Monday, December 20, 2010

Comparing naval aircraft of World War II

As another instalment on the problems of comparing apples and oranges, I thought it would be a useful to make sense of some of the ludicrous claims made about naval aircraft during the Second World War.

All navies entered 1939 with a combination of biplane and monoplane machines, all of which were behind the performances of equivalent land-based fighters and bombers. By December 1941, when the Japanese and American Navy’s joined the war, things had moved on a bit for all combatants, but not nearly as far as most books would have you believe. Bad historians for instance - scathing about the British still using biplane torpedo bombers, and the Japanese still using fixed undercarriage dive bombers - often claim that the Americans had already moved too far more advanced aircraft. The magnificent Avenger torpedo bomber, is often mentioned, regardless of the fact that the first half dozen were not in action until the Battle of Midway, and that they did not appear in any numbers until 1943. By that time of course, both Britain and Japan had their own new torpedo bombers entering front-line service.

So it would be sensible to make some comparisons between what was available to whom at what time.

By the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, most 1939 aircraft were obsolete. Britain had already retired the Blackburn Skua dive bomber, despite it’s having equivalent performance to the Japanese Val dive bomber, and superior performance to the American Devastator torpedo bomber, that were both still in service. So Pearl Harbor was carried out by a combination of quite effective modern aircraft like the famous Zero fighter, reasonable torpedo bombers like Kate, and elderly but still competent dive bombers like the Val. They were faced by American carriers largely armed with reasonable dive bombers like the Dauntless, elderly and inadequate torpedo bombers like the Devastator, and relatively recent but very uncompetitive fighters like the Buffalo – which was in the process of being replaced by the workmanlike but uninspiring Wildcat. At the same time British were working with the reliable but uninspiring Sea Hurricane fighter (and were also starting to use Wildcat’s), the powerful but slow Fulmar fighter reconnaissance plane, and the latest version of the venerable Swordfish torpedo bomber, the Albacore biplane. All of these aircraft had a serious limitations which had already been recognised. All of them (except the Dauntless for some reason) had replacements already in the pipeline.

Aircraft being phased out since 1939

Despite the claims that the United States Navy developed the best and most advanced interwar aircraft, the tubby little Grumman F3F biplane fighter [264 mph, 1 x .5 and 1 x .303 mg, 980 miles range] that had served until 1941 had been by far the least adequate carrier-borne fighter of 1939. Its performance was comparable to the Gloster Gladiator [257mph, 4 x .303 mg, 440 miles range] which was almost completely fazed out by the British in 1940 (but which served valiantly against the Italian airforce when 4 crated examples were found in storage on Malta). It’s inadequacy for front line carrier operations can be assessed by the fact that naval airmen were expected to rejoice when the inadequate F2A Brewster Buffalo [321mph, 4 x .50 mg, 1000 miles range – sounds better than it actually was], turned up in mid 1940. (When the British received some Buffalo’s at the same time, they found that even removing the heavy naval equipment like landing gear and life rafts left them inadequate as land fighters for European service, and ironically sent them to the Far East instead.)

The Japanese fighter of 1939, the Mitsubishi A5M ‘Claude’ [280mph, 2x x7.7mm mg, 750 miles range] also had no great performance characteristics to recommend it for the Second World War, and was being phased out of front line operations by December1941.

The Japanese Torpedo bomber was the Yokosuka B4Y 'Jean' [171mph, 1 x 7.7mm mg, 1,600 lb torpedo or bombs, 978 miles range]. The most complimentary thing that can be said about it was that it was no worse than the American Devastator or British Swordfish, but at least it was due to be phased out by December 1941, whereas the Devastator would still be the main American torpedo bomber until after Midway. (In fact the Jean continued to serve on smaller carriers until 1943, and some served at the Battle of Midway.)

The British torpedo bomber was the Fairey Swordfish [138mph, 2 x .303mg, 1,600lbs torpedo or bombs - later rockets, 1,030 miles range]. A slow but reliable biplane, with more lift and range than the Devastator, and more combat survivability than the Jean. (It frequently astounded even the crews how much damage a Swordfish could absorb and keep flying. Ragged anti-aircraft holes in the wings and tail and fuselage, lines of tracer holes across various surfaces, broken struts, cut control cables, the Swordfish would absorb them all and make it home.) Nevertheless the Swordfish was quickly proved to be a deathtrap for daylight operations against an enemy with fighter cover, and was scheduled for replacement by a more modern torpedo bomber for combat ops. Yet, amazingly, the Swordfish was the only allied pre-war naval carrier aircraft still in production when the war ended.

There are three reasons for this feat. The first is that the British were early adaptors of night operations, and performed successful Swordfish strikes (such as the amazingly successful strike at the Port of Taranto which crippled or sunk several major warships – becoming the Japanese model for Pearl Harbor), and successful night attacks at sea once the second innovation came in. This was the development of airborne radar, which was first operational on Swordfish operating on British carriers six months before Pearl Harbor. The British were to hold this unique ability to use radar for carrier aircraft operations for a couple of years before the Americans deployed similar concepts in 1943. They were to hold their unique advantage of night-time strikes also. (Both the Japanese and Americans lost many pilots over the next few years in strikes that failed to get home before dark!) So the Swordfish could soldier on under the cover of night, and continued to be useful as a strike aircraft long after its use in daytime had been demonstrated to be suicidal by the easy slaughter of those attempting to attack the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during the Channel Dash in 1941.

The third, and unexpected reason, why the Swordfish was still in production at the end of the war, was that it’s unrivalled flying characteristics made it the only aircraft capable of surviving operations from small escort carriers operating in the Arctic Circle in bad weather. Whereas more modern, higher speed aircraft, like the Hurricane and Wildcat and Avenger could work from escort carriers in calmer seas, none of those would even consider operations under the sort of conditions that a Swordfish could easily manage. So the venerable old bus continued to serve successfully purely as an Anti-Submarine role until the final days of the war. This was not because there weren’t many better aircraft available, but simply because no other aircraft available could do the job as well. An example of a World War Two aircraft still having a (slightly reduced) role, long after being technically obsolete - see the many inadequate fighters that lived on as very successful night fighters. (Though the fact that ‘modern’ B-52’s are scheduled to still be operational 80 or 90 years after their initial deployment shows that new roles are always possible for reliable old aircraft, even when their technology is fifty years out of date.)

