The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought off the Queensland coast in 1942, was a strange and important fight. It was the first sea battle in history where the opposing fleets of ships – Japanese versus American-Australian – did not sight each other. All of the fighting was done between the aircraft of the two sides, with damage resulting from airborne strikes also deciding the outcome. And it saved Australia from possible invasion.
Following Pearl Harbor, the Japanese forces had achieved remarkable success. They had attacked down the Malayan peninsula and seized Singapore. The Philippines had fallen to their forces and General MacArthur, the supreme general of the Allied effort, had retreated south to Melbourne. The Japanese had achieved landings and consolidation through the islands of what are now Indonesia.
Emboldened by their achievements, the Japanese commanders planned to take and hold New Guinea. This would allow them to control the eastern seaboard of Australia and thus deny the strategically placed continent to be used as “an aircraft carrier” by the Allies. Australia would be too weak to stand by itself and would also eventually fall to the enemy.
An invasion from the north, around the eastern end of New Guinea to land in Port Moresby, was planned. A Japanese task force, focused on the light carrier Shoho, was placed to stop any interception. Two heavy carriers, the Shokaku and Zuikaku, were also placed to intercede where necessary.
Two Allied task forces under Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher, centred on the carriers Yorktown and Lexington, manoeuvred to engage this force and stop the landings. However, due to a combination of weather and poor scouting, both forces had difficulty locating each other. Reconnaissance at sea was notoriously difficult in those days. Ships were identified from great heights so that aircraft stayed out f gun range. This led to many being misidentified. This characterised the early phases of the engagement. For three days the Allies searched for the Japanese achieving little except an attack on 3 May on the island of Tulagi, which was under assault by their enemy.
On 7 May both sides made serious errors. The Allied task force was split, with eight ships led by the battlecruiser Australia sent to destroy any invasion fleet. The remainder of the force, unaware of the true size of the enemy ranged against them, sent off an aerial strike force against what was reported to be “two carriers and four cruisers.” By good fortune the aerial forces spotted Shoho and her covering force and attacked. The ship was hit by 13 bombs and seven torpedoes and sunk. Meanwhile the Japanese force sent off a strike against what their reconnaissance had told them was “a carrier and a cruiser” but actually was a US refuelling ship and a destroyer. Both were sunk.
By now the Japanese were aware of their danger and withdrew the landing force. Their carrier group continued to hunt for the main Allied units, and sent out an aerial strike force in the late afternoon. In poor weather, the Japanese planes could not find their target, and jettisoned their weapons to make it back to the carriers. They flew straight over the top of their enemy with predictably disastrous results – only seven of the 27 aircraft made it back to their ships.
The morning of the 8th heralded the first proper carrier battle in history. Both sides’ aircraft sorties found their targets. Shokaku was hit by two bombs and her flight deck was damaged while a fire broke out in the vessel’s bow. The Japanese pilots hit Lexington with two torpedoes and two bombs, setting her on fire, and Yorktown was hit by a heavy bomb. The Lexington’s fires could not be controlled and she eventually sank. The Japanese lost 42 aircraft; the Americans 33.
The result of this long and patchy fight was significant: the Japanese attack on Port Moresby had been prevented. The Japanese could claim a tactical victory though: Lexington was a much more significant loss than the far less capable Shoho. They also thought that their planned invasion of Midway Island would be strengthened by the Americans’ loss. But neither Shokaku and Zuikaku would be able to participate in this battle – the Japanese check at the Battle of the Coral Sea was to turn to disaster at Midway, and begin the end of their rising fortunes.