History of the Second World War, Volume 2

almost simultaneously between 0815 and 0838. Fitch now in tactical command of the American aircraft-carrier operations had 121 aircraft available while Hara his opposite number had 122. The Japanese had more combat experience and better tor­pedoes while the Americans were stronger in bomber aircraft. Thus the two sides began the first ever 'carrier-versus-carrier battle roughly on equal terms although by moving south during the night Fletcher had outrun of the bad weather and underlay clear skies while the Japanese remained under the shelter of clouds and squalls. The first sighting of the Japanese carriers had been at 0815 by one of Lexington’s scouts the pilot reporting that Takagi was 175 miles to the north-east of Fletcher’s position. Later at 0930 Lieutenant-Com- mander Dixon sighted the Japanese Striking Force steaming due south in a position 25 miles north-east of the original contact but about 45 miles north of Takagis expected position at 0900 as predicted on the strength of that contact. The discrepancy was to cause trouble for Lexingtons attack group which by this time was airborne. Fitch had begun launching his strike between 0900 and 0925 the Yorktown group of 24 bombers with two fighters and nine torpedo-bombers with four fighters departing ten minutes before the Lexington aircraft. The dive-bombers spotted the Japanese first at 1030 and took cloud cover to await the arrival of the Devastators. While Shokaku was engaged in launching further combat patrols Zuikaku disappeared into a rain squall. The attack, which began at 1057 thus fell only on the Shokaku. Although the Yorktown pilots co-ordinated their attack well only moderate success was achieved. The slow American torpedoes were either avoided or failed to explode and only two bomb hits were scored on the Shokaku one damaging the flight- deck well forward on the starboard bow and setting fire to fuel while the other des­troyed a repair compartment aft. The Sho­ kaku now burning could still recover air­craft but could no longer launch any. Of the Lexington group ten minutes be­hind the 22 dive-bombers failed to locate the target leaving only 11 Devastators and four reconnaissance-bombers for the attack. Once again the torpedoes were ineffective, but the bombers scored a third hit on the Japanese aircraft-carrier. Although 108 of the vessels crew had been killed she had not been holed below the waterline and her fires were soon brought under control. Most of her aircraft were transferred to the Zuikaku before Takagi detached Shokaku at 1300 with orders to proceed to Truk. Al­though in poor shape she was not 'settling fast as the American pilots had reported. Captain Sherman in the Lexington had estimated that the Japanese attack on Task Force 17 would begin at about 1100 basing his deduction on Japanese radio traffic. In fact the Yorktown and Lexington were to come under attack in the interval between the strikes of their respective air groups on -the Japanese aircraft-carriers. The Japanese had begun launching at about the same time as the Americans but their attack group of 18 torpedo-bombers 33 bombers and 18 fighters was larger better balanced and more accurately directed to the target. Al­though the American radar picked them up 70 miles away Fitch had far too few fighters to intercept successfully and was forced to rely mainly on his AA gunners for protection. At 1118 hours the battle 'busted out as one American sailor described it. The York­town with a smaller turning circle than the Lexington successfully avoided eight tor­pedoes launched heron port quarter. Five minutes later she came under dive-bomber attack but skilfully handled by Captain Buckmaster escaped unscathed until 1127, when she received her only hit —from an 800- pound bomb which penetrated to the fourth deck but did not impair flight operations. During this time the evasive manoeuvres gradually drew the American aircraft- carriers apart and although the screening vessels divided fairly evenly between them, the breaking of their defensive circle contri­buted to Japanese success. The Lexington larger than the Yorktown, had a turning circle of 1500 to 2000 yards in diameter compared with the 1,000-yard tactical diameter of her consort. Moreover, she had the misfortune to suffer an 'anvil’ attack from the Japanese torpedo-bombers, which came in on both bows at 1118 to launch their missiles at altitudes of about 50 to 200 feet and about half a mile from the 'Lady Lex. Despite valiant manoeuvres by Sher­man she received one torpedo hit on the port side forward at 1120 quickly followed by a second opposite the bridge. At the same time a dive-bombing attack commenced from 17000 feet the Lexington receiving two hits from small bombs. One exploded in a ready- ammunition box on the port side while the other hit the smokestack structure. To add to the din of battle the ships siren jammed as a result of an explosion and shrieked weirdly throughout most of the attack. Some 19 minutes later the aircraft-carrier battle was to all intents and purposes at an end. At this point honours were more lessor equal —but for the Americans the real tragedy was still to come. At first it appeared that the doughty Lexington had survived to fight another day. A list of 7 degrees caused by the torpedo hits was corrected by shifting oil ballast while her engines remained un­harmed. To her returning pilots she did not appear to be seriously damaged and the recovery of the air group went ahead. At about 1240 hours Commander H.R. 