Somerville's Aggressiveness at Ceylon

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Somerville's Aggressiveness at Ceylon

Post by Pips » 25 Jan 2010 00:37

When Somerville assumed command of the British Eastern Fleet on 26 March 1942, it consisted of the modern fleet carriers Indomitable and Formidable, the small carrier Hermes, the battleships Warspite, Resolution, Ramillies, Royal Sovereign, and Revenge, the heavy cruisers Dorsetshire and Cornwall, five light cruisers, and 14 destroyers. This was a substantial force, but it had only just been assembled and it had not yet been trained to operate as a fleet. The four R-class battleships were old, slow, and short-ranged, and several of the cruisers and destroyers were past their prime. Most importantly, the two fleet carriers embarked only 80 aircraft between them. There were no dive bombers, and the 45 torpedo bombers were Fairey Albacore biplanes. The 35 fighters, comprising 14 Grumman Martlets, as the American-made Wildcat was known in British service, 9 Hawker Sea Hurricanes, and 12 two-seater Fairey Fulmars, were all inferior to the Zero, especially the Fulmar.

The real strength of the Britsh Fleet lay in that the British had radar and the Japanese did not. The Eastern Fleet was well equipped with air search, surface search and fire control radar sets. Most of the Albacores also had radar, the air-to-surface-vessel (ASV) Mark IIN, which could detect a medium-sized ship at up to 15 miles range. Finally, the British had a secret anchorage, Addu Atoll (unknown to the Japanese), at the southern end of the Maldives, some 600 miles southwest of Ceylon.

Somerville knew, through Far Eastern Combined Bureau (FECB) signit reports, that the Japanese were planning on striking against Ceylon. And although the actual date was yet to be known, it was thought that it would occur around the 1st April, when there was a full moon. Consequently the Fleet sailed on 30 March, Somerville planned on ambushing Nagumo. If his radar-equipped force found radar-deficient Nagumo during the night, he could launch a torpedo aircraft strike with a fair prospect of inflicting damage. Until last light on 31 March, he kept well to the west, out of range of Nagumo’s search aircraft, and then headed straight for the anticipated Japanese launch point, which he reached at 0230 hours.

Not finding Nagumo during the night of 31 March/1 April, the admiral withdrew southwestward to remain out of range of his opponent’s daylight searches on 1 April, in case the Japanese appeared on the scene unexpectedly. He then headed back toward Nagumo’s anticipated launch point during the night of 1/2 April, and withdrew again before daylight on 2 April. At last light on 2 April, the third night, he again started searching to the east. However by 2100 hours on 2 April, having seen no sign of the Japanese after three days, Somerville decided that their attack had likely been cancelled.

Having need to replenish Somerville now directed the Fleet to Addu Atoll, where most of his auxillary ships now were. It was while at anchor there that Somerville received Lt. Birdsall's (Catalina pilot) sighting report that he had found the main force of the Japanese Fleet just 360 miles from Ceylon at 1600hrs on 4 April. It wasn't until midnight that components of the Fleet (Force A - Warspite, Indomitable, Formidable, Cornwall, Dorsetshire, two light cruisers, and six destroyers) sailed. Cornwall and Dorsetshire were soon detached to Ceylon. Force B, consisting of the four R-class battleships, Hermes, three light cruisers, and eight destroyers followed eight hours later.

By sunset on 5 April, Somerville and Force A was in a surprisingly favourable position, despite being poorly served with reports by the searching Catalina's out of Ceylon. Numerous sightings were made, but the reports were incomplete, contradictory, often late, and, in some respects, just plain wrong. He had closed to within 200 miles of Nagumo during the afternoon, but instead of being destroyed by his more powerful opponent, he remained undetected. There was now every prospect that he could launch a night torpedo attack with his radar-equipped Albacores. As Japanese carrier aircraft did not operate at night, their task force would be defended only by anti-aircraft guns, and would not be able to launch a retaliatory strike until first light, by which time Somerville could be out of range. Finally, at 1817 hours, he was advised that five Japanese vessels sighted about 120 miles away, two of them carriers, were steering to the northwest. Somerville immediately altered course to northwest himself, to keep within striking distance. Receiving no further reports, he maintained this course through the night, with radar-equipped Albacores searching to the north and northeast, but they found nothing. Nagumo's Force was by this time actually steering southeast, and was soon out of reach.

