Pearl Harbor was as much of a bureaucratic bungle as a military disaster

Today, we remember those who died at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.

Let’s also remember that many of them died because peacetime military officers moved with such bureaucratic torpor and lack of urgency that they failed to learn readily available lessons.  The US Naval Institute took a long look at that a year ago.

On the night of 11 November 1940, Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm (FAA) aircraft attacked Italian battleships at anchor in the port of Taranto, Italy. On the morning of 7 December 1941, aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s carrier strike force attacked the battleships and other assets of the U.S. Navy at anchor in Pearl Harbor. Is there a connection between the two attacks? If so, should the Navy have discovered it before 7 December?

It is not obvious that there should be any connection, for the two attacks were very different … Still, the fundamental lesson of each operation was the same: The development of naval aviation meant ships no longer were safe in their home ports.

. . .

One man was almost certainly the first down the gangplank once the Illustrious had docked: Lieutenant Commander Opie. Though his official title was assistant naval attaché, London, Opie had come aboard the Illustrious on 22 August, when she departed Britain bound for Alexandria. During the intervening months, he had sailed on board a number of Royal Navy ships on combat operations. He was in the heavy cruiser HMS Kent when she was torpedoed, and he would spend time on board the battleship Warspite, destroyer Jervis, and light cruiser Sydney. He sent back numerous reports to the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), reporting on his own observations and also forwarding almost any Royal Navy document he could get his hands on.

On 14 November, he quickly made his way to the American Legation in Cairo and wrote a four-page report on the Taranto attack. He had obtained a copy of the report by the commanding officer of the Illustrious and added his own observations to “supplement the enclosed report.” Under the heading, “Lessons,” Opie wrote:

  • AA fire is not effective.
  • Low flying planes attacking ships limit shipboard gunnery for fear of hitting friendly ships.
  • Strain on pilots was intense, doubt that they could have made a second attack.
  • Some believe that ships should put to sea on moonlit nights, rather than try to defend in harbor.
  • RN has given up on high level bombing, and prefers torpedo attack to dive bombing.

. . .

Officers out with the fleet were aware that successful aerial torpedo attacks were being made in Europe. Officers serving as neutral observers with the Royal Navy were getting and forwarding the facts about these successes. But officers serving in staff jobs at the Navy Department failed to connect the two groups. This was not a case of deliberately withholding intelligence needed by the fleet commanders but rather an ordinary bureaucratic failure to overcome preconceived notions, to send clear messages without adding “on the other hand” comments, and to keep up with changing technology. A failure nevertheless, and, indeed, a catastrophic one.

There’s more at the link.

The Japanese did more to profit from the lessons of Taranto.  As Wikipedia summarizes:

It is likely the Imperial Japanese Navy’s staff carefully studied the Taranto raid during planning for the attack on Pearl Harbor because of the issues with a shallow harbour. Japanese Lieutenant Commander Takeshi Naito, the assistant naval attaché to Berlin, flew to Taranto to investigate the attack firsthand and probably wrote a report, but no copy of such a report has ever been found. Naito subsequently had a lengthy conversation with Commander Mitsuo Fuchida about his observations in October 1941. Fuchida led the Japanese attack on 7 December 1941. More significant, perhaps, was a Japanese military mission to Italy in May 1941. Japanese Navy officers visited Taranto and had lengthy discussions with their Italian Navy opposite numbers.

I wonder how many modern military lessons are not being learned due to similar issues?



  1. I think it is worth noting that even the Royal Navy did not take the report fully to heart. They sent the Prince of Wales and Repluse, along with 4 destroyers to stop the invasion fleet of Malaya with out any air support.

  2. I read an interesting bit a few years ago on Pearl Harbor by Trent Telenko at the Chicago Boyz blog.

    Telenko asserted that the U.S. expected Japan to attack, but not at Pearl Harbor. The reason they didn't expect the attack at Pearl Harbor was that they didn't think the IJN carrier force had the range to get there. And they were right – sort of. IJN ships lacked the unrefueled range to sail to Hawaii and still return home. What USN intelligence didn't know was that the IJN could do underway refueling, allowing their carriers to strike Hawaii and return home.

    I haven't been able to confirm or deny the assertion. If true, that would represent a rather huge intel gap.

    (As a side note, the IJN ships were generally shorter ranged than their USN counterparts. Both sides expected to fight the Mahanian decisive battle on the Japanese side of the Pacific. The IJN used this 'homefield advantage' to give their ships more firepower and armor, whereas the USN had to have more fuel bunkerage.)

    Another one of the popular myths is that MacArthur's air component in the Philippines got caught napping, allowing most of the planes to be destroyed on the ground. What really happened was a simple case of that thing Poor Dead Carl called Friction.

    MacArthur's air commander had all his planes in the air at the time that a Japanese attack would have arrived, had the planes taken off from Formosa at dawn, as expected. Problem was, the airfields on Formosa were socked in by fog, which delayed the strike for several hours. This meant that the Japanese planes arrived over the Philippines shortly after the American planes had been forced to land by lack of fuel.

