Category Archives: History

Naval and maritime history section.

The Spanish Civil War at Sea: Limits to Sea Power’s Influence on History?

By Mark Munson

Sea power advocates traditionally justify the role of navies as a national security tool by their function in winning and deterring wars. The U.S. Navy’s current maritime strategy articulates this idea by stating that sea power is “the critical foundation of national power and prosperity and international prestige.”1 However, past wars at sea have been won by states or combatants in spite of significant naval disadvantages. The Spanish Civil War provides one such example of a less capable power defeating an enemy with a bigger navy. A successfully executed strategy can overcome a larger fleet, where victories by smaller navies can be enabled by factors like air power and the active support of willing allies, allowing them to successfully apply sea power in support of national objectives.

Pre-Uprising

In 1936, right-wing Spanish military officers (later referred to as “Nationalists,” an example of successful historical branding as they were actually the rebels in this case) mutinied against the republican government that had ruled Spain since the end of the monarchy in 1931. While the Spanish Civil War is not typically considered one of the major naval conflicts of the twentieth century, control of the seas around Spain, particularly the Strait of Gibraltar, was vitally important at the start of the conflict since most of the rebel troops were based across the strait in Spanish Morocco, where the Spanish Army had been conducting a brutal pacification campaign for decades.

The Spanish Legion (El Tercio, Spain’s attempt at replicating the French Foreign Legion) and Spanish Army units referred to as Regulares (composed of Moroccan natives) were at the core of the Army of Africa that the right-wing Nationalists would rely on in their revolt against the Republic’s Popular Front government. Moving those troops across the strait would require support from the Spanish Navy.

While some historians claim that senior naval officers coordinated with the eventual Spanish dictator Francisco Franco before the mutiny,2 others argue that General Emiliano Mola, the main organizer of the rising, had “made no serious provision for naval commitment to the plot,”3 assuming that “the Spanish Navy would remain impotent and neutral” after Spanish Army officers had rebelled.4 The aristocratic and “strongly monarchist” Navy officer corps was more socially homogenous than its Army counterpart, which had some “liberal pockets.” The mutineers gambled that most Spanish Navy officers would side with them, a move that would be borne out.

Immediately before the rising, however, the Republican government, suspecting a possible coup, had already deployed warships to the strait to deter a potential crossing from Africa.5 The Navy Minister, Jose Giral, had kept ships deployed away from potential strongholds of the mutineers, and more importantly, tasked “loyal telegraph operators” to monitor communications both ashore and afloat.6 Enlisted sailors, meanwhile, had also intuited the rising, holding a secret meeting in Ferrol on 13 July to prepare for a rebellion by their officers.7

That planning was timely. On 18 July, a civilian radio operator working at Navy headquarters in Madrid intercepted a message from Franco transmitted to senior officers encouraging them to rise up in support of the mutiny initiated the previous day by Army units in Morocco. Giral responded to the news by instructing all fleet radio operators to “to watch their officers, a gang of fascists,” and issuing a follow-up command “dismissing all officers who refused government orders.”8

Sorting Sides

Many Navy personnel first learned of the rising that day when they received Giral’s orders to attack rebel Army units.9 Disregarding the pleas of their officers to support the rebellion, crews of many Spanish Navy ships spread word of the rising, deposed their officers, and formed committees to run the ships.10 Onboard the battleship Jaime I, the crew “overwhelmed, imprisoned, and in many cases, shot those officers who seemed disloyal.”11 After the skirmish between officers and their men, the crew had a famous exchange with Madrid:

“Crew of Jaime I to ministry of marine. We have had serious resistance from the commanders and officers onboard and have subdued them by force…Urgently request instructions as to bodies.”

“Ministry of marine to crew Jaime I. Lower bodies overboard with respectful solemnity. What is your present position?”12

A similar series of events reportedly took place onboard the cruiser Miguel de Cervantes, whose officers reportedly “resisted the ship’s company to the last man.”13

Line drawing of the Spanish Republican battleship JAIME I. (Wikimedia Commons)

The captain of the destroyer Sánchez Barcaiztegui, off the shore of North Africa near Melilla, attempted to sway the men to the cause of the mutineers, but after pleading his case he “was greeted by profound silence, which was interrupted by a single cry “To Cartagena!” This cry was taken up by the whole ship’s company.” After ousting their officers and bombarding Nationalist positions in Melilla and Ceuta, the crew returned in command of the ship to port in Cartagena, where the Navy base had remained loyal to the Republic.14 On station near Melilla, the officers of the destroyer Churruca remained in control because of a malfunctioning radio that had left all aboard oblivious to events.15 Once communications were restored, however, the crew seized control of the ship after it had delivered troops to Cadiz.16

Officers not killed during the rising were imprisoned ashore, where many were later executed.17 According to one account, “230 out of 675 naval officers on active service” were killed during the first months of the war.18 After rejecting the Ministry’s command to attack the rebels on 18 July, most naval officers were deposed by the crews per Giral’s orders, with chief engineers assuming duty as new commanding officers.19 By the time the Spanish Navy had sorted itself into two warring factions, the Republic was left with a tiny fraction of the former Spanish Navy’s senior uniformed leadership: only two of the 19 admirals, and two of the 31 commanding officers of large combatants sided with the Republic. According to one estimate, “only 10 percent of the Cuerpo General,” the Navy’s sea-going line officers, stayed loyal to the Republic.20 Those who stayed loyal were often “demoralized by the murder of their comrades and the insecurity of their own position.”21

It is unclear whether their exodus left the Republican fleet a leaderless and undisciplined rabble, or the officer corps’ preference for service with the Nationalists gave it an intangible, war-winning, leadership advantage. Regardless, the workers committees formed by the Republican sailors to replace the officers afloat failed to translate revolutionary zeal into victory at sea. Nikolai Kuznetsov, then a captain serving as the Soviet naval attaché in Madrid, recalled that the shipboard committees resulted in much talk but little action, citing a visit to the battleship Jaime I in which “the phrase ‘conquer or die’ was heard everywhere, but the anarchists neither conquered nor died.”22

The enlisted crews did secure more of the fleet than their officers, particularly most of the newest combatants, including Jaime I, three cruisers, twenty destroyers, and twelve submarines. The Nationalists seized the battleship España from drydock, two cruisers, a destroyer, some gunboats, two submarines, and five Coast Guard vessels. Crucially, they also captured Canarias and Balaeres, two new cruisers under construction in Ferrol at the time of the rising.23

Somewhat mitigating their deficiency in numbers of ships, the Nationalists seized major naval bases on the Spanish mainland in Ferrol, Cadiz, and Algeciras, while the Republic was left with Cartagena and Mahon on the island of Minorca, both of which both had comparatively limited maintenance facilities. Republican control of major civilian ports and shipyards in Barcelona and Bilbao, along with two-thirds of Spain’s merchant fleet, ultimately failed to influence the course of the naval war.24

Nationalist Operations (The Rebels)

By late July 1936, the two Spanish navies had begun to contest the strait, since control of that chokepoint would prevent any Nationalist attempt to move their troops from Morocco. By early August the bulk of the Republican Navy was operating there, trying to bottle up the enemy Army of Africa25 as Italy began to deploy Savoia Marchetti 81 bombers (SM.81) to Nationalist bases in Morocco.26

An Italian SM.81 like those used to magnify and enable the limited sea power of the Spanish Nationalists. (Wikimedia Commons)

When most of the Republican ships left the strait to replenish supplies in Cartagena on 5 August, the Nationalists immediately seized the initiative. The Italian bombers pounced on the few destroyers left behind, damaging Almirante Valdes and Lepanto, and clearing the way for the sealift of Nationalist troops to Spain.27 The German battleships Deutschland and Admiral Scheer, also operating near the strait at that time, likely deterred the Republican ships from interdicting the convoy of Franco’s troops.28

The Italians scattered the Republican fleet, allowing 3,000 men from the Army of Africa to cross by sea.29 The so-called “victory convoy”30 that sailed on “the day of the Virgin of Africa” was critical at that stage of the war. Those troops would form the bulk of the force that “cut off the Portuguese frontier from the republicans” and joined “forces with the Army of the North,” establishing the Nationalists firmly on the ground for the rest of the war.31

The German Luftwaffe also contributed to saving the Nationalist cause, with German air power playing a vital role in the airlift of troops essential to Nationalist logistics. Hitler reportedly said that “Franco ought to erect a monument to the glory of the Junkers Ju 52. It is the aircraft which the Spanish revolution has to thank for its victory.”32 “The first major airlift of troops in history” transported 1,500 troops in its first week. Eventually the German and Italian air forces transported up to 12,000 soldiers to Spain in the opening months of the war.33 The real impact of the airlift may have been qualitative rather than quantitative, however, with German aviation demonstrating Nazi commitment and thereby stiffening rebel resolve. While the number of men flown by the Nazis was significantly less than the number of troops ferried cross the strait by sea, it “had an enormous influence both on the nationalists’ morale and on the international assessment of their chances of victory.”34 While the airlift may not have been the decisive moment in the war, as “the Army of Africa would have got across eventually,”35 Hitler’s intervention is what turned “a coup d’etat going wrong into a bloody and prolonged civil war.”36

The war at sea was also one of allies, with the Nationalists benefiting from more active support from their German and Italian allies at sea than any aid the Republic received. Germany evaded the Republic’s blockade of their commercial shipping by using vessels registered in Panama, and the Nationalist Navy convoyed in Italian ships.37 The German and Italian navies steadily increased their support to the Nationalists throughout the early months of the war, organizing arms shipments and convoying them through the Republic’s “flimsy blockade,” monitoring the Republican fleet at sea, “openly transmitting periodic position reports,” and establishing formal liaison relationships with the Nationalist Navy.38 The Italian Navy also trained and equipped the Nationalist Navy with submarines and torpedo boats.39

The Italian Navy flagrantly abused the concept of neutrality to justify anchoring warships and landing marines in the nominally-neutral port of Tangier, claiming that they needed to evacuate endangered Italian citizens. By the time thousands of Italians and other third-country nationals had left the city, Italian forces had managed to deter the Republican Navy from entering the port and discouraged Republican loyalists from taking control of that vital haven on the southern side of the strait.40

