Military history


Carrier Battle: Midway

In the context of the Pacific war in May 1942, one more battle meant a battle between aircraft carriers. There had never been such a battle before; but the Japanese navy’s victory at Pearl Harbor ensured that such a battle was inevitable, if the United States were not altogether to abdicate control of the Pacific to Japan. The destruction at Battleship Row had left the American Pacific Fleet with only its aircraft carriers among its capital ships afloat, and it must find a way of using those carriers to fight the might of eleven Japanese battleships, ten carriers and thirty-eight cruisers, wherever they might next appear. Battleships, even in the numbers in which the Japanese deployed them, could not challenge a well-handled carrier force. ‘Command of the sea’, therefore, now rested on winning command of the air, as both navies had long recognised. Somewhere in the depths of the Pacific, the largest space on the surface of the globe, the Japanese and American carrier fleets must meet and battle it out for a decision. If the decision went in favour of the Japanese, as probabilities implied, their New Order in Asia would be safe for years to come.

The Japanese carrier fleet outnumbered the American by ten to three; if its light carriers were excluded, its navy still enjoyed a superiority of six to three. Moreover, the Japanese carriers and – even more important – their air groups were of the first quality. Before December 1941 the Americans had dismissed the Japanese carrier force as an inferior imitation of its own. Pearl Harbor had revealed that Japanese admirals handled their ships with superb competence and that Japanese naval pilots flew advanced aircraft, dropping lethal ordnance, with deadly skill. The Zero had established itself as the finest embarked fighter in any navy; the Kate and Val torpedo- and dive-bombers, though slower than their American counterparts, carried heavy loads over long ranges.

The Imperial Japanese Navy had not built and trained a carrier fleet as a second best to its battleship force. On the contrary, its carrier fleet was a national elite. For that the Americans – and the British – had only themselves to blame. At the Washington Naval Conference of 1921 they had forced the Japanese to accept a severe restriction on the number of capital ships they were allowed to possess. The ratio fixed was three Japanese ships to five British or American. The object was to limit the number of Imperial Japanese Navy battleships in the Pacific, which was a secondary theatre for the two Western navies, who at that time were locked in unspoken conflict over which was to enjoy primacy in the Atlantic. Aircraft carriers were subject to the restriction, but the purpose of including them was to guard against the danger that any power could launch ships in the guise of carriers which might subsequently be converted to battleships. Japan went the other way about. Already persuaded that the carrier was likely to be a dominant naval weapon of the future, it not only converted a number of battleships and battlecruisers into carriers, as it was allowed to do under the 1921 treaty (and Britain and America were doing likewise, to preserve seaworthy hulls they would otherwise have had to scrap). It also launched a number of seaplane carriers, a category the Washington Treaty did not recognise, with the object of converting them into aircraft carriers at a later date.

By conversion and new building they had succeeded by 1941 in creating the largest carrier fleet in the world, which not only embarked the largest naval air force, of 500 aircraft, but was also grouped – the analogy might be with the German Panzer divisions – in a single striking force, the First Air Fleet. The four light carriers could be detached for peripheral operations. The six large carriers – Akagi (Red Castle), Kaga (Increased Joy), Hiryu (Flying Dragon), Soryu (Green Dragon), Shokaku (Soaring Crane) andZuikaku(Happy Crane) – were kept together for strategic offensives. They formed the group which had devastated Pearl Harbor. In May 1942 they stood ready to engage the American carrier group in battle and consummate Japan’s victory in the Pacific.

The American carriers, though few in number, equally did not represent their navy’s second best. Lexington and Saratoga, completed on battlecruiser hulls in 1927, were in their time the largest warships in the world and were still formidable ships in 1942;Enterprise was a later but purpose-built carrier; Yorktown and Hornet, which were to join her in the Pacific from the Atlantic Fleet, were sister ships. The aircraft they embarked were not the equal of the Japanese. In particular, in 1942 the Americans lacked a good shipborne fighter. But their aircrew, even by comparison with the First Air Fleet’s elite, were outstanding. America, after all, was the birthplace of the aeroplane, her youth had conceived a passion for flying from the start, and the US Navy’s carrier pilots were leaders of the breed.

