Crossing or capping the T is a classic naval tactic that was prominent from the late-19th to the mid-20th centuries. A similar concept to capping the T appears in earlier times with sailing ships known as raking fire. In land warfare, the concepts of enfilade and defilade have similar applications, however, for the sake of simplicity, we will only refer to the naval tactic as it applies to steam-driven warships and ships with turreted guns from the 19th century onwards.
Essentially, the tactic involves the exploitation of arcs of fire with turrets wherein one line of warships crosses the path of another line of enemy warships either in front or behind. The result is that the formation forming the cross of the T is able to bring more of its turrets to bear on the enemy formation, while the formation being capped can only bring its forward guns to bear (Dickie, Dougherty, Jestice, Jorgensen, & Rice, 2009, p. 211). Additionally, while ships further back in the formation being capped can technically return fire, provided that they have the range to do so, their arcs of fire are limited and they risk hitting friendly ships in front of them.
Another thing to note is that the battle line with the greater speed generally has the advantage in this scenario since the speed will allow them to attain the desired position to cap the T (Dickie et al., 2009, p. 211). However, additional factors which may influence the usage of this tactic include, but are not limited to:
- How to cross the T against a maneuvering enemy and if partial success had any value.
- The position of the flagship within the formation (in the van or elsewhere).
- The size of the formation.
- Command-and-Control procedures are in place to coordinate the formation.
- How to distribute gunfire among targets.
- Presence of enemy destroyers & the threat of torpedo attacks on the formation.
- Capabilities of the enemy’s sensors & scouting techniques.
- How to shift from cruising formation to battle formation.
(Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 62).
That being said, the fact that every navy in the modern era was aware of this technique meant that every navy was going to train to cap the enemy’s T, while simultaneously training to avoid having their own T capped. In short, this was no tactical secret and it rarely occurred in actual battles. It is also worth noting that capping the T does not necessarily confer a decisive tactical advantage to the fleet doing the capping, and there are several instances in history where capping the T did not lead to any decisive outcome.
Some famous historical examples of capping T, albeit with varying results, were:
- The Battle of Tsushima (1905)
- The Battle of Elli (AKA Battle of the Dardanelles) (1912)
- The Battle of Jutland (1916)
- The Battle of Cape Esperance (1942)
- The Battle of Surigao Strait (1944). The last time the T was capped in a battleship engagement and the last time in history that battleships engaged each other.
In the modern day, this tactic is “technically” still viable, however, emphasis on missiles as the main armament of escort vessels and over-the-horizon capabilities have more or less rendered it obsolete.
Many standard naval tactics were gradually developed during the time that sailing ships ruled the waves and European empires flexed their muscle around the globe. Early naval command and control in the 16th century proved chaotic as battles often degenerated into melees with the fleets being led, not by naval officers, but rather by army officers accustomed to land battles (Palmer, 2005, p. 30-38). Over time, navies (particularly the British and French) would refine their doctrine to include signal flags and line ahead formations known as a battle line (Palmer, 2005, p. 90-92). The actual genesis of the tactic of crossing the T is rather obscure, although it likely stems, at least partially, from the age sail. Following the maneuvers of the Mediterranean and Channel fleets in 1901, Admiral “Jackie” Fisher of the Royal Navy did note that:
the lesson that has been emphasized is that the one all important, immediate imperative step is to form the Fleet in one single line at right angles to the direction in which the enemy is sighted. How far we can keep this a secret remains to be seen. If both sides practice this golden rule and employ the single line of bearing then the fleet with the superior speed must win, that is battleships of superior speed.(Evans & Peattie, 1997, p. 75-77)
Around the same time, perhaps even parallel with the developments in the Royal Navy, the Imperial Japanese Navy was struggling with the idea of how to concentrate firepower on the enemy. Lieutenant Commander Yamaya Tanin at the Japanese Naval Staff College came up with the idea of the en senjutsu 円戦術 (Circle Tactic).
In line with the assumption that Japanese ships would be faster than their opponents, the theory held that two columns of ships would approach head-on. Upon reaching the distance of 5,000 meters, the Japanese line would turn to port or starboard and the column would begin to move in a circle around the enemy fleet, thus bringing a large number of guns to bear on the enemy van (Evans & Peattie, 1997, p. 75). The problem with this tactic is that it assumes that the enemy will not take any action upon seeing the Japanese formation turn and would thus continue straight ahead. Yamaya believed that the enemy would consider the sudden turn of the Japanese line to be an odd maneuver and would therefore take no action of its own. In any case, Yamaya’s circle tactic was tested in war games at the staff college in 1901 and found to be sufficiently promising (Evans & Peattie, 1997, p. 75). Realistically, tacticians have noted that Yamaya’s circle tactic would have been extremely difficult to pull off.
