Turning point

The Battle of Midway
By Craig Symonds
Oxford University Press

The 1942 Battle of Midway was undeniably a pivotal event in WW2, and it is no surprise that it has been the subject of numerous books and movies. The surprise is that Symonds, currently a professor at the US Naval War College, finds plenty that is new to say by delving into the underpinning cultural and strategic issues.

He points out that the battle took place only six months after the strike on Pearl Harbour. Since that time, the central element of the Imperial Japanese Fleet, the Kido Butai (“Mobile Force”) had swept all before it, venturing as far as Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). It was the Kido Butai – a group of carriers and support ships grouped together into a single task force – that had launched the attack on Pearl Harbour. In fact, says Symonds, things had gone so well that the Japanese could not conceive of failure.

Battle of MidwayAnd therein lies the rub. The strategic purpose of invading and occupying the island of Midway was always dubious – it only made sense as a jumping-off point for an invasion of Hawaii, although it would have been difficult to hold and supply – but there was also the goal of luring what was left of the US fleet into a decisive battle. Carrier battles were a fairly new concept – the recent Battle of the Coral Sea was the first actual case – but everyone agreed that locating the enemy was of crucial importance.  But the Japanese had no doubts that the Americans would do exactly what they expected them to do. Symonds recounts the story of a large table-top exercise aimed at predicting the course of the battle. These things can offer very useful lessons, except that the senior officer who was the arbiter kept changing the rules to ensure victory.

So the Japanese went into the battle with a swaggering confidence, with numbers, experience, and better planes on their side. But the American had some advantages: they had broken much of the Japanese radio code, and their ships had radar.

And there were important cultural elements that found practical expression. Something simple, which turned out be crucial: on the American carriers, when an attack was imminent, the fuel lines that ran around the ship were purged with carbon dioxide. (Give the man who thought of that a medal, someone.) Damage control was practised and there were redundant systems to keep things going.

US doctrine was to keep carrier groups separate. Pearl Harbour had revealed the danger of having too many eggs in a single basket. This meant that it was difficult to co-ordinate large attacks but it also meant that the key assets were unlikely to be taken out in one strike.

Symonds notes that the first US strikes on various parts of the Japanese invasion force were hopelessly inept. The Japanese air cover was powerful. The Americans suffered from repeated failures of technology, with torpedoes failing to explode and bombs dropping before they were supposed to.

The key US ship was the Yorktown. The Japanese were sure they had sunk it at the Battle of the Coral Sea but it had limped home and had been repaired in record time.

Aside from that, according to Symonds, the Japanese suffered from competing priorities: on the one hand trying to level Midway and on the other trying to engage the US fleet. This led to the famous ‘Nagumo’s dilemma’ where he had to choose between arming his planes for a second strike at Midway or load them for an attack on the US carriers. His decision was considered, logical … and wrong. Planes were still being re-armed when groups of American dive bombers arrived. Even worse, the air cover fighters were miles away, chasing a flight of hapless torpedo bombers.

Symonds notes that the US attack on the three Japanese carriers, the Kaga, the Akagi, and the Soryu, is sometimes described as a co-ordinated effort but in reality it was something of a scramble. It took only five minutes for all three carriers to be damaged beyond repair. The American scored only a few hits, but once the interior was alight the fire spread along the fuel lines and ordinance began to cook off. There was no hope.

Even with three carriers gone the Japanese still thought they could win. It was as if they could not understand the concept of defeat. If they had withdrawn at this point they would have had enough assets to fight another day. But they pressed on, launching effective attacks on the Yorktown, and they believed they had sunk it.

But the Yorktown proved to be a tough ship. The damage control crews managed to keep it operating, even fighting. The Japanese launched another attack, thinking it was a different carrier. They inflicted massive damage but in doing so revealed the position of the final Japanese carrier, the Hiryu. The American counterstrike was brutally effective, and the Hiryu was out of the fight.

The Yorktown was abandoned but refused to sink. A recovery crew went back on and it was thought that it might be saved – but then a roving Japanese submarine found it. That was it for the Yorktown.

Finally, with four carriers gone, the Japanese commanders admitted that the day was lost and turned for home. Everything had changed on 4 June 1942.

There were some other important consequences as well. The Japanese had lost many of their best pilots while the Americans were able to rescue many of their downed airmen. The Yorktown could be replaced by the growing American industrial machine (the name was transferred to another carrier a bit later). The Japanese did not have the capacity to rebuild. After Midway, it was just a long series of holding actions and grind-down defeats.

For the Japanese, there was only one strategy left: defend a contracting perimeter and hope that the Americans would not be able to bear the costs. It did not work out that way.

What happened? Symonds has a series of answers. For years (even before Pearl Harbour) the Japanese had gone from one victory to another. In hindsight, it is clear that those victories were against weak opponents, or ones taken by surprise. A positive outlook is important, yes, but so is resilience and the capacity to deal with setbacks. A victory mentality only works when there are continued victories.

Yes, the Americans had a good dose of luck, but it was the sort of luck that is underpinned by the right strategic thinking and practical actions. Yes, it could have all worked out very differently. The point, however, is that it did not.

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