In this new series on The Naval Report, we will be examining some of the most important naval battles in history. Strategy and tactics will be discussed and analyzed and important lessons for present day naval warfare will be put forward.
This post will not give the whole history of the battle, for that we refer to Wikipedia and all the books written in the past 72 years about Midway. We will focus just on the important phases during the battle that made a significant contribution.
Much has been said about the Battle of Midway. US navy officers sometimes like to pretend that there was a brilliant strategy to catch and destroy the Japanese carriers by surprise. The truth is, it all came down to window of opportunity of only 5 to 10 minutes in which sheer luck decided the outcome. In the 72 years after the battle, the US Naval War College still replays the battle in wargames but has never been able to create a US victory. So how did the Japanese manage to lose the battle? Several events played contributed and had they played out different, the US victory would never have happened.
When Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto decided to attack Midway to lure the remaining American carriers and destroy them, his plan was needlessly complex. It called for a first attack on the Aleutian islands the lure the US carriers north. To make the Aleutian attack credible, he sent the light carriers Junyo and Ryujo north to pretend the main Japanese carrier forces were located over there. Its main carrier force was comprised the 4 big carriers while the invasion fleet had the light carrier Zuiho. The light carrier Hosho was part of a fourth naval task force.
· Admiral Yamamoto already failed to apply a very old doctrine that says to never split your forces against an undefeated enemy. But then again, Japanese intelligence told him that the US Navy had only 2 carriers left in the Pacific, Enterprise and Hornet. They thought that the Yorktown had been sunk. Japan felt confident that it had a 2 to 4 advantage in main carriers but it reality it had only a 3 to 4 advantage
· The plan was also needlessly complex. A dividing strike against the Aleutians made no sense if the plan was to destroy the last US carriers.
· Also splitting the his forces meant that the carrier force under Admiral Nagumo had to both attack Midway and prepare for battle against US carriers. He was told that the US carriers would only appear after 3 days. This was a wrong assessment. Nagumo would arrive before the invasion fleet with his 4 carriers and would have to fulfill 2 tasks. Had the fleet stayed together then the light carriers and the battleships could have assaulted Midway and the 4 main carriers of Admiral Nagumo could have focused on the job of finding and destroying the US carriers.
|3 june, Air attacks on Dutch Harbor Alaska. Part of the plan to draw US carriers away from Midway|
As the Japanese carrier force arrived near Midway it started the task of attacking the island with airplanes believing they had a 3 day window before the US carriers would arrive. At this point the Japanese were unaware that the US Navy had broken their codes and had sent 3 carriers towards Midway. These carriers were waiting northeast of Midway. Standard procedures of the Japanese were to send scout planes to build a maritime picture around their carrier force. Overconfident of their 3 day window, the Japanese launched only 7 planes on a one phase search instead of a double phased search. 2 search planes took of late because of engine troubles. These two planes had to search a sector in which US carriers were located.
The first airstrike at Midway was not sufficient to silence all the defenses. As Japan was certain of a quick victory, they refused to bomb the airstrips because they wanted to use them themselves for the upcoming battle against the US carriers. This allowed the US to keep sending planes from Midway to attack the Japanese carriers. A second strike was needed and this meant rearming the planes, a time consuming process.
· Japan did come up with a new code, but by the time it was implemented several days before the Battle of Midway, the US Naval Intelligence already had all the details of the plan.
· Japanese overconfidence already started to set things in motion that would lead to their defeat. Not taking out the airstrip on Midway and not enough planes created the need for a second strike. Things would have been different had light carriers and battleships arrived at Midway on June 4. This would free Nagumo to focus on finding the US carriers while cruisers and battleships shell Midway’s defenses.
· Overconfidence let them to neglect their own procedures. A single phase search instead of a double phase is ordered. Instead of two aircraft patrolling a certain sector, only one is assigned. Two aircraft fail to take off in time, and as it would happen, their sectors contain the area where the US carriers are stationed for their attacks.
|planes taking off from Midway|
The battle phase
US attacks were uncoordinated at best. Midway and the US carriers never contacted each other to try and let their planes arrive together above the Japanese carriers. Even between the 3 carriers there was no coordination in strikes. Nobody took the opportunity of launching a full strike taking in account the different speeds of the different aircraft or their tactics as dive bombers attack from high above while torpedo planes attack from just above the waves. The US admirals decided to throw as many planes as possible, as fast as possible against the Japanese carriers.
