America’s Decisive Strike in the Pacific in WW2

By John Grehan

Published by Frontline Books. ISBN 978-1-52675-834-7

Subtitled “America’s decisive strike in the Pacific in WW2”, and published by Pen & Sword, this is a profusely-illustrated volume in softback format. John Grehan is the author of more than 20 military history books covering every period of military history: his accessible style and skilful use of material make this an excellent overview of the whole Midway campaign. He opens with a brief Introduction, which describes how, from the Japanese viewpoint, the First Phase of their operations had relied upon rapid and overwhelming assaults on weakly-defended targets throughout East Asia. In April 1942, Admiral Yamamoto of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) told the assembled officers in his flagship Yamato that the Second Phase of operations was about to begin. This was to be fast, brutal and hard-hitting, with the aim of extending the defensive perimeter of their possessions while at the same time decisively defeating the US Navy (a task that they had failed to achieve at Pearl Harbor). The opening battle in this phase – the attempt by the Japanese to capture the important harbour of Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, led to the Battle of the Coral Sea. Grehan comments that this was conducted entirely by ship-borne aircraft and the first in which none of the surface vessels sighted or fired on each other. Although the attempt to capture the port failed, the battle ended with the loss of the US carrier Lexington and considerable damage to the Yorktown. The IJN assumed that the latter vessel would be out of action for months and Yamamoto calculated that, if he could lure the US Navy out by attacking their Naval Air Base at Midway Atoll, the westernmost of the scattered Hawaiian Islands, he would be able to pounce on their remaining aircraft carriers with his powerful battleships and annihilate them. He had a formidable force of warships and aircraft carriers, although this had been somewhat weakened by the insistence of the Japanese Army on carrying out a simultaneous strike on the remote Aleutian Islands.

Admiral Nagumo, Commander of the Carrier Striking Force

Grehan describes the opening phase of the battle, in which the Japanese Occupation Force of troopships approached the islands on 3 June 1942, supported by the separate Carrier Striking Force under Admiral Nagumo. Yamamoto also commanded (in person) the Fleet Main Force, which he intended to use to finally crush the US Pacific Fleet. However, the rapid tempo of Japanese operations before this operation had led to a reduction in the efficiency of the aircrew of the carrier force, with many inexperienced flyers having recently joined to replace battle losses. “Japan had only planned for a short war”, comments Grehan.

ice Admiral Frank Fletcher, commanding the Yorktown Task Force

The IJN had hoped to achieve complete surprise in their attack on Midway, but skilful use of intelligence had enabled the USN to identify the target and to enhance their defensive forces on the islands, including B17 bombers and recently-arrived Avenger fighter-bombers. Under the overall command of Admiral Nimitz, the USN could field three aircraft carriers and supporting warships. Unknown to the Japanese, Yorktown had been hastily repaired in a heroic effort by the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard. USS Hornet and Enterprise formed Task Force 16 under Admiral Spruance and Yorktown with its escorts formed Task Force 17 under Admiral Fletcher. Advance warning of enemy plans enabled Nimitz to position his fleet to the north of Midway, in a prime position to surprise the would-be invaders.

As the Japanese force approached the islands and waves of attacking aircraft took off to bomb the runways and facilities, they were themselves attacked by Midway’s land-based fighters and bombers. The fighters caught the oncoming waves of aircraft by surprise and claimed many shot down. SBD Dauntless bombers attacked the carriers and claimed some hits on the Akagi, but they were badly shot up by the Japanese fighters and defensive fire from the ships. B17 bombers were next to attack with 600lb bombs and claimed two hits on the Soryu.

While Nagumo’s fighters were successfully fending off these attacks, the Japanese admiral had to consider his next move. “He was blissfully unaware of the presence of the US carriers”, comments Grehan. The returning attackers reported that they had failed to put the airbase out of action and a second strike would be necessary before the invasion force could go in. Nagumo ordered the aircraft of the second wave, which had been loaded with torpedoes to attack the USN fleet, to be re-loaded with bombs for a second attack on the islands. Nagumo was confident that, as the only attacks on him had come from Midway, there was no enemy carrier force in the vicinity.

