June 05, 2007
The story of Midway is well-known by now, thanks to numerous books and one feature film. Most of these books, and the movie, were mostly (if not entirely) based on American sources and a perishingly few translated Japanese "I was there" accounts that were never checked for accuracy.
Now that more researchers are able to read the raw Japanese data, such as the official War history of Japan (the Senshi Sosho), it's clear that much of what we "know" of the battle of Midway needs to be reevaluated.
Let's go over some of those myths, shall we?
1) "The near total destruction of the first wave of U.S. pilots and crew on board the "low and slow” torpedo bombers was not in vain; it alone made possible the exact conditions that allowed 50 U.S. dive bombers to send the Japanese armada to the bottom of the ocean minutes later."
2) "Four sitting duck Japanese carriers, without their protective shield of Zero fighter planes, with scores if not hundreds of Japanese planes sitting on the carrier decks, strewn with ordnance, fuel and crew..."
3) "The combined Japanese Alaskan and Midway forces, including those in support role, involved 200 ships, including 8 carriers, 11 battleships, 22 cruisers, 65 destroyers, 21 submarines and approximately 700 aircraft."
4)"A small Japanese carrier group first launched an attack on Alaska, intended to draw the U.S. Fleet out of Pearl..."
5)"The US Navy - outnumbered in carriers, ships, technology, planes and pilots - had achieved the greatest naval victory in modern history."
I'll discuss all of these below... read on, won't you?more...
Posted by: Mike at June 05, 2007 10:36 PM (gJDlA)
I'm not much on naval history - if the four ships of the Carrier Force only carried ~250 planes, and the other three fleets in the theatre only had four light carriers between them, how do we get to a total force of 700 planes? Is that number just bullshit?
As for techological imbalances, was radar a tactical factor in Midway? I seem to remember from the few books I read on the battle that everybody was flailing around with line-of-sight flying boats. I'll grant you superior damage-control & carrier design, but the torpedo imbalance cancels that out, and the worthlessness of the torpedo planes & the period superiority of the Zero seem to be rather important elements which bear out the myth.
Your other myths seem to be more akin to misperceptions & mis-statements than actual errors - the torpedo plane runs *did* expose the carriers to the dive bombers when it mattered, the repeated American attacks *did* keep the Japanese carriers from mustering a decisive attack on the American fleet, the Aleutians force *was* an attempt at concentration-in-time.
There are much more controversial & mis-understood battles out there - you ever want to see fur fly, bring up Shiloh/Pittsburg Landing. Or Perrysville/Chaplin Hills. Or Stones River/Murfreesboro. Or even Antietam/Sharpsburg. Hell, they can't even agree on the names, let alone which side won, or how!
As decisive battles go, Midway was pretty danged decisive, although naval battles tend to be somewhat more decisive than land engagements in general.
Posted by: Mitch H. at June 06, 2007 12:49 AM (iTVQj)
You say "Almost every battle won by the inferior force is fought by nearly-even elements at the point of contact, and most feature local superiorities of force by the victory."
Here's the thing: IT DIDN'T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY. The Japanese fleet specifically and knowingly threw away their advantage in ships and planes, and didn't care. They WANTED to have it that way.
Was radar a tactical factor at Midway? Not a huge one, I'll grant you, but it WAS there, and the US used it to vector their CAP around much better than the Japanese could ever hope for.
Gotta go to work, more later.
Posted by: Wonderduck at June 06, 2007 01:14 AM (2nDll)
Posted by: GreyDuck at June 06, 2007 01:47 AM (2Yvi7)
Yes, quite true. However, that's not what the original article said, and the many many books on the subject don't say that either. They simply say that the death of the various Torpedo squadrons 'drew down the Zeros', and that's NOT what happened.
"...the Aleutians force *was* an attempt at concentration-in-time."
I'm afraid that's entirely incorrect. Concentration would be putting everything in the same place. The Aleutians force was the exact OPPOSITE of concentration. Those two carrier decks, if put in with Kaga, Akagi, et al, could... perhaps WOULD... have made Midway a completely different event.
Posted by: Wonderduck at June 06, 2007 02:31 PM (A5s0y)
The fact that none of the December 1862 operations were what you'd want to call particularly successful (they included Fredericksburg, Grant's first failure against Vicksburg and the bloody tactical see-saw in front of Murfreesboro) didn't divert Union commanders from repeatedly trying for the same thing - concentration in time. The ugly mess in Virginia in May 1864 was yet another swing at the concept.
