June 04, 2009

What If #3: Midway... Timing Is Everything

In the previous post, reader Toad asks:
If the American torpedo and dive bombers had managed to make a coordinated attack per doctrine how much difference would it have made if any on the number of Japanese carriers sunk and damaged?

It would, indeed, make a difference, but perhaps not the way you may be expecting.

As in life, love, baseball and comedy, the Battle of Midway is all about timing.  Disrupt the timing of the American attacks, and you disrupt the outcome.  Throughout the morning of June 4th, 1942, American planes ran in on Kido Butai.  At no time during the day, until the famous plunge of the Dauntlesses, were these attacks coordinated or in greater than squadron strength.  Also at no time during the day, until the big attack, were American fighters effectively on the scene (there were Wildcats on the scene when VT-6 made its run, but they were high above the fight waiting for a radio call on a different frequency from a different squadron).

The easiest way to describe the effect of all these seperate attacks had on the Japanese fleet is to borrow a phrase from land combat: suppressive fire.  The carriers were too busy "keeping their heads down" and tossing the occasional grenade (or Zeros, in the case) at their attackers from behind cover to launch their own attack on the US carriers.

The sequence of events went like this:
Shortly before 6am, the Japanese carriers were spotted by Midway-based PBYs.
*Around 620am, the Japanese strike on Midway Island began.
*At 7am, TF16 (Enterprise, Hornet) began launching their strike against the Japanese.
*Between 705am and 730am, the VT-8 detachment flying from Midway and a handful of B-26s carrying topedoes attack the Japanese carriers.  During this time, Admiral Nagumo, commander of Kido Butai, orders that his reserve force of carrier planes be rearmed for land attack.
*Around 745am, Tone #4, the infamous late scout plane, discovers and reports the presence of American carriers.  Nagumo reverses his rearming order.
*At 755am, two unrelated attacks on the Japanese carriers come in.  First, a flight of B-17s arrive overhead.  At the same time, a green squadron of Dauntless dive bombers from Midway, led by Major Lofton Henderson, begin a glide bombing attack.  This attack is dealt with sternly, and is over by 815am or so.
*At 8am, TF17 (Yorktown), which had been in charge of scouting for the morning, launches its planes.
*At 805am, the Midway strike planes return to Kido Butai and wait for the American attacks to be driven off.
*Around 820am, a second group of dive bombers from Midway, this time SB2U Vindicators, attacks and is beaten off.
*Around 835am, the SB2U and B-17 attacks come to an end.
*Immediately thereafter, recovery of the Midway strike force begins.
*Around 910am, the last planes from the strike force touch down. 
*At 915am, VT-8 attacks.  By 935am, all of the torpedo bombers are shot down.
*At 940am, VT-6 attacks.  This attack is over by 1010am.
*At 1010am, VT-3 is spotted.
*At 1020am, VB-3 and VB-6 attack Kido Butai.
*By 1030am, the Soryu, Kaga and Akagi are mortally wounded.
*Around 1040am, VT-3's survivors make their torpedo attacks and leave the field.

From this timeline, it can be seen that the Japanese carriers had no time to even prepare to launch an attack on the American CVs.  The only open stretch available to them was between 835am and 910am, the time when the Midway strike force was being recovered.  They could have spotted and launched an attack during this stretch of time (even though the re-rearming of the reserve planes wasn't yet complete), but only at the risk of losing many of the Midway strike planes to fuel depravation or pilot injuries.  Japanese doctrine at the time did not allow for, say, Hiryu and Kaga to launch an attack while Soryu and Akagi recovered planes.  Doctrine called for massed airpower using large numbers of planes in a balanced, coordinated attack.  This would swamp