Tag Archives: WWII

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.)

The Secret Ingredients of “Collaborative Leadership”

Weisbrode, Kenneth. Eisenhower and the Art of Collaborative Leadership. New York City, St. Martin’s Press, 2018, 110 pp. $79.955.

Weisbrode – The Art of Collaborative Leadership

By Erik Sand

When Dwight Eisenhower assumed command of Allied forces in Europe in early 1943, he faced a daunting task. Not only did he need to prepare to assault the vaunted Germany army, but he faced a complicated set of command relationships. His three subordinates, Harold Alexander, Arthur Tedder, and Andrew Cunningham, were all British officers. Two of the three were from different services. Moreover, they all outranked him! Later in his life, Eisenhower would define leadership as “the art of getting someone else to do something that you want done because he wants to do it, not because your position of power can compel him to do it, or your position of authority.” Eisenhower’s allied command would test, if not forge, this philosophy. In Eisenhower and the Art of Collaborative Leadership, author Kenneth Weisbrode describes Eisenhower’s leadership style both as an Army officer, and later as president.

Two traits stand out in supporting Ike’s “Collaborative Leadership” – his capacity for empathy and his self-discipline. As a middle child in a large family, Eisenhower grew up needing to recognize, adapt to, and shape the feelings of others. In command, he applied these skills. He sometimes reworded messages to subordinates to ensure they had generous interpretations. He spent time in informal conversations with his subordinates outside of meetings to better understand their perspective. As Weisbrode notes, empathy is “not easy in asymmetrical relationships: for the senior there is every incentive to dismiss the views of the less powerful and to get on with things; for the junior there is often thus every incentive to feel undervalued to begrudge this.” The difficulty of displaying empathy highlights the second theme: the importance of personal discipline to Eisenhower’s leadership.

Ike’s particular forte was leading, and keeping together, alliances. Yet, he often complained about exactly that process. In 1942 he wrote in his journal, “My God, how I hate to work by any method that forces me to depend on someone else.” Later he wrote, “What a headache this combined stuff is. We spend our time figuring out how to keep from getting in each other’s way rather than in how to fight the war.” Historians have called Ike’s leadership as president “the hidden hand.” He carefully chose his moments of intervention in discussions so as not to influence them too early, even though he had frequently already thought through the issue at hand. Even his apparently offhand remarks often were not. To so carefully control his own behavior, as well as to excel in work he found frustrating, required immense self-discipline. Perhaps this combination helps explain why, when it flared, his temper was so famous.

While Eisenhower’s understanding of leadership is simple to state, implementing it is less straightforward. The naval service could gain by discussing both of empathy and self-discipline more explicitly in discussions of leadership. We speak of “knowing our people,” but rarely of having empathy for them. The two are similar, but not the same. Empathy requires sensing and understanding the emotions of the other party. Perhaps our general discomfort with emotions explains why we avoid a term that highlights them.

Discipline forms the foundation of any naval organization, but we do not often explicitly acknowledge the challenge of self-discipline. Even Weisbrode does not explicitly speak to the issue despite its frequent appearance in his descriptions. Few people will point out their leader’s failings directly until it is too late. Often, the discipline required is not to restrain oneself from misconduct, but from excessive intervention in the affairs of subordinates. The challenge becomes greater as leaders rise in the ranks, the temptations of authority grow stronger, and they become more confident in their own opinions. A leader’s discipline must be self-discipline.

In summary, while occasionally difficult to follow as it shifts between Eisenhower’s experiences and actions and the philosophy of friendship and leadership, Weisbrode’s short 93-page text provides a leadership study that focuses on less-commonly discussed leadership traits as displayed by one of America’s greatest leaders.

Erik Sand is a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy Reserve and a PhD candidate in the MIT Security Studies Program. The views expressed here do not represent those of U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: 01/10/1944-Algiers: Prime Minister Winston Churchill,shown here w/ some of the ‘boys’, is smiling for the camera for the first time since his recent illness and donned his famous siren suit and a colorful dressing gown for the occasion. From left to right: General J.F.M. Whitely Air Marshal Sir Arthur W.Tedder, Deputy Commander of the Allied Forces in the European Theater; Admiral Cunningham; Gen.Dwight D.Eisenhower; Gen. Harold Alexander; Prime Minister Churchill; Lt.Gen.Sir Humprey Gale, Gen. Sir Henry Wilson and Gen. Smith.

