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Naval and maritime history section.

What Dostoyevsky Taught Me About a Navy Technologist’s Predictions

By Bill Bray

A few years ago, when I was serving as a senior Navy fellow, a technologist on the team predicted that sailors soon could be wired, fitbit-style, to such an exquisite degree that everything about them, from moods to future bad choices, could be known, tracked, logged, and used. As he explained, this technology would be used for everything from emergency intervention to evaluation writing. In fact, the evaluations would practically write themselves. He was young and, to my knowledge, had never led anyone, yet presented with an almost breathless certainty.

Those of us who had spent years in the fleet could be forgiven for being skeptical, or even surprised, since we may think we know people—who they are, what makes them tick, or why they do the things they do. As much as I was surprised by the young technologist’s easy confidence, as he spoke I found myself recalling an experience I had as a young officer. With more than three years on board my first ship, I thought I knew the sailors I led and worked with very well. Know your people was a leadership mantra even back then, although it had yet to be taken as far as the young technologist’s predictions. What I could not predict was that early one morning, one of my sailors would wake up at his off-base San Diego apartment, retrieve his legally owned handgun, and shoot and kill his two roommates while they slept.

When first visited in jail, he said very little beyond that he felt he had the right to do what he did. While a bit aloof and arrogant, he was otherwise quiet and mild-mannered and had never been in trouble. A few days after the murders, I wondered to my captain how such an unassuming young sailor could do something so horrible. He said, perhaps now in contradiction to the technologist with whom I would later work, “you will never know.”

One who wrestled with a mid-19th-century version of the technologist’s optimism was the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Naturalism was then the rage (Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859). There was great confidence that man could be understood (entirely) through observation and experimentation (the scientific method). For example, one of Dostoyevsky’s contemporaries, Ivan Mikhailovich Sechenov, published The Reflexes of the Brain (1863) based on his research with frogs (his main claim was that all human behavior could be explained as reflexive action). Dostoyevsky had seen too much in life by then to believe it. He thought it not just nonsense, but dangerous nonsense. Its implications for political and social life were terrifying.

I first read Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky’s first novel of his major literary period, a few months after leaving my first ship. As I read it and ventured into Dostoyevsky’s world for the first time, the sailor and his fate were front of mind. With crime, the why is always more difficult to know, and more fascinating to contemplate, than the what. Military justice deals primarily with the crime itself, with the important goals of deterring criminal activity and maintaining good order and discipline. But at a grander level Dostoyevsky was not writing about crime and the criminal. Through a dramatic narrative, he demonstrates how human intentions, motivation, subjective experience, and behavior are not knowable, let alone explainable, solely through physical observation. They cannot be categorized into “data sets,” to borrow a more contemporary term. Dostoyevsky helped me be skeptical of, if not the whole human resources field, at least the faith that technology can ever make human performance and behavior predictable.

Ideas were not inconsequential for Dostoyevsky. Crime is often a phenomenon that begins with an idea. Examining how humans can be swept up by an idea and rationalize crime is a recurring theme—one could say an obsession—for Dostoyevsky throughout his major literary period beginning with Crime and Punishment (1866). He was a gifted dramatist, so much so that in Crime and Punishment, while there is no question of the student Raskolnikov’s guilt or that he will not escape earthly justice, the reader almost hangs on every paragraph, searching for answers to the why of the crime—and to eternal questions, such as can murder ever be justified, and for what? Crime and Punishment might be the greatest whydoneit ever written.

The Mystery of Man

Hemingway famously wrote in Green Hills of Africa that “Dostoevsky was made by being sent to Siberia. Writers are forged in injustice as a sword is forged.” Indeed, Konstantin Mochulsky, one of the greatest Dostoyevsky biographers, writes in the introduction to Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work, “The life and work of Dostoyevsky are inseparable. . . Dostoyevsky was always drawn to confession as an artistic form. His works unfold before us as one vast confession, as the integral revelation of his universal spirit.”1

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). (Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky was born 30 October 1821. His father, Mikhail Andreyevich, was a doctor, and by most accounts could be stern and moody. After Dostoyevsky’s mother, Marya Fyodorovna, died in 1837 of tuberculosis, father Mikhail retired to his country estate, where his drinking and treatment of serfs worsened. In 1839, while Dostoyevsky was enrolled in the Nikolayev School of Military Engineering in St. Petersburg, the serfs allegedly beat his father to death following one particularly abusive episode (evidence uncovered in the 1970s casts some doubt on this story).2

Dostoyevsky did not care much for engineering. He passed into the School of Engineering more interested in reading writers such as Schiller, Hoffman, Balzac, and Pushkin than in studying mathematics. In The Diary of a Writer (a series of essays he wrote in the 1870s), Dostoyevsky claimed that as soon as they arrived in St. Petersburg in May 1837, he and his brother Mikhail made a visit to the spot where Pushkin died (Pushkin was killed in a duel with his brother-in-law in February of that year).3 By 1839 he knew for certain his calling. That year he wrote Mikhail:

To study the meaning of man and of life—I am making sufficient progress here. I have faith in myself. Man is a mystery. One must solve it. If you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery because I want to be a man.4

By the mid-1840s, Dostoyevsky was becoming known in St. Petersburg literary circles. He published his first book, the novella Poor Folk, in January 1846. Shortly thereafter, he requested release from military service. He then published the The Double in late January. In the next two years, he associated himself with at least two political-literary groups.

The 1840s were heady political times in Europe, and affiliating with such groups was risky in imperialist Russia. One group was founded by Mikhail Petrashevsky, long a proponent of social and civil reform in Russia. In 1848, revolution swept western Europe and the Tsar Nicholas I became more fearful of losing his grip on power. In April 1849, members of the Petrashevsky circle, including Dostoyevsky and his brothers Andrey and Mikhail, were arrested and jailed in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg (Dostoyevsky’s brothers were released within two months for a lack of evidence). A military court found Dostoyevsky guilty in November and recommended he be executed. However, the Tsar agreed to commute the sentence, but only after the writer endured a mock execution on 22 December at Semenovsky Square. The Tsar’s messenger arrived just in time to announce the commutation—“Nicholas carefully orchestrated the scenario on this occasion to produce the maximum impact on the unsuspecting victims of his regal solicitude.”5

Dostoyevsky spent four years of hard labor in a prison camp in Omsk, followed by five years of military service. One can scarcely imagine how ghastly life in a Siberian prison camp was in the 1850s. Dostoyevsky’s first letters to his brother on release in 1854 (he was unable to correspond while in prison with one exception) and his later account in Notes from the House of the Dead (1861) vividly describe a horrifying penal existence.

Yet the “unspeakable, interminable suffering” was the turning point in the writer’s spiritual development.”6 In many letters Dostoyevsky describes his time in prison as one of introspection and “regeneration.” Dostoyevsky could never reconcile his religious faith with the radical rationalism so prevalent in the mid-1800s. “The ‘magic of extremes’ which had shaken Dostoyevsky’s personal life made him follow man into the darkest corridors of his mind, where nothing remains hidden and where the only way out is the flight into God’s open arms.”7

When he returned to St. Petersburg in 1859, he found the intellectual environment brimming with this radical rationalism. The “vibrational stew” he encountered, according to James Parker, included “nihilism, egoism, materialism. . . The human is being reconceived.” Reason is pitted against faith, against the irrational. What is more truthful? What is more authentic? What is man capable of if he believes only in his capacity to reason? From where comes the moral law in a world where man is the only lawgiver? These questions plagued Dostoyevsky. As Mochulsky put it: “And thus began the struggle between faith and reason in the writer’s consciousness, thus arose the fundamental problem of his philosophy.”8

From Mystery to War

What I should have first read, before Crime and Punishment, is Notes from Underground, published in 1864 in the January and April issues of Epoch, the second magazine Dostoyevsky ran with Mikhail (the first, Vremya [Time] was closed by the censors the year prior).

