January 23, 2008

WWII Whatifs

Wonderduck sez:

The term "first order counterfactual" refers to the changing of one detail of a recorded event, and seeing where that change takes you.  In the world of "alternative history," such as Harry Turtledove's writings, a first order counterfactual may be something as simple as the Confederate Lost Orders not falling out of an officer's jacket, leading to the United States being divided permanently.

An interesting discussion followed in his comments about what would have happened if Enterprise had been caught in the Pearl Harbor attack. I started writing a comment, and it got longer and longer, and I decided I'd post it. This fits in right after comment 11.

If you really want to scare yourself, I can add a few more awfuls to the list.

1. At Midway, Fletcher was forced by circumstances to divide his force. He had SBD's out from Yorktown looking for the Japanese to his north at the time that the PBY from Midway spotted the Japanese carriers, so Yorktown couldn't move without writing those men off, which Fletcher was not going to do. So he ordered the other CarDiv, Enterprise and Hornet, to move towards the enemy.

The two forces never rejoined during the battle. The Japanese found Yorktown three times and eventually sank her, but never located Enterprise and Hornet.

If Enterprise had not been there, the force would have been organized as a single carrier division, with Hornet staying with Yorktown, to be found by the Japanese, and quite possibly sunk with her.

2. With it being a single CarDiv, there would not have needed to be another division commander. No Ray Spruance. (Also, no Halsey to recommend Ray Spruance to Nimitz as a replacement.) It's quite possible Spruance might have remained a minor player in the American command structure, and with Halsey gone, that would have left Nimitz using what ultimately ended up being the second string.

Fletcher wasn't a bad admiral, but he just wasn't what was needed. He wasn't a leader of men like Halsey, and he wasn't a shrewd card player like Spruance. He sometimes lost his nerve. When he got sick during the Guadalcanal campaign, Nimitz used that opportunity to replace him with Halsey, with results we military otaku all know about. Once he got better he was placed in a secondary position (North Pacific) for the rest of the war. If Halsey is dead, and Spruance is a nobody, Nimitz might have had to keep using Fletcher in hotspot commands. And he just wasn't good enough.

Fletcher commanded more carrier-versus-carrier battles than any other American admiral in history: five, of which he won three. That's not a bad record. But I wouldn't have wanted him to be in command at Philippine Sea, for example.

3. Now for a ray of sunshine: THE critical aspect of the Pacific war was the American submarine campaign against Japanese shipping. Right? Nothing else about the war can be understood without taking that into account. And losing the Enterprise, losing Halsey, losing Spruance, maintaining Fletcher in command; none of that would have affected the submarine war in the slightest. Which means that the Mark XIV torpedo would finally have gotten straightened out in mid 1943, Japan's shipping would have been slaughtered by mid-1944 and its economy and its military building and training programs would still have been kneecapped starting late 1944 due to supply starvation, irrespective of what the US surface navy was up to.

Also, Nimitz shouldn't be underestimated. It's entirely possible he could have done better than we give him credit for, even if things had gone worse at the beginning. (And Japanese piss-poor signal security through the entire war is also a factor.)

AND... if things were going to hell in the Pacific, that might have convinced top command to start allocating the Pacific a larger share of American war production. It eventually rose from 30% to 35%, but it might have gone higher earlier, and that could have made a big difference.

Also, nothing about this scenario affects the new Navy scheduled to start coming off the blocks late 1943. By early 1944 Nimitz would still have had a much larger fleet than the Japanese, even if the big 4 carriers were still around by then. And with the Hellcat, the Helldiver, and the Avenger, his planes would have been better, and he'd have had more of them. (Also the P-38 Lightning and the F4U Corsair.)

There was a Japanese embassy in the US at the beginning of the war, of course. The personnel were kept confined (in a comfortable resort in West Virginia) and eventually a deal was made to repatriate them.

Associated with the Japanese embassy was a group of military advisors. They had had free access to American newspapers during their confinement but were not privy to anyone's secrets, Japanese or American. When they returned to Japan they were recognized as being a major asset, since they were experts on American naval power but not really up on the state of the war.

A strategic wargame was organized, and they became the American team. The game was slanted. It made optimistic evaluations of Japan's production, and pessimistic evaluations of American production, and a few other assumptions in the rules that made things look better for Japan than reality. It obviously ran much faster than real time.

By simulated 1944, the "American team" was kicking ass and taking names. The simulated invasion of the Philippines took place within a month of when the real one eventually happened.

Japanese top command was terribly shocked by this result. All of the records of the game were classified, and everyone involved was told to keep their mouths shut about it.

The point is that WWII was a war of attrition, not really a war of maneuver. Even the Pacific campaign was more of a war of attrition, and what mainly was subject to attrition was equipment and trained personnel. In the long run there just isn't any substitute for the ability to build and crew lots and lots of ships. If the determination is there to win, that will always win. Details like what ship gets sunk when and where, or which admiral lives and which one dies, ultimately are unimportant compared to the two overwhelming aspects of the Pacific war: American submarine strangulation of Japanese supply lines, and American military production capacity (including personnel training). Even Fletcher could have won with the kind of fleet Halsey and Spruance had to play with in 1944. It's just that he might have lost more ships doing it, and taken longer.

So with these kinds of what-ifs, the only thing that that really changes is how long before Japan loses, and how many Allied soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen have to die to make it happen.

And as to the question of when Tinian gets taken, to be used as a B-29 base, if it isn't in time for August 1945, then the first atom bomb would have been dropped by a B-29 flying from a base in China.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in linky at 07:59 PM | Comments (1) | Add Comment
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1 By the way, add comments to Wonderduck's thread, not here. (Comments closed.)

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at January 23, 2008 08:16 PM (+rSRq)

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