From Midway to Monterey: Leveraging Initiative and Technology

By Captain Jeffrey Kline, USN (Ret.)

Seventy five years ago, Ensign “Dagwood” Propst sat in the pilot seat of his large PBY search plane waiting to takeoff from Midway. He and his crew were about to embark on a night mission they had never conducted, to employ a weapon they had never used, against an enemy they had never met.  

On June 3, 1942 the four Japanese carrier groups had not yet been located and the famous engagements to occur the following day were still in the future for both American and Japanese forces. But reconnaissance aircraft stationed at Midway had located Admiral Tanaka’s transport forces approaching from the east and the island’s defenders were keen on attacking where they could.  

Ensign Propst’s Catalina was number three in a flight of four radar-equipped PBYs taking off from Midway to conduct a night torpedo attack against the Japanese transport group – unsuccessfully attacked earlier that day by Midway’s B-17s. The idea to strap torpedoes to the wings of these large slow search aircraft and conduct a night attack had been thought up that afternoon, and the least tired crews of the VP-44 air reconnaissance squadron had been selected to fly them. They had been briefed, discussed tactics, and were ready to take the action to an enemy that had attacked Pearl Harbor only six months earlier.

Lead by Lieutenant Red Richards, the flight of these large, slow PBYs-turned torpedo attack planes were airborne at 2115 and winging toward their target. After navigating through bad weather one PBY lost contact with the others and after an unsuccessful search for the enemy returned to Midway. As told by Gordan Prange in his book Miracle at Midway, the three remaining PBYs broke into clear weather just as they neared Tanaka’s ships. Although not coordinated, all three made attack runs. Ensign Propst targeted the largest silhouette, swung in a wide spiral to mask his approach by flying into the moon’s path, lowered his aircraft to 50 feet altitude, and dropped his weapon. His attack resulted in the first and only American air dropped torpedo hit in the entire Battle of Midway. Ensign Propst’s hit on the oiler Akebone Maru killed or wounded 23 men and was the first blood drawn in the entire battle.

Was this night attack a foolhardy and reckless plan blessed by luck, or a high-risk venture informed by a sound plan, good knowledge of aircraft and weapon capabilities, and a motivated air crew? 

In his “Lessons from the Battle of Midway,” Victor Davis Hanson observes  “…American commanders were far more open to improvising and risk-taking than their Japanese counterparts.” But more than just the commanders, the mid-grade and junior officers combined technical competency, innovative thought, and bold initiative to do such things as strap a torpedo on the wings of a PBY, develop the “Thach weave” to overcome fighter short comings, and gleam information from  Japanese communications.    

The Thach weave was a two-aircraft tactic to counter the Zero’s superior maneuvering capabilities. Conceived months early by John Thach using match sticks as a simulation and then tested in mock combat with Ensign Edward Butch O’Hare, the namesake of O’Hare Airport, the Thach weave was first employed by John Thach himself while in combat on 4 June. Used again in Guadalcanal, it became a standard U.S. fighter tactic.

And, as every intelligence officer knows, Commander Joseph Rochefort, Chief of the Combat Intelligence Office on Hawaii, lead innovative efforts to derive Japanese Midway attack intentions that led to Nimitz positioning Task Force 16 and Task Force 17 northeast of Midway. What is not universally appreciated is that his assessments were frequently challenged by his intelligence chain of command, particularly in Washington D.C.  

In each of these examples, relatively junior officers were put in unfamiliar crisis situations which demanded action on their part. Using their technical knowledge, innovative approaches, and courage they found sound, bold courses of action. This is the tie to the Naval Postgraduate School today. As an institution we keep that spirit alive by providing technical know-how, in context of operational and tactical situations, and challenge our students to produce innovative solutions to real world problems. From exploring concepts of swarming unmanned aerial vehicles to smart warheads on torpedoes, we advance graduate and professional education synergistically. That is our niche, that is our uniqueness, and that is our contribution to the nation’s future security.

