But on December 7th the United States was put into a position where it would have to rely on its carriers and its submarines for the early part of the Pacific war. Their ability to strangle the Japanese navy both militarily and economically with these two forces would change history.
World War II: Carrier War
As WWII consumed Europe, the mighty British Royal Navy sought to attain control of the vital Mediterranean Sea. Their principal opponent in this was the navy of Axis Italy. Despite several victories over the Italian Navy, the Italians kept the bulk of their ships safely in harbor under the naval doctrine of a “fleet in being”. This requires an enemy power (in this case the British) to devote substantial forces to counter the “fleet in being” without that fleet ever needing to risk itself in the open ocean. The doctrine was deemed especially sound since it was impractical for the British fleet to come into port to seek out the Italian fleet, since their ships would be easy pickings for ground-based artillery.
In response to this, the British Navy came up with a daring, brilliant plan that would alter the course of history in a most unforeseen way: they would use aircraft launched from a carrier to destroy the Italian fleet in port. This surprise attack on Taranto, Operation Judgment, was conducted by just one carrier group, the HMS Illustrious, overloaded with planes from HMS Eagle. She was defended by 2 cruisers, 2 light cruisers and 4 destroyers and on November 11th, 1940 the carrier launched 21 Swordfish Torpedo bombers which sunk 1 Italian battleship and damaged 2 others. This blow crippled the Italian fleet and caused them to move their ships to more secure ports in the north, opening up the Mediterranean to British control.
That one carrier was able to inflict such damage to a fleet in port was not lost on naval planners but the Japanese Navy in particular studied this attack with intense interest. Ultimately the lessons learned from the Battle of Taranto led the Japanese Navy to formulate the plan to attack the much more formidable American Navy in its port at Pearl Harbor in a classic Japanese high-risk, high-reward decapitation attack. Using 6 carriers rather than one, they would catch the American battleships in port and achieve a level of naval dominance that would force the Americans to the negotiating table and grant the Japanese Navy control over the Pacific.
Attack on Pearl Harbor
On December 7th 1941, 7:53 am (Hawaiian time) Japan put the lessons of Taranto into practice against the American Navy, moored at Pearl Harbor. For this attack the Japanese would use 6 carriers not one and launch 441 planes at their targets rather than 21. This was Taranto taken to its logical conclusion. The primary attack was a tight grouping of battleships nestled between two islands in what was called “Battleship Row”. Of the eight battleships on Battleship row, four were sunk (USS Arizona, California, Oklahoma and West Virginia) and four were damaged (USS Maryland, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Tennessee). Despite bearing the brunt of the assault, an astounding six of these vessels would eventually see action in WWII (only the Arizona, which was ripped apart by a magazine explosion and Oklahoma, which capsized before sinking were beyond repair).
If Taranto and Pearl Harbor had not already shown decisively that the carrier had supplanted the battleship as the most potent weapon in the modern naval arsenal, the remainder of WWII drove the point home again and again with brutal clarity. While battleships spent the majority of the war bombarding shore positions in support of amphibious landings, carriers fought and decided every decisive engagement of the war between the United States and Japan, with planes from the carriers engaging their opposite numbers and large task forces of cruisers and destroyers on each side acting as pawns and knights to protect their carrier queens.In the Battle of Midway, considered by many naval historians to be the pivotal battle in the Pacific campaign, three American carriers protected by 50 support ships engaged four Japanese carriers and seven battleships, along with 248 supporting ships. While the great Japanese battleships labored to even get to the site of the battle, the carriers dueled, with one American carrier and four Japanese carriers being sunk. Having achieved parity with the Japanese in number of carriers, the Americans were immediately able to go on the offensive and invaded Guadalcanal almost immediately. Japanese battleship hulls under construction were converted to carriers as rapidly as possible but the damage was done, the Japanese were not able to match American industrial production and soon fell behind in the carrier arms race and would never catch up.