Episode 26 – William the Conqueror versus Isoroku Yamamoto

William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror

Today’s podcast is from the Military bracket and it pits the man who invaded England in 1066 and fundamentally changed the island forever against the commander-in-chief of the naval fleets of Japan during the early years of World War II, Isoroku Yamamoto.

William the Bastard as he is known by some was the illegitimate son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy in 1028, the exact date is lost to history. Very little is known about his early life except that in 1035, his father named him his heir and demanded that everyone pledge allegiance to the young boy if he didn’t make it back from his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This was a wise decision as he died a year after embarking on his journey.

At first, the transition went smoothly despite William’s birth status. King Henry I of France and Archbishop Robert, the boy’s great uncle supported his claim, but he died in 1037 throwing the control of Normandy into chaos.

There were lots of claimants to Normandy and lots of stories that claimed that often times William had to hide in everything from horse stables to homes of peasants utilizing all sorts of disguises. It is tough to separate fact from fiction as some writers of the time wanted to embellish his image while others sought to tear them down. Whatever the truth is, and there it is likely there are threads of honesty in the tales, by 1046 things came to a head.

William was now 17 or 18 with a cadre of enemies joining together to challenge his position. Luckily for the young man, he still had the support of King Henry. On the other side was Guy of Burgundy along with his allies, Nigel, Viscount of the Cotentin, and Ranulf, Viscount of the Bessin. They began their fight for the Dukedom in 1046. While the forces of William and Henry were victorious the following year at the Battle of Val-es-Dunes, which precipitated the Truce of God. Unfortunately for the Norman people, this did nothing to stop the fighting. That would take another seven years until 1054. Intermittent skirmishes were going on until 1060.

In England, Edward the Confessor, first cousin of William, ruled as king. A major problem arose as Edward was childless. Some historians claim he was celibate although others dismiss that and lay the blame on his wife Edith of Wessex being barren. A succession plan was necessary as there was no apparent heir. The best claimant was Edward Aetheling, son of Edmund Ironsides but he died in 1057 after returning from exile in Hungary. It is here that many believe that William was made the heir-apparent.

Stephen Baxter wrote in his work, Edward the Confessor and the Succession Question, that Edward’s “handling of the succession issue was dangerously indecisive and contributed to one of the greatest catastrophes to which the English have ever succumbed.” When Edward died in 1065, Harold Godwinson was crowned King of England. He was to be the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings when he died on October 14, 1066.

William for his part, was solidifying his control over Normandy. His marriage to Matilda of Flanders around 1050, the exact date is lost to history. Flanders was a powerful territory and the marriage was to produce four sons and many daughters.

We’re now in the year 1065 and Edward the Confessor has died without naming a clear-cut successor. Harold Godwinson was crowned king, but others were circling England for what they believed was their right to the throne. Godwinson knew that Duke William was going to invade but King Harald Hardrada of Norway invaded first. He along with Tostig Godwinson first beat the forces of Edwin and Morcar, allies of Harold.

Godwinson sprinted north to meet Hardrada and his forces to fight at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25, 1066 where the Norwegian invaders were crushed. The problem was, William was gathering his troops to invade England. He landed at Pevensey Bay on September 28th causing Godwinson and his men to scurry back south to meet the Normans.

On October 14, 1066 the Battle of Hastings was fought, an encounter I will be covering in episode 40. Needless to say, William led his troops to a smashing victory. He would then begin to consolidate his hold on the country, capturing Kent, Dover, Canterbury and Winchester. Within weeks, many of his potential opponents began to submit to his rule. On December 25, 1066, William the Bastard, became William the Conqueror and was crowned the King of England at Westminster Abbey.

For the next ten years, there were numerous rebellions along the countryside as well as an invasion by King Sweyn of Denmark. All were repulsed. Many of the insurrections occurred when William went back to Normandy to take care of his lands there. There was really never a complete peace during his lifetime as king which was to end on September 9, 1087.

William’s legacy was the changes in culture and language, the relationship of the Church to the state, as well as the aristocracy of England. His third son William would take over for his father until his death in 1100 whereby the youngest boy, Henry would become king until 1135. This would precipitate a civil war known as the Anarchy.

