“1942” – Part 25 – Reflections (3 of 6); CV Operations

Blown Slick Series #13 Part 25

I

As noted in Reflections Part 1, this series has been intended to study carrier aviation using the first full year of U.S. involvement in the Pacific as a vehicle. Part 3  addresses selected issues that presented themselves during the conduct of carrier-driven  operations for the first time in a warfare environment. The British, Japanese and Americans had developed and explored carrier aviation for many years and indeed on the USN side, between 1922 and 1940, the Navy conducted 21 “Fleet Problems” in large part to address integration of the carrier to fleet operations.

As the Guadalcanal Campaign closed out the 1942 story of carrier operations, it also was the end of story in many ways (but certainly not all) for the manner in which  carrier operations were conducted. Noted by multiple historians, the carrier navy of 1945 was a far cry from that of ’42.

Each discussion of the four individual  CV battles in this series ends with some degree of post-mortem. This and following articles are intended to highlight issues that were common over the course of 1942.

Carrier warfare operations selected issues

Unlike at Coral Sea and Midway which were almost entirely carrier vs. carrier battles, the fight to gain and hold Guadalcanal was a six month give and take involving land, sea, land-based air, and sea-based air engagements. Each element was dependent on the other and the equality of the Japanese and American carrier airpower played a major part in neither side gaining lasting superiority and drove how each side chose to attack and defend. It was one thing to defend Midway operating in open ocean, but being closely tied to the geography of the island and surrounding waters to provide air support was a whole other problem set. With communications an ongoing issue and intelligence far inferior to that previously, staying in one general area exposed the carriers to submarine, land and sea based attack. There was much to be learned – at the expense of all participants.

Intelligence 

While the IJN code breakthrough made success at Coral Sea and Midway possible, the intelligence for the remainder of 1942 was extremely scattered and by-in-large either not useful or even  to a great extent misleading and dangerous.  By way of example:

As Admiral Fletcher waited for strike results  from the ongoing Battle of the Eastern Solomons, he pondered the latest hot intelligence from Pearl – the Cincpac daily bulletin unequivocally placed the IJN carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku “enroute from Japan to Truk,” while a heavy cruiser and “possibly” two fast battleships were in the Truk “area” or “vicinity.” Then Cincpac amended the earlier announcement that morning of two Shokaku-class carriers “in or near Truk.” The term “in or near” is not the same as “enroute to.”  Even so, Fletcher now had good reason to believe the nearest carriers were still north of Truk, itself more than eleven hundred miles distant from his present position. In fact, Nagumo cruised only three hundred miles northwest of TF-61, and the Advance Force drew even closer. The reason for this was the colossal failure by the same radio intelligence network that forecast the Coral Sea and Midway battles. Its immediate effect was to delude Fletcher into believing it was safe to detach his task forces one at a time to fuel.

By 18:23 on 23 August, with no Japanese carriers sighted and no new intelligence reporting of their presence in the area, Fletcher detached Wasp (which was getting low on fuel) and the rest of TF 18 for the two-day trip south toward Efate Island to refuel. Thus, Wasp and her escorting warships missed the upcoming battle on the 24th.

The fundamental question raised by the battle was how the Japanese carriers could reach the Solomons without radio intelligence predicting and confirming their movements. Fletcher discussed the intelligence failure with Nimitz when they next met. He brought up the Cincpac daily intelligence bulletin, received on 23 August, placing all Japanese carriers north of Truk, where instead, as many as four flattops had secretly closed within a few hundred miles of TF-61.

Throughout the year neither opponent could discern how many ships, particularly carriers the other had. For instance after the Battle of Santa Cruz the Imperial General Headquarters and Combined Fleet decided that four enemy carriers fought the battle and that all four sank, along with two battleships. That put the total carriers sunk since the outbreak of the war as eleven, with four others damaged. (Obviously the Americans must have had a lot of carriers.)

The poor knowledge of course led to tactical decisions that could have been different and an excess of hindsight judgement from higher command in Hawaii and Washington.

Communications

While a significant factor was radio intelligence, reporting from patrol/scouting and attacking aircraft also contributed greatly to overall uncertainty. The radio links between units and commands were almost always unreliable.

Too often, fighter pilots could not communicate with the ships vectoring them, nor sometimes with one another. Bomber pilots couldn’t contact the troops they were flying to support. Search aircraft could not communicate with ships. Squadron commodores could not reach the ship captains under their command. There was no network. In the narrow windows of time in which ignorance was costliest, all too often the components of SOPAC were fatally out of touch.

