View Full Version : Naval Night Combat. British vs Japanese

Carl Schwamberger
07-11-2009, 08:13 PM
During the early years of WWII, particularly 1941 & 1942 both the Britsh and Japanese navy showed a lot of skill at night combat at sea. What were the differences in technique and skill between the two navys? I am not a expert on this subject and would appreciate any observations or opinions.

Rising Sun*
07-12-2009, 12:22 AM
During the early years of WWII, particularly 1941 & 1942 both the Britsh and Japanese navy showed a lot of skill at night combat at sea. What were the differences in technique and skill between the two navys? I am not a expert on this subject and would appreciate any observations or opinions.

I'm no expert either and my little knowledge on this topic is mostly on the IJN at the policy and doctrinal rather than tactical level.

IJN doctrine and training emphasised night combat after the Washington Naval Treaty in 1922 put Japan in an inferior position vis a vis America and Britain.

Greater skill in night combat was seen in the IJN as helping to redress the imabalance in capital ships.

The general idea was to get in among an enemy fleet at night in the decisive battle and reduce it sufficiently, notably with superior Japanese torpedoes, that the IJN heavy forces could be brought in in daylight to finish off the enemy.

In practice the decisive battle never occurred, although Yamamoto was anticipitating it following Pearl Harbor and the IJN was still looking for it during 1943.

The IJN obsession with the decisive battle concept actually undermined the IJN's ability to fight a war which lacked the decisive battle. Partly this was because the IJN was structured around that concept, which goes back to the crushing victory over Russia at Tsushima in 1905, so that it was focused on battles rather than running a long war. Partly it was because the concept assumed that the engagement would occur in waters close to Japan where the enemy fleet would be drawn for the decisive battle. This resulted in the IJN fleet being structured on that basis so that, for example, they didn't have torpedo boats which would have been handy at Guadalcanal because the IJN had decided that torpedo boats couldn't operate in the large seas where the decisive battle was supposed to take place. Another consequence of the assumption about the location of the battle was that the IJN went into the war with hardly any ships with the range needed to fight a long war over a vast area. The Pearl Harbor fleet had to be refuelled at sea several times on the way there and back.

As the IJN was modelled on the RN and the RN was admired by the IJN until things soured around the time of the Washington Naval Treaty, it might be that RN skill in night engagements also influenced Japanese thinking, but this is just speculation.

One obvious difference at the tactical level is that the RN had radar and the IJN didn't, although the IJN had excellent optics.

I assume that after the Washington Treaty the IJN developed its tactics quite independently of the RN, but perhaps the IJN kept abreast of RN tactics.

Carl Schwamberger
07-12-2009, 05:51 AM
Optics, theres one tangible item. How might they have differed? Two other items would be cannon fired flares or illumination projectiles and searchlights.

07-12-2009, 07:14 AM
I'm no expert in this area, but as mentioned above, superior optics and rigorous training for night fighting were key factors for the Japanese .

They were not only did they have far superior optics than the US Navy, but seemed also extremely skilled at the use of lights in flooding an enemy ship -only at the last minute- and riddling it with fire often disabling the major vessels early in a night engagement, and stifling or minimizing any counter fire with a devastating first fusillade.

The United States Navy also had an over-reliance on radar thinking that this gave them a sort of trump card over the IJN. The problem was that radar was not sufficiently developed to justify such reliance in 1942 and while it could detect approaching enemy vessels, it was nearly useless at fire-control in a pitched, chaotic night melee. The USN often put itself at a sever disadvantage in the battles around Iron Bottom Sound off Guadalcanal with overconfidence in their technology, which often became blunted due to the abundance of small islands and a narrow straits seemingly made for Japanese night ambushes...

Carl Schwamberger
07-12-2009, 06:44 PM
I've read a description of how the Japanese naval pilots had a system for recovering aircraft onto the carriers at night, like the US and British pilots. Unlike the USN the British were developing techniques for night attacks with naval aviation. ie: the sucessfull Taranto attack in 1941 was executed after dark. By late 1941 the new Albacore torpedo planes were being outfitted with a search radar. Does anyone have and descriptions of the Japanese naval aviation practising night attack and night search techniques?

Deaf Smith
07-14-2009, 10:05 PM
Optics, theres one tangible item. How might they have differed? Two other items would be cannon fired flares or illumination projectiles and searchlights.

That and a 24 inch torpedo with about 1000 lb of high explosive and a range of 20 miles. Yes the Long Lance.

All the while the U.S., Germany, and Britian were messing around with magnetic activated torpedos that didn't work well at all.

Pitty we didn't make a 25 inch ship killing torpedo for our destroyers.


Carl Schwamberger
07-15-2009, 04:52 AM
Britain had gotten past the 'messing around' with magnetic triggers for torpedos by 1942. Not as quick as the Germans who got past that in 1939 or 1940, but soon enough. Anyone have the statistics for the torpedos available? In this case the aircraft torpedos are neded as well. I dont know about the Japanese the Brits had proved they could do air torpedo attacks at night and had been practicing night searches and attacks with their torpedo bombers from 1941.

