I have posted before about the difficulties of people writing about a six-year war as though they can make definitive statements on technology based on a dispersed snapshot viewpoints from different years. Such comparisons are extremely misleading. Technology simply moves too fast in wartime to allow such sloppiness.
For instance I commented (here) that the Sherman tank was quite a reasonable combat vehicle when it first appeared on the North African battlefields in mid 1942, but that it was already outclassed by the time it came up against the early Tiger tanks in Tunisia six months later. The idea that it was even remotely good enough to fight competitively in the invasion of Germany two to three years later is just laughable. Even the British Firefly versions - which actually carried a functional gun into Normandy - were still called ‘Ronson Lighters’ by the Allies and ‘Tommy Cookers’ by the Germans for very good reasons. In other words the Americans finished the war with their first generation wartime tank still the main combatant (and it was to remain so in Korea). Meanwhile the British, whose first wartime generation Matilda tank had been probably the best tank in the world in 1940, but whose second wartime generation Crusader was decidedly average in 1942, was rolling out third generation Comet and Centurion tanks in the last days of the war. (The Centurion was certainly the best design of its day. In fact it is still in service as a front line combat tank with regional powers like South Africa today!)
Another example that I have commented on before is the use of Anti-Tank artillery. The British 2-pounder (40mm) was the best anti-tank gun of 1939 and 1940, but was not really up to the mark by 1942 when the Germans had already replaced their 37mm guns with 50mm guns and were starting to use 75 or 88mm, and the Russians were starting to use the 76.2mm. But the reason it had fallen behind the pace was that the much better 6-pounder (57mm) - which had been supposed to go into production in 1940 - had been put off for 18 months because the British were facing imminent threat of invasion. In fact the 6-pounder was more than adequate for 1942 and 1943 (and even for the remainder of the war with special ammunition). Which did not alter the fact that the British already planned to replace it with the much more powerful 17-pounder even before they came across the Tiger in late 1942. In fact the Royal Artillery was using the 17-pounder as standard from early 1943, leaving 6-pounders to the infantry.
This becomes informative when contrasted to the Americans, who arrived in combat in late 1942 with an obsolete 37mm gun, and continued to use it for their infantry formations for the rest of the war. They had of course worked out that they would need to upgrade to a 57mm copy of the British-6 pounder fairly quickly, but these new weapons did not actually predominate in combat units in France until late 1944! (American troops in the Mediterranean fought all through North Africa, Sicily, and most of the way up the Italian peninsula, with an obsolete and useless weapon, which was not replaced until the end of 1944! Resulting casualty rates must have been much higher than they needed to be.) Only in the last few months was there serious interest in upgrading to a 90mm, the sort of firepower that the British had been using for more than two years. But it is hard to find any discussion of the problems of this behaviour in the literature, which simply comments that each upgrade was important… rarely noting that it was even more desperately (and inexplicably) overdue than had been the British upgrade from using the obsolete 2 pounder.
This sort of comparing apples with oranges becomes more visible when comparing naval strengths, because the comparison points given are usually totally different years. I carefully checked more than a dozen versions of naval strength tables in different textbooks produced over more than forty years, and came up with numbers in most of them that made no sense, until you work out what the authors have compared. British, French and German naval strengths ‘at the start of the war’ are always figures for 1939. But Italian numbers are usually listed for 1940, and American and Japanese numbers are for 1941. (Actually I have found a few books that list American numbers as of the morning of 7 December 1941, but seem to include in Japanese numbers battleships that were not commissioned for months afterwards!)
Astonishingly, the commentaries then seem to become biased by the incorrect comparisons. British ‘rebuilds’ of World War One vintage battleships are often criticised for not going far enough in 1939, while Italian rebuilds are congratulated for what was not commissioned until late 1940. Some commentaries even make comments about how good American rebuilds were, by sampling ships sunk at Pearl-Harbor and not re-commissioned until 1943!