  3. Dave is correct. 'Many' in power thought the PI would be the first strike. And the whole cluster with the declaration gave Pearl NO prep time, not that it would have made a significant difference.

  4. When I was sent to Baghdad in 2009 with a Texas Guard unit the officers had a peacetime mentality. For instance the XO wanted to place all the senior leaders in CHU's (containerized housing units) that were in the same area instead of dispersing the leaders to make it difficult to take out at the same time. Ammo wasn't issued until we had been in Kuwait for several days. All weapons were to be kept unloaded unless under attack including sidearms. I understand not loading rifles but having been a police officer sidearms can be carried safely loaded in a holster. A CPT who was a "combat veteran" asked me once why I carried a M-4 when I had been issued a M-9. I was told by the S-3 to leave my M-4 at the base when we went to the Embassy once for a meeting because it made the Embassy uncomfortable. I could go on but you get the idea. Personally I went in with the idea that there were people there that wanted to kill me and I was always thinking how I would make myself the hardest soldier for anyone to kill.

  5. Up until Taranto, shallow harbors were seen as safe because the depth that torpedoes drop to initially would make them hit the bottom. The British got around this with breakaway floats that kept the torpedoes shallow. From what I have read, the Japanese figured this out and came up with a similar solution.
    While I don't know if the American navy knew about this, I've read that many believed that Pearl Harbor was too shallow for torpedo attacks. As it is, some torpedoes did hit the bottom and have been found during dredging and construction activities more recently.

  6. In support of the "bureaucrat mentality" meme as blinkering USN warplanning, it should be observed that the Japanese had already been at war since 1937, and had already shaken out their paper suhufflers.

  7. All of this huffing and puffing about naval bureaucracy is one thing, but let's not lose sight of the fact that the attack on Pearl Harbor was a strategic disaster for the Japanese.

    What did the Japanese gain at Pearl Harbor? Well, they completely destroyed 2 obsolete battleships and an old ex-battleship target vessel. They severely damaged 3 others along with a few destroyers, cruisers, and a seaplane tender. The loss of aircraft was severe as was the loss of a few thousand personnel. However, the allied losses in the single campaign for Guadalcanal were much worse.

    What did it *cost* the Japanese? In terms of military hardware, not much – a few planes and pilots and a couple of mini-submarines. In strategic terms, it cost them *everything*. They sneak-attacked the worlds largest industrial economy. What were they thinking?

    I've heard it said many times that the US was racist towards the Japanese. That we didn't believe "the yellow monkeys" were capable. There is some truth to that assertion, but if the US was racist toward Japan, it was nothing like what the Japanese were toward us. They thought we would roll over and die – sue for peace once the "Greater Asia co-prosperity Sphere" was a done deal. Yea, sure. Winston Churchill in his address before congress shortly after the attack asked: "What sort of people do they think we are!?"

  8. Bear in mind that the direct cause of the attack was FDR cutting off their oil supply. They had an 18 month stored supply of oil at that time, to run their homeland and military. FDR was informed of this by our military. He didn't care. He expected them to fold, and leave China, which was his focus.
    They figured they would have to grab the Dutch East Indies to get the oil field to supply their economy, and military. They expected the US to respond to the oil field grab, and felt that they needed to head that off, therefore the attack on our forces.
    They expected the US to sue for peace in the Pacific long before we could rebuild our forces sufficient to threaten them. When we didn't, they realized they were screwed, but saw no way to fix it. They were all in. Essentially, they ran a major poker bluff, and lost.

  9. Sort of in line with Roy's 2nd paragraph:
    I have always felt that it was extremely curious that all of our carriers were at sea and all of the battleships were lined up in a nice little row that morning.

    Many years later (late 50's) I noted that nothing had changed.
    Stationed on a tin can out of San Diego saw that most ships would be in port every weekend with two carriers tied up at North Island.

    Never saw of heard of any practice attempts for even a tin can to get underway on a Sunday morning with the duty OD as skipper.

    On my ship the JO's were never given the opportunity to conn the ship entering or leaving port.

  10. Different thoughts – Pearl Harbor could have been MUCH worse.
    1. If the Two Fleet carriers had been tied up to the dock, they would have been the primary targets of the air attack. That would have added another year minimum to the time Yamamoto had to "run wild" securing the "S.E. Asia Co-prosperity Sphere" before we could mount serious operations. Our Carriers not being there is probably why the IJN didn't launch a third wave, and totally destroy the fuel storage, dry dock/repair shops, and finish off all military aircraft. The strike groups were vulnerable while our flat-tops were unaccounted for.
    2. What if warnings were received and the Fleet had sortied, to engage the Jap fleet? More than likely, with several years of war under their belts, the IJN would have "Billy Michell’ed"
    our Battleships and cruisers in open ocean, where recovery and repair would have been impossible, with massive loss of life. They could have attacked the west coast at leasure, making offensive ops damn near impossible, esp. if they shot up the
    Western end of the Panama Canal.
    Both outcomes would have been MUCH WORSE than what occurred… What say you, NFO?

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