However, he had been spotted by PBY (Catalina) reconnaissance aircraft and his position radioed to Admirals Fletcher and Spruance. At just after 07.00, Enterprise and Hornet both started launching aircraft in formations of fighters, dive-bombers and torpedo aircraft. Yorktown followed suit at 08.40, launching torpedo bombers and fighters. Almost simultaneously, Japanese reconnaissance aircraft spotted the US fleet and sent Nagumo the electrifying news that it included an aircraft carrier (Yorktown).

The first wave of US attacking aircraft were TBD Devastator torpedo bombers. They met overwhelming opposition from fighters and anti-aircraft fire from the ships. Of 15 aircraft from Hornet, none survived. Subsequent Devastator squadrons attacked bravely, but none scored a direct hit on the Japanese carriers and almost all were lost.

At about 09.45, Dauntless bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown next attacked, catching the Japanese carriers with their decks crowded with fully fuelled and armed aircraft. The Devastator attacks had left the Japanese defending fighters low on fuel and ammunition, so the Dauntless bombers were rewarded with stunning success. Three Japanese carriers, the Akagi, Soryu and Kaga were left with uncontrollable fires and structural damage, so that all were abandoned and subsequently sank.

USS Yorktown after the first Japanese attack. The crew make “almost superhuman” efforts to patch the flight deck

At 10.50, Admiral Nagumo ordered the aircraft of the only carrier that had not been hit, Hiryu, to counterattack. The undamaged Hiryu was able to launch18 Aichi Type 99 bombers to attack Yorktown. The US carrier detected the incoming force and launched its remaining F4F Wildcat fighters. They were so effective that, of the 18 attacking bombers, only 7 or 8 broke through, to be met by the concentrated anti-aircraft fire of Yorktown’s escorts. Shortly after noon, the US carrier was hit by a bomb just aft of the midships elevator (lift). This damaged the flight deck and started fires in the hangar below. Two more bombs struck the vessel, but all the attacking bombers are believed to have been shot down. Yorktown’s crew made an almost superhuman effort to rescue their ship, patching up the flight deck so that aircraft could be re-positioned and fighting the many fires. However, at about 14.30, another wave of attackers, this time by torpedo bombers, was detected. Yorktown was able to launch several Wildcat fighters, but the torpedo bombers broke through and the vessel was struck by at least two torpedoes. At the same time, aircraft from Enterprise had located and attacked the Hiryu, leaving the enemy ship burning fiercely, so that she later sank. By late in the afternoon, Yorktown was listing badly and had to be abandoned. She remained afloat over the night, but early the next morning, capsized and sank.

Early the next day, 5 June, after minor clashes between aircraft and units of the Japanese fleet and the loss of a heavy cruiser as well as all four of his carries, Admiral Yamamoto ordered the abandonment of the operation.

All these epic events are illustrated with hundreds of dramatic photographs, mostly from USN archives. The last hours of the stricken Yorktown are particularly well illustrated. Grehan sketches in the strategic background to the battle, but the emphasis of this splendid book is on the people who fought in it. Many of the aircrew are illustrated and their stories told, giving a valuable insight into the human side of the battle. The book is an informative (and inexpensive) contribution to our knowledge of the Pacific war.


A History of Luftwaffe Maritime Operations

By Lawrence Paterson

Published by Seaforth. ISBN 978 1 5267 4002 1

The striking cover picture of two Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor aircraft attacking merchant ships sets the tone for this magisterial account of German naval aviation. The author, Lawrence Paterson, has spent many years researching German naval operations and has written several books on the Kriegsmarine. He opens with a brief summary of German naval aviation in World War 1. As did the RN in the same period, the Kriegsmarine employed both airships and fixed-wing aircraft. During the war, the airships flew more than one thousand reconnaissance missions and hundreds of bombng raids on British harbours and towns. Fixed-wing aviation was concentrated on seaplanes, some of which were capable of air-launching torpedoes, while land based aircraft were also used to protect naval bases. The Kriegsmarine converted ships as seaplane tenders and work commenced on building true aircraft carriers, capable of keeping up with capital ships. The war ended before these developments could be brought to fruition.