Again the comparisons are unfortunate. Certainly Britain would have liked to get more rebuilds done before getting into a war, and would have, had her war waited until 1941. But the rebuilds she did get done in 1939-40 were considerably better than most other nations produced in time for Pearl-Harbor, or even after Pearl-Harbor. The rebuilt Queen Elizabeth, Valiant and Renown had, in 1940, more advanced and efficient anti aircraft batteries than any similar vintage French, Italian, Japanese or US ship (until some of those were rebuilt after Pearl-Harbor, in a few cases after being sunk and refloated.) Certainly British ‘tower-bridge’ rebuilds were considerably better developments for fighting a ship than brand new German, Italian, Japanese or American construction coming on line years later.
Consider also the effects on building programs. It takes two or three years of combat before a nation develops enough new ideas and experience to start a new generation of warships. So Britain and the US both had ‘design holidays’ for their aircraft carriers, where they just worked over existing designs – British Illustrious and US’s later design Essex’s – for three years. Fortunately for the Allies a couple of years into the war the Royal Navy started a very useful experiment with Escort Carriers, and had begun the process of ordering large numbers from US yards in time for America to adapt the program to war purposes. (The equivalent very useful American improvisation was the converted cruisers of the Independence class that Roosevelt had suggested be looked at as stop gaps before Pearl-Harbor. These arrived in 1943.) The first new design allied carriers were the British ‘light fleet’ carriers of the Colossus and Majestic classes that went into production in 1943 (which were so successful that many were still in service in the 1980’s and 1990’s). By the time the Americans developed their first new class – the Midways (also, thanks to Reagan’s 600 ship navy, in service into the 1980’s and 1990’s) – in 1945, the British were on their second wave – the Centaur, Audacious, and Malta classes. Note that this sort of lag reflects, almost exactly, what happened with the development of tanks and anti-tank guns for the two nations!
So what if Britain had enjoyed the luxury of not entering the war until December 1941? What would her navy have looked like? How would the modernisations and numbers have stacked up against the Japanese and American figured that everyone is quoting?
First conversions. In battleships only Queen Elizabeth and Valiant were modernised (along with Warspite to a lesser extent), whereas Barham, Malaya, and probably Warspite again would have been rebuilt in the intervening years. Here they would have been joined by Battlecruisers Repulse and Hood, both of which were scheduled to go through the refits that made Renown such an effective ship. In addition they would have been joined by a couple of the four new Lion class battleships (contemporaries of the American Iowa’s), with the last two almost ready. That is before any further construction had been authorized (at a probably rate of another 2 – 4).
This is important to remember, because every nation that joined the war halted new construction when it joined. The King George V class were finished, but the Lion’s (ordered before the war) cancelled. Just as the Bismarck, Yamato and Iowa classes were at least partly finished, but any follow up classes (like the American Montana’s - ordered before Pearl-Harbor), were cancelled.
Run the other way, if Japan and the US had joined the war in 1939, it is likely that the Iowa classes would have been cancelled, leaving the Americans with the South Dakota class as their only modern class. The Japanese might have finished at least one Yamato class simply because they had no modern battleships at all (the most modern being the two ships of the 1920 vintage Nagato class), but there it would have stopped.
Look at aircraft carriers too. Britain entered the war with 7 aircraft carriers (Argus, Hermes, Eagle, Furious, Courageous, Glorious, Ark Royal), of which the last four were big, fast, powerful, well equipped models with significant antiaircraft firepower. (Eagle was a proper fleet carrier, but only as fast as the old battleships, whereas Argus and Hermes were little better than escort carriers.) The only reason these carriers carried less planes than the equivalent Lexington or Akagi/Kaga classes was that the British considered permanent Pacific style deck-parks unsuitable for Atlantic conditions or continental waters close to enemy airbases. (Noticeably, British carriers deployed to the Indian or Pacific oceans quickly adopted air wings on average 50% larger than their ‘designed capacity’, coming much closer to Japanese and American ‘designed capacity’. But also note that most carriers lost to air attack in the Pacific suffered explosions amongst such deck-parks, while British carriers in the Mediterranean regularly survived bombings because their aircraft were hidden away under armour.) These 7 carriers were only inadequte for British needs because the first three named were outdated experimental models (rather like the USS Ranger, or the Japanese Hosho), so they should not really count as proper fleet carriers.
