Thursday, April 15, 2021

May 7, 1942: Scratch One Flattop!

Thursday 7 May 1942

Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho burning, 7 May 1942
U.S. Navy planes bomb Japanese aircraft carrier Shōhō in the Coral Sea on 7 May 1942. 
Battle of the Pacific: At daybreak on 7 May 1942, Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher decides to split his forces. He sends Australian Rear Admiral John Crace and his Task Force 44 (now redesignated Task Group 17.3), led by Cruisers HMAS Australia, Hobart, and USS Chicago, to block the Jomard Passage. Fletcher knows that the Japanese invasion force would have to traverse this channel to invade Port Moresby. With this "back door" secured, Fletcher feels free to engage the Japanese carrier force.

Fletcher's problem, however, is that he doesn't know where Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi's two fleet carriers, Shōkaku and Zuikaku, are. He sends 10 Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers to look for the carriers to the north, but they find nothing. The Japanese, on the other hand, figure the US carriers are to the south. Takagi sends out a dozen Nakajima B5N "Kate" torpedo bombers and four Kawanishi E7K2 Type 94 floatplanes to find Fletcher's carriers.

Takagi gets good news first when his Kate bombers report, beginning at 07:22, that they have spotted a carrier to the southwest. Seizing the moment, Takagi orders a full-scale attack by 18 Zero fighters, 36 Aichi D3A dive bombers, and 24 Kate torpedo bombers. Altogether, 78 Japanese planes set out at 08:15 to destroy the sighted US carrier. It is an impressive feat of instantaneous reaction and leaping into action with a true warlike spirit.

There's only one problem: the Kate scout planes have misidentified the US oiler Neosho and destroyer Sims for much larger ships. At 8:20, with the attacking planes in the air, Takagi learns from headquarters at Rabaul that another scout, a floatplane from cruiser Kinugasa, has sighted the carriers to the west, not to the southwest.

Takagi thus must reconcile completely contradictory sightings. He decides to believe the first sighting, confirmed by two scout planes, rather than the second sighting by only one plane. He allows the 78 attacking planes led by Lieutenant Commander Kakuichi Takahashi to continue southward rather than turn west.
Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho burning, 7 May 1942
U.S. Navy planes bomb Japanese aircraft carrier Shōhō in the Coral Sea on 7 May 1942. Naval History and Heritage Command 80-G-17024.
Meanwhile, on the American side, Fletcher receives word from one of Yorktown's SBD pilots, John L. Nielsen, that he has spotted advanced elements of the Japanese Port Moresby Invasion Force to the northwest. Due to errors in Nielsen's coded message, Fletcher concludes that he has located the Japanese carriers, not the invasion transports and escorts. He launches 93 planes - 53 Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers, 22 Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers, and 18 Grumman F4F Wildcats. The planes are on their way by 10:13. Fletcher then gets another report of the carriers being 30 nautical miles (35 miles, 56 km) south of Nielsen's sighting, i.e., still to the west but not as much to the north.. Unlike Takagi, Fletcher decides to accept the second report and redirects his attackers.

This all becomes an illustration of the fog of war. Takagi's planes heading south, and Fletcher's planes heading northwest, are all heading in the wrong directions. Though there are targets in those directions, they are not the ones the admirals want to attack at this time. In fact, the Japanese carriers are 300 nautical miles (350 miles, 560 km) east of Fletcher's carriers, and both sides are looking in the wrong directions.

When Takagi's planes reach their destination, all they find is the 7470-ton fleet tanker Neosho and its destroyer escort Sims. Unable to find the desired US carriers (which are far to the northwest), the Japanese pilots basically shrug and decide the targets they do have. This results in the cataclysmic obliteration of the Sims, which breaks in half and sinks immediately (177 dead, 15 survivors), and the Neosho. Not only is the Neosho hit by seven bombs, but one of the dive bombers is hit by anti-aircraft fire and the pilot decides to crash into it. This is an early example of an unplanned kamikaze strike. Due to its watertight, compartmentalized construction, Neosho does not sink right away, but it loses power and is headed for the bottom. Neosho's radio operation, however, is able to get off a quick message to Fletcher that lacks any detail. While the Neosho stays afloat for several days, it is a wreck and is scuttled by USS Henley on 11 May.

At 10:40, Fletcher's planes also sight an unintended target, but it is more appetizing than a tanker and destroyer. It is Shōhō, a light aircraft carrier, not a large fleet carrier. Unfortunately for the Japanese carrier's crew, they only have a light combat air patrol aloft while they prepare other planes for a strike on the US carriers. The US planes score quick hits that disable the carrier, and after that, it is relatively easy to destroy the stationary ship. It sinks at 11:35 just northeast of Misma Island, with 631 deaths and 202 survivors.
Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho burning, 7 May 1942
"Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho under attack by U.S. Navy carrier aircraft in the late morning of 7 May 1942. Photographed from a USS Yorktown (CV 5) torpedo plane. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives." Naval History and Heritage Command 80-G-17046.
Lieutenant Commander Robert Ellington Dixon, a Yorktown squadron commander, radios the news in eloquent fashion:

Scratch one flat top.

