Seventy years ago today at 0600 hours Pacific Time on December 7, 1941 Captain Mitsuo Fuchida launched Operation Z from the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier Akagi, flagship of the attack fleet.
Fuchida led one-hundred and eighty-three dive bombers, torpedo aircraft and fighters in the first wave of strikes against the US Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Minutes later a further one hundred and sixty attack aircraft took off from five other carriers – the Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku.
Some two hours later the surprise attack had sunk four US Navy battleships, with four others badly damaged, along with three other ships sunk and seven damaged. One hundred and eighty-eight US Navy and US Army Air Corps aircraft had also been destroyed. Sadly, two thousand four hundred and two US military personnel were killed and one thousand two hundred and forty seven wounded. Fifty-seven civilians were also killed and thirty five wounded. The Japanese lost twenty-nine aircraft and five midget submarines with sixty-four personnel killed and one captured.
Two days later the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales was sunk together with the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, with the loss of eight hundred and forty Royal Navy sailors. For the British the tragic irony of Pearl Harbor was that the Japanese High Command had been inspired by the British naval air attack of 11-12 November, 1940 on the Italian fleet base at Taranto. This attack was launched from a task force under the command of Rear-Admiral A. L. St G. Lyster RN and which included the fleet carrier HMS Illustrious. Twenty-four aircraft from 813, 815, 819 and 824 Squadrons Fleet Air Arm successfully crippled the Italian Fleet.
Strategically, the Pearl Harbor attack was a failure. Captain Fuchida failed to deliver the knock-out blow the Japanese had hoped for. The Japanese Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, may or may not have said, “…all we have done is to awake a sleeping tiger and fill him with a terrible resolve”. However, he is on record as writing; “This war will give us much trouble in the future. The fact that we have had a small success at Pearl Harbor is nothing”. His words were indeed prophetic. All but two of the eight American battleships were raised and returned to war service. Critically, the three US fleet aircraft carriers, Enterprise, Lexington and Saratoga were at sea and unharmed. US carriers were to prove decisive in the destruction of the Japanese carrier fleet at the Battle of Midway six months later between 4 and 7 June, 1942.
The US has been criticised many times since Pearl Harbor for poor leadership, usually without cause. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor President Roosevelt showed himself to be a master of strategy. First, he decreed that the war in Europe should take priority even though the American people were clammering for revenge over Japan. America’s great European age in many ways began in the Pacific. Second, American industrial might was mobilised and proved the decisive factor in the winning of the two wars – one in Europe and one in the Pacific. Third, the manner by which the US conducted the island-hopping war in the Pacific was a true revolution in military affairs leading to entirely new ideas about the use of naval power and how to manouevre a mass force over strategic distance.
The fourth strategic lesson of Pearl Harbor is one perhaps that is only now becoming apparent. America’s grand strategy, and thus global stability, is dependent on two strategic partnerships both of which must be invested in and both of which require America’s partners to be as far-sighted as President Roosevelt. Europe remains America’s natural strategic partner, albeit one lost in a visionless parochialism. The other? Japan.
As an Englishman and a European I remember the sacrifice of brave Americans on a day that President Roosevelt rightly said will live in infamy.
Requiescat in Pace.
Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.