‘Sunk!’

By Rob Morgan

“Sunk!” is the title of a fascinating eight-page article in the December 2016 issue of History Today (Vol. 66 no.12), the British publication found in almost every library and on most newsagents’ bookshelves. Written by Professor Malcolm Murfett, it’s subtitled “The sinking of Japan” and deals with the astonishing shipping losses suffered by the Japanese Empire between Pearl Harbor and the final surrender. Some 8,400,000 tons of shipping, 2,259 vessels over 500 tons and an unknown number of smaller craft, trawlers, ketches, barges, and junks too, were destroyed during these years. Japan’s merchant losses contributed enormously to the eventual defeat of a resource-starved nation.

It really is a very useful article. The Imperial Japanese Army and the Navy both requisitioned merchant vessels again and again. The article gives some guidance on the incredible amount of raw materials and other imports lost in those five years, crucial cargoes such as oil, coal, rubber, iron ore and food among them. The Japanese were a competent martial and particularly naval race, but as Murfett recognises they were abysmally poor when it came to recognising the potential of their enemies (or potential enemies!) – there was a widespread disbelief that the US Navy could actually operate submarines in Japan’s home waters. It’s the submarine which ultimately crippled Japan’s war effort.

I’d long believed that the Japanese never used the convoy system, which proved so successful in both world wars as far as Britain was concerned, at all, but I’m wrong! In April 1942, the Japanese experimented with convoys between Singapore and Truk; each convoy would consist of between 10 and 20 merchants or tankers (any more than 20 was believed to be unmanageable by the Japanese High Command!) with a single warship as escort! Useless, but, interestingly, troops were actually convoyed from the outposts of the new extended Japanese Empire, covered by close escorts and with distant heavier protection.

The use of convoys wasn’t totally non-existent, but rather half-hearted, piecemeal, without adequate escorts or sailing patterns, with no “zig-zag” at night, no real imposed blackout either. Losses were immense, and by the end of 1943 the IJN had established a Grand Escort HQ to organise some sort of defence of the imports now all too regularly being delivered to the sea bottom. They introduced the Kaibokan escorts, quite effective warships, though too few of them, and had an air arm of about 80 “Bettys” and “Emily’s” but it was too little too late. Some 150+ US submarines were active in the Pacific by late 1944.

There were problems with Japanese depth charges, just as the Americans had suffered with torpedo deficiencies in the early years of the war. Japanese mines were, however, very effective and well defended the Inland Sea for most of the war.

This article gives more useful information: the US Navy adopted and adapted the Nazi wolf-pack modus operandii, and created killing zones known by names such as The Speedway and Hit Parade. The names speak for themselves. A map of these areas might have been very useful. Despite ridiculous claims of the number of US submarines destroyed, 15 a month, hundreds over two years, only 19 US submarines were lost in Japan’s home waters, and a further 29 in the Pacific as a whole. The last tanker to reach a Japanese port arrived in March 1945, it seems, and after that, nothing.

What caused their eventual defeat? Arrogance and complacency, says Murfett. It remains, when the might of the carriers and of Yamato is set to one side, an amazing series of errors on the part of a country which had closely observed U-boat warfare (indeed, Japanese Allied flotillas fought competently against U-boats in the Mediterranean from 1916-1918) and had access to the Germans’ WWII skills, if at second hand. At sea, it seems they organised their own long drawn out defeat. Only one criticism of the article, the photographs are very well known, and only one general map is provided. Otherwise, for the wargamer, thought provoking and a good read!

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