Strategy lessons from Guadalcanal and the Battle of Savo Island
Seventy years ago this week, U.S. Marines under the command of General Vandegrift landed on Guadalcanal – the first major offensive by allied forces against the Japanese. While the initial assault was relatively unopposed by Japanese forces, the Marines spent the next six months battling Japanese army and naval forces to retain control of the island along with its key airfield.
After the allied landings, Japanese naval forces immediately went on the offensive and forced an engagement with the U.S. Navy in what’s known as the Battle of Savo Island. And rather than force an engagement during daylight hours, Japanese planners elected to attack at night; taking advantage of their competitive advantage--superior night-fighting skills--and mitigating those of the U.S. Navy’s—having two aircraft carriers on station—who were unable to operate effectively at night.
After two nights of heavy fighting, allied forces suffered a costly defeat. Three heavy cruisers were sunk, one heavy cruiser was damaged (and later scuttled), two destroyers were damaged and all told, over a thousand lives were lost. The Japanese, on the other hand, suffered moderate loses with less than 60 casualties.
The key to the overwhelming Japanese success was their decision to leverage their competitive advantage—night-fighting tactics—and resist the temptation to engage U.S. forces during daylight hours; thus mitigating the firepower of the U.S. aircraft carriers.
The Battle of Savo Island was one of the last major battle successes of the Japanese during the Pacific campaign. In due time, allied forces were able to force the Japanese to give up their attempt to take back Guadalcanal – it took six months with a tremendous loss of life on both sides. Seven thousand allied soldiers, marines and sailors lost their lives during the campaign with the Japanese suffering a staggering 31,000 dead.
As we look to our own battles in today’s business world, do we have the same confidence in our own competitive advantages? Better yet, are we even cognizant of what these advantages are and those of our competitors? And most important, are we able to show similar discipline by engaging the competition on our own terms; leveraging these advantages all the while trying to mitigate those of the competition?
Here’s the takeaway: It’s not enough to understand where your competitive advantages lie. You must understand the same for competitors and then remain disciplined enough to leverage these advantages (and resist the temptation to stray) within the context of your overall business strategy.