At just 125 pages, Notes from Underground is the philosophical premise of the author’s great works. In it, we find a thundering cry from the wilderness, an author whose “regeneration of convictions” and long years observing man’s capacity for cruelty and depravity coalesced into a fiery conviction to save humanity from destroying itself. In today’s parlance, Dostoyevsky was a culture warrior—a reactionary who saw the state of man in the mid-nineteenth century as corrupt and sick, an outcome of his almost breathless arrogance before nature and God. Society was deep in an existential crisis. Its foundations were beginning to crumble. Few seemed to recognize the coming apocalypse.

Dostoyevsky was at war with the prevailing intellectual current of his time, one that placed humanity’s fate squarely in the hopes of a scientific positivism that held that understanding man’s character, nature, and behaviors can be derived through sensory experience (observation), experimentation, and reason. Change man’s environment for the better through science, and man’s nature will change for the better.

One of Dostoyevsky’s antagonists was the socialist Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky, who in 1863 published the utopian novel What Is to Be Done? No less than V.I. Lenin would point to Chernyshevsky’s novel as a pivotal influence. Richard Pevear, in the forward to the translation of Notes from Underground he and his wife Larissa Volokhonsky published in 1993, explains that Dostoyevsky initially planned to write a review of What Is to Be Done? in Epoch, but decided that literary critique alone would be inadequate. It required the force of an artistic response, consistent with Dostoyevsky’s conviction that only through art can the human condition be understood in a way that could expose the pretensions and falsehoods of a thinker such as Chernyshevsky. Pevear notes:

[Chernyshevsky’s hero] is the voice of the healthy rational egoist, the ingenuous man of action. Dostoyevsky takes up the challenge. Though Chernyshevsky is not mentioned by name in Notes from Underground, his theories, and in particular his novel, are the most immediate target of the underground man’s diatribes and of Dostoyevsky’s subtler, more penetrating parody.9

Rational egoism was Dostoyevsky’s bête noir. He knew where this unquestioned belief in science to answer all questions was heading, and it was not pretty. His tortured, mysterious characters can be seen as irrationality resisting science’s dogmatic adherents. His underground man mocks Chernyshevky:

Oh, tell me, who first announced, who was the first to proclaim that man does dirty only because he doesn’t know his real interests; and that were he to be enlightened, were his eyes to be opened to his real, normal interests, man would immediately stop doing dirty, would immediately become good and noble, because, being enlightened and understanding his real profit, he would see his real profit precisely in the good, and it’s common knowledge that no man can knowingly act against his own profit … Profit! What is profit? And will you take it upon yourself to define with perfect exactitude precisely what man’s profit consists in? And what if it so happens that on occasion man’s profit not only may but precisely must consist in sometimes wishing what is bad for himself, and not what is profitable? And if so, if there can be such a case, then the whole rule goes up in smoke.10

Of course, Dostoyevsky notes, man acts against his own self-interest all the time. This is natural, if incomprehensible, behavior. Man is at once rational and irrational. The observation/experimental method had no answer for this (modern neuroscience has not provided an answer either).

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment is the epic, full-bodied drama that poured out of Dostoyevsky in a frenzy of creative activity following the 1864 deaths of his first wife and his brother Mikhail, and was inspired, in part, from his reading about the French murder trial of the sociopath Pierre-Francois Lacenaire. In July 1865, he was in Wiesbaden on his third trip abroad. He had gambled away what savings he had and was asking acquaintances, including the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, to loan him money. At some point that summer he abandoned work on The Drunks (the story of the Marmeladov family was ultimately incorporated into Crime and Punishment) and began work on what he had indicated to Mikhail as early as 1859 would be a “confession” novel, one he had first thought of while in prison when “lying on a bed of wooden planks, in an oppressing moment of melancholy and self-dissolution.”11

In September, Dostoyevsky wrote a letter to the prominent editor Mikhail Katkov in which he pitched the novel as a “psychological account of a crime,” going into great detail about how most of the dramatic action would not be about the crime itself, but how the protagonist navigates the aftermath of the crime morally and spiritually.12 He had finished a draft of the novel by late November when back in St. Petersburg, but was not happy with the outcome, and began rewriting it. The first part of what became a six-part novel was published in January 1866 in The Russian Messenger. Parts two and three followed in the ensuing months, and the entire novel was published by the end of the year.

Dostoyevsky’s characters are strange, outlandish, and even grotesque. In Crime and Punishment, we are not on lavish estates, in drawing rooms, or at grand balls—we are in the gutter, at the edge of civilized society, in a gloomy atmosphere of torment, sickness, and despair. Many characters are given to exaggerated emotional outbursts and behaviors. As William Hubben wrote, “All of Dostoyevsky’s stories belong to the literature of extreme situations. An ominous restlessness broods over the men and women in his novels. Frequently their reaction to seemingly small incidents is excessive, and events take a most unexpected turn.”13 

Dostoyevsky is often accused of being an overbearing writer who preached that the path to salvation was through hardship and suffering. In Russian, this outlook is known as dostoyevshchina, or as Y. Karyakin explains, “a masochistic wallowing in suffering, a pathological acceptance of the ugly in the world … a sick conscience which derives comfort from the belief that there can be no easy conscience…”14

Dostoyevsky’s protagonist Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is perhaps an embodiment of dostoyevshchina—at once intelligent and aloof, easily irritable, with a disdain for people in general. He is tormented, suffering from some inner turmoil. He is “functionally insane,” according to Parker. But even when we learn he intends to commit cold-blooded murder, he is not wholly unlikeable. He has genuine empathy—for the Marmeladovs, for example, especially the oldest daughter, the prostitute Sonya—and a deep love for his mother and sister, one that is ostensibly the motive for the crime. He has dropped out of school and needs money to take care of his mother (Pulkheria Alexandrovna) and liberate his sister (Avdotya Romanovna, or Dunya) from marrying the corrupt businessman Pyotr Luzhin, which he believes she is only doing to help him return to school.

At the novel’s outset, Raskolnikov is already in the throes of crisis. Although his struggle is not unique, it is universal. He is Dostoyevsky’s example of the new idealists who suffer an “infirmity of notions, having come under the influence of some of those strange, ‘incomplete’ ideas which go floating about in the air…”15 The only way out of his predicament is to murder the old money lender Alonya Ivanovna, a despicable, vile woman he believes the world will be better off without. He commits a gruesome ax murder and, when walked in on by Alonya’s younger sister Lizaveta, he kills her too.

The novel’s remaining five parts deal with Raskolnikov’s anguish and looming fate. The police investigator, Porfiry Petrovich, suspects Raskolnikov not only has committed the crime, but that his conscience would eventually get the better of him and lead to a confession. What primarily holds readers’ interest is that they want to know what Petrovich wants to know—why did he do it.

