May 22, 2017 by oriskany
Military history is littered with turning points. I use the term “littered” intentionally since most battles we think of as “turning points” are nothing of the sort. Wars are huge, complex “engines of causality” that turn on long, curving trends – involving dozens of battles, months or years of time, and millions of people.
The true “turning point” is a rare beast. The Battle of Midway is one of these.
Welcome to our Commemorative 75th Anniversary article series on the Battle of Midway, fought between the United States and Imperial Japan on the high seas of the Pacific in June 1942. The series will encompass five articles, presented by myself (@oriskany) and Beasts of War member @ecclesiastes (Hendrik Jan Seijmonsbergen).
A New Kind of Battle
The Battle of Midway, at its most fundamental level, was a naval battle fought between Japanese and American aircraft carriers. This was a new type of naval battle, largely putting to rest the plodding gunnery duels fought between battleships that had dominated naval warfare since the Spanish Armada almost 400 years before.
Now, of course, people will mention the Battle of the Coral Sea, also fought between Japanese and American carriers, fought the previous month (May 1942). And others will bring up strikes like Taranto, Pearl Harbor, and the sinking of HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales, all of which featured aircraft carriers and took place before Midway.
While certainly revolutionary, Coral Sea was much smaller and at the time almost considered a fluke. Midway would “confirm” what the Coral Sea had “proposed.” And actions like Taranto and Pearl Harbor were strikes, Midway would show that aircraft carriers would form the cornerstone of set-piece naval engagements from here on out.
A Wargamer’s View
Wargaming the Battle of Midway poses a number of challenges for the intrepid hobbyist. Fortunately, BoW community member @ecclesiastes has put together “Naval War” – a great system which can be used to recreate the most pivotal parts of this pivotal battle.
Naval War is a freely available, print-and-play naval miniatures game, designed expressly for World War II naval engagements, available here: https://www.naval-war.com/. For anyone with even a passing interest in WWII naval combat, I cannot urge you strongly enough to check out this innovative and evolving system.
I’ve seen a lot of WWII naval wargames, but this one really seems to nail the “sweet spot” between playability and “nutz-n-boltz” historical realism. This, combined with Hendrik Jan’s absolutely epic miniature warships as seen on Beasts of War, convinced me to reach out to him for collaboration on this Midway project.
Even with the best miniatures and rules in the world, however, the Battle of Midway presents some tall obstacles. First up is the scale. Because these battles were fought almost exclusively by aircraft launched from carriers, there were always hundreds of miles between opposing task forces that never actually saw each other.
For this reason, it’s probably a good idea to also have a larger “area” map, where the positions, headings, and speeds of both sides’ naval task forces are tracked. This way the battle could encompass the vast emptiness of the Pacific, zeroing in on the table when the aircraft, submarines, or even surface warships come to grips with the foe.
Another factor that should be taken into account for a Midway wargame is scouting. In these Pacific carrier battles, the first task for both sides was simply to find the enemy. In a day before recon satellites or even reliable long-range radar, fixing a moving enemy fleet’s location amidst a quarter million square miles of ocean was never easy.
Yet finding and tracking an enemy task force was as vital as it was difficult. Whether through search plane, surface picket ship, or submarine, finding the enemy meant your side could launch that all-important first strike. Meanwhile, you had to naturally do whatever you could to keep the enemy from finding you.
Pacific War Background
Before “cutting into the meat” of Midway, perhaps we should review just the briefest summaries of the Pacific War and discuss the background of how Midway fits into the larger context.
Since at least 1937, Japan had been engaged in a war of conquest in China. Japan, however, is not an island blessed with an abundance of natural resources, and soon Japan’s ability to sustain the war came into doubt. The situation only worsened when the United States placed trade embargoes on Japan in protest of their invasion of China.
Yet many of these resources could be taken from places like the French and Dutch colonies in south-east Asia and the East Indies, especially once France and Holland fell to German occupation in 1940. Any move against these territories, however, would be countered by the Americans in the Philippines and British in Singapore.
For the Japanese, the solution was simple. Hit the Americans and British first. Thus, in December 1941 we have the infamous surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the invasion of the Philippines, and the invasion of Malaya, which culminated in the fall of Singapore (by some measures the worst military disaster in the history of the UK).
For at least six months, the Japanese seemed unstoppable. They invaded the Dutch East Indies and crushed a combined US/UK/Dutch naval task force at the Battle of the Java Sea. They invaded Burma and penetrated as far as modern-day Bangladesh. The overran tens of thousands of individual islands, defeating the Americans everywhere.
Soon, Japanese troops were in New Guinea and Australia was being bombed. American and Australian resistance on New Guinea was about to be outflanked as the Japanese swung an invasion fleet around the island’s east tip, hoping to land at Port Moresby on New Guinea’s south shore.
Such an invasion would have spelt disaster for the Allies, potentially opening Australia to a full Japanese invasion. But the Japanese invasion fleet was turned back in May of 1942 at the Battle of the Coral Sea, where opposing battlegroups built around Japanese and American aircraft carriers engaged in the first true “carrier” naval battle.
Technically, the Japanese won this battle, sinking the large American fleet carrier Lexington in exchange for only a small light carrier, Shoho. Nevertheless, the Japanese troop transports were forced to turn back, and for the first time in World War II, the “Japanese Blitzkrieg” had actually been stopped.
Thus, the Japanese began planning to destroy the American aircraft carrier force once and for all. They formed a complex plan based mostly on bait and deception, designed to force all remaining American aircraft carriers into a lethal trap. Japanese dominance of the Pacific could then be assured for years.
Midway: The Plan
The main Japanese target was the Midway Atoll, a tiny cluster of islands smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (as its name suggests). Technically part of the Hawaiian Islands, possession of Midway would put Hawaii (and Pearl Harbor) within reach of Japanese invasion. This was a target the Americans HAD to defend.
To tilt the odds in their favour, the Japanese would also invade two tiny islands on the end of the Aleutians, far to the north off the tip of Alaska. Japanese footholds on North America was another nightmare it was thought the Americans could not allow, and would hopefully divide the American response to the real threat at Midway.
There were three basic problems with the Japanese plan, however. First, it was very complex (we’ve sketched it only the very broadest of strokes here), and complex plans are prone to failure.
Second, the Japanese wouldn’t be striking with their full force. Of their original six carriers that had hit Midway, two had fought at the Coral Sea. One was badly damaged and one had lost almost all of its air group, and since a carrier without aircraft is little more than a gigantic target, the Japanese would have just four carriers at Midway, not six.
Three, the Americans knew everything because they’d broken almost all Japanese naval codes. Just like the British with the German Enigma codes, the Americans were reading “enemy mail” almost as fast as the Japanese were. So the Americans weren’t falling for any traps at Midway, and in fact were hoping to set up an ambush of their own.
Of course, we’re just getting started. In the next part, we’ll look at the opening moves made by both sides at Midway, and look at some of the opening actions through the eyes of Hendrik Jan’s “Naval War” wargame system.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this opening look at wargaming the Battle of Midway. In the meantime, please drop a comment below with your own thoughts on Midway, the Pacific side of World War II, or naval wargaming in general.
After all, what better time for this conversation than now, the 75th Anniversary of what was probably the most decisive naval battle in the last 200 years?
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"This was a new type of naval battle, largely putting to rest the plodding gunnery duels fought between battleships that had dominated naval warfare since the Spanish Armada almost 400 years before..."
"In the next part, we’ll look at the opening moves made by both sides at Midway, and look at some of the opening actions through the eyes of Hendrik Jan’s “Naval War” wargame system..."