'Pop’ Healy the damage control officer reported to Captain Sherman: 'Weve got the torpedo damage temporarily shored up the fires out, and soon will have the ship back anon even keel. But I would suggest sir that if you have to take anymore torpedoes you take em on the starboard side. Minutes later at 1247 a tremendous internal explosion caused by the ignition of fuel vapours by a motor generator which had been left running shook the whole ship. Although the Lexington continued landing her planes a series of further violent ex­plosions seriously disrupted internal com­munications. Yet another major detonation occurred at 1445 and the fires soon passed beyond control. Despite the fact that the destroyer Morris came alongside to help fight the blaze while Yorktown recovered all aircraft still airborne the need for evacua­tion became increasingly apparent. At 1630 hours the Lexington had come to a dead stop and all hands prepared to abandon ship. At 1710 Fitch called to Sherman to 'get the men off the Minneapolis Hammann, Morris and Anderson assisting with the rescue operations. Evacuation was orderly —even the ships dog being rescued —and Sherman was the last to leave the aircraft- carrier sliding down aline over the stern. At 1956 the destroyer Phelps was ordered to deliver the 'coup de grace with five tor­pedoes and the Lexington sank at 2000 a final explosion occurring as she slipped beneath the waves. The Battle of the Coral Sea was now over. The Japanese pilots had reported sinking both American aircraft-carriers and Haras acceptance of this evaluation in­fluenced Takagis decision to detach the Shokaku for repairs as well as Inouye’s order that the Striking Force should be with­drawn. Even though he thought that both American aircraft-carriers had been des­troyed the cautious Inouye still deemed it necessary to postpone the invasion ap­parently because he felt unable to protect the landing units against Allied land-based aircraft. Yamamoto did not agree with this decision and at 2400 hours countermanded the order detailing Takagi to locate and annihilate the remaining American ships. But by the time Takagi made his search to the south and east Fletcher was out of reach. Tactically the battle had been a victory for the Japanese. Although they had lost 43 aircraft on May 8 (as against 33 lost by the Americans) and Hara had been left with only nine operational aircraft after the Zuikaku had proved unable to take on all Shokakus aircraft their airstrikes had achieved greater results. The sinking of the Lexington Neosho and Sims far outweighed the loss of the Shoho and the various minor craft sunk at Tulagi. Strategically however Coral Sea was an American victory: the whole object of the Japanese operation —the capture of Port Moresby —had been thwarted. Despite the occupation of Tulagi later won back by the US Marines at a heavy price the Japanese had gained very little of their initial objec­tives. Moreover the damage to the Shokaku, and the need to re-form the battered air groups of the Zuikaku was to keep both these carriers out of the Midway battle, where their presence might have been decisive. Though the Coral Sea engagement was full of errors by the commanders on both sides the Americans did take its lessons to heart. The ratio of fighters to bombers and torpedo-bombers was increased and improvements were made in the organisa­ tion of attacks in the weeks that remained before the next great naval clash. But the really significant feature of the Coral Sea battle was that it opened anew chapter in the annals of naval warfare: it was the first ever 'carrier-against-carrier inaction which all losses were inflicted by air action and no ship on either side made visual surface contact with the enemy. The stage for Midway was now set. PETER SIM KINS was born at Greenford in 1939 and was educated in Ealing and then Tat fjW Kings College London where\ 1 he read for an honours degree in Modern History specialising in i War Studies. Having graduated in 1961 he was appointed as archivist to Captain Sir Basil Liddell Hart with the task of cataloguing the latters papers prior to their eventual transfer to the Centre for Military Archives at King’s College. In 1963 he joined the staff of the Imperial War Museum as Research and Publications Officer becoming head of the Department of Exhibits in 1965. In this capacity he has been largely responsible for co-ordinating the Museum’s contribution to this History. 896
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