The importance of continuing to educate officers in preparation for a future conflict was not lost on Chester Nimitz, even before World War II started. As told in one of our Dudley Knox Special Collection papers authored by John Sanders, Admiral Nimitz wrote a letter in 1965 stating “When I became Chief of Bureau of Navigation in June 1939—my first act was to send for the BuNav War Plans. To my horror—I learned that on “D” day—it was planned to close down the Naval War College and the Naval Postgraduate School in order to provide officers for an expanding Fleet—as was done on ‘D’ day for World War I…..I immediately cancelled those plans and prepared for expanded classes at both the War College and Postgraduate School.” In fact, after 1941 the postgraduate school’s student population increased threefold. By war’s end, Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King was already ordering surveys for a west coast NPS site to accommodate the school’s future growth. And, in 1951 the school moved to its new location in the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey which had served well as an aviation training location during the war.  

In addition to Nimitz and King, Admiral Arleigh Burke recognized the importance and uniqueness of the Naval Postgraduate School when, in a NPS commencement address, he said recognized the foresight  of NPS founders by saying “They recognized that ships and naval weapons were becoming more complex, that their proper employment at sea would require officers who were familiar not only with the age old profession of the sea, but who could understand and could use effectively the complex weapons of the years to come.”

And today, are we meeting the expectations of Nimitz, King, and Burke? In their time the stuff of lasers, robotics, and 3-D printers was science fiction. Today, our graduates who studied how to apply these technologies at NPS are in the fleet. Graduates like CDR Chad Kaiser, when as a student and Lieutenant, modeled and simulated the real threat of an unmanned aerial swarming attack against our destroyers, coming up with  the best way to use our combat systems to defend against it. His work was sent to the fleet as a tactical bulletin. Or now Lieutenant Commander Jeffrey Kee, who, using insight in potential adversaries locating and targeting methods, suggested ways for our ships to maneuver to increase the enemy’s uncertainty in targetingor recently retired, Admiral McRaven, whose NPS thesis became doctrine for counterinsurgency operations. There are many examples, such as work in bi-static acoustic operations, adaptive optics, distributed and integrated logistics, cyber operations, attacker-defender optimization, unmanned systems, force design, and energy research.

To summarize with a quote from William Lind in the Maneuver Warfare Handbook :

“The process that is tactics includes the art of selecting from among your techniques those which create that unique approach for the enemy, time, and place.  Education is the basis for doing that – education not in what to do, but in how to think.”

At NPS we teach officers how to think about employing technology in situations they have not thought about before. We rarely know the answers, as it is a journey of discovery for both officers and faculty. But I do know this, our graduates are prepared to face unanticipated conflict situations, and then apply their technical and tactical talents to generate and apply innovative ways to meet our country’s future challenges.  That is what makes the Naval Postgraduate School a most unique educational institution in our country.

A retired naval officer with 26 years of service, Jeff is currently a Professor of Practice in the Operations Research department and holds the Chair of Systems Engineering Analysis. He teaches Joint Campaign Analysis, executive risk assessment and coordinates maritime security education programs offered at NPS. Jeff supports applied analytical research in maritime operations and security, theater ballistic missile defense, and future force composition studies. He has served on several Naval Study Board Committees. His NPS faculty awards include the Superior Civilian Service Medal, 2011 Institute for Operations Research and Management Science (INFORMS) Award for Teaching of OR Practice, 2009 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Homeland Security Award, 2007 Hamming Award for interdisciplinary research, 2007 Wayne E. Meyers Award for Excellence in Systems Engineering Research, and the 2005 Northrop Grumman Award for Excellence in Systems Engineering. He is a member of the Military Operations Research Society and the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science.  

Featured Image: U.S. Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers of VS-8 from USS Hornet about to attack the burning Japanese cruiser Mikuma for the third time on 6 June 1942 (Wikimedia)

The Nazi’s U-Boat Ace

By Christopher Nelson

Author Larry Paterson joins us to discuss his new book, Otto Kretschmer: The Life of the Third Reich’s Highest Scoring U-Boat Commander

Nelson: Let’s start with you. You live in Italy, you’re a SCUBA instructor, a drummer for a heavy metal band, and you write books about naval history. I’ll admit, it is one of the more interesting author bios I’ve read on a book flap. So how did you end up writing books on naval history?

Paterson: It does seem to surprise people sometimes! Growing up in New Zealand, a lot of people we knew had served in Second World War and even the previous war. One of my grandfathers had gone ashore on the first day of Gallipoli in 1915 and then gone through the Somme, Passchendaele, and so on, while the other was ex-Royal Navy and Royal New Zealand Navy, and fought in the Mediterranean Sea, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. So, the subject of military history was always around, and both of them taught me that it was never as simple as black and white, good and bad, when it came to warfare. Most people hated Germans, while both my grandfathers respected them. I suppose that my interest in the German side of Second World War stems from that.

I left New Zealand in 1988 to be a drummer in the UK (and to see Iron Maiden live because they kept canceling New Zealand tours), so found myself near most of the battlefields I had read about. I’ve been diving since I was a teenager, and I became an instructor, eventually running my own little operation in Brittany, France, which is littered with Kriegsmarine wrecks. The U-boat bunkers and Atlantic Wall are all still there and a friend of mine called Jon Gawne sent me a copy of the First U-Boat Flotilla’s War Diary, who were based in my area. The rest just seemed to come together after that really.   

Nelson: Your newest book is about one of the Nazi’s most successful U-Boat commanders. U-boats, I believe, are a subject in some of your other work. What is it about the German Navy of World War II, particularly U-boats, that fascinates you?

Paterson: I have studied – and continue to study –  all aspects of the Third Reich’s military machine, and specializing in the Kriegsmarine kind of came around by accident after receiving the War Diary and diving on a lot of Kriegsmarine wrecks. Of course, you can’t study one side of a military and political conflict in isolation, so Second World War warfare, in general, is fascinating. I’m glad I was able to know so many people that were actually there, because most are gone now.

Why am I fascinated with U-boats? I don’t honestly know. It’s an intensely interesting subject, as is the whole of the Wehrmacht. What motivated people to fight against such odds? I do not for one minute subscribe to the ‘all Germans were Nazis’ idea that people keep saying, as that provides purely political motivation as a driving factor. There were undoubtedly some like that, as there are now in overly nationalistic people, but in general, the Wehrmacht was made up of ordinary working people. Even the Waffen SS can’t be explained by running home to the ‘Nazi’ label. It was an extraordinary phenomenon, the military services of the Third Reich.

One of my all-time favorite historians Max Hastings writes very lucidly about it and claims, with (I believe) great validity, that the German forces were probably, as a whole and in general terms, the most militarily adept of the war. It’s hard to deny the fact though they were frequently led by chaotic orders, and with such finite resources and a regime despicable in its treatment of subjugated people (even their own) they were always bound to fail. This in no way denigrates other nations’ military. For example, I now live in Italy, a nation whose efforts in the Second World War are roundly mocked, and yet who had superb Special Forces, paratroopers, and torpedo bomber pilots. So…going back to your original question before I got sidetracked into the complexities of it all…why am I fascinated? I have no idea!      

Nelson: Who was Otto Kretschmer? Where does he sit in the ranking of other U-boat commanders when you refer to “scoring” in the subtitle of your book?

Paterson: Kretschmer was the most successful U-boat captain of the Second World War, and the term ‘scoring’ relates to the total tonnage of shipping that he sank while commander of both U23 and U99. It’s terminology that is frequently used in military books dealing with all branches of service, be it tank commanders, fighter pilots or U-boat skippers, but in reality, it is a rather glib way of putting it. Counting tonnage sunk was at the heart of Dönitz’s entire U-boat campaign which, in effect, was designed to sink more merchant shipping carrying capacity tonnage than could be replaced, thereby reducing the cargo carrying potential to Great Britain and correspondingly succeed in enforcing a blockade that could starve Britain into submission.

U-52, A Type VIIB German Submarine (Wikimedia Commons)

However, it has probably become a term that is used too freely in books that deal with the U-boat war. Every ship that was sunk was the home of those crewmen, and even those that went down with no casualties frequently involved a lot of fear, panic, the loss of belongings and even the stoppage of wages for many merchant seamen! Then there are the other ships that sank in flames with men killed and injured and frequently left to die. The other side of the coin is identical: U-boats being sunk with men trapped inside the hull and crushed by extreme pressure or dying through air starvation or the myriad other ways that killed three-quarters of the men of the U-boat service. As always, that is the reality of such a war, which can be somewhat ‘anesthetized’ by talking about a U-boat commander’s ‘score.’ Nevertheless, it is a quantifiable measure of military success, and Kretschmer ranks at the very top of that ‘league table.’ 