As the Battle of the Eastern Solomons  became the most intensively studied carrier action yet, the single overriding complaint concerned communications: poorly functioning radios, delayed contact reports, and other shortcomings in passing vital information. Captains described communications as “weak to the point of danger,” and Admiral Kinkaid stated, “Communication failures are the primary cause of many tactical errors.” Fletcher submitted an entire report on the failure of communications.

Given the poor pre-battle intelligence and lack of  reasonable communications,  note how different  Admiral Fletcher’s perception of the Battle of the Eastern Solomons was from reality:

Fletcher’s 6 September 1942 preliminary report designated “Task Force A” the group of ships he thought included the light carrier Ryujo, which the Saratoga’s aviators claimed to have sunk. He speculated the Ryujo launched the evening strike that fortuitously missed TF-61.

East of Task Force A was “Task Force B” with the big carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, which likely dispatched the huge strike of eighty aircraft that hit TF-16. [One] mini-strike very likely targeted B’s screen, possibly damaging a battleship and two cruisers. Fletcher supposed another light carrier force, “Task Force C,” operated southeast of Task Force B and was the source of the Cactus-bound strike detected early that afternoon on radar.

The exceptionally poor communications and numerous failures by the search aircraft  to report correctly the enemy’s strength and position rendered Fletcher, “Thoroughly confused throughout the action.”  Due  to the “incompleteness of last contact reports,” he could not “fix with any degree of accuracy” their positions. Thus, despite intensive analysis, the Battle of the Eastern Solomons as a whole remained a mystery.

An additional factor of confusion from early August on was message traffic. It was a constant for the senior commanders to not receive serious messages from other commanders.  Some of this was due to a sender assuming messages would be forwarded and no member of a staff appeared to tasked to monitor or question the process.

As noted in a previous post,  operations in the last two battles of 1942 were literally a game of “Blindman’s Bluff. These problems did not admit to a quick fix and dogged the U.S. Navy for the whole year.

Carrier Operations  in Overall Campaign Context 

Once the Japanese convinced themselves that the U.S. Guadalcanal operation was more than just a raid, their attempt to retake the island and specifically the airfield took on several elements:

  • Land and supply troops by ship – the Tokyo Express
  • Bombard the airfield by land-based air and nightly shelling from surface ships and submarines
  • Orchestrate a decisive battle with the US carriers, leaving the island/airfield incapable of defending itself

The fight that took shape in the southern Solomons resulted in neither a single, climactic World War I–style daylight slugfest nor a repeat of Midway, – a dance of search planes and long-range naval air strikes. The South Pacific Forces would draw strength from a foundation of supply and reinforcement built far south of the point of contact with the enemy. And the point of the spear that dueled with the enemy much of the time would be the daytime operations of the Henderson Field based  Cactus Air Force and at night, the surface fleet—destroyers, cruisers, and battleships, sometimes  aided by aircraft, whose job would be to seize control of the seaways from the enemy.

Neither the Navy nor the Marines had fought a war like this before. Its finer points would be developed, tested, and adjusted on the fly over time

For the carrier forces, Admiral Fletcher  understood that the Watchtower invasion would provoke the Japanese to a major naval counterattack,and envisioned another grim carrier battle soon.“His major job,” wrote author Richard B. Frank, “was to win the carrier fleet action that would decide the fate of the Marines.” Indeed, it would have been reckless to risk his carriers before that threat actually appeared. He knew he would have to win that battle without ready reinforcement to make up his losses.

The tactical necessity of protecting a fixed point put heavy demands on the defensive capabilities of Fletcher’s carriers. They were accustomed to strike swiftly and draw clear of retaliation. Now they were exposed not only to the threat of opposing carriers, but also subs and the more vigorous than anticipated land-based air. Fletcher always had to keep in mind that only the intervention of the Japanese heavy fleet forces would ensure in the end whether or not the marines held Cactus. Their carriers were his primary objective. This was so in the first few days of the landing in August and remained so until both sides had depleted their carrier strength in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.

Conduct of Operations

Depending on the mission type at hand – supporting the amphibious landing, a planned strike against IJN carrier forces, providing combat air patrol (CAP) over Iron Bottom Sound or over the carriers themselves, or reacting to scouting reports on enemy carrier position and operations – flight deck launching and recovery operations with multiple carriers involved were extremely demanding.

