June 28, 2011

The Curious Class

The year is 1904 and James Arbuthnot Fisher had reached the absolute pinnacle of his career.  After fifty years in his chosen profession, he was arguably the most powerful man in the world.  You see, James Arbuthnot Fisher was better known as "Admiral of the Fleet Sir Jackie Fisher, First Sea Lord."  As such, he was the commander of the British Royal Navy, the strongest military force under the sun, answerable only to His Royal Highness, King Edward VII. 

In the past, Admiral Fisher had shown two interesting traits: an innovative mind, and a love for anything fast.  Some 10 years earlier, he had essentially created the class of ship we now know as the destroyer.  Now he had the power to push through his greatest idea yet: a battleship armed with nothing but one size of large-caliber guns.  She was to be named HMS Dreadnought, and her very existence made the rest of the world's battleships obsolete at a single stroke.  Obviously well-armed, well-armored, and (of course) fast for her time, the Dreadnought was a marvel. 

And then he had to go and create a companion for the Dreadnought design.  The concept was a good one: a ship able to chase down and kill commerce raiders in independent action, and able to act as the eyes of the battleline in a fleet action.  It was to be able to outfight anything it could outrun, and outrun anything it couldn't outfight.  To do this required two things: high speed, and high firepower... a tall order, even for today's technology.

For the early 1900s, there was only one solution... take away weight.  In essence, what Admiral Fisher wanted was to build a Dreadnought-class ship, but without all that pesky armor.  And, being First Sea Lord of His Majesty's Royal Navy, what Admiral Fisher wanted, Admiral Fisher got.  What he got was the HMS Invincible, the world's first battlecruiser.

Weighing the same as the Dreadnought within a couple hundred tons, the Invincible carried eight 12" rifles in four twin turrets.  While this was two guns fewer than the Dreadnought,  better positioning of the two wing turrets allowed them to fire to their opposite side.  As a result, she could fire the same strength broadside as the bigger ship, which had only six guns on the center, and two wing turrets that could only fire to their respective sides.  The Invincible had 31 boilers driving four turbine-powered shafts, generating anywhere from 41000 to 46000 shaft horsepower, nearly twice the shp of the Dreadnought.  As a result, the Invincible could make 25kts, and nearly reached 27kts during builder's trials.  Her larger cousin could only make 21kts.  But all that speed came at a dramatic cost.


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June 23, 2011

Name This Mystery Ship VI

While we wait for my brain to function long enough to complete the battlecruiser post, I figured I'd give you folks a treat... another Mystery Ship contest!  Here's tonight's contestant:

Name the ship, win a post!  Operators are not standing by to take your call.

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June 09, 2011

Misunderstanding Midway

Down in the comments section of the post "The Reason for Midway", there's a sight to warm the heart of any blogger: an energetic argument discussion.  Longtime readers CXT and Avatar are doing a fine job of carrying the flag of disagreement with Bob, I wanted to pay closer attention to something he said at the very beginning of his comments.  To whit:

"These discussions are interesting but so narrow as to be misleading.  The entire Midway exercise didn't matter, regardless of outcome."

It will come as no surprise to readers of The Pond that I vehemently disagree with this statement.  To be honest, in one way I do agree with Bob in that Japan had no chance of winning an overall military victory against the forces of the United States, Britain, Australia and the Dutch.  However, that does not mean that Midway didn't matter, any more than it means that Guadalcanal/the Solomon Islands, Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, Tarawa, or even Attu and Kiska, didn't matter.

Once the first A6M2s, D3A1s and B5N2s lifted off from the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Soryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku on their way to Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, sterile discussions over such concepts that Bob mooted became academic: win or lose, the die was cast and everything mattered.  Only in hindsight can we say "it was pointless and the Pacific War shouldn't have been started".  The fact of the matter is that it did start, men did fight, and it did matter... every bullet fired, every torpedo launched, every bomb dropped, every grenade thrown, mattered.

It mattered to 3400 men at Midway.  29000 men at Iwo Jima.  38000 men at Guadalcanal.  7000 men in the Aleutians.  12000 at Peleliu.  And hundreds of thousands more at dozens of other locations across the Pacific.

To suggest that these battles "didn't matter", no matter how large the stack of scholarship one may bring to the table, is ridiculous and insulting to those who participated and survived, those who were there and were injured, and to those who fought and died on both sides.  Don't take my word for it, however... walk up to a Pacific War veteran and tell him his actions didn't matter.  Just let me know where and when you intend to do it, so I can bring popcorn.

Regarding the first part of Bob's statement, it seems clear that he doesn't read The Pond overmuch.  Very nearly by definition, I blog about "the narrow", because that's where my interests lie.  Sure, I could write about the geopolitical situation surrounding the beginning of WWII in the Pacific, but I'd hate every moment of it.  I'm an amateur historian of the military actions of the Pacific War, with an emphasis on naval battles, and a particular emphasis on the Battle of Midway, because that's what I like... and I write about what I like.  I won't apologize for being "too narrow" for someone's taste.

Particularly when it "doesn't matter".

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June 05, 2011

Missing Midway Photography

Unless you're like me, and heaven help you if you are, you may not have noticed one of the most surprising facts surrounding the Battle of Midway.  That is, where are all the pictures of the Japanese carriers?   Now, I can hear you saying "Wonderduck, there's plenty of pictures of Kido Butai at Midway out there!  Just look at this one of the Akagi!"

"Or this one of the Soryu!"

"Or this one, it's the Hiryu!"

"Or this one, of the Kaga... er... hey!"

I'm sure there are variants of the above three pictures in the National Archives, but for all intents and purposes, those are the only images of the Japanese carriers involved at the Battle of Midway that we have.  Taken from B-17s on the morning of June 4th, 1942, they represent the entirety of the US photographic effort during the battle.

Or do they?

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June 04, 2011

The Reason For Midway

Reader Siergen asks: "Assuming that the Japanese had succeeded in taking Midway, did they have any plans to actually use it, such as for land-based bombing of Pearl harbor?  Or was it intended solely as bait to lure the US carriers out and sink them?"

A fine question.  Indeed, there was a strategic reason for the Japanese to take Midway.  However, in my estimation, their reasoning was somewhat... flawed.  As the War in the Pacific drew close, the Japanese military knew that they could not realistically go toe-to-toe with the United States for more than a year or so, two years maximum (let that sink in: they started a war they could not win militarily... and knew it).  Instead, they intended to win politically, by inflicting such heavy losses on the US and her allies that they'd give up and go for a political settlement.  In the political realm, they believed that they'd have a strong case for keeping their conquests (primarily the Indonesia area, with her rubber, tin and oil deposits) and become both self-sufficient and the unquestioned master of Asia.

To do this, the Japanese adopted a strategy that relied on the concept of a defensive perimeter.  They figured that if they captured enough island bases, like Wake, Guam, Rabaul, and the Philippines, then improved them to stronghold status so they'd be impossible to re-take, they'd be able to create an impassible border that would keep the Japanese Home Islands secure.  Along the way, they'd also attempt to sever the lines of communication between Australia and the US, though that would be more of a bonus than a goal.  It's hard to imagine the strategy without looking at a map, so let's use a simplified one: the board for the game Victory In The Pacific, by Avalon Hill.

This would be the situation going into June, 1942.  The shaded zones are controlled by the Japanese, the lighter areas by the US and her allies.  The defensive perimeter is starkly evident this way, along with the one weak area in the strategy: there are two open paths directly to the Home Islands.  The first is from the "Hawaiian Islands" area directly through the "Central Pacific"; the other, through the "North Pacific" and "Aleutian Island" zones. 

Prior to the Doolittle Raid, there was quite a bit of debate in the Japanese military command as to what the next targets would be... in effect, they had been so successful so quickly, they outstripped their own plans.  But then the attack using B-25 medium bombers, flying from the deck of the USS Hornet, made clear that the Home Islands were still vulnerable, and the plans to attack Midway and the Aleutians were approved.  Capturing those "areas" would prevent any attacks to slip through without being discovered and countered, either via ships sailing from Truk or from Japan proper

There was never any plan to use Midway as a point to launch aerial attacks on Pearl Harbor; even for the incredibly long-legged Japanese aircraft, the 1300 mile flight was too far a distance.  Instead, it would be a self-defending base able to send reconnaissance flights out to patrol the waters around it.  Just how the Japanese would be able to keep Midway supplied was never really answered; they would figure it out when the time came.

The flaw in this strategy is that the real world isn't a game board with zones of control that prevented enemy movement, yet in effect that's exactly how the Japanese were looking at it.  The Pacific Ocean is huge, particularly in the Northern and Central Pacific areas, with vast stretches of open sea where ships could sail without ever being noticed.  Indeed, the fleet used in the attack on Pearl Harbor took advantage of this fact on its approach.

The attack on Midway had the goal of sinking the American aircraft carriers, no mistake about it... but defending the Home Islands was the primary goal.  That the strategy behind the goal probably wouldn't have worked was apparently never considered.

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The Brewster Buffalo: Midway's Most Reviled Plane

When one thinks of the Battle of Midway, images of Dauntless dive-bombers plummeting down towards Japanese carriers immediately leap to mind.  Or perhaps the tragic story of the massacre of the three torpedo squadrons flying TBD Devastators is the more dramatic, and therefore more memorable, saga.  Whatever the military buffs out there think of, it's unlikely that the Brewster F2A Buffalo would get more than a derisive snort, if even that.

That's somewhat unfair to what was the US Navy's first monoplane fighter.  As originally designed, the Buffalo was actually quite nimble and well-liked by its pilots.  Indeed, its wing-loading was only slightly higher than that of the Zero.  No less a name than Marine pilot Pappy Boyington praised the Buffalo, saying "they were pretty sweet little ships. Not real fast, but the little plane could turn and roll in a phone booth."  The most glaring weakness of the F2A was its armament: two machineguns in the nose, one .50cal and one .30cal, a most odd combination.  The landing gear was considered marginal for use on carriers, but good enough.

But then the Navy accepted it for service... with a few modifications.  Armor plate was added, as was a larger-capacity self-sealing fuel bladder.  Further, two wing-mounted .50cal guns were also added... all of this on just a 900hp engine.  Performance in the form of top speed and climb suffered badly in a plane not great in either category.  By 1941, the Buffalo had turned into the F2A-3, with a 1200hp engine (the benefit of which was mostly lost by the increased weight it added, both in its size and in the larger airframe required to mount it), even more armor, and a bigger wing with integral fuel tanks.  This increased the range to nearly 1000 miles, giving it much longer legs than the F4F Wildcat, but ruined the plane's one true feature, its handling.

By the Battle of Midway, the Buffalo had become too slow, too heavy and too lethargic, a bad combination for a fighter plane.  However, as someone many years later said, "you don't fight wars with the military you want, you fight wars with the military you have," and when the Japanese planes were approaching Midway Atoll, what the defenders had were the 21 Buffalos and seven F4Fs of Marine Fighting Squadron 221.

The result was both better and worse than anybody could have expected.  Despite being outnumbered by the 36 Zeros escorting 72 bombers, 17 Japanese planes were shot down by VMF-221, but at the cost of 13 Buffalos and 2 Wildcats (and all of their pilots) lost.  Of the remaining planes, only two were still airworthy after the fight.  F2A pilots were vociferous in their condemnation of their planes afterwards, one going so far as to state "(the)F2A-3 is not a combat airplane... ...it is my belief that any commander that orders pilots out for combat in a F2A-3 should consider the pilot as lost before leaving the ground."

After the Battle of Midway, all remaining Navy Buffalos were sent to the US mainland as advanced training aircraft, which duty it performed until 1944.  Because of the infamous quality that Brewster built their planes with (i.e., none at all), there are only three F2As known to survive.

Outside of the US Navy, however, opinion of the Buffalo is much higher.  The British, Australian, Dutch and Finns all used an export variant of the plane.  The Finnish Air Force in particular used the B-239E variant to great effect in the air war against the Soviet Union, with one squadron (Lentolaivue 24) registering 459 kills, while losing 15 B-239s.  It's notable that these variants did not have the extensive armor plating and heavy self-sealing fuel tanks of the F2A, and therefore kept its maneuverability.  To be fair, however, the Finns were not fighting against Zeros flown by crack pilots, but poor Soviet pilots with lousy leadership and, at least at first, obsolete planes. 

In conclusion, the F2A deserves more respect that it is shown.  It was an acceptable enough fighter to begin with, but by the time the Navy was finished throwing stuff into it, it had become a pig.  Consider it a lesson learned, similar to the one the US Army learned with the P-39 Airacobra.  That it was outclassed by the Zero isn't a mark of shame; everything was outclassed by the A6M2 in 1942.  Without the Buffalo being present at Midway, the Japanese might have done more damage to the base there.  Enough to render it unusable?  Probably not, but with the F2A present, they certainly didn't. 

It wasn't a great plane, but it was there.

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Midway Day 2011

Today, June 4th, is the 69th anniversary of the Battle of Midway.  At Naval bases around the world and on board ships at sea, commemorative events have been taking place over the past couple of days, remembering both the Navy's greatest victory and those who lost their lives during the Battle.

Wreath-laying ceremony at the Navy Memorial, June 3rd, 2011
I should have a post or two up later today on some aspects of the Battle itself.  Until then, if you have any questions about the Battle of Midway, feel free to ask and I'll be happy to answer them as best I can.

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