Somerville continued searching for Nagumo until 8 April, when he then had the Fleet return to Addu Atoll for replenishment. At a conference there with his senior officers, among them the rescued captains of Cornwall and Dorsetshire, Somerville finally realized how seriously outmatched he was. It was clear that his fighters would not be able to ward off large-scale attacks like the one that sank his heavy cruisers, that the R-class battleships were liabilities, and that Colombo, Trincomalee, and Addu Atoll were not secure bases. He therefore sent Force B to the east coast of Africa, where it could protect the sea route to the Middle East, and personally led Force A to Bombay. The Eastern Fleet did not move back to Ceylon until September 1943.

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Re: Somerville's Aggressiveness at Ceylon

Post by Fatboy Coxy » 27 Jan 2010 11:01

Thanks Pips, an excellent post, I knew nothing about this strategy.
I note the Wikipedia entry for Admiral Somerville reports him being involved in the British Naval radar development between late 1939 and May 1940. I wonder how much this experience helped him form his bold and daring plan of ambush.
Despite it being a full moon, and even with the use of radar, operations at night were a difficult thing. I wonder how much experience the Albacore squadrons had to enable them to carry out such an attack.

HMS Formidable air group included FAA Sqns 818 (9 Albacore Mk 1 from Nov 1941) and 820 (? Albacore Mk 1 from July 1941)

HMS Indomitable air group included FAA Sqns 827 ( ? Albacore Mk I from Sept 1940) and 831 (? Albacore Mk 1 from April 1941)

Info from below
http://www.fleetairarmarchive.net/

Clearly they had been operating these aircraft for some time, but how much would have been night flying?

The thing this post doesn’t answer, indeed further raises the question, of how come Somerville lost HMS Hermes and the heavy cruisers HMS Cornwall and HMS Devonshire. Before this post I just thought the Royal Navy had been caught out by an unexpected carrier raid, but now I know better, it sounds more careless, which given Somerville track record, doesn’t add up!

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Re: Somerville's Aggressiveness at Ceylon

Post by mescal » 27 Jan 2010 11:43

I'll second Steve's thanks.

The Indian Ocean Raid has too often been presented as an unopposed because the British were fleeing.
It's good to remind that the RN had, by late March/Early April, not thrown the towel, and that it's only lack of detection which prevented the first 'over the horizon' battle to take place in the Indian Ocean instead of in the Coral Sea.

It also underlights how badly understood the power of Kido Butai was by this date. Somerville's plan to sneak attack the enemy was a good thing, but even if he succeeded in writing off two enemy carriers, he would be in grave danger during any counterstroke.
how come Somerville lost HMS Hermes and the heavy cruisers HMS Cornwall and HMS Devonshire
Given that the British intelligence had forewarned a raid in late March/Early April, and after failing to make contact in this timespan, it was assumed that the Japanese operation had been fully cancelled.

The two cruisers were thus detached to escort a convoy on the final leg of its journey to Ceylon, and the carrier was sent back to Trincomalee to resume preparations for the Diego Suarez landings which had been interrupted by the intel of a Japanese raid.
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Re: Somerville's Aggressiveness at Ceylon

Post by Andy H » 27 Jan 2010 12:58

One of the most glaring omissions from Somervilles OoB was a viable and effective Submarine force, for both aggresive actions and for Fleet recon etc

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Re: Somerville's Aggressiveness at Ceylon

Post by Carl Schwamberger » 27 Jan 2010 13:33

Brit experience at nightair ops.: Probablly better than anyone else. In combat there was the Taranto raid as a example of a actual strike. Air seaches/recon had been launched in the Atlantic & Med at night. There was some understanding and experince with the limits and advantages of airbourne radar at night & in heavy overcast. Sommerville had also rehearsed night air searches and attack just a week or two before the estimated date of the Japanese raid.