Another British multi-role aircraft was not so fortunate. The Blackburn Skua [225mph, 4x .303, one 500ln bomb, 760 miles range] had been discarded as a dual purpose fighter/dive bomber because it was not a good enough fighter, and the Armoured Carriers the British favoured for European operations had smaller air-groups that made a dedicated dive bomber too much of an investment. (British carriers had already moved to 40/60 fighter/ torpedo bomber mix by 1941, whereas the inexperienced Japanese and Americans were still trying to use 20/40/40 fighters/ dive/ torpedo bombers. Though it should be noted that because the British had dropped a type, the total number of fighters and torpedo bombers were more comparable than one might expect despite the smaller air-groups.) In some ways this was a shame, because the Skua had been a very good dive bomber (16 of them easily accounting for the German cruiser Konigsberg in April 1940), and had a superior ability to that later noted by the Japanese Val dive bomber, to defend itself as a limited fighter after having dropped its bombs. (In fact it was an excellent bomber killer, and only failed to stack up against modern German fighters.) As a dedicated bomber, the Skua would have been right at home amongst the Devastators, Kate's and Val's in the Pacific battles of 1942.

Aircraft still soldiering on in December 1941

The most obsolete first line strike aircraft in any carrier force in 1942 was the American Douglas Devastator torpedo bomber [206mph, 2 x.303 mg. 1,000lb’s of torpedo or bombs, range 716 miles]. Despite – or because of - being the first monoplane on any carrier air-wing (1937!), it had never been a very good aircraft. Fully loaded with a torpedo (a much lighter torpedo than used by anyone else), it had a hard time getting off the deck, and a much reduced speed and range. In fact it’s attack speed was actually slower than a Swordfish, and it lacked the Swordfishes maneouvrability or capacity to take damage. Used in daylight (the only way it could be used), it was an absolute death-trap if there were any airborne opposition at all. In fact the role played by the Devastators at the Battle of Midway was as kamikaze decoy targets to draw the Japanese fighter forces out of place. A point made even clearer by the fact that the few Devastators which had managed to attack at Coral Sea had usually seen their torpedo’s fail to work anyway. (The American carrier fleet would not get a successful airborne torpedo until mid 1943!)

The next most obsolete was the Japanese Aichi D3A Val dive-bomber [266mph, 3 x 7.7 mg, 1 x 500lb and 2 x 60lb bombs, 970 miles range] which had also entered service in the mid 30’s. It was a fixed landing gear dive-bomber modeled on the famous Junkers Ju 87 [183mph, 1 x 7.7mm mg, 1,000lb bomb, 621 miles range], and was just as good a dive bomber… if there was no opposition. Unlike the J87 (and like the Skua) the Val also had the ability to defend itself as a second rate fighter once the bombs had been dropped. Still the Val relied for success on clear skies, and achieved excellent results under those conditions at Ceylon (cruisers Devonshire and Cornwall and unarmed old carrier Hermes) and Coral Sea (carrier Lexington). Under even moderate air pressure at Trincomalee and Midway the performance fell of markedly, and later in the war the phrase that comes to mind is ‘Great Mariana’s Turkey Shoot’. Nonetheless they had to soldier on because their replacement aircraft was too fast for the smaller carriers that were to become the majority of the Japanese carrier fleet after Midway.

The next in line for obsolescence was the British replacement for the Swordfish, the Fairey Albacore [161mph, 3 x .303 mg, 1,610lb torpedo or 2,000lb’s bombs, range 930 miles], which was merely an improved biplane, and looked quite odd against the monoplanes being introduced by everyone else. However the Albacore was one of those compromises forced on a nation fighting on too many fronts to modernize everything at once: an interim design while awaiting the monoplane replacement due in 1943.

In spite of being a slow death-trap by day, the Albacore proved a more than capable stopgap, for the reasons raised by the Swordfish. The Albacore was not actually expected to mount a strike against an enemy fleet by day, but to use it’s radar guided strikes to find and destroy by night. Here it was undoubtedly successful, as it would be another two years before even the Americans worked out how to mount night-time fighter defences from their carriers, and the Japanese never got that far. The Albacore was to continue to operate successfully by day under adequate fighter cover in the Mediterranean, making excellent use of it’s reliability, stability, good payload, and resistance to damage. But as a front line carrier strike aircraft against enemy fleets with aircover, it was only good for night ops, and would have been slaughtered almost as easily as the Devestator had it come up against serious daytime opposition. The reason why the British specialized on night actions like Taranto and Matapan for naval air attacks, was A) because day time was close to suicidal if there was any possibility of enemy fighter cover, and B) because night was the environment that gave them an advantage over everyone else. That was why at Ceylon the Japanese advanced their airpower by day and retreated at night, and the British advanced their radar equipped battleships and strike aircraft by night and retreated by day. (As a result neither could get a decisive victory without a strong and unlikely element of luck.)

Also in the ‘thank God a replacement is starting to happen’ class is the American Brewster Buffalo [321mph, 2 x .50 mg, 1,000 miles range] fighter. This poor excuse for a fighter was unsuitable for the European theatre even in a land based mode, with much of the heavy naval equipment like landing gear and life-rafts removed. The RAF and RAAF units in Malaya had been forced to strip out armour and equipment, fit lighter guns, and reduce ammunition and fuel loads, in an attempt to make it more competitive, but nothing really worked. Given that the land based Marine squadron at Midway was easily slaughtered, the even slower navalised versions still on the carriers were even more of a deathtrap than the Devastators. (At least the job of the Devastators was to avoid enemy fighters, not take them on!)

[Note that the Buffalo did have considerable success for Finnish units fighting against the Russians. There were three reasons for this. First, Finnish engineers fixed the engines to make them work better. Second, the cold weather made for much better performance than the tropics. Third excellent Finnish pilots were fighting very poor Russian conscripts, who stuck to useless standard formations despite the Finns picking them off one by one. This last suggests that the Buffalo might have actually done better later in the war against less experienced Japanese pilots.]

The right aircraft for the right time – and their weaknesses

Some aircraft at the time of Pearl Harbour were recent innovations, and quite good for their time. But even these had their weaknesses.