This prearranged signal (meaning, Dixon was told to send it) becomes a catchphrase for the war in the Pacific. Dixon wins his second Navy Cross for leading his squadron in one of the attacks that sank the Shoto. It pays to go viral during World War II.

After his planes land, Fletcher decides one "flat top" is enough for the day. He adopts a defensive posture for the rest of the day and turns to the southwest, unknowingly heading away from Takagi's carriers.

Takagi, however, thirsts for revenge of the sunken Shōhō. He orders the invasion convoy to withdraw to the north while he finds and defeats the enemy carrier. Instead of the carriers, though, he gets a report at 12:40 of the cruisers that Fletcher has sent to guard the Jomard Passage. Once again, the message suggests that the ships are carriers when they are not. These ships, though, are too far away for Takagi's planes to reach. Instead, he radios the base at Rabaul to attack them. This attack proceeds, but without result. The US cruisers then withdraw to the southeast.
Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho burning, 7 May 1942
 "Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho under attack by U.S. Navy carrier aircraft in the late morning of 7 May 1942. A TBD Devastator is visible in the lower right center, and another plane can be seen in the top center. Photographed from a USS Yorktown (CV 5) torpedo plane. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives." Naval History and Heritage Command 80-G-17047.
Takagi sends out one more attack late in the afternoon, once again going on faulty reports about the US carriers' location. By sheer chance, this is close to the actual direction. Fletcher's crew spots the incoming planes on the radar and launches 11 Wildcats to intercept them. The Japanese quickly lose seven torpedo bombers and a dive bomber while the US loses three Wildcats. After the Japanese strike leaders call off the attack, their planes get lost and find the US carriers and, mistaking them for their own carriers, attempt to land. Only 18 of the original 27 planes make it back to the Japanese carriers.

After dark, Fletcher decides to head west, away from the Japanese carriers. Takagi, on the other hand, receives orders to destroy the US carriers on the 8th. Pending that, the Port Moresby invasion is postponed. Takagi then heads north in order to cover the invasion convoy. 

Basically, both sides are determined to destroy the other but all of their actions on 7 May 1942 are a confused mess based on over-aggressiveness, false sitings and reports, and wishful thinking. At times, the main carrier forces are only 70 miles apart but keep searching for their opponents in the wrong directions. It is one of the most confused sequences by both sides of the war.

Japanese submarine I-21 shells and sinks 4641-ton Greek freighter Chloe 20 miles (32 km) west of Nouméa, New Caledonia.
General Wainwright broadcasting surrender, 7 May 1942
General Jonathan M. Wainwright, in captivity, broadcasts over Station KZRH on 7 May 1942 telling all forces in the Philippines to surrender.
Battle of the Indian Ocean: The British executing Operation Ironclad decisively crack Vichy French resistance in northern Madagascar. The deadlock at the Vichy French port of Antisarane is broken in the early hours of the morning of 7 May 1942 when British troops swarm into the city. They take the Governor's House around 01:00, though Governor-General Annett is nowhere to be found. By 02:00, Welsh Fusiliers enter the French Defense Headquarters and arrest army commander Colonel Pierre Clarebout and navy commander Paul Maerten. Other men of the Fusiliers link up with Captain Martin Price's marines holding a perimeter at the docks after being landed late on 6 May by destroyer HMS Anthony.

At daybreak, British ground commander Major General Robert Sturges, Royal Marines, enters Antisarane and negotiates a cease-fire with the two French commanders. Clarebout and Maerten also order nearby coastal batteries and Forts Caimans and Bellevue to surrender. Later in the morning, Royal Navy Rear Admiral Edward N. Syfret accepts the surrender of all Vichy forces in Northern Madagascar.

 In other action, RAF Martlets shoot down three French Moranes at the cost of their own, mean 12 Moranes and five Potez 63 fighters have been eliminated out of the 35 aircraft the French began with. Swordfish torpedo bombers attack the 1547-ton French submarine Le Héros and force its crew to abandon ship. After today's events, the British effectively control the sea, the northern part of Madagascar, and the air.
Senegalese prisoners at Diego Suarez, Madagascar, 7 May 1942
French troops, mainly Senegalese, marching into captivity after surrendering to British troops at Diego Suarez on 7 May 1942. © IWM A 8872.
While French Governor-General Annet continues French resistance to the south, Operation Ironclad concludes today as a smashing success. While there will be more fighting, British victory is assured. During the three-day campaign, the British had 105 dead, four missing, and 284 wounded, while the French lost 145 men and 336 wounded.

In Burma, the British evacuate their main base in the north at Myitkyina. Japanese troops advancing up the road from Bhamo and are meeting little opposition. The British are beginning to find making a stand anywhere in Burma is difficult and perhaps impossible. Anyone associated with the Allies is escaping either to India or China. There are many suspension bridges in this area and the retreating soldiers make sure to blow up every suspension bridge to slow the Japanese down. 

