiral Fletcher with the Yorktown and Rear-Admiral R. A. Spruance with the Enterprise and Hornet sailed from Pearl Harbor before the end of May, fuelled at sea and concentrated north-east of Midway Island on the 2nd of June.66 The first sighting report came in next morning, actually on the enemy transport group. Attacks by American land-based aircraft followed, but they only damaged one ship. Fletcher, who expected the enemy carriers to attack Midway early on the 4th wisely held off during these first contacts.
At 5:34 a.m. on the 4th Nagumo's ships were sighted and reported about 200 miles south-west of the American carriers. The first enemy striking force bound for Midway had been flown off an hour earlier,
and the hundred-odd Japanese planes hit the small island base hard. But on this occasion to get in the first blow was not to prove an advantage; for Nagumo had committed half his striking power before he knew that American carriers were in the vicinity, and looking for him. At first Nagumo fared fortunately; for the land-based bombers and torpedo-bombers sent out from Midway did him no damage, and themselves suffered heavy losses. Then, at 7:15, he made the fatal mistake of ordering the ninety-three aircraft which he had kept in hand to deal with enemy warships to change their torpedoes for bombs, and prepare to make a second attack on the island base. Thirteen minutes later a Japanese cruiser's aircraft reported enemy surface ships, but made no mention of carriers. This made the Japanese Admiral hesitate, but it was 7:45 before he changed his mind and ordered his second striking force to prepare to attack the ship targets. Inevitably great confusion resulted on board the Japanese carriers. The first wave was about to return from Midway, and would soon have to land on to refuel and rearm, what time the second wave was trying to arm with bombs instead of torpedoes or, if it had already done so, to change back again to torpedoes.
Admiral Spruance, who aimed to catch the enemy while refuelling his planes, did not start to fly off his strike aircraft until just after 7 a.m. From the Enterprise and Hornet sixty-seven dive-bombers and twenty-nine torpedo-bombers, escorted by two score fighters, were despatched. Admiral Fletcher delayed his launch from the Yorktown for more than an hour, in case more enemy carriers were sighted. Meanwhile Nagumo continued to steam towards Midway, flew on most of his first striking force and then, at 9:17, turned north-east towards the American ships. He was caught exactly as Spruance had hoped-with all his strike aircraft on board to refuel and rearm. But his alteration of course to the north-east brought him one stroke of luck, for it caused the entire group of thirty-five dive-bombers from the Hornet to miss him; and that not only temporarily saved his ships, but left the American torpedo-bombers to attack alone. They went in most gallantly, suffered terrible losses, but obtained no hits. Out of forty-one torpedo aircraft from the three carriers only six returned. Happily the dive-bombers from the Enterprise and Yorktown soon came on the scene, and immediately transformed the battle. They attacked at about 10:30 while the Japanese ships were turning in all directions to avoid torpedoes. The Enterprise's group of thirty-seven aircraft did lethal damage to the Akagi (Nagumo's flagship) and the Kaga. At almost the same time the Yorktown's group struck the Soryu, and with just as deadly effect. By noon the three Japanese carriers were sinking; but American aircraft losses had been heavy, and one Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, was still afloat with an intact air group on board.
The Hiryu launched her full strength in two flights at about 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. to attack the Yorktown, which the enemy believed to be the only American carrier present. Admiral Yamamoto had meanwhile called down the two light carriers from the Aleutians expedition to join him. He hoped to engage in a general fleet action next morning. In spite of good work by her protecting fighters the Yorktown received three bomb hits, which started bad fires. Admiral Fletcher, like Nagumo a little earlier, had to shift his flag to a cruiser. Just when the damage was being got under control the second wave from the Hiryu came in, and two of their torpedoes crippled the Yorktown. The ship was abandoned, as it turned out prematurely; for she remained afloat, was boarded again next day, righted and got in tow, only to be torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on the 6th. She finally sank on the 7th. The Americans had to learn the hard way from the loss of this fine ship what we had learnt from a similar experience with the Ark Royal, namely that a list appears more dangerous than it is, that counter-flooding must be employed as soon as possible, and that a damaged ship should never be wholly abandoned.67 But it was a heavy blow, coming at such a time.
