The Doolittle Raid, story of the first US air raid on Tokyo after Pearl Harbor

The Doolittle raidthe name with which the first one went down in history US air raid on Tokyo during the Second World War April 18, 1942owes its name to the lieutenant colonel Jimmy Doolittlewho conceived it and flew it with 16 bombers North American B-25 Mitchell. It was a particular mission first and foremost because it did not have a strategic objective but a moral one: to raise the morale of the American troops with a response to the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on 7 December 1941. Among the other peculiarities of the raid there was the fact That the mission did not include a return: Doolittle had calculated that the B-25s could not return to the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet, but could land in China.

How and when the Doolittle raid was conceived: the origins of the air raid on Tokyo

We are in the first months of 1942, the United States were catapulted militarily into Second World War following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Americans were still in shock and the Japanese Empire was spreading undisturbed, with the American Navy almost totally destroyed, in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Japanese military expansion seemed unstoppable and the Japanese homeland unassailable.

The American military leaders were looking for the first military response. It was then that US Navy Capt Francis Low he had the idea of ​​a bombing raid on Japan when he realized that, under particular conditions, a bomber would be able to take off from an aircraft carrier. The idea convinced the US military leaders, who entrusted the task of planning and conducting it to the USAAF lieutenant colonel Jimmy Doolittleexpert aviator and aeronautical engineer.

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Pearl Harbor cover

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Doolittle planned the entire mission in detail, choosing the aircraft and personnel within the army (at that time the US Air Force did not exist as an independent force but was part of the army). Given the particularity of the mission and the high risk, the participants in the mission were only volunteers.

The mission involved launching the planes about 400 km from the Japanese coast, bombing pre-established points (including Tokyo) and, given the impossibility for the bombers to land on the aircraft carrier, following the Occupied Chinawhere, thanks to Intelligence operations, some landing strips had been prepared.

Doolittle coordinated with the Navy and the mission began on April 1, 1942.

Jimmy Doolittle.

How the B-25 Mitchell, the aircraft involved in the attack on Tokyo, was modified

Jimmy Doolittle's chosen plane was the North American B-25 Mitchella twin-engine, medium-wing medium bomber which was the protagonist of many sorties throughout WW2, both in the European and Pacific theaters.

This particular type of bomber was chosen for its small size and good autonomy. The training lasted a few weeks, researching the optimal conditions for taking off from the aircraft carrier. Suffice it to say that it was the first time that a bomber was launched from an aircraft carrier and that at the time modern catapults did not yet exist.

The aircraft was appropriately modified for the flight deck, lightening it of everything that was not essential. The tail machine guns were removed, replaced with some dummy ones, only those on the dorsal turret were left and it was replaced the Norden viewfinder with a decidedly simplified tool to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Japanese. Each plane carried 4 bombs weighing approximately 230 kg and additional tanks were added with enough fuel to reach China.

North American B–25 Mitchell. Credit: Sherwood Mark.

What happened during the Doolittle raid: the story of April 18, 1942

The mission came to life on April 1, 1942 when 16 B-25s were loaded onto the aircraft carrier Hornet in the port of Alameda in California. Each bomber had a crew of 5 men, for a total of 80 airmen. After a few days, Hornet joined the carrier task force USS Enterprise and the convoy headed across the Pacific.

On the morning of April 18, the convoy was spotted by a Japanese patrol vessel Nitto Maru which was promptly shot down by a ship from the American convoy. At that moment the convoy was about 370 km from the pre-established point for the launch and a day early, but at that point Doolittle and the captain of the Hornet, in doubt as to whether or not the patrol vessel had raised the alarm via radio, decided to launch bombers. The first to take off was Doolittle followed by the other 15 crews, there were no difficulties in takeoffs and low altitude flight. Having reached Japan, each bomber headed towards the pre-established point and everyone had the opportunity to drop their bombs, hitting military targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, Osaka and Nagoya around midday. Civilian settlements were also hit during the raid.

The Doolittle raid map.

After the bombing all the crews headed towards occupied China, but adverse weather conditions and fuel reserves made the destination impossible. A crew headed, disobeying orders towards Vladivostok in Russia, where the plane was seized and the crew captured and interned until 1943, when he was released following intelligence activities. The other 15 crews launched on China, all but 10 men managed to return home (including Doolittle) after various vicissitudes. Of the 10 men, two died during the launch, 4 due to mistreatment or a show trial and only in August 1945 were the last 4 men freed by American troops.

Doolittle and his crew. Credit: USAAF.

The aftermath of the raid

The raid was designed without any war or tactical pretensions, but only to boost American morale by demonstrating that Japan could also be attacked. In any case, after the war it was actually discovered that Doolittle and his men had managed to hit multiple war objectives, causing more damage than imagined.

From the Japanese point of view, however, the raid led to tactical consequences, as many fighters were recalled from operational theaters to defend the homeland, inevitably weakening the garrisons scattered across the Pacific.