Catching the two crusiers is a obvious plus for the Japanese. But, it also leads to a fundamental problem. Sending a air recon mission in the direction the cruisers were headed seems like a sensible move, but the Japanese failed to do so in in any adaquate fashion. The cruisers were sunk when approx 60 nm from the Brits A group. During the entire week the IJN failed to locate the British A & B groups despite a active reconissance program & the Brit fleet frequently being less than 300 nm from the IJN fleet. Conversely the Brits located the IJN fleet several times. The failure of the IJN reconissance in this action seems to be part of a general trend or defect of the IJN in 1942.

In the case of the British detection occured several times. Guessing wrong on which direction the IJN fleet was headed (faulty analysis? ) had as much to do with the failure to strike as actual reconissance.

Submarine reconissance has a mixed record. Its often criticised as ineffective. The question is worth a close look. Some historians criticize the British expendenture of their large 'Pacific' submarines in the Mediterranian in 1941, leaving them with to few for effective operations against the Japanese. I dont have info for numbers or deployment from December-Febuary. Perhaps they were not available to Sommerville for inability to redeploy them in time, or losses in the Med?

Even if the Brits have all three carriers sunk or severely damaged what is the long term effect on the war? Conversely what will the effect be if the IJN loses the use of two carriers for the spring and summer of 1942?

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Re: Somerville's Aggressiveness at Ceylon

Post by Andy H » 27 Jan 2010 14:13

I dont have info for numbers or deployment from December-Febuary. Perhaps they were not available to Sommerville for inability to redeploy them in time, or losses in the Med?
From memory the British had 2 or 3 for the whole the theatre plus several Dutch O Class boats. The latter were in various states of serviceability

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Re: Somerville's Aggressiveness at Ceylon

Post by mescal » 27 Jan 2010 14:52

Carl Schwamberger wrote: In the case of the British detection occured several times. Guessing wrong on which direction the IJN fleet was headed (faulty analysis? ) had as much to do with the failure to strike as actual reconissance.
IIRC most of the sightings were made by land based aircrafts, or at least aircrafts not immediately under Somerville's authority, which may have led in communications delays.

Moreover, the most critical of those sightings came at time which were unexpected by the British, and they were caught off-balance both on the 5th and the 9th, which further complicated their answer.


Regarding the subs, I do not have any specific info at hand, but I think the Dutch boats were probably poorly organized by April 1942. They had just lost their main base, and had had to fall back on foreign bases, not necessarily equipped with the adequate maintenance materials.
(I think Dutch subs were 'metric' boats, whereas everything in Fremantle was in imperial units -- just to point one kind of problems).
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Re: Somerville's Aggressiveness at Ceylon

Post by Carl Schwamberger » 30 Jan 2010 16:55

One has to wonder how the Pacifc war would have gone had the British submarine fleet been relatively intact and properly positioned in December 1941. The IJN managed to finish off two USN carriers with subs in 1942. Could the Brits have accomplished the same?

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Re: Somerville's Aggressiveness at Ceylon

Post by mcaryf » 01 Feb 2010 19:40

The opportunity missed by the IJN to interdict Allied movements in the Indian Ocean was possibly their biggest strategic blunder of the war. Given that British supplies to the Middle East and Australia and India all flowed through the Indian Ocean this had to be a top priority objective for the Axis. In the period from April 1942 onwards Britain was typically sending 50,000 troops per month round the Cape with Churchill having the flexibility to send them on to one of three destinations. In fact many went to make the build up before Alamein replacing losses at Gazala, but in addition of course there were munitions and tanks (Roosevelt's Shermans). This could potentially have caused a collapse of the whole Allied position in Egypt.