An illustration to Crime and Punishment by Nikolay Karazin, showing the moment Raskolnikov is forced to kill the pawnbroker’s sister to defend himself from capture. (Wikimedia Commons)

The answer flows from Raskolnikov’s own philosophical quest. Can an evil act be justified if it produces good consequences? Are some people, by virtue of their greatness, permitted to transgress the moral law that bounds everyone else? He thought so, and the act was meant to prove it. According to Karyakin, “Dostoyevsky’s hero is a man obsessed by an idea, a man in whom Dostoyevsky looks for and finds a human being wounded by an idea, killed by an idea or resurrected by it.”16

Mochulsky claims that Crime and Punishment would have been more accurately titled Crime and Expiation: “Raskolnikov is not only the compositional, but the spiritual center of the novel … the tragedy springs up in his soul and the external action only serves to reveal his moral conflicts.”17 Raskolnikov tries to put himself above the moral law. But he cannot, just as his actions cannot be explained as reflexes in his brain.

A Lesson on Mystery and Fantastical Predictions

Why did my sailor commit a double homicide? Was he perhaps driven by something more than passion and rage at a perceived slight? Was his crime an act against his own self-interest? An illustration of man’s simultaneously rational and irrational mind in action? Much to that young, optimistic technologist’s dismay, we will likely never know. Human behavior is complex and irreducible to data and formulas, something human resources professionals and data scientists rarely want to hear. If anything, Dostoyevsky’s work and life are a testament to the inherent mystery of human behavior, the irreducible complexity of actually knowing someone well.

Recent progress in artificial intelligence has spawned, again, some fantastical predictions of data-driven talent management processes that will categorize subordinates (workers) to such a fine degree that near-total behavioral predictability will be possible. Human performance data will be continuously collected in the workplace, categorized and collated, populating digital profiles and giving future leaders a “game-changing” technological toolset to know their people. But before young leaders believe that will happen, they should read Crime and Punishment. Dostoyevsky may give them cause for skepticism. And that could be a good thing.

Bill Bray is a retired Navy captain. He is the deputy editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.


1. Kostantin Mochulsky, Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967), xix.
2. Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850–1859 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 85–88.
3. Mochulsky, Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work,
4. Mochulsky, 17.
5. Frank, Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, 51.
6. Mochulsky, Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work,
7. William Hubben, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Kafka: Four Prophets of Our Destiny (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1952), 68.
 8. Mochulsky, Dostoyevsky: His Life and Work,
9. Richard Pevear, Forward to Notes from Underground (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), xiii-xiv.
10. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 20–21.
11. Mochulsky, 271.
12. Mochulsky, 272.
13. Hubben, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Kafka, 64.
14. Karyakin, Re-reading Dostoyevsky (Moscow: Novosti Press, 1971), 7.
15. Fyodor Dostoyevsky to Mikhail Katkov, as quoted in Mochulsky, 272.
16. Karyakin, Re-reading Dostoyevsky, 124.
17. Mochulsky, 299.

Featured Image: “Illuminations in St. Petersburg,” by Fedor Aleksandrovich Vasiliev/Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow Russia,/ Bridgeman Images.

Defeated in Peacetime: The Fall of British Singapore, 1942

By Jason Lancaster

“You go to war with the Army you have, not the army you want.” – U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, December 2004

Much like Secretary Rumsfeld’s comments on fighting with the army you have, a navy required in crisis cannot be conjured overnight from thin air, good wishes, and steel. An effective navy requires money to build and maintain, time for construction, and foresight to understand the nature of the next naval war. This is a lesson Britain learned the hard way during World War II, and one that all nations with maritime boundaries should head. War weariness and debt from World War I caused defense cuts. Defense cuts reduced the size of the fleet. No longer would Britain maintain a fleet larger than the next two navies in size.

In the wake of World War I, people hoped the League of Nations could peacefully resolve international disputes. The German High Seas Fleet was seized by the Allies and sank at Scapa Flow. War weary British citizens expected defense cuts. In an effort to reduce the strategic risk of naval cuts, nations came together to agree to limitations on fleet size and armaments at the Washington and London Naval Conferences. Faulty strategic assumptions about friends, enemies, and their naval capabilities meant that Britain’s fleet was too small for imperial defense when called upon.

The Japanese attacked Malaya December 8, 1941, and by February 15, 1942 had captured Malaya and Singapore. In just 55 days, Japanese Infantry marched 1,100 Kilometers, established air superiority over the Royal Air Force (RAF), sank a modern battleship and battle cruiser, and captured 85,000 British and Imperial soldiers.1 February 15, 1942 was a black day for the British Empire, the “impregnable” fortress of Singapore surrendered to the Japanese after less than a week under siege. Reputed as the Gibraltar of the Far East, Singapore’s defenses rested primarily on propaganda hype. Singapore was not just another catastrophe in a string of early war catastrophes, but a catastrophe caused by failed assumptions in strategic thought, naval procurement, and operational planning.

The Naval Treaties and the Two-Power Standard

The Royal Navy had operated on a two-power standard since the 19th century. The two-power standard meant that Britain would maintain more capital ships than the next two largest navies in the world. Pacifism and anti-war sentiment in the wake of World War I meant the British government was reluctant to spend the money necessary to maintain the two-power standard navy. Moreover, the next two naval powers were Japan and the United States; Japan was an ally until the 1923 Washington Naval Treaty, and the Admiralty did not consider the United States a threatening power.

Disarmament was the rule of the day. The London and Washington Naval Treaties limited the sizes of the world’s navies. The Washington Naval Conference set a ten year 5:5:3 ratio for battleships between Britain, the United States, and Japan. Battleship tonnage was limited to 35,000 tons per ship.2 Heavy cruiser tonnage was limited to 10,000 tons; however, there was no limit to the number of heavy cruisers in the Washington Naval Treaty. The London Naval Conference added limits on heavy cruiser numbers. As a pre-condition to sign the Washington Naval Treaty, the United States made Britain choose an ally, the United States or Japan. Great Britain chose the United States, offending Japan and forcing the British to plan for war against Japan. 

With great budgetary finesse and lack of strategic foresight, Great Britain replaced the two-power standard navy with a one-power standard navy. This change caused great debate in the Britain itself as well as in the Colonies. Australian Army Colonel John Lavarack suggested Japan would wait until Britain was occupied elsewhere and that “the dispatch of the British battle fleet to the Far East for the protection of Imperial (and Australian) interests cannot be counted upon with sufficient certainty.”3 Colonel Lavarack’s statements argued for Australian Army budget increases during the inter-war years.

Meanwhile in Britain, Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond stated that the odds of Britain having to fight a two-ocean war were, “a hypothetical situation of improbably nature,” and, “I can imagine no worse way of stampeding a government into a waste of money.”4 However, in 1942, he blamed the loss of Singapore on, “the illusion that a two-hemisphere empire could be defended by a one-hemisphere navy.”5

The Singapore Strategy

Great Britain lacked the finances and political will to retain the number of ships required to defend Great Britain, the Mediterranean, and the Far East. In order to defend the British Empire’s far eastern colonies, the Admiralty devised the Singapore Strategy. This plan was continually revised until the war broke out. Controversy surrounds what the Singapore Strategy actually called for. In its simplest form, the Singapore Strategy was divided into three phases:

Phase I: Period before relief, the time Singapore and Malaysia would be vulnerable to an attack or siege 

The length of time Singapore was expected to hold out expanded from initially 75 days in the 1920s to 180 days in the late 1930s.

