Operation 1st Raid on Kure

The '1st Raid on Kure' was a US naval air raid targeting the remnants of the Japanese Combined Fleet located in and near the Japanese city of Kure (19 March 1945).

The attack by 321 aircraft was unsuccessful, as no Japanese warships were sunk though several were damaged. Japanese forces struck back at the relevant US naval force on the morning of 19 March, and crippled one aircraft carrier and badly damaged another.

As part of the planning for the 'Iceberg' invasion of Okinawa, the US Navy’s Fast Carrier Task Force, currently known as Task Force 58, was ordered to neutralise airfields in the Japanese home islands from which air attacks could otherwise be launched for attacks on the invasion force after the landings began on 1 April 1945. As part of these operations, TF58 was also to attack Imperial Japanese navy warships sheltering in ports.

Admiral Raymond A. Spruance’s TF58 was the main striking element of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s US Pacific Fleet. The major offensive element of the Pacific Fleet’s 5th Fleet, the task force included 15 aircraft carriers, and was organised into four task groups. The attacks in March March were the third time TF58 had struck at the Japanese home islands: the first had been a series of raids against airfields on 16/17 February 1945, in which the American crews claimed to have destroyed 341 Japanese aircraft in the air and 190 on the ground for the loss of 80 of their own to all causes; the second raid had been made against airfields in the Tokyo region on 25 February, in which the Americans claimed 46 Japanese aircraft while losing 16 of their own. After this attack, TF58 returned to its base at Ulithi atoll to rest and prepare for further operations.

By this stage of World War II, the Imperial Japanese navy was confined largely to port. Its major warships had suffered heavy losses during 1944, and little fuel remained for those which survived. Most of the Combined Fleet, the Imperial Japanese navy’s primary combat force, was stationed at the major naval base at Kure on the Inland Sea. This port was defended by hundreds of anti-aircraft guns, which US Navy intelligence estimated as including 160 large-calibre weapons and hundreds of smaller-calibre weapons.

TF58 departed Ulithi on 14 March to start its programme of pre-invasion attacks on the Japanese home islands. Japanese forces located and tracked the task force as it approached, but were unsure whether it was a precursor to the landing on Okinawa or another attack on airfields. On 18 March TF58’s aircraft attacked 45 airfields on Kyushu. Few Japanese aircraft were found on the airfields, but large numbers attacked the US aircraft in the air. Other Japanese aircraft attacked TF58, and lightly damaged the fleet carriers Enterprise and Intrepid. The fleet carrier Yorktown suffered more extensive damage after being hit by a bomb which killed five men of her crew and wounded 26 other men. Some 110 Japanese aircraft were destroyed. US photo-reconnaissance aircraft also operated over Japan on 18 March, and located concentrations of Imperial Japanese navy warships at Kure and Kobe, those at Kure including the super-battleship Yamato, the battleship Haruna and three light aircraft carriers.

The Japanese ships located on 18 March were selected as TF58’s main objective for the next day’s attacks. Task Group 58.1, Task Group 58.3 and Task Group 58.4 were to attack Kure, and Task Group 58.2 was to strike at Kobe. Fighter aircraft were directed to sweep ahead of the US dive-bombers and torpedo-bombers, and attack Japanese aircraft. The main target specified for the attack on Kure was the port’s oil storage tank complex and other naval installations, but the attack co-ordinator, Commander George M. Ottinger, was authorised to redirect the US Navy aircraft against other targets.

Japanese aircraft were launched at dawn to attack TF58, their attacks being focused on TG58.2. At 07.10 a Japanese aircraft arrived undetected over the task group and hit the fleet carrier Wasp with a single bomb that penetrated deep into the ship and exploded in her galley. This detonation killed many of the cooks and mess attendants who were preparing breakfast, and started fires but, as a result of efficient damage control, the had been were extinguished within 15 minutes and the carrier resumed flying operations at 08.00. However, 101 of Wasp's crew had been killed and 269 wounded. A near-miss by a kamikaze shortly after 08.00 caused minor damage.

The fleet carrier Franklin was also attacked. While she was launching her second strike of the day at 07.08, the ship was struck by two bombs dropped from a Japanese dive-bomber which had also avoided detection. Huge fires rapidly broke out throughout the carrier, and weapons which had been loaded onto her strike aircraft exploded as the fire reached them. Franklin's crew managed to save the ship, but 724 men were killed and 265 wounded.