Carrier flying excluded all but the best. The technique of launching and ‘landing on’ was extremely rigorous: at take-off, without catapult, aircraft dipped beneath the bows of the ship and frequently crashed into the sea; at landing pilots were obliged to drive at full power into the arrester wires lest the hook missed contact and they were forced into involuntary take-off, the alternatives being a crash on the flight deck or a probably fatal ditching. Flight away from the ship was quite as perilous as launching and landing. In 1942 there was no airborne radar. The gunner of a ‘multi-seat’ torpedo- or dive-bomber could keep a rough check of bearings headed and distance flown, and so guide his pilot back to the sea area in which they might hope to find the mother ship by eyesight – from high altitude in clear weather. A fighter pilot alone in his aircraft, once out of sight of the mother ship, was lost in infinity and found his way home by guess or good luck. Extreme visual range in the Pacific, from 10,000 feet on a cloudless day, was a hundred miles; but strike missions might carry aircraft 200 miles from the carrier, to the limit of their endurance – and perhaps beyond. If the carrier reversed course, or a pilot was tempted by a target to press on beyond his point of no return, a homing aircraft could exhaust its fuel on the homeward leg and have to ditch into the sea, where its crew in their dinghy would become a dot in an ocean 25 million miles square. Only the bravest were embarked on carriers as aircrew.

To bravery the air groups of the Japanese carriers added experience. By May 1942 they had not only devastated Pearl Harbor but bombed Darwin in northern Australia and operated against shore targets in the East Indies. In April they had crossed the Indian Ocean to find the British Eastern Fleet in Ceylon, attacked the naval bases at Colombo and Trincomalee and chased its old battleships to refuge in the ports of East Africa. The American carrier crews, by contrast, were lacking in battle experience. They had attempted, but failed, to relieve Wake Island. They had made raids on the Marshall Islands (Kwajalein), the Gilberts, the Solomons and New Guinea. A few of the aircrew had met Japanese fighters or anti-aircraft fire; but, apart from sinking a minesweeper, they had not yet fulfilled the purpose for which they had been trained and embarked – to carry bombs or torpedoes against an enemy battle fleet.

The Doolittle raid

Suddenly, during May, the opportunity came their way not once but twice. The circumstances which provoked this outcome were unusual in the extreme. During March the American Chiefs of Staff had discussed with President Roosevelt a means of striking back at Japan for the outrage of Pearl Harbor and ‘bringing the war home to the Japanese’. To do so they would have to attack the Japanese home islands, an apparently impossible mission, since the islands lay far beyond aircraft range of the United States’ Pacific bases, while to send carriers close enough to launch their embarked aircraft would be to put them at fatal risk. The only solution was to embark long-range land bombers on a carrier, in the hope that they could be got into the air and deliver bombs on a target precious to Japanese national pride: Tokyo. The mission was theoretically possible but barely practicable. Nevertheless Washington resolved to try it. On 2 April USS Hornet left San Francisco, with sixteen B-25 medium-range bombers on its flight deck, under the command of the notable airman Colonel James Doolittle.

The plan was that Hornet should approach to within 500 miles of Japan, launch its aircraft and then retire, while the aircraft bombed Tokyo and then flew on to land in China in areas still controlled by Chiang Kai-shek – who was told to expect the B-25s but not informed of the mission they were flying. On 18 April Hornet and its escorts were 650 miles from Tokyo, having approached on a route which ran between Midway and the northern Aleutian islands, when a Japanese naval picket was sighted. Admiral William Halsey, commanding the task force, decided to launch the B-25s instantly, even though they would be at the extreme limit of their endurance, and run for the security of the deep Pacific. All Doolittle’s bombers lurched safely off the flight deck, and thirteen bombed Tokyo and three other Japanese targets; four landed in China, one landed in the Soviet Union, and the remainder were abandoned by their crews, who took to parachutes over China. Of the eighty fliers who departed on this reckless venture, seventy-one survived to return to the United States.

The Doolittle raid might nevertheless have been judged a fiasco if it had not registered with the Japanese high command. The citizens of Tokyo, to whom no public acknowledgement of the raid was made by the government, did not associate the scattering of explosions with an American attack; but the generals and admirals, as servants of the god-emperor, were horrified by the threat to his person the bombing represented. At that very moment a debate was raging between the Naval General Staff and the Combined Fleet over the future development of the Pacific war. The shore-based staff officers had committed themselves to an advance into the ‘Southern Area’, with the object of capturing more of New Guinea and additional footholds in the Solomons and New Caledonia, from which to attack Australia and menace her long seaward flank of communication with the west coast of the United States. The Combined Fleet, represented by Yamamoto, wanted not the acquisition of additional territory, however strategically valuable, but a strategic victory. They believed they could provoke a decisive battle with the United States Navy’s remaining carriers by mounting an invasion of Hawaii’s outlier, Midway Island, for which they were sure the Americans would be bound to fight.