Map of the Strait of Gibraltar (BBC)

Republican Operations (The State)

In contrast to the straightforward German and Italian support to the Nationalists, the Republic’s reliance on the Soviet Union subjected it to constraints and conflicting objectives. The German and Italian navies prevented the deployment of Soviet warships in the Spanish theater, and Nationalist forces could interdict Soviet-flagged merchant shipping that attempted to transit the Mediterranean.41 Soviet arms shipments to the Republic had to be carried by Spanish shipping, with British-flagged shipping carrying the bulk of “legitimate trade” like “oil, coal, food and other supplies.”42 But despite difficulties, including the lack of sympathy by most of the remaining senior Republican Navy officers for Soviet or Spanish communists, the Republican Navy was able to maintain maritime lines-of-communication with the Soviet Union- “between October 1936 and September 1937, over twenty large, mostly Spanish, transport ships made journeys from the Black Sea to Spain without difficulty.”43

Despite the success of those convoys, critics of the Soviet naval strategy correctly point out that it “was narrowly defensive and was essentially derived from the assumptions of inevitable material inferiority to imperialist navies which could only be defeated by a kind of proletarian guerilla warfare at sea.” This strategy made little sense for a Republican Navy that started the war with every “material and geographical capability to carry the war to the enemy.” Rather than taking the initiative, the Republic ceded use of the sea by limiting their scope of naval operations mainly to escorting Soviet shipping.44

Nikolai G. Kuznetsov, the Soviet adviser to the Spanish Republic and future Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union. (Wikimedia Commons)

Soviet influence had an operational impact later in 1936 as well. On 29 September, the Nationalist cruisers Almirante Cervera and Canarias sunk Almirante Ferrándiz and damaged Gravina at the battle of Cape Spartel,45 in what has been called the “turning point of the naval war.” Afterward “the Republican Navy would never regain the initiative or its confidence, while the Nationalist Navy would never lose them.” Kuznetsov had approved the diversion of Republican ships from the strait, but eventually acknowledged “it was a terrible blunder.”46

It should be noted, however, that the Soviets controlled the Republican Navy in virtually the same manner as they influenced Republican Army operations ashore during the first two years of the war.47 Ironically, the Spanish Communist Party vigorously criticized “the passivity of the Republican fleet,” not realizing that its caution at sea was dictated by a naval strategy crafted by Soviet officers to meet Soviet objectives.48 One assessment of Soviet assistance argues that “Stalin’s material aid kept the Republic temporarily alive, but his military advisers helped dig its grave.”49

Neutral or Complicit Onlookers?

While France and Great Britain tried to maintain neutrality in their relations with the two sides, the international regime they attempted to implement and enforce at sea actively harmed the Republican cause. The Non-Intervention Agreement of September 1936 not only failed to stop the flow of fighters and materiel to both sides, but one-sided adherence to the agreement by the “genuinely” neutral UK and the “formally” neutral France did little to diminish the flow of German, Italian, or Soviet aid into Spain.50 Franco-British neutrality did not extend to actually ensuring that other European powers behaved as neutrals, as they chose to overlook direct Italian and German naval participation in the hostilities.51

The French left-wing Popular Front government did make some moves to help the Republican government with which it had much ideological sympathy, but on a smaller scale than Italy or Germany aided the Nationalists. On the maritime front, however, even a minimal French commitment in support of the Republic was undercut by a British refusal to cooperate. Overtures by the French Navy’s Admiral Francois Darlan to the British to counter Italian and German naval support to the Nationalists were rebuffed in 1936.52 Lord Chatfield, the Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord, told Darlan that Franco was a “good Spanish patriot” and that the Royal Navy was “unfavourably impressed” by “the murder of the Spanish naval officers.”53

The British reluctance to support the Republic with Royal Navy operations afloat was not just officer-class solidarity with the Nationalist sympathies of their Spanish Navy peers, however. It also reflected larger geopolitical concerns and diverging imperial interests not aligned with the Anglo-French naval alliance. While fears of “combined Italian-German-Spanish naval operations” in the Mediterranean drove French planning, British desire for a rapprochement with Italy after disputes over the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 led to a less aggressive British policy.54

Conclusion

Despite its initial significant naval advantage, the Spanish Republic was ultimately defeated by the Nationalists in 1939. While both sides operated at sea throughout the conflict, the Republic had lost the naval war within the first few months. Historians have justifiably blamed the Republican Navy for its failure to keep the Army of Africa bottled up in Morocco, but it is unfair to attribute this failure to anarchist shipboard committees and the few officers that remained loyal to the government in Madrid. The smaller Nationalist fleet exploited air power and vigorous allied support to more effectively apply sea power in order to win the war. Sea power proved decisive in the Spanish Civil War, just not in the narrow understanding of naval strength typified by measuring numbers of vessels. Ships and other materiel of war are tools, and the Nationalists proved better at using theirs at sea between 1936 and 1939.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a naval officer assigned to Coastal Riverine Group TWO. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

References

[1] A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, March 2015.

[2] Antony Beevor, The Battle for Spain (New York: Penguin, 2006), 71.

[3] Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 212.

[4] Willard C. Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” Naval War College Review 38, no. 1, (January/February 1984): 24.

[5] Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” 24.

[6] Thomas, 204.

[7] Beevor, 71-72.

[8] Beevor., 57, 72.

[9] Ibid., 71.

[10] Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” 25.

[11] Thomas, 243.

[12] Beevor, 72.

[13] Thomas, 243.

[14] Ibid., 72.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Beevor, 72.

[17] Thomas, 243.

[18] Ibid., 243 (footnote).

[19] Ibid., 227.

[20] Michael Alpert, “The Clash of Spanish Armies: Contrasting Ways of War in Spain, 1936-1939,” War in History 6, no. 3 (1999): 345.

[21] Thomas., 331-332.

[22] Ibid, 549.

[23] Ibid., 331-332.

[24] Ibid., 331-332.

[25] Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” 25.

[26] Ibid., 28.

[27] Ibid., 28; Michael Alpert, La Guerra Civil Española en el Mar (Madrid: Siglo XXI de España Editores, 1987), 92.

[28] Thomas, 370-371; Michael Alpert, “The Clash of Spanish Armies: Contrasting Ways of War in Spain, 1936-1939,” War in History 6, no. 3 (1999): 334.

[29] Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” 29; Thomas, 370-371; Beevor, 117-118.

[30] Paul Preston, Franco: A Biography (New York: Basic Books, 1994) 161-162.

[31] Thomas, 370-371.

[32] Hitler’s Table Talk: 1941-1944, trans. Norman Cameron and R.H. Stevens (New York: Enigma Books, 2000), 687.

[33] Beevor, 117-118.

[34] Ibid., 117-118.

[35] Ibid., 427.

[36] Preston, 160.

[37] Peter Gretton, “The Nyon Conference – The Naval Aspect,” The English Historical Review 90, no. 354 (January 1975): 103.

[38] Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” 30.

[39] Sullivan, 10.

[40] Ibid., 9.

[41] Alpert, “The Clash of Spanish Armies: Contrasting Ways of War in Spain, 1936-1939,” 348.

[42] Gretton, 103.

[43] Thomas, 549-550.

[44] Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” 32.

[45] Beevor, 144; Willard C. Frank, “Canarias, Adiós,” Warship International 2 (1979), accessed at http://www.kbismarck.org/canarias2.html.

[46] Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” 30-31.

[47] Ibid., 32.

[48] Ibid., 39.

[49] Ibid., 48.

[50] Gretton, 103.

[51] Michael Alpert, “The Clash of Spanish Armies: Contrasting Ways of War in Spain, 1936-1939,” 346.

[52] Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” 28.

[53] Thomas, 389.

[54] Frank, “Naval Operations in the Spanish Civil War,” 30.

Featured Image: The Spanish cruiser Canarias (Colorized by Irootoko Jr.)

The Impact of Insignificance: Naval Developments from the Yom Kippur War

By Christian H. Heller

Introduction

The 1973 Yom Kippur War shocked Israel and the world. Israeli Defense Force (IDF) complacency led to days of panic as Egyptian and Syrian forces threatened the very existence of Israel and triggered the potential “demise of the ‘third temple.'”1 Emergency American aid supported the Jewish defenders and averted a possible superpower confrontation reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Politically, the war reset a diplomatic stalemate between the Arabs and Israel and led to the negotiations at the Camp David summit. Militarily, the naval battles of the Yom Kippur War played almost no part in its outcome. They did, however, initiate a technological and tactical maritime revolution. The battles proved the effectiveness of missile and anti-missile systems to control the seas, and ushered in the missile age of naval warfare.

Breakout of War

The origins of the Yom Kippur War lie in the Arab humiliation during the previous war with Israel, nearly six years earlier. The overwhelming Israeli victory in the 1967 Six-Day War created a political stalemate in which both sides were unwilling to negotiate from their resultant positions.Israel occupied the Golan Heights from Syria and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Arabs knew their territory could not be recaptured via direct conflict.3 The new territory gave Israel the defensible borders and strategic depth it previously lacked and it refused to give them up.4 In Egypt, Anwar Sadat faced domestic unrest from a serious lack of state revenue due to the loss of the Suez Canal.5 The Egyptian population demanded “redemption” for their humiliation in the 1967 war.6

Egypt carefully planned for a limited war to achieve modest gains and reset the balance at the negotiating table. The main barrier to their plans was the Israeli Air Force (IAF). Most of the Egyptian Air Force (EAF) was destroyed on a single day in 1967 and Egypt’s air defenses were incapable of defending against the advanced Israeli planes.7 With the help of Soviet surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems like the SA-2, SA-3, and SA-6, Egypt created a “layered anti-aircraft missile defense force” and increased its anti-aircraft (AA) missile force fourfold.The AA umbrella could both deter Israeli preemptive strikes and protect Egyptian forces while crossing the Suez Canal and invading the Sinai.Egypt also obtained new anti-tank weapons like Sagger missiles and armored vehicles to mitigate Israel’s superiority in armor assets and neutralize their counterattack capabilities in the Sinai.10 Together, with an impressive misinformation campaign, Soviet support for resupplies, and close coordination with Syria, the Egyptian and Syrian armies launched a successful surprise invasion of Israel on the night of 6 October 1973.

