The Battle of Midway, fought in June 1942, must be considered one of the most decisive battles of World War Two. The Battle of Midway effectively destroyed Japan’s naval strength when the Americans destroyed four of its aircraft carriers. Japan’s navy never recovered from its mauling at Midway and it was on the defensive after this battle.


                    The Yorktown listing

The end of May saw intense activity in the port of Pearl Harbor. The carriers ‘Enterprise’ and ‘Hornet’ had moored there and were shortly joined by the battle-damaged ‘Yorktown’ – damage sustained at the recent Battle of Coral Sea. On May 28th, Task Force 16 sailed led by the ‘Enterprise’. This force was commanded by Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance. The ‘USS Enterprise’ was accompanied by six cruisers, nine destroyers and two tankers. On May 30th, the newly repaired ‘Yorktown’ also left Pearl Harbor to rendezvous with the ‘Enterprise’ at ‘Point Luck’ some 350 miles from Midway Island.

The Commander-in-Chief Pacific, Admiral Chester Nimitz, had received intelligence that the Japanese, after what could be deemed the failure at Coral Sea, was out for a decisive battle against the American Navy. Nimitz knew that they wanted to capture Midway Island, on the western extremity of the Hawaiian islands, to further extend their control of the Pacific.

Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet, believed that Japan would only gain control of the Pacific after an all-out naval battle with the Americans in which, according to Yamamoto’s plan, America would suffer a defeat, leaving Japan free to conquer at will and consolidate her conquests. Yamamoto also believed, correctly as it turned out, that Nimitz would not avoid a major naval battle with the Japanese.

Yamamoto’s plan for the attack on Midway was complex and relied on perfect timing and diversionary tactics to lure parts of the American force away from Yamamoto’s main battle fleet. It also required that four out of Japan’s eight aircraft carriers were in the vicinity. The Japanese fleet also included the biggest battleship in the world, the ‘Yamato’ the smaller battleships ‘Nagato’ and ‘Mutsu’, and numerous cruisers and destroyers. Yamamoto’s plan was ingenious but too intricate. It also contained two defects:

1) Yamamoto believed in the supremacy of the battleship. He failed to realise that an aircraft carrier could deliver a massive blow to the enemy but at a much greater distance than a battleship could. Yamamoto saw the aircraft carrier as supporting the battleship rather than the other way round. His huge battleships were also slower than any other warship he had and the rest of his fleet had to sail at a pace that suited the battleships.

2) Far more fatal to Yamamoto was the fact that the Americans knew his course of action. Admirals Spruance and Fletcher had their ships waiting for an attack and Yamamoto’s plan to lure American ships away from their main body clearly would not work if the Americans knew that this was his intent.

Spruance and Fletcher had rendezvoused on June 2nd with Fletcher taking control of the two task forces. It is believed that Yamamoto had no idea that he was sailing towards such a large force and his diversionary attacks on Dutch Harbour had failed to lure any part of Task Forces 16 and 17 away from where they were.

The first US attacks took place after a Catalina flying boat, on patrol, spotted the Japanese main fleet. Land based B-17 bombers attacked the fleet and claimed to have sunk two battleships. In fact, the ships that were spotted were transport ships and tankers and no hits were scored by the B-17’s. This occurred 800 miles from Fletcher’s task force and he realised from the intelligence reports he had that, that such incidents were peripheral to the main task he had. Fletcher knew that the Japanese carriers were just 400 miles from his force. During the night of June 3rd, Fletcher moved the two task forces 200 miles north of Midway – something the Japanese would not know about – thus setting up his scouting force for “one of the great decisive battles in history”. (Captain D Macintyre)

Early on June 4th, both fleets launched some of their planes primarily for scouting missions. The Japanese also prepared a number of dive-bombers and escort Zero fighters for an actual attack on Midway. At 05.34, the Americans received a report from their scout planes that the Japanese main fleet, including the carriers, was 200 miles west-south-west of the ‘Yorktown’. Fletcher ordered Spruance to sail in a south-westerly direction with Task Force 16. The American carriers ‘Enterprise’ and ‘Hornet’ steamed away with their escorts.