In a chapter headed “Renaissance”, the author describes how Germany, despite being bound by the terms of the Versailles Treaty at the end of the war, accumulated a secret “Ruhr Fund” to covertly develop miltary forces. Much of this money went to aircraft manufacturers. Dornier, for example, developed the highly successful twin engined flying boat, the Do J Wal (Whale). This was militarised into the Do 15. The author describes how secret training was provided to potential miltary aircrew. One training establishment was set up in Russia, while at home; supposedly civilian flying clubs increased the military capability of a generation of young men. Naval aircraft design activity continued and Heinkel produced the two-set He60, a reconnaissance float plane for shipborne use.

When Hitler assumed power in 1933, the Küstenfliegergruppen or Coastal Naval Air Services were established on a firm footing within the Kriegsmarine, although this status was overshadowed by the assertion of Air Force General Herman Göring, that “everything that flies belongs to us”. The Spanish Civil War provided a fruitful operational arena for the men of the naval arm (as for the Luftwaffe). Naval units operated as part of the Condor Legion and developed anti-shipping tactics in which dive-bombing emerged as the Luftwaffe’s preferred attack method. Torpedo attacks were hindered by the lack of a reliable air-dropped weapon – a shortcoming that continued throughout the War.

By the time that WW2 broke out, work was well advanced on the German Navy’s aircraft carrier, the Graf Zeppelin, which had been launched in December 1938. This was potentially an impressive vessel, well armoured and theoretically capable of 34 knots. An Air Group had been planned, consisting of Ju 87C dive-bombers, Fi 167 torpedo bombers and Bf 109T fighters. The ship was equipped with two compressed-air catapults; capable of launching high-performance aircraft. The construction of the aircraft carrier was a stop-start affair, comments the author, that serves as an illustration of the fate of the entire naval air arm. Naval aircraft development stalled: the promising and entirely new Fieseler design did not survive beyond the pre-production phase, while only a few Ju 87 had been modified with folding wings and arrester hooks before work on the carrier was suspended and the aircraft order was cancelled.

Despite the diminution and subsequent demise of the fixed-wing aircraft carrier role, the naval air arm stepped up operations with the He 115 muti-purpose torpedo bomber, minelaying and reconnaissance aircraft. These floatplanes were used in October 1940 against a British east coast convoy in a combined operation with Luftwaffe Ju 88s. Co-ordination between the two arms was poor, so that the slower floatplanes were caught by rapidly-scrambled Spitfires and four were shot down in a matter of minutes. This disaster was discussed by Admiral Raeder with Hitler, in which the naval leader pleaded with Hitler for better co-ordination of planning. Raeder argued that it was absolutely necessary for naval aircraft to train and operate closely with naval forces. The Fuhrer declared that “…there is no question of such measures”. He had frequently been reassured by Göring that Luftwaffe pilots were competent in navigation over the sea, notwithstanding their complete lack of any training or experience in this role.

The author describes the role of naval aviation in the German invasion of Norway, patrolling the North Sea approaches to southern Norway. The operation marked the combat debut of the Fw 200 Condor, a remarkable aircraft that had started life as an airliner. It was used as a long range transport and in the reconnaissance and anti-shipping role. As the German forces went ashore, the naval air arm was heavily occupied in identifying and attacking RN vessels shelling the landings, also in mine-laying. Britain was forced to withdraw its land forces from Norway as the Germans consolidated their hold and allied vessels were heavily attacked by Ju 87 dive bombers. The Stuka pilots were guided to their targets by naval He 115s, because navigation over the sea in these two-seat aircaft was impossible.