Israel and its military were caught unprepared for the attack. Their leaders believed, “there was no chance for an Egyptian victory, thus no rational reason to resort to force.”11 Without a capable air force to negate the IAF’s advantage, leaders in Tel Aviv assumed they would be free from Egyptian military action until at least 1974.12 The night of 8 October, during which Egyptian anti-tank missiles destroyed an entire Israeli armor division in the Sinai, was one of the worst situations Israel has ever faced. Some records indicate that nuclear weapons were prepared, and on 9 October Prime Minister Golda Meir intended to fly to Washington, D.C. to personally request American help.13,14 American military aid flowed into Tel Aviv to avert an international crisis and potential nuclear war, and within a few days Israel again had the upper-hand in the conflict.15

Israeli Naval Preparations

The Israeli Navy was the only service prepared to fight and win the war from its initiation. While 1967 was an overwhelming victory for the army and air force, the navy found itself outgunned by Egypt’s Soviet-built missile boats. Egypt sank the Israeli destroyer Eilat with anti-ship missiles from its small, maneuverable, and heavily-armed missile boats. Israel’s navy traditionally had an inferior status domestically compared to the other military services and the deaths of 47 sailors on the Eilat reinforced that public opinion.16 The attack had a “traumatic effect” on the Israeli Navy whose leaders set about enacting immediate reforms.17

INS Eilat, Ex Royal Navy Z Class destroyer sold to Israel in 1955. (Wikimedia Commons)

Events on the other side of the Middle East reinforced Israel’s desire to improve its navy. Soviet missile boat technology demonstrated promise during the India-Pakistan War of 1971. The Indian Navy purchased Osa-class boats from the Soviet Union and trained with them at the port of Okha, near the Pakistani port of Karachi.18 The Soviet Navy led the world in littoral small craft development at the time. In 1975, the Soviet Navy had more “small combat craft” than the combined total throughout the rest of the world.19 The 130-ft Osa-class was the most well-known of the littoral ships. A standard vessel carried four Styx missile launchers and cruised at a top speed of 32 knots.20

The development of an anti-ship cruise missile became a Soviet goal after World War II. The U.S. Navy on the other hand, led by aviators with knowledge of bombing and torpedoes, believed their weapons to be the perfect anti-ship weapon. In contrast, the Soviet Navy developed multiple versions of cruise missiles to compensate for its lack of naval aviation.21

The missile boats’ speed, agility, and striking capability in the littoral waters along the two nations meant the squadron could reach Pakistani naval targets at Karachi immediately upon the outbreak of hostilities. On 4 December, Indian missiles sank one Pakistani destroyer, one Pakistani minesweeper, one merchant ship, and damaged some oil storage facilities. Due to a possible aircraft counterattack, the Indian missile boats withdrew. While Indian naval leaders welcomed the victory, questions emerged about pressing the offensive and taking advantage of weak Pakistani defenses in the region.22 The Indian Navy launched a second strike four days later that destroyed another oil tanker and damaged two commercial tankers.23 The attacks demonstrated the possibilities of missile technology for offensive strikes and controlling an enemy’s naval capabilities as the Pakistani Navy restricted its movements outside of the Karachi harbor after the Indian victories. 

Soviet Osa I Class fast attack craft-missile underway. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Israeli Navy took notice of the India-Pakistan conflict and decided that small boats with advanced missiles had a greater advantage over large ships like destroyers and frigates in the littoral waters of the Eastern Mediterranean and Red Sea.24 The increase in Israeli territory with the capture of the Sinai Peninsula in 1967 meant more coastline for the navy to protect, and a blue water navy composed of ocean going vessels was unnecessary when their main operating area was the littorals.25

Israeli missile boat procurement began in 1962 when Egypt and Syria obtained Soviet missile boats but accelerated drastically after 1967.26 By the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, the Israeli Navy consisted of fourteen Sa’ar-class missile boats.27 It was the first non-Soviet allied nation in the world to enter the anti-ship missile age.28 They faced significant numbers of enemy vessels. Egypt’s surface-craft consisted of twelve Osa-class missile boats, twenty-six torpedo boats, three destroyers, two frigates and various other vessels.29 Syria’s navy consisted of three Osa– and six older Komar-class missile boats, eleven torpedo boats, and two minesweepers.30

The small size of the missile boats was intended to minimize their target signature and add to the ships’ survivability, but raised questions about their potential firepower. The sinking of a fishing vessel by the Egyptians with a Soviet-built Styx missile in 1967 showcased both the ships’ capabilities and the threat to the Israeli Navy. The Styx missiles of Syria and Egypt also had a range of 25 nautical miles compared to the 12 nautical mile range of Israel’s Gabriel missiles.31 Despite Israel’s new ships, training, and preparations, its navy was still “out-ranged in missiles and outnumbered more than two to one” at the beginning of the conflict.32 In response, Israel accelerated its development of advanced electronic countermeasures to provide a greater defensive buffer for its new fleet.33 Israeli naval leaders also war gamed and experimented with new tactics to add additional defensive capabilities to their ships.34

Operationally, Israeli naval commanders learned from the lessons of the previous wars about limited flexibility and unclear tasking. They assigned three objectives to the navy in the Mediterranean: coastal defense, the elimination of the threat from Arab missile boats, and to support ground troops.35 The navy decided their offensive strategy would focus on the enemy missile boats.36 An active pursuit of the enemy’s naval assets would secondarily support the other two objectives.

The naval battles of the Yom Kippur War were remarkable for two historic developments. They were the first battles in history in which both combatants possessed ship-to-ship missiles, as well as the first time electronic countermeasures were used to defend against missile attacks.37 Two battles in particular highlight these historic changes in naval warfare: Latakia and Baltim.

The Battles

On the night of 6 October, 1973, at the outset of the war, a flotilla of five Israeli missile boats cruised off the coast of Syria attempting to draw the Syrian Navy into battle.38 They identified a Syrian torpedo boat, pursued it east towards shore, and sunk it. While sailing south along the coast opposite Latakia, a main Syrian harbor and naval base, the INS Reshef sank a Syrian minesweeper. The flotilla then identified three Syrian missile boats and deduced that the torpedo boat and minesweeper were naval decoys or observation posts.39 The Syrian ships launched eight Styx missiles at the Israeli squadron, but each was defeated with chaff launches which pulled the Styx targeting system away from the Israeli ships.40

The Israeli vessels advanced quickly and “sandwiched” the Syrian boats between them.41 In total, the Israeli flotilla launched 11 Gabriel missiles, six of which hit their targets.42 In only 25 minutes the navy sank three Syrian vessels. Israel resoundingly won the first naval missile battle in history with no casualties.43 Five Syrian ships were sunk and the Israeli Navy’s offensive and defensive developments tentatively proved themselves in battle.

Two days later on the night of 8 October, six Israeli vessels cruised towards Egypt in two columns after the devastating defeat of Israel’s tank-led counterattack in the Sinai.44 The squadron’s initial intent was to target military facilities just west of the Suez Canal.45 Four Egyptian boats attacked at midnight. The Egyptian Osa missile boats fired 16 missiles near their maximum range, then turned and ran. The Israeli ships shot twelve Gabriel missiles while pursuing. Six hit their targets and three Egyptian ships sank.46

The one-sided results from the battles frightened the Egyptian and Syrian leaders who restricted their navies to the waters nearest their harbors, just as Pakistan did two years earlier. The war involved subsequent smaller battles such as the Second Battle of Latakia. However, these battles involved Arab navies shooting their missiles from afar while relying on protection from merchant ships or coastal defenses.47 Fighting on land continued for almost three more weeks, but the war for the littorals was over.

Israeli Naval Raids, from Herzog, The Arab-Israeli Wars, pg. 313

Tactical and Technical Developments

Israel developed tactics and technology specifically suited to its own needs. The small state knew who its enemy was and where its future conflicts would take place. The combination of domestically produced ships, new missiles, and original tactics was “one of the clearest cases of Israel’s tailoring its forces to those of the Arabs.”48 It developed ships and crews able to conduct advanced scouting activities, execute effective command and control, and employ overbearing firepower on its enemy. Each of these advancements helped the Israeli Navy overcome major deficits in numbers and range. The combination of surprise, initiative, and a boldness to use new capabilities became hallmarks of the Israeli littoral squadrons.49

The Sa’ar-class vessels combined the “maximum firepower possible” in a small, fast vessel perfectly suited for Eastern Mediterranean.50 Israel’s Gabriel missiles destroyed eight Arab ships, including six of their seven missile boats, despite their short range.51 The concentration of firepower onboard the Sa’ar was key to victory. During Latakia, the Israeli ships possessed 26 missiles each compared to Syria’s eight. In Baltim, the Israeli ships carried as many as 34 missiles compared to 16 on each Egyptian boat.52 Additionally, the Arabs made themselves easy to identify and target by keeping their radars turned on and talking frequently over open radio.53

Saar-class missile boat of the Israeli Navy (Wikimedia Commons)

Israel’s experimental tactics were simple. The Israeli boats turned toward the enemy to face them head on and charge at full speed to minimize their target profile and launched chaff decoys early to entice the enemy to launch their missiles at the furthest range. When the Arabs shot their missiles at the full 25 nautical miles, the Israelis were gifted with the maximum time possible to detect and avoid them while in flight.54 Then, using electronic countermeasures and more chaff, the Israeli boats could close with the enemy while evading the incoming missiles until within range of the Gabriels.55

Israeli defensive advancements achieved similar success. The Israeli Navy had no aircraft for reconnaissance and target identification but relied on electronic detection systems which could track the enemy’s radar without betraying their own position.56 The “multiple tricks” of long-range chaff, electronic jammers, high-speed maneuvers, radar-absorbing coating on the bows of the ships, and close-range chaff saved the Israeli fleet.57,58 The Egyptian and Syrian navies shot 52 missiles at the Israeli ships, and all of them missed.59

Israel also maximized its littoral geography and short lines of communications for speedy re-fueling and re-supply. The Israeli sustainment system was so efficient for the navy that it operationally turned a fleet of 14 ships into 24.60

Missile developments emerged on land during the war as well, adding to the impact which these new technologies could have on warfare. The success of “one of the densest missile walls in the world,” built by Soviet anti-aircraft missiles, demonstrated that control over the air could originate from below.61 Over 100 IAF aircraft were destroyed by Soviet-built SAM systems.62 The Egyptian army’s new anti-tank equipment paid off when the Israeli armored counterattack was “simply destroyed.”63 Within 24 hours of the invasion, the Israeli defenders in the Sinai lost over two-thirds of their 270 tanks to Egyptian anti-tank weapons.64 The world was paying attention, and these developments reshaped modern warfare.