Having dived on many wrecks which are war graves, that moment gives you a sense of humility and gravity that I think is very important to remember. The same as standing at the cemetery near Omaha Beach. Truly sobering, and an important feeling for anybody who studies and writes about war to be aware of.

Nelson: What was the standard path for a German submariner to become a captain of their own boat? Did it differ greatly from the allies?

Paterson: Not particularly, though it accelerated greatly as the war dragged on and the ‘old guard’ were either posted ashore or lost in action. In the early stages, men enlisted as officer cadets, served as midshipmen, then junior officers before — if judged competent — given their own command. Often a training boat at first, though that morphed into a combat boat involved in training and trials before heading to the front. Kretschmer was amongst the ‘first wave’ of young captains, the men that served as his First Watch Officer amongst the ‘second wave’ and beyond that the entire process got quicker and quicker. Men were sometimes going to sea with little command experience, and with crews that had been drafted into the U-boats. The mythology of a force of volunteers is just that, a myth.     

Nelson: Did the Germans have better submarines than the allies? How quickly were the German’s able to innovate and field new submarines, and what types of submarines did Kretschmer serve on?

Paterson: Perhaps the Germans possessed better submarines in the early stages of the war. Certainly, the Type VIIB (like Kretschmer’s U99) was a finely-honed weapon, and the larger Type IX cruiser submarines well-suited to more distant operations. However, there hadn’t really been that much development between the wars and the types were reminiscent of those that served in the First World War. The Type II that Kretschmer started on a was a good coastal boat, but of limited endurance and weapon load. The Type VII was the backbone, particularly the later Type VIIC. These had excellent seakeeping qualities and a well-designed hull that gave it quite an extreme depth capability for a boat of its time. Creature comforts were few, but then that can be the story of the Wehrmacht. Conditions aboard a combat boat were difficult, particularly on a long voyage where living and working space was sacrificed for supplies, and yet people just dealt with it.

U-37, A type IXA U-Boat in Lorient (Wikimedia Commons)

As far as development after the war had begun, that proved a major stumbling block. Rather than create a completely new design, modifications to the existing frames were made so that by 1943 the boats were virtually obsolete. The Germans failed in the cypher war most spectacularly when they refused to concede the possibility of compromised codes and were frequently one step behind Allied countermeasures such as radar, the Leigh Light, and air superiority.

The finite resources that Germany waged war with sealed the fate of the entire Wehrmacht; the Luftwaffe declining quickly and unable to counterbalance Allied material and tactical strength. Things like the snorkel helped briefly but were never going to swing the tide of war, much as the German attack that became the Battle of the Bulge was never going to alter the outcome of the war but gave the Allies a momentary fright. The development of the Walther propulsion system never came to fruition and the Type XXI electro-boats would have had to come into service in early 1944 to make any appreciable difference, and even then it would be doubtful. They too were deeply flawed in their construction, due to the dislocation caused by Allied bombing. The Type XXIII electro-boat saw service and was an effective machine, but carried only two torpedoes! The same loadout as a Seehund midget submarine — and not really of much greater endurance. 

So, before the war had gone past 1941, the Germans were reacting to Allied technological and tactical advances rather than leading the field. Dönitz never had enough boats in action during the early years when they could have made a difference. He wanted 300 before war was declared — he started with 57. By the time he had the numbers, the U-boat war was already lost and the ‘greats’ who had captained the ‘Ace’ boats were gone.    

Nelson: I was fascinated to learn in your book that the Germans had their own problems with torpedoes. I’ve read about our own challenges with U.S. torpedoes in the early part of the war, but I wasn’t aware of the Kriegsmarine’s troubles. What exactly was the problem with German torpedo performance? Kretschmer experienced some of this, did he not?

Paterson: German torpedo performance was abysmal. It wasn’t just the Kriegsmarine that suffered this problem, it was the same with aerial torpedoes for the short-lived naval air arm and the Luftwaffe. A lack of rigorous testing and technological development rendered them next to useless. It was really a combination of things that damned the German torpedoes.

