Thursday, May 19, 2016

How Japan Came to Dominate Naval Aviation

'Kido Butai'  by Marii Chernev
Three weeks ago, I set aside my writing to concentrate on getting my left knee replaced with a new titanium alloy and plastic marvel. My leg is recovering nicely, and daily physical therapy is rapidly improving my use of the new joint. The time has come to return to the war in the Southwest Pacific Theater in May of 1942.

I left almost equally balanced American and Japanese naval air forces searching for each other in the vastness of the Coral Sea northeast of Australia.  Behind the Japanese strike force, a large invasion convoy is poised to spring through the Jounard Passage at the tip of New Guinea and seize the Allied bastion of Port Moresby, the last barrier before Australia.  How could a nation less that a hundred years removed from the Middle Ages be in a position to strike a deathblow to the world’s two foremost naval powers?

The dawn of fixed-wing aviation came at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Hardly had the Wright brothers taken to the air than forward-thinking naval and military officers recognized the advantages that aircraft might offer in battle. Of prime importance was simply locating the enemy. Naval commanders had been limited to the range of vision of lookouts posted atop mastheads since naval warfare commenced. Aircraft promised to extend that vision far beyond the horizon. Planes operating from shore bases were almost immediately available. But what was really needed were aircraft that could operate from ships at sea. Both Britain’s Royal Navy (RN) and the United States Navy began experimenting with various ideas even before World War I.

The use of seaplanes with floats, that allowed takeoffs and landings on water, became an obvious first step. Seaplane tenders, equipped with heavy cranes to transfer the aircraft between ship and water, became the first aircraft carriers.  The RN pressed ahead throughout the war, experimenting with foredeck landplane launch platforms, and then tacking on separate afterdeck landing decks with arrestor cables. Finally, the various concepts were combined on HMS Furious to provide a single long flight deck cleared of superstructure. On 2 August 1917, RN Squadron Commander E.H. Dunning made the first landing of a plane on a ship under way. The modern aircraft carrier had arrived.

Nowhere was the emerging naval aviation concept embraced more readily than by the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN). When Japan’s 19th Century Emperor Meiji decided to modernize Japan, he and his governments decided to pattern their armed forces on those of the most successful European examples. Thus, Germany was chosen as the model Army. The British RN was the obvious choice for the new navy. Ties between the RN and IJN remained close well into the 20th Century. Japan actually conducted the world’s first successful naval launched air raid in September 1917, employing seaplanes from seaplane carrier IJN Wakamiya.

The IJN closely followed the RN aviation developments. As valued Allies against the Central Powers, IJN officers were allowed to observe operations and study the first purpose-built carrier design for HMS Hermes. Although begun later, IJN Hōshō became the world’s first built-from-scratch carrier.

In the 1920s, the western powers sought to limit the naval arms race by treaty limitations. Japan emerged from these negotiations very dissatisfied with the battleship and battle cruiser numbers and tonnage allowed to their empire. One area where the IJN retained significant flexibility was that of aircraft carrier construction. They took full advantage of this opportunity.

Japan immediately decided to convert to aircraft carriers two large battle cruisers then under construction. One was damaged beyond repair by an earthquake, but the second, IJN Akagi, went forward. An incomplete battleship, IJN Kaga, became the second new carrier. As soon as these ships joined the fleet, the IJN integrated them into fleet operations and developed their naval aviation doctrine. In the 1930s, more ships designed from the keel up filled out the fleet. IJN Sōryū and Hiryū were next off the building ways. At the end of the 1930s, IJN Shōkaku and IJN Zuikaku added additional punch to the fleet.

Japanese naval aviation experts gained further advantage because they were actually at war during the 1930s. New ideas could be tested under combat conditions. Unlike their western counterparts, IJN aviators came to believe that sea-based airpower should always be concentrated as much as possible. Raids combining the air groups of all ships available became their standard at a time that other navies tended to parcel out their carriers one or two at a time to protect their battle fleets. In a major war, IJN aviation was assigned the mission of seizing control of the air from the very beginning by massive attacks. The IJN understood “shock and awe” as early as the 1930s.

As fortune would have it, Japan’s rigid seniority-based promotion system elevated an aviation specialist, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, to the position of Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet at this crucial point in history. Yamamoto had at his disposal a cadre of talented “young Turk” aviation staff officers and commanders, such as Lieutenant Commander Minoru Genda and Lieutenant Commander Mitsuo Fuchida. On their urging, he organized all six of his large carriers into the 1st air Fleet, commonly known as the Kido Butai (Strike Force). To compliment the carrier forces. Yamamoto also built up a large force of twin-engine, long range shore based bombers especially trained in bomb and torpedo attacks against ships. Named the 11th Air Fleet, this force could deploy rapidly to newly conquered bases to extend control of the air by hundreds of miles.

Japan’s aviation industry kept pace with the forward thinking navy visionaries. By 1940, the torpedo bombers and dive bombers being produced were at least as good as their western contemporaries. And in the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighters, Japan possessed the finest carrier fighter in the world at that time. Designed to operate both off carriers and in support of the 11th Air Fleet, the Zero possessed a phenomenal range of almost 1,200 miles.

Choosing IJN pilots and their training regimen were highly selective, resulting in almost perfect human specimens. For instance, candidates had to be able to see the primary navigation guide stars in broad daylight. Intense physical and instructive training characterized the program. Only a small percentage of each class actually achieved their coveted wings. Naval aviators were the elite of the elite. Combat experience in China honed this cadre of experts into a finely sharpened rapier. The process worked well in the relatively low level combat of the 1930s, but it was incapable of producing a large number of replacements to meet the demands of high intensity combat.

Kido Butai and the 11th Air Fleet performed superbly in the opening months of the Pacific War, savaging the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and sinking the Royal Navy’s battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse in the Gulf of Siam. The protagonists of my second novel, Hold Back The Sun, battled elements of Japan’s naval aviation in the skies over Borneo and Java and over the seas in between. Chased out of the Dutch East Indies, my characters now face battle in the seas and skies of the Coral Sea northeast of Australia in my current work-in-progress, Endure The Cruel Sun. Will they meet defeat yet again? Or is fortune finally deserting the victory-drunk Japanese forces?

Warren Bell is an author of historical fiction.  He spent 29 years as a US Naval Officer, and has traveled to most of the places in the world that he writes about.  A long-time World War II-buff, his first two novels, Fall Eagle One and Hold Back the Sun are set during World War II.  His third novel, Asphalt and Blood, follows the US Navy Seabees in Vietnam.  His most recent novel, Snowflakes in July, was released on September 15, 2015.  He is currently working on a new novel, Endure the Cruel Sun, the sequel to his best-selling novel, Hold Back the Sun. For more about Warren Bell, visit his website at: or see him on twitter @wbellauthor.  



    1. I’m not anti-Japanese, but I do deplore the vicious war crimes consistently committed by Japan’ forces during WW2. As to Japan’s period of dominance in naval aviation, it lasted for about six months at the beginning d the Pacific War. During that period, the IJN possessed 10 aircraft carriers, more than any other navy. Their aircraft were as good or better than anyone else’s. They possessed a highly trained and combat experienced cadre of naval aviators. For six months, the IJN savaged the USN and British RN. They sank battleships under way off Malaya, crippled the USN Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, chased the RN out of Celon with great losses, and overwhelmed Ailled defenses in the East Indies. massacring ships fleeing to Australia. They destroyed the Australian port of Darwin and seized the Admiralty Islands. In May 1942, they were threatening to cut off Australia from US aid. The loss of five carriers and numerous aircrew in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway precipitously ended Japan’s naval aviation advantages.