Pacific War 13 – Australia and the Battle of the Coral Sea

Pacific War 13 – Australia and the Battle of the Coral Sea

Original Japanese plan had been fulfilled, and Japan was now in a solid position. It had rich sources of raw materials and numerous important strategic positions, strewn all across the Western Pacific and the Southeastern Asia. This might have allowed it a prolonged, if not indefinite, defense of the achieved positions.

But the Japanese leaders were not satisfied with this. Successes had been too large and too easy to keep the already megalomaniacal Japanese leadership sober. Thus, it became impossible to stop with merely fulfilling the original plan. New conquests were needed.

Admiral Yamamoto preferred a campaign aimed against the Midway Islands. Predicting a decisive battle between the Japanese and US fleets, he hoped that it will happen in the are where the Japanese Navy will also have access to aircraft from land bases. These bases would be in the conquered Midway Islands. But the plan did not take into account logistical situation, despite warnings by some individuals in the Japanese HQ. Supply lines were already extremely long. New Guinea was 3 000 nautical miles from Tokyo, and destruction of refineries meant that crude oil had to be sent all the way to Japan for refinement, and then shipped back to the advanced bases. Doolittle’s Raid had been used to support further expansion, since US bases were still too close when their aircraft were endangering the capital.

New plans were made. According to those, first target would be Port Moresby in New Guinea, and also advance into the Solomon Islands. Assuming that these moves succeeded, next goals would be conquest of New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa. With this, Japan would threaten the lines of communication between Australia and the United States. But Japanese plans were created under the impression of massive successes achieved this far, and moreover, were done under major time pressure. As a result, they were nowhere as detailed as they should have been.

Many mistakes were also made in the fundamental assumptions. Japanese failed to account for the consequences of stretching their forces so thinly. Even with conquests this far, distances that ships had to sail in order to either bring raw materials to refineries or supplies to advanced bases had grown tremendously. These areas also had to be defended, as did the supply lines. Japanese shipbuilding was not capable of building enough ships, either warships or transport ships, necessary to fulfill the requirements. Neither was Japanese industry capable of expanding quickly enough to fully exploit the newly acquired areas for their resources.

But the Japanese leadership ignored all of this, and decided to start carrying out their plans. They built bases and airstrips on conquered islands, and started gathering ships, supplies and war material. Meanwhile, MacArthur arrived to Australia on 17th of March, immediately taking countermeasures. Reinforcements were sent out to threatened areas, and the US forces too started building air bases close to expected areas of combat. On many islands, seaplane bases had been set up, providing extensive reconnaissance capability. Twin-engined Catalina seaplanes and four-engined B-17 bombers carried out reconnaissance missions all the way to Rabaul.

Consolidated PBY Catalina

Japanese continued their preparations. There were already 70 aircraft in Rabaul, and soon another 90 joined them. In the first days of May of 1942., groups of Japanese ships left for the first tasks. These ships were divided into several independently acting groups, with many different operations happening simultaneously. But while this manner of operations had led to major successes, these were only achieved because enemies had been taken by surprise. Here, the lines of Japanese advance were already well known, as were the targets. Moreover, Japanese Navy could only spare a weak squadron due to its committments elsewhere. Vice Admiral Inoue, who was in command, had very slim chance of success. His chances are even worse because Americans were reading Japanese codes, and as the Japanese did not exercise sufficient radio discipline, it soon became clear that Port Moresby would be a target of an attack. US codebreakers had also discovered disposition of Japanese forces.

Japanese had underestimated the enemy. They did not know the Americans were reading their codes, and Japanese themselves had only partly broken Allied codes. Thus the Japanese commanders had an incomplete picture of the disposition of US forces, especially aircraft carriers. As a result, they only assigned weak forces for attack Australia, while majority of the fleet was preparing for the operation against Midway. Vice Admiral Inoue’s fleet was further divided into five different groups. Landing operations at Tulagi and Moresby were assigned one group each, one weak group was assigned to support the landings, one stronger group for defense against enemy fleet attack, and in the rear was an aircraft carrier group with escorts. Seven submarines were assigned to independent duties.

US command was not aware that the Japanese fleet was on the move. At dawn of 3rd May, Japanese troops suddenly carried out a landing at Tulagi Bay on Florida island, in the Solomon Islands. While the landing group stayed to carry out the landing, rest of the fleet proceeded towards Port Moresby. But admiral Fletcher was quickly notified of Japanese landings. He was on aircraft carrier Yorktown, 400 miles south of Tulagi and taking on fuel. Lexington was some 100 miles away, and carriers were to meet up in the morning.

Having received the news, Fletcher changed the plan and decided to attack. In order to avoid notice by the Japanese radio surveillance service, he did not notify Lexington, deciding instead to use the night and attack Tulagi at dawn, sending a cistern ship to meet up with Lexington instead.