The flow of US aid to the Soviet Union via the Persian Gulf really started to pick up in the second half of 1942. This aid was particularly vital as most of it was destined for the Stalingrad campaign. Just as an example the nearest operational rail heads to Stalingrad were 200 miles from it and in November 1942 the Soviets were using some 20,000 trucks to move the forces and supplies from these railheads to the locations from which they jumped off to cut off the Axis salient to Stalingrad - this was about the number of US trucks already shipped via Persia. Without these trucks that transportation could have taken longer and allowed Hitler's reinforcements, moved from France after the North African landings, to get to Russia in time to shore up the flanks.

Finally the main reason the Pacific War started was because of the Japanese war in China. The Indian Ocean again was the route for supplies from the Allies to Nationalist Chinese forces.

Surely these were 3 key reasons why the IJN should have regarded the Indian Ocean as being strategically more significant than, foe example, Midway.

Perhaps if Somerville had fought and lost heavily, the IJN would have maintained a more permanent interest in the Indian Ocean. The IJN Carriers were so superior to the RN ones that a TF of just 2 x IJN CV's with a suitable CA escort would have been enough, after a Somerville defeat, to close the supply routes to the RN unless the US had sent some of their own CV's. Perhaps the Battle of Midway would have occurred off Madagascar but without the crucial assistance of Allied land based planes!

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Re: Somerville's Aggressiveness at Ceylon

Post by mescal » 01 Feb 2010 22:29

mcaryf wrote:The opportunity missed by the IJN to interdict Allied movements in the Indian Ocean was possibly their biggest strategic blunder of the war.
The IJN could raid the eastern part of the Indian Ocean (Bay of Bengal) relatively easily, but considering operations West of India is a bit far-fetched logistically.
Kido Butai had very little in the way of staying power. So while they could possibly mount one short raid towards the Bombay/Aden/Kilindini area, they could not interdict traffic on a sustained basis.

Not without a base somewhere in the area. And that's precisely to prevent such a base that the UK commited so much resources in the Diego Suarez operation (Ironclad).
mcaryf wrote: Perhaps if Somerville had fought and lost heavily, the IJN would have maintained a more permanent interest in the Indian Ocean. The IJN Carriers were so superior to the RN ones that a TF of just 2 x IJN CV's with a suitable CA escort would have been enough, after a Somerville defeat, to close the supply routes to the RN unless the US had sent some of their own CV's. Perhaps the Battle of Midway would have occurred off Madagascar but without the crucial assistance of Allied land based planes!
The problem is that there was still the threat of the US carriers looming in the Pacific, while as explained above, there was not so much to gain in the Indian.

Regarding the "Two CVs" - I do not imagine anyone in the IJN willingly stripping Kido Butai of one of its CarDiv. And the remaining carriers (in 1942) were not that much better than the RN carriers, except perhaps Zuiho and Shoho.
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Re: Somerville's Aggressiveness at Ceylon

Post by Peter H » 02 Feb 2010 00:04

Also discussed here.

Operation C 1942
http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic. ... 5&t=150453

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Re: Somerville's Aggressiveness at Ceylon

Post by mcaryf » 02 Feb 2010 00:47

Hi Peter H

The superiority of the IJN carriers over the RN was largely the result of their superior aircraft in 1942 but their extra capacity was also a factor. The Ryujo could carry around 50 planes albeit with a relatively poor capacity to get them on deck but it was not even one of the 6 front line carriers whilst still substantially superior to anything the RN could field.

The attack on Madagascar would be a far more problematic affair for the Allies with Somerville's fleet largely destroyed. A relatively small IJN TF, say, Ryujo and Zuiho might have been able to maintain a threat that would inhibit the troop and supply transports. The Allies were very careful to avoid the risk of major troop losses at sea. After all if a lone BB like the Bismarck could be seen as a threat how much worse a TF with 2 carriers that had aircraft to outrange anything the RN possessed.

