7 December 1941

The Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on the morning of 7 December 1941 had devastating results for the ships unfortunate enough to be moored in harbour. Here the USS Arizona is ablaze and listing badly. The attack signalled the end of the battleship era in warfare.

In 1921, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell of the United States Air Service conducted tests to demonstrate his contention that modern warships were highly vulnerable to air attack. The captured German battleship Ostfriesland suffered severe damage during the exercise and Mitchell claimed that his point was proved. The navy took offence and Mitchell was court-martialled in 1925 for going too far in his criticism of service short-sightedness. A little over twenty years later, the pride of the United States Pacific Fleet was struck in harbour by Japanese torpedo and fighter bombers attacking in waves. The raid on Pearl Harbor was not the first to knock out warships from the air, but it was by far the most damaging and it confirmed Mitchell’s argument that sea power was no longer viable if unsupported by air.

The Japanese navy was among the first to develop aircraft carriers and high-performance naval dive-bombers and torpedo-bombers. Geography dictated the necessity of protecting the ocean surrounding Japan’s empire, while power could only be projected further south and east by using ships and aircraft together. The prospect of a Pacific theatre of war came closer in the early 1940s as America tightened embargoes on scrap metal and oil in an attempt to pressure Japan into ending its drive into China and threatening French Indo-China.

The Japanese navy needed oil and the rich pickings of Southeast Asia beckoned. The government in Tokyo hoped to negotiate an end to the embargo; the United States was determined to make no concessions unless Japan agreed to end its aggression. In October 1941, the new prime minister, General Hideki Tojo, finally set a deadline for talks. If America would not negotiate, then war would follow.Under its supreme commander Admiral Yamamoto Isoruku, the Japanese navy planned a daring operation to cripple the US Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor, the main base on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. A pre-emptive strike, it was hoped, would make the Americans accept negotiation more readily. By 22 November, a carrier fleet comprising six carriers, two battleships and a number of smaller vessels had gathered in readiness for possible war in the Japanese Kurile Islands, under the command of Vice Admiral Nagumo Chuichi. The naval pilots were the elite of the service, subject to long hours of training in cross-ocean flight, dive-bombing and torpedo attacks.


he force carried around 600 pilots and 460 aircraft, enough to do serious damage. On 1 December, the government accepted that further talks were fruitless. Nagumo was instructed to strike on the morning of 8 December (7 December Honolulu time).Yamamoto knew that this was a risky operation and the Japanese navy prepared for opposition or accident. Yet everything went according to plan. The weather in the northern Pacific concealed their approach. The American military did not anticipate an attack and aircraft were sent south to other American islands, or to reinforce the Philippines where an attack was expected. Hawaii was on high alert for possible sabotage, but as a result, the anti-aircraft batteries were not fully manned and the level of alert for air attack was low. The American intelligence agencies could read Japanese diplomatic traffic but failed to alert Hawaii to what was happening, even when intercepts revealed instructions to the Japanese consul to provide a grid map covering the port and its shipping. The message indicating that a state of war would exist from 7 December (Washington time) was not decrypted in time to give any reasonable warning. When one of the few radar stations detected the incoming Japanese carrier planes, no action was taken because a group of B-17 bombers was expected that morning.When the first wave of Japanese aircraft arrived over the island at 7.49 a.m., the forces of Rear Admiral Husband E. Kimmel and Lieutenant General Walter Short were taken completely by surprise. Pilots saw the clouds part obligingly and the whole island was laid out clearly before them.

The 173 attacking aircraft destroyed or damaged all but 47 of the 394 American planes on the island and inflicted heavy damage on the port area. The second wave at 8.50 was made up entirely of bombers and dive-bombers aiming for the main warships. By 9.45, the battle was over for the loss of only twenty-nine Japanese aircraft. Nagumo abandoned the third wave of attack against repair and oil installations for reasons which have never been clear. Six American battleships were sunk and two damaged, including Arizona, Oklahoma and West Virginia; a further ten smaller vessels were disabled. A total of 2,403 civilians and servicemen were killed and 1,178 injured. Mitchell’s ghost had returned with a vengeance.

In Japan the news was greeted with delight. The radio played ‘The Battleship March’ in between special announcements. ‘The whole nation bubbled over,’ one Japanese sailor remembered, ‘excited and inspired.’ The parting of the clouds over Oahu was taken as a divine omen. In Washington, the Japanese attack united American opinion. President Roosevelt announced the declaration of war on 8 December with the famous words, ‘a date which will live in infamy’. The US navy had learned its lesson. The Japanese battle fleet was reduced slowly over four years to a mere shell, hammered into the sea by attacking waves of naval dive-bombers and torpedoes. Combined air-sea co-operation became standard practice in all the world’s navies, a commitment whose roots reach back to the two destructive hours at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 rather than the wreck of the Ostfriesland.