The Battle Of Midway

In this aircraft carriers battle, Japan lost the initiative in the Pacific.

10 minutes read.

The battle plans

In the battle of Midway, each side planned to attract the enemy's key naval force, its aircraft carriers, into a decisive battle with its own key naval force, and sink them. Achieving that will dramatically reduce the potential and the threat of the enemy's Navy, and the winner's Navy will dominate the Pacific Ocean and will gain the initiative for future operations.

Six months after the attack at Pearl Harbor, this was the Japanese Navy's plan for the battle of Midway. This was also exactly what the American Navy planned.

There was one main difference between the two navies' battle plans. While the Japanese plan expected to attack Midway island and then wait for the American aircraft carriers to get there, the American commander knew the Japanese plan in advance, and he decided to already be near Midway when they arrive, and attack them earlier than they expected. This was his secret card against the outnumbering Japanese force.

The critical intelligence

In the same way that battles are the "highlights" of continuous military efforts, intelligence work is an endless continuous effort which sometimes produce critically important results. This was the case in the battle of Midway.

In the few weeks before the battle, the US Navy's Combat Intelligence Office, in charge of analyzing and deciphering Japanese naval radio communications, received indications hinting that the Japanese Navy is preparing for a major attack. Deciphered Japanese messages referred to the attack target only by its code name, AF. There were several possible targets for such a major attack, and knowing which one was code named AF was critical. Commander Joseph P. Rochefort, head of the Combat Intelligence Office, thought that the gathered intelligence indicate that AF is Midway island, but he needed a proof.

In order to prove it, he called Midway via the underwater cable phone line, which the Japanese could not tap, and asked them to transmit a message that the water desalination facility in Midway is broken, a juicy piece of (fake) information for the Japanese intelligence, indicating that the American defenders at Midway are about to suffer a severe shortage of drinking water.

Soon after, Rochefort's staff deciphered a Japanese radio message saying that target AF is suffering a water shortage problem. This was the proof he needed, an extremely important piece of intelligence. It was achieved by a simple trick, but only thanks to the endless prior work of American radio listeners and code breakers.

With this information at hand, Admiral Nimitz, the American commander, could concentrate his entire smaller force in the right place, at the right time, knowing that he knows the enemy's plans, a rare advantage for a commander.

The participating forces

Knowing what the enemy plans is not always enough, especially when it has a much larger force. It was the Japanese Navy's greatest operation ever. They concentrated an Armada of 162 warships under the command of Admiral Yamamoto, their best naval commander.

The Japanese fleet was organized in five forces :

Against this mighty Armada, the American force in the battle of Midway included :

The Battle of Midway (June 4th, 1942)

On June 4th, before sunrise, Admiral Nagumo launched half of his carriers' aircraft to attack Midway, and kept the other half armed and ready in case American warships will be detected. He didn't know that the American aircraft carriers were already nearby.

The Japanese aircraft were detected by RADAR and fighters took off from Midway to engage them, but these were too few to prevent the attack, and Midway was bombed for 20 minutes. There was significant damage, and 15 American fighters were shot down, but the runways at Midway were not disabled. About 30 Japanese aircraft were either shot down or severely damaged.

In response, the few American heavy bombers at Midway took off to attack the Japanese aircraft carriers.

At 6am, an American aircraft spotted two of the four Japanese aircraft carriers, and the American carriers were immediately ordered to set course Southwest to intercept them, and to launch their aircraft to attack them.

Admiral Nagumo did not expect the presence of the American aircraft carriers yet, and he did not expect an attack from Midway island after his aircraft heavily bombed it. So he kept very few aircraft on patrol when at about 7am his carriers were attacked by the bombers from Midway island. In response to this attack, Admiral Nagumo decided that the 2nd half of his air group will perform a second attack on Midway. For this purpose, he ordered to rearm his bombers, to replace the torpedoes and armor-piercing bombs with incendiary and fragmentation bombs, more suitable for attacking airfields.

Also at about 7am, the dive bombers and torpedo bombers of the advancing American carriers were launched to attack the Japanese carriers from a long distance of about 300 kilometers. They flew in 6 formations. 3 dive bomber formations, one from each carrier, and 3 torpedo bomber formations, one from each carrier, a total of 116 aircraft.

While the Japanese second wave was still rearming, a Japanese patrol aircraft spotted the American carriers and reported their position and course, but not that they were aircraft carriers. The surprised Admiral Nagumo re-evaluated the situation for 15 minutes and then ordered to rearm the second attack wave again, back to torpedoes and armor piercing bombs.

At this time, before the second Japanese wave could take off, the aircraft of first Japanese attack wave returned from their attack at Midway and began landing on the Japanese carriers.