Phase II: Reception, staging, onward movement, and integration (RSOI)

Singapore’s dockyards and dry dock were built with supporting the fleet when it arrived to defend Singapore. This phase would enable the fleet to repair and resupply before action.

Phase III: Action, Royal Navy’s advance to isolate Japan6

The misperception is that there was only one plan for a purely naval war against Japan. In reality, these phases applied to multiple offensive and defensive plans that evolved as the Royal Navy contracted and slowly expanded.

The offensive plans called for the bulk of the Royal Navy to be forward deployed to the Far East during a crisis. These plans had two key assumptions. Assumption 1: there would be time to deploy the fleet from Europe. Assumption 2: no European crisis would prevent deploying the fleet. Singapore provided all the major basing facilities for the fleet required, including repair facilities, armories, machine shops, fuel depots, and morale infrastructure such as cinemas and mess halls.

The British battleship HMS NELSON off Spithead for Fleet Review, 1937. Anchored in the background are two Queen Elizabeth Class battleships and two cruisers of the London Class.

From Singapore, the fleet could operate from a forward base closer to the combat zone. Many ports were considered as a forward base. Within the empire, Hong Kong and northern Borneo were considered as potential forward bases. In addition to British ports, Britain considered the American port of Manila and French Camrahn Bay as alternate forward bases.

From the forward base, the fleet would force a major fleet action with the Japanese by conducting an island hopping campaign, seizing bases closer and closer to the Japanese home islands. Even an offensive plan placed great emphasis on the British ability to win a drawn out war of attrition with the Japanese. There was an assumption that Britain would win through economic warfare. Without British exports of rubber, tin, manganese, and oil, Japanese industry would lose efficiency and supplies. British diplomacy would also attempt to further isolate Japan by reducing American and Dutch trade.

This offensive plan required European peace. If European war loomed, the fleet would remain in Europe and offensive plans were moot. Debates over offensive and defensive plans and war games were frequent. With rising European tensions, British naval planners looked for ways to defend the Far East without weakening home waters. A guerre de course plan was also developed, and war games led to the development of the 1939 “flying squadron” theory. Admiral Reginald Drax proposed “a flying squadron composed of two fast battleships, two aircraft carriers, four large cruisers, and nine large destroyers” in the Far East to protect British maritime interests. This squadron would “be mobile enough to hunt down Japanese raiding forces of inferior size… and make the Japanese think twice before venturing too far south.” The expectation was to employ this fleet as a maritime commando, striking Japanese sea lines of communication.7

Admiral Drax’s proposal was a variation of the defensive strategy, which included sending four or five capital ships to Singapore to defend British maritime interests, while the bulk of the Royal Navy dealt with the Italian and German threats in Europe. Despite the originality of the Flying Squadron plan, the idea of a British fleet in being was considered too undignified a path for the Royal Navy. Without favor, all traces of the plan were removed from the War Memorandum. Its recommendation for a larger force that included aircraft carriers notwithstanding, many accused the Drax Plan as the seed of destruction for Force Z.

In 1939, Britain found itself in a situation that previously had been thought impossible. Rather than one opponent, Britain now faced three: Germany, Italy, and Japan. Throughout the 1930s, Germany re-armed, whilst Britain remained limited by the Washington and London Naval Treaties.

As in World War I, the British expected French support in the Mediterranean. Britain expected that a combined Anglo-French force would rapidly destroy the Italian fleet and enable British reinforcements from Europe to the Far East. France’s rapid collapse eliminated the French fleet and opened French ports to the German fleet. Britain’s assumption of shared responsibility in the Mediterranean had been obliterated.

The Singapore Strategy’s Phase I assumed Singapore would hold out, initially for 75 days, this was raised to 90 days by the early 1930s, and by 1939, it had been increased to 180 days. The gradual increase in time was a reflection of the government in London’s changing priorities from the defense of the empire to the defense of Great Britain.

The offensive Singapore Strategy was similar to the American War Plan Orange, but smaller in scope. The British plan did not set out to achieve as much as the American plan. In 1928, the American plan initially expected 36,000 troops; and for the second year of a war, the United States expected over 400,000 soldiers and marines in the Pacific.8 Britain would have embarked on a similar campaign as the American island hopping campaign, if she would have had the same resources as America. However, British resources in the 1930s were too constrained for such ambition.

From 1919 until 1941, Britain’s “Singapore Strategy” fluctuated in scale as the resources to support the plan shifted. Very aggressive plans in the early 1920s shifted to incredibly defensive in the late 1930s. The plan reflected British defense priorities in a world rife with danger and more threats than resources.

Budget Maneuvers

The British Government and Press spoke of fortress Singapore, and the British public believed them. Eventually, the government believed their own hype. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Prime Minister, Winston Churchill was intimately involved in the decisions that hobbled Singapore and the Royal Navy. Churchill should have understood the reality: the propagandized and spirited defense was more of a pathetic whimper. As Singapore was coming under the gun, Churchill realized the error, and said:

“I ought to have known, and I ought to have asked about this matter, amid the thousands of questions I put, was that the possibility of Singapore having no landward defenses no more entered my mind than that of a battleship being launched without a bottom.”9

In 1925, Admiral Beatty, Winston Churchill, and Austen Chamberlain debated over fleet size and military construction projects at the new Singapore naval base. Admiral Beatty argued, “Britain vis-à-vis Japan in 1925 was worse off than vis-à-vis Germany in 1914 and Japan could deal a naval blow which they were absolutely powerless to prevent.” Admiral Beatty wanted naval facilities and the new dry dock in the Far East rapidly constructed. There were no suitable facilities to support the fleet east of Gibraltar. Chamberlain responded to the Royal Navy’s sense of urgency by declaring, “War in the Far East a remote prospect.” He could not conceive Japan “single-handedly taking on the British Empire, unless Japan was aided by some new European grouping.”10

In his quest for thrift, Churchill eliminated a garrison in Johore, Malaya, across from Singapore Naval Base. Singapore army commanders had stated that an “attack from that direction was unlikely because of terrain.” British officers did not believe an army could advance through Malaya, and that Singapore only needed defenses from the sea. Admiral Beatty argued that 15” Inch artillery pieces would “provide a complete deterrent and make Singapore absolutely safe.”11

When Churchill became Prime Minister, the improbable event that Chamberlain had described in the 1920s was in progress. Winston Churchill had many difficult decisions to make. Britain had to prioritize its own defense over the empire’s defense. Churchill knew that some places would come under the gun. Churchill believed the cost of Singapore naval base military construction meant Singapore should be the Gibraltar of the Far East and capable to withstand a siege of 180 days before relief.

Force Z and the Fall of Singapore

When France fell in 1940, the Singapore Strategy fell with it. Instead of steel hulls and shells, bluffs and the hope of US intervention would defend the Far East . Churchill’s priorities placed the defense of the Far Eastern colonies below the home islands and the Mediterranean.