Before the Yorktown was first hit search aircraft were looking for the surviving Japanese carrier. At 2:45 p.m. she was sighted, and the Enterprise again launched her redoubtable dive-bombers. At 5 p.m. they found the Hiryu, and dealt with her as effectively as with the earlier three. She sank next morning, and that was the end of Nagumo's famous and feared striking force, and of its 272 aircraft. Pearl Harbor, the ships lost off Kuantan, and those sunk at Port Darwin and off Ceylon had been amply avenged. For some hours after this Yamamoto refused to bow to the inevitable. Not till the early hours of the 5th did he order a general retirement. Spruance had done brilliantly, and one cannot but accept the American historian's view that he was wise not to commit his two surviving carriers and their depleted aircrews to a headlong pursuit.68 Had he continued westwards instead of withdrawing east with the Enterprise and Hornet, he might well have run right into the powerful surface forces which were seeking action with him during the night of the 4th-5th.
One more success sealed this splendid victory. A powerful Japanese squadron of four heavy cruisers had been ordered to bombard Midway in the early hours of the 5th. On sighting an American submarine an emergency turn was ordered, and in executing it the Mogami rammed the Mikuma. Both were damaged, and the former caught fire. A searching Catalina soon found the cripples. Shore based aircraft from Midway attacked first, but it was once again the
dive-bombers of the Enterprise and Hornet which did the execution. At 8 a.m. on the 6th both enemies were hit, and although the Mogami survived and managed to struggle into Truk, her sister ship was sunk. It was these two ships which had sunk the Houston and Perth off the Java coast the previous February.69
Meanwhile Yamamoto had concentrated his great fleet, including the ships which had been covering the Aleutians expedition. Although he had ordered a general retirement in the early hours of the 5th, and had abandoned the assault on Midway, he still hoped to bring about a fleet action, or to draw Spruance within range of shore-based bombers from Wake Island. On the 6th, as soon as he heard of the carriers' attack on the Mogami and Mikuma, he sent a powerful cruiser force to find and attack the Enterprise and Hornet. That afternoon he turned his main body south, still hoping to intercept the American ships. But Spruance had no intention of being drawn into such a trap. Early on the 7th Yamamoto turned west for his fuelling rendezvous. Next day his offensive hopes were finally abandoned, and he returned whence he had come. His entire plan had been wrecked by 'four score American naval airmen', and that in spite of the great Japanese superiority in ships and gunpower.
In terms of naval tactics the victory of Midway was revolutionary. Many actions in which British aircraft carriers had fought earlier in the war, such as Taranto, Matapan and the pursuit of the Bismarck, had pointed the way to where the striking power now chiefly lay70; and Coral Sea had emphasised the lessons.71 But it was in this great battle that the decisiveness of carrier-borne air weapons was finally and decisively proved. Virtually all the damage done on both sides was accomplished by them. The shore-based aircraft, though numerous and most gallantly flown, accomplished practically nothing, and their losses were heavy. Only the sinking of the Yorktown marred the completeness of the victory.
In terms of strategy the consequences were far reaching. The dominance of the Japanese navy in the Pacific had lasted for a few days short of six months. At Midway it was destroyed in a few hours. Never again could they build up a carrier force so powerful and so highly trained as Admiral Nagumo's, and henceforth they were steadily forced back on the defensive. On the other hand, American strength and skill were growing at a rate which, at the beginning of the year, had seemed fantastically impossible; and the power of the new task forces was soon to make itself felt throughout the length and breadth of the whole Pacific theatre. The strategic situation had been transformed overnight; and it in no way belittles the accomplishments
of the ships which entered the fight later to remind posterity that the checking of Japanese ambitions in the Coral Sea and their decisive defeat at Midway were almost wholly accomplished by the four pre-war American carriers Lexington, Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet. Rarely can such rich benefits have been derived from so few ships.
The Japanese plans were, of course, radically altered as a result of this defeat, though the change was not at once accepted. In the north they had seized the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska;72 in the south they held a foothold in the strategically important Solomon Islands, and still aimed to capture Samoa, Fiji and New Caledonia. They knew that forces were being built up for an Allied counteroffensive in these latter waters. Orders to launch attacks against the Allied island bases had been given on the 18th of May, but after the Battle of Midway they were postponed for two months. Then, on the 11th of July, the orders were cancelled, and a new directive naming Port Moresby again as the main object was issued. This time it was to be attacked overland from the bases which the enemy had seized in northern New Guinea. The campaign opened on the 21st of July, just when the Americans were preparing to launch their counterblow against the Solomon Islands. The fierce land and sea fighting which developed from these rival offensives will form an important part of a later chapter.
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