Right after the first Japanese attack wave returned, Admiral Nagumo received a message from one of his delayed search planes. It had located the US carrier force and now Nagumo had to rearm its planes with armored piercing bombs and torpedo’s to strike against the carriers instead of a second strike at Midway.
· Although this is not the way to execute an airstrike, it did produce several results. One, it kept the Japanese planes busy. Wave after incoming wave of US aircraft forced the Japanese to stay on the defensive and not launching their own strike. It also meant that Japanese fighter aircraft were starting to run low on ammunition and fuel and had to land on the carriers while new fighter aircraft had to be launched to maintain the protection of the Japanese carriers.
· Even when there was a break in the US attacks, the Japanese were still rearming their planes. The Japanese were unable to launch an airstrike on the US carriers.
|Torpedo planes standing ready on the USS Enterprise|
Window of opportunity
The last US aircraft that had a chance of attacking the Japanese carriers before they could launch an all-out airstrike were 2 squadrons of dive bombers from the USS Enterprise. They had arrived at a wrong location but somehow spotted the Japanese destroyer Arashi that was left behind to sink the submarine USS Nautilus. After her failed attack on Nautilus, the Arashi was steaming back to the Japanese carriers. The US dive bombers followed the Arashi and found the Japanse carriers. They arrived at the crucial moment. Fighter aircraft were being rearmed and refueled and those in the air were still at a low altitude after attacking a previous wave of US torpedo planes. The hangar decks of the Japanese carriers were filled with bombs and torpedo’s. The Japanese carriers were at their most vulnerable moment and the US dive bombers had no opposition.
· Delays and uncoordinated attacks left the Japanese vulnerable at a crucial moment. Only by sheer luck did the US dive bombers arrive at the right time. Had they arrived several minutes earlier or later, they would have faced more Japanese aircraft against them and their chances of destroying 3 Japanese carriers were lost.
· The Japanese already felt the pressure of having too few aircraft all morning. Not capable of knocking Midways defenses out or at least damaging its airstrip they were caught between striking land targets or attacking US carriers. They hadn’t the numbers of doing both simultaneous.
· Had Admiral Yamamoto kept his carriers together things would have been different. Even with the light carriers only concentrated on the fighter protection of the main Japanese carriers, Admiral Nagumo had been capable of getting his aircraft in the air to strike back against the US carriers.
|Soryu, Akagi and Kaga burning after the US dive bombing attack|
The end phase
Destroying 3 Japanese carriers changed the balance. From a 3 to 4 advantage, the Japanese fell to a 1 to 3 disadvantage. Although they would damage and later sink the USS Yorktown, they lost their fourth carrier later in the day. With only 2 main carriers left in Japan for repairs and 4 light carriers, Japans fate was sealed. It could never hope to destroy the US Pacific Fleet carriers and keep the US Navy on the defensive.
· Already at a disadvantage, the Japanese still tried to attack the US carriers. Although their aircraft were better and their pilots were more experienced, they couldn’t hope to overcome their disadvantage in numbers. Had the Japanese decided to call it a day, they might have been able to spare one main carrier and several veteran pilots for future battles.
|USS Yorktown under arial attack by aircraft of the carrier Hiryu|
· Never divide forces against an undefeated opponent. The Japanese made a very complex battle plan that ended up with their carrier forces split. They thought they had a 2 to 4 advantage but in reality they had only a 3 to 4 advantage. The lack of aircraft doomed the Japanese carriers as the 4 main carriers could only perform a single task, either attack Midway or attack the US carriers. The time it took to switch ammunition placed the Japanese at a vulnerable moment when the last US attack with dive bombers came.
· Focus on the objective. The Japanese carriers didn’t have to attack Midway. Their cruisers and battleships could have easily done that had they arrived off Midway on the same day. The job of the Japanese carriers was to fight the US carriers, instead they wasted precious time in a first strike on Midway.