SBD Dauntless aircraft in flight back to USS Yorktown after an attack on Tulagi, Solomon Islands, 4 May 1942 ww2dbase
   United States National Archives

Just before the dawn, preparations started for the attack. But the squadron suddenly entered an area of very bad weather, which made takeoffs dangerous. Yet there was no time to waste if the attack squadrons were to arrive over targets at dawn, and thus Fletcher decided to launch the attack anyway. Of 72 aircraft Yorktown had, he sent 28 dive bombers and 12 torpedo bombers into the attack, leaving fighters to protect the carrier while attack squadrons were unprotected. Japanese were caught completely by surprise, and so two further attacks were launched. US aircraft sank destroyer Kikusuki, three large minesweepers and four more ships, while large minelayer Okinoshima of 4 400 tons was damaged.

While all of this had been going on, Japanese fleet formations slated for attack on Moresby to the south were sailing towards Rabaul, intending to circle the eastern end of New Guinea and attack Moresby from south-east. Japanese carrier squadron was far behind them, intending to circle Solomon islands from their eastern side before cutting westwards towards New Guinea. Neither side had any idea where the other was, and waited for reports of the reconnaissance aircraft. Yorktown and Lexington carrier groups met up with a cruiser squadron in the morning of 5th May. With this, Fletcher had 2 aircraft carriers, 6 American and 2 Australian cruisers and a large number of destroyers. Intention was to attack and destroy the enemy in the open sea, especially since the Japanese fleet was slowed down by a large number of transport ships.

But the enemy was nowhere to be seen. Scout aircraft from carriers and land bases patrolled the area, but discovered nothing. Japanese carriers had passed by the Solomon Islands and was sailing westwards. But the Japanese weren’t having any luck either. Their situation was worse because Japanese doctrine called for scouting to be performed only by seaplanes carried by battleships and cruisers, while carrier aircraft were to be kept ready for combat. But while Shokaku and Zuikaku carried 63 aircraft each, only other ships were six destroyers and heavy cruisers Myoko and Haguro. Each cruiser carried four seaplanes, which meant that the Japanese admiral had only eight aircraft for scouting.

Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku

Both squadrons, uncertain as to their enemy’s whereabouts, started refuelling. Distance between them was only 70 nautical miles, yet they remained completely unaware of each other. But the chain of weirdness continued. Having refuelled, US squadron continued westwards while tanker Neosho and a destroyer Sims went southwards. They were noticed the next day (7th May) by a Japanese scout aircraft, which relayed their location and heading. But the Japanese observer was too excited, and instead of a tanker with a destroyer, reported seeing a carrier escorted by a cruiser.

Admiral Takagi naturally assumed that this was the main enemy squadron, and immediately sent 60 bombers – 78 aircraft total – into attack. The tanker and the destroyer disappeared under a rain of bombs meant to sink large warships. Destroyer, hit by several heavy bombs, broke into half and sank. Tanker Neosho was heavily damaged and burning, but remained afloat for next four days before finally sinking.

USS Neosho burning

Japanese confusion which had caused them to identify an irrelevant group for a main part of enemy forces was a very lucky break for the US fleet. Even as the Japanese were busy attacking a tanker, the main US squadron remained unnoticed. But their enemies were not in a much better position. American scouts had noticed Japanese squadron sailing from Rabaul for Moresby the day before, but this was only the invasion group. Incomplete information meant that admiral Fletcher was sailing blind.

Only on 7th May did US scouts notice Japanese warships. This was the invasion convoy protection group, consisting of a light carrier Shoho with 21 aircraft, 3 heavy cruisers and a destroyer. But the joke was on the Americans, whose scouts misidentified Japanese formation as containing two fleet carriers and four cruisers. US squadron immediately sailed towards its target, and from distance of 200 miles, Fletcher sent 93 aircraft to attack the carrier. He also sent three heavy cruisers commanded by British Rear Admiral J C Crace to attack a transport convoy whose presence nearby had been reported. This convoy of 14 ships was escorted by a light cruiser Jubari, six destroyers and six large minesweepers. Its fate will have been sealed had it encountered Crace’s cruisers.

In the meantime, US aircraft had arrived over the Japanese squadrons. Under impression that they will encounter a large fleet carrier, all attacks were directed against Shoho. This light carrier was literally blown to pieces by munitions dropped on it, but the American aircraft reported that they had sunk a large fleet carrier. Having used several times more bombs and torpedoes that will have been necessary to sink Shoho, they had none left to attack the ships of carrier’s escort. Such experiences eventually led the US Navy to assign an officer who determined force distribution for attack at target.

Sinking of carrier Shoho

Americans had lost only three aircraft. But as soon as the attack was over, admiral Inoue ordered the invasion convoy to immediately turn around. This saved the convoy, as it meant that Admiral Crace could not find it in the expected area. British cruisers were also attacked by Japanese aircraft, and soon after also American land-based aircraft. Having achieved nothing, Crace’s squadron withdrew southwards.

