Since Monday is Veteran’s Day, it’s appropriate that this week’s post has a military theme.
One of the reasons I read military history books is because the “big picture” history most of us learned leaves out a lot of details which I find is often more interesting than the main story. So I’m going to fill in your military history with some tidbits you may not know.
Just as the civilian world is replete with lack of foresight (such as the CEO of a computer company pronouncing during the infancy of computers that there was no need for individuals to ever have a computer in their home), so too has there been lack of vision in the military. One example was the attitude that the role of tanks would be limited to supporting infantry assaults, which is what happened in the first world war.
When the second world war arrived, “infantry support” was still the prevailing view of most generals on both sides. But Hitler, who felt many of his generals were too timid, liked the idea of one of his generals that the best use of tanks is to mass them into assault units, break through enemy lines, and then have infantry follow up to exploit the breakthrough. That tactic was used in France in 1940 and once the world saw the value of “blitzkrieg” the supremacy of armored assaults became the accepted doctrine.
Similarly, the infantry generals who held sway for centuries derided airplanes as primarily for intelligence gathering. Even after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the attitude was that sinking a ship docked at port is fairly easy but sinking a moving ship is another story.
That attitude led to Task Force Z. During the invasion of Malaya, the British sent a battleship, battlecruiser, and four destroyers to intercept the Japanese invasion fleet. Although limited air cover could be made available, the British admiral declined it. Task Force Z was attacked by Japanese planes and the battleship and battlecruiser, which had been in the Pacific for less than two weeks and were the bulwark of the British fleet in Malaya, were both sunk. From then on, it was accepted doctrine that sending a task force into battle without air cover was suicide. The battleship lost it’s position as top dog in the fleet to the aircraft carrier.
Most folks are familiar with “A Bridge Too Far” the book about the disastrous attempt by the Allies to use a series of paratroop assaults to capture a number of bridges in the Netherlands to secure a bridgehead across the Rhine. A movie was made from the book and this debacle went into the popular knowledge.
Yet, few folks are aware of one of the most successful airborne assaults in military history: the rescue of over 2,000 American, British and other Allied civilians who were about to be executed by the Japanese at an internment camp in the Philippines. An American parachute regiment, supported on the ground by Filipino guerillas, conducted an early morning raid which liberated the prisoners with almost no casualties to the Americans or Filipinos.
Why is it that the Los Banos Raid (which freed relatives of some of my high school friends) has been remembered only by the little known book “Angels At Dawn?“ Why not a movie about a spectacular success which is used by the U.S. military as a training model for successful air assault?
Finally, the Battle of Midway was the turning point in the Pacific War because the Japanese fleet was irreparably destroyed from the loss of four carriers and over 250 aircraft and experienced pilots. After Midway, the Japanese carriers, which had been the spearhead of their offensives, became a defensive force guarding the home islands and which saw little action until the end of the war.
But occupying Midway was never part of the original Japanese grand strategy, which was to seize a number of territories and then establish a strong defensive perimeter which the Allies could not breach. The Midway invasion plan developed after the Doolittle Raid, which was primarily for PR / morale purposes. The Americans wanted to show that Tokyo could be attacked.
The Doolittle Raid was a huge embarrassment to the Japanese military. It had the desired objective of bringing back to Japan and nearby territories a number of air force units to defends the home islands and which now would not be able to protect the outer perimeter of the Japanese defense, making it easier for the Allies to invade them.
But the Doolittle Raid also produced in the Japanese military the attitude that “the best defense is a good offense.” By occupying Midway, the Americans would be much less able to mount another raid on the Japanese home islands.
Fortunately, by this time the Americans had broken the Japanese Navy code and became aware of an invasion plan but not the location because that was identified only by a code word in messages. As the Americans attempted to identify the invasion location, Midway rose to a likely target. But how to be sure?
The Americans sent an uncoded message that Midway was low on fresh water, knowing the Japanese would likely pick up that message from surveillance flights and submarines. If they did, that information would probably be passed on to the invasion planners. Sure enough, the invasion messages began noting that the invasion site was low on fresh water. When the Japanese fleet approached Midway, the American fleet was waiting and the rest is in the history books.
Hopefully, I’ve added to your history of the second world war!