Critical Decisions: Dropping A-Bombs, Attacking French Navy
“Above my pay grade” is an old cliché that refers to a really difficult decision being deferred to someone of higher authority. Recent history is full of examples of incredibly difficult decisions that have been made by a country’s highest-ranking leader. These decisions have resulted in long-lasting effects that have reverberated through the succeeding years, perhaps for the better, perhaps not. But no one can question the boldness of these choices and there is no question that only the most authoritative figure could make the call.
We’ll look at two, one of which is well-known, but governed more by emotion than fact, and one that has been virtually ignored by historians, but may have been even more significant.
Using the Atomic Bomb on Japan
President Harry Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb against the Japanese cites of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945 remains one of history’s most controversial decisions. Unquestionably, they were devastating attacks and their stunning severity convinced an otherwise fanatical and totally detached-from-reality Japanese leadership to snap into some semblance of lucidity and surrender immediately. The formal surrender took place on the battleship USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.
The Japanese had displayed a zealously contumacious obsession to fight to the last man in their frenzied defense of the Pacific island campaign in 1941-45. When the island of Tarawa fell to U.S. forces after three days of unbelievably intense fighting, only 17 (!!) Japanese soldiers remained alive out of an initial force of 4,800. On Guam, after three weeks of fighting, the 18,000-man Japanese defensive force had fought with such ferocity that victorious U.S. forces took only 485 prisoners.
So it went, island after island, month after month. Total American casualties in the Pacific Theater were averaging 7,000 per week. Try to put that into the perspective of our recent engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iwo Jima (the famous “flag raising” battle) saw the Japanese fight to within 4,000 of their 22,000-man force, inflicting American casualties of 7,000 dead and 19,000 wounded during the 36-day battle.
Okinawa, the final island battle before the invasion of the Japanese homeland was to commence, lasted three months from April-June 1945, with 12,000 American deaths and 80,000 wounded. Japanese combat deaths were estimated to be in excess of 110,000.
The rate of casualties in these Pacific engagements was and remains simply unprecedented and incomprehensible, even to this day. Defending their homeland, there is every reason to believe that the Japanese would be even more desperate and fanatic. Adult civilians and children were ready to join the battle. Estimates of the duration of the invasion were from six months to over a year, and casualty expectations were over 500.000 American dead and 5-10 million Japanese dead, figures made so high because of anticipated widespread civilian participation in the defense of the homeland.
To reduce the calculation of different warfare strategies to a cold analysis of projected casualty/death rates is indeed a horrifying proposition. It’s a choice no sane person wishes would ever have to be made. Nonetheless, absent the atomic bomb, an invasion of the Japanese homeland was going to happen in November 1945. Six million or more would have died. But it didn’t happen.
British “Operation Catapult” Against France in 1940
This is surely one of history’s most incredible incidences, brought about by an almost unfathomable confluence of circumstances. In late spring/early summer 1940, Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany. The Germans had invaded and made mincemeat of France, their bitter rival from World War I, forcing France’s surrender in late June 1940 after a one-sided campaign that lasted mere weeks, beginning in early May. It was perhaps the most humiliating, one-sided defeat of a major country by another in military history.
Despite numerical superiority over Germany in virtually every important category of weapons, the French evidenced no taste for battle—or national honor—and capitulated to the invading Germans without mounting a meaningful defense of their country.
One of the categories of French military ascendancy over Germany was their navy. At that time (1939-40), France had the world’s fourth most powerful navy, after Great Britain, America and Japan. With one fully operational aircraft carrier and seven full-fledged battleships, France’s naval strength far outstripped Germany’s. Germany had no aircraft carriers, had four battleships and three smaller so-called “pocket battleships.” In contrast, Britain had over 15 battleships and seven aircraft carriers.
When France surrendered to Germany on June 22, 1940, Britain demanded that France sail its ships to British or American ports or scuttle (self-sink) their vessels. In a show of astonishingly ironic national pride, French naval commanders refused to do so, insisting that they would retain control and ownership of their own fleet, promising to scuttle ships should Germany attempt to annex any for its own use.
Great Britain, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill especially, worried that Germany would seize the French navy and incorporate it into its own forces. The German navy had a very substantial U-boat (submarine) force, but relatively limited surface ship strength. Its battleships and cruisers were of very high quality and quite capable, but in sheer numbers, Germany did not present a major challenge to Britain’s rule of European and Atlantic waters.
Add France’s navy to Germany’s and it would have been a markedly different situation. That combined navy would, in fact, pose a serious threat to Britain’s seaborne security and could easily create utter havoc with the war-effort-sustaining supply convoys coming into England. If Germany gained control of the sea, it would lead to Britain’s defeat. Germany would own Europe. The world as we know it today would not exist. That was Britain’s fear.
France obstinately refused to comply with Britain’s demands, insisting its fleet would remain neutral, uninvolved in the war and out of German hands. Churchill was aghast at the prospect of French warships becoming part of the German navy, threatening Britain’s very survival. This led him to make one of history’s most incredible, unbelievable strategic decisions:
He ordered the British Navy to attack and destroy a major French fleet moored at its home port in Algeria, northern Africa at Mers-el-Kébir on July 3, 1940. British battleships opened fire and killed well over 1,000 French seamen, destroyed or damaged several French warships and incurred the wrath of their former ally with an action absolutely unprecedented in modern history. Just a generation earlier, French and British soldiers fought and died side-by-side, fighting the Germans in World War I. Just two months earlier, French and British soldiers fought and died side-by-side, fighting the Germans in the French countryside. Just five weeks previous, the British mobilized every seagoing vessel they could find—both civilian and military—in a desperate effort to evacuate the remnants of the British, French, and Polish armies from the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France, so that the Allies might survive to fight another day.
Yet now in July 1940, the British—under direct orders from Churchill—willingly killed their former allies and destroyed their ships. Astonishing.
Churchill wrote in his 1949 memoirs, “…The elimination of the French Navy as an important factor almost at a single stroke by violent action produced a profound impression in every country. Here was this Britain which so many had counted down and out, which strangers had supposed to be quivering on the brink of surrender to the mighty power arrayed against her, striking ruthlessly at her dearest friends of yesterday and securing for a while to herself the undisputed command of the sea. It was made plain that the British War Cabinet feared nothing and would stop at nothing.”
Was it the correct thing to do? How realistic is it to think the Germans could have successfully incorporated the French ships into their own navy? French equipment was different than the Germans’ and they would need to be retrofit. French ammunition was different and either the French ships would have needed to be re-gunned or the Germans would have had to find and stockpile large amounts of French ammunition. And what of the crews? Suddenly adding eight or more major ships would require upwards of 20,000 skilled, experienced sailors. Where would they come from? Then there is the actual learning curve of becoming familiar and proficient at operating new equipment. All of that considered, it’s doubtful that any annexed French ships could have made a meaningful contribution to Germany’s war effort for at least a year or two.
Both Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs and Churchill’s decision to attack the French navy probably had as much to do with making an impression on adversaries as they did with solving an immediate tactical problem. Truman likely wanted to show the Soviets—who we knew would be our biggest adversary on the world stage after the war—that America would act ruthlessly, without hesitation, when it was in our interests to do so. Churchill’s diary quite explicitly says the same thing.
Analysts and historians will argue forever over both the efficacy and morality of decisions such as these. But any way we look at them, these are big-time calls, made at the very highest pay grade.