"Reluctant Allies:German-Japanese Naval Relations in World War II" Review

Reviewed by MARK R. PEATTIE Hoover Institution, Stanford University

"Alliances between states are surely the most fragile of political associations," wrote Johanna Meskill over 30 years ago. "The give-and-take that is required between sovereign nations for successful coalition warfare is difficult to obtain even under the most favorable circumstances." The strongest alliances have been built on shared and durable values, like the Anglo-American partnership of World War II, rather than on a temporary convergence of interests like those between the Axis powers of that same period. Within the Axis alliance, the Tokyo-Berlin connection, from its beginnings, faced unprecedented difficulties: national selfishness; enormous distance; radically different values, cultures, languages, and political institutions; incompatible strategic aims; and the absence of any understanding or even direct contact by the top leadership of either country with that of the other. All these conditions were linked to an essential and mutual distrust. These barriers to an effective coalition have been explored in Meskill's Hitler and Japan. The Hollow Alliance (1966) and more recently by Bernd Martin in his Japan and Germany in the Modern World (1995).

The new study under review demonstrates that, from its beginnings, the naval relationship between Germany and Japan confronted particular obstacles to its success. It had been initiated in the mid-1930s when the small postwar German navy was emerging from the restrictions placed on it under the Versailles Treaty and as the Japanese navy was in the process of ridding itself of the restrictions of the Washington and London naval limitations treaties. Each side had reasons for a rapprochement that were in part strategic - the German desire for a means to offset British naval preponderance - and partly material - the Japanese interest in acquiring cuttingedge naval technology now that access to such technology was severely restricted by the Anglo-American naval powers. From the outset, however, basic institutional differences in the two nations worked to undermine cooperation and coordination.

To begin with, the study point~ =S out, there was a fundamental imbalance in the status and structure of the two navies. Not only was the post-World War I Kriegsmarine a relatively small force, it never regained the privileged position it had enjoyed under Kaiser Wilhelm. Its chief. Admiral Erich Raeder, wielded authoritarian control over an officer corps that was unified and ready to serve the German state swiftly and uncritically. But its low status among the three armed services gave it little influence in the grand strategic decisions of the Third Reich. It was the Japanese navy's eventual realization of the limitations of the Kriegsmarine in size, ability, and willingness to support Japanese naval plans and ambitions that came to be the principal undercurrent in the Japanese navy's reluctance to make a serious commitment to cooperation and coordination with its German opposite. The navy's lack of enthusiasm for the Tripartite Pact of 1940 and the possibility of entanglement in a European war was emblematic of this reluctance.

For its part, the Kriegsmarine fundamentally misunderstood both the peculiar institutional structure and the strategic priorities of the Japanese navy. One of the world's great fleets at the outset of the Pacific War, the Japanese navy was superior to the army in terms of bureaucratic status, budget, and pride of place. It usually functioned, however, as a collection of bureaucratic satrapies, a situation that made for an agonizingly slow decision-making process and, in consequence, endlessly frustrated German naval officers assigned to advance cooperation between the two navies. Those strategic decisions Japanese. naval leaders did reach hardly included serious consideration of any Axis "grand design" or of the political objectives of its would-be partner. Rather, they were determined in each case solely by Tokyo's narrower definition of national interest. For his part, Hitler, indifferent to sea power and contemptuous of the Japanese as a people, was un-likely to view Japan and its navy in anything more than a supporting role in the achievement of purely German strategic aims.

In the initial phases of the relationship, from the mid- 1930s until the outbreak of the Pacific War, the acute nature of the differences in situation and intent between the two naval services was not apparent. In these years, it was possible for each service to have positive if unrealistic expectations of the other and for each to obtain some modest benefits: a demonstration of Japanese carrier operations for the German naval attach6 in 1935, and an ex-change of intelligence, of which the most dramatic was the provision by the German navy to the Japanese of certain strategic documents seized by a German surface raider in 1940 from a British freighter. But mostly the relationship between the two navies remained ceremonial and limited to vaporous expressions of friendship and mutual interest. During these protocol events, commitments to concrete cooperation were avoided or evaded by both sides.

The Tripartite Pact of 1940 was perhaps the high-water mark of expectations for cooperation between the two navies. Initially opposed to the treaty, the Japanese navy was persuaded to put its support behind it only after it came to believe that the pact would guarantee complete access to German naval technology, an expectation in which the Japanese were eventually disappointed. For their part, the Germans hoped the pact would lead to an early Japanese commitment to enter the war against Britain and its navy. with Singapore as the ultimate prize. But that was an effort the Japanese would make at a time of their own choosing.

Pursuant to the treaty, military commissions were to be sent by each country to the other to further cooperation in peacetime and coordination of strategic aims in the event of war. In fact, the commissions were never activated. Moreover, the secrecy behind the German planning for an assault on Russia and the Japanese plans to attack Pearl Harbor, concerning which neither country alerted the other, revealed how absent was any trust by either country and how shallow was the German-Japanese "alliance." With the expansion of a regional war into a worldwide conflict in December 1941 , the inability of the two nations to develop a global naval strategy became even clearer. Despite a military agreement signed in January 1942 by the Axis powers to further operational coordination, the fundamentally different strategic objectives of the German and Japanese navies made such professions meaningless. In their opening essay Hans-Joachim Knrg and Yoichi Hirama note (p. 77) that:The German navy's main enemy was Great Britain and its main target the merchant ship, but the Japanese navy's main enemy was the United States and its target was the warship. Because of these differences, the two navies followed separate courses. Hitler's navy primarily fought the Allied merchant fleet in the Atlantic and Hirohito's navy primarily fought the Allied men-of-war in the Pacific.