In a chapter entitled “The End of the Beginning” we read that Hitler issued an order in February 1941 giving the Luftwaffe the lion’s share of naval aviation and stating that there were no plans to maintain a separate naval air arm. This led to a major re-organisation of Luftwaffe forces as they took over maritime responsibilities. Late 1941 also saw the dramatic deployment of X Fliegerkorps to the Mediterranean in support of Italy’s failing war in North Africa. This maritime unit was equipped with numerous Bf109, Bf 110 fighters and Ju 87 Stukas supported by Ju 52 transport aircraft.  The arrival of X Fliegerkorps in the Mediterranean had a dramatic effect on allied forces, including highly-effective attacks on RN units supporting the evacuation from Crete.

In a description of German attempts to disrupt allied convoys in 1941/42, the author comments that the Luftwaffe’s refusal to use Kriegsmarine data on torpedo development “erupted in a ridiculous bout of inter-service rivalry”. Torpedo development proceeded slowly, but the author recounts how combined bombing and torpedo attacks on allied convoys took a terrible toll in loss of life and the continuing delivery of supplies. The book ends in 1942, with the Luftwaffe’s maritime operations probably at their peak of effectiveness.

As well as many accounts of airborne action, Lawrence Paterson provides detailed descriptions of inter-service disputes at the highest levels. He also shows how the naval and air arms were organised (and frequently re-organised) to reflect their changing roles. In an Appendix, he lists and briefly describes the main aircraft involved in maritime operations, several of which are rarely encountered in more popular histories.

This is an outstanding production by Seaforth and is in every respect a most useful source of reference. The author provides an extensive bibliography.and scholarly notes, together with a comprehensive index. All serious students of naval aviation should have this volume on their bookshelves.

Reviewed by Malcolm Smith



An Operational and Retirement History

By Larry Jerram-Croft and Terry Martin

Published by Pen & Sword Aviation ISBN 978 1 52672 114 3

Larry Jerram-Croft and his co-author, Terry Martin, have achieved the remarkable feat of compressing the entire operational life of this unique and versatile ship-launched weapon system into a most readable book. The authors provide a potted history of post-war rotary wing developments that culminated in the Wasp, together with a brief description of the development of Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) strategies. They define the Military Need, explaining that ships had very effective sonar systems in the 1950s, but that submarines could hear the sound before the ship could receive a viable echo. A small helicopter could carry anti-submarine weapons a long way beyond the range of ship-launched systems and could be directed by the parent vessel to the submarine’s location. This concept was entitled Manned Anti-submarine Torpedo Carrying Helicopter (MATCH).
The Wasp story starts with the Saunders-Roe P531, which first flew in July 1958. The authors describe the deck-landing trials in HMS Undaunted, which proved the viabillity of the concept. Development of the P531 into the Wasp incuded trials with rubber suction pads in place of wheels (they did not work very well) and the development of procedures to enable the Royal Navy to operate this little aircraft, with very limited flying aids, in challenging conditions in peace and war.
The book provides descriptions of the wide variety of weapons that the aircraft could carry, up to and including the Nuclear Depth Bomb, but for this reader (and I suspect many Society members) the heart of the book lies in the many anecdotes from Ships’ Flight operators, aircrewmen and maintainers.
Conditions in different ships are well described and the importance of good relations with non-aircrew warfare officers and captains are emphasised. The peculiar arrangement of the ship’s hangar in the Tribal class ships, in which the roof of the hangar was also the retractable flight deck, are explained. The memorable accident in HMS Zulu, when the flight deck rose un-commanded and crushed the Wasp against the removeable roof panels, led to the reaction of the young sailor who rang the bridge from the quarterdeck with the following dramatic message:
“The bells are ringing, the budgie is trying to escape and the hangar’s on fire!”
You will have to read the book to discover how a bowl of custard contributed to this accident, in which both safety switches were inoperable.
These and many other anecdotes provide the core of the book in a chapter titled “Personal Accounts”, which covers almost all elements of the Wasp’s service life, from June 1963 to its retirement in 1988. There is a substantial section on the Falklands conflict; in which HMS Endurance’s Wasp contributed to the disabling of the Argentine submarine Santa Fe. The Cod Wars make their appearance; and deployment with survey vessels in the hot and sandy conditions in the Persian Gulf are also described.
Larry Jerram-Croft trained as an Aircraft Engineering Officer in the Royal Navy and subsequently as a helicopter pilot. Society members who were fortunate to attend his lively talk on Lynx operations will particularly welcome this volume. Terry Martin studied medicine at University College London and initially learned to fly at the University Air Squadron. As a qualified doctor and pilot, he spent 10 years on active service with the RAF. He has owned and flown several Wasps and still flies as a display pilot in the UK.
Larry provides his personal experiences, including a memorable flight in Terry’s cherished Wasp, long after it had retired from active service. He describes the Nimbus engine’s tendency to “surge” and the need for pilots to practise engine-off landings. “You literally have to fly the Wasp for every minute”, he says, “… there are no systems to help you keep heading or height.”
Section two of the book is entitled “Wasps in service overseas and in retirement”. The Wasp proved to be a most successful export, with the navies of the Netherlands, New Zealand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil and South Africa all operating new or reconditioned examples. At the end of this chapter, the authors describe Gentle Retirement, listing those aircraft still flying or with the potential to return to flight and the (many) surviving Wasps on display or in storage.
The book lacks an index, which is a disappointment, and proof-reading is a bit erratic. However, these are minor criticisms of this outstanding history of an innovative, versatile and much-loved little aircraft.