The famous Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter [331mph, 2 x 20mm, 2 x 7.7mm mg, 1,190 miles range] was light, reasonably fast, maneouvrable, and long ranged. It was a shock to the Allies because in level flight it could practically run rings around most American fighters. In a dogfight it could turn inside even the British Hurricane, which was considered exceptional an exceptional dogfighter. It built up an enviable and terrifying reputation. On the negative side, it was un-armoured, had no self-sealing fuel tanks, and a tendency to fall apart or burst into flames from just one or two little hits that any Western plane would most likely shrug off. Its very lightness also meant that it was unable to match Allied aircraft in dives, and this was the way to beat it. Allied pilots quickly learned to dive through formations for best effect. Allied pilots also became good at working together in pairs and fours in defensive weaves. It would be too much to claim that the Zero was the best naval fighter of the period, because no sensible Western pilot would be caught – pardon the expression - dead in such an unsafe fighter. Still it had a frightening impact on Allied morale until techniques to deal with its weaknesses were developed.

The American Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter [331mph, 4 x 0.5 mg, 840 miles range] had been in operation with British carrier forces since mid 1941, and was becoming the main American carrier fighter at the time Pearl Harbour. By the time of Midway the majority of the American fighters present were Wildcat’s, and the British fleet at Ceylon several months earlier had used them as well. The next model [6 x .5 mg, but 320 mph and 770 miles range] of these rugged little fighters were not as fast or manoeuvrable as the Zero, but they were heavier and much tougher. They could dive through the Zero’s and absorb much greater damage in dogfights. These were the backbone of the force that broke the IJN’s naval airpower in the crucial middle years of the war, and they did this because of their durability and good tactics, rather than because of any superiority as aircraft.

As well as Wildcat’s (which they called ‘Martlet’s), the British fleet at Ceylon had the tried and tested Hawker Hurricane fighter (the mainstay and highest scoring fighter of the Battle of Britain), in it’s new Sea Hurricane IIC mode [342mph, 4 x 20mm cannon, range 460 miles – 970 with drop tanks]. This excellent fighter was getting a bit long in the tooth for land operations, but was still performing competitively in Egypt, Russia and Burma against Italian, German and Japanese opposition. The heavy 4 cannon armament was particularly useful for shattering opponents with just a few rounds, and would become the standard for most British and American fighters later in the war. It’s arrival on carriers gave the British a dog-fighter superior to either the American alternatives, and one for which the tactic of diving through formations (which American pilots were still adapting from the experiences of Chennault’s Flying Tiger’s in China), was well established and practiced. The great disadvantage of the Hurricane was that it was extremely short ranged for naval operations on just internal tanks, limiting it largely to a defensive interceptors role. On the other hand the British had enormous experience with vectoring radar controlled fighters against attackers from the most useful angles. Whereas the American and Japanese fighters tended to attack head on for most of the war, which led to a single pass at best; the British fighters would come out of the sun diving across the line of attack and hopefully hitting a couple of fighters before taking on two or three of the bombers several thousand feet below. Against durable German planes this had been moderately effective. Against vulnerable Japanese aircraft it proved brutally efficient. (Indeed, as late as 1945 the British Pacific Fleet carriers needed far smaller Combat-Air-Patrols than American carriers because of these tactics learned in the Mediterranean before America entered the war.)

In lieu of not using Dive-bombers, the British had an alternative type not used by the Japanese or Americans. A fighter/reconnaissance aircraft. The Fairey Fulmar [272mph, 8 x .303 mg and 1 x .303, 830 miles range] was a two seat fighter based on a much improved version of the Fairey Battle bomber (which had been the fastest bomber in the world pre-war). This concept was originally to allow an additional navigator to support the pilot during long flights over water, and led to a slower and less manoeuvrable fighter than most of its opposition. However it was also an incredibly rugged and stable carrier aircraft, with far fewer flying accidents than most other naval fighters. It’s size and durability also allowed it to carry much more fuel, and to take on a heavier bomb-load, than other fighters of its time, and the second seat was soon equipped with radar (something far to bulky for most fighters until very late in the war). The Fulmar therefore became an excellent long range recconnaissance/strike aircraft to back up its fighter role.

Suprisingly, the Fulmar was also quite successful as a fighter. Despite being slower and much less of a dogfighter than German or Italian opponents, it was remarkably successful at defending fleet operations against continuous large waves of Axis attackers in the Mediterranean. The secret was that successful naval attacks need relatively unobstructed approaches to get good accuracy and results. Even a limited number of fighters can break up the effectiveness of such attacks if well handled. Carriers like the Ark Royal or Furious could only keep 4 to 6 Fulmars at a time in the air against the constant waves of attackers from Sicily and Italy during convoys to Malta, but those few fighters could use the radar vectoring and dive through tactics described above to disrupt Axis attacks to the point of greatly reducing their effectiveness. Fulmars regularly shot down superior numbers of Axis bombers and fighters during their Mediteranean operations (scoring the highest number of kills of all Fleet Air Arm fighters!), and most Royal Navy aces achieved some or all of their scores flying Fulmars.

Moving on to bombers. Apart from the Fulmar, which usually had more important tasks, the British were stuck with the ‘soldiering on’ Albacore. But the Japanese and Americans had some more modern toys.

The Japanese Nakajima B5N Kate [235mph, 1 x 7.7mmm mg, 1760lb’s torpedo or bombs,1,075 miles range] torpedo bomber had been introduced in 1941, and was the mainstay of the early years of the wartime Japanese carrier operations. It had good range, was reliable, and had a good payload. But it still lacked armour or self sealing fuel tanks. As a result it was desperately vulnerable to daytime operations against reasonable fighter opposition.

Almost exactly the same could be said for the American Douglas Dauntless dive bomber [255mp, 2 x .5 and 2 x .3 mg, 1,200lb’s bombs, 1,115 miles range]. Arrived at the same time, same strengths, similar weaknesses. Like all American aircraft it could absorb considerably more damage than any Japanese plane, but like all daylight attack aircraft, its top speed made it a sitting duck against organized fighter defenses. The greatest success of the Dauntless was at Midway, where the sacrificial run of the Devastator torpedo bombers fortuitously arrived just far enough in advance to pull the entire Japanese fighter cover away and allow the Dauntless’ exactly the sort of unopposed attacks that the theoretically inferior Japanese Val dive bombers had enjoyed at Ceylon and Coral Sea. The increased success of the Dauntless later in the war was in direct parallel to the increased ability of American fighters to clear a path. By the time of the sinking of the Yamato in 1945, Dauntless’ always had almost completely unopposed runs. (Perhaps that is why it continued in operation when every other contemporary aircraft had been replaced?)