Battle of the Coral Sea

Coral Sea are was a complete mess. Nothing went as it should, or rather, everything went precisely as it shouldn’t have. Incorrect reconnaissance information, confusion and inability to find the enemy located in immediate proximity and other accidents continued on unimpeded. For the entire day, both sides’ scout aircraft searched for the enemy. But despite often encountering each other in the air, with many a dogfight breaking out, carriers themselves had remained invisible.

Inability of carriers to find each other was largely down to weather conditions. While weather was largely beautiful across most of the Coral Sea, large areas were covered by storm clouds and rainfalls. Both groups of ships were hidden by such areas of low visibility. As night fell, aircraft kept searching, and so both sides had to recover their aircraft in the dark. This created significant confusion, and some Japanese aircraft attempted to land on Yorktown and Lexington. American crews only noticed that these were Japanese relatively late, and opened fire on everything flying in proximity, friend or foe. This created even more confusion, and nobody knew what was going on any more. Situation was only resolved once the Japanese admiral lit up reflectors on his carriers, allowing the Japanese aircraft to land on their carriers.

Japanese landings could be followed by Lexington’s radar, with aircraft disappearing from the scope as they reduced altitude. But as Admiral Fletcher was not certain of his crew’s training, he declined night combat and prepared for a strike in the morning. His opponent had reached the same conclusion, and both squadrons increased distance, Japanese sailing northwards while the American squadrons sailed southeast.

Even before the dawn, recon aircraft of both sides were already in the air. It happened on 8th May 1942., a day which brought display of new naval tactics. Around 8:30, both sides discovered each other, with distance between forces being 200 miles. Opposing forces were about equal. This was especially true for aircraft, as Americans had 122 aircraft against 121 Japanese.

Americans were the first to launch the attack, from Yorktown. At 10:30, first group of 24 bombers, 6 fighters and 9 torpedo aircraft arrived over Japanese carriers. One of two japanese carriers, Zuikaku, entered a rainfall, while Shokaku launched fighter aircraft. Shokaku was the one to be attacked. It managed to avoid all the torpedoes, which had been dropped too far away from the ship, but it received two bombs, which blew up forward portion of the flight deck and caused massive diesel fire. Follow-up attack by Lexington only scored a single bomb hit.

Shokaku under attack in the Coral Sea

Meanwhile, Japanese aircraft were mounting their own attack on the American squadron. Japanese attack force numbered 33 bombers, 18 torpedo bombers and 18 fighters. Despite attack arriving precisely when expected, American defences were not prepared: CAP fighters had landed to refuel and their replacements had not yet taken off. With no interference, Japanese could launch a textbook attack.

As Lexington had been the only carrier to be discovered, it received full weight of the attacks. Splitting into groups, Japanese torpedo bombers launched a pincer attack. Massive 33 000 ton carrier – one of two largest in the world – tried to avoid the attack. But the Japanese aircraft, not having to worry about attacks from the air, could come as close to the carrier as they wanted. Torpedoes could not be avoided, but the first two to reach the carrier had been set up to run too deep, and so passed below the ship. Next two however hit, and at the same time Japanese dive bombers also launched their attack, scoring two full hits. Only 20 minutes from the beginning of the attack, fight was over. Lexington had developed a 7 degree list, and many areas of the ship had been flooded, including three boiler rooms. But damage control efforts were giving results: flooding barrier was established and fire was also brought under control.

Yorktown was much better off. Hit by only one bomb, the resulting fire was quickly extinguished and aircraft could take off and land with no issue. Lexington also eventually managed to bring fire under control, and boiler rooms were also restored. After several hours, ship was back to normal and sailing along at 20 knots. But this was not to last.

Diesel fumes were collecting in lower areas of the ship, and eventually reached electrical generator which ignited them. Explosion shook the ship, starting a fire as well as numerous secondary explosions. It also damaged or destroyed most of the firefighting equipment, and despite efforts of ship’s crew and Lexington’s escorts, fire could not be brought back under control. After five hours of attempts to fight the fire, commander ordered the boiler and machinery spaces to be abandoned. Order was given at the last moment, as soon after aircraft torpedoes exploded and destroyed the phone lines.

Crew abandoning USS Lexington

By evening, fire had encompassed nearly the entire ship. There was no choice left but to abandon the ship. As the night fell, Lexington sank into depths of the Pacific Ocean. With this, the Battle of the Coral Sea was over – the first naval battle in history in which there was no clash of warships within the visual range. Everything was done by aircraft, and only artillery that was active was anti-aircraft artillery of ships under attack.

While Americans suffered greater losses in the battle, the battle itself was Allied strategic success. Both fleets withdrew to their bases, but the Japanese fleet withdrew completely, abandoning their plan of attack against Moresby. With this, Australia had been saved.

Explosion destroying USS Lexington

4 thoughts on “Pacific War 13 – Australia and the Battle of the Coral Sea

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s