First, while the contact detonator that had been used during the First World War was simple and reliable, it had been redesigned between the wars to an overly complex series of levers that were supposed to provide a wider angle in which the trigger would fire, but in effect did not work. It was tested only twice before being issued, and even those tests did not go well.

So, U-boat skippers were advised to use magnetic pistols. However, not only did Allied degaussing provide a problem for them but geographical variations in the earth’s magnetic fields rendered them inoperable — as in Norwegian waters during 1940.

However, even if they had worked, the triggering of a magnetic detonator required the torpedo to pass beneath a ship’s keel at a set depth and German torpedo depth keeping was compromised by a leaking balance chamber. Original tests of the torpedo’s depth keeping had been done at ordinary atmospheric pressure, but the internal pressure of a U-boat differed, and this differential leaked into the chamber and caused torpedoes to run deeper than set and thereby not triggering. This problem wasn’t remedied until the end of 1942! Instead, commanders began to rely on pattern running and, later, acoustic-homing torpedoes that could be countered.      

Nelson: Another thing I read with fascination – again, because it is something that can plague any Joint Force today – and that’s Germany’s challenge of coordination between the navy and the air force. You write that on one deployment, the Luftwaffe attacks Kretschmer’s boat. What happened? And was this a problem throughout the entire war?

Paterson: Yes, indeed…For an effective military, they were extremely ineffective sometimes! The relationship between the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine was frequently strained; a situation that stemmed from the very top as Göring was vainglorious and boastful and despised the ‘cold’ and aristocratic Raeder. It is true that Raeder did not really value the U-boat service as much as his ‘big ships’ but he also failed to understand the potential of aircraft as an offensive maritime weapon, soon demonstrated by most other countries’ navies. Göring, on the other hand, wanted tight control of everything that flew in Germany and frequently engaged in the kind of petty political maneuvering that was rife within the upper echelons of the Wehrmacht and Third Reich as a whole, often at the expense of operational necessity.

Kretschmer’s U-boat was actually attacked by a floatplane from the Scharnhorst after it strayed unintentionally into a prescribed search and attack radius given by the battleship’s reconnaissance aircraft who were guarding against British submarines. But there were more deadly examples of the lack of cooperation between the two services such as when two destroyers were sunk as a result of a German bomber attack. That example was a combination of faulty Luftwaffe navigation — most of their crews not properly trained in nautical navigation — and lack of communication between Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine commands as neither was made fully aware of the other’s movements in time to brief operational crews.   

It’s an interesting topic in itself and I’m actually working on a book about Luftwaffe maritime forces, a long and complicated story! The reality is that although aircraft like the Focke Wulf 200 Condor are (in)famous for their role in the Battle of the Atlantic, they were woefully unprepared, unsuitable, undertrained and underequipped. Thankfully, for the Allies! Proper air and sea coordination between better led, better equipped, and better-supplied forces could have been devastating.   

Nelson: How good was Kretschmer as a tactician? Did he prefer the surfaced night attack? If so, why?

Paterson: He was very good. He was unwilling to follow the norm and obey whatever operational protocol was being promoted. Like many of his generation of U-boat commanders, he thought outside the box and always had two overriding motivating factors: combat effectiveness (i.e. results) and crew welfare. He would not jeopardize his boat or crew without a good chance of survival and success.

His preference was to penetrate the convoy body itself, at night and on the surface. Once submerged, the U-boat was slow, detectable, and unwieldy. On the surface it was fast, well-armed, maneuverable and hard to see as he would sail with the hull trimmed as low as feasible providing very little silhouette. It took great concentration, quick thinking, efficient lookouts, and a good torpedo officer as the First Watch Officer actually aimed and fired while surfaced as the captain maintained the ‘overall look.’

He was not the only commander to adhere to the ‘one torpedo, one ship’ mantra, as Erich Topp and Günther Prien did, to name but two. But their methods were far more successful than the prevailing operational advice of firing a spread of torpedoes from outside the convoy escort screen and hoping for one or two hits.   

Nelson: He’s eventually captured and taken into captivity in Canada. Yet he almost escaped. Can you briefly tell us about that episode?