Had Britain entered the war in December 1941 they would have also had the rest of the Illustrious class - Victorious, Formidable and Indomitable - already in action, with Indefatigable and Implacable about to commission. As a result they certainly would have had another four or six modern carriers in the pipelines. That amounts to 10 large, fast, well armed and well armoured aircraft carriers, with several more in the pipeline, against the six that Japan had by that date, with only conversions planned (or indeed the five that the US had by that date with another half dozen planned).
People overlook the fact that the Royal Navy experimented with 3 carrier (Furious, Courageous, Glorious) fast strike task groups in the mid 1930’s. The Fleet Air Arm was re-established in 1939, too late to be ready for a war in 1939, but excellently timed to be ready for a war in late 1941. People also compare the British 1939 biplanes with 1942 American aircraft, somehow failing to note that the British were using the Hurricane and Wildcat fighters as their main carrier fighter by the time of Pearl-Harbor, whereas the Americans were still using many of the dreadful Buffalo fighters as well as the newer Wildcat at Midway. The British Gladiator biplane fighters, Fulmar monoplane fighter/bombers, and Swordfish biplane or Skua monoplane bombers of 1939: were in no way inferior to the equivalent Japanese Claude monoplane fighter and Susie biplane bomber, or the American F3F biplane fighter, Buffalo monoplane fighter, or Devestator bomber of the same period. In fact these British fighters were still effective in defence of Malta against the Italians and the Luftwaffe in 1941 (as, interestingly, was the Buffalo when used by the Finns against the Soviets), whereas the Devestator was a death-trap when used as the main American torpedo bomber at Midway. (In fairness to the Devestator - and the Fulmar - Wikipedia notes that even the vaunted TBF Avenger that replaced it was a death-trap in daylight hours until adequate fighter support was available.)
(Note: The British continued using biplane strike aircraft throughout the war, even after good monoplanes were easily available, but they had found a way to take advantage of their strengths - ruggedness, manouevrability, stability, excellent take off and landing abilities on small carriers, load capacity, and flexibility; and obviate their main weakness – speed – which made all attack aircraft - and biplanes in particular - so vulnerable to day fighters. By 1941 they were radar equipped night strike aircraft with proven track records against the Germans and Italians. Not only were the Japanese and Americans incapable of night ops in 1941 - let alone 1939 - they were still regularly crashing dozens of aircraft that got lost in the dusk in 1942 and 1943!)
So again, lets look at 1939 for the Americans and Japanese. In 1939 America had two big old Lexington carriers and the newly commissioned Yorktown and Enterprise, plus the failed experiment Ranger that never saw combat, while Japan had two big old Akagi/Kaga carriers, two smaller modern ones (Hiryu and Soryu), a their own little experimental one (Hoshu). So four and a bit carriers each compared to the British four and three bits. All were still using biplanes in 1939.
Had Britain entered the war in December 1941 her ten modern carriers (plus three old spares) – all with more modern aircraft – and half a dozen more carriers nearing completion; plus her seventeen new or effectively modernised battleships (plus five old spares), with two to six more in production: would have given her a much easier war. Particularly considering that the extra years of peacetime construction of steadily increasing numbers of cruisers, destroyers, escort vessels and submarines would have substantially improved her greatly reduced interwar shipbuilding capacity. The same goes for aircraft. (Note that Britain started mass producing anti submarine escorts before war in 1939, whereas the US and Japan did not start similar programs until well after Pearl-Harbor.)
In practical terms a good historian must be very careful in using references that compare information from different periods, and therefore make highly contentious assumptions as a result. The problem is that there are many examples that slip past even quite dedicated historians unless they have the time and knowledge to assess each statement to see if its assumptions are justifiable. If they do, they regularly find that the commentator is, often unknowingly, comparing apples and oranges.
But the really amusing thing that comes out of such an analysis is to note that had Britain not been sucked into war in 1939, Japan probably could not have attacked the United States in 1941. Pearl-Harbor was Japan’s only chance to take advantage of the brief window offered by Britain being busy elsewhere to get what she wanted. An uncommitted Britain, particularly with the sort of naval buildup not going to war in 1939 would have allowed, would have deterred Japan from even considering such an attack in 1941!