Yamamoto Isoroku

Published: July 30th, 2012     
Product Image
Author: Mark Stille
Reviewed by: Anthony Tvaryanas - IPMS# 44156
ISBN #: 978-18-49087-31-5
Other Publication Information: Softcover, 64 pages, period photos, battle maps
Price: $18.95
Product / Stock #: Command 26
Product provided by: Osprey Publishing

Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku is largely regarded as the archetypal Japanese naval commander of World War II, and his reputation remained high in the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) despite numerous naval defeats. In his short book, Mark Stille undertakes a critical analysis of Yamamoto, calling into question his reputation as both a reluctant warrior and a brilliant and invincible admiral.

Yamamoto's career in the IJN began in 1901 and he saw combat in the Russo-Japanese War, being wounded in the decisive battle in the Tsushima Strait in May, 1905, when a ship's gun barrel burst. During the interwar years, Yamamoto served in various postings to include several assignments in the United States -- experiences that purportedly provided him unusual insight, as compared to his Japanese contemporaries, into the American psyche. He was a late arrival to naval aviation, but openly lobbied for aircraft as the INJ's principle striking force versus the battleship. Although he rose to senior positions in the INJ, he was generally regarded as a political rather than an operational admiral, having had little in the way of command experience. Nonetheless, Yamamoto was not part of the militarist faction that dominated Japanese politics in the 1930s, and he opposed the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, war with China in 1937, and the tripartite pact with Germany and Italy. Yamamoto was subsequently placed in the INJ's top operational position, Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet, supposedly to get him to sea and prevent his assassination.

When war finally came, Yamamoto was completely committed to his country's cause. He was also not in opposition to war with the U.S., as commonly believed, but rather asserted that a traditional victory against the U.S. was not possible. In contrast to the customary IJN plan to engage the U.S. fleet as it approached Japan and defeat it in a decisive battle (i.e., an updated version of Tsushima), Yamamoto advocated for an initial blow that was so crippling it would shatter U.S. morale and force the Americans to accept a negotiated peace. Yamamoto alone came up with the idea for including the Pearl Harbor attack in Japan's war plans, and it took great perseverance on his part to get it approved by a reluctant Naval General Staff. For Yamamoto, the purpose of the Pearl Harbor attack was to sink battleships rather than carriers, as he believed it was the battleship that was the symbol of naval power in the minds of the American public. While a tactical success, Pearl Harbor was ultimately a strategic failure and discounts the assertion that Yamamoto possessed unique insight into the American mindset.

Despite the immediate success of the Pearl Harbor raid, Yamamoto's subsequent handling of the Japanese Combined Fleet only serves to highlight his shortcomings as a war leader. As events in the South Pacific took center stage, Yamamoto refused to relinquish his vision for Japanese naval strategy -- a decisive battle to destroy the U.S. Pacific fleet, followed by a negotiated peace. To accomplish this objective, the Combined Fleet needed a target the U.S. could not afford to lose, which he believed must be in the Central Pacific. Yamamoto selected Midway Atoll, but this time the Naval General Staff did not completely acquiesce. In exchange for permission to conduct the Midway operation, Yamamoto was forced to agree to allocate part of his strike force to support a renewed offensive in the South Pacific, as well as to seize selected points in the Aleutians, therein dissipating his operational strength and laying the seeds for eventual defeat. Midway was to be Yamamoto's battle from its inception and planning through its execution and conclusion -- indeed, Midway was the only occasion that Yamamoto took a fleet to sea under his direct command. Events did not, however, go as planned; the smaller carrier force dispatched to the South Pacific was badly mauled during the battle of the Coral Sea in early May, 1942. Nonetheless, Yamamoto simply assumed that his now weakened strike group would still be strong enough to conduct the Midway attack in June, 1942. Unaware that the Japanese naval code was broken by the U.S. and the element of surprise lost, Yamamoto took up an aggressive position in the Pacific, fatally dividing his forces at Midway and leaving them vulnerable to piecemeal destruction.

When the U.S. launched their first counterattack of the war in August, 1942, at Guadalcanal in the Solomons, Yamamoto was presented with yet another opportunity for the decisive battle that had so far eluded him. Yet Yamamoto and the Combined Fleet were slow to respond to the U.S. challenge, and despite several notable victories against U.S. carriers, failed to mass their numerically superior forces for a decisive attack. What ensued was a war of attrition that led the Imperial General Headquarters to eventually order a withdrawal from Guadalcanal. With Guadalcanal lost, the focus shifted to the Central Solomons and New Guinea. To redress Japan's declining position in the Solomons, Yamamoto devised a major air offensive (Operation I-Go-Sakusen) under his personal command to suppress the growing Allied strength in the region. The air offensive consisted of four major attacks conducted in early April, 1943, and the Japanese claimed great success although little was actually accomplished. However, Yamamoto took these claims at face value and ordered the operation concluded. Ironically, just days after he called off the air offensive, Yamamoto was killed when his G4M "Betty" was shot down by U.S. P-38s operating from an airfield that he believed was successfully suppressed.

While really more of an essay than a book, Stille convincingly debunks the image of Yamamoto as a great admiral. Overall, it was a quick and enjoyable read and there were many interesting insights to be gleaned despite the low page count. The book is well illustrated with photographs and full color maps of the principle battles. Anyone with a passing interest in the early Pacific Theater during World War II will find reading this book time well spent. For the aircraft and ship modelers, many of the pictures are potential fodder for ideas on dioramas.

I would like to thank IPMS/USA and Osprey Publishing for the opportunity to review this book.

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