Now on to our Putting it into perspective segment.

During William the Conquerors reign, the Granada Massacre of the city’s Jewish population occurs, the Battle of Manzikert is fought, Sviatoslav II becomes the ruler of Kievan Rus, and the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicted the Norman Invasion is created. It has the only image of William the Conqueror that has survived.

Now on to our second contestant, Isoroku Yamamoto.

Isoroku Yamamoto
Isoroku Yamamoto

Born on April 4, 1884 to Sadayoshi Takano, a samurai of the Nagaoka Domain. The name Isoroku means 56 in old Japanese to signify his father’s age when he was born. He was adopted by the Yamamoto family, another samurai clan and Isoroku took that as his name.

Yamamoto enrolled into the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy, graduating in 1904. During the Russo-Japanese War he served on an armored cruiser. Isoroku lost two of his fingers on his left hand during the Battle of Tsushima. That naval clash saw the destruction of two-thirds of the Russian fleet. Yamamoto would serve under Admiral Togo, a man considered “The Horatio Nelson of the East.”

After the war, Isoroku returned to the Naval Staff College in 1914 where he became a lieutenant commander in 1916. He then married Reiko Mihashi at the age of 34 in 1918. The following year, he went to the United States where he studied at Harvard University from 1919 to 1921. It was here that he became fluent in English and understood that getting into a military confrontation with America was not going to turn out well for Japan.

The years before the war, Yamamoto was not what we would call the most honorable husband to Reiko. In fact, many years after his death, his wife told the Japanese public that her husband was closer to his favorite geisha girl, Kawai Chiyoko than to her. In Donald Davis’s book, Lightning Strike: The Secret Mission to Kill Admiral Yamamoto and Avenge Pearl Harbor, his funeral procession in 1943 went past the geisha’s home on the way to the cemetery.

When he turned 40 in 1924, Yamamoto switched from specializing in artillery to aviation which he saw as the future of warfare. From 1926 to 1928, Isoroku was the senior naval attaché for the Japanese government to the United States. From there he returned to Japan to serve in the Navy’s Aeronautics Department and later becoming the Deputy Naval minister in 1936.

It was at this time that his life was threatened because of his so-called peaceful nature. The warlike extremists had taken control of the military and had no problem killing people in their way. No one was there to meet out any punishment so if your agenda fit with war preparations you were okay, otherwise, you might end up dead.

Japan knew that war with the United States was inevitable. By 1940, most American’s were sure of it as well according to some polls. The Nanking Massacre and other attacks by the Japanese against China and other countries in Southeast Asia were in the news all the time. What the Japanese government wanted, a government in the hands of the military, was a plan to take America out of the war for a period of time, enough time to keep them at bay until all of the Pacific from Guam to Japan were in their hands. It was here that Yamamoto made his plans for the attack on Pearl Harbor known.

His plan to attack Pearl Harbor was not new. In 1927, war games at the Japanese Navy War College included an examination of a carrier raid against Pearl Harbor. There was also some hint that an American general had actually come up with a scenario where the Hawaiian naval base would be attacked from the air, but that was dismissed as nonsense by the Pentagon in Washington D.C.

By 1940, the US and Great Britain were cutting off raw material supplies from Japan and the war in China and Manchuria were draining resources. The British had many holdings in Southeast Asia, but it was tied up with the Battle of Britain and the Germans. Now was the time to attack those resource-rich lands. The problem was, the United States would undoubtedly declare war on Japan if they did.

The plan was to neutralize the American naval fleet. Yamamoto was unsure of this plan as he is quoted as saying to the Prime Minister Prince Konoe, “I can guarantee to put up a tough fight for the first six months, but I have absolutely no confidence about what would happen if it went on for two or three years… I hope you will make every effort to avoid war with America.”

He was now the Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet of the Japanese Navy and he had his orders, stop the Americans. The plan that Yamamoto created included knocking out US bases in Guam, Midway and Wake Island, and at the last minute, he decided to have a go at Pearl Harbor.

The attack on the Hawaiian naval base was a masterstroke of planning and execution. It went better than Yamamoto could have ever believed. There was one thing that it did that he was entirely sure of, it caused the enormous industrial power of the world to wake up and go to war with Japan.