The Impact

Due to years of technical and tactical preparation combined with thousands of simulations and wargames, the Israeli Navy was the country’s only service ready to fight and win on October 6, 1973.65 Israeli naval leaders had instituted and carried-out a ten-year plan to directly tailor their naval capabilities to take advantage of the Egyptian and Syrian weaknesses.66 In the end the naval battles of the Yom Kippur War had no significance toward the outcome of the conflict, but its military impact was substantial and long-lasting.

Israeli successes in offensive and defensive missile technology marked the beginning of the missile age for naval warfare, especially for littoral combat power. The size of the ship and its guns mattered far less than its missiles and their accuracy. Defensive countermeasures like chaff, electronic jamming, and radar-absorbent paint became necessities as ships now acted under the premise of first-to-see, first-to-kill. Such offensive and defensive measures are mandatory in today’s naval operating spaces where anti-access/area-denial strategies and over-the-horizon systems are prolific, especially with regard to the littorals and close operating areas of the Pacific and Middle Eastern theaters.

Just as naval artillery transitioned from cannons to breech-loading artillery and fleet structure shifted from battleships to aircraft carriers, the Yom Kippur War ushered in the age of the missile, the missile boat, and modern littoral naval combat. Limited American experimentation with cruise missiles morphed into a complete fervor following the Yom Kippur War. The Harpoon missile research program, initiated in 1969, escalated with the U.S. Navy’s purchase of 150 missiles in 1974. The U.S. Navy formalized production in 1975. By 1979, 1,000 Harpoons had been delivered to the Navy with more in waiting.67

There is no modern definition for a missile boat, but most tend to be less than 1,000 tons (for reference, the Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ship weighs in at 3,500 tons), shorter than 90 meters, sails at a high speed, and carries an armament of cruise missiles and search radar to find targets.68 Their purpose is to be a cheap, mobile launching platform that achieves a high return-on-investment through the destruction of much larger, more expensive enemy ships. The capability—potential and realized—of a small fishing-boat sized warship to sink larger vessels like frigates, corvettes, tankers, or possibly aircraft carriers, has allowed smaller nations to field formidable naval threats in their home waters.

Most naval professionals are at least loosely familiar with the threat from Iranian fast attack craft in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. This technology, combined with geographic chokepoints, coastal geography, numerous staging areas, and defensive capabilities, permits Iran to pose a heavyweight threat with a lightweight force.69 Iran’s exploitation of its littoral advantages and unique offensive and defensive capabilities allows it to apply a doctrine of asymmetric naval warfare which could produce, “highly destabilizing and surprising results.”70 

Regardless of naming convention or location, fast, lightweight, heavily armed ships will remain an enticing option for navies around the world, especially those without the finances to deploy blue-water fleets or with naturally supportive geography. The Israeli Navy proved the efficacy of such a strategy in 1973 when a few insignificant naval battles changed naval warfare forever.

Christian Heller is an active duty intelligence officer in the United States Marine Corps. He is an honors graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Oxford University, and was a Rhodes Scholar.

References

[1] Avner Cohen, “When Israel Stepped Back From the Brink”, The New York Times, 3 October 2013, Accessed online at https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/04/opinion/when-israel-stepped-back-from-the-brink.html

[2] Tomis Kapitan, “Arab-Israeli Wars”, Encyclopedia of War and Ethics, edited by Donald A. Wells (Greenwood, 1996), 21

[3] David T. Buckwalter, “The 1973 Arab-Israeli War”, Case Studies in Policy Making & Implementation from Naval War College, 119, http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/navy/pmi/

[4] Ibid., 120

[5] Ibid.

[6] Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1991), 418

[7] Mohamed Kadry Said, “Layered Defense, Layered Attack: The Missile Race in the Middle East”, The Nonproliferation Review, Summer 2002, 37

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Chaim Herzog, The Arab-Israeli Wars (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 229

[11] Buckwalter, “The 1973,” 130

[12] Herzog, The Arab-Israeli, 227

[13] Elizabeth Stephens, “The Yom Kippur War”, History Today 58 is. 10 (October 2008): 5

[14] Buckwalter, “The 1973,” 130

[15] Stephens, “The Yom,” 5-8

[16] Adam B. Green, “The Israeli Navy’s Application of Operational Art in the Yom Kippur War: A Study in Operational Design”, Naval War College, 12 May, 2017, 1-4

[17] Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), “The 1973 Arab-Israeli War: Overview and Analysis of the Conflict”, September 1975, 113, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/1975-09-01A.pdf

[18] Vice Admiral GM Hiranandani, Transition to Triumph, Excerpt, 1 November 2017, Accessed at  http://www.indiandefencereview.com/interviews/1971-war-the-first-missile-attack-on-karachi/

[19] “A Look at the Soviet Navy”, All Hands, September 1975, 11, Accessed online at http://www.navy.mil/ah_online/archpdf/ah197509.pdf

[20] Ibib.

[21] Kenneth P. Werrell, The Evolution of the Cruise Missile (Alabama: Air University Press, 1985), 150

[22] Hiranandani

[23] “Trident, Grandslam and Python: Attacks on Karachi”, Bharat Rakshak, 7 July 2004, Accessed at https://web.archive.org/web/20141119181622/http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/NAVY/History/1971War/44-Attacks-On-Karachi.html?start=1

[24] Ibid.

[25] Green, “The Israeli,” 3

[26] Ibid.

[27] Herzog, The Arab-Israeli, 311

[28] Green, “The Israeli,” 4

[29] Herzog, The Arab-Israeli, 311

[30] Ibid.

[31] John C. Schulte, “An Analysis of the historical effectiveness of anti-ship cruise missiles in littoral warfare”, Naval Post-Graduate School, September 1994, 5

[32] Green, “The Israeli,” 1

[33] Green, “The Israeli,” 4

[34] CIA, “The 1973,” 113-114

[35] Green, “The Israeli,” 8

[36] Ibid.

[37] Yao Ming Tiah, “An Analysis of small navy tactics using a modified Hughes’ Salvo Model”, Naval Post-Graduate School, March 2007, 52

[38]Tiah, “An Analysis,” 52

[39] Herzog, The Arab-Israeli, 311-312

[40] Schulte, “An Analysis,” 5

[41] Herzog, The Arab-Israeli, 312

[42] Schulte, “An Analysis,” 5

[43] Herzog, The Arab-Israeli, 312

[44] Tiah, “An Analysis,” 53

[45] Herzog, The Arab-Israeli, 312

[46] Schulte, “An Analysis,” 6

[47] Herzog, The Arab-Israeli, 312-313

[48] CIA, “The 1973,” 113

[49] Tiah, “An Analysis,” xxi

[50] Herzog, The Arab-Israeli, 314

[51] Tiah, “An Analysis,” 52

[52] Ibid., 54

[53] CIA, “The 1973,” 114

[54] Ibid.

[55] Jonathan F. Solomon, “Maritime Deception and Concealment: Concepts for Defeating Wide-Area Oceanic Surveillance-Reconnaissance-Strike Networks”, Naval War College Review 66, no. 4, 2013, 13

[56] Tiah, “An Analysis,”, 54

[57] Solomon, “Maritime Deception,” 13 3

[58] CIA, “The 1973,” 113

[59] Herzog, The Arab-Israeli, 314

[60] Green, “The Israeli,” 11

[61] Herzog, The Arab-Israeli,, 227

[62] Robert S. Bolia, “Overreliance on Technology in Warfare: The Yom Kippur War as a Case Study,” Parameters, Summer 2004, 53

[63] Charles F. Doroski, “The Fourth Arab-Israeli War: A Clausewitzian Victory for Egypt in Seventy-Three?” Naval War College, 16 May 1995, 10

[64] Buckwalter, “The 1973,” 126

[65] Green, “The Israeli,” 8

[66] CIA, “The 1973,” 114

[67] Werrell, The Evolution, 151

[68] “Analysis: Are Missile Boats Still Relevant in Modern Warfare”, Defencyclopedia, 17 November 2016, Accessed online at https://defencyclopedia.com/2016/11/17/analysis-are-missile-boats-still-relevant-in-modern-warfare/

[69] Fariborz Haghshenass, “Iran’s Asymmetric Naval Warfare”, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus #87, September 2008, 7-11

[70] Haghsenass, 25

Featured Image: Saar3 missile boat. (Wikimedia Commons)

Trafalgar of the East: Why the Russian Navy Failed in the Russo-Japanese War

By Aidan Clarke

The Russo-Japanese War saw the Imperial Russian Navy soundly beaten by the Imperial Japanese Navy. While much of the analysis on the Russo-Japanese War focuses on the Battle of Tsushima and the success of the Japanese Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō, one can also look to understand the deficiencies present in the Imperial Russian Navy that contributed to this defeat. The causes for this shocking defeat can be compared with the challenges of the Russian Empire as a whole. Russian naval culture, like that of its civilian society, had been built on an outdated system of social class, with nobles (particularly nobles with partial German ancestry) rising as officers, while talented sailors languished in the conscripted ranks. Just as the Tsar’s attempts at reforming Russian society failed to fully solve the deep-seated cultural problems of the Empire, and prevent the 1905 Revolution, Russian attempts at naval reform through the 1885 naval qualifications statute would also fail creating a new class of risk-averse and bureaucratic officers. The initial naval battle outside Port Arthur, and the ultimate defeat of the Port Arthur squadron in the Battle of the Yellow Sea, reflect these failings.

A Fish Rots from the Head

Of all the weaknesses which the Imperial Russian Navy suffered from during the Russo-Japanese War, none were so glaring as the failings of the officer corps. These officers were generally more concerned with their own advancement rather than success in battle. Tellingly, they suffered from over-bureaucratization and a failure to encourage initiative among their ranks.

