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December 1941

Japanese battleships Nagato, Kirishima, Ise and Hyuga
(Maritime Quest, click to enlarge)

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Each Summary is complete in its own right. The same information may therefore be found in a number of related summaries

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Events until November 1941

Since November 1939 when the "Graf Spee" first entered the Indian Ocean, German raiders had hunted there as well as in the Pacific. The Royal and Dominion Navies had not only been busy tracking them down, but also escorting troops of Australia, India, New Zealand and other members of the British Empire to the theatres of war.

All this time Japan had manoeuvred to complete the conquest of China. By the end of 1938, northeast China as far south as Shanghai, together with the major ports was in Japanese hands. In February 1939 Japan occupied the large island of Hainan in the South China Sea. By early 1940, events were moving inexorably towards a total world war:


March - Japan established a Chinese puppet-government in Nanking.

June/July - With its possession of the Chinese ports, Japan wanted to close the remaining entry points into China. Pressure was put on France to stop the flow of supplies through Indochina, and on Britain to do the same with the Burma Road. Both complied, but Britain did so only until October 1940, when the road was reopened.

September - Vichy France finally agreed to the stationing of Japanese troops in northern Indochina.


April - Five Year Neutrality Pact between Japan and Russia benefited both powers. Russia could free troops for Europe and Japan concentrate on expansion southwards.

July - The demand for bases in southern Indochina was now conceded by Vichy France. Britain, Holland and the United States protested and froze Japanese assets, but the troops went in. The Dutch East lndies cancelled oil delivery arrangements and the Americans shortly imposed their own oil embargo. Japan had lost most of its sources of oil.

September - Japan and the US continued to negotiate over their differences, but as its oil stocks rapidly declined Japan accelerated preparations for war.

October - War Minister Gen Tojo became Japanese Prime Minister.

Also in October Australia saw the fall of the Country Party of former Prime Minister Robert Menzies who resigned earlier in August. John Curtin and the Labour Party came to power.

November - As talks dragged on and the United States demanded the departure of Japan from China as well as French Indochina, the Pearl Harbor Strike Force sailed into the North Pacific. Vice-Adm Nagumo commanded the fleet carriers "Akagi", "Hiryu", "Kaga", "Soryu", "Shokaku" and "Zuikaku", plus two battleships, cruisers and destroyers.

Britain's limited naval deterrent to Japanese expansion, capital ships "Prince of Wales" and "Repulse" met at Colombo, Ceylon on the 28th, en route to Singapore. Without the fleet carrier "Indomitable" which had run agroound, they lacked ship-borne aircraft defence.

Strategic and Naval Background


Britain and Dominions - Responsible for defending India, Ceylon, Burma, Malaya, northern Borneo, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, the Papua New Guinea/Bismarck Archipelago/Solomon Islands chain, and numerous island groups throughout the Indian Ocean and Central and South Pacific. Few forces could be spared from existing war zones to protect this vast spread of territory and its supply routes. Britain's main base was at Singapore with the two recently arrived big ships. Three old cruisers and some destroyers were in Malayan waters, and a few old destroyers at Hong Kong. By now the surviving seven cruisers and smaller ships of the Royal Australian and New Zealand Navies were back in the area.

United States - Apart from the defence of its Western seaboard, Panama Canal Zone, Alaska and the Aleutians, Hawaiian Islands and various islands in the Central Pacific, the US was responsible for the Philippines. In the event of attack, the defenders were expected to hold out until relieved by the US Pacific Fleet fighting its way from the main base at Pearl Harbor, a distance of 4,500 miles. In the Philippines was the Asiatic Fleet with three cruisers, 13 destroyers and 29 submarines. The Pacific Fleet itself consisted of eight battleships, three fleet carriers, 21 cruisers, 67 destroyers and 27 submarines.

Dutch - Naval forces allocated to the defence of the many islands of the Dutch East lndies included three cruisers, seven destroyers and fifteen submarines.


Already established in Korea, Manchuria, northeast China, its main ports and Hainan, Formosa, and the Mariana, Caroline and Marshall Island groups, Japan now had the whole of French Indochina. Japan's main aim was still the conquest of China, for which the oilfields of the Dutch East lndies (DEI) were indispensable. Also important was the closing of the Burma Road over which Allied supplies continued to roll.

Both moves meant war with Britain and the US, and a vital part of the Japanese strategy was the establishment of a huge defence perimeter stretching from Burma right around to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Only in this way could it hope to hold off the United States once its manpower and industrial resources were mobilised.

Japan went to war with both the strategic and military advantages:

Strategically -

Japan was well placed to occupy the territory needed for the defence perimeter:


In the West - much of China was occupied and the Neutrality Pact with Russia, coupled with the German invasion meant Japan had little to fear for now from this direction. Hong Kong could be taken easily from adjacent occupied China. 


To the East were the vast distances of the Pacific. By taking the US islands of Guam and Wake, and some of the British Gilbert Islands, the Japanese mandated islands (Marshalls, Caroline's, Marianas) were further protected. America was also kept at bay.

To the Southwest -
Thailand and Malaya would soon fall to the invading forces from Hainan and Indochina. Thereafter the capture of Burma could proceed smoothly. The Burma Road would be cut, India threatened, and that perimeter secured.


In the South - lay the oilfields of the Dutch East Indies and the protection offered by the island chain of Sumatra, Java and Bali through to Timor. The main island of Java was the target of two massive pincer movements:

Southeast -
landings in north New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago and northern Solomons would protect the Japanese Carolines. From there, forces could strike Australia and its supply routes.



Westwards - From Indochina to northern Borneo, and later direct to Sumatra and Java.


Eastwards - From bases in Formosa and the Carolines to the Philippines. From there to southern Borneo, Celebes and Moluccas, and on to Timor and Bali. Then to eastern Java.


Only when Japan sought to extend its southeast and eastern perimeters - at Guadalcanal and Midway Island respectively in mid-1942 did it suffer its first defeats. America's growing power would then make Allied victory inevitable.

Militarily -

Allied and Japanese naval forces were about balanced in numbers:

Major Warship types

















































There the comparison ended .....

The Imperial Japanese Navy had far more carriers, its surface task forces were well trained, especially in night-fighting, and they had no command or language difficulties. They also introduced the Allies to a secret and powerful weapon in the 24in Long Lance torpedo. In contrast, the Allied ships were scattered and had no central command. Their main bases at Singapore and Pearl Harbor were 6,000 miles apart, and most of the strength was concentrated with the US Pacific Fleet.

For its conquests, the Japanese Army fielded only slightly more troops, but these were usually better trained, and also experienced in amphibious operations. They had air superiority both overall and locally. Only the US Pacific Fleet posed an immediate danger to Japanese plans. Hence the decision to attack it in Pearl Harbor rather than wait for the Americans to try to fight through to the Philippines.

The Japanese chose the time and place of their landings, ail well escorted by cruiser and destroyer forces. Air cover was maintained by land-based aircraft or from carriers and seaplane carriers as necessary, and battleships and cruisers provided distant support. By this time the annihilation of the Allied capital ships made their presence unnecessary.

The few Allied maritime sorties - some surface, but mainly by aircraft and submarine - had few successes against the invasion fleets. And in return, suffered heavy losses.


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revised 9/7/11