Perhaps if the IJA had seen the direct benefit to their China commitments of an attack on Ceylon they might have freed up some additional resource to mount an invasion. The coastline of Ceylon was much too long for the forces there in April 1942 to defend. They might even have found some sort of welcome from the local populace, there was at least one example of Ceylonese troops being executed by the British for mutiny and parts of the Burmese army had recently gone over to the Japanese. This was also a period when tens of thousands of Indian nationalists were being put into prisons by the British. The Indian Ocean Raid sank over 100,000 tons of Allied shipping in the Bay of Bengal. If the Japanese had considered a more permanent presence there then they might have instead aimed to capture a reasonable quantity of the 100,000 tons and used it to beef up their logistics capability.

The capture of some or all of Ceylon and a blockade on India could have lost the sub-continent from the Allied OOB together with the 1m + troops they supplied. This was yet another good reason to look towards the Indian Ocean rather than the Pacific.

The only real chance of success for the Japanese in WW2 was if the Germans forced both the Russians and the British to capitulate before the US gathered all its strength. It is quite possible that the Churchill government could have fallen if there had been a further massive defeat in the Middle East and a potential neutralisation of India. That required the Japanese to act in the Indian Ocean - fortunately for the Allies they did not do so with sufficient vigour when it was possible and then lost their capacity to do so at Midway.

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Re: Somerville's Aggressiveness at Ceylon

Post by cstunts » 02 Feb 2010 21:49

Hello,

Sustained IJN ops in the IO were not a realistic option. Invading Ceylon even less. (Don't throw all that gamer nonsense at me, please.) The Imperial Navy wasn't about to commit significant forces to the IO and leave the Pacific wide open to American carriers, etc. Just because the IJN contemplated invading Ceylon (or Australia, or Hawaii) meant relatively little...This was the same service that was absolutely certain war would break out against the West in 1936...And the same service that believed it could build not only 18" gunned BBs (which it did, at ruinous cost) but 20" gunned vessels as well. Honest, truthful, and accurate estimates re strategic materials (steel & oil included) all-too-often didn't or weren't allowed to enter into their warplans.

This isn't to say that controlling the IO and interdicting Allied supplies coming from the ME to India & Australia, etc. would not have been enormously damaging to the Allied cause...but, in terms of what forces the IJN could utilize, without leaving themselves extremely vulnerable elsewhere, it was not possible.

Again, what the Japanese wanted and needed desperately was a very quick termination to hostilities and a favorable settlement with the Allies. Any other course was going to be disastrous for Japan, and that is precisely what happened.

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Re: Somerville's Aggressiveness at Ceylon

Post by mcaryf » 03 Feb 2010 12:05

Hi cstunts

I think you now and the IJN at the time vastly over estimated the US capacity and willingness to mount more than nuisance raids (e.g. Doolittle) in the Pacific in 1942. Even after the IJN's catastrophe at Midway the US did little more than nibble at the edge of the Japanese conquests until well into 1943 and during most of that time the IJN were doing without the availability of 4 front line carriers that they still had in April 1942.

The Japanese attempt to take Midway and the Aleutians made very much less strategic and tactical sense than mounting an attack on Ceylon in particular and the Indian Ocean in general. It could even have served a similar purpose to the IJN's intention for Midway in that it would almost certainly have eventually compelled the US fleet to come to the aid of the RN so the IJN might have been granted their decisive battle but in more favourable circumstances as they would almost certainly have achieved at least a foothold on Ceylon which they did not at Midway.

It is absolutely clear now and must have been reasonably apparent at the time that 1942 was the decisive year for WW2 as the Axis did not have the capacity to sustain a long war. Success or otherwise at Midway had no chance of determining the war. However, success in the Indian Ocean could have opened a world of opportunities for all the Axis partners particularly as the Japanese needed the Germans to knock both the UK and Soviet Union out of the war.