Before the war, the Russian Navy was more superficial than substantive, suffering from general disorganization, as well as shortcomings of its personnel. While Tsar Nicholas “was attracted to military traditions and pageantry” he was also uninformed, and willing to tolerate “the often unproductive interference of uniformed Grand Dukes in the running of the army and navy.”1 The role of the nobility in the navy was a pernicious problem for Imperial Russia. In 1881, the highest position in the Imperial Navy, the General Admiral, was given to Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich, who was Tsar Nicholas’ uncle. Almost certainly his position was not given on his merit, as the Director of the Navy Ministry, Vice Admiral I.A. Shestakov, felt the Grand Duke was “not an efficient administrator, being more interested in external appearances and the opposite sex than tackling professional issues.”2 The professional problems of the Imperial Russian Navy also extended to the realm of strategic planning and discourse. Prior to the war, the navy had no general staff, and “until the outbreak of the war in 1904, the Navy Ministry had not issued a coherent official tactical doctrine.”3 There was almost no centralized planning at all in the navy, with operational strategy left to “makeshift fleet staffs in different geographical theaters” and subject to the “personal directions and whims” of regional commanders.4

In order to reduce nepotism in the advancement of naval officers and promote professionalism in the navy, the Russian state implemented the naval qualifications statute of 1885, under which “promotions were regulated by a rigid system hinging on specific terms spent at sea, available vacancies, and recommendations by superiors.”5 Ostensibly, this common-sense reform ought to have improved professionalism and efficiency within the fleet. Unfortunately, in most cases it had the opposite effect. The new promotion system “stifled talent and initiative”6 while encouraging officers to maintain a “bureaucratic temperament.” This meant that rather than adapting to the circumstances and seizing on enemy weaknesses, Russian officers “placed great stress on avoiding situations where they might attract criticism from above.”7 They focused on “external appearances and the superficial completion of service requirements.”8 In other words, captains and admirals spent more time inspecting brass pipes and white uniforms than they did testing the readiness of their men for war. This system meant that “the typical Russian officer seemed more at peace within himself when it was the enemy who had the initiative.”9 According to J.N. Westwood, “Russian naval officers were the product of a bureaucratic society in which avoidance of blame was more important than technical competence or imaginative enterprise.”10 This has been a common problem in naval history, perhaps most visible in the stagnation of the Royal Navy, laid bare in the Battle of Jutland.11

From the onset of the war, this failing reared its ugly head. The Commander of the Russian Pacific Squadron, Vice-Admiral Oscar Victorovich Stark, had recognized the dangers posed by Japan in light of the deteriorating diplomatic situation. He had repeatedly requested Admiral Yevgeni Ivanovich Alekseyev, Commander in Chief of Imperial Forces in Port Arthur and Manchuria, as well as Viceroy of the Imperial Russian Far East, “to permit him to prepare the fleet for war.”12 However, Alekseyev dismissed Stark’s fears on the grounds that they were “premature and escalatory.”13 Admiral Alekseyev did not see much of a threat from the Japanese, and a report from Vice-Admiral Wilhelm Withöft (a Russian-German noble) argued that the Russian “plan of operations should be based on the assumption that it is impossible for our fleet to be beaten.”14 Regardless, Vice-Admiral Stark did attempt to work around these restrictions, ordering his crews to put out torpedo nets and prepare for a Japanese surprise attack. However, he could not appear to undercut the noble Withöft or Alekseyev (who was a son of the Tsar), and in the end, “so low-key was the instruction in relation to the Supreme Commander’s known views that…nothing was done.”15 Captains and crews did not wish to contradict Admiral Alekseyev, regardless of the orders from the local commander, and few took any precautions.

Admiral Yevgeni Ivanovich Alekseyev (By Alexander Fedorovich Pershakov/Wikimedia Commons)

There is a common misperception of soldiers and sailors as mindless automatons, following orders like pieces on a chess board. In this image, there is little wrong with the decision of the officers of the Pacific Squadron to yield to the will of Alekseyev and not that of Vice Admiral Stark. However, by the time the Russo-Japanese War began, this model was already outdated, and had largely been replaced with the relatively new concept of auftragstaktik (commonly translated as mission command in English).16 Mission command requires junior officers to “use their own initiative” and adapt to their own circumstances in order to achieve a mission defined by “a superior commander’s concept of operations.”17 Mission command is ultimately a superior model because it recognizes that those on the frontlines often have the best perception of their own situation, and that communication in war is susceptible to interruption, confusion, and misunderstanding (the fog of war). Allowing local commanders to maneuver as best suits them will allow them to minimize their casualties and complete their objectives more rapidly, while avoiding wasted opportunities or fatal miscommunications. In this context, as the local commander, Vice-Admiral Stark had a much clearer view of the threat posed by Japan, while Alekseyev, concerned with Russian objectives across all of Asia, did not. Admiral Alekseyev’s failure to defer to the local awareness of Vice Admiral Stark reflects Russia’s failure to adapt to modern military thought. 

Admiral Alekseyev deserves special attention in considering the failures of the Russian officer corps. Directly beneath him in the chain of command were Vice-Admiral Makarov (after his replacement of Vice-Admiral Stark) and General Kuropatkin. It should be recognized that these two figures were viewed as “the two best officers for their respective posts.”18 Makarov in particular was “Russia’s most competent admiral” and “was certainly Tōgō’s equal.”19 Despite this, Russia’s cultural deference to the nobility left Makarov and Kuropatkin “under Alekseyev, whose ego far outstripped his energy and competence.”20 Stark, Makarov, and ultimately, Withöft all found themselves hamstrung by their superiors, while the Japanese left Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō free to operate as he saw fit. This was a critical difference, and it played a major role in Russia’s ultimate defeat.

That is not to say that Vice-Admiral Stark or any of his replacements should be absolved of blame. Frederic William Unger, an American war correspondent who followed and wrote extensively about the war, noted that when the first Japanese attack on Port Arthur began, “Many of the Russian naval officers were ashore, celebrating with appropriate festivities the birthday of Admiral Stark.”21 While others including J.N. Westwood dispute this claim, Richard Connaughton argues that the party was “entirely in keeping with his reputation as a fun-loving partygoer.”22 Perhaps more importantly, the party’s guests included Admiral Alekseyev himself, as well as several other critical officers. Thus, on the night of February 8th, when Admiral Tōgō launched his initial torpedo attack, the Russian pacific squadron was unprepared and leaderless. Within ten minutes a Russian cruiser, the Pallada, a battleship, the Retvizan, and worst of all, the pride of the Russian Navy and most powerful ship in the Pacific Squadron, the Tsarevitch, had all been hit by torpedoes and were at least temporarily disabled. The Retvizan in particular suffered badly. Having hit Retvizan in the bow, a Japanese torpedo was able to open “a hole through which a car could be driven.”23 

Port Arthur viewed from the Top of Gold Hill, after capitulation in 1905. From left wrecks of battleships: Peresvet, Poltava, Retvizan, Pobeda and Pallada cruiser. (Wikimedia Commons)

The loss of these ships, although temporary, would prove critical. Over the next several months, the Japanese enjoyed total control of the seas, while the Russian Navy could only attempt to rebuild its capabilities. This allowed the Japanese a free hand to land vast numbers of troops in Manchuria, forcing the hand of the Russian Navy, and creating the circumstances for Japan’s ultimate victory.

Battle of the Yellow Sea: The Death of the Pacific Squadron

As Japanese ground forces fought their way closer to Port Arthur, they began raining artillery down on the Pacific Squadron, which for the last six months had failed to even attempt to contest control of seas.24 Petrified as they were of failure, the death of Admiral Makarov in the entrance to the harbor as his ship hit a mine, paralyzed all ensuing Russian officers. In August 1904, as the land battle continued to rage, Viceroy Alekseyev demanded that the most recently appointed commander of the Pacific Squadron, Rear-Admiral Wilhelm Withöft, take the remainder of the Russian Pacific Squadron to Vladivostok. Withöft stalled as long as he could, but before long he “received orders of a more peremptory tone from both the Viceroy and the Tsar.”25 Despite the urging of his superior, Withöft held several councils of war, and together he and his captains agreed that their position dictated they stay in port. Alekseyev ignored Withöft and repeated that this decision was not only in contradiction to his orders, but was also against the wishes of the Tsar.26 Finally, after yet more protests from Withöft, Alekseyev informed the Vice-Admiral that “if the Port Arthur squadron failed to put to sea despite his and the Tsar’s wishes, and was destroyed in Port Arthur, it would be a shameful dishonor.” Furthermore, Alekseyev reminded Withöft of the example of “the cruiser Varyag” which had “put to sea fearlessly to fight a superior force.”27 Of course, Alekseyev did not mention the fate of the Varyag, though Withöft doubtless knew it had been demolished by heavy Japanese fire and had been scuttled at great cost to its crew.

The refusal of the squadron to put to sea appears as cowardice, but in truth, there was good logic to Withöft’s decision to stay in port. Firstly, Withöft was still under the impression that the Russian Baltic Squadron would arrive by October. So reinforced, the Russian Pacific Squadron would be able to concentrate their force, allowing them to confront Tōgō with “overwhelming Russian battleship superiority,” forcing the Japanese admiral to either abandon the field or face near certain defeat. Port Arthur only needed to hold on for three months, and the war could yet be won. Furthermore, the ships of the Port Arthur squadron were contributing supporting fire to the defenders of the Port, and their mere presence prevented the possibility of a Japanese amphibious attack. In short, “an inert Russian squadron in Port Arthur was of far greater strategic value than a bold squadron at the bottom of the sea.”28 

Withöft’s logic had one inherent flaw: the Baltic squadron would not arrive by October, in fact it would not even arrive for another nine months. Alekseyev was “probably aware”29 that this was the case, but neglected to inform the local commander, instead offering only strict and inflexible orders. Under these circumstances, bureaucratic Russian officers responded the only way they could, with fatalistic obedience. Accusations of cowardice on the part of Withöft and his captains are inaccurate: “they were more frightened of failure than death.”30

On August 10th, 1904, the Pacific Squadron put to sea with six battleships, four cruisers, and eight torpedo boats. The Japanese matched them with four battleships, six or seven cruisers, 17 destroyers, and 29 torpedo boats.31 While this did give the Russian fleet a nominal advantage in first-class battleships, two of the six “were the old, lumbering, Poltava and Sevastopol.32 There seemed to be no doubt of the outcome in the mind of Admiral Withöft, whose last words before stepping onto his flagship were: “Gentlemen, we shall meet in the next world.”33 As the ships of the Port Arthur squadron began their flight for Vladivostok, they “displayed the unwelcome effects of a fleet cooped up in port.”34 Stricken with mechanical issues, Russian engineers worked frantically to achieve the maximal speed of the squadron, while their ships lagged and the formation was repeatedly forced to stop and wait for others to catch up. Later, the Russian gunnery would suffer from a lack of practice as well. As the Russian ships affected their repairs, the faster Japanese ships were also allowed to catch up, and the battle began in earnest at 12:30 PM.35 

Japanese battleship Mikasa (Wikimedia Commons)

For the next five hours, the two fleets would shell each other from long range. For most of the battle, the Russians gave as good as they got, scoring powerful hits on the leading Japanese ships, Mikasa, Shikishima, and Asahi. As Mikasa took a number of hits, she, and the Japanese line, began to slow. Tōgō soon found himself trailing behind the Russian fleet. “He had been out-maneuvered” and Vice-Admiral Withöft “had secured the best position possible.”36 Then, as it so often does, pure chance completely changed the course of the battle.

