How miraculous was the battle of Midway?

The image of plucky American sailors slaying a Japanese Goliath has helped make the battle of Midway one of the most feted Allied victories of the Pacific War. But, asks Evan Mawdsley, was this clash really the giant-killing of popular perception?

'Yorktown' sustains a hit during the battle of Midway. The US aircraft carrier sank three days later but, by then, the Japanese had accepted that their attempt to land a war-winning blow had failed. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

As spring turned to summer in 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy decided the time had come to strike. At the end of May, virtually the entire navy put to sea, along with a dozen troop transports and a fleet of tankers. It had been tasked with launching an operation that would lure the US navy to its destruction in a decisive battle. The ‘bait’ was a place for which America would almost certainly want to fight. This was Midway, a tiny atoll in the central Pacific, but a strategic air base. Its occupation would open the Japanese route to Hawaii and Pearl Harbor, which lay 1,300 miles to the south-east.

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If Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, commander-in-chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet, felt confident of victory as the Midway operation got under way, then well he might. The preceding six months had witnessed a string of successes for his navy. On 7 December 1941, it had mounted a devastating surprise attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, destroying two American battleships and badly damaging three more, and had followed this up by destroying the British fleet off Malaya. This one-two combination had helped Japanese armed forces gain effective control of south-east Asia and most of the Pacific Ocean. Malaya, Burma, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies had all fallen under their control.

But there was a problem. The Japanese may have inflicted heavy losses on the Americans at Pearl Harbor, but they hadn’t delivered a knock-out blow. Above all, no US carriers had been at the Hawaiian base on 7 December. The Midway operation was, then, Admiral Yamamoto’s attempt to finish off the job his navy had started six months earlier, and win the Pacific War.

At the vanguard of the Japanese attack on Midway was the Kidō Butai (Mobile Force), the aircraft-carrier task force that had spearheaded the assault on Pearl Harbor. This now boasted two large carriers, Akagi and Kaga, and two medium-sized ones, Hiryū and Sōryū – together carrying some 246 planes. In command was Vice Admiral Nagumo. “We left the Bungo Channel on 26 May with the overconfidence that if the Mobile Force takes the van[guard], it will take care of everything,” wrote Nagumo’s chief of staff. All the same, a second element, the so-called Main Body, set out across the foggy north Pacific two days later. Here Admiral Yamamoto himself flew his flag aboard the super-battleship Yamato.

Storming the atoll

If everything went to plan, the Japanese attack on Midway would begin with a series of lightning attacks, catching an unsuspecting American military off guard. The first phase would see Nagumo’s planes put the Midway air base out of action courtesy of surprise air raids beginning on Thursday 4 June. These would pave the way for a transport force of 5,000 men storming the atoll on the morning of the seventh. With the American fleet moored in its Pearl Harbor base four days’ steaming away, it would – so Yamamoto reasoned – be utterly incapable of mounting a rapid response.

At first, aboard the Japanese flagships at sea, all seemed to be going to plan. US navy patrol planes from Midway did locate elements of the transport force coming from the west – some 700 miles out – on the morning of the 3 June. But Nagumo’s carriers kept safely hidden. Then, after a high-speed approach on the night of the 3rd, his four ships started launching 121 aircraft – half their total strength – against Midway. At the same time, Japanese planes began to scout the perimeter around the Mobile Force; their task was to confirm that, as expected, no enemy ships were lurking nearby.

When the air armada reached Midway at 06.30 on 4 June, defending American planes soon fell to the veteran Japanese fighter pilots. But the airfield was not put out of action, and the formation leader radioed the Akagi with a code message urging a second strike: “KAWA KAWA KAWA 0700.” A quarter of an hour later, Admiral Nagumo concurred. He had a reserve of aircraft (half his total strength) equipped with bombs and torpedoes, ready for the unlikely event that enemy ships were encountered. Now they were ordered to rearm with ground-attack bombs for a second strike on the atoll.

It was at this moment, though, that Nagumo began to lose control of events. At 07.40 a search plane assigned to patrol due east of the Mobile Force suddenly relayed an alarming message: “Sight what appears to be 10 enemy surface units, in position bearing 10 degrees distance 240 miles from Midway.” This was 200 miles to the east in an area of sea supposed to be empty of all American vessels. An early encounter with the enemy fleet, once an unlikely possibility, now loomed as a real threat. Within 30 minutes, the search plane had even worse news for Nagumo: the enemy force included a carrier.

In launching his attack on Midway, Yamamoto had sought to lure the Americans into a trap. But, in fact, it was the Japanese fleet that was steaming into an ambush. For, by 25 May, American codebreakers had cracked the radio messages detailing Yamamoto’s plans for the Midway operation. As a result, the Americans knew Japanese objectives, the identities of most of the ships involved in the attack, and their departure dates.