From an attack perspective there was a desire to coordinate dive bombing with low level torpedo attacks all covered by fighters. But the time to launch and rendezvous created the likely probability of violating the principle rule of carrier warfare learned from the 20s and 30s Fleet Exercises – the first carrier planes to strike were mostly likely to be victorious. The Japanese were more able to accomplish coordinated attacks with elements from more than one carrier – particularly successful at Santa Cruz –  but  the US Navy continued with individual carrier ops and focus on getting to the opposing CV first rather than taking time to join up for a coordinated strike.

Operations were also effected by Battle Group make-up and control. I.e., was it more effective to have each carrier with its screening ships in a task force or place multiple carriers within a single screen? What was the  impact on offense or implication for CV defense?

  • Fletcher continued to oppose the single carrier task forces he was ordered to use on 24 August. In this he followed the iconoclastic Rear Adm. Ted Sherman. Fletcher elaborated these views in his 25 September endorsement of the Enterprise Eastern Solomons Report. His  letter on carrier tactics called for carrier task forces assigned to the same mission to remain together for “mutual support and protection” and not separate “unless there is some strong tactical reason.”
  • Enterprise’s commanding officer Captain Davis urged the individual carrier task forces draw at least fifteen miles apart in the event of air attack. Fletcher strongly disagreed. “To an attacking air group, it makes little difference whether the carriers are separated by 5 or 20 miles but to the defenders it makes a great deal. By keeping the carriers separated 15–20 miles there is always the danger that the full fighter force may not be brought to bear decisively against the enemy as happened at Midway.” Davis opined, “The joint operation of more than two carrier forces is too unwieldy.” Fletcher countered that according to “our recent experiences” a task force commander could handle three carrier task forces “almost as easily as two.” Even four could operate together “without too much difficulty.” The “advantages to be gained from such a concentration of air power would more than offset any disadvantages.” He prophesied the “tendency will be to operate more and more carriers together as our offensive gains momentum.”
  • Another factor was the positioning and control of the fighters for defending against incoming attacks characterized as fighter direction with a Fighter Direction Officer. Selection, training and experience of these billets was initially weak. After the Eastern Solomons Fletcher called fighter direction “not entirely satisfactory although much better than previously experienced.” The intercept of lone shadowers continued to excel, but the carriers still seemed at a loss in concentrating the combat air patrol aircraft to defeat strike groups.

The results from the Santa Cruz battle were worse leading Admiral Nimitz to report to Admiral King, “Our fighter direction was less effective than in previous actions. Enemy planes were not picked up until they were at close range, the radar screen was clogged by our own planes, and voice radio discipline was poor. Our fighter direction both in practice and in action against small groups has been good but fighter direction against a number of enemy groups with our own planes in the air is a problem not yet solved.”

[Note: There were enough issues and long term changes in regard to fighter direction to warrant discussion in the next post – Part #26.]

While multiple histories discuss the particular aspect of task force composition there is little written about how these problems were ever addressed, or notation of any lessons learned or applied. The debate almost appears to have disappeared as the carrier forces transitioned to the  new class of CVs, CVls, and new a/c. But as a result of the overall reporting on battle group opertions and the fighter director problems, major changes were implemented n December 1942 by Admiral King in a Change to Cruising Instructions, noted as follows from Radar and the Fighter Directors by David L. Boslaugh, Capt USN, Retired:

… abolished the position of Commander, Air. From now on, the Officer in Tactical Command (OTC) would be in charge of radar control and fighter direction. A carrier task force could be composed of just a few carriers or many. In a small task force, each carrier and its supporting ships might be designated as a task group, and in a large task force, a task group might be made up of a number of carriers and supporting ships.

The carrier task force would be under the command of a flag officer flying his flag in one of the carriers, and each task group would be under the command of a task group commander, usually a flag officer aboard one of the task group carriers.

If all carriers were together in a main body, the task force commander would be the OTC of all units present, but if a task group was on duty detached from the main body, the task group commander would usually be designated OTC of that group. If air operations were expected, the TG commander would usually be the senior aviation flag officer on one of the carriers, and if surface action was expected to predominate, the TG commander would usually be the senior battleship or cruiser flag officer until the engagement was over.

Fighter Director Officer changes and  Combat Operations Center  (COC) officer aboard a task force or task group flagship are addressed in the next post.

The above represents the way in which the Navy operated for the remainder of the war and in general continues to operate with changes via the warfare commander concept well beyond the scope of this series.

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