At 5:45 PM, a pair of Japanese 12-inch shells slammed into the bridge of the Russian flagship Tsarevitch, killing Admiral Withöft and all of his staff, and jamming the wheel of Tsarevitch hard over, forcing the Russian flagship into a dramatic circle.37 It was at this point in the battle that the failings of the Russian officer corps became manifest. Contemporary accounts and modern historians agree that “the effort of the Russian ships to fight their way through the Japanese would probably have been successful…had it not been for the disaster to the battleship Tsarevich.”38 Without Withöft, chaos reigned in the Russian fleet. Withöft’s replacement as commander of the squadron was Prince Pavel Petrovich Ukhtomsky. Ukhtomsky’s immediate problem was that his signals mast and lines were shot away, forcing him to signal from the bridge, where only the ships nearest him could see them. However, this was probably the least of the Prince’s problems. As he signaled “follow me” to his ships, Prince Ukhtomsky turned back toward Port Arthur – a somewhat ironic decision given that he had been one of the officers pushing Vice Admiral Withöft to attempt a breakout to Vladivostok in the first place.

Ukhtomsky was not held in any high regard in the Russian Navy. Many in the fleet believed that “he owed his position to connections rather than ability” and he was derided as “a second rate man.”39 His decision to return to Port Arthur made little sense, as the Russian stronghold “could no longer offer a safe haven” and “there was a strong probability that that a significant part of the squadron could have reached Vladivostok.”40 Just as in the forthcoming 1905 revolution, some of the Russian ships simply refused to follow the orders of the nobility, personified by Prince Ukhtomsky. In particular, the light cruiser Novik made a dash for Vladivostok, but was finally defeated after being sighted by a Japanese freighter.41

While the majority of the Russian ships did return to Port Arthur, the Russian mission was a dramatic failure. Although it had lost only one battleship (Tsarevich was forced to shelter in a German port where she was interned), the Port Arthur squadron was so damaged that it would never put to sea again. Russian ground troops were disgusted by this failure, and according to a Russian correspondent, “there was nothing but abuse and curses for the naval officers, from the highest to the lowest.”42 Prince Ukhtomsky’s decision to turn around and return to Port Arthur was an enormous blunder. In so doing, he trapped himself and the squadron in the port, where they would be shelled and sunk, eliminating any value they could have offered to Admiral Rozhestvensky and the Baltic fleet. While he may have feared the loss of most of his ships, “even one battleship at Vladivostok would have been a serious embarrassment for Tōgō when he faced the oncoming Baltic squadron.”43 Instead, Ukhtomsky’s decision removed the Port Arthur squadron entirely from the playing field.  This was an immense strategic victory for Japan, who could now use their artillery to sink the Russian ships, while allowing Tōgō and the Navy to prepare for the upcoming battle with the Baltic Squadron. 

Conclusion

The Battle of Tsushima was decided well before the Russian and Japanese Fleets met. Admiral Rozhestvensky’s words on the expedition indicate his feelings on the prospects of the mission: “We are doing now what needs to be done still, defending the honor of the flag. It was at a previous stage that another course ought to have been taken….Sacrifice the fleet if need be, but at the same time deliver a fatal blow to Japanese naval power.”44 These words, so drenched in the presumption of defeat and complete fatalism, rival those of Admiral Villeneuve on the eve of Trafalgar as some of the least inspiring in naval history. Rozhestvensky was right of course, he had little hope of defeating the Japanese. His fleet was comprised of untrained officers and crews on brand-new ships, which were as yet untested. He had to sail across the globe, hardly stopping for shore, and having to deal with embarrassments such as the Dogger Bank incident, when his untested and nervous crews mistook British fishing trawlers for Japanese torpedo boats, and began pouring fire into them. This incident caused a great deal of enmity towards Russia, causing the Royal Navy to shadow Rozhestvensky for much of his journey, and a number of other nations to deny him access to their port facilities for resupply. When the time for battle finally came, the Russians were disorganized and unprepared. Untested in battle, their fire was “indifferent and ineffective.”45 The exhausted and overwhelmed Rozhestvensky was badly wounded and could only watch as the Japanese picked his fleet apart.

However, Russia’s naval failures in the Russo-Japanese War cannot be laid entirely on his account. Had the Tsar been able to consolidate his squadrons before giving battle to the Japanese, the outcome of the war would likely have been vastly different. However, without any fleet-wide strategic or operational planning, the Imperial Navy was left disjointed and dispersed, while the Japanese could concentrate their forces in their home waters. What little planning there was took place on a localized level, and was hampered by feckless, disinterested officers, parochial interests, corruption, and nepotism, wasting Russia’s quantitative advantages. 

However, perhaps the decisive factor in the Russo-Japanese War was the bureaucratic and indecisive nature of the officers in the Russian Navy. Rather than encourage initiative and free their captains to adapt to the circumstances at hand, Russian naval culture rewarded paper pushers and officers whose crews spent more time cleaning their guns than firing them. Worse still, a gerontocratic Russian state meant that modern techniques and technologies were ignored in favor of the outdated practices of noble officers, who had little interest or ability in naval warfare. Russian officers were thus hesitant in the moments of crisis, incapable of decisive action. Meanwhile, their crews, filled with conscripts and trained for inspections rather than combat, were entirely outmatched by the remarkably professional and extremely well-motivated Imperial Japanese Navy.

Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War was undoubtedly the result of Japanese superiority in a number of critical areas. However, the most telling asymmetry between Japan and Russia in the war was the disparity between their leadership, laid bare in the heat of battle.

Aidan Clarke is an undergraduate student at Furman University, double majoring in History and Politics and International Affairs, with an interest in naval affairs. He has previously researched the U.S.-Soviet naval showdown during the Yom Kippur War, and is currently conducting a research project on the Russo-Japanese War.

References

1. Nicholas Papastratigakis, Russian Imperialism and Naval Power, Military Strategy and the Build-up to the Russo-Japanese War, 2011, (New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd), 45.

2. Ibid, 46.

3. Ibid, 47; Ibid, 42.

4. Ibid, 48.

5. Ibid, 53.

6. Ibid, 53; J.N. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05. 1986, (New York: State University of New York Press), 1.

7. Ibid 29

8. Papastratigakis, Russian Imperialism and Naval Power, Military Strategy and the Build-up to the Russo-Japanese War, 53.

9. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05. 29.

10. Ibid, 35.

11. Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game, 2012, (Annapolis, MD, US Naval Institute Press).   

12. Richard Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 1991, (New York: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, Inc.) 30.

13. Ibid

14. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 37.

15. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 30.

16. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 117.

17. Ibid; “Concept of operations” should be understood as the overall strategic or operational objective.

18. Ibid, 38.

19. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 46.

20. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 38.

21. Frederic William Unger, The Authentic History of the War between Russia and Japan, 1904, (Philadelphia: World Bible House), 345.

22. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 31.

23. Connaughton,The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 32.

24. Unger, The Authentic History of the War between Russia and Japan, 344.

25. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 80.

26. Ibid, 81.

27. Ibid, 80.

28. Ibid, 81.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid.

31. Unger, The Authentic History of the War between Russia and Japan, 391; “Japanese Win Naval Battle in Corean Strait,” Chicago Tribune, August 14, 1904, Pg. 1, Accessed via ProQuest Historical Newspapers; Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 172. 

32. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 171.

33. Ibid, 172.

34. Ibid.

35. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 172.

36. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 83.

37. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 85; Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 173.

38. “Japanese Win Naval Battle in Corean Strait,” Chicago Tribune, August 14, 1904, Pg 1.

39. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 174.

40. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 86.

41. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 86; Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 174.

42. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 174.

43. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 86.

44. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 138.

45. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 266.

Bibliography

Chicago Tribune (Chicago, IL). “Japanese Win Naval Battle in Corean Strait.” August 14, 1904. https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.furman.edu/docview/173171585/7CB7EBC23EDC4AE5PQ/13?accountid=11012.

Connaughton, Richard. The War of the Rising Sun and Tumbling Bear. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 1991.

Gordon, Andrew. The Rules of the Game. Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute Press, 2012.

Koda, Yoji. “The Russo-Japanese War—Primary Causes of Japanese Success.” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2.

Papastratigakis, Nicholas Papastratigakis. Russian Imperialism and Naval Power, Military Strategy and the Build-up to the Russo-Japanese War. New York, NY: I.B. Tauris, 2011.

Stone, David R. A Military History of Russia. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2006.

Unger, Frederic William. The Authentic History of the War between Russia and Japan. Edited by Charles Morris. Philidelphia, PA: World Bible House, 1904.

Westwood, J.N. Russia against Japan, 1904-05. New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986.