Planes in the pipeline

The replacement for the Val was en-route, but not to be in service much before 1943. It was far faster and therefore more effective Yokosuku D4Y Judy [360mph, 3 x 7.7mm mg, 1,100lb’s bombs, 790 miles range], but suffered the durability weaknesses of all Japanese aircraft. Nonetheless, had it been available for the crucial battles of 1942, there is little doubt that American losses would have been far greater. It was much faster than The Dauntless, and carried a heavier bomb, though for a shorter range. Unfortunately it was so fast that it could not be used on the smaller carriers that dominated Japanese operations after the Midway losses. Restricted to the few big fleet carriers left, this just meant that mixed carrier groups had aircraft of mixed performances, leading to more dispersion of attacks. The vast majority of these aircraft produced finished up operating from land bases.

Similarly the replacement for the Albacore was en route, but the Fairey Barracuda [245mph, 2 x .303 mg, 1,600lb torpedo or bombs, 1,150 miles range] was put back once alternatives became available. The Barracuda was slower than most other naval strike aircraft from later in the war, but was a reasonably flexible and durable aircraft. Not only could it operate efficiently as either a torpedo or dive bomber (it did so to devastating effect against the Tirpitz in 1944), or with rockets, it could use rocket assisted take-offs to operate from the smaller escort carriers unsuitable to most more modern aircraft. It’s main fault was experienced during the raids on the Netherlands East Indies, where its cold weather optomised engine had greatly reduced performance in the heat, particularly attempting to climb over mountain ranges. For Pacific operations it was usually replaced with Avengers, and it served out its operational life in the Atlantic.

Which brings us to the Grumman TBF Avenger [271mph, 2 x .5 and 1 x .3 mg, 2,000lb’s torpedo or bombs, 1,450 miles range], fairly regarded as the best torpedo bomber of the war. An excellent and very durable aircraft, with enough space to be the first American naval aircraft mount radar (some two years after the British Swordfish did so). An excellent aircraft quite capable of delivering torpedos or reasonable bomb-loads, and later adapted for depth charge/radar attacks on submarines. Unlike most other aircraft of this period, the ASW versions at least remained in service well after the wars ends.

On the other hand the Avenger’s have also been oversold. Yes they were fast and efficient for their types, but that did not save them against reasonable opposition. At Midway, the half dozen available suffered five losses, a higher percentage of losses than the obsolete Devestator’s they were replacing! In fact anywhere they met fighters in daylight, they were almost as vulnerable as any other bomber of the war lacking suitable fighter cover. There is certainly no suggestion that their greater speed and ruggedness gave them any sort of immunity if an enemy fighter got on their tail. They too were equipped for radar directed night attacks by 1944, though by that time American air superiority usually allowed them to operate with relative impunity, with their main danger being from the anti-aircraft firepower of the ships they were attacking.

Later in the war

The upgrade of the Wildcat was the Grumman F6F Hellcat [375mph, 6 x .5 mg, 1,590 miles range]. Faster, tougher, much longer ranged, and more maneouvrable, when it arrived in late 1943 it gave the Americans a distinct edge over the Japanese. (Though the British using it found the Germans a tougher opponent.) Hellcat’s were nonetheless being outclassed by other Allied aircraft by the end of the war.

Also in 1943, the British deployed the Fairey Firefly [316mph, 4 x 20mm cannon, 2,000lb bombs or rockets, 1,300 miles range], a much improved Fulmar fighter/reconnaissance plane. Long ranged, fairly fast, extremely rugged, and with an impressive range of abilities. It was radar equipped, and allowed strike leaders (which other nations still had to put in torpedo bombers) to be in faster and more survivable aircraft. Despite being a two seat fighter, its unique air brakes made it a superb dog fighter easily capable of facing Japanese fighters. It could act as a dive bomber, or use its rockets and cannon to pound targets while covering other attacking aircraft. (8 rockets – sometimes 16 on later versions – gave it a broadside like a heavy cruiser.) It proved devastating in the Atlantic, Indian Ocean and Pacific campaigns, and served in a variety of roles for many years after the war.

In early 1944 the British tried out a new aircraft the Americans had deployed with the Marines, but considered too dangerous to use on carriers. The Vought F4U Corsair [417mph, 6 x .5 mg, 1,015 miles range] proved a magnificent success, and in late 1944 the Americans started deploying them to carriers too. The Japanese had no answer, not least because they were running out of large carriers and of pilots. It would often carry bombs or rockets later in the war, and could match most Japanese fighters even without ditching them. The British homemade upgrade, the Hawker Sea Fury [460mh, 4 x 20mm cannon, 2,000 lb rockets or bombs, 700 miles range], like the equivalent American upgrade the Grumman F8F Bearcat [421mph, 4 x 20mm cannon, 2,000lb rockets or bombs, 1,105 miles range], started appearing too late to see service (but both performed exceptionally well in the Korean war).

Towards the end of the war the British were also bringing into service a new torpedo/fighter hybrid, the Blackburn B-37 Firebrand II [340mph, 4 x 20mm cannon, 1,850lb torpedo or 2,000lb’s bombs, 740 miles range]. Fighter aircraft had become so big and powerful, that even a torpedo was simply a slightly bigger bomb. The Firebrand was faster than any other torpedo aircraft (or indeed most of the older fighters still in operation), and a reasonably capable fighter in it’s own right once it had dropped it’s torpedo: making it pretty much the first Allied torpedo plane of the war potentially capable of operating in daylight without massive fighter escort… though it would still have needed fighter cover until after the torpedo strike. Results looked promising, but the war ended before they were used in combat. Both Britain and America were starting to look at a new generation of jet aircraft instead, and the British Sea Vampire was actually tested in carrier landings in late 1945, with the American FH1 Phantom being operational by 1947.


You will note from the above that no nation had a dominant lead in naval aircraft at any time. The British possibly had the most advanced dive bombers in 1939 (Skua) and again 1945 (Firefly), and the Japanese and Americans the best torpedo bombers in 1941 (Kate) and 1942 (Avenger) respectively (though the Firebrand might have taken the title in 1945 if the war had lasted a bit longer). The British had the only night strike aircraft for the middle of the war (Swordfish and Albemarle), and the Americans the best by 1944 - the Avenger. The Japanese had the best fighter of 1941-2, the Zero; and the Americans had the best fighters in 1943 (Hellcat) and 1944 (Corsair- but note the British had used it in this role since 1943); but the British Sea Fury was the best by the end of the war. The British had uniquely effective fighter/reconnaissance planes in 1941 (Fulmar – but it suffered from being their only fighter too) and again in 1945 (Firefly – used in partnership with Sea Spitfires and Corsairs), while the Americans had such air superiority that they could use some fighters mainly as strike aircraft (Corsair again).

