This week: Pearl Harbor

US Navy battleship USS West Virginia (BB-48) in flames at Pearl Harbour. This image was captured on 7 December 1941. Image: U.S. Navy, Office of Public Relations/Wikimedia Commons.

It was, according to a famous speech made the following day by US President Franklin D Roosevelt, ‘a date which will live in infamy’. Shortly before 8am on Sunday 7 December 1941 – 80 years ago next month – 360 aircraft launched from carriers belonging to the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) made a surprise attack on the US Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

Ninety minutes later, 18 US ships had been sunk or had run aground, including five battleships, while 188 US aircraft had been destroyed and further 159 damaged. In all, 2,403 Americans were killed and another 1,178 wounded, compared with just 64 killed on the Japanese side.

To most citizens of the United States – then a neutral country – the assault on Pearl Harbour came out of a clear blue sky. As we learn this week on The Past, however, the warning signs had long been there.

Pearl Harbor’s vulnerability to air attack from Japan had been noted by American officials as early as 1925, and was subsequently demonstrated by a US Navy exercise which proved how quickly its ships could be sunk and its defences put out of commission by enemy aircraft. The problem, then, was not that alarm bells weren’t ringing before Pearl Harbor; it was that they went unheard in America.

As David Porter explains in the new issue of Military History Matters, the US Navy’s prescient scenario-planning exercise was largely ignored by US decision-makers – but it had a far greater impact in Japan. Its lessons were incorporated into the curriculum at the IJN Naval Academy, where the students’ 1936 final exam even included the ominous question: ‘How would you carry out a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor?’

To mark the forthcoming 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor – the event that triggered America’s formal entry into World War Two – we’ve also been delving into the archives in search of more coverage of the conflict’s Asia-Pacific theatre. In one two-part special, MHM editor Neil Faulkner analysed the strategic situation in the run-up to the decisive Battle of Midway on 4-7 June 1942, then gave a detailed phase-by-phase account of the action, including the ‘fatal five minutes’ which changed history for good. In another, Alexander Izza explored the Battle of Okinawa, the ferocious last stand of the Japanese Empire in the early summer of 1945, then reviewed the strategy, tactics, weapons and morale of the opposing forces in this culminating land engagement of the Pacific War.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we are delighted to feature an extended extract from Neil Faulkner’s brilliant new book, Empire and Jihad: the Anglo-Arab Wars of 1870-1920, in which he analyses Tel El-Kebir, the 1882 battle which saw Victorian Britain destroy an Egyptian nationalist movement and take possession of the country. As we discover, Tel El-Kebir was to herald a new age of empire, signalling an era of armed intervention in the region by industrialised European armies. You’ll also find Neil talking about Tel El-Kebir and its aftermath on the latest edition of The PastCast, our brilliant podcast.

And finally, if all that leaves you hungry for more military history, why not have a go at our latest quiz, which this week is also designed to test your knowledge of World War Two in the Pacific. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!


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