The Japanese sought to lure the US Navy into a battle that would win the Pacific war

And so, while Yamamoto believed that the two American carrier task forces were holed up in their Pearl Harbor base four days away, they were instead in position north of Midway, ready to spring a trap. “The situation is developing as expected,” Admiral Chester Nimitz, in overall command of all operations, reassured his senior admirals late on the eve of the battle. “Carriers, our most important objective, should soon be located. Tomorrow may be the day you can give them the works.”

Dodging torpedoes

As the American fleet closed in, bombers from the Midway air base launched an attack on the Mobile Force. The attackers, a motley collection of US army, navy and marine bombers, met heavy opposition from the fighters of the Japanese combat air patrol (CAP) over the Mobile Fleet. They failed to achieve any hits, but the ships under attack had to manoeuvre violently to dodge torpedoes and bombs. This, coupled with the need to launch and land CAP fighters, meant that the Japanese were unable to rearm the reserve force yet again, and to send it off – this time against the recently sighted American ships.

At about 09.20, a new American air attack on the Mobile Force began. This time the attackers were torpedo planes, not from Midway but from the shadowy fleet to the east. Slow and forced to fly at low altitude, the US planes were all but wiped out before they’d achieved any hits. Still, Nagumo was unable to launch his strike force.

If the first two waves of American air attacks inflicted little damage on the Japanese fleet, the same couldn’t be said for the third. Shortly after being sighted by Japanese lookouts at 10.22, squadrons of SBD ‘Dauntless’ dive bombers began targeting the enemy carriers below; what they did next would change the course of the battle. An American fighter pilot escorting the torpedo planes later described the scene: “Then I saw this glint in the sun and it looked just like a beautiful silver waterfall; these dive bombers coming down. [The defending Japanese fighters] weren’t anywhere near the altitude of the dive bombers were. I’d never seen such superb dive bombing.”

Planes, fuel, unsecured bombs and other weaponry turned the Japanese ships into firetraps

The four Japanese carriers were some distance from one another, but the Dauntless bombs hit Kaga, Akagi, and Sōryū in rapid succession. In their hangar decks, planes, fuel and unsecured bombs and other weaponry made the big ships firetraps. None of them sank immediately, but they were quickly ablaze, incapable of operating planes. One of the senior air staff officers aboard the Akagi recalled the carnage: “Smoke from the burning hangar gushed through passageways and into the bridge and ready room… Climbing back to the bridge I could see that Kaga and Sōryū had also been hit and were giving off heavy columns of black smoke. The scene was horrible to behold.” The Sōryū crew began to abandon ship within 20 minutes. At 10.47, Nagumo and his staff left the burning Akagi.

The American ambush fleet was divided into two groups: Rear Admiral Spruance’s Task Force (TF) 16, with carriers Enterprise and Hornet, and Rear Admiral Fletcher’s Task Force 17, with Yorktown. At about 12.30, and again at 14.30, Yorktown was seriously damaged by dive bombers and torpedo bombers launched from Hiryū, and would sink on Sunday 7 June. Hiryū was herself wrecked by another American attack in the late afternoon of 4 June, and sank during the night. But these later exchanges did little to alter the outcome of the battle. By the time Hiryū disappeared beneath the waves, Yamamoto had accepted that his decisive, war-winning clash had ended in defeat, and had instead set course with his fleet back to Japan. As his chief of staff noted in his diary: “We are now forced to do our utmost to cope with the worst case. This should be kept in mind as a lesson showing that war is not predictable.”

Terrible odds?

Seventy-seven years after Admiral Yamamoto’s battered fleet limped back to Japan, the battle of Midway remains one of the most celebrated American victories of the Second World War. Yet in some ways, it is also one of the most misunderstood: just as the Japanese carriers fell prey to Dauntless dive bombers in the waters of the Pacific, so modern perceptions of this naval clash have succumbed to myth.

Among the most prevalent of these misconceptions is the assertion that the US Pacific Fleet defied terrible odds to defeat an overwhelming enemy. Classic histories of the battle – with titles such as Incredible Victory and Miracle at Midway – have merely fed this perception. The historian Samuel Eliot Morison perhaps summed up this school of thought best when he described the American Pacific fleet as “a David to Yamamoto’s Goliath”.

But this was simply not the case, at least as far as the two fleets engaged in the main battle north-west of Midway were concerned. The four Japanese carriers in the Mobile Force were only slightly superior to the three (larger) American carriers; Admiral Nagumo had 246 carrier planes at his disposal, compared to the 233 available to the US fleet. The Americans also had the advantage of 99 combat aircraft based at Midway itself, while the Japanese fatally divided their attention between Midway, and a possible threat from US carriers.

According to the ‘Miracle at Midway’ myth, it wasn’t just the size of the Japanese fleet that made it such a formidable foe, but the quality of its leaders. One of the masterminds behind the attack on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Yamamoto has been widely portrayed as a gifted fleet commander. But many of his decisions before and during the battle of Midway suggest otherwise. In May, he allowed the Mobile Force to be dispersed when he sent the Shokaku and Zuikaku, his most modern carriers, to the South Pacific. There they suffered ship damage and aircraft loss in the battle of the Coral Sea, making them unavailable at Midway.