About a year later in 1902, Captain Shimamura Hayao gave a lecture at the Naval Staff College describing the tactic of crossing the T. The Japanese came to refer to the tactic of crossing the T as, tei sempo 丁戦法 (tei tactic), after the kanji character. Further testing in Japanese war games showed that the ideal position would be to place one’s fleet at 90 degrees to the enemy column. The closer to 90 degrees, the greater the advantage to the fleet crossing the T. Further experiments from the Japanese showed that rarely would the T be perfectly capped. More often, the victor would achieve less than 90-degree angles, more closely resembling the Japanese katakana character of イ. Japanese supplementary battle instructions in September 1912, called for the capping of the enemy’s T with the battle fleet’s main batteries concentrating their fire on select targets while the secondary batteries spread their fire among the enemy line. Eventually, the tactic of crossing the T became the holy grail after which all naval commanders sought. However, the questions remained of how to maneuver to quickly achieve the most advantageous position and how to maneuver to minimize the effects of the enemy changing range and course? Japanese war gamers noted that the tactic is difficult to maintain for any period of time and it often fails because the enemy will turn away (Evans & Peattie, 1997, p. 77). For the Japanese, the solution came in the development of the otsu tactic, which will be examined in another post.
U.S. Naval War Game Findings
In 1926, the U.S. Naval War College conducted a war game examining the effectiveness of firepower and staying power (i.e. ability to absorb damage) in a hypothetical clash between an American battle line and a Japanese battle line. In the scenario, the Americans were advancing across the Pacific to relieve the Philippines from Japanese capture.
As is seen in the above graph, the U.S. Pacific Fleet (designated Blue in the games) is comprised of more heavily armed and armored 10 battleships versus the Japanese battle line of 6 battleships and 4 battlecruisers (designated Orange in the games). At a range of 15,000 yards, in three minutes, it is expected that the American fleet (dashed line) will lose 15% of its original life versus 20% for the Japanese (solid line). The only range at which the Japanese have the advantage is around 25,000 yards (plus or minus 2,000 yards). Otherwise, in the opinion of Hughes and Girrier (2018), they must use their superior speed to cross the T before the Americans close the range (p. 179 – 181).
At the conclusion of the 1926 war game, the results show a definite U.S. win with 66 vessels (46%) remaining versus 45 vessels (38%) remaining for the Japanese (see below).
Undoubtedly both the Americans and the Japanese were aware of their own fleet’s advantages and disadvantages which is why they each developed their ships, weapons, and doctrine in the manner that they did. The Japanese sought to create warships that were qualitatively superior in order to compensate for their numerical inferiority to the U.S. fleet. In any case, the results of war games should never be viewed as indicative of future events, and actual combat in the Pacific in WWII played out very differently. Indeed, the rate of destruction was rarely equivalent to that which was seen in war game data.
Crossing the T in WWII
The brutal night fighting in the Solomon Islands during WWII exemplifies the Japanese use of destroyers, torpedoes, and a cohesive night fighting doctrine which allowed them to prevail early on despite the American advantage in radar. Additionally, American commanders frequently changed resulting in a lack of organizational memory (i.e. slow to learn from mistakes) and there was still the mistaken belief that the Japanese Type 93 torpedo did not have the impressive range that it did.
The Japanese preferred to approach in several columns, simultaneously get into action, and maneuver to evade possible torpedoes. In contrast, the Americans usually approached in a long, single, and tightly spaced column. Once detecting the enemy, they would maneuver to bring all guns to bear and attempt to cross the T.
The Battle of Cape Esperance
The American tactics were demonstrated at the Battle of Cape Esperance on the night of 11-12 October 1942. During the battle, the Americans detected the Japanese force on radar at 14 nautical miles and were in the advantageous position of being able to cross the T. However, delayed and ambiguous orders, combined with organizational confusion meant that the superior U.S. force did not open fire until the Japanese were merely 2.5 nautical miles away. The Japanese were unaware of the Americans during their entire approach until they were fired upon.
