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Operation Storm

14 July 2022

Operation Storm: Japan’s Top Secret Submarines and Its Plan to Change the Course of World War II, John J. Geoghegan, 20 13, ISBN 978-0-307-46480-4, 478 pp.

Operation Storm: Japan’s Top Secret Submarines and Its Plan to Change the Course of World War II by John J. Geoghegan

The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had a powerful submarine force as it entered World War II (WW II). These submarines were more than combat capable and were notably, as well as, lethally armed with what became known to the English speaking world as “Long Lance” torpedoes—these were much faster and far longer ranged than torpedoes of other navies, Axis or Allied, at the time. The IJN had many submarine variants built as it sought to fill niches of which other navies would have no bother. Niches which could be exploited, especially in spectacular fashion, but not for the drama. Instead, to make possible obtaining strategic advantage since the IJN was only too aware that it could not win a drawn out war against the United States. The IJN knew that their victories had to count and had to be immediate. 

One of those niches was so remarkable, so secretive, that it has become legend and that is the world’s first and only submarine aircraft carriers—the I-400 class of submarines. Yes, a few navies experimented with flying a single aircraft off of a submarine, but it was the IJN which decided to specialize in also recovering these scouting aircraft for reuse—torpedoes were still the main armament. The IJN then went a further step—designing and building submarines for carrying two or three attack aircraft as their primary armament for special operations. It is a complicated historical piece to unravel given the project was an IJN secret, many records were destroyed, many witnesses did not survive the war and the U.S. Navy (USN) was not lauding the IJN at the end for WW II—then the Cold War stepped in, as well.

Fortunately, John J. Geoghegan has written about these amazing purpose built vessels and their beautiful, as well as unique, aircraft. He has done so through admirable research efforts, uncommon insights and his talent for capturing the human dimension in the making of history. Operation Storm has all the elements of a story that will grab the reader by the collar and pulled in close. The engineering of the largest submarines in the world (until ballistic missile submarines were created), the seamanship of running of the submarine, war crimes, personality conflicts in the chain of command (both IJN and USN), and the details of the world’s only submarine based attack aircraft. 

The special ops mission the I-400 class was created for originally was to attack major cities along the eastern coast of the United States. These attack benefits were thought to be psychological in effect much like the then recent Doolittle Raid on Japan. Later, the mission was changed to target the destruction of the Panama Canal’s Gatun Locks utilizing the hydraulic potential of Gatun Lake. This specific mission was overtaken by events as Japan continued losing the war, ultimately morphing into attacking the Home Islands of Japan invasion fleet massing at Ulithi Atoll. Geoghegan shows the reader in excellent detail how this amazing class of submarine, as well as the similarly rapidly designed hand-built aircraft Aichi M6A1 Seiran began with Admiral Yamato’s initiation to their capture by the U.S. Navy. The author also describes the unique design of the I-400 class in a fascinating style. Though outwardly the I-400 class submarines were largely conventional as a surface vessel which could submerge (standard design for the day) but were much wider, much longer, had an immense tube (the aircraft hangar) to the starboard of the conning tower—and the conning tower was monsterous for the time at three stories in height, as well as shifted several feet to port. Less obviously, they possessed conjoined side-by-side pressure hulls which allowed the rare positioning, within submarines of the time, of main engines also side-by-side. The author uses artist Emil Petrinić’s skills to show this and much more about the interior and the build of this class of submarine. 

Geoghegan also notes important background details that fill in the context between the significant facts like mortar in a brick wall:

  • How thick was the hangar hatch gasket and what was it made of? 
  • How were the Seiran aircraft maintained on their long voyage to their launch point?
  • How were the Seiran aircraft assembled and launched prior to flight?
  • What amount of time was required to assemble and launch the Seirans? 
  • Just how were the massive concrete Gatun Locks to be destroyed by these attack aircraft?
  • How many Seiran aircraft were slated for the attack on the Panama Canal attack?
  • How many aircraft carrier submarines were required for the Panama Canal mission?
  • How long did the largest submarine of the day take to submerge?
  • What were the defenses of the I-400 class?  
  • What ultimately happed to the three I-400 class submarines?

There is quite a cast of characters ranging from primary through secondary and family. No stone seems to have gone unturned since these names quickly and surely become personages to the reader thanks to Geoghegan’s ability to portray their humanity as well as their thinking and actions. This is extraordinary on the author’s part. Two IJN officers in particular committed war crimes earlier in the war, before the I-400 class came to be, and Geoghegan describes their thinking and decision process without making cultural judgements—not to persuade the reader but to have the reader understand the enemy of the time. It is a gift to see both sides in an unbiased fashion and then make judgement instead of easily and simply acting on reflex.

Like many great storytellers, Geoghegan has intriguing insights surprising the reader throughout his book. Interesting and unexpected asides such as vicariously piloting one of HURL’s (Hawaii Undersea Research) remote submersibles (Pisces IV or V) off the coast of Hawaii to find the I-400 which had been torpedoed by the USN as an early victim of the Cold War—and why.

This book is a must for those interested in aviation’s history. Readers will not be disappointed or find themselves reading rehashed details or an endless delivery of dates and names—instead they will enjoy the rich tapestry of that history the author has put down in his book. Geoghegan’s research and writing should not be missed as they are steeped in both insights and understanding whether it be the engineering designs or the humanity of the individuals involved, along with their decisions. Operation Storm is also wonderfully jammed full of notes and citations, has a detailed index and a listing of the dozens of pertinent people involved. 

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