Rising Sun*
07-15-2009, 06:53 AM
Here are details of an action in which IJN searchlights figured prominently.

Carl Schwamberger
07-15-2009, 10:20 AM
Thanks for that link. A well studied night action, although many accounts in English or by US historian do not draw much on Japanese sources. There are quite a few similar accounts on my shlef. Unfortunatly most are very brief and usualy lack details from the Japanese side. Descriptions by British and Japanese naval personnel are needed. I do have the classic 'Japanese Destroyer Captain' on my shelf here & need to review it. Anyone know of something similar from the British side?

Rising Sun*
07-15-2009, 08:16 PM
I seem to recall reading somewhere that Japanese searchlights were much better than Allied ones in range and illumination, which would be consistent with IJN emphasis on night tactics.

Here's a picture taken from a Japanese ship of the US cruiser Quincy burning before it sank on 9 August 1942 in the first Savo battle.


Source and more info: http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/events/wwii-pac/guadlcnl/guadlcnl.htm

It appears that searchlights may be coming from two Japanese ships at different distances from the Quincy, or perhaps given the ragged edges the right hand one is just wake illuminated by the left beam. The level and width of illumination from the main beam at left is impressive. Without knowing the focal length of the lens which took the photo it is impossible to gain any idea of the range, but by projecting the narrowing beam(s) rearwards it is clear that the left hand beam has a long way to go before narrowing to the width of a searchlight lens. The width of the beam could be scaled reasonably accurately off the Quincy's dimensions. Perhaps the length of the beam could be worked out by triangulation from the width of the beam?

Rising Sun*
07-15-2009, 08:26 PM
Here's a pertinent excerpt from an interesting article on the development of Japan's optical industry as a supplier of war munitions.

iv) Night-Vision Technologies

While Nikon would continue to produce periscopes after the war, research into night-vision technology was prohibited by the United States after 1945. Until the end of the war, however, Nippon Kogaku pursued a variety of projects designed to aid the IJN in its prosecution of nighttime surface combat. These included the development of powerful binoculars with unusually large 21 cm lenses that had superb light-gathering capabilities, as well as 12 cm and 5 cm models. The last of these was named the 'Nova'-type, and each pair was fitted with detachable night-vision enhancing filters designed to better refract and capture available starlight and moonlight. Combined with the navy's considerable training in night-combat maneuvers and its development of parachute-suspended star shells, these advanced optics put the IJN far ahead of its rivals in its readiness for night surface engagements.58 While U.S. naval war-gaming at Newport during the 1930s led the Americans to underestimate the value of night-combat readiness (with costly results in 1942), radar did indeed prove to be the superior technology, and it soon rendered the IJN's night-vision optics tactically obsolete. http://grad.usask.ca/gateway/archive17.html

Carl Schwamberger
07-15-2009, 08:55 PM
Great photograph of the destroyer in the searchlight. A review of the descriptions of the battle may give some hints about the range.

Unlike the USN the British Navy did take night combat seriously before WWII & had some sucessfull operations. Thats why I am thinking about the details of how those two navys conducted night combat.

01-30-2010, 01:00 PM
During the early years of WWII, particularly 1941 & 1942 both the Britsh and Japanese navy showed a lot of skill at night combat at sea. What were the differences in technique and skill between the two navys? I am not a expert on this subject and would appreciate any observations or opinions.

In the early stages of the war, there would not have been a vast difference in technique, as regards night engagements, for one simple reason.

The Royal Navy had trained the IJN in naval gunnery, approximately 35 years earlier.

After the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, the IJN, despite having won, concluded it could have done better, as far as gunnery was concerned.
As a direct result, the IJN asked the Royal Navy for training in gunnery, which training included night gunnery actions. Agreements between the respective Governments were duly made.
The training exchanges took place over (IIRC) several years, but, by approximately 1912 had finished.

This was pretty much just in time for World War One (1914) during which Japan was a staunch and welcomed Ally, as a way of both repaying British interest and sharing of knowledge, and demonstrating the newly-perfected capabilities of the IJN (i.e. "We've learned well, and as Thanks, we're showing you how well.).

However, Post WW1 Japan was basically sidelined by the European nations, which went a long way to creating the resentment and bitterness Japanese leaders were to both feel and employ against Europeans and European interests in Asia prior to world War Two.
The direct result of the forgoing, for the IJN, was a vast determination to out-perform and exceed Royal Navy standards, especially in relation to night gunnery, at which feat the IJN came extremely close to succeeding.

Arguably, the two most competent Navies, in night gunnery were, in the years 1940 through 1942, The Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Wiser heads than mine may know more, though I hope the above info is of use to you.

Regards, Uyraell.

02-01-2010, 09:55 PM
I am surprised that no one has mentioned the excellent flashless gun powder that the IJN used. This was even more important than the larger searchlights they equipped their ships with, since a searchlight was a two-edged sword in night fighting, whereas flashless powder, provided a marked advantage in a gunnery fight. Except for the flashless powder, USN and IJN night gunnery was just about at parity in 1942. The other advantage the IJN had was in their excellent torpedoes.