Concentration-in-time is usually employed by a numerically superior force in a logistically problematic theatre. If it's theoretically easier & cheaper to move three forces of 40k along three separate axes than one lumbering, starving mass of 120k along a single axis, then you'll have somebody pushing for concentration-in-time. That obviously wouldn't apply in the Midway example... hmm.
So if the Aleutians diversion wasn't a concentration-in-time effort or a true feint, what was it? Clearly, the Japanese would want to engage the American naval force away from the ground bases at Midway or Honolulu - engage his fractions with your mass, not vice-versa. I know the Japanese didn't realize that the Yorktown was in theatre, they'd already had a recent demonstration in the Coral Sea that American carrier groups weren't pushovers even *without* the support of a nearby airbase or string of airbases.
Posted by: Mitch H. at June 07, 2007 04:43 AM (iTVQj)
The tendency to romanticize great moments in history is something that will always be with us, for good and for ill.
Posted by: Civilis at June 07, 2007 09:57 AM (rgi1K)
Did the Japanese suffer from a lack of concentration of forces? Absolutely - like you said, a few of those light carriers might have turned the tide, or at least prevented the kind of fatal damage to the Japanese fleet carriers that made the engagement decisive.
A lot of the reason -why- the Japanese had done so, however, was a fundamental miscalculation of which elements constituted the strength of the fleet. It's easy for us to say "duh, the carriers are more important than everything else put together" - we're looking back at the issue through the lens of history, especially the history of the Pacific Theater, where carriers came into their leading role.
The Japanese admirals, though, -simply did not appreciate that fact-. What Midway was designed to do was provoke a "decisive battle" with the American fleet, and to the Japanese, that meant the American battleships. If you look at their fleet deployment as putting the big battleships in front, and deploying the carriers to cover the battleships like some kind of long-range artillery... of course it didn't work, especially as we knew that they were doing things that way, but it was definitely a conventional way of looking at a fleet engagement.
The Japanese knew that carriers were important, but still believed in their battleships, right up until the end; the US went from the same opinion to using battleships for "harbor defense" in port. ;p There were also big differences in aviator training and replacement programs, so that the US naval aviation experience survived some pretty heavy losses during the war, while the Japanese reserve of (very) skilled pilots was utterly exhausted even before the carriers and planes ran dry.
Posted by: Avatar at June 07, 2007 11:02 AM (s42Qj)
A seperate operation altogether. Particularly after the Doolittle raid, the Japanese were very paranoid about attacks on the Home Islands. They feared that air attacks could be launched from the Aleutians against Japan, so moved to prevent that from ever happening.
The "funny" thing is that they had little concept of the weather up there, and how miserable it was to fly in; the US had pretty much given up on staging bombers out of there.
The Aleutians were also a compromise. Pre-Doolittle, the Army were opposed to the Midway operation (remember, the Japanese military was very stratified; the Army and Navy often refused to work together). Post-Doolittle, the Army said that they'd support the Midway landings if the Navy would agree to the Aleutians operation. It was a scheduling quirk that had both kicking off at the same time.
Posted by: Wonderduck at June 07, 2007 02:11 PM (2nDll)
In part. There were several factors involved, however:
- It wasn't until after Coral Sea and Midway that the Navy deployed improved firefighting equipment on its ships. Before this the US and Japanese were essentially equal in the firefighting departments.
- The Franklin survived because (a) it was a tougher, more modern Essex class carrier and (b) the foam-emitting firefighting equipment used was a generation more advanced than that of the older carriers.
- One of the principle reasons Japan went to war was to gain control of the vast oil reserves in the Dutch East Indies. W/O those reserves they would not have been able to attack Midway. The most attractive features of these fields were their purity and quality - they required almost no refining to be used as bunker oil. Unfortunately, the Japanese didn't glom onto the "almost required almost no refining" part and took it straight out of the ground and into their fuel bunkers. "Almost" means that there were free radicals and volatiles still in the oil, making it highly volatile and likely to explode. Commercial-grade refined oil, in comparison, is much harder to ignite accidentally. The oil in Japanese fuel bunkers tended to explode when hit, making their ships powder kegs just waiting to be lit off.
