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Second Operational Phase

The Second Operational Phase refers to the plans Japanese military leaders made for exploiting their successes in the Centrifugal Offensive, which ended with the surrender of Java on 8 March 1942. The Japanese achieved all their initial war objectives ahead of schedule and with astonishingly slight losses. Instead of the 20% to 30% naval losses anticipated in prewar planning, the Japanese had lost only 23 warships, all of which were of destroyer size or smaller (for a total of 26,441 displacement tons); 67 transports and cargo ships totaling 314,805 tons; and a few hundred aircraft and a few thousand personnel. This astonishing success was misread by Japanese planners, who failed to recognize that the Allies would learn from bitter experience and that American mobilization was certain to eliminate Japan's military superiority. Rather than consolidate their conquests and build their defense perimeter, then seek a diplomatic settlement on favorable terms as originally planned, the Japanese began looking for new worlds to conquer. Postwar, Hara characterized this unrealistic attitude as "Victory Disease", and there is wide consensus among historians that the carelessness brought on by this attitude led to the Japanese setback at Coral Sea and the disaster at Midway.

"Victory Disease" was not a universal phenomenon. The Emperor asked Sugiyama whether the fall of Singapore might not be an opportune time to seek a settlement with the British. Most of the Army were anxious to finish the wars in the Pacific and in China in order to redeploy against Russia, which had unexpectedly survived the German invasion of 1941. However, the debate within the armed services over the future course of the war ended on 7 March 1942 with a liaison conference at Imperial General Headquarters that mapped out the Second Phase.

The Second Phase was largely the strategy of the Japanese Navy, since the Army was so preoccupied elsewhere. A direct invasion of Australia was urged by the Navy, which estimated that three Army divisions would be sufficient to seize the important centers of the continent, but on 7 March 1942 the Army vetoed this plan, claiming that the actual requirement would be 12 divisions and 1.5 million tons of shipping. The compromise objective was to isolate Australia, forcing it out of the war, and to seize Hawaii as a forward base. Alaska would then be ripe for the picking, and some Japanese leaders even looked ahead to the seizure of portions of Australia and the states of Washington and Oregon. The Pacific would be transformed into a Japanese lake.

Japanese Strategy

Willmott (1983) has defended the Japanese decision to remain on the offensive for the Second Phase, arguing that retaining the initiative was the best hope for Japan to compensate for American material superiority. However, he is scathing in his criticism of the Japanese strategy, arguing that Japan would have been much better served to focus on cutting the sea lanes to Australia. Instead, the Japanese planned a series of advances along two axes that in many respects resembled the Allied counteroffensive of 1943-1944, but in reverse. The first blow would fall on Port Moresby and Tulagi in early May 1942 (Operation MO), projecting Japanese power over the Coral Sea and opening the door to the New Hebrides and New Caledonia. This would be followed by the capture of Midway and the western Aleutians in June. In July it would be the turn of Fiji and Samoa (Operation FS). Finally, Hawaii would be assaulted in October. Yamamoto believed that "As a result of the smooth progress of the first-phase operations, we have established an invincible strategic position [that] cannot be maintained if we go on the defensive.... in order to secure it tenaciously, we must keep on striking offensively at the enemy's weak points one after another" (Lundstrom 2006).

The Japanese did not detect the Allied buildup on the islands along the sea lanes to Australia, and the forces they allocated for the southern prong of the Second Phase offensive were "completely inadequate" to deal with the reinforced island garrisons (Willmott 1983).

Allied Defenses

The Allied defensive strategy was shaped largely by Ernest J. King, who was not content with standing on the defensive and waiting for the Japanese to do their worst. He insisted that Nimitz conduct carrier raids against outlying Japanese positions to keep them off-balance, while protecting Hawaii and the sea lanes to Australia. He also looked to an early counteroffensive from the New Hebrides up the Solomon chain to Rabaul. This eventually materialized as the Guadalcanal campaign.

Outcome

In retrospect, Japanese plans for the Second Operational Phase were completely unrealistic and it should not be a surprise that the Allies managed to stop them cold. The Battle of the Coral Sea frustrated the attempt to seize Port Moresby, but Yamamoto chose to regard this as a minor and temporary setback and proceeded with the Midway operation. The battle of Midway was a disaster for Japan. The Japanese Navy lost most of its first-line carriers, a blow from which it never really recovered. The battle restored the balance of power in the Pacific, and the Americans seized the strategic initiative with the counteroffensive at Guadalcanal.

Incredibly, the Japanese continued to grossly underestimate the Americans even after the Midway disaster. Japanese senior commanders, including Inoue and Yamamoto, were convinced the Allied could not launch any significant counteroffensive before the autumn of 1943. The Japanese briefly continued developing plans for the Fiji-Samoa operation following Midway, but on 11 June 1942 the FS Operation was postponed for two months. However, the RI Operation (a land offensive against Port Moresby over the Kokoda Trail) was to proceed. On 17 June the Japanese approved the SN Operation, ordering the airfield at Guadalcanal ready by mid-August to receive 27 fighters and 27 medium bombers. The main SN convoy left Truk at 29 June and arrived at Guadalcanal on 6 July with 2600 construction troops and 250 combat troops.

However, Japanese plans continued to evolve as the consequences of Midway and Coral Sea became clearer. On 11 July 1942 the FS operation was canceled entirely, and in its place the Japanese began looking to the Indian Ocean, where light forces based in Burma could conduct a raiding campaign against British commerce. This operation was called off following the landings at Guadalcanal, and the cruisers were redeployed to participate in the campaign to retake Guadalcanal.

Any remaining thoughts of advancing against Fiji and Samoa were quietly dropped when the Americans could not be dislodged from Guadalcanal.

References

Hoyt (1993)

Lundstrom (2006)

Willmott (1983)


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