While the Battle of Cape Esperance was counted as an American victory (having sunk 1 heavy cruiser, 1 destroyer, and heavily damaging 1 heavy cruiser in exchange for 1 destroyer sunk and 1 light cruiser and destroyer damaged), in reality, studies show that the Americans failed to take full advantage of the initiative with their use of radar. If the Americans had worked out a more cohesive battle plan and been more adept with their use of sensors, then the battle would likely have ended in the total destruction of the Japanese force. Ultimately, the Americans walked away from the battle with a mistaken validation of their own tactics, specifically the superiority of gunfire. The Japanese would not make the same mistake six weeks later during the Battle of Tassafaronga (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 105 – 108). Richard Frank (1990) is less critical of the American performance noting that while their formation was indeed tightly packed and prohibitive in the use of torpedoes, Rear Admiral Norman Scott had a sound plan that utilized the capabilities of his ships and made more sophisticated tactics unwise. Furthermore, Admiral Mikawa used a similar line ahead formation during the earlier Battle of Savo Island (p. 311). Whatever the case, the Americans crossing the T of the Japanese during the Battle of Cape Esperance appears to have been a mere fluke and not the decisive factor in their victory. In fact, according to Charles Cook, a junior officer on the Helena, “Cape Esperance was a three-sided battle in which chance was the major winner” (Frank, 1990, p. 311).
The Battle of Surigao Strait
The second and final time that the T was crossed during WWII occurred two years later on 25 October during the Battle of Surigao Strait as a part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf. It was also the last time that battleships would engage each other.
The Japanese “Southern Force” under Admiral Nishimura consisted of the old battleships Fuso and Yamashiro, the heavy cruiser Mogami, and the destroyers Shigure, Michishio, Asagumo, and Yamagumo. As the Japanese force advanced north up the strait, it was whittled down by destroyer and PT boat attacks before consisting solely of one battleship (most likely the Yamashiro), the heavy cruiser Mogami, and the destroyer Shigure.
The U.S. battle line was composed of the older treaty-era battleships California, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee, and West Virginia. All of these, except the Mississippi, were previously damaged or sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. The battleships were steaming back and forth across the north end of the strait with additional cruisers and destroyers on both their right and left flanks. The battleships detected the remainder of the Japanese force on radar at a distance of over 33,000 yards. Admiral Weyler signaled the ships to open fire at 26,000 yards because he wanted to use the available salvos of armor-piercing ammunition. West Virginia, Tennessee, and California were equipped with the latest Mark 8 fire control radars which caused the greatest amount of damage. The other three battleships had the older Mark 3 fire control radar and had more difficulty in picking up the Japanese ships. Maryland managed to get a range off of West Virginia’s shell splashes and fired 48 rounds of 16″ in six salvos. Mississippi fired one salvo, and Pennsylvania was unable to locate a target. At 0408, Mississippi fired a full salvo at a target some 19,790 yards distant making her the battleship that fired the last major-caliber salvo of that battle and brought to an end the classic battle line tactics (Morison, 1958, p. 223 – 226). One minute later, at 0409, Admiral Oldendorf ordered the ships to cease fire. The Japanese force turned around, but Yamashiro lasted a mere 10 more minutes before capsizing and sinking with most of her crew, including Admiral Nishimura (Morison, 1958, p. 228 -229).
Crossing the T was merely a notional concept since the U.S. battleships were able to take full advantage of their superior radar-directed fire control to hit the Japanese who, in contrast, did not enjoy the same technological advantage. Maneuver seems to have been a non-issue not only due to the fact that the U.S. battle line and its supporting cruisers and destroyers were positioned in the strait to block any attempts by the Japanese to attack the landing forces from the south, but also because of the narrow geography of the strait itself and the general confusion of the Japanese forces.
In the end, crossing the T is a naval tactic that was held over from the late 19th century. Navies around the world experimented with tactics and technology that would give them an advantage with regard to maneuverability and/or staying power. Actual combat in WWII revealed a very different story with the advent of radar and advanced fire control. While technically useful, the historical record shows us that combat has too many variables to make crossing the T a definite factor in one fleet’s victory over the other. With the modern use of long-range sensors, scouting, missiles, and over-the-horizon capabilities, it is unlikely that crossing the T and the associated tactical maneuvers will be of any major significance to naval battles in the future.
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Evans, D.C., & Peattie, M.R. (1997). Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.
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