At 06.18 on 19 March, TF58 began launching the fighters that were to sweep over the airfields around Kure. As they approached Kure, the 20 Grumman F6F Hellcat single-engined fighter-bombers of the VBF-17 squadron encountered 40 fighters from the Imperial Japanese navy air service’s elite 343rd Kokutai, and in a 25-minute battle six US and four Japanese fighters were shot down.

Other engagements between US and Japanese fighters were fought around the Kure area throughout 19 March, some of the Japanese pilots flying two sorties. The total casualties from this fighting, including the engagement between VBF-17 and Captain Minoru Genda’s 343rd Kokutai flying the Kawanishi N1K2 Shiden-Kai 'George' single-engined fighter, was 14 US and 25 Japanese aircraft shot down.

A large force of US aircraft was dispatched to attack Kure. This force comprised 158 Curtiss SB2C Helldiver single-engined dive-bombers and Grumman TBF Avenger single-engined torpedo-bombers, escorted by 163 Hellcat and Vought F4U Corsair single-engined fighters. At least some of the Corsair machines were armed with rockets which could be used to attack ground targets. The US force was thus almost as large as that which the Imperial Japanese navy had employed in the 'Ai' attack on Pearl Harbor which had brought the USA into World War II on 7 December 1941.

Ottinger arrived over Kure with the first wave of aircraft. After sighting many warships, he ordered that half of the bombers target ships rather than their planned shore installations. After further consideration, he directed all of the bombers to attack the three Japanese battleships, four aircraft carriers and 10 other warships which were at anchor in the Kure area.

Bunker Hill's air group began the attack on Kure, concentrating its efforts against the light aircraft carrier Ryuho, which was struck by three bombs and two rockets. These caused considerable damage, and killed 20 of her crew. Two of Bunker Hill's Helldiver dive-bombers were shot down.

All four battleships at Kure were targeted. Wasp's air group focused its attentions on the hybrid battleship/carrier Hyuga, but hit her with only one bomb which killed about 40 men. Hyuga's sister ship Ise was struck by two bombs. Anchored in the roadstead off Kure, Haruna was hit by one bomb which caused little damage. The super-battleship Yamato was targeted by aircraft from Intrepid, but was struck by only a single bomb which exploded on her bridge.

The other three aircraft carriers were also struck. The escort carrier Kaiyo suffered the worst damage and caught fire. This caused flooding which almost capsized the ship and, in order to avoid this fate, she was towed into shallow water. The fleet carrier Katsuragi was hit by one bomb, and a near miss opened her hull and caused flooding. A single bomb struck the flightdeck of her sister ship Amagi.

As well as the capital ships, the light cruiser Oyodo was heavily damaged, and as she began to flood after being struck by three bombs the ship was towed to Eta-jima island and beached to prevent her from sinking.

Kure’s anti-aircraft defences engaged the US aircraft throughout the attack. This was the most intense anti-aircraft fire experienced by TF58’s aircrews up to that time, and 11 Helldiver and two Avenger aircraft were shot down. These losses were lighter than had been expected by most of the task force’s officers, however.

The attack on Kure was unsuccessful. Despite the large size of the attack force and its achievement of air superiority, TF58’s aircraft achieved few hits on Japanese warships. No Japanese warships were sunk, and only one escort carrier and one light cruiser were badly damaged.

After completing the attacks on Kure and Kobe, TF58 withdrew to the south. It flew further fighter sweeps over southern Kyushu on 19 and 20 March. TG58.2 was attacked again by Japanese aircraft on the afternoon of 20 March, when the destroyer Halsey Powell was struck by a kamikaze and Enterprise's flightdeck was rendered unusable after she was accidentally struck by anti-aircraft fire from other US warships. On the afternoon of 21 March, 48 Japanese aircraft attempted to attack TF58, but were driven off with heavy casualties after they were intercepted by 150 US fighters. The damaged carriers Franklin, Enterprise and Yorktown were subsequently detached and departed for repairs. The damage to Franklin was so extensive that she never saw active use again.

The Fast Carrier Task Force operated in Japanese waters for the remainder of the war. On 18 July it attacked Yokosuka: this raid was centred on the battleship Nagato, which was lightly damaged. The Fast Carrier Task Force and the British Pacific Fleet attacked Kure and the Inland Sea area again on 24 and 28 July in the '2nd Raid on Kure'. These attacks sank or crippled three battleships, three aircraft carriers, two heavy cruisers and two other cruisers, and damaged several other warships. Allied casualties in this operation were high, with 126 aircraft destroyed and 102 men killed.