By contrast each nation had plenty of ‘worst’ category too. The Swordfish was a terrible day torpedo bomber by 1941, and the Devestator even worse by 1942. The Val was an obsolete dive bomber by 1942, and arguably the Dauntless only escaped the same fate through massive fighter cover later in the war. The Fulmar was an inadequate fighter pulling above its weight in 1941, as was the Wildcat in 1942 and the Zero by 1943. (The Buffalo was just inexcusable even when introduced in 1940.) The Albacore was only saved from being useless through being refitted for night operations from 1941, and the Kate and even Avenger were hopelessly vulnerable to daytime fighter opposition even when they were the best torpedo bombers available.

In other words don’t fall for the line that a particular aircraft was ‘the best naval such-and-such of the war’. All have their time and their place. Arguably the Albacore biplane was a more dangerous torpedo bomber in 1942 because of its ability to find and destroy targets by using radar at night: in comparison to the much better Kate, or infinitely better Avengers, of the same period, which had to survive opposition fighters in daylight to stand a chance. It is not the really the fastest or sexiest aircraft that is the best, but is the model that can carry out its job most effectively. It should also be the model that gives the crew the best chance of survival. That is what really makes an aircraft ‘the best’ for its time.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Uses and Abuses of Wikipedia


A History Teachers Association of Victoria training seminar I attended recently was a very enjoyable session with much debate about pedagogy, sources, referencing, and resources. We also spent a fair amount of time on issues of copyright, plagiarism, and social networking. The biggest debate that surfaced, not for the first time at an HTAV event, concerned the use of Wikipedia as a source for students.

Apparently some history teachers have been telling their students for years not to use Wikipedia, because they feel that it is too open to unprofessional comment. One person shared the tale of a colleague who warns students against Wikipedia, and then purposely goes onto the site to sabotage the information so that she can catch them out! (Presumably creating a new pseudonym each time: the editors do eventually catch up with saboteurs and ban them. Frankly I prefer good, honest, old fashioned Nazi-style book burning to such cynical vandalism, but I digress…)

Some of us were able to assure those present that the sheer quantity of review on the website means that, in the long term, the articles are often better than most of those available through a published Encyclopedia. Wikipedia’s own article on the Reliability of Wikipedia (accessed on 18/7/10) includes the following:
An early study conducted by IBM researchers conducted [sic] in 2003—two years following Wikipedia's establishment—found that "vandalism is usually repaired extremely quickly—so quickly that most users will never see its effects" and concluded that Wikipedia had "surprisingly effective self-healing capabilities".
An investigation reported in the journal Nature in 2005 suggested that for scientific articles Wikipedia came close to the level of accuracy in Encyclopædia Britannica and had a similar rate of "serious errors". These claims have been disputed by Encyclopædia Britannica.

I am particularly impressed that Wikipedia notes anything that is disputed or inadequately referenced. Wikipedia is more demanding of footnotes and references than most academic publishers, and certainly far more comprehensive than I have seen in most classroom textbooks. A brand new Wikipedia article may be the work of whichever crank has put it up, but bad articles do not survive long. It can take time for public opinion to settle a new article down to a more reasonable document, but it usually happens. This is one of the reasons that the editors of Wikipedia have banned many organizations, particularly religious cults, from commenting about themselves on site.

It is valuable therefore for students to realize that change happens, and even more valuable to track how it evolves. There is a History tab at the top of each Wikipedia page, which links to the number of changes to the article over time. This can be revealing on, say, Scientology, and downright terrifying on more immediately emotive issues… Try any article on ‘terrorism in X country’, and check what changes were made just after the most recent attack! A serious discussion with your students about sources can usefully include looking at one of these ‘History’ tabs.

Wikipedia can be an excellent tool for students, as long as they recognize its weaknesses. To demonstrate this, I suggest a nice little exercise to give students before they are permitted to use the resource on a regular basis. Ask them to find a controversial article, then click on the Discussion tab at the top of the page. There, they can examine the arguments behind changes that have been made. Any topic likely to provoke controversy is a useful start. If you can find one that relates directly to your students areas of studies, consider that a bonus.

Pointing out that there can be a debate about any particular topic is only the tip of the iceberg. To go a bit deeper, start looking at issues of ‘cultural’ censorship, such as politically correct modifications to terminology, or the assumption of automatic acceptability of things that are clearly still debatable. For example Wikipedia’s Global Warming Controversy article included under ‘Discussion’ (accessed on 6/3/10):
I noticed that the Related Controversies section dealing with the skeptics anti-science positions on the regulating of ozone depleteing [sic] chemicals and the risks of passive smoking were removed on March 29... Why was this allowed? It is quite clear that the skeptics simply did not want it known that they have resisted the scientific consensus on other notable issues as well. It was quite relevant because it lets people know just where these liars-4-hire are ideologically coming from, as spokespeople and spinmeisters for industry not for people.
(As most of the ‘climate skeptics’ I know of are mathematicians, geologists, and magnetic scientists, I don’t see how they can all be guilty of being funded by the tobacco lobby… Look at the debate on Wikipedia about how Wikipedia seems to be editing away references to ‘Climategate’ revelations!)

Political biases are equally evident. It may be worthwhile to point out to students that in many articles the cultural biases of the authors and editors require the words ‘conservative’ or ‘right wing’ in front of any opinion from right of centre (e.g. Keith Windschuttle), but reverse qualifiers are rare about opinion from left of centre! See Stolen Generations for instance. The consistency of such usage implies that ‘right thinking people’ instinctively understand the application of ‘conservative’ to imply ‘opinion that might be easily discounted’. A similarly opprobrious epithet was American practice in the McCarthyism era (then, one might have referred to the ‘communist’ Stuart Macintyre), and your more advanced students might like to consider such ironic parallels.

The very best cultural censorship examples are those that reveal the worst inherent weaknesses in the Wikipedia system: the ones that reveal the biases of the majority of its reviewers… Americans! My current favourite example for this is the article on the War of 1812.

The War of 1812 saw the United States opportunistically join the Napoleonic Wars against Britain in the hope of: A) getting ‘free trade’ with Napoleon’s blockaded Empire; B) invading Canada while Britain was busy; and C) undermining British support for the various Indian nations resisting American expansionism. Their main excuse for war was the ‘civil rights’ of ‘recent immigrants’: usually foreign nationals who had deserted their military service. In fact, the British were as likely to grab navy ‘deserters’ back from US flagged ships in 1812, as the US were to seize army deserters in Paris during World War Two. (Excuses are rarely the real war aims… see Weapons of Mass Destruction (accessed 18/7/10) as an excuse for taking down Saddam Hussein: “As Paul Wolfowitz explained: "For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.”)

