June 19, 2017 by oriskany
Good afternoon, Beasts of War, and welcome to the grand finale of our 75th Anniversary commemorative series on the Battle of Midway. Fought in the first week of June 1942, this is one of history’s very few true “turning points,” completely changing the Pacific War between the United States and the Japanese Empire.
If you’re just joining us, we’ve had quite a run so far. Many thanks to everyone who’s supported the article series so far, and especially Hendrik Jan Seijmonsbergen (@ecclesiastes) without whose research, knowledge, wargame system, and miniatures…this article series would have been literally impossible.
- Part One – Project Introduction & Japanese Planning
- Part Two – Initial Approaches & First Strikes
- Part Three – The “Miracle of Midway”
- Part Four – The Japanese Strike Back
…let’s get stuck in!
A Desperate Hope
As the sun set on June 4th, 1942 it was apparent to everyone that World War II in the Pacific had changed forever. The Japanese “Kidō Butai,” the most powerful naval strike force the world had ever seen at that time, had been smashed into flaming wreckage in a single day.
Yet even with all four of his available fleet carriers destroyed (Akagi, Kaga, Sōryu, and Hiryū), Japanese Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto wasn’t quite ready to throw in the towel. He may have lost the world’s most powerful carrier fleet, but he also had the world’s most powerful battleship fleet. This battle might not be over quite yet.
The problem, of course, was getting his two massive battleship task forces (the “Main Body” under his own command, and the Second Fleet under Vice-Admiral Kondo) close enough to engage the American carriers in a gunnery battle.
At first, this seemed remotely possible for several reasons. One, the sun had just gone down and in 1942, aircraft carriers couldn’t launch or operate their planes at night. Yamamoto’s huge battleships (including Yamato, lead ship of the largest battleship class ever built) could approach under cover of darkness.
Second, the Japanese momentarily thought they had sunk or crippled the Yorktown in their first strike, and sunk or crippled ANOTHER carrier with their second strike on the Yorktown. Thus, knowing the Americans had three carriers to start with, they thought they faced only one remaining American carrier.
Of course, both these illusions were quickly dashed. The Yorktown had been hit twice, leaving Enterprise and Hornet fully operational. Also, these carriers had retired eastward during the night of June 4th-5th, removing any hope that Japanese battleships could catch them before the sun came up on June 5th.
Once the sun came up, these battleships would be murderously vulnerable to renewed American airstrikes from Enterprise, Hornet, and Midway Island. Frankly, it doesn’t matter how powerful a battleship is, once aircraft get to it, she’s dead. Just look at what eventually happened to Yamato in 1945, or her sister ship Musashi in 1944.
Yamamoto also had to consider his support fleet, tankers and supply ships, not to mention twelve unarmed, unarmoured transports crammed with 5,000 Japanese marines. Yamamoto was no fool. He finally accepted that he’d lost this crucial battle, and ordered his fleets to disengage.
Even now, however, the Battle of Midway wasn’t quite over. Unsure whether the Japanese still intended to fight or invade Midway Island, Rear-Admiral Spruance (commanding the remaining American carrier Task Force 16) sought to regain contact with the Japanese fleet throughout June 5th.
Although these attempts were largely unsuccessful, during the night of June 5th-6th, an American submarine (USS Tambor) did find a detachment of four Japanese heavy cruisers sent to bombard Midway. The submarine was spotted and in the midst of manoeuvres to evade, two of the cruisers (Mogami and Mikuma) collided.
Dive bombers of the US Navy and Marine Corps caught up with the heavy cruiser Mikuma when the sun came up on June 6th. Mogami received more damage, as did the destroyers Arashio and Asashio. Mikuma was hit repeatedly (far more times than any of the Japanese carriers) until she finally sank with the loss of 650 men.
Yorktown’s Curtain Call
The Americans, however, weren’t the only ones getting their last shots in.
The heavily-damaged American aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, having survived two crippling strike waves of Japanese dive-bombers and torpedo planes on June 4th, was now being towed slowly back to Pearl Harbor. Even now it looked as if the gallant ship might be saved. That is until Japanese submarine I-168 found her on the afternoon of June 6th.
I-168 fired a spread of torpedoes at the Yorktown, two of which struck the limping carrier. A third torpedo hit the destroyer USS Hammann, which was right alongside providing additional electrical power to Yorktown. The torpedo set off the destroyer’s depth charges, blowing the ship in half and sinking her with eighty of her crew.
