Midway: the World War 2 sea battle that changed the balance of power in the Pacific
In fighting off an onslaught by huge Japanese forces the US won a crucial advantage
It was in early June 1942 that the main force of a mighty Japanese armada of four aircraft carriers, carrying 256 aircraft and accompanied by 11 battleships and a number of smaller vessels, put to sea to do battle at Midway with an American force.
According to the book Great Battles, Decisive Conflicts that have Shaped History, edited by Christer Jorgensen, the American force was equally formidable, consisting of three aircraft carriers supported by 234 carrier and land-based aircraft and a variety of smaller craft.
The end result of that World War 2 encounter was that the American carrier-based aircraft destroyed the Japanese carriers. And by so doing, Jorgensen points out, Japan’s long-range strike capability was removed, giving the US the advantage that was to prove crucial in the Pacific.
Jorgensen says the Japanese leadership expected the Midway attack on US carriers to provide Japan with strategic space, and that the capture of the Midway islands would allow Japan to monitor American movements in Hawaii.
But time was crucial, Jorgensen points out, as the US was about to convert its huge industrial capacity to military production — a development the Japanese knew they could not match. Even to replace the carriers they had would be a difficult, if not an impossible, task.
As it happened, the US easily built a further 35 carriers before the end of the war, whereas Japan had difficulty in replacing the carriers lost in the Midway battle.
It was the plan of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to lure the Americans into a carrier battle. He had planned the Pearl Harbour strike on the US that had taken place the previous December. Jorgensen says he expected his more experienced sailors and airmen to win the Midway battle. Earlier, an erroneous report that the US carrier Yorktown had been sunk in the battle of the Coral Sea a month before gave the Japanese more confidence that they had outgunned and out-classed the US fleet.
Accordingly, Jorgensen says, the Japanese spared nothing to make the Midway attack a success. They assembled a fleet that, before it was split, consisted of about 200 ships, including 11 battleships, eight carriers, 23 cruisers, 65 destroyers and 20 submarines. The Japanese admirals expected its huge armada to dispatch any American force sent to meet it.
However, Yamamoto then made "the fateful decision to divide his forces". He sent a diversionary force of four battleships and two cruisers to Aleutia in Alaska. Subsequently these ships played no role in the battle.
The Japanese main force, "the largest armada in the history of the Pacific", was also split. The submarines moved head of the Japanese main forces to find the American ships.
The main strike force was commanded by Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. His force included four powerful aircraft carriers, carrying 30 fighters, 23 bombers, 32 torpedo bombers, and three other carriers, each carrying 21 fighters and 21 torpedo bombers. According to Jorgensen the main force also included a battleship, cruisers and destroyers to protect the carriers.
Jorgensen points out that there were two developments that undermined the Japanese preparations. One was the breaking of the Japanese naval code, which enabled the US naval forces to be concentrated on Midway.
The other involved the carrier Yorktown. It was so badly damaged in the battle of Coral Sea that Japanese pilots reported that she had been sunk. Instead, the Yorktown managed to limp back to Pearl Harbour. There, repair crews "worked furiously to repair the ship in time to sail to Midway with US Admiral Frank Fletcher’s Task Force 16.
The Yorktown was in bad shape, but as Jorgensen points out, its aircraft were not considered in the Japanese battle plans. Also, a US task force had managed to leave Pearl Harbour before the Japanese could get into position.
In addition, in America’s favour was an aircraft carrier unknown to the Japanese. Nor, as Jorgensen says, did the Japanese have any reliable information on the position of the American ships.
Besides the badly damaged Yorktown, the Americans still had three carriers in place, including the Enterprise and the Hornet.
And the American position was far from critical. It had a total of 233 carriers and 127 land-based planes to meet the 248 planes of the Japanese. The US forces were in a position to fight the battle long range by using its carriers. This left the Japanese battleships isolated. At Coral Sea the entire battle was fought at long range from planes from the carriers. According to Jorgensen, Nagumo was nonplussed by that and believed that the American overflight of his carriers had been a fluke. The Japanese were further hobbled by the fact that Nagumo had to keep his decks clear for the planes that would be returning to refuel.
The aerial attack on Midway was not an unqualified success and the Japanese commander radioed back that another attack was required.
In the meantime, two waves of American torpedo bombers attacked Japanese carriers but were destroyed by the faster and more nimble Japanese fighters. (Later the Dauntless dive-bomber planes arrived at what Jorgensen describes as the "perfect time".) Though the first American strike failed, Nagumo now knew of the American carriers’ presence. This meant Nagumo now had to decide between another attack on Midway or an attack on the American carriers. And he also needed to recover his planes that were still out at sea.
In the ensuing confusion, caused by the change, the Japanese had bombs and torpedoes stacked on deck rather than in the magazines below. The refuelling of the returning planes resulted in further problems. The decks were covered by fuel lines and Nagumo was unable to launch his reserve fighters.
Worse was to come from the dive-bombers from the Yorktown and Enterprise carriers.
Later the American planes attacked the Kaga aircraft carrier of Japan, scoring four hits. This was followed closely by hits on the Akagi and Soryu carriers, which were put out of action. To make matters worse, Jorgensen says, fires broke out and spread out of control and all three Japanese carriers had to be abandoned.
And as Jorgensen points out, "the entire balance of power in the Pacific changed."