Midway was attacked by Japanese planes at 06.16 with power plants and oil installations being the main target. Ten torpedo-bombers had taken off from Midway to attack the Japanese carriers. However, the defence of these ships was such that none scored a hit and only three planes returned to Midway. Another attack by B-17’s from 20,000 feet and Vindicator scout-bombers also failed to find their target – though this attack had achieved one result as many Zero fighters were put into the air to protect the fleet. Now they needed to be re-fuelled and re-armed which left the Japanese fleet commanded by Nagumo very vulnerable as it had neither fighter cover nor were his carriers in a position to do a great deal other than re-equip the planes.

It was at this moment, when his carriers were all-but defenceless against an air attack, that Nagumo received news of an incoming aerial attack from planes from both the ‘Hornet’ and ‘Enterprise’. All that Spruance had left behind were sufficient planes to give his ships aerial cover – the rest were sent to attack the Japanese fleet. Spruance’s planes first left the fleet at 07.52 led by Lieutenant-Commander McClusky. In all, 67 Dauntless dive- bombers, 29 Devastator torpedo-bombers and 20 Wildcat fighters were involved. However, they were spread out over a large area and communication between the flight leaders was difficult. In essence, four separate squadrons advanced on the Japanese. Unknown to them, Nagumo had changed course and when the planes arrived at the point that they believed the Japanese would be at – they found nothing. Some planes searched in vain; a lot of the fighters had to ditch as they simply ran out of fuel. However, the torpedo squadrons, flying low over the water, did find the Japanese carriers – but they had no fighter cover for the attack.

Regardless of this, the attack went ahead despite the extreme danger of it. Lieutenant-Commander Waldron, in his final message to his squadron, had written:

“My greatest hope is that we encounter a favourable tactical situation, but if we don’t, I want each of us to do our utmost to destroy the enemies. If there is only one plane to make a final run in, I want that man to go in and get a hit. May God be with us.”

The attack was met with fearsome fire from the carriers escort ships and over 50 Zeros attacked. Very few torpedoes were fired and none hit their target. Only one pilot survived the onslaught.

Another attack also failed but it served a purpose of concentrating the focus of the Japanese on these torpedo squadrons. The Japanese defenders failed to notice dive-bombers flying at a much higher altitude. With their decks crammed with planes about to take off, the Japanese carriers were tempting targets. The first attack took out the flight deck of the flagship ‘Akagi’ detonating a store of torpedoes. The flames soon reached fuel supplies and within minutes the ‘Akagi’ was doomed, though it was another seven hours before the ship was abandoned. Other dive bombers attacked the ‘Kaga’. Here again, fuel was soon ignited and the ship suffered severe damage, even if it took two hours to sink. More dive-bombers attacked the ‘Soryu’ with the same deadly impact. Only three bombs actually hit the ‘Soryu’ but they did enough damage for the captain, Yanaginoto, to order that the ship be abandoned. Like the ‘Kaga’ it continued afloat for some  hours but was doomed. The ‘Soryu’ went down at 19.13 along with her captain, Yanaginoto and 718 of her crew.

In the space of five minutes, the Japanese Navy had lost half of its carrier force, ships that were deemed to be crewed by the Navy’s elite.

However, one carrier was left – the ‘Hiryu’. This was found and attacked with the same devastating consequences as the other three carriers. However, it was planes from the ‘Hiryu’ that had attacked the ‘Yorktown’ and disabled it so badly that at 15.00 the order was given to abandon ship. This order may well have been premature because the carrier was still afloat on June 7th and there were high hopes that she could be towed in for repairs. However, a Japanese submarine, I-168, managed to penetrate the American fleet and with two torpedoes sunk the ‘Yorktown’ at 06.00 on June 7th.

The consequences of the Battle of Midway for the Japanese were huge. At a stroke they had lost four vital aircraft carriers that were considered to be vital for the Pacific campaign. Whereas the Americans could replace the ‘Yorktown’, the Japanese would have found it very difficult to replace one carrier, let alone four. Regardless of finding new carriers, experienced crew would also be needed and the Japanese had lost many experienced crewmen during the battle.

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