· Intelligence. The US Navy knew the composition and order of battle of the Japanese Navy and didn’t fall in the trap of the Aleutian attack. Instead it positioned its carriers north of Midway ready for a counterattack as soon as possible. The Japanese didn’t know anything of the US order of battle and had to work with assumptions. They thought they had a 3 day period before the US carriers arrived but failed to reason that the US carriers might arrive earlier.
· Never change essential procedures. The single phase search instead of a double phase search meant that the Japanese were unaware of the US carrier forces until their planes were rearming for a second strike on Midway. Had they spotted the US carriers earlier then the Japanese would have had the capability to launch a first strike against the US carriers as half of their planes were put on ready for this mission while the first strike on Midway was underway. An early Japanese strike might have led to a US defeat.
· Confusion is good but it still needs mistakes of the enemy to be a battlewinner. Perhaps the most important lesson of this battle. The uncoordinated US airstrikes left the Japanese confused and prevented them in the end from maintaining a decent air defense. In the end, their aircraft were still too low to engage the US dive bombers that sank 3 out of 4 Japanese carriers.
· Luck can change even the best plans. If it wasn’t for the lonely destroyer Arashi heading back to the Japanese carriers, there was little chance that the US dive bombers would have been capable of finding the Japanese carriers in time before the Japanese fighter aircraft had restored a defensive screen above the Japanese carriers.
|Soryu avoiding bombs droppend by B-17 bombers in the morning of June 4|
The Battle of Midway wasn’t a battle that determined the outcome of the war in the Pacific. The US industrial might made sure that it could outmatch the Japanese Navy and that the US could replace its losses faster than the Japanese could. What made Midway so important is that it had a profound impact on the length of the war in the Pacific. Had the Japanese won, it would have taken the US more time to build a fleet big enough to go back on the offensive and the opposition of Japan would have been tougher as it could then count on the 4 carriers not lost at Midway.
Indeed, the US managed to attack Guadalcanal in August 1942 only because its naval balance of power was equal in carriers at that time. Even then, several months of bloody naval battles were needed to ensure US naval dominance in the Pacific. A US Pacific Fleet without carriers would not have gone to the offensive at Guadalcanal and this would have had an impact on the US-Australian convoy route that was vital to get US troops and supplies to the southern Pacific.
Replacing their loses at Midway would have focused the US more on the Pacific than on Europe as the Japanese would become a bigger threat to US security. More ships and troops would have been sent to the Pacific to defend and stop the Japanese. These troops would be missed in Europe and it is uncertain if Operation Torch, the US and British landings in North Africa in November 1942 would have even happened.
The war in the Pacific would have lasted longer with a US defeat. Some experts claim the ultimate victory would have been in 1947, 2 years later then it was. These 2 years coincide with the US Navy building program of new carriers, the Essex class with the first carriers commissioned in December 1942, the others in 1943 and 1944. A stronger Japanese navy with more main carriers and light carriers would have been a tougher enemy and it would have taken longer to defeat them decisively.
With a prolonged war in the Pacific and less forces sent to the European front, what would the future of Europe have been? Would Operation Overlord have had the same magnitude or would it have been further postponed until enough ships, transport craft and men became available from the US? Would this free German forces to fight and slow down the Red Army on the eastern front? And if so, would Europe have witnessed the first atomic bomb being dropped on Berlin?
The Battle of Midway is a story of flawed planning and luck. Without those two factors, of which luck cannot be put under human control, the course of World War Two would have been changed beyond measure. By all means, June 4, 1942 should have been a Japanese day of victory. Even with flawed planning, an indecisive leader in the form of admiral Nagumo, a lack of intelligence and not having one clear objective, the Japanese still held all the cards. They had better planes, tactics and their pilots were unmatched in experience.
Perhaps the most important lesson one can learn from the Battle of Midway is that naval commanders must always be prepared for unexpected events. This being even more true when confronted with difficulties such as a flawed positioning of forces, a lack of means to complete several tasks and a lack of intelligence on what enemy forces are out there. Admiral Nagumo’s indecision in the face of these setbacks also cost him the day. Had he acted more resolute and focused on its main task, finding and sinking US carriers, he would never had ordered a second strike on Midway, knowing that other ships could finish the job. He then would have had to await the arrival of the US carriers and use his advantage in numbers and experience. Instead, he became an unlucky man.