Britain had no real war aims against the United Sates in 1812 beyond how to get out of it without losing anything essential, such as the vital blockade of Napoleon’s Empire. This they easily achieved. At the end of the war the British had fought a number of half-hearted and inconclusive military engagements in North America; achieved some minor ‘victories’ (such as landing, burning Washington the ground, and leaving); and some ‘defeats’ (Americans celebrate one British raid was that was defeated, but which happened after the peace treaty was signed); and then were generally simply happy that the whole thing was over (allowing them to concentrate on Napoleon again). Total economic effect on Britain, small. Total political effect on Britain, vanishingly small. Most British people, then and now, hardly noticed the North American skirmishes against the background of the worldwide campaigns of the Napoleonic wars.

Canada had a war aim, to avoid conquest by the Americans. This they clearly achieved, and most Canadians have always believed that their side ‘won’, because America failed in a war aim that was clearly supported by the US President and many US Congressmen at the time. The political effect of the war in Canada was to effectively unite new British colonists, traditional French Catholics (who feared rampant US Protestantism), and displaced ‘Loyalist’ American refugees hounded out of the US after the previous war. Canadians can claim that ‘winning’ this war helped create their nation.

The US had many war objectives, but it is hard to find one that succeeded since British impressment of sailors had ended before the war started. The United States attempted to break Britain’s trade blockade of Napoleon’s Empire, and failed. It attempted mass attacks on British commerce, and failed. (Initial surprise attacks by American heavyweight ‘frigates’ were quickly been beaten back, and the surviving frigates were laid up in port. It is estimated that the US captured about 800 British ships, losing about 1,900 in the process.) It attempted to invade Canada several times, and failed. It finished the war with its trade destroyed, many of its ports and cities smoking ruins, its internal economy in collapse, and completely unable to pretend that it had achieved anything like its war aims. (It is claimed in Wikipedia that the great American ‘victory’ was Britain’s subsequent disinterest in the rights of the Indian nations to resist American conquest. This is the only ‘war aim’ that the British ‘lost’ – or at least pursued no harder than previously – as a result of the war. The British did not however, return the thousands of slaves they freed, many of whom fought for Britain and received land grants in Trinidad or Nova Scotia… Britain did later pay some compensation to some slave owners, if that helps?) So it is quite amusing that Wikipedia has consistently defined this conflict as “a draw”. Some American reviewers like to claim ‘both sides won the peace’, but Germany got to say that about World War Two without claiming that conflict was a ‘draw’.

Drawing students’ attention to Wikipedia’s very specific biases - in this case a very American patriotism - is only the first lesson they can draw from the discussion of this issue. See for instance the highly amusing subheading within the War of 1812 Discussion segment (Archive 13): “Impossibility of consensus because Wikipedia is not entirely American”. The, I hope unconscious, irony of this statement is best reflected by the commentator (jmdeur) who offers the apparently tongue in cheek statement… “The header for this section says it all - obviously Americans are the only people who have misconceptions about this conflict.” In fact this is an excellent lesson to learn in regard to all sources, as most published history books reflect their own biases.

(It is only fair to comment that American nationalistic jingoism in the War of 1812 article has been much improved since this archived debate. The recent version of the article (18/7/10) is considerably better than it was. Wikipedia still won’t concede that America lost, but it does note that Canadians have a right to believe that they might have won something... a bit… perhaps…)

In some ways Wikipedia is superior to most textbook sources in that the debate is, reasonably, transparent. I used to give my Cold War students out-takes from books by the pro-Communist ‘Progress Press’ for a nice contrast viewpoint to mainstream Western texts, now I could refer them to Wikipedia’s discussion of the viewpoints. Where the ‘Stolen Generation’ debate previously involved providing students with out-takes from Robert Manne or Stuart Macintyre and ‘the right wing’ Keith Windschuttle, now you may well be better off referring students to summaries of the debates in Wikipedia… provided they note the pejoratives and at least glance through the Discussion. Wikipedia’s History Wars articles (particularly the Black Armband Debate or Stolen Generations subheadings – accessed 18/7/10) have a better analysis of the different viewpoints than most of the (appallingly partisan) textbooks I have seen.

After students have digested the weaknesses of the Wikipedia system, they will be in a good position to make careful use of its strengths; that you can look at both the History and the Discussion of any topic is the greatest strength. It’s helpful for students to recognise that an article with no history or discussion is as much of a warning sign as one with too much! The real advantage of Wikipedia is that it can be its own best analytical tool. That the investigation will introduce students to the concepts of historiography via their preferred medium is just a lovely bonus.

References: Every reference in this article in italics is the title of a Wikipedia page. Every quote notes (in brackets) the date it was accessed, as suggested by the - quite respectable really - APA Style guide. Every Wikipedia page has its own references attached. How you want to handle that in essays is up to you!

Nigel Davies
(Medieval Education)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Rating General Lord Gort

Lord Gort has gone down in history as the man who was defeated when France fell in 1940. At least that is one perspective. The alternative is that he was the man with the courage to face the fact that France was going under and there was nothing that could be done, and to decide that it was vital to save Britain's army so the war against Hitler could go on. That is another view. In fact both viewpoints are correct, and both are unfair.

Lord Gort did very well in the First World War, and came out with multiple decorations and a great deal of respect in the army. Despite his relative youth he progressed steadily through the interwar period, and was well thought off. Then there was no reason why he would not have become one of the great Allied commanders of the Second World War, except that he suffered the disaster to his career of being promoted too far and too fast.

When the appointment of a chief of Imperial General staff was being made a few months before the start of the war, the leading candidates in were generals Wavell (who went on to great things as commander-in-chief of the Middle East) and Dill (who went on to be chief Imperial General staff, and to serve on the combined Chiefs of staff in Washington). Both were clearly more suitable to the role than Gort, who was far too young and inexperienced and to take up such a position. But the politicians at a time wanted a bright shiny face to impress the public, and weren't too concerned if there weren't too many brains behind it. In fact it may have suited their purposes not to have anybody who would argue with them in the role. So Gort was promoted over the heads of many seniors, and forced into a position for which he was unsuitable and uncomfortable.

