Mark Stille’s work is a fine introduction, authoritative and balanced, which shows how the Japanese Combined Fleet was a formidable force during the first six months of WWII but carried with it key shortcomings which ultimately led to its downfall.
The World War II naval battles and engagements in the Atlantic and Mediterranean were dwarfed by the War in the Pacific – in terms of the colossal surface area of ocean fought over and the sheer numbers of combatants involved. Fleets comprising four or even six large aircraft carriers, supported by battleships, heavy and light cruisers, numerous destroyer flotillas and squadrons of aircraft almost became the norm in major battles. A new type of naval warfare emerged too where opposing surface fleets were never within visual range of one another.
Mark Stille’s book provides an analysis of the comparatively short history of the Japanese Navy culminating in an account of its Combined Fleet during one brief phase of the war, between December 1941 and June 1942. The principal opponents, the USA and the Japan, more or less matched one another at this juncture in numerical strength but not necessarily in prowess as the latter held advantages in several respects. Crucially, as the author claims, tactical errors at the battles of The Coral Sea and Midway cost the Japanese dear, forcing them subsequently to adopt an essentially defensive strategy for the remainder of the war.
This Osprey publication matches others in the series being eighty pages in length, vividly illustrated with dramatic artwork and numerous photographs and supported by useful statistical data. The text is divided into four chapters which deal successively with the background philosophy and strategy of the IJN, technical detail about the Japanese naval vessels themselves, how the fleets were organised and finally its performance in combat during the period under question.
Stille, judging by the book’s bibliography, is a prolific writer on this subject. He demonstrates that the IJN by the 1940s had an equal number of strengths and weaknesses. Japanese high command held strong beliefs in Alfred Mahan’s writings on naval power particularly the importance of the decisive battle concept. This manifested itself in the adoption of an ultra-offensive strategy which proved so effective as, following Pearl Harbor, its naval forces swept rapidly across vast swathes of the Western Pacific, gaining as it did access to the vital raw materials it otherwise lacked, including oil.
The IJN’s strengths lay in its excellent, modern carrier fleet, the largest in the world in December 1941, which was equipped with highly efficient squadrons of fighters and bombers flown by a coterie of experienced, battle-hardened crews. Careful manipulation or repudiation of international interwar Treaty obligations meant also that Japan entered the war with a good range of modernised or new battleships and cruisers. It had no equal in terms of night-fighting capabilities; its development of the Type 93 long-range torpedo formed a vital component of the Navy’s ultra-offensive capability.
On the other hand, the IJN was hide-bound by doctrine. Its inherent belief in tactics such as close-range, massed destroyer attacks assumed near mythical proportions, for example. Some of its aircraft, although fast and manoeuvrable, lacked defensive armament and protection. Probably most important of all, what the author describes as the Navy’s ‘disdain’ for intelligence gathering, analysis and use, led in turn to catastrophic decision-making and defeat in battle.
The Pacific War is a huge subject. Mark Stille’s work is a fine introduction, authoritative and balanced, which shows how the Japanese Combined Fleet was a formidable force during the first six months of WWII but carried with it key shortcomings which ultimately led to its downfall.