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The battle of the coral sea, which took place May 4-8, 1942 between Anglo-American and Japanese forces, was a major naval and air engagement of World War II. The Japanese, who already controlled much of the Pacific region from Peral Harbor, planned to conquer Australia and positioned themselves to prepare for this invasion. Beforehand, the Japanese offensive was launched on May 4 in the Coral Sea. This battle by aircraft carriers was a turning point in the course of the war because it hampered the Japanese advance towards the south.
The background of the Battle of the Coral Sea
On December 7, 1941, war officially began for the United States, which suffered a surprise attack on its roadstead at Pearl Harbor. The blow was terrible and followed by many others until the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942 which saw among other things the near fall of the Philippines, General MacArthur having abandoned Corregidor in March of this year. The allies of the United States suffered even more, in particular the British who saw their strongholds in Southeast Asia fall one by one.
But Pearl Harbor, dramatic as it was, saw the Japanese miss what would become the master weapon of war in the Pacific: the aircraft carrier. In fact, none of the American aircraft carriers were present at the time of the Japanese attack. At the start of 1942, the United States managed to reorganize itself and to put in order a naval air force capable of competing with the enormous Japanese power. The battle ahead will be the first of its kind: at no time will the ships of the two camps be in visual contact, everything will depend on the aviation ... It is the prelude to theBattle of the Coral Sea.
Australia under Japanese threat
The remarkable Japanese successes did not prevent tensions within the Japanese staff, and the usual rivalries between the Army and the Navy, and even within it. Thus, Admiral Nagano wishes an advance towards the West and India while Yamamoto recommends the definitive destruction of the American navy (and in particular of its aircraft carriers) to obtain a favorable peace, considering that a long war was unmanageable. Yamamoto then wants to tackle different strong points, like Midway, before planning a landing in the Hawaiian Islands.
As the army staff refused to provide Nagano with the means, Nagano decided to prepare a more modest project aimed at isolating Australia by taking Port Moresby in Papua. However, the Doolittle raid on Tokyo serves the theses of Yamamoto, who gets the green light to launch an operation on Midway in June. But preparations for an attack on Port Moresby being already advanced, it is maintained even if delayed from March to May because of the presence of American aircraft carriers in the area. The operation is called "Mo".
Americans in ambush
The Japanese organization for the whole operation is complicated, divided between invasion groups (one against Port Moresby, the other against Tulagi in the Solomons), a support group around the light aircraft carrier Shoho, and an assault force with the large aircraft carriers Zuikaku and Shokaku. The Japanese know they are going to have to face a rsolid resistance but consider the enemy naval presence relatively insignificant, with only the probable presence of the aircraft carrier Saratoga.
However, the Japanese general staff ignore the main thing: thanks to the decryption of their codes, the Americans got wind of the operation! Admiral Nimitz knows that Port Moresby is a crucial point, and that its fall directly threatens Australia or at least Australia's participation in the rest of the war. As of April 20, he understood that this will be the goal of the next Japanese offensive; but he does not have the aircraft carriers on hand Enterprise and Hornet, who are returning from the raid on Tokyo, while the Saratoga (contrary to what the Japanese believe) was hit by a torpedo and is under repair. He then summons the aircraft carriers Lexington ("Sistership" of Saratoga) and Yorktown, escorted by cruisers and destroyers (most of the battleships having been destroyed or damaged at Pearl Harbor). In total, Nimitz therefore has only 150 on-board devices, more than 200 in the region, especially in Australia. On April 29, he appointed Fletcher commander of the operation and sent him to the Coral Sea for the 1er may.
A first “timid” commitment
On May 3, the american forces are still divided and know nothing about enemy movements. They didn't learn until the end of the day that the Japanese had landed in Tulagi. Fletcher then decides to retaliate and heads at full speed towards the Solomons with the Yorktown. The US commander has Japanese who do not expect an attack on his side, as well as a cold patch that timely obscures his movements. On May 4, at 6.30 a.m., the Yorktown take to the air: 12 Devastator (torpedo boats) and 28 Dauntless (dive bombers), while the fighters remain protecting the carrier.
The naval air attack being a relative novelty for young American pilots, it took place in great confusion, the importance of certain buildings being, for example, overestimated ... As a result, when they returned to the Yorktown at 9:31 am, they sank only three minesweepers and irreparably damaged a destroyer. Two more attacks will cost the Japanese just two seaplanes and four landing craft ... The Americans have lost only three aircraft and Nimitz calls the operation on Tulagi "disappointing."
A game of hide and seek
It was not until two days later that the special force "Mo" entered Coral Sea, led by Admiral Takagi, as Port Moresby was bombed on May 5. The next day, Fletcher drew up in battle order with a strike group consisting of most of his cruisers, a lighter support group, and an air group with its aircraft carriers. Aerial reconnaissance followed, but the Americans failed to locate Takagi's squadron. This one, on the other hand, does not order any distant reconnaissance, quite inexplicably.
This more or less voluntary game of hide and seek delays the start of the confrontation, which is inevitable anyway. Only B-17s from Australia spotted the Shoho and bombard it, but their size (they're heavy bombers) doesn't make them very effective against ships ... Fortunately, they still spot the invading force destined for Port Moresby. The Japanese are then optimistic: despite the enemy attack on Tulagi, the plan is going according to plan.
