20. The Miraculous Escape of American Forces at Leyte Gulf
The 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf, history’s biggest naval engagement, was the outcome of a complex Japanese plan featuring many moving parts and attacks from various directions. The aim was to draw off the main American fleet guarding the American landings at Leyte Gulf, and send it on wild goose chase. Then, a powerful Japanese naval contingent would fall upon the unprotected Leyte Gulf and devastate the Americans there. The plan almost worked, until the Americans were miraculously saved at the last minute by a tiny scratch force in what came to be known as the Battle off Samar.
Japanese aircraft carriers were dangled as bait for Admiral William F. Halsey, tasked with protecting Leyte from the north. He steamed off with his powerful 3rd Fleet to sink them, telling nobody. He left behind a small fleet of escort carriers and destroyer escorts that had been repurposed for ground attack and support duties, and had little in the way of anti-ship weapons. While Halsey was awat, a powerful fleet of 23 Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers, including the world’s most powerful battleship, the 18.1 inch gun Yamato, showed up north of Leyte Gulf, steaming towards the landing site under the command of an admiral Kurita.
18. Taffy 3, the Tiny Force That Stood Between the Americans at Leyte and Annihilation
The Americans were caught by surprise. All that stood between Kurita’s mighty armada and a massacre of the Americans at Leyte Gulf was a small force of escort carriers and destroyer escorts. The northernmost contingent which first came in contact with the Japanese, 7 destroyers and destroyer escorts nicknamed “tin cans” for their lack of protection, was commanded by rear admiral Clifton Sprague, and known as “Taffy 3”.
Sprague knew that his destroyers’ 5 inch guns stood no chance against the 23 armored Japanese battleships and cruisers steaming towards Leyte Gulf. He also knew that thousands of Americans would die if the Japanese reached Leyte. So he ordered Taffy 3 into a suicidal charge. The desperate attacks of the American “tin cans” were supported by planes flown from the escort carriers, making strafing attacks or dropping high explosives suitable for ground attack but mostly useless against the Japanese ships. When the planes ran out of ammunition, they made dry strafing and bombing runs to discomfit the Japanese.
16. Tiny Taffy 3 Chased Off the Mighty Japanese Fleet
The American attacks were so reckless and incessant, that Kurita lost his nerve, and convinced himself that he faced opposition far stronger than it actually was, which must be the first outer layer of a powerful US naval presence. Kurita, who had an overwhelming victory in his grasp if had steamed on for another hour to bring his heavy guns within range of Leyte, turned his ships around and sailed away, gifting the Americans in Leyte Gulf with a seemingly miraculous reprieve.
15. Churchill Explored Attacking the Soviets in 1945
As the war in Europe neared its end, Winston Churchill grew exasperated by Soviet intransigence regarding Eastern Europe, which Stalin sought to transform into a Soviet empire. Britain had entered WWII to defend Polish independence, but Stalin was riding roughshod over the Poles, keeping a third of their country he had seized in 1939, extinguishing their independence, and turning them into a Soviet client state. Churchill saw that as an affront to British honor, so he ordered plans drawn to attack the Soviets soon as Germany surrendered, to push them back to the USSR’s borders, or at least force them to treat Poland fairly.
Churchill’s generals presented him with Operation Unthinkable, whose title indicates what they thought of the idea. An offensive version envisaged a surprise attack against the Soviets in July, 1945. A defensive version envisaged Britain defending Western Europe after America withdrew from the continent. The Soviets had 10 million men available in the summer of 1945. They outnumbered the British and Americans in Europe 4:1 in men, and 2:1 in tanks – and superior tanks at that. The Allies had an advantage in the air, but even that was subject to challenge, as the Red Air Force by 1945 had formidable fighter and ground attack arms.
13. Taking on the Red Army in 1945 Would Have Been a Daunting Prospect
By 1945, the Red Army was not the rabble it had been in 1941 when the Germans invaded, but had grown into a veteran and battle-hardened force that had won bigger campaigns against significantly greater opposition than the Western Allies had faced. Churchill’s generals concluded that taking on the Soviets would be ill advised, because far from being a pushover, the Red Army in 1945 was dangerous, vicious, and huge. If war broke out, the Red Army was more likely to end up conquering all of continental Europe, rather than get chased back to the USSR.
Britain could not face the Soviets on her own, and America had no incentive to attack them – especially not over Poland. Standing up for Poland was a point of honor for Churchill, but few in either the British or American governments deemed Poland worth an even greater war with the Soviets than the one just concluded against Germany. Unlike Britain, America had never guaranteed Poland’s territorial integrity, nor had it entered WWII in order to defend Polish sovereignty. Presented with the preceding, Churchill grudgingly accepted reality, and Operation Unthinkable was archived.
11. Japan Might Have Had the Worst 5 Minutes In the History of Warfare, at the Battle of Midway
At 10:25AM, June 4th, 1942, Japan was mistress of the Pacific, possessed the world’s most powerful aircraft carrier force, and was dictating the terms of the war. By 10:30AM, Japan had effectively lost WWII. It came about because of a chain of unlikely events, too dramatic for fiction because they seem so unrealistic, but which nonetheless happened in real life. They occurred at the Battle of Midway, which the Japanese had attacked in the hopes of luring the US Navy into a decisive battle of annihilation, after which Japan would dictate peace terms to the Americans.