Doolittle’s raid ended the argument. Hornet had reached its launch point through the Midway ‘keyhole’ in Japan’s defensive perimeter. As no senior officer in Japan could publicly countenance allowing the keyhole to remain open, since to do so implied unconcern for the emperor’s well-being, the Naval General Staff at once withdrew their objection to the Combined Fleet’s plan and accepted Yamamoto’s Midway proposal. An operation already scheduled for early May, to extend the footholds in New Guinea that they had established between 8 and 10 March, was to go forward; by putting troops ashore at Port Moresby, on the great island’s southern shore, Japan would further menace Darwin and Australia’s Northern Territory. However, as soon as the carriers needed to cover the landings had withdrawn, they would be concentrated in the central Pacific for an offensive against Midway.

‘Magic’, for the first significant time in the Pacific war, here came to the Americans’ aid. Interception and decryption of careless Japanese signals – a symptom of their infection with the ‘victory disease’ with which they would later reproach themselves – alerted the Pacific Fleet to the impending Japanese strike on Port Moresby. It accordingly dispatched the carriers Lexington and Yorktown to intercept the Japanese invasion fleet. The Japanese fleet was protected by three carriers, the new but small Shoho and the largeShokaku and Zuikaku. Shoho was sunk by bombing in a lucky encounter on 7 May. Next day, after complex manoeuvres, the aircraft of the two remaining Japanese and the two American carriers found each other’s mother ships, separated by 175 miles of sea, and delivered fierce attacks. Shokaku suffered heavy damage; Yorktown was only lightly damaged, but Lexington was set on fire by a leak from her aviation fuel lines and had to be abandoned.

This Battle of the Coral Sea had two salutary effects for the Americans. It checked the Japanese army’s advance to positions offshore of Australia and confined it thereafter to northern New Guinea. It also reassured the American carrier and air group crews that they were at least the equals of their opponents, besides bringing Yorktown valuable combat experience. Yorktown’s damage was repaired at Pearl Harbor in forty-five hours, after she had arrived on 27 May for what her captain estimated was a necessary ‘ninety-day refit’. On 30 May she sailed to join Enterprise and Hornet, as yet uninitiated in carrier-tocarrier combat, for battle off Midway.

The fatal five minutes

All Americans concerned with the battle recognised that it must be a desperate affair. Of the five American carriers in commission, Wasp was returning from the Mediterranean where she had helped deliver aircraft to Malta and Saratoga was working up after completing repairs. The three remaining constituted the nucleus of two task forces, 17 (Yorktown) and 16 (Enterprise and Hornet), and put to sea with an impressive escort of cruisers and destroyers. However, the admirals commanding, Frank John Fletcher (Task Force 17) and Raymond Spruance (Task Force 16), knew that they would fight at a severe disadvantage. The Japanese First Air Fleet had six large carriers (in the event four – Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu – were to voyage to Midway), was supported by battleships and would have a clear superiority in aircraft: for Midway Japanese carriers embarked seventy each, American only sixty. On the day, 272 Japanese bombers and fighters would confront 180 American. These were extreme odds.

The odds were to be shortened, however, as before the Coral Sea, by the operation of Magic. Japanese radio security for the Midway operation was rigorous. The operation itself was designated MI, which might have meant anything, despite the apparent reference to Midway Island; and its target was designated AF. Much traffic containing these designations was intercepted by the American Magic cryptanalysts but the decrypts gave no clue where the First Air Fleet was bound. One of the cryptanalysts on Hawaii had nevertheless convinced himself that Midway was the target and he contrived to set a trap for the Japanese. On a secure telegraphic link between Hawaii and Midway he instructed the garrison at Midway to radio in clear that it was running short of fresh water, an innocuous administrative message which he believed would not arouse Japanese suspicions. His confidence was justified. An Australian antenna of the Magic network shortly intercepted a Japanese cipher transmission which signalled that AF had reported a shortage of fresh water. The trick had therefore revealed the Japanese target; subsequent decrypts established that the operation designated MI would take place on 4 June. Task Forces 16 and 17 therefore sailed to position themselves north-east of Midway in time for the Japanese arrival.