Paterson: He was captured and did end up in Canada. The escape attempt was relatively far-fetched as it required traversing a great distance to be picked up by a U-boat off the Canadian coast. Not impossible, though as it transpired, not workable either. The tunnel was discovered, although one man did make it over the wire in a separate attempt and managed to reach the area of the rendezvous. Of course, the Allies had discovered the entire plan, and were waiting to trap the U-boat, U536, that had been sent to rescue them. The U-boat skipper sensed the trap and retreated, and the single escaped prisoner was caught. In fact, U536 was soon sunk thereafter as well.  

Nelson: Kretschmer was never a fervid Nazi, was he? What did he do after the war?

Paterson: He wasn’t a particularly politically motivated man, though he was undoubtedly nationalistic. His roots were in Silesia so he would have felt the fractious relationship with Poland resulting from the previous war and was probably in favor of the Third Reich’s stated ambition of reuniting and reinvigorating Germany. But, I don’t want to guess at his thoughts on the matter, as it is indeed a complex area which is also, of course, very sensitive for people. After the war he returned to Germany, studied maritime law, and then joined the navy once more. That in itself would have been a difficult time for such veterans as the Germans attempted to distance themselves from militarism, and yet some of their senior officers were ex-Wehrmacht and extremely militaristic. Tricky.    

Nelson: Das Boot (the film) – underrated or overrated?

Paterson: Brilliant. I actually prefer it to the book. One of my stock questions for U-boat veterans was what they thought of the film. In general, they were all very positive, give or take a few scenes. Many did not like the bar scene and said they would have little respect for officers who passed out and vomited on themselves. Others said there was too much noise from the crew during depth charging, but in general, the consensus was that it is as close to reality as any film has been. Personally, I think it is a superb film in every way. I was lucky enough to get a private tour of the film sets that are at the Bavarian Film Studios and open to the public, and it is remarkably like being inside U995 at Kiel. On the other hand, the movie U571 is junk of the worst kind, in every possible way, apart from a great U-boat model!

U995 in Kiel (Wikimedia Commons)

Nelson: Das Boot (the book) – underrated or overrated?

Paterson: Great book but prefer the film. More U-boat men that I spoke to don’t like the book so much. Sometimes that is because they could not stand the author Buchheim, an ex-propaganda reporter during Second World War. A man that certainly divided opinion amongst the veterans I have spoken to!

Nelson: Who, in your opinion, are some of the other naval historians writing about the German Navy during World War II whose work you admire?

Paterson: There are a lot, I’m not really sure who to name. As I’ve said before, I really like the work done by Max Hastings, though his books are not specifically naval at all. But his studies of aspects of the entire war are truly excellent. He has a refreshing ability to apply clarity and reasoned argument to subjects that are often considered done and unalterable. His views are forthright, accurate, and well presented and I find his books inspirational as he is not afraid to approach subjects as they actually are, rather than repeating the ‘party line.’ It’s hard to make a voluminous study of the war so readable, but he does it. In a similar way that Cornelius Ryan used to with such great books as A Bridge Too Far and so on. Also, Chester Wilmot’s The Struggle For Europe takes some beating. My favorite authors about U-boats? Very hard to say…maybe Jak Mallmann Showell’s older books, Jordan Vause, Eberhard Rössler… I would find it easier to say which books I don’t like…but I’m not going to! 

Nelson: This is great. Thank you.

New Zealander Lawrence Paterson has written fifteen books related to the Wehrmacht during the Second World War – predominantly concerning German naval operations – and one about his time on the road as part of the Blaze Bayley band. He is working on two more books which mark something of a new direction; the first being a history of Luftwaffe maritime operations, and the other detailing Operation Colossus, the first British parachute drop of the war. He is also a scuba diving instructor after having first learnt to dive in New Zealand in 1984, and a touring heavy metal drummer, a career that he started at about the same time! He now lives in Puglia, Italy, with his wife, three cats, two drum kits and a library of books.

Christopher Nelson is a U.S. naval officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The questions above are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: German U-boat attack, World War II. Artwork of German sailors on the conning tower of a U-boat (submarine) that has surfaced after sinking a British cargo ship during World War II (1939-1945). This 1941 painting is by German artist Adolf Bock (1890-1968).