10. American Code Breakers Tricked the Japanese Into Revealing Their Intent to Attack Midway
US cryptanalysts had cracked Japanese ciphers, and knew that they planned to launch a massive attack against a target codenamed “AF”. Unfortunately, nobody knew what “AF” was. So US Navy cryptanalyst Joseph Rochefort, who suspected that AF was Midway, set out to confirm that hunch. He directed the radio station at Midway to send an uncoded message, to the effect that its water purification system had broken down, and that Midway was running out of drinking water. 24 hours later, American code breakers intercepted a Japanese message to the effect that “AF” was running out of water.
9. The Japanese Underestimated American Strength at Midway
Making things worse for the Japanese, the US Navy had more available carriers in the Pacific than expected. They knew that one carrier, the USS Yorktown, had sustained severe damage in the Battle of the Coral Sea, and fixing her was expected to take months. However, the Yorktown was rushed back into service and steamed off to Midway after only 48 hours of hurried repairs. In addition, another American carrier had been transferred from the Atlantic to the Pacific. As a result, the Japanese would face three American carriers, and an alert enemy waiting in ambush, rather than one or two carriers and a foe caught off guard.
8. The Japanese Struck Midway Island, Oblivious to the Presence of American Carriers
On the morning of June 4th, 1942, the Japanese launched a carrier strike against Midway. They inflicted significant damage on the island, but a second strike was necessary. So the Japanese aircraft were recovered and readied. While they were preparing that follow up strike against Midway, the Japanese learned of the presence of American carriers. The result was confusion, that was finally resolved when the Japanese figured that Midway was not going anywhere, and that destroying American aircraft carriers was more important. So orders were given to switch bombs from ones intended for ground targets, to anti-ship bombs and torpedoes.
While the Japanese commander was dithering about what to do, the American carriers had launched their own aircraft against the Japanese fleet. First to arrive were Devastator torpedo bombers – slow planes that had to fly low, steady, and straight, in order to launch their torpedoes. The American torpedo bombers were unaccompanied by American fighters, and ended up getting massacred by Japanese fighters. Of 41 Devastators that attacked the Japanese carriers, 35 were shot down. They did not score a single hit. The Japanese carriers resumed refueling and rearming.
Then the tide suddenly changed, in a dramatic twist that a Hollywood script writer would have been too ashamed to pen because it was so improbable. While the American torpedo bombers were getting slaughtered, a flight of American Dauntless dive bombers, led by a lieutenant commander Wade McClusky, was lost, and desperately trying to locate the Japanese. They had neared the point beyond which they would have insufficient fuel to return to their carriers, but McClusky decided to keep going. He was rewarded by spotting a lone Japanese destroyer below. Guessing that it was heading to rejoin its fleet, he used its wake as an arrow, and that led him to the Japanese fleet.
The Japanese fleet was caught at the worst possible moment for an attack from dive bombers. The carriers were rearming and refueling, so their hangar decks were full of bombs and torpedoes and gas hoses. There was also no fighter cover – the Japanese fighters had gone down to intercept and destroy the torpedo bombers that had attacked at low level, and had not yet regained altitude when the American dive bombers showed up high above and dove down. Wade Mclusky’s pilots fell upon the Japanese, and within 5 minutes, 3 of the 4 Japanese aircraft carriers were burning. The fourth was sunk later that day.
4. The Loss of Carriers Was Not The Worst of It For the Japanese
Even worse than the loss of the carriers for the Japanese, which was bad in of itself, was the loss of trained aviators. Japanese carrier pilots were the best in the world at the time – a cream of the crop. However, it was a cream that took a very long time to rise, as the exacting Japanese training system produced only about 50 new carrier pilots per year – not enough to make up for the mounting losses. That put them at a severe and growing disadvantage against the Americans, whose training pipeline produced a surfeit of pilots adequately but not overly trained for the task at hand.
3. Operation Downfall, the Planned Invasion of Japan
Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of Japan, was to take place in two stages. First was Operation Olympic, scheduled for November, 1945, which sought to secure territory in Kyushu, the southernmost Japanese main island. That would serve as the staging area for an even bigger invasion, Operation Coronet in the spring of 1946, directed at Honshu, the largest and most populous Japanese island. As was discovered after the war, the Japanese had accurately predicted the planned American landing sites – Japan’s geography was such that the only viable beaches for large amphibious landings were the ones selected by the American planners.
The resources committed to Operation Olympic dwarfed those of the D-Day landings in France. They included 42 aircraft carriers, 24 battleships, 400 destroyers and destroyer escorts, tactical air support from the Fifth, Seventh, and Thirteenth Air Forces, and 14 divisions for the initial landing. Casualties, would likely have been horrific. Depending on the degree of Japanese civilian resistance (Japanese authorities were training even women and children to fight the invaders with spears and pointy sticks), worst case scenarios envisioned over a million Allied casualties, with Japanese casualties numbering in the tens of millions. Such casualties would have made the conquest of Japan history’s bloodiest campaign, ever.
1. The Atom Bombs Spared Everybody From the Horrors of Operation Downfall
Downfall’s planners were unaware of the highly secretive Manhattan Project, and when an atomic bomb was successfully tested in July, 1945, they did not fully grasp its game changing potential. They saw fission devices as “really big bombs”, and had nebulous ideas of using them in the November invasion in support of the amphibious landings. Their use instead against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, shocked the Japanese government into seeing reason, ended the war, and eliminated the necessity for Operation Downfall and its expected butcher’s bill.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading