Thursday, February 19 2015
Yes, they were expendable.
At the outset of World War II, the battleships and cruisers, the capital ships, were the centerpiece of the United States’ and Japan’s naval doctrine. (I will cover this in more detail in later posts.) With armor-plated hulls and huge long-range guns, the doctrine saw these ships as an irresistible force to sweep the enemy from the seas. The doctrine, however, had a flaw due to an inconsistency. The admirals believed the capital ships, and especially the battleship, were too valuable to risk in combat. So how could the capital ships anchor naval doctrine and sweep the enemy from the sea if the admirals would never let them stand in harm’s way?
Personally, I suspect both the doctrine and the fear of losing a battleship persisted because the admirals, like all sailors, were in love. At sea, battleships are graceful leviathans that project an aura of majesty, power, and strength. Watching these ships at sea is an emotional experience. Any sailor who has witnessed these grand ships at sea could not help but fall in love.
The answer to the doctrinal contradictions is that there were two naval doctrines in play: the official doctrine and the doctrine employed by the admirals. With the armored capital ships too valuable to risk, the burden of battle shifted to the destroyer.
The destroyers were equipped with five-inch guns, torpedoes, and an array of anti-aircraft guns. Their hulls were made of standard steel that was three-eighths of an inch thick; and their only hope at defense was their speed and maneuverability. Their paper-thin hulls and speed earned destroyers the nicknames “tin cans” and “greyhounds,” respectively.
When the fleet needed protection from attacking aircraft, destroyers were the first line of defense and took the heaviest casualties. When the fleet needed protection from submarines, destroyers were the first line of defense. When fleets met, the admirals held their capital ships in reserve and ordered the destroyers to attack.
Historians have dubbed the largest sea battle in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, “The last stand of the tin-can man.” In that battle, destroyers, with little or no help from the capital ships, fought off a three-prong attack against MacArthur’s Philippine invasion force. The US destroyers faced nine battleships and twenty cruisers, and they forced back the Japanese. In the following days, US aircraft and submarines decimated the retreating Japanese fleet. Battleships and cruisers played little if any role in the battle. In Vows to the Fallen, the fictional Battle of Mojatto Gulf is in many ways similar to the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Here is a tally of ship strengths and losses in World War II: