Martin Stansfeld, Japanese Carriers and Victory in the Pacific (Pen & Sword, 2021)
Could Japan have won the war in the Pacific? Perhaps not, but Martin Stansfeld argues that they had a better chance of doing so if they had followed a carrier strategy over building more battleships. That leads him to manufacture a tantalising ‘what-if’ based on Japanese carrier potential in this enjoyable book.
Who reads the acknowledgements? You might like to read this one, however, because this is where Stansfeld outlines the prominent historical works on which so much of his conjecture is based. He begins constructing his historical platform with the ‘Mutsu Incident’; the loss of a Japanese battleship in 1943. In the first of his ‘what ifs’, Stansfeld posits that if it had happened in 1936 then the subsequent battleship building programme might never have happened, and the Emperor might have listened to the carrier based thinking of Isoroku Yamamato. That prologue establishes Stansfeld’s method of describing historical realities to construct alternative narratives. Along the way, Standfeld visits the Washington Treaty and how that worked, or didn’t, the development of naval aircraft, Japan’s construction of the ‘shadow fleet’- a fleet of ‘legal’ ships designed for quick carrier conversion – and then Stansfeld gets into his Yamamato thesis, the idea that Japan could have built a ‘Phantom Fleet’ of carriers, and finally, he analyses what might have been the massive, decisive fleet battle off the Marianas between a properly tooled Imperial Japanese Navy and the US Navy.
Written in a sometimes loose fashion without footnotes, this often has the feel of a stretched essay, building the speculative argument steadily on firm historical foundations. Stansfeld demonstrates that Japan had the tools available to switch to a carrier led force; what if they had built them and trained the pilots needed to conduct operations and create a reserve? Stansfeld’s discussion of carrier building and merchant ship conversion is illuminating in that regard. He is also scathing on Japan’s decision to build two super-battleships instead of carriers, and he considers the capacity of Japanese dockyards to produce those, leading to a 1,000 plane fleet by the close of 1941. Stansfeld argues that the Japanese would have been able to conduct this programme in relative secrecy, mostly through the hubris of Allied intelligence. Stansfeld’s exploration of this through contemporary editions of Jane’s Fighting Ships is fascinating.
When Stansfeld takes us out to sea, and into battle, he stops off at Pearl Harbor to again denounce the reliance on battleships then deal with the question of why the Japanese did not take Hawaii – he argues that with the correct carrier support, they could have taken Oahu then the rest of the islands. They could also have taken Ceylon in the Indian Ocean with a potential link-up with the Germans in Arabia, though he acknowledges the latter is highly speculative given Nazi racial ideology. After moving his pieces around the Pacific War board, Stansfeld comes to a postulated battle (and much of this reads like the after-action report of a complex and one-sided boardgame) at the Seychelles. This would set the Allies back by years, Stansfeld argues, then would come the decisive carrier battle in the Marianas Islands in August 1945. He accounts for ‘rogue factors’ a bit too readily, then posits two scenarios where one side or the other wins (I felt like Lucy had pulled the ball away), but either way, the world would have changed forever.
I am not a fan of ‘what-if’ speculations; they tend to be one-sided, not accounting for the reactions of the enemy to developing situations; they also often fail to account for enough variables or take them for granted; and they often marginalise the human factor, which modern military history has done so much to highlight. But Stansfeld’s effort is better than most I’ve read. That is partly because it is well-written, though with some irritating detours such as the Nanking massacre, the Vietnam War comparison that wasn’t, the Star Wars movie, Rosie the Riveter, Bikini Atoll atom bomb tests, and Hitler at Berchtesgaden. Stansfeld also builds his argument on a platform of solid evidence and doesn’t erupt into wholesale fantasies. My biggest disappointment on completion was that Stansfeld could have dumped the counterfactual element of this book and written an engaging history that would have stood with some of the best that he mentions in his text – he clearly knows his stuff. Nevertheless, this was an engaging and provocative read and recommended for students of the Pacific War.