The Far East was considered a third-string front and received equipment and untrained units accordingly. In Britain, the Hawker Hurricane and Spitfire defeated the Luftwaffe over Britain. In Singapore, the majority of fighter squadrons flew the obsolete Bristol Buffalo against the Mitsubishi Zero. The troops and officers sent to reinforce the garrison in Singapore and Malaya were, according to Churchill, “an inferior troop of military and naval men.” Most of the Imperial Troops had been in the army for less than 90 days, and some of the Australians had enlisted only two weeks prior. Several Indian Brigades bound for training in Egypt were diverted en route to Singapore.12

The Singapore Strategy required the fleet. When the crisis came, the fleet was not available. Britain prioritized defending the Atlantic convoy routes, the Mediterranean, and the home islands. Only two capital ships could be spared to defend Singapore. The modern battleship HMS Prince of Wales, battle cruiser HMS Repulse, and three destroyers were sent to defend Singapore. Churchill requested an aircraft carrier as well, but none were available. This small fleet could not hope to defend Singapore against a concerted Japanese onslaught.

On December 8th, Force Z sailed from Singapore to search for the Japanese amphibious task force. The Royal Air Force was supposed to provide air cover, but poor weather and lack of inter-service coordination prevented air support for Force Z. Without air support, Force Z was vulnerable to Japanese air attack. Japanese aircraft located Force Z around 1015, and shortly thereafter, three successive waves of land-based Mitsubishi G3M “Nell” bombers and Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers attacked Force Z. By 1300, both Prince of Wales and Repulse had been sunk.

Loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, December 10, 1941: Photograph taken from a Japanese aircraft during the initial high-level bombing attack. The battlecruiser Repulse, near the bottom of the view, has just been hit by one bomb and near-missed by several more. The battleship Prince of Wales is near the top of the image, generating a considerable amount of smoke. The Japanese writing in the lower right states that the photograph was reproduced by authorization of the Navy Ministry.

At the War Office in London, the General Staff knew, “it was almost certain, once the Japanese had established themselves in northern Malaya, that Singapore was doomed.” The War Office never imagined an invasion of Malaya as the enemy course of action. With no recognition of a threat, British Malay had no defenses and ill-trained defenders.

Despite this qualitative disadvantage, Churchill said, “If I had known all about it then, as I know about it now, there were no substantial resources which could have been diverted from home defense, the desert, or from Soviet Russia.” After years of study and contemplation, Churchill said of the matter, “If it had been studied with the intensity with which we had examined the European and African operations, these disasters could not have been prevented, but they might at least have been foreseen.”13

The Far East had been determined to be least important of three important theatres of action, and since the situation there was the worst as well as the most remote, they were not going to receive the equipment they needed for the struggle. Britain’s assumptions for the defense of Malaya and Singapore were flawed. Britain had no tanks in Malaya. Britain had not expected Japan to land in Malaya, much less operate tanks in the jungles. Japanese tanks and bicycled mounted infantry achieved spectacular breakthroughs and rapidly advanced through Malaya.

Prime Minister Churchill’s actions are understandable—finite resources must be used economically—however, between 1919 and 1928, Churchill’s budgetary tactics greatly decreased the capacity of the British to withstand a future onslaught in the East. German rearmament began openly and in earnest in 1933. While Germany rearmed, British naval expansion was constrained by the Washington and London Naval Treaties and the economic impacts of the Great Depression.


Actions taken decades before the war amongst the corridors of Whitehall and Westminster determined the outcome of the campaign in Malaya. Decades of government policy placed British forces defending the landing beaches of Singora and Kota Bharu at a major disadvantage. Fleet size had been reduced to save money during the inter-war years. In London, the government created plans and strategies but failed to source the ships, planes, and tanks to fight the battle, and the military infrastructure necessary to support the plan.

The maintenance of the two-power standard might not have saved Singapore, but the action might not have been so rapid and one-sided. Colonel Wilfred Kent Hughes, administrative officer of the 8th Division, summed it up nicely in his mock epic poem, Slaves of the Samurai:

…Perhaps a more important sphere

Had claimed priority in men and gear.

The troops on outpost had to pay the price 

Of wasted years of selfish Avarice.14

LCDR Jason Lancaster is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He has served aboard amphibious ships, destroyers, and as operations officer of a destroyer squadron. He is an alumnus of Mary Washington College and holds a Master’s Degree in History from the University of Tulsa. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Department of Defense.


[1] Farrell, Brian and Hunter, Sandy (eds.), Sixty Years On, The Fall of Singapore Revisited. Singapore: Eastern University Press, 2002, pg 220.

[2] Bell, Christopher M, The Royal Navy, Sea Power and Strategy Between the Wars. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000, pg 13.

[3] Brian Farrell and Sandy Hunter, Sixty Years On, pg 32.

[4] Ibid, pg. 33.

[5] Bell, Christopher M, “How are we going to make war plans: Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond and Easter Warn Plans,” Journal of Strategic Studies, September 1997.

[6] Christopher Bell, The Royal Navy, Sea power and Strategy Between the Wars, pg 67.

[7] Ibid, pp 86-76.

[8] Ibid, pp 96-97.

[9] Churchill, Winston S, The Second World War volume IV, The Hinge of Fate. Boston: Mariner Books, 1985, pg 43.

[10] McIntyre, W. David, The Rise and Fall of the Singapore Naval Base. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1979, pg 46-48.

[11] Ibid, pg 76.

[12] Swinson, Arthur, Defeat in Malaya, the fall of Singapore. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970. pp 84-85.

[13] Farrell and Hunter, pp 160-62.

[14] Ibid, pg 293.

Featured image: LTG Percival and his Staff surrendering (Credit:

“The Fleet at Flood Tide” – A Conversation with Author James D. Hornfischer

CIMSEC was saddened to learn that renowned naval historian James Hornfischer passed away on June 2, 2021. He was 55.

To celebrate his memory, CIMSEC is reposting this interview we published on his latest book, The Fleet at Flood Tide.

By Christopher Nelson

The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945 by James Hornfischer
The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945 by James Hornfischer.

A passionate naval historian, Jim Hornfischer finds time in the early morning hours and the weekends to write. It was an “elaborate moonlighting gig” he says, that led to his latest book, The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945

The Fleet at Flood Tide takes us back to World War II in the Pacific. This time Hornfischer focuses on the air, land, and sea battles that were some of the deadliest in the latter part of the war: Saipan, The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, Tinian, Guam, the strategic bombing campaign, and the eventual use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  

The battles Hornfischer describe share center stage with some of the most impressive leaders the U.S. placed in the Pacific: Admiral Raymond Spruance, Admiral Kelly Turner, Admiral Marc Mitscher, General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, and Colonel Paul Tibbets. It is quite a cast of characters.

Hornfischer, to his credit, is able to keep this massive mosaic together – the numerous battles and personalities – without getting lost in historical details. His writing style, like other popular historians – David McCullough, Max Hastings, and Ian Toll immediately come to mind – is cinematic, yet not superficial. Or as he told me what he strives for when writing: “I then dive into the fitful process of making this rough assemblage readable and smooth, envisioning multiple readers, from expert navalists to my dear mother, with every sentence I type.”

The Fleet at Flood Tide is his fifth book, following the 2011 release of Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Gudalcanal. Hornfischer — whose day job is president of Hornfischer Literary Management — also found time to write The Ship of Ghosts (2006), The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors (2004; which won the Samuel Eliot Morison Award), and Service: A Navy SEAL at War, with Marcus Luttrell (2012). Of note, Neptune’s Inferno and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors have been on the Chief of Naval Operation’s reading list for consecutive years.

I recently had the opportunity to correspond with Jim Hornfischer about his new book. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

How did the book come about? Was it a logical extension of your previous book, Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal?

All these years on, the challenge in World War II history is to find books that need writing, stories that need telling with fresh levels of detail, or in an entirely new frame. After Neptune’s Inferno, I was looking for a project that offered expansive territory in terms of geography, people and operational terrain, fresh, ambitious themes, and massive amounts of combat action that was hugely consequential. When I realized that no single volume had yet taken on the entirety of the Marianas campaign and followed that coherently to the end and what it led to, I had something. I wrote a proposal for a campaign history of Operation Forager, encompassing all its diverse operations on air, land and sea, as well as the singular, war-ending purpose to which that victory was put. The original title given to my publisher was Crescendo: The Story of the Marianas Campaign, the Great Pacific Air, Land and Sea Victory that Finished Imperial Japan. In the first paragraph of that proposal, I wrote, “No nation had ever attempted a military expedition more ambitious than Operation Forager, and none had greater consequence.” And that conceit held up well through four years of work. Everything I learned about the Marianas as the strategic fulcrum of the theater fleshed out this interpretation in spades.

As you said, in the book you focus on the Marianas Campaign, and there are some key personalities during the 1944-45 campaign. Namely, Raymond Spruance, Kelly Turner, and Paul Tibbets are front and center in your book. When scoping this book out, how did you decide to focus on these men?

As commander of the Fifth Fleet, Raymond Spruance took the Marianas and won the greatest carrier battle in history in their defense along the way. Spruance, to me, stands as the finest operational naval commander this nation ever produced. After all the ink spilled on Halsey and the paucity of literature on Spruance, it was, I thought, time to give him his due. Kelly Turner, Spruance’s amphibious commander, has always fascinated me. After his controversial tour as a war plans and intelligence guy in Washington in the run-up to Pearl Harbor, and then in the early days of Guadalcanal, surviving a dawning disaster (and did I mention he was an alcoholic), it’s incredible that Turner retained Spruance’s confidence. Yet he emerged as the leading practitioner of what CNO Ernest J. King called “the outstanding development of the war”: amphibious warfare. He has been poorly credited in history and deserved a close focus for his innovations, which included among other things an emphasis on “heavy power”—the ability to transport multiple divisions and their fire support and sustenance over thousands of miles of ocean—as well as the first large-scale employment of the unit that gave us the Navy SEALs.

As for Paul Tibbets, he and his top-secret B-29 group were the reason for the season, so to speak, the strategic purpose behind all the trouble that Spruance, Turner, and the rest endured in taking the Central Pacific. Without Army strategic air power, the Navy might never have persuaded the Joint Chiefs to go into the Marianas in 1944. And without Paul Tibbets and his high performance under strenuous time pressure, the war lasts well into 1946. Did you know that it was his near court-martial in North Africa in 1942 that got him sent to the Pacific in the first place?

General Carl Spaatz decorates Tibbets with the Distinguished Service Cross after the Hiroshima mission/USAF Official Photo
General Carl Spaatz (l) decorates Colonel Tibbets (r) with the Distinguished Service Cross after the Hiroshima mission (USAF Official Photo)

Early in the book you say that naval strategy was driven more by how fast the navy was building ships and not by battle experience. How so?

Well, of course the naval strategy that won the Pacific war, War Plan Orange and its successors, was drawn up and wargamed in the 1930s. But at the operational level, nothing prepared the Navy to employ the explosion of naval production that took place in 1943 and 1944. Fifteen fast aircraft carriers were put into commission in 1943. Thus was born the idea of a single carrier task force composed of three- and four-carrier task groups. The ability to concentrate or disperse gave Spruance and his carrier boss, Marc Mitscher, tremendous flexibility.

They realized during the February 1944 strike on Truk Atoll that it was no longer necessary to hit and run. There had been no precedent for this. Instead of hitting and running, relying on mobility and surprise, they could hit and stay, relying on sheer combat power, both offensive and defensive. That changed everything.

By the time the Fifth Fleet wrapped up the conquest of Guam, the carrier fleet was both an irresistible force and an immovable object. That was a function of a sudden surplus of hulls, and the innovations that the air admiralty proved up on the fly in the first half of 1944. Most of these involved making best use of the new Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat, fleet air defense, shipboard fighter direction, division of labor among carriers (for combat air patrol, search, and strike), armed search missions (rocket- and bomb-equipped Hellcats), the concept of the fighter sweep, adjusting the makeup of air groups to be fighter-heavy, night search and night fighting, and so on.

Grumman F6F Hellcats of VF-8 in flight/Wikipedia
Grumman F6F Hellcats of VF-8 in flight (Wikimedia Commons)

Just as important was the surge in amphibious shipping. In 1943, more than 21,000 new ‘phibs were launched of all sizes. The next year, that number surpassed 37,000. That’s the “fleet at flood tide” of my title. As Chester Nimitz himself noted, the final stage of the greatest sea war in history commenced in the Marianas, which became its fulcrum. Neither Iwo Jima nor Okinawa obviated that. And that concept is the conceit of my book and its contribution, I suppose—the centrality of the Marianas campaign, and how it changed warfare and produced America’s position in the world as an atomic superpower.

Spruance, King, Halsey, Tibbets, Turner ––  all of them are giant military historical figures. After diving into the lives of these men, what surprised you? Did you go in with assumptions or prior knowledge about their personalities or behavior that changed over the course of writing this book? 

I had never fully understood the size of Raymond Spruance’s warrior’s heart. I just mentioned the Truk strikes. Did you know that in the midst of it, Spruance detached the USS New Jersey and Iowa, two heavy cruisers, and a quartet of destroyers from Mitscher’s task force, took tactical command, and went hunting cripples? This was an inadvisable and even reckless thing for a fleet commander to do. He and his staff were unprepared to conduct tactical action. But he couldn’t resist the chance to seize a last grasp at history, to lead battleships in combat in neutering Japan’s greatest forward-area naval base.

Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo/Wikipedia
Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (Wikimedia Commons)

Also, I hadn’t known how much Spruance exulted in the suicide death on Saipan of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, the executioner of the Pearl Harbor strike and Spruance’s opponent at Midway. Finally, I was unaware of the extent of his physical courage. Off Okinawa, in the space of two weeks in May 1945, two of his flagships, the Indianapolis and New Mexico, were hit by kamikazes. In the latter, he disappeared into the burning wreckage of the superstructure, to the horror of his staff, and turned up shortly afterward manning a fire hose. That’s a style of leadership that the “cautious” COMFIFTHFLT is seldom credited for.

Regarding Tibbets, I mentioned his near court-martial in North Africa. Few people know this happened, or even that he served in Europe at all, but he was among the finest B-17 squadron commanders in the ETO in 1942. The lesson of his near downfall is: Never mess with a line officer whos destined to become a four star. This would be Lauris Norstad, Tibbets’s operations officer in North Africa, who went on to become one of the most important USAF generals of the Cold War.

You touch on this in your book, but the war stressed all of these men greatly. And each of them handled it in their own way. Taking just Spruance and Tibbets as examples, how did they handle the loss of men and the toll of war?