At 9am, the Japanese carriers changed course to intercept the incoming American carriers. As a result, the dive bombers from Hornet failed to find the Japanese carriers. But the Japanese carriers were found by the three formations of American torpedo bombers. The American torpedo bombers were not escorted by fighters, and they were engaged by Japanese fighters and anti aircraft guns. They suffered very heavy losses without causing any damage, and all but 8 were shot down.

At 10:24am, when the last American torpedo bomber attack failed, Admiral Nagumo and his men felt lucky and victorious. Their first attack seriously damaged Midway, they were not hit by the heavy bombers from Midway, they were not hit by 3 squadrons of torpedo bombers and shot down most of them, and now they knew of the presence and position of the American carriers, and in a short time, once rearming is completed, they will take off to attack them and win the battle of Midway.

But just two minutes later, at 10:26, the situation was totally different. The fighter patrols which protected the Japanese aircraft carriers were all at low altitude after intercepting the American torpedo bombers, when suddenly 37 Dauntless dive bombers from the Enterprise appeared high above the Japanese carriers, whose flight decks were then full of many fueled and armed bombers ready for take off, making them extremely vulnerable to bomb damage at these moments.

The 37 American dive bombers immediately dived to attack. One group attacked the Japanese carrier Kaga and the other attacked the carrier Akagi, Nagumo's flagship. Only 6 bombs hit, 2 hit Akagi and 4 hit Kaga, but the two aircraft carriers quickly became blazing infernos.

Just a few minutes later, the last American formation, the Yorktown's 17 dive bombers, arrived and attacked a 3rd Japanese carrier, the Soryu. Soryu was hit by 3 bombs and had to be abandoned, it was later sunk by an American submarine.

The short but devastating attack by the American dive bombers was over. Nagumo lost 3 of his 4 aircraft carriers in just a few minutes. He then launched the 40 aircraft from his last carrier, the Hiryu, to attack the American aircraft carriers. The Japanese formation spotted the American carrier Yorktown and attacked it.

Unlike the Japanese fighters, the American fighters protecting the Yorktown were ready and in proper altitude. The Japanese formation suffered very heavy losses by the Yorktown's fighters and anti-aircraft fire, but at least 7 Japanese dive bombers and torpedo bombers were able to attack it. At 14:45pm the Yorktown was hit by 3 bombs and two torpedoes and had to be abandoned. Its dive bombers and fighters landed on Enterprise, and it was later sunk.

The two remaining American aircraft carriers were ordered to launch their dive bombers again, to find and sink the 4th Japanese carrier, which lost most of its aircraft in the attack on the Yorktown. At 15:40pm, 24 dive bombers were launched from Enterprise, and at 5pm they sunk Hiryu with 4 bombs. A while later a Japanese cruiser was sunk by dive bombers from Hornet.

The Japanese force still greatly outnumbered the American force, and initially Admiral Yamamoto wanted to continue the battle, but then he realized that with the loss of the 4 aircraft carriers and their air units, his battleships and the invasion force became too vulnerable to American air attacks. He then decided to retreat his large Armada from Midway. The battle of Midway was over, with a great and decisive American victory.

Results and lessons from the battle of Midway

The US lost one aircraft carrier and 147 aircraft. Japan lost its four best aircraft carriers, with their entire crews, air crews, and aircraft, and also one cruiser.

The aircraft carriers battle of Midway has some lessons:

Intelligence - the American commander knew in advance where and when to expect the Japanese attack and he prepared accordingly.

RADAR - the critical importance of its ability to provide early warning was demonstrated again in Midway. The importance of technology in general was demonstrated.

The importance of air superiority, both in attack and in defense, was also demonstrated.

The importance of professionalism, by everyone :

After the battle of Midway, is was even more obvious that the battleship became a secondary type of warship to the aircraft carrier, because of the carrier's ability to sink enemy ships with its aircraft without ever being in range of their heavy guns. After the battle of Midway, Japan still had 11 aircraft carriers of all types, but only 5 were available for operations, and only one was a large carrier. It also lost so many of its most experienced aviators and it could not quickly replace them. The US Navy had 3 large aircraft carriers in the Pacific, 13 more were being built, and there was no way Japan could match the American rate of production of aircraft carriers, aircraft, and well trained aviators. Japan was already fighting a war it could not win, and after the battle of Midway it was already beginning to lose it, just 6 months after it started it in Pearl Harbor. Despite all its remaining strength, after the battle of Midway Japan lost its superiority and initiative in the Pacific and was forced to defense. Since that day, the Pacific Ocean was dominated by American aircraft carriers.

Related essays:
World War 2 RADAR (6 minutes read)
World War 2 submarines (6 minutes read)
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (6 minutes read)

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