When one refiects on the dearth of opportunities for real strategic coordination between Germany and Japan in World War II, a counterfactual question inevitably arises: was there no strategic theater in which real coordination was possible, no vital moment when the two nations, had they coordinated their strategies, might have dealt a serious blow to the Allied cause? Some historians have speculated that an all-out effort by the Japanese to thrust into India and to seize Britain's Indian Ocean bases at the same time that German forces drove south through the Caucasus and east through Suez might have knocked Britain or Russia out of the war. I Such ideas even circulated among German navy circles in the spring of 1942. But as Reluctant Allies points out, such plans were delusional, as they were simply beyond the capacities of either nation to achieve.

I would argue that there was one opportunity for strategic coordination, unremarked by the study under review and apparently never considered by the naval high commands of either Germany or Japan, which could have been exploited with modest forces and with genuine prospects for success.

1 . See, for example, H. P. Winmott, Empires in the Balance: Japanese and Allied Pacific strategies to April 1942 (Annapohs: Naval Institute Press, 1982), pp. 437-38.

In the spring of 1942, had a concerted campaign by Japan's sizeable fleet of long-range submarines been launched against shipping between the American west coast and Hawaii and had such a campaign been coordinated with Admiral Karl D6nitz's actual and highly destructive submarine offensive against American shipping along the American east coast that spring (Operation Drumbeat), the consequences in lost shipping and fragmented anti-submarine warfare efforts would have delayed Allied counteroffensives both in Europe and the Pacific by many months, if not by years.

Compared to such a dramatic possibility, the actual achievements of operational coordination between the German and Japanese navies seem marginal indeed, particularly since they took place in the Indian Ocean, which was hardly the strategic cockpit of World War II. Dividing the operational zones of responsibility in that ocean at 70 degrees east longitude, German(and some Italian) submarines operated west of it and Japanese submarines east of it, although the Japanese navy also made provisions for a German repair and refueling base at Penang, off the west coast of Malaya. At all events, the destruction of Allied shipping by any Axis naval force was minimal and it is a mark of pettiness on both sides that the actual demarcation of operational responsibility was the source of continuing bureaucratic wrangling over supposed violations of the zones by operations of one side or the other.

The most that was achieved through the efforts at cooperation by the German and Japanese navies were long-range exchanges of technology, strategic resources, intelligence, and personnel. At first these exchanges were undertaken by surface blockade runners, mostly German, slipping past Allied blockades in the Atlantic. For Germany this blockade-running effort offered the possibility of obtaining vital resources from Japan's empire of conquest: rubber, tin, magnesium, and other materials unavailable in Europe. But with the increasing control achieved by Allied navies over the Atlantic, the Axis powers were reduced to transporting such materials by submarines (which had one-tenth the carrying capacity of surface freighters).

For the Japanese, communication and transportation by submarine offered the possibility of acquiring German technologies and technical expertise. But toward the end of the war, the ability of the Allies to read both German and Japanese naval communications traffic and the ever-expanding effectiveness of Allied antisubmarine warfare made even submarine voyages a thing of terrible risk for the German and Japanese navies.

A11 this is set forth in great detail in this gratifyingly authoritative study. By professional experience or by scholarly specialization, its four authors write with informed judgment on the German and Japanese naval relationship. Hans-Joachim Krug served in U-boats in both the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asian waters during the war; Yoichi Hirama attained flag rank in the postwar Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces and has written voluminously on Japanese naval history; Berthold Sander-Nagashima, who served in the Federal German Navy, is a professional historian and the author of a book on German and Japanese naval relations; and Axel Niestl6 has been a private researcher on World War 11 for 20 years, with particular expertise on U-boat operations.

It is unfortunate, however, that the work of each of these authors was not more closely and thoughtfully integrated into a successful whole. Excessively lenient editorial oversight by the Naval Institute Press has resulted in a work comprised of three essentially independent studies that are curiously organized and sometimes annoyingly repetitive. The first section of the work, coauthored by Krug and Hirama, treats wartime German and Japanese naval operations but without providing adequate discussion of the prewar attempts to forge cooperative ties between the two navies. The second section then jumps back to the 1930s before dealing with the opening of the Pacific War. All this backing and filling has meant that, all too often, information and judgments are repeated at several places in the text. That having been said, it is hard to imagine that the subject of the naval relations of these two "reluctant allies" could ever be given more definitive treatment than in this illuminating study. Complemented with numerous and interesting photographs, replete with translations of the most important treaties and agreements that supposedly guided the naval relationship, as well as with extensive notes and a satisfyingly rich bibliography, the work will be an enduring resource for historians of World War II, naval history, and the modern histories of Germany and Japan.