- The principle advantage of the US fleet at Midway was that they had cracked the Japanese naval code and knew what the enemy was up to. They knew the enemy plan of attack and how best to counter it. The Japanese on their part had very poor intel on the US Fleet. They thought Yorktown was crippled and would be out of action for at least 6 months. They thought Nimitz would sortee the Pacific fleet to defend the Aleutians, when he had no intention of doing so even if he hand't known the Japanese's prime target was Midway.
Posted by: Orion at June 12, 2007 05:02 AM (xGZ+b)
Almost correct. The US had instituted one firefighting technique that almost certainly saved the Yorktown during it's first Midway bombing, that of draining the aircraft fuel lines and filling them with carbon dioxide.
The Lexington, sunk at Coral Sea, eventually died due to a massive explosion, caused by fuel vapors 'cooking off'. The Yorktown's damage control specialist knew this and suggested to the Captain that clearing the lines and filling them with an inert gas would prevent this, and indeed, it did. It wasn't until the torpedo attacks from both Kates and submarine that the carrier was given up for dead.
"They thought Yorktown was crippled and would be out of action for at least 6 months."
Actually, the Japanese thought the Yorktown was dead, sunk at Coral Sea. Minor point, but there nonetheless.
"They thought Nimitz would sortee the Pacific fleet to defend the Aleutians..."
Not so. The Aleutians attack was scheduled to occur on the same day as the Midway attack. It was only due to the Midway fleet's inability to sail on time (refueling problems) that the Aleutians attack occurred 24 hours before Midway. (please see debunking #4 in the main post for more details)
Posted by: Wonderduck at June 12, 2007 09:51 AM (h/YdH)
Midway's influence extended far beyond the Pacific as it radiated into North Africa, into Normandy and into the Russian front. Even for the Pacific your reasonment assumes the Japense do nothing and just let the USN buildup.
Midway allowed Roosevelt to set a policy of Germany first (even with the Midway victory the Democrats paid a heavy price for it at the midterm electioons): D-Day came very close to be a failure and the German defences would have been far stronger in 1945, without Midway it would have been probably impossible for Roosevelt to lend to the British the Sherman tanks who won the Battle of El Alamein, without Midway operation Torch would have been impossible since the carriers who covered it would have had to be assigned to the Pacific. Operation Torch pinned in the Mediterranean crucial assets who, at least for the air ones, could have been used to strengthen Von Manstein's attempt to relieve the Sixth Army trapped at Stalingrad, also when the Germans tried to supply the Sixth Army only half of their transport planes were available, the other half was supplying the forces who had been sent to oppose Torch. Finally, Hitler had assumed that the Japanese would keep the Americans busy for a couple years, Midway altered his plans and in a little known but first magnitude unforced error he transferred several elite units to the West at a time the Sixth Army could have taken Stalingrad on the run had it had just one or two additional divisions. Of course, we know that there was no way the Allies could do more than a large scale raid in 1942 but nevertheless Midway was one of the main factors in why Hitler sent those divisions to France instead of to the Sixth Army. In 1943 when faced with the option of staying in the defensive Hitkler embarked in the ill-fated offensive at Kursk because he believed Germany needed to knock out the USSR in order to be able to turn West and face the Allied landings.
The other point is that you assume that had the Americans lost at Midway it would have been just a matter of the IGN having four more cariers in 1944 and the Americans two less. But a victorious IJN could have conquered Hawai or least make it it thus depriving the USN of a crucial base and severely curtailing its ability to operate against them. The Japanse would have been able to put an air base at Guadalcanal and cut the communications between Americans and Australia. They could have conquered New Caledonia thus depriving the Allies of half the world production of Nickel, a metal used in stainless steel and many alloys. But most importantly there is a definite possibility that the USN would have not had the leisure to build and train the impressive force who mopped the floor with the IJN in 1944, instead it is very possible as soon as out of the shipyards new US carriers would have been to be sent piecemeal to put out the fires set by the IJN and be destroyed in battles were they would have been outnumbered.
Despite my critics about your conclusions over the importance of Midway I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed your article. In fact I have spent several days trying to find it after coming on it a couple years ago but failing to bookmark it. That is why I datred to post a reply four years after the initial post.
Posted by: JFM at July 11, 2011 07:23 AM (avBnI)
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