His solution was to do what he's predecessors had done in the First World War and decamp with the British Expeditionary Force as soon as war started, leaving the position of Chief Imperial General staff to somebody else... anybody else. As a result the commander of the army, soon to become army group, of British national forces in alliance with the French, was described by his subordinates in the corps and army commands as " the ideal man to command a division". His juniors were appalled that his attitude to the French was that of the helpful subordinate, rather than that of a genuine ally looking after his nation's interests. More than one of them implied that his attitude was that of an overgrown puppy, rather than of a proper British bulldog.

It is interesting that General Alan Brooke (a later chief of Imperial General staff) was soon to comment in his diaries about the enormous damage had been done to many men's careers by overly fast promotion. In particular he refers to Gort, who, had he started the war in his proper role as a divisional commander, and being been slowly introduced to the experience of being a Corps Commander, may well have made a good army commander several years later: had his chances not being destroyed by being put in the wrong place at the wrong time. Brooke was even more scathing in the case of General Neil Ritchie, who Aukinleck had thrown from a position of chief of staff into an impossible Army command over people far his senior in North Africa in 1942. When the inevitable happened, and Ritchie had to be withdrawn, Brooke was furious and that his chances had been so damaged, and announced his plans to rehabilitate him as a divisional commander and groom him for his proper role with a corps later on. (Ritchie commanded an army corps from the D-Day in until victory in Germany, and did so so successfully in that they army command thereafter would have been quite sensible.)

Gort's failures in relationship to the French and to his strategic role as their ally, were more than counterbalanced by the bravery of his decision to take the necessary steps to save his national command when it became obvious that there was no alternative. He did this despite the fact that it was in direct opposition to the perspective of his Prime Minister Churchill, who did not have a clear understanding of the facts. Gort may not have been the best general, but he was more than capable of interpreting what he was facing, and more than dedicated enough to do what was necessary despite what he perceived to be the likely costs and his allies and to him personally. He had what the Americans would call true grit.

Unfortunately, despite the knowledge by Brooke and others that what had happened was not his fault, it really was not possible to rehabilitate him as an army commander. He could not be sent back to experience a division, as the political situation of the World War made in such a confession absolutely impossible. But this did not stop even those who had considered him a complete failure as an Allied Commander from recognizing the strength of his personality, and the value of his leadership. So instead, he was made Governor of some of Britain's most vulnerable possessions, at exactly the time when they needed strong and resolute leadership.

First he went to to Gibraltar, at the time that it was most under threat from potential cooperation between the Spanish and the Germans to attack it. His resolute personality could not have been bettered as he involved himself intensively in the preparation of what was decidedly a military command. The troops and naval personnel under his control, and the role that they had to fill, was almost exactly the sort of requirement that was appropriate for the "ideal man to command a division".

His next assignment was even more important. Malta suffered the second great siege in her history during the middle years of the Second World War, and no better men could have been found to provide a calm and inspiring leadership and for her survival. The much larger range of military units under his command, together with the increased administrative duties on the island, were a significant increase on the requirements of his previous command. Had Brooke sought out equivalency to the command of an army corps, he could not have found a more challenging alternative than Malta in 1942. In fact Gort was going through exactly the sort of grooming that might well have suited him to command an army for the invasion of France in 1944... except that it was all too late. Effectively his active military career had been undermined.

His final assignment of the war was to be Governor of Palestine. Again, this was a significantly more difficult task, as Palestine was facing insurrection and competition between Jewish and and Palestinian groups. Again, it would take a very impressive personality to be able to impose his authority on the disparate players, and to impress on to the point where cooperation might be achievable. Again, he was probably the right man to the job. Again, it simply goes to show that his failings years earlier were the faults of those who had pushed him too far too fast, not the faults of his own personality.

However it was not to be. By this stage he was a very sick man, circumstances only made worse by his insistence during the dark days of the siege of Malta to go on the lowest level of subsistence rations of the common people despite his incredibly high workload. He was an inspiration to all as he cycled endlessly around the island to raise morale and to organise the defences, but his declining physical state eventually overcame even his great willpower. He died before he could have any great effect on Palestine.

Gort fully deserves to be treated with disdain for his command of the British Expeditionary Force in 1940. He was not a good enough general to hold this position. However it would be wrong to suggest that he couldn't be a good enough general. The reason he failed was that others had thrown him into a situation for which he was not yet ready. Had his career been properly run, it is entirely possible that he would have been exactly such a general several years later. As it was, Churchill considered recalling him to active operations in Burma later in the war, which perhaps he could have revealed his real abilities as a more mature Army Corps or Army Commander.

Gort was never a great general, but he was certainly not a bad one either. The worst of his failings were not of his making, and the best aspects of his character revealed flashes of the potential to be one of the most reliable (if not one of the most skilful) generals of the Second World War. Possibly the most useful way to define his place in the ranks of generals, would be to point out that - apart from his senior unit commanders in 1940 - almost everybody who served under him was very impressed with him, and very loyal to him. To his men, he was a good general. How many generals can say that?

Monday, December 6, 2010

The British Pacific Fleet - Misinterpreting the past

I have just finished H. P. Willmott's PhD thesis, published as Grave of a Dozen Schemes. It is a comprehensive analysis of the background to the despatch of the British Pacific Fleet to the final months of the war against Japan.

It is highly researched, very detailed, excellently argued, and completely wrong in it's conclusions.

The interesting question is why is it wrong?

For those who don't know (such as most of the American official historians if you go by their writings), The Royal Navy and it's Commonwealth divisions made a huge contribution to the defeat of Japan despite Admiral King's desperate attempts to keep them out of his private war. The combined orders of battle of the British Eastern Fleet (just finished invading Burma and en-route to invading Malaya), and the British Pacific Fleet (assembling in Australia or fighting off the coast of Japan) at the time of the Japanese surrender was about 700 ships (with more en-route from Europe). This included 6 battleship, 35 aircraft carriers, 23 cruisers, 42 submarines, and over 200 destroyers and escorts. The only reason that it was this low was because the RN was still mostly responsible for major Allied activities in the Atlantic, Arctic Circle, Baltic, Mediterranean, and Indian Oceans. Far more vessels would have been available for the invasion of Japan.

Wilmott's description of the torturous process of getting all the British, Commonwealth and American players to agree on the assembly and dispatch of this force is overwhelmingly detailed. The problems of the repeated failure of the Germans to collapse, and then the suprisingly quick collapse of the Japanese thereafter, is also adequately covered. I have no problems with most of this. What I do have problems with is the conclusions he makes.