As for the Yorktown, she c, at last, last take no more. Her condition was assessed to be hopeless, and her few remaining damage control crewmembers were evacuated. The ship finally sank in the early hours of June 7th, 1942.
It’s genuinely difficult to overstate the impact of the Battle of Midway. Put most simply, the dominance of the Japanese Navy in the Pacific was forever shattered. There would be very hard battles to come, including a string of bloody naval engagements in the Solomon Islands. But from here on out the US Navy would be calling the shots.
Some would argue that the United States would have won naval dominance in the Pacific anyway, and point to the production of massive Essex-class aircraft carriers (one named USS Yorktown, another named USS Oriskany) that would soon outnumber the Japanese carrier fleet by an order of ten or fifteen to one.
While this would eventually be true, without Midway it’s clear that American invasions into the Solomon, Gilbert, and Marshall Islands would have had to wait until these new carriers came online, well into 1943. The Pacific War thus might have lasted into 1946, 47, or even beyond.
In summary, the war in the Pacific was a naval war. Even its ground battles were fought on islands, determined largely by who controlled the waters around and skies above such islands. Aircraft carriers were the primary factor in these battles, and Midway determined which navy was going to be the dominant carrier power.
Why? And, What If?
With so many advantages, it’s sometimes hard to ascertain how the Japanese managed to lose the Battle of Midway, and so badly. The fact of the matter is that they worked hard to throw away all their advantages (especially their numbers), while the Americans strived to make the most of their advantages (like intel).
The Japanese plan, like all their naval plans of World War II, was too complex. It scattered their fleet from New Guinea to Alaska, which would allow the Americans to focus their forces on the single point that really mattered. Thus, the Japanese advantage in numbers was largely nullified.
The Americans, meanwhile, had the priceless advantage of operational forewarning. They’d broken the Japanese naval codes and knew the whole plan in advance. Their ships also had radar, giving them tactical forewarning. And of course, American ships had far, far better damage control.
Now we come to the inevitable “what if?” What if the Americans had really been surprised at Midway, fallen into the Japanese trap, and lost the battle? What if the Japanese had managed to take Midway, and the American carrier fleet had largely been destroyed in its futile defence?
The next stages of the Japanese plan included invasions of Fiji, Samoa, New Caledonia, and possibly even Australia. With no meaningful navy to stop them until the middle of 1943 at the earliest, it’s hard to see how these invasions would have failed.
Again, America would’ve pushed back in, spearheaded by the new Essex-class carriers. But they would’ve started much later, and would have had to retake places like Midway or even some of the Hawaiian Islands. Even the A-bomb might not have shortened such a war, because you need the islands from which to launch those bombers.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this series on the Battle of Midway, and picked up some ideas, inspiration, or enjoyment from our attempts to wargame some of its elements. Whether you want to sit in the pilot’s cockpit, stand on the captain’s bridge, at plot movements at the admiral’s map table, this is a battle brimming with wargaming potential.
As always, I’d like to thank the Beasts of War team for allowing me to publish on their site, especially @brennon and @lancorz who always work hard to present my material in the best light. And of course, special thanks go to the community for all the comments and support these articles have received. It’s meant a lot to me.
Most of all, however, I’d like to thank Hendrik Jan Seijmonsbergen (@ecclesiastes) for helping with orders of battle, tonnes of table top photos with amazingly-rendered and pinpoint-accurate warship miniatures. If you have any interest in naval wargaming (of any era, including Sci-Fi), check out his “Naval War” game here: www.naval-war.com.
Like we said at the beginning of this series, the phrase “turning point” gets tossed around rather carelessly in the annals of military history. It’s grossly overused, as most “turning points” (Gettysburg, Stalingrad, Waterloo, Second El Alamein) are nothing of the sort.
The case can even be made that Midway wasn’t a singular turning point, combined with previous battles like Coral Sea and subsequent battles like Guadalcanal to form a more gradual curve of reversed fortune. But with the main striking element of the world’s most powerful navy effectively destroyed in five electrifying minutes …
…Midway is as close to a true “turning point” as we’re likely to see.
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"He may have lost the world’s most powerful carrier fleet, but he also had the world’s most powerful battleship fleet. This battle might not be over quite yet..."
"…Midway is as close to a true “turning point” as we’re likely to see."