Martyrs and confusion
On May 7, Admiral Takagi finally ordered more extensive aerial reconnaissance. This comes at the right time, he thinks, for one of the planes sent spotted two ships he identified as an aircraft carrier and a cruiser; a massive attack is then launched ... but the targets are only the oil tanker Neosho and the destroyer Sims ! This is destroyed, while the Neosho managed to drift in flames until May 11 when he was rescued by the destroyer Henley : The crew is saved, but the tanker must be scuttled.
The martyrdom of the two American ships however, is not in vain. Indeed, shortly before, at 6:45 am, Fletcher ordered his group of cruisers to engage the Japanese invading force on Port Moresby. The American commander also plays luck when the enemy decides to concentrate his land-based air groups on cruisers rather than on aircraft carriers. The confusion resumes, however: the Japanese attacks fail, while American B-26s fail to sink their own cruisers!
The Shoho, first victim among Japanese aircraft carriers
At 8:30 am, the Japanese reorganized themselves: they spotted the fletcher group, and the Shoho is about to attack him. At the same time, Fletcher also launched reconnaissance and "two aircraft carriers and four heavy cruisers" were spotted at 8:15 am; the US squadron commander, believing that this is Takagi's squadron, decides to send 93 planes between 9.26 am and 10.30 am. But as soon as the strike force is in the air, the reconnaissance planes come back and reconsider their assessment! It would only be "two heavy cruisers and two destroyers"! It is too late to turn back, and the mission is confirmed in case the aircraft fall on the bulk of the enemy forces, necessarily in the sector. Fletcher got it right: Dauntless Lexington spot it Shoho around 11am and hire him, followed by their comrades from Yorktown. Hit by thirteen bombs and seven torpedoes, the Shoho dark at 11:35. On board American ships and bombers, it was euphoria, they destroyed their first aircraft carrier of the war!
The Japanese are obviously furious, and they decide to counter-attack by sending some of their best pilots (twenty-seven in total) for an attack in the late afternoon, to leave the aircraft carriers. Zuikaku and Shokaku. But this is the American radar which, first of all, prevents the success of this response: it allows the interceptors of the aircraft carriers to repel an initial attack, while the Japanese are hampered by the bad weather. The next thing is bad luck, almost comical: Japanese pilots often mistake American aircraft carriers for their own and get miserably shot down while trying to land on their deck! Takagi thus loses two-thirds of the seasoned pilots he sent on this mission ...
The last round
On the morning of May 8, both sides know that victory will go to whoever spots the other first. The problem is that they spot each other around the same time, around 8:30 am. Plus, the air force is equivalent on either side with 121 planes for the Americans and 122 for the Japanese! The only difference is in the weather conditions, slightly more favorable to the American camp.
Dauntless bombers and Devastator torpedo boats assault begins at 10:57 a.m. with the aircraft carrier as its primary target Shokaku, the Zuikaku having managed to hide in a grain. The attack on the pilots of the Yorktown appears to be relatively unsuccessful, with the aircraft carrier only hit by two bombs; but, the damage is severe enough that the Shokaku can only receive planes and not take off ... On the other hand, the attack by the men of the Lexington ten minutes later is more decisive: the Shokaku too badly hit is ordered to fall back on Truk.
The agony of the "Lady Lex"
So the American squadron was also spotted, and it suffered Japanese lightning between its own two waves on the enemy fleet. The Japanese pilots, most of whom are already experienced and participated in Pearl Harbor, are more skilled than their American counterparts. They founded well organized on the two aircraft carriers at 11:18 am: the Yorktown more maneuverable managed to dodge eight torpedoes, and was hit harmlessly by a single 400 kg bomb. The Lexington is less fortunate: he finds himself between two groups of enemy torpedo boats and collects four of their propeller bombs; he also takes two light bombs, one of which explodes in an ammunition bay… The battle is over.
The pilots return to their respective aircraft carriers, and the damage to the Lexington seem under control. However, an explosion sounded on the aircraft carrier at 12:47 p.m., then another at 2:45 p.m., and it was quickly impossible to control the fire which resumed. At 4.30 p.m., it was decided to abandon the ship. It was the destroyer Phelps that delivered the final blow with five torpedoes: the "Lady Lex" sank at 8 p.m.
The Coral Sea, a decisive battle?
The Japanese, despite somewhat optimistic reports of the attack, decided to postpone the attack on Port Moresby. This infuriates Yamamoto, and he orders Takagi to resume the hunt for American aircraft carriers; but Fletcher is already far away ...
The battle itself saw a point victory for the Japanese: the losses of the Lexington, of Neosho and Sims were far superior to that of the light aircraft carrier Shoho. But the Japanese fleet had also lost many of its best pilots and, above all, it was strategic level that the victory was American. This first battle in history between aircraft carriers saw the failure of the Japanese offensive on Papua, and the damage suffered, in particular the need to repair the Shokaku and refuel the Zuikaku, would weigh for the future. Indeed, another much larger battle was to be fought off Midway…
- F. GARCON, The Pacific War, Casterman, 1997.
- J. COSTELLO, The Pacific War, Pygmalion, 1982.