Naval officers had originally conceived of the aeroplane as an adjunct to a battleship fleet with the ability to scout for the enemy and spot for the fall of shot once action was joined. The Royal Navy, even in 1942, clung to that view of the naval aircraft’s role. In both the American and Japanese fleets, however, naval aviators had achieved an authority which relegated the traditionalists’ obsession with the battleship to second place. They rightly judged that the carrier and its air groups had become queen of the oceans. No battle, not even the Coral Sea, fought in confined waters in support of landing forces, had yet borne out their judgement. Now they were to put their judgement to the test in the landless expanses of the central Pacific, 2000 miles from a continent in any direction.

The First Air Fleet, accompanied by the battleships and cruisers of the Midway Occupation Force, drew within range of the tiny island on 4 June. Many other Japanese naval forces, some dispatched as far northward as the Aleutians, were in motion at the same time, their mission being to confuse the commanders of the American Pacific Fleet and compel them to disperse their strength. This was over-subtle. The United States Navy was so weak in the Pacific in mid-1942 that it had to keep all its capital units together in order to concentrate a strategic force. It did, however, dispose of a force of which there was no equivalent in Yamamoto’s armada: land-based aircraft, the Catalina amphibious flying-boats and Flying Fortresses stationed at Midway atoll itself. They could operate against the Japanese carriers and escape homeward without fear of finding their landing platform moved out of range or, worse, sunk. The land-based aircraft were to exercise an important influence on the unfolding of the Battle of Midway.

Indeed, the first move against the Japanese carriers was made by a Catalina flying-boat from Midway flying reconnaissance on 3 June. It spotted the invasion fleet heading towards the island, thus confirming that the Magic intelligence was correct. Next morning Flying Fortresses bombed but missed the fleet, while four Catalinas actually sank one of the invasion ships; it was only a humble oiler, but the blow was sufficient to convince the carrier admiral, here as at Pearl Harbor the redoubtable Nagumo, that he must overcome the island’s defences before the landing began. At 4.30 am all four of his carriers launched nine squadrons of bombers, armed with fragmentation bombs for a ground attack and escorted by four squadrons of Zero fighters. Radar gave the Americans warning, but that could not compensate for the inferiority of the old fighters based on the atoll. Two-thirds of the American fighters were destroyed, heavy damage was done to Midway’s installations, and the Japanese bombers arrived back at the carriers without loss.

The leader of the raiding force nevertheless reported to Nagumo on his return that Midway ought to be bombed again – which was not in the admiral’s plan. While he cogitated, Midway struck back. One of its dawn patrols had identified the position of Nagumo’s carriers, reported it and prompted Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Pacific Fleet commander, to order Midway to launch its aircraft again; Fletcher, in overall command of the task forces, simultaneously ordered Enterprise and Hornet to manoeuvre into an attacking positon and did likewise with Yorktown. The arrival of Midway’s second wave of land-based bombers made Nagumo reach a decision. Though his carriers’ decks were cluttered with torpedoes brought up from below to arm his returned aircraft for a strike against American surface ships – should they be identified in the area – he now cancelled that mission and ordered them to be armed again with fragmentation bombs for a second strike against Midway.

That would take time. While time was running out, Hornet and Enterprise reached positions from which they could launch their own torpedo- and dive-bombers, and did so at 7 am. Yorktown launched its bombers an hour later. By 9 am the sky to the north-east of Midway was filled with 150 American aircraft winging their way across the 175 miles of ocean that separated the two fleets.

Nagumo already knew that danger threatened. At 7.28 one of his reconnaissance aircraft had reported a sighting of enemy ships. Infuriatingly it did not identify what type. It was not until 8.20 that it tentatively signalled the presence of a carrier, and not until 8.55 that it warned that torpedo aircraft were in the air and heading Nagumo’s way. The Japanese admiral now recognised that he had made a serious mistake and quickly countermanded his order to rearm with bombs; but, given his superiority of numbers, his error was not necessarily grievous. In any case he was fully occupied with other matters. First the Midway bombers Nimitz had ordered into the air were massacred by the guns of his Zeros. Then, between 8.40 and 9 am, the bombers sent on his own second strike against Midway returned and had to be landed on. As soon as they had been recovered, crews swarmed about them with refuelling hoses and ordnance trolleys loaded with torpedoes for their next mission, this time against ships.