A lack of firepower

More questions over Japanese decision-making are raised by the fact that the Midway assault was timed to coincide with another major Japanese operation – against American islands in the Aleutians, south-west of Alaska – so denying Admiral Nagumo’s spearhead more valuable firepower. Japanese intelligence about American activity during the battle was also badly co-ordinated, exemplified by Yamamoto’s failure to share critical information with Nagumo.

Another myth that stalks popular perceptions of the battle of Midway is that the Americans simply got lucky. True, weather and breakdowns affected Japanese scout planes. The Americans, with a hastily organised strike delivered at long range, were undoubtedly fortunate that dive arrived over the Mobile Force at the same moment. In short, with small but evenly matched forces, vulnerable target ships, reliance on visual observation rather than radar, and unpredictable weather conditions, it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which the battle ended as a draw, or even an American defeat. But it didn’t, and that very fact is every bit as much a result of Japanese deficiencies as the vagaries of luck.

But of all the myths of Midway that have evolved over the past eight decades, one has arguably shaped popular perceptions of the battle more than any other: and that’s the assertion that Midway was a major turning-point, one that changed irrevocably the course of the Pacific War.

One of the main drivers of this perception is the claim that Midway destroyed the Japanese carrier fleet. Again, that’s simply not the case. Shokaku and Zuikaku were soon available once more, as were the four smaller carriers that had not been with the Mobile Force. Another medium-sized converted carrier was nearing readiness, and many of the aircrew at Midway survived the carrier sinkings. In fact, at the battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in October 1942, the Japanese assembled a carrier fleet more powerful than that of the Americans.

And let’s not forget that the Americans themselves sustained significant losses in this first period of the Pacific War. They lost a large carrier at the battle of the Coral Sea, Yorktown at Midway, and two more large carriers in the Guadalcanal area (one to a submarine in September, and another to carrier attacks). Indeed, in early 1943, Nimitz had just one large carrier at his disposal; so scant were American resources that HMS Victorious had to be sent to the Pacific as a reinforcement.

But the cupboard wouldn’t remain bare for long. By the autumn of 1943, new carriers began to arrive from American shipyards – and it was these carriers that would power the Americans to victory in the Pacific in 1945. The Japanese navy may have survived its bloody nose at Midway but it had no effective carrier replacement programme. And so, when the US brought its awesome industrial capacity to bear, Japan was overwhelmed. For all the attention paid to the ‘miraculous’ events of 4 June 1942, the Americans’ ability to produce new vessels at an unprecedented speed was the true war-winning development – and that would have occurred whatever the outcome at Midway.

The countdown to Midway

● 7 December 1941

Carriers of the Mobile Force (Kidō Butai) of the Japanese Combined Fleet, under Admiral Nagumo, launch a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. American losses include two battleships sunk, and three badly damaged. The following day, US president Franklin D Roosevelt declares war on Japan.

● 20 January 1942

The Mobile Force raids Rabaul, New Guinea, enabling the Japanese to establish a major base north-east of Australia.

● 19 February

The Mobile Force raids Darwin, northern Australia, supporting the final Japanese conquest of the Dutch East Indies.

● 3–5 April

The Japanese Naval General Staff approves Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku’s plan to invade Midway Island. The aim is to lure the American fleet out for a decisive battle, and to destroy it.

● 5–8 April

The Mobile Force raids Ceylon (Sri Lanka), sinking a British aircraft carrier and two cruisers.

● 18 April

US Army bombers raid Tokyo and other Japanese cities. They are launched from carrier Hornet.

● 7–8 May

Battle of the Coral Sea between Japanese and American carriers in the South Pacific. An Allied fleet, alerted by codebreaking, blocks the invasion of Port Moresby in New Guinea. Each side loses a carrier, and two of the Mobile Force’s carriers are unable to take part in the Midway expedition.

● 20 May

American codebreakers tell Admiral Nimitz that a major operation is intended against Midway, giving him details of most forces involved and timing.

● 26–28 May

Most of the Combined Fleet leaves Japan for the operations at Midway and in the Aleutian Islands (south-west of Alaska).

● 3 June

Two Japanese carriers raid Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians.

● 4 June

The battle of Midway. American carriers ambush the Mobile Force north of Midway Island, preventing an invasion and destroying the Mobile Force. Carrier Yorktown is damaged and sinks on 7 June.

Evan Mawdsley is the former Professor of International History at the University of Glasgow. His most recent book is The War for the Seas: A Maritime History of World War II (Yale, 2019)

WATCH: The new film Midway, starring Ed Skrein and Patrick Wilson, will be released in UK cinemas on 8 November 

For more features on the Pacific War, look out for our Pearl Harbor special edition, in the shops soon

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This article was first published in the December 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine