Anasazi Ruins, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Review of “The Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions”, by Alan Zimm. 2011

A bad idea and terrible planning from beginning to end.

This book uses modern operations research techniques to analyze the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at the levels of strategy, operations and tactics. In the process the reader learns the difference between deterministic and stochastic models of the results of hits by bombs, torpedoes and shells on warships. The author provides many useful tables showing facts like torpedo hit probabilities and ship damage possibilities under different attack scenarios. These tables are based on pre and post-war US and Japanese war college studies or on results of other naval battles during World War II. There are many good maps and many good photographs.

The conclusion of the author is that the Pearl Harbor attack was poorly planned and executed at the strategic, operational and tactical levels. At an operational level the plan worked, but only by chance. The Japanese carriers reached their launch point north of Oahu without being detected, and their first attack wave achieved surprise. But this operational success resulted from luck and poor American reconnaissance. Toward the end of the book the author points out that any reasonable American precautions such as dawn fighter patrols off Oahu, or a properly manned control room able to react to the radar contact with the incoming Japanese strike would have led to a massacre of the Japanese aircraft.

There is a new interpretation of the goals of the Imperial Japanese Navy and Admiral Yamamoto, the driving force behind the attack on Pearl Harbor. The author argues convincingly that Yamamoto's first targets were American battleships, not American aircraft carriers. Yamamoto believed that immediately sinking one or more American battleships at the outbreak of the war would destroy American will to fight. This idea is not in line with most previous studies. Yamamoto is usually presented as a carrier oriented officer who would have wanted to strike American carriers first. The author seems to believe that battleships first was a rational goal, assuming weak US morale, since, as he points out, most wars end when one side decides it is no longer worth fighting, rather than by the complete destruction of one side.

Interestingly, the author also shows that the Japanese aviators deviated from Yamamoto's goals by allocating more aircraft against carriers than would have been required if battleships were the primary target. As the author states, it is not good when goals of the most senior commanders are superseded by those of lower level officers!

A training shortfall effecting Japanese success was the failure of the various types of naval aircraft to practice together before the attack. Training in Japan during October and November of 1941 was done separately for the fighters, dive bombers, torpedo bombers, and level bombers. I knew that the Japanese navy and army did not cooperate, but had no idea that training by the naval air components was also fragmented. The author points out that this lack of joint training was a prelude to the failure of the different types of Japanese aircraft to properly support each other during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Also on the tactical planning level the author is highly critical of the allocation of strike aircraft to various Oahu targets, the way the planned strike tracks for aircraft were allowed to cross on their final approach runs over the harbor, and the failure of the torpedo planes to provide mutual support during the first attack. 

View of the Pearl Harbor Attack from the Air

Mutual support of the torpedo aircraft would have had them flying in echelon formations able to complete their attack in minutes and allocate their torpedoes amongst the battleship targets equally. Instead the torpedo aircraft came in in lines of single aircraft following each other, prolonging the attack, and allowing defensive fire to be concentrated on individual aircraft when they were most vulnerable. The author also argues that the allocation of dive bombers during the second wave attack was horribly wrong. Other details concern things like a high rate of duds among the Japanese bombs, and the poor to non-existent central control over the first Japanese strike aircraft as they made their final approach to Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese started a war against the United States, which had more than 6 times the industrial power, based on wrong assumptions about the willingness of the American people to fight. Willingness they regarded as weak. So the Japanese military, politicians, and Admiral Yamamoto himself, bet the future of the country on a wild gamble. A strategic gamble they would surely lose in a long war. Yamamoto may have come up with the best way to take advantage of this assumption about American will to fight, but it was a wrong assumption. Yamamoto is often presented as an expert in America, given his time there as a naval attaché. Well, he was wrong about this and other factors relating to the American will to fight. And not much of a student in the American propensity towards waging total war by all means. Japan was almost destroyed on the resulting war. The Japanese decision to enter the war was insane. That is just my definition of "insane", but I hardly know what else to call it. 

The Japanese decision for war makes me think of German operations during World War I.  Three times they bet the future of their country on massive attacks that had at best 50-50 chances of success. These were the initial attack through Belgium, unrestricted submarine war in early 1917, and the spring 1918 offensive in France.  Twenty-five years later the Germans decided on world conquest, with something lower than a 50-50 chance of success.  It seems that 20th century Japan and Germany had to be crushed on their home grounds to beat them into some sort of rationality.

The book could have been better edited. Two important facts repeated almost word by word in the book are: The pre-attack engine setting experiments that led to greatly extending the range of the Japanese Zero fighter, and the number of American fighters that managed to get in the air during the first attack and the number of kills they made. I noted a number of smaller editing errors, including an event set in 1942 that obviously occurred in 1941. At another place 155 millimeter artillery is made equivalent to 3 inch guns.

One reviewer at Amazon mentioned an online article about the British carrier attack on Taranto that might have been usefully cited by the author of this book. I found that article and it argues that the British planning of their attack on Taranto suffered from some of the same targeting failures that the Japanese demonstrated at Pearl Harbor. A good case is made for that conclusion. Still, there is a big difference between the attacks at the operational level.  The Japanese were willing to risk all their large carriers and their aircraft on a gamble without a reasonable chance of success. It was a gamble that could have lost the war in the first few days. The British regarded their two carriers in the Mediterranean as wasting assets likely to be damaged or sunk soon. The attack on Taranto had reasonable chance of success. Failure would have been a local disaster, but not the end of the war. 

There is much information I have not covered in this review. What about those miniature submarines, were they a good idea? What about bombing the fuel storage tanks at Pearl Harbor, would they have been a better target? Good answers are provided in the book.

In summary, I enjoyed reading “The Attack on Pearl Harbor”, as it gives a much different take on the attack and backs its interpretation with a lot of facts. I would not have been able to write such a long review if the book did not have lots of useful information. But, the book deserved better editing.

No comments:

Post a Comment