From there, Yamamoto planned the Battle of Midway which we heard about in episode 16. It turned out to be a disaster. The problem was that the plan was so elaborate, it was hard to perform flawlessly. By now, Isoroku Yamamoto became arrogant and according to sources, he ran the Combined Fleet through intimidation. No one dared to criticize his plans, and no one did.

His future strategies to defend the Solomon Islands met with more defeats. Yamamoto always wanted to get into the “big battle” using his superior guns, just like his mentor Admiral Togo had done in the Russo-Japanese war at the Battle of Tsushima. According to many military historians, his strategies, “frittered away Japanese maritime strength instead of concentrating it. Dan van der Vat in his book, The Pacific Campaign wrote, “A few more mistakes of this order and Yamamoto might have come to be seen, even by the Americans, as an asset to their cause.”

One thing has to be interjected here and that is that the United States had already cracked the Japanese Navy’s military code and knew as much about Yamamoto’s plans than even his own subordinates did. So much so that on April 14, 1943, they intercepted a message about a flight Isoroku was about to make to Bougainville Island in the Solomon’s to inspect the front-line bases.

Admiral Chester Nimitz, Yamamoto’s equal for the American’s, decided to intercept and shoot down his plane. Because of the target, Nimitz could not take action without approval from Washington D.C. Franklin Roosevelt was filled in and Navy Secretary Frank Knox gave the order. Nimitz then assigned the task to Admiral William Halsey whose fleet was in the vicinity.

On the morning of April 18, 1948, Yamamoto got into the passenger compartment of a G4M2 bomber as part of a convoy of six A6M Zero fighter. On their way to Bougainville, they were met by 18 P-38 Lighting fighters that took off from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. When they reached the Japanese convoy, they went all in on the attack on the G4M2 bomber. Yamamoto was hit by at least two .50 caliber round, one killing him instantly.

The Americans pulled off a significant kill which they believed would demoralize the Japanese. They had one other thing to do and that was to cover up the fact that the information leading to his assassination was due to their having the Japanese military code. They had American newspapers publish a story that some civilian coat watchers in the Solomon Islands saw Yamamoto boarding a bomber and reported it. The Japanese Navy bought the story. Had they not, they would have likely changed the codes which would have lengthened the war in the Pacific.

The Japanese for their part, would not report on the Admiral’s death until May 21, 1943.

Time to head off to the scoring table.

The first fifteen points are for the length of time in service to their country or people. Yamamoto began his career in 1901 which ended with his death in 1943 for a total of 42 years. William the Conqueror launched his military service to the Norman people in 1035 and ended with his death in 1087 for a total of 52 years. The Norman king gets 15, the Japanese Admiral 12. What is ironic in this battle is that both men died at the age of 59.

Next up is the twenty points for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. While Yamamoto’s attack on Pearl Harbor initiated America’s entry into World War II, it was almost a foregone conclusion that they would. Additionally, he really did not perform well in his role as Commander of the Japanese Navy. William on the other hand acted brilliantly at the Battle of Hastings, as well as handling all the internal strife that came with his conquering of England. For these reasons, William gets 20, Yamamoto 8.

Now we will dole out the 25 points for their lasting effect on world history. As I mentioned earlier, many historians point to William’s Norman conquest of England as being transformational on the culture, language and history of the country while Yamamoto, aside from Pearl Harbor, had little impact on world history. The Conqueror gets 25, the Admiral receives 10.

The big prize of 40 points is for how the two men affected their country for the better. Well this one is another no-brainer. William made England safer from Viking invasions and fundamentally changed the way his new country would go from a kind of backwater band of Dukedoms to a nation that would one day rule the seven seas. Yamamoto, did little to improve his country, but then again, he did warn them that an attack on the United States would bring them nothing useful. William the Conqueror yet again sweeps all the points, with the Japanese admiral getting 15.

The final score, as if there is any suspense, is William 100 and Yamamoto 45. William the Conqueror will head off to the second round where he will face off against the winner of the battle between Phillip II of Spain versus Sultan Mehmed II, also known as Mehmet the Conqueror.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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