Ranging far into the Indian Ocean, Japanese submarine I-30 launches its reconnaissance seaplane and flies over Aden, Yemen.
USS Neosho burning after a Japanese raid, 7 May 1942
US Fleet tanker Neosho on fire after the 7 May 1942 Japanese attack.
Eastern Front: In Crimea, German General Erich von Manstein makes his final dispositions for his offensive to clear the Kerch peninsula of Soviet troops. Operation Trappenjagd ("Bustard Hunt") depends on surprise and heavy Luftwaffe support. The Front is short, heavily defended, and carefully watched, with few opportunities for finesse, so Manstein needs to catch the Red Army off guard. He chooses a swampy area that seems an unlikely place to launch a major offensive. the plan is for infantry to breach the Red Army lines at the swamp and open a breach for the 22nd Panzer Division to blast through. Operation Trappenjagd is scheduled to begin before dawn on 8 May.

General Franz Halder's war diary begins taking a different tone than in recent weeks as the spring thaw ("Rasputitsa") fades and the ground hardens, allowing for more troop movements. The Red Army is beginning to stir in select areas, and Halder notes that these attacks have been "repelled." General Italo Gariboldi, the Italian commander in chief, visits the Fuhrer Headquarters to discuss Italian participation in the projected summer offensive in the south, Case Blau. Mussolini promised Hitler at their recent summit meeting in Salzburg that he would commit troops to the Eastern Front.

Pursuant to Joseph Stalin's order of 6 May, the Red Army officially turns to the defensive today, thus ending the winter offensive that began on 6 December 1941. However, the Soviets are still developing plans for operations that are more in the nature of spoiling attacks than true offensives.
A Spitfire at RAF Hornchurch, 7 May 1942
"This image is part of a sequence of five photographs taken on 7 May 1942 at Hornchurch, and later released by the Ministry of Information to illustrate a typical offensive operation. In the bright spring sunshine, a No 64 Squadron Spitfire VB is readied for another sortie." © IWM CH 5772.
European Air Operations: During the day, RAF Bomber Command sends a dozen Boston bombers to attack Zeebrugge coke ovens and the Ostend power station. All of the planes return.

After dark, the RAF sends 81 bombers from Nos. 3 and 5 Groups for minelaying from Copenhagen to Heligoland. Two bombers, a Hampden and Wellington, are lost. In other operations, five bombers attack the St. Nazaire U-boat pens and a Halifax droops leaflets, all without loss.
USS Sims, sunk on 7 May 1942
USS Sims (DD-409), sunk by Japanese planes on 7 May 1942.
Battle of the Atlantic: U-162 (FrgKpt. Jürgen Wattenberg), on its second patrol out of Lorient, torpedoes and sinks 4271-ton Norwegian freighter Frank Seamans north of Suriname. Everyone on board is picked up by Dutch freighter Koningin Emma.

U-507 (KrvKpt. Harro Schacht), on its second patrol out of Lorient, torpedoes and sinks 3099-ton Honduran freighter Ontario in the Gulf of Mexico south of Pensacola. Everyone on board is rescued by the patrol yacht USS Onyx (PYc-5).

RAF Coastal Command planes bomb and sink 3622-ton Swedish freighter Ruth at Den Helder, North Holland.

Battle of the Mediterranean: At Malta, there is a change of command. Governor and Commander in Chief Sir William Dobbie is replaced by General Lord Gort, who arrives in the evening aboard a Lockheed Lodestar. There is minimal ceremony or celebration as explosions interrupt the change in command. After quickly briefing Lord Gort, General Dobbie gets on the same plane with his wife and daughter and flies away en route to England.

There are scattered air attacks throughout the day. Around sunset, Beaufighters and Hurricanes arrive from Egypt to bolster the defense.
US 82nd Infantry assembled on 7 May 1942
The first assembly of the 82nd Infantry Division at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, 7 May 1942 (Library of Congress 2007664556).
US Military: At Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, the 82nd Infantry Division has its first assembly of the division since its reactivation. World War I hero Sergeant Alvin C. York addresses the assembled men.

New Zealand Homefront: Lockheed 10A Electra ZK-AFE, far off course, crashes into Mount Richmond about 13 miles from Nelson, New Zealand. All five people on board perish.

American Homefront: In her syndicated "My Day" column today, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt complains that recent cuts at the National Youth Administration mean that "No aid is being given to young people going to college or high school." She argues for a "real democratization of education in this country" so that "good students" are not denied entry to professional fields due to lack of funds. Not providing student aid, she warns, will "cost us dear in the future."
RAF pilots relaxing at RAF Hornchurch on 7 May 1942
"Groundcrew from No. 122 Squadron RAF play a game of draughts while waiting for their aircraft to return from an operation over France, Hornchurch, 7 May 1942." © IWM CH 5767.

May 1942


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