Wilmott's main argument is that Britain should not have bothered with this effort, or at least should not have tried to make both the Pacific and Indian Ocean efforts, because it was beyond British power to do so. The factor's he raises are economic exhaustion, lack of ships - particularly fleet train, lack of manpower, and lack of sensible reasons for bothering given that Empire was a thing of the past. He argues all of this with the assumptions of hindsight , and from the safety of a modern academic consensus.

How then is it possible that the Royal Navy had so many ships there at the end, with more on the way? How was it possible that the British successfully invaded Burma, and were preparing to invade Malaya, even while expanding the British fleet operating off the Japanese coast? How could they be doing everything he had assumed was impossible, and succeeding, if it had really been impossible? Why is he arguing so hard against conclusions that his own statistics make evident?

Could it be that he believes what he is saying so strongly, that he is just doing his best to argue around the evidence? Could it be that he is trying to cement his place in academic circles by arguing what is politically correct regardless of the evidence? Or could it be that he knows he is making bad arguments, but also knows he has to do so if he stands any chance of getting a high mark for his PhD from academics who have pre-conceived notions of what they want to hear?

Whatever the reason, the problem is one common to far too many modern academic works. (This was published in 1996 but came out of research originally done in the early 80's.) The author appears to have approached the work with a pre-conceived notion of how things ought to have been viewed, and then forced the facts into that prospective by hook or by crook. (Even if a few slipped out of control in the process.)

The fact is, that the real debate was between Churchill's geo-political preference for British efforts in the Far East to be concentrated on Malaya. the East Indies, Borneo, the China Sea and Hong Kong in the lead up to the invasion of Japan: and the Chief's of Staff Committee's strategic preference to just make a contribution to the naval actions in the Pacific as a cheaper and quicker alternative. (Both considered the efforts wasted on Burma pretty pointless considering that China was never of much value in the war, and both were amused that the eventual speed of Japanese collapse made the Chinese fantasy redundant.) This debate went on for several months.

Wilmott is justified in calling a lot of this debate hot air. He is less justified in claiming that hindsight makes it clear that Churchill's perspective was wrong. He is unconvincing in the argument that everyone should have known that Britain lacked interest in what would happen in Asia in the future. He was, by his own figures, simply wrong to state that Britain lacked the capacity to try.

The debate did take too long, but that might be because things kept changing. Eisenhower's failures in North West Europe, and Germany's surprise survival into a new year, meant that Allied forces could not begin redirection to the east in October 1944 as had been planned. On the other hand Japan's suicidal offensive against India in 1944 opened the opportunity for a faster and cheaper re-conquest of Burma than anyone would have imagined. Similarly Allied plans for offensives through Borneo to Formosa (Taiwan) were initially agreed, then dropped when MacArthur preferred the Philippines, and were then renewed with the Allies agreeing to a British-Australian offensive instead. Only to be dropped again when it became clear that Japan was unexpectedly on it's last legs.

Politically, there is no doubt that had the Allies, or just Britain and Australia, militarily ousted the Japanese from Malaya, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Chinese coast: the decades of violence throughout Asia that followed would have been very different. Churchill's plans may not have been better than what we got, but they would certainly have been different.

Similarly there is no eason to accept that Britain was going to withdraw 'East of Suez' soon after the war at the time decisions were being made. In hindsight it is clear that the British voter was sick of the cost of being the world's policeman, and delighted that the Americans seemed dumb enough to want to take it up. But the Allied documents at the time make it clear that no such plans were in the allied 'mind'. Indeed, American plans to go home as soon as the war in Europe was over argued exactly the opposite.

Then there is the issue of 'power'. Britain, and most of her Dominions and colonies, were at the stage of exhaustion in 1944-5 that any state reaches after 6 years of intense war. (The US was lucky to get out in only 4 years, when the cracks in manpower for the army were only starting to rear their heads.) Nonetheless the way that Wilmott argues that Britain lacked the 'power' for such operations is also self-defeating. After dozens of paragraphs over hundreds of pages about the British lack of troop lift shipping available for the Far East, Wilmott notes in a small aside that such ships can't be spared because Britain is responsible for moving 70,000 US troops per month across the Atlantic. The fact that Britain lacked resources in one theatre because she is making up for American lack of resources in another theatre is studiously ignored.

The truth is of course that the Allies - all of them - lacked the resources to do everything they wanted to do at any time. Britain could have sent plenty of resources to the east had she not being transporting the Americans, supplying the Russians, and feeding the Dutch. Similarly Australia had plenty of resources, food and troops for supporting British Commonwealth operations, except they were deployed to feed, house and support American operations. Indeed according to the US Chiefs of Staff in 1943, America lacked the power to invade Japan without a British fleet, Australian troops, and a Russian Army intervening on the mainland in Asia. (The US COS had a brief hubris in late 1944 when they decided they could manage alone, but by mid 1945 they were busy requesting Britain get 50 aircraft carriers assembled to support 120 of theirs for the invasion... and an army corps please... don't forget landing ships... how about some bombers...)

The simple fact of the matter is that had Britain concentrated its Pacific Fleet resources in the Indian Ocean and Australia to follow the 'middle strategy', it would have been little more costly than the immense effort of projecting a fleet through the central Pacific to the Japanese islands. Malaya, the East Indies, Borneo, possibly Thailand, all might have been liberated before the Japanese surrender by the same shipping efforts that put British carriers at Okinawa and Japan.

Wilmott follows the British COS line that a political solution in Asia was less important than a prestige deployment of British units for the invasion of Japan. He quotes American documents suggesting that the lack of such a presence would have been 'unforgivable' to Americans. He claims that it was vital. Again, he is playing hindsight, and again, he is getting it wrong. How much did Admiral King want the RN sticking it's nose in to his private war? How often did the US COS, in their hubris period, say they didn't need help? How much credit do the history books give the British Pacific Fleet? How many American books fail to mention it?

By contrast how much stability might have been achieved had the British Commonwealth effort gone the other way? Would the Malayan Emergency have happened? Would Indonesia have invaded West Papua and East Timor later? How much stability if Japan had surrendered before Russia entered the war? Would China have gone Communist? Would there have been a Korean or Vietnam war? If you really want to go with hindsight, then Churchill's political forward thinking looks considerably more impressive than the limited strategic viewpoint of the British COS.

Hindsight is almost as fun a game as 'what if', but both are dangerous. People have to be judged on the information and realities of the time, not academic theories based on a misinterpretation of hindsight decades later. Books that twist the facts to come to the conclusions that seem most comfortable or acceptable to people with their own barrows to push are always dangerous.

They are also not history books. They are rationalisations.