Reviewed by Malcolm Smith



Naval Fighter Wing at War

By Tim Hillier-Graves

Published by Casemate Books. ISBN 978-1-61200-755-7

The author is a retired naval officer, whose father was a Fleet Air Arm pilot during and after the Second World War. At his father’s funeral, his godfather, John Hawkins, passed to him four copies of wartime magazines carrying photographs and descriptions of Royal Naval aircraft operations in various theatres of war, including the activities of the British Pacific Fleet (BPF). Hawkins had flown Grumman Hellcat fighters from HMS Indomitable from March 1944 to May 1945. He mentioned his last Commanding Officer “Gammy” Godson, who had remained in the ship after Hawkins had returned home. John Winton’s book “The Forgotten Fleet” mentions the death of Godson on 12 May 1945. Talking to Hawkins about this and other episodes led the author into tracing the lives of the men who had fought in the Naval Fighter Wing of the BPF. This quest led to years of interviews with survivors and the accumulation of a huge variety of personal reminiscences of those days. This book is the result of this long and painstaking exercise, containing a truly epic accumulation of personal details as the Royal Navy and its Fleet Air Arm made the titanic effort (after four years of war) to assemble a fleet to carry the war to the Far East.

The book opens with details of flying training and the expansion of the RN’s aircraft carrier force. It also describes how US aircraft, such as the Vought Corsair and Grumman Hellcat and Avenger, came to equip these carriers. These formed the equipment of newly-forming squadrons, together with UK built Seafires and Fireflies. Two Hellcat squadrons, 1839 and 1844 were formed in late 1943 to join HMS Indomitable, one of the four carriers scheduled to form the BPF. The ship sailed to join the Eastern Fleet in early 1944 and the book follows the fortunes of both ship and Fighter Wing from then until the end of the War. Hillier-Graves provides a most compelling narrative, combining numerous first-hand descriptions of the fortunes of these young men, as their carriers with their accompanying battleships and numerous escorts transit first to Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) and early discouraging results in initial attacks on Japanese-held land targets. He follows their fortunes through the more successful Operation MERIDIAN attacks on the Palembang oil facilities of Sumatra and thence across the Indian Ocean to Sydney in February 1945 and the incorporation of the BPF into the command structure of USN’s 5th Fleet under Admiral Ray Spruance.