Spruance, in his correspondence, often described war as an intellectual puzzle. He could be hard-hearted. Shortly after the flag went up on Mount Suribachi, he wrote his wife, “I understand some of the sob fraternity back home have been raising the devil about our casualties on Iwo. I would have thought that by this time they would have learned that you can’t make war on a tough, fanatical enemy like the Japs without our people getting hurt and killed.” That’s a phrase worthy of Halsey: the sob fraternity. And yet when he toured the base hospitals, he felt deeply for the wounded in war.

It was for this reason that Spruance opposed the idea of landing troops in Japan. He favored the Navy’s preference for blockade. But those were perfectly exhausting operations at sea, week after week of launching strikes against airdromes in Western Pacific island strongholds, and in the home islands themselves. By the time Admiral Halsey relieved Spruance at Okinawa in May 1945, Spruance was exhausted both physically and morally.  

Paul Tibbets suffered losses of his men in Europe, but in the Pacific he was stuck in a training cycle that ended only at Hiroshima on August 6. Later in life, he considered the mass death and destruction he wrought as an irretrievable necessity. Responding to those who considered waging total war against civilian targets an abomination of morals, Tibbets would say, “Those people never had their balls on that cold, hard anvil.” I don’t think the moral objectors have ever fully credited either the tragic necessity or the specific success of the mission of the atomic bomb program: turning Emperor Hirohito’s heart. Tibbets was always unsentimental about it. 

Why is Spruance considered a genius?

Admiral Raymond Spruance, USN/Alfred J. Sedivi, courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute
Admiral Raymond Spruance, USN (Alfred J. Sedivi, courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute)

He was the ultimate planner, and through his excellence in planning, naval operations became more than operational or tactical. They became strategic, war-ending. It was no accident that Raymond Spruance planned and carried out every major amphibious operation in the Western Pacific except for the one that invited real disaster, Leyte. He was in style, temperament, and talent a reflection of his mentor, Chester Nimitz. The Japanese gave him the ultimate compliment. Admiral Junichi Ozawa told an interviewer after the war that Spruance was “impossible to trap.”

Switching gears a bit, what is your favorite naval history book?

It’s a long list, probably led by Samuel Eliot Morison’s volume 5, Guadalcanal, but I’m going to put three ahead of him as a personal matter: Tin Cans by Theodore Roscoe, Japanese Destroyer Captain by Tameichi Hara, and Baa Baa Black Sheep by Gregory Boyington. This selection may underwhelm your readers who are big on theory, doctrine, and analytical history, but I list them unapologetically. These were the books that set me on fire with passion for the story of the Pacific War when I was, like, twelve. If I hadn’t read them at that young age, I don’t think I would be writing today. It is only a bonus that all three were published by the company that’s publishing me today, Bantam/Ballantine. We are upholding a tradition!

What is your research and writing process like?

It’s all an elaborate moonlighting gig, conducted in relation to, but apart from, my other work in book publishing. It takes me a while to get these done in my free time, which is stolen mostly from my generous and long-abiding wife, Sharon, and our family. But basically the process looks like this: I turn on my shop-strength vacuum cleaner, snap on the largest, widest attachment, and collect material for 18 to 24 months before I even think about writing. Having collated my notes and organized my data, I then dive into the fitful process of making this rough assemblage readable and smooth, envisioning multiple readers, from expert navalists to my dear mother, with every sentence I type. I stay on that task, early mornings and weekends, for maybe 18 more months. Then, in the case of The Fleet at Flood Tide, my editor and I beat the draft around through two or three revisions before it was finally given to the Random House production editor. Then we sweat over photos and maps. History to me is intensively visual, both in the writing and in the illustrating, so this is a major emphasis for me all along the way. I never offload any of this work to a research staff.

In spite of all of this effort, the result is usually, maddeningly, imperfect in the end. But it is always the best I can do, using this hand-tooled approach under the time pressure that inevitably develops.

What’s next? Are you already thinking about what you want to write about after you finish the book tour and publicity for The Fleet at Flood Tide? Do you have a specific subject in mind?

One word and one numeral: Post-1945.

Last question. A lot of our readers here at the CIMSEC are also writers. What advice would you give to the aspiring naval historian?

Think big. Then think bigger. Then get started. And focus on people and all the interesting problems they’re facing.

James D. Hornfischer is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Neptune’s Inferno, Ship of Ghosts, and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, winner of the Samuel Eliot Morison Award. A native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Colgate University and the University of Texas School of Law, he lives in Austin, Texas.

Christopher Nelson is a naval officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters. A regular contributor to CIMSEC, he is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the U.S. Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island. The questions and comments above are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: First Wave of U.S. Marines landing on Saipan. (USMC photo)

Orit: The Fishing Boat That Saved Hundreds of Lives

By CDR (ret.) Dr. Eyal Pinko

The Yom Kippur War (1973) was a war of great victory for the Israeli Navy, in contrast to the Israeli Air Force and Army. The Navy’s success in the Yom Kippur War was the fruit of lessons learned by the Navy during the Six-Day War (1967), in which the Navy failed in most of its missions, even though they were insignificant in the grand campaign conducted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

After the Six-Day War, the Navy suffered a wide budget cut, with most of the IDF’s budget directed to strengthening the Air Force and the ground forces, which had proved their importance and capabilities in the war against the Arab armies. Moreover, during these years, the Navy experienced two disastrous events: the sinking of the INS Eilat by a barrage of anti-ship missiles from Egyptian missile boats (October 1967); and the loss of the submarine INS Dakar (January 1968).

In the process of drawing lessons from the Six-Day War and the other two events, the Navy realized that it must act with its relatively limited resources to build its power and develop a response to the naval threats of Syria and Egypt. The two countries’ navies began a buildup process that intensified in the 1960s by acquiring Soviet Osa-class missile boats, equipped with advanced Styx anti-ship missiles, a fairly novel capability at the time.

Following the war, Israel’s navy changed its combat doctrine and started operating with small and fast missile boats (which replaced larger surface combatants equipped with cannons). From the INS Eilat sinking’s lessons and insights, the Navy realized that it had to equip the new ships with advanced radars for long-range target detection and surface-to-surface missiles against the potential threat of dozens of Egyptian and Syrian Osa missile boats.

The Gabriel anti-ship missiles developed indigenously by the Israeli defense industry in the late 1960s were short-range missiles (about 11 nm). This range was significantly shorter than the Russian Styx missiles’ range (about 24 nm). The difference in the ranges of the two missiles created a significant operational problem for the Israeli Navy. The Israeli missile boats had to operate within the weapons engagement zone of the Russian Styx missiles’ to fight against the Osa missile boats.

To cope with the operational problem and enable the effective firing of the Gabriel missiles against the Osas, the Israeli Navy developed electronic warfare systems. The systems were meant to transmit electromagnetic signals based on understanding how the attacking missile’s homing seeker operates (active electronic warfare), along with the launch of decoy rockets scattering clouds of metal particles (chaff). The jamming signals, together with the chaff, made it possible to mislead the attacking missile’s seeker, thus diverting it from its flight trajectory and preventing it from hitting its target.

During the Yom Kippur War, more than 50 Styx missiles were fired from Syrian and Egyptian missile boats against the Israeli missile boats, but none of them hit intended targets. The Israeli Navy missile boats all returned to their base safely after sinking most of the Syrian and Egyptian Navy ships by firing Gabriel missiles under the electronic warfare systems’ protective umbrella.