With respect to the ability and willingness of the IJN to operate over enormous distances, I am sure that if they had not attempted the Midway/Aleutians operation, very few of those posting here would have suggested it as a realistic option for them to have even considered.

The Japanese certainly intended to return to the Indian Ocean after Midway and had started to pre-position some minor units but in my view that would already have been too late even if they had won at Midway. Their key opportunity was in April/May 1942. The Indian Ocean option was obviously considered but not selected by the Japanese although it had its proponents such as Admiral Nagano. However, in considering alternate history, there is the possibility that if the Japanese had found Somerville and destroyed his fleet then two things occur. The Japanese would have discovered the lack of real capability of the RN carriers and the US might have been obliged to reinforce the Indian Ocean at the expense of the Pacific. Would, for example, the Doolittle Raid still have taken place on April 18th if Somerville's fleet had been destroyed in the first week of April? The Doolittle Raid was after all just intended as a stunt and its actual strategic consequences unpredicted. These various possibilities could have changed the Japanese decisions with respect to the Indian Ocean. This is why I think a full scale fight between Somerville and Nagumo was one of the most important battles that did not happen in WW2 ranking alongside an earlier German focus on Moscow in 1941.

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Mike

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Re: Somerville's Aggressiveness at Ceylon

Post by cstunts » 03 Feb 2010 17:13

Hello,

"I think you now and the IJN at the time vastly over estimated the US capacity and willingness to mount more than nuisance raids (e.g. Doolittle) in the Pacific in 1942."
I couldn't disagree more, but will leave it at that, as this isn't a high school debate. But I'll just say my reading of the evidence (re Nimitz, and Ernie King in particular) suggests otherwise.
(Also, IIRC we were in the Solomons in some force by that summer...)

But, regardless of the other interesting alt-hist points, the IJN could not have maintained dominance in the IO over the long haul, and Germany wasn't about to defeat GB and Russia, or even control N. Africa. So much for Japan's pipe dreams.

As for the USN in 1942, they reacted to their intell re the Midway operation by taking a calculated risk, and won--by a more narrow margin than most have recognized over the years--but, had Midway not occurred their warplans still called for aggressive carrier operations against the Japanese whenever and wherever possible. And although you call them "nuisance raids", given Japan's propensity to overreact any one might have led to quite serious losses for the IJN. And no matter how you fantasize it, we were going to construct many more CVs, CVLs, and CVEs than Japan could ever dream of countering. That is indisputable, it seems to me.

IMHO the Indian Ocean would have been juicy hunting grounds for US and British (& even Dutch) submarines had it been required. Our sigint would have been just as good, in any case.

Of course Japan had to win the war quickly. Those falsified statistics on oil reserves they went to war with weren't going to sustain them in reality...And they still would never be able to get oil from Borneo, Sumatra, etc. back home to Japan in anything like the quantities required to sustain their war machine. Not even remotely.

Be that as it may, had Japan managed a decisive defeat of the RN in the IO in '42, we would have nonetheless out-produced them many times over and ultimately crushed them, although it might well have taken longer. And there's little evidence the IJN learned anything from the Midway disaster before another year or more had passed, at which point they had been defeated in the Guadalcanal campaign, and were effectively on their heels...They did not process & evaluate battle lessons very quickly or well, to say the least.

It's all rather like arguing that had Kurita's Center Force been successful at Samar--whatever that means--it might have altered the outcome of the war. Not a chance.

Finally: that a plan may or may not have been backed or endorsed by ADM Nagano Osami means literally nothing to me. He was at the beck & call of his mid-echelon hardliners, and an utter mediocrity. The officers who controlled him were the same pro-war guys who boasted Nihon Kaigun was "invincible" and would "slaughter" the Royal Navy and U.S. Pacific Fleet, and could take Ceylon and/or Australia, etc.--Dead-wrong, that is, and they led their nation into catastrophe. Those who escaped with their lives & the subsequent warcrimes trials acted as one might expect: they blamed it all on Yamamoto, and called other IJN leaders "Communists"... :wink:

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