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Pacific Front4th June 1942

The Battle of Midway

US carrier based warplanes were to prove decisive at Midway
US carrier based warplanes were to prove decisive at Midway

The Battle of Midway was one of the most decisive battles in history. It was most certainly, as Admiral Nimitz said, ‘the most crucial battle of the Pacific War.’i It was also symbolic of a new kind of naval warfare, since the opposing fleets never even saw each other. This was a carrier based fight that was to be decided by air power. After Midway, it was clear that the era of the great battleships was over forever.

The Japanese offensive plan, proposed by Admiral Isoroko Yamamoto, was complex. Not only was one massive Japanese naval force to attempt to capture the tiny American held Pacific atolls of Midway, but two other battle groups of the Imperial Navy would also simultaneously lure American ships into a sea battle during which, the Japanese hoped, several of the US navy’s capital ships would be destroyed. What was vital to the success of this ambitious plan, of course, was the element of surprise. But Yamamoto was confident that Americans would never anticipate a Japanese offensive of this complexity and scale. Just as at Pearl Harbour, Yamamoto believed the Americans would be caught napping.

However, Yamamoto was wrong. History was most certainly not to repeat itself at Midway. Indeed, it was now the turn of the Japanese to be confused and disorientated in battle. There was a simple reason for this – the Americans had broken key Japanese naval codes and Admiral Nimitz, the overall American Naval Commander in the region, was to base his actions on this crucial intelligence.

At first light on 4 June 1942 Japanese planes bombed Midway. But just a couple of hours later, an American naval group under the command of Rear-Admiral Raymond Spruance launched a massive counter attack on the Japanese carrier force responsible. But the Japanese commander, Admiral Nagumo, knew nothing of the impending attack. He believed that there were no American aircraft carriers nearby. As a result he ordered around 100 planes which he had not yet committed to the attack on Midway to be armed on the deck of his carriers.

As a result, American torpedo-planes and then dive bombers were able to catch the Japanese carriers at an immensely vulnerable moment – with their planes on deck and unable to take off. The Agaki, Admiral Nagumo’s own carrier-flagship, was hit and burst into flames. Then another Japanese carrier, the Kaga, was sunk, followed shortly later by the Soryu. And, at the end of this terrible day for Japanese fortunes, a fourth carrier, the Hiryu, was also destroyed.

The fury of the Japanese at the success of the Americans was almost beyond imagining. The Japanese subsequently took horrendous retribution on three American aviators who had been captured in the battle. Rescued from the sea, one of them was beheaded and two others were ‘tied to five-gallon kerosene cans filled with water and pushed overboard while they were still alive.’ii

But there was no disguising the fact that the Japanese had lost a potentially war-defining battle. Unlike the Americans, the Japanese did not possess the industrial resources to replace the four carriers that they had just lost at Midway. ‘It was clear to an awful lot of people at the time, and it’s certainly clear to us now, that the war in the Far East was over after Midway,’ says Sir Max Hastings. ‘The Japanese themselves knew this. Every Japanese scenario that they’d written, and that Yamamoto and others had put together before the Pearl Harbour attack was launched, agreed that the only hope was to achieve a quick, sharp victory. That in a long war the Americans must prevail.

‘The fundamental truth was that Japan was an industrially relatively weak society, with a GNP a small fraction of that of the United States, which was absolutely bound to lose a long war. Which had very brave soldiers, and some quite good ships, and some quite good aircraft, but which very, very soon after the war got going, once the Western Allies got into their stride, found itself being hopelessly outdistanced by the Allies in technologies, not to mention quantities and materiel.’

However, notwithstanding the difference in industrial potential between Japan and the USA, and the intelligence advantage gained by the Americans from the breaking of Japanese codes, Yamamoto had still made a series of misjudgments at Midway that had proved costly. Crucially, his decision to split his forces meant that the Americans could destroy the carriers within Admiral Nagumo’s battle group whilst not engaging with Yamamoto’s own fleet. The wisdom of Admiral Spruance’s decision, after masterminding the destruction of Nagumo’s carriers, to pull back and not engage further in the battle has been debated in some quarters. But it did mean that American losses at Midway were light compared to the enormous gain – the only loss of real strategic significance was the carrier, USS Yorktown, sunk just after the main action of Midway was over.

But though Midway altered the fortunes of the war in the Pacific irretrievably, it did not, as Professor Robert Dallek reminds us, mean that the war against the Japanese was won. ‘The battle at Coral Sea and the battle at Midway,’ says Professor Dallek, ‘we win those two battles and that begins to change the complexion and thrust and development of the war. But even then, there’s a huge amount of fighting that has to go on with great sacrifices… By the end of 1942 the United States had as many men and as much in the way of resources, material resources, in the Pacific as it was potentially using against Germany. This was a surprise to them, and what it spoke to was the fact that the Japanese turned out to be much more difficult to combat than they thought would be the case.’

In August 1942, two months after the battle of Midway, the Americans landed Marines on the island of Guadalcanal. It was an event which signaled a change in the war in the Pacific. Now the Americans would begin the long and bloody struggle to ‘island hop’ their way into the heart of the Japanese Empire itself.


i Quoted in Gordon Prange, Miracle at Midway, Viking, 1984, p. 395
ii Quoted in Hugh Bicheno, Midway, Cassell, 2001, p. 156