When designing the electronic warfare systems to protect the vessels, the Navy assumed that the Soviet Styx missiles were designed for use against large ships and would not be able to hit small targets such as the Sa’ar-class missile boats. But an incident in 1970 completely changed the Navy’s mindset.

In May 1970, a fishing boat named Orit was sunk off the Egyptian coast by Styx missiles fired by the Egyptian Navy. The sinking of the fishing boat proved that the Styx missiles were also effective against small ships, forcing the Navy to change its electronic warfare systems’ design, capabilities, and doctrine. The sinking of the Orit and the deaths of two fishermen arguably saved the lives of hundreds of missile boat sailors three years later in the Yom Kippur War.

The Orit fishing boat

These were the days of the war of attrition. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president, was unwilling to accept the results of the Six-Day War, and in a speech delivered on May 1, 1970, he threatened to attack Israel by air, land, and sea. In his speech, Nasser emphasized that the Egyptian Navy would sink any Israeli ship found in Egyptian maritime territory without warning.

During the period between the two wars, many Israeli vessels sailed in the Bardawil Lake area (in the vicinity of Port Said, Egypt). Most of them were fishing boats, trying to make a living from the fisheries in the area. In order for the Navy to guarantee their safety, the fishing boats were required to report their location to the Navy four times a day (08:00, 13:30, 16:30, and 00:30).

The Orit was a relatively small fishing boat (about 20 meters long and with a tonnage of about 75 tons) that regularly operated from the port of Ashdod. The fishing boat had a four-person crew led by Captain Adam Yassar.

On Wednesday, May 13, 1970, about two weeks after Nasser’s speech, the fishing boat crew decided to sail towards Bardawil Lake, where there was a large quantity of fish and where nighttime fishing was relatively easy. That evening, about twenty miles from Bardawil Lake, the Orit sent its last location report on its way north. 

At about 22:30, between three and four Styx missiles were fired by the Egyptian Osas toward two Israeli Sa’ar-class missile boats that were in the Bardawil Lake area. The Israeli missile boats used their electronic warfare systems and were not hit by the Egyptian missiles, which were heard exploding in the distance. But shortly after the Styx missiles’ blasts were heard, the Orit mark disappeared from the radar screens of the Israeli missile boats. The attempts to call Orit went unanswered.

The next morning, May 14, no further report had been received from Orit and the loss of communication caused a great deal of concern. Extensive searches for the Orit began at sea using other fishing boats and Navy missile boats. That day, remnants of the fishing boat were discovered floating on the water. The remains of the boat were removed from the water and brought to Israel. Most of the boat’s hull remained on the seabed.

Two of the Orit’s crew survived the missiles and managed to float on the water. They swam for over a day toward the Sinai coast where their lives were saved. But two of its crew members, Segal Ackerman and Captain Adam Yassar, did not survive.

Ackerman’s body was found floating on the water, and Adam Yaasar was trapped in the wheelhouse and drowned with the boat’s remains. Adam Yassar’s body was found only after about eight days by a commando unit team, who dived to search for him in the wreck of the boat left on the seabed.

One of the survivors, Oded Kopelnik, reported what happened and said that two Styx missiles exploded over the fishing boat and caused it to disintegrate and sink.

Following the incident, the Israeli Navy and its commander, Admiral Avraham Botzer, were severely criticized by the press, with concerns about the Navy’s ability to secure Israeli fishing boats and merchant ships in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. The allegations were that the Navy did not build the maritime picture as required, did not maintain continuous contact with the Israeli fishing boats operating in the arena, and did not provide them with spatial protection from the threat of warships and Egyptian missile batteries.

The allegations were that the Navy had not drawn lessons from incidents in the years before the Orit’s destruction. The Orit’s sinking came two years after INS Eilat, the Navy destroyer, sank in the exact same area by the same model missiles fired by Egyptian missile boats. What is more, in February and April 1970, several months before Orit sank, the Navy was unable to prevent an Egyptian commando force’s daring operation to mine a vessel in the port of Eilat.

The Orit  incident was another layer in the allegations made against the Navy about its inability to fulfill its obligations to maintain the Israeli maritime border and the merchant ships’ security at that time. There were calls for establishing a state commission of inquiry to investigate the Navy’s sequence of failures, including the Orit incident, although an inquiry commission was never formed.


The Styx missiles fired from the Egyptian Osas were tracked in flight by the radar of the Israeli missile ships, as well as by the electronic warfare systems, which picked up the missile homing seeker transmissions and identified their operational logic. The electronic warfare systems identified that the missiles found a target and locked on it. 

In 2020, an interview with a retired Egyptian Navy admiral revealed more information about the incident. The admiral, who was the area commander at that time, noted that the fishing boat was observed in the radars of the Egyptian missile boats, and the decision to fire the missiles immediately was taken with the assumption that the fishing boat was an Israeli intelligence ship. 

During the Israeli investigation of the incident, one of the hypotheses was that the electronic warfare system of the Israeli missile boat may have diverted the Styx missiles that sank Orit. This hypothesis was eventually rejected and the confession of the admiral confirmed that the fishing boat was the intended target.

The seekers’ locking on Orit as a legitimate target led the missiles to navigate toward it and to detonate their warheads near the Orit (with the warheads weighing five hundred kilograms each).

The analysis of the Israeli electronic warfare systems’ recorded signals, together with the radar detection of the Styx missiles during their flight, later led the research and development teams of the Israeli Navy and the defense industry to understand that the Styx missile seekers captured Orit as a legitimate target, despite its small size and low radar cross-section (RCS). These insights led to a change in overall perceptions of anti-ship missile defense and enabled updating the electronic warfare systems in the Israeli Navy.

These changes, made before the Yom Kippur War and after the Orit sinking incident, enabled the Navy in 1973 to operate within the range of the Egyptian and Syrian warships’ Styx missiles. More than 50 missiles were fired without effect at Israeli Navy ships during the war. The Israeli Navy launched its Gabriel missiles, sank 44 Egyptian and Syrian ships, and returned back home safely without any casualties and losses.

The naval superiority achieved in the Yom Kippur War allowed Israel to control the sea trade and commerce routes and to secure the supply of weapons and ammunition shipped from the United States to Israel. These sea shipments created a logistical backbone to Israel and allowed the IDF to continue fighting in its various frontiers until military superiority was achieved.

The deaths of Segal Ackerman and Captain Adam Yassar, whose exact place of death was never determined, changed the face of the naval battles in the Yom Kippur War and in the next decades.

In their deaths, they commanded us life. May their memory be blessed.

Eyal Pinko served in the Israeli Navy for 23 years in operational, technological, and intelligence duties. He served for almost five more years as the head of the division at the prime minister’s office. He holds Israel’s Security Award, Prime Minister’s Decoration of Excellence, DDR&D Decoration of Excellence, and IDF Commander in Chief Decoration of Excellence. Eyal was a senior consultant at the Israeli National Cyber Directorate. He holds a bachelor’s degree with honor in Electronics Engineering and master’s degrees with honor in International Relationships, Management, and Organizational Development. Eyal holds a Ph.D. degree from Bar-Ilan University (Defense and Security Studies).

Featured Image: A starboard beam view of an Israeli Sa’ar 3-Class fast attack craft, with visitors aboard. Three Gabriel surface-to-surface missile launch boxes are near the stern. (Photo from U.S. National Archives)