It was with their decks crowded with refuelling and rearming bombers that the first arrivals from Enterprise and Hornet found the four Japanese carriers, sailing in tight box formation and protected overhead by their combat air patrol of Zeros, just before 9.30 am. Nagumo had recently changed course, so the encounter initially contained an element of luck for the Americans. It lasted but briefly. By 9.36 all Hornet’s and ten of Enterprise’s torpedo-bombers had been shot down; their dive-bombers had been foxed by Nagumo’s change of course and, failing to find a target, either turned home if they had enough fuel, landed in Midway or simply ditched; all the fighters escorts ran out of fuel and fell into the sea.

Nagumo had had a lucky escape. He had counted on his superiority of numbers to see him through even if attacked when at a disadvantage, and that, with his well-calculated change of course, had extricated him from danger. Two-thirds of his enemy’s strike aircraft had been repelled or destroyed. There was not even a probability that the remainder would now be able to find him.

Yorktown’s torpedo-bombers, navigating by hunch and then drawn towards the smoke of combat between Nagumo’s carriers and Task Force 16’s aircraft, found him none the less. However, forced to fly straight, low and level to deliver their torpedoes, seven out of twelve were shot down by his combat air patrol and none of the torpedoes launched found a mark. By ten o’clock Nagumo had repelled what appeared to be the final American attack and was preparing to launch his own aircraft to find and destroy his disarmed antagonist somewhere on the far side of Midway. His formation was somewhat scattered, but none of his ships was damaged and his fighter force was intact.

Unfortunately the fighters were temporarily at the wrong altitude. Drawn down to sea level to fight off Yorktown’s torpedo-bombers, they had left the sky open to any dive-bomber force that might appear. One of Enterprise’s dive-bomber groups had overflown 175 miles of sea, lost contact with the rest of its mother ship’s aircraft, taken a wrong course and been guided to its target by luck and shrewd guesswork. At 10.25 on the morning of 4 June 1942 it was exactly placed to deliver the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare. Its leader, Lieutenant-Commander Wade McClusky, turned to attack and from 14,500 feet led his thirty-seven Dauntless dive-bombers seaward in a plunge at the Japanese carriers’ flight decks.

All were cluttered with aircraft and the paraphernalia of refuelling and rearming. High-octane fuel hoses ran between piles of discarded bombs, which stood beside aircraft running their engines for take-off; they were ingredients of catastrophe. Akagi, Nagumo’s flagship, was the first to go. A bomb started a fire in a torpedo store and within twenty minutes raged so fiercely that the admiral had to shift his flag to a destroyer. Kaga, hit by four bombs, was set ablaze by its own aviation fuel and had to be abandoned even more rapidly. Soryu suffered three hits; one started a fire among aircraft parked on deck, stopped her engines and left her victim to a shadowing American submarine which sank her at noon.

Within exactly five minutes, between 10.25 and 10.30, the whole course of the war in the Pacific had been reversed. The First Air Fleet, its magnificent ships, modern aircraft and superb pilots, had been devastated. And the disaster was not at an end. Hiryu had evaded attack and got away – but only temporarily. At five in the afternoon she was found racing furiously away from Midway by dive-bombers from Enterprise, was hit with four bombs, set on fire and left to be scuttled by her crew when the flames took hold from stem to stern.

Thus the whole of Nagumo’s fleet and, with it, the dream of empire perished. Yamamoto’s prophecy of ‘running wild’ for six months had been fulfilled almost to the day. Not only did the balance in the Pacific between fleet carriers now stand equal (Yorktownwas sunk by a submarine on 6 June); the advantage the Japanese had lost could never be made good – as Yamamoto knew, having seen American industry at first hand. Six fleet carriers would join the Japanese navy in 1942-4; America would launch fourteen, as well as nine light carriers and sixty-six escort carriers, creating a fleet against which Japan could not stand. It was now to be condemned to the defensive, though in waging a defensive war it would test the courage and resources of the United States and its allies to the utmost.

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