Fortnight of Infamy: Part 3

December 2009


Part 3 of my interview with author John Burton about December 1941. 

What are some of the reasons for the defeat of Allied air power west of Pearl Harbor?

In retrospect, the reasons for the collapse of Allied air power in the Far East are fairly simple to catalog, and I hope clearly enough presented to any reader of Fortnight of Infamy. Notable among those reasons are the following:

1. The timing of Japan’s nearly simultaneous assaults on Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Siam (Thailand) and Malaya was extremely beneficial to the Japanese war effort. Attacks were fully expected in Siam and the Philippines. In fact, a number of Japanese reconnaissance over-flights of Philippine, Siamese, and Malayan territories had taken place during the week preceding the outbreak of hostilities. Over the island of Luzon, American fighters had repeatedly made attempts to intercept the intruders, without success. U.S. Navy and Army Air Forces aircraft had conducted similar surveillance missions around Japanese bases in French Indochina (Vietnam) and Formosa (Taiwan). From observations made during these flights, it was clear several days before December 7, 1941, that Japan was ready to launch invasions at one or more points in the Far East. Signal intelligence from listening stations in Manila and Honolulu effectively confirmed that assumption. In the event, weather conditions over the South China Sea made a fateful contribution to the success of Japan’s plan: a storm-induced delay in the initial raids on the on Philippines set the stage for major confusion when an unanticipated amphibious landing in Northern Malaya and the Pearl Harbor attack occurred before action in the Philippines. The consequences of this confusion proved disastrous.

2. A string of problems with the handful of American and British air warning radar installations in the Pacific and Far East sacrificed an important early detection advantage that could have helped the Allies respond to Japanese air raids. Had these devices been fully operational, on schedule, Japan could easily have lost an important element of surprise. Instead, the distribution of information obtained from the radar equipment only added to Allied confusion. Poor control of the dispatch for fighter aircraft attempting interceptions quickly magnified the problem.

3. Extreme deficiencies with American fighter planes rendered American, Australian and British interceptor squadrons virtually impotent. Adding to the issues with interception control, problems with fuel systems and engines in RAF and RAAF Brewster Buffaloes inhibited the ability of those Allied planes to attain sufficiently high altitudes for defense above Malayan targets. In the Philippines, a lack of oxygen tanks and oxygen-making equipment prevented most Curtiss P-40 Warhawks from reaching anywhere near the height necessary to intercept Japanese heavy bombers. And, for the few P-40s that did have bottles of oxygen to keep their pilots breathing above an altitude of 15,000 feet, a lack of two-stage superchargers ensured that their engines could not breathe well-enough at the 25,000-foot level that would have had to be attained to effectively engage in combat.

4. Pilot inexperience also limited the effectiveness of American and Australian interceptors. The few men who did manage to engage in aerial combat with enemy bombers were not properly trained in air-to-air gunnery. Improper gun maintenance exacerbated that problem when many of the Allied weapons failed to fire in flight. Consequently, most damage the young rookies inflicted was minimal – and, more often than not, those Allied fliers fell as prey to highly-skilled Japanese pilots in escorting fighters.

5. A serious lack of effective antiaircraft gun emplacements around Philippine and Malayan airbases gave Japanese bombers and strafing fighters a free pass to inflict serious damage on every important Allied landing field. Within the first forty-eight hours of the war, these raids dealt a serious blow to the Allies – one from which the battered American and British Commonwealth air forces did not manage to recover.

Overall, the Japanese made relatively few mistakes in prosecuting their opening campaigns of the Pacific War, while the Allies suffered heavily as a result of many blunders. At the end of the day, one can also say with some assurance that luck was with Japan and not with the Allies.

Posted by Jim Dolbow in Books

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