Featured Image: Print shows, in the foreground, a Russian battleship exploding under bombardment from Japanese battleships; a line of Japanese battleships, positioned on the right, fire on a line of Russian battleships on the left, in a surprise naval assault on the Russian fleet at the Battle of Port Arthur (Lüshun) in the Russo-Japanese War. (Torajirō Kasai/Wikimedia Commons)

Pearl Harbor 1941: The First Energy War

This article originally featured in The Foreign Service Journal and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Charles Maechling, Jr.

In the summer of 1941, Japan had been at war on the mainland of Asia for four years. After amputating Manchuria from China proper in 1931, and recreating it as Manchukuo under a puppet regime, she had plunged into a full-scale war of conquest with China in 1937. But although a Japanese army of well over a million men occupied vast stretches of the Chinese mainland, active hostilities showed no sign of diminishing. Despite the installation of a puppet regime in Nanking, and a campaign of intimidation and brutal reprisals to pacify the conquered areas, the drain of manpower and supplies continued unabated.

Just as today, Japan was wholly dependent on outside sources for the minerals, petroleum, and other raw materials necessary to fuel its economy, which in 1941 was already highly industrialized. In fact, the whole aim of Japan’s program of expansion on the Asian mainland was to carve out a continental economic system, insulated from the forces which had caused the world-wide economic depression, in which raw materials from China and Southeast Asia would flow into Japan for conversion into a stream of manufactured goods aimed at the limitless Asian market. The conquest of China—or more accurately, her forced conversion into a compliant economic partner—was the first step in a grand design called the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere which was ultimately supposed to embrace Indo-China, Malaysia, and the Dutch colonies of Indonesia.

The Achilles’ heel of Japan’s economy—and the greatest drawback to military ambitions—was her energy resources. Despite the fact that civilian gasoline consumption was minimal, and the Japanese armies were largely unmechanized, Japanese oil consumption, including military, had since 1931 climbed steadily from a level—unbelievably low by modern standards—of about 21 million barrels a year to over 32 million barrels in 1941. (Japan’s current annual consumption is about 2 billion barrels.) The most imperative defense need, on which the safety of the island empire depended, was to ensure ample reserve stocks for the large and powerful imperial navy, and it was largely to this end that Japan, at great pains to her strained economy, had accumulated a stockpile of around 54 million barrels of which 29 million was reserved for the navy.

In 1941 Japan was just as dependent on outside sources for its oil supply as it is today. Domestic production of synthetic fuel amounted to only three million barrels annually; the rest of Japan’s needs—over 90 percent—were made up by imports. In the late ’30s total imports varied from a low of 30.6 million barrels in 1939 to 37.1 million in 1940, the excess over domestic requirements going into the stockpile. Fifteen percent of petroleum imports of all categories came from Venezuela, the Dutch East Indies, and the Middle East—the vast reserves of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf had not yet been developed. Eighty five percent of imports came from one monolithic supplier—Japan’s own private OPEC—the United States of America. And by 1941 relations with the United States had deteriorated to the verge of war.

It had not always been so. The United States had been instrumental in securing a favorable settlement for Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, had been an ally in World War I, and was Japan’s most important trading partner. Despite resentment over the Japanese Exclusion Act, there was a considerable reservoir of good will for the United States among the educated classes of Japan and vast admiration for American education and technological achievement. But since 1931, the United States had been the principal and most outspoken opponent of Japanese expansion in Asia. Under the Stimson Doctrine the United States had refused to recognize the puppet regime in Manchukuo and regarded the program for a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere with hostility and moral disapproval—attitudes reinforced by the barbaric atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese forces in the course of their slow advance through the Chinese provinces. But, until the late ’30s, isolationist sentiment and the rigid constraints of neutrality legislation not only prevented military assistance from being given directly to threatened friendly countries, but inhibited any form of economic sanctions against aggressor nations that might lead to military confrontation. When these policies were finally reversed, it was owing to the tide of German aggression in Europe and the threat to Britain rather than to events in Asia. Even then President Roosevelt was under pressure at first from the Western European powers to avoid a crisis in East Asia until the Nazi menace could be dealt with.

In late 1939, President Roosevelt took the first step toward economic sanctions by imposing a “moral embargo” on sales of aircraft and aviation material. Over the next year, this was expanded to include a wide range of metals and raw materials—rubber, tin, magnesium, molybdenum, aluminum, etc. But where Japan was concerned the administration was careful to avoid any interference with the flow of the most precious commodity of all, oil—this was regarded as too dangerous. In May, 1939. Ambassador Joseph C. Grew in Tokyo had warned the president that “…if we cut off Japanese supplies of oil…and she cannot obtain sufficient oil from other commercial sources to ensure her national security, she will probably send her fleet down to take the Dutch East Indies.”

The outbreak of war in Europe presented the United States with a policy dilemma that took the form of a conflict of priorities. The attention of the president, the press and the American public was riveted on Europe, and after the fall of France on the plight of Britain. The prevailing view was that the Nazi menace to European civilization was the overriding problem of the time. True, the United States was also committed to a policy of resistance to aggression in Asia and support for the Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai Shek. But while there was a growing consensus for all-out aid to Britain, opinion was divided on how to cope with the Japanese menace. Within the Cabinet, Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau and Secretary of the Interior Ickes. along with elder statesman Henry L. Stimson (soon to become secretary of war) believed that there was “linkage” between all outbreaks of aggression. They pressed for “economic sanctions” against Japan, including the cut-off of scrap iron and oil. But Secretary of State Hull and the State Department, guided by the cautionary warnings of Ambassador Grew, were wary of pushing Japan into an act of desperation that would compound the difficulties of the European colonial powers and divert public attention from Hitler.

The U.S. Navy was even more cautious. Successive chiefs of naval operations had warned the president that until the 1934 naval building program was completed and outlying bases in the Philippines, the central Pacific, and Hawaii were reinforced and fortified, any military confrontation with Japan would find the navy at grave disadvantage. The navy had neither the auxiliary supply vessels nor the carrier air strength to fight its way through the Japanese-mandated Marshall and Caroline Islands, bristling with air bases, to face the formidable Japanese navy in its home waters.

The reluctance of the admirals to risk a military confrontation with Japan became even more pronounced in 1940, after the German submarine campaign to cut supply lines to Britain got underway. Substantial units of the Pacific Fleet, including the destroyers necessary to protect heavy ships from submarine attack, were now being transferred to the Atlantic for patrol and convoy duty. One chief of naval operations, the redoubtable Admiral James O. Richardson, had actually been replaced for pouring cold water on the president’s fantasy of running a cruiser patrol line from the Philippines to Hawaii, and for too outspokenly recommending that the fleet be withdrawn to its West Coast bases because of its vulnerability in Pearl Harbor. When a decision was finally made to give the Atlantic top priority, it made a temporizing stance in the Pacific almost mandatory.

The passage of the Export Control Act in July of 1940, however, gave the president a weapon for retaliating against Japanese expansion without appearing to be punitive. The rearmament program and aid to Britain had produced shortages in some materials and the prospect of future scarcity in others. When in September, 1940, the Japanese moved into bases in the northern region of French Indo-China, President Roosevelt promptly imposed an embargo on the export of scrap iron and steel, citing U.S. defense needs as justification. Soon afterwards he prohibited the export of aviation gasoline and lubricants to all but Britain and western hemisphere countries. But the flow of oil and regular gasoline to Japan continued without interruption. In the embargo year of 1940, Japan’s oil imports from the United States only dropped to 23 million barrels from 26 million the year before.

Meanwhile, Japanese foreign policy had been undergoing reappraisal through a convoluted process which can properly be described as agonizing in the literal sense of the word. The Japanese military—or more properly the army high command—had, since the Manchurian takeover, exercised a baleful influence over civilian cabinets, especially on matters of foreign policy. On several occasions this had reached the point of permitting the assassination, by fanatical young officers, of elderly and conservative ministers who were considered to have “become unworthy” of the Japanese imperial mission. The longer the campaign in China dragged on the more the army high command itself risked loss of face and disgrace in the eyes of the emperor and the people. Fearful of the Soviet menace on the long and exposed Manchurian flank, and frustrated over its inability to settle the “China incident,” the high command was the principal proponent both of closer ties with Germany and Italy and an aggressive move south to achieve the long-promised dream of self-sufficiency in Asia.

On the other side, strong forces were at work for a policy of moderation. These included the nobility, the business and financial leadership, the diplomatic service, and the imperial navy. Though dismayed and resentful over American policies past and present, these circles had a more healthy respect for American industrial might than the insular army and genuinely dreaded the unforeseeable consequences of war with the United States. Compared with the deep geographical, historical and economic bonds that linked the United States and Japan, the new ties with Japan’s far distant allies of expediency, Germany and Italy, seemed somehow flimsy and artificial. In these quarters the unrelenting opposition of the United States to Japan’s program in Asia was upsetting and threatening, but could be tolerated as long as the oil supply remained intact. In the meanwhile, there was always a chance that the “China incident” could be settled, or that the mounting involvement of the United States in the defense of Britain would make some kind of compromise possible.

Before a clean-cut policy could evolve, however, these differences had to be thrashed out within the imperial circle. Although crudely styled “fascist” by American politicians and the press, and lumped in with Germany and Italy as a grinning partner in iniquity, Japan and its political system had little in common with European dictatorships. Except for the predominant influence exercised by the military caste, which was deemed to incarnate the warrior virtues, Japanese society before World War II was no more, or rather no less, “totalitarian” than the “Japan Incorporated” of 1979. Under an overlay of parliamentary forms the Japanese decision-making process was almost morbidly traditional. In all vital questions concerning the future of the empire, decisions were not dictated by an upstart tyrant but reached after a painful process of soul-searching and mutual consultation between the traditional power groups. The resulting consensus, couched in the euphemistic and abstract style unique to Japanese culture, was then given a sort of mystical endorsement by the emperor, after an elaborate ritual called a “Throne Conference” in which all groups were represented.

Predictably, this system often produced policy compromises that embodied fatal contradictions. Typical was the decision reached in the summer of 1940 to install a civilian premier of impeccably conservative stripe, Prince Konoye, to pursue a policy of negotiation with the United States, while at the same time the army was given a limited mandate to obtain bases in French Indo-China. Then in September, 1940, under pressure from the army high command, Japan signed a defensive alliance with Germany and Italy known as the Tripartite Pact. The terms of the pact had no operative effect except in the event of a future attack on one of the parties by an unspecified outsider, but the Axis label it now gave Japan was to have a devastating political effect and prove a serious impediment to negotiations with the United States. It would henceforth be extraordinarily difficult for President Roosevelt and Secretary Hull to make meaningful concessions to Japan without the risk of being called appeasers.

At about the same time Japan took steps to solve the problem of its oil dependence. Civilian consumption of gasoline was cut from 6-7 million barrels annually to 1.6 million. By diversifying supply she managed in 1940 to reduce the proportion of oil imports from U.S. sources down to 60 percent as compared to the prior level of 80 percent. But the attitude of the United States, combined with disruption of the international oil market and competing demands of the warring powers, made reliance on distant sources imprudent to say the least. The one alternative closer at hand, on which Japan had cast covetous eyes for years, was the Dutch East Indies, now cut off from the mother country by the German sweep through Western Europe.

In June, 1940, immediately after the Nazi occupation of Holland, Japan demanded assurances from the colonial government in Batavia that exports of oil and mineral exports to Japan would be maintained at present levels. This was merely a stopgap, however, taken more out of fear of German intentions than anything else.

In September, 1940, a large Japanese mission was dispatched to Batavia to make “proposals” to the colonial government for access to raw materials on a greatly increased scale. Oil was given top priority: oil imports from the Dutch Indies were 4.5 million barrels a year, and now the Japanese demand was for a guarantee of 22 million barrels annually. This would have represented 40 percent of the annual production of the Indies at that time (55 million barrels) and a figure almost exactly equal to the current level of Japan’s oil dependence on the United States. The Dutch colonial administration, however, though well aware of its vulnerability, proved tough and obstinate. It protracted the negotiations over nearly three months, and when in November an agreement was finally reached, the Japanese were granted 14.5 million barrels annually and no more. Even this amount was made subject to the concurrence of the oil companies and hedged about with escape clauses.

In the winter of 1940-41 the war reached a condition of temporary stalemate with American attention increasingly focused on the plight of Britain. In April, 1941, Germany invaded Yugoslavia and Greece, and inflicted heavy defeats on the British in Crete and North Africa. In May, President Roosevelt proclaimed a state of unlimited national emergency. During this period the pendulum in Japan again oscillated and a new Japanese ambassador, Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura, known to be well-disposed to the United States, was sent to Washington with a fresh set of proposals. In essence these offered a freeze of Japanese military operations in Asia and a promise to negotiate peace with Chiang Kai Shek. In return, Japan requested from the United States a lifting of all embargoes on critical items, resumption of normal trade relations, American assistance in obtaining a continuing supply of raw materials from Southeast Asia, and the exercise of influence on Chiang Kai Shek to force him to negotiate peace terms with Japan in good faith. The State Department agreed to discuss these proposals, but after fifty private meetings between Secretary Hull and Ambassador Nomura in the Spring of 1941, no basis for agreement could be found. The United States clung to its rigid formulations—withdrawal from Indo-China, acceptance of the principle of non-interference in internal affairs, and respect for the territorial integrity of China as preconditions for negotiations. These Japan could not accept.

In June, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. In the same month the United States suspended all petroleum exports to Japan from East Coast and Gulf ports, throwing supply contracts into temporary disarray. The handwriting was now on the wall, even though once again genuine shortages caused by U.S. military demand and shipments to British forces in the Middle East had prompted the action. The new factor was that at long last the Soviet threat along the Manchurian border had been neutralized. Pressed by the army high command, the Japanese establishment again went into conclave, and in a Throne Conference in July it was agreed that the empire now had no choice but to resume the march southward. Planning was ordered for the military conquest of Malaysia, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies, to be combined with preparations for war with the United States, Great Britain, and Holland. But no specific deadlines were set. On July 24th the Japanese, with the reluctant acquiescence of the Vichy government, occupied key positions throughout French Indo-China. Two days later the dreaded blow fell.

On July 26th President Roosevelt ordered the freezing of all Japanese funds and other assets in the United States and the placing of all petroleum exports to Japan under embargo subject to license. Britain and the Dutch East Indies quickly followed suit. It was originally intended to use the licensing authority as a lever for further bargaining or to avert a crisis. But it soon became apparent that in the current political climate no licenses could be issued and none ever were. The oil cut-off was now complete and Japan was thrown back on her stockpile. To quote from a leading historian of the period: “There was no way, no uncontrolled source of supply from which Japan could get as much as it would have to use even with the most rigid economy. Ton by ton, it could be foreseen, Japan would have to empty the tanks which had been filled with such zealous foresight…From now on the clock and the oil gauge stood side by side. Each fall in the level brought the hour of decision closer.” (Feis, The Road To Pearl Harbor, p. 244.)

The oil embargo represented a triumph for the hard-liners of the Roosevelt administration who were convinced that an oil cut-off would force Japan to its knees. The navy, however, again stressing U.S. naval inferiority in the Pacific—now outnumbered in aircraft carriers by 10-3—had strongly urged delay at least until air and ground forces of the Philippines could be strengthened. Ambassador Grew had once more cautioned that if pushed to the wall it was in the Japanese character to react violently and without warning. According to the historical records, President Roosevelt believed that although he was running a risk, it was one that did not close off his options or entail serious consequences to the United States. He was reassured in this regard by the virtual unanimity of his advisers that if Japan struck it would be against Malaysia and the Dutch East Indies. The safety of the United States was not considered at issue.

In Japan the freezing of its assets and the embargo on oil was greeted with shock and dismay. Any mitigation of popular feeling against the United States was prevented by sightings of U.S. tankers headed for Vladivostok with oil for Soviet armies. By August, 1941, there was only a 12-month supply of fuel left for the army, and an 18-month supply for the navy.

When the Japanese records and diplomatic cables of the four months preceding Pearl Harbor were published after the war they revealed an atmosphere of desperation. In October a hardline cabinet headed by General Hideki Tojo replaced the now discredited ministry of Prince Konoye. Three more Throne Conferences were held, of which the last, on November 5, 1941, committed the emperor irrevocably to war unless a last minute diplomatic solution could be found. At the same time a final effort was authorized to reach some kind of compromise or modus vivendi that would restore the flow of oil without forcing Japan to totally abandon her acquisitions in Asia. Accordingly, new proposals embodying further concessions were carried to Washington by a special envoy, Saburo Kurusu, who henceforth participated with Admiral Nomura in all negotiations. These went so far as to agree to immediate Japanese withdrawal from Indo-China, renunciation of further expansion in Asia, and withdrawal from most of China upon conclusion of a peace treaty with Chiang Kai Shek. It was made plain that Japan was prepared to treat the Tripartite Pact as a nullity. But in the end, like all previous diplomatic efforts, these proposals foundered on the rock of an irreconcilable conflict. Japan would not totally withdraw from the Asian mainland and return to a pinched and impoverished existence on its overcrowded islands. The United States would not accept a compromise that left Japan in physical domination of any part of China. Under pressure from Chiang Kai Shek, Secretary Hull on November 26th confronted the Japanese negotiators with a reversion to the earlier U.S. demand for complete Japanese withdrawal from China. Repeated Japanese pleas for a summit meeting between Prince Konoye and President Roosevelt were met with stony silence.

Throughout these events, the highest circles of the Roosevelt administration were at all times aware of Japan’s sincere desire for a negotiated settlement. Since August, 1940, the president, Secretary Hull, and the civilian and military heads of the army and navy had followed every twist and turn of Japanese policy through the secret cable and radio traffic of the Japanese themselves. Cryptographic experts of the United States Army Signal Corps, headed by the legendary William E. Friedman, had broken the Japanese diplomatic code, styled PURPLE. Thereafter, intercepts of messages from Tokyo to its overseas embassies and consular posts were on Secretary Hull’s desk within a few hours of receipt. After the oil cut-off in July 1941 the president and his advisers not only knew of Japan’s desperation, but of its intention to take drastic military measures unless the embargo was lifted. All indicators pointed to an outbreak of war on either the weekend of December 1st or December 7th, with Malaysia, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines to be the immediate objectives. But partly owing to the indirection employed by the Japanese in communicating with each other, and partly to the tight security imposed by the Japanese military—whose codes were still unbroken—there was no certainty precisely when and where the first blows would fall. On November 27, 1941 a general war warning was sent to the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, the army’s Hawaiian department, and General MacArthur in Manila. Not a hint of impending war was given to Congress, the press, or the American public.

The Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941—the “date that will live in infamy”— lives in history as the military catastrophe that plunged America into World War II. But for the Japanese naval staff, the attack was essentially a sideshow introduced out of excessive deference to the “worst case scenario.” Admiral Yamamoto, the Japanese naval commander, had convinced himself, in the teeth of all the evidence of American naval inferiority in the Pacific, that only if the U.S. battle fleet was dealt a knockout blow would his convoys be secure from interception and time afforded to build a defensive ring around the new conquests.

That the attack on Pearl Harbor was a strategic and political blunder of the first magnitude became apparent only later. Instead of trapping underarmed battleships far from their home base, they were sunk in shallow water where they could be raised and modernized to fight again. Instead of confronting President Roosevelt with the dilemma of how to persuade a refractory Congress to declare war on Japan in defense of the British and Dutch colonial empires, while resisting the Nazi menace across the Atlantic, the attack brought a unified America headlong into war.

What followed can properly be called the first energy war. Oil was not the primary cause of the steady deterioration of relations between the United States and Japan, but once employed as a weapon it made hostilities inevitable. Historians continue to debate endlessly about the extent to which President Roosevelt provoked the attack, but two lessons stand out: Regardless of the legal and moral rectitude of its position, the United States recklessly cut the energy lifeline of a powerful adversary without taking due regard of its own preparedness and the predictably explosive consequences. When the victim struck back he blundered badly and thereby unleashed forces of incalculable fury.

It could all happen again—but in reverse!

Charles Maechling, Jr., Washington lawyer and former State Department officer, was on the secretariat of the Joint Chiefs of Staff 1943-1944. 

Featured Image: The attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. USS-Arizona (BB-39) is in the center. To the left are USS Tennessee (BB-43) and the sunken USS West Virginia (BB-48). (Naval History and Heritage Command NH: 97378. Colorized by Irootoko Jr.)