Concerning the Palembang attacks, the author quotes the words of Admiral Philip Vian (who commanded the aircraft carriers) as follows “… our losses were heavy. 16 aircraft had been shot down and another 25 lost through other causes. 32 of our airmen were missing…” The author comments that Vian could have added the wounded and those rendered unfit to fly though what we would today call combat stress. Vian had lost 16% of his aircraft, with another 50 or so damaged. In all, 12 % of his aircrew were dead or captured. Even “Bomber” Harris, says Hillier-Graves, thought that 5% losses were unacceptable.

Once in Australia, reports of Japanese suicide-bomber tactics reached the ears of the men of the BPF. The author provides a thoughtful description of the evolution of the Japanese Navy: “a fearsome adversary” and the mindset of its people. By 1945, he remarks, their air arms were a dissipated force, unable to keep up with losses. The quality of aircrew had greatly diminished but the kamikaze offered a solution, so long as young men believed in sacrificing themselves for their emperor and country.

In January 1945, the BPF sailed to the immense anchorage at Manus, in the Admiralty Islands of Papua. Here they waited for two months in almost intolerable conditions for a decision to be made on their operational deployment. The next phase of USN’s operations was to be the invasion of Okinawa on 1 April, and the BPF was finally allocated the task of neutralising the Japanese held airfields of the Sakishima Gunto to the southwest. The airfields were a staging post for enemy reserve aircraft from Formosa (present day Taiwan) and the role of the BPF was to protect the periphery of the Okinawa operation. Task Force 57, as the BPF was now named, deployed nearly a quarter of Spruance’s air power and the author comments that its role was not the insignificant sideshow that Vian had feared it would be. Spruance and Admiral Bruce Fraser, the CinC of the BPF, soon established excellent working relationships and this was reflected in the posting of RN and USN liaison officers in each other’s ships. Godson befriended the American air intelligence officer, Lt Cdr John Ramsey USNR, who was attached to Indomitable. This relationship helped to provide invaluable support to young aircrew.

Hillier-Graves supports his descriptions of the Task Force 57 operations with numerous eye-witness accounts and extracts from squadron diaries. He also quotes at length from the moving letters written by Godson to his family, in which he makes light of the tremendous stresses that he and his fellow airmen were suffering. In these turbulent times, John Hawkins was unusual in keeping a detailed record of daily events and this record is also quoted freely. During a brief respite at Leyte, many experienced aircrew left, although Godson remained. The author remarks that by now he must have been suffering severe mental strain. The intensity of air attacks on the fleet worsened as they returned to their patrol lines and there is a vivid description of the kamikaze attack on HMS Formidable, whose armoured deck undoubtedly contributed to its survival. Task Force 57 kept up its attacks on the islands, from where the Japanese maintained an intense anti-aircraft barrage. On 12 May, Godson’s aircraft was hit by ground fire. With flames pouring from the wing, the aircraft was seen to hit the ground and explode.

After a respite period in Sydney, the BPF was incorporated into the USN’s Third Fleet as TF 37 and took part in the final attacks on the Japanese mainland before the war was brought to an abrupt close by the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a final, moving chapter, entitled “Murder at Changi”, Hillier-Graves describes the fate of aircrew who fell into Japanese hands. After brutal incarceration in solitary confinement, many of these were executed.

This book provides a detailed and compelling narrative of aircraft operations against a determined and ultimately suicidal enemy; but it is much more than this. Hillier-Graves puts the activities of the BPF into a broader historical context and also gives a rounded picture of the young men who fought and (many of them) died in the actions of what John Winton memorably named “The Forgotten Fleet”. The BPF continued to fight for months after most people in Britain were celebrating the end of war in Europe. Heaven High, Ocean Deep is a valuable addition to the historiography of that far-away conflict in the Pacific.

Reviewed by Malcolm Smith