Maritime History: Naval Battles of World War II

Written by: John Maguire

Maritime History: Naval Battles of World War II

World War II was fought on land, in the air, and on water. However, some of the most intense fighting happened during naval battles. Many turning points in World War II were triggered by defeats and victories on the open ocean.

Pearl Harbor

Dec. 7, 1941, was the date of one of the most well-known naval battles of all time and certainly of World War II: Pearl Harbor. Japan carried out a sneak attack on the United States, targeting a U.S. base in Hawaii. The goal of the Japanese was to take out the U.S. naval fleet quickly before engaging in a prolonged fight. While the goal was to cripple the United States so they couldn't enter World War II, their attack on the American ships caused the opposite effect: This attack was the trigger for the United States to join the war, and most of the boats the Japanese intended to destroy during the attack were repaired and fought against them in the war.

Battle of the Coral Sea

This was one of the first battles between the U.S. Navy and the Japanese fleet after Pearl Harbor. After Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese fleet moved across the Pacific Ocean at alarming speeds. They took over key strategic cities and had their eyes on Australia, concerned that if they didn't move fast, they would be attacked by the United States. Due to a series of miscommunications, both Japan and the United States launched all available aircraft for this fight. This battle was won by the Japanese, and the Allied fleet was forced to withdraw. However, because the Japanese had launched every aircraft for this fight, they were unable to move forward with their plans to capture Australia and were crippled for the Battle of Midway. Although this was a tactical loss for the Allies, it resulted in a larger win later.

The Battle of Midway

The Battle of Midway was one of the most decisive battles in World War II. Just before this battle, the U.S. had crippled much of Japan's aerial fleet and cracked their communication codes, so this time, they were prepared for the "surprise attack." During their attack, the U.S. forces waited just east of the island for the Japanese to return and refuel. Then, the United States hit hard, destroying the Japanese ships and forcing them to retreat. The United States was the victor of this battle. This had devastating consequences for Japan's future in the war. They had predicted they would last six to 12 months against a strong American fleet, and this marked six months to the day after they drew the U.S. into the war. Stopping the Japanese here allowed the Allied forces to put Japan on the defensive.

Battle of the Philippine Sea

Now, the Americans were on the offensive. They were targeting the Marianas Islands, a location that would give them easy access to Japan's mainland. This engagement was unique in that the fight also took place underwater; the Americans were sinking Japanese navy ships via submarine while at the same time destroying any planes that tried to land. The Japanese fleet was decimated and retreated, leaving the United States the victor. While this was seen as a lost opportunity to destroy the Japanese fleet entirely at the time, it became clear that the Japanese would never recover from this loss. Too many aircraft carriers were sunk, and too many lives and boats were lost.

Battle of Leyte Gulf

The Battle of Leyte Gulf is considered by some to have been the largest naval battle in history. This was Japan's last attempt to turn the war around, as they mobilized every ship they had to defeat the combined American and Australian forces. The losses on both sides were heavy due to the length of the battle and the kamikaze efforts of the Japanese. Despite the attempts of the Japanese, the Allies were the victors of this battle. There was no coming back for the Japanese after this. The losses and damage to ships meant they could no longer be a force on the ocean. However, this was the first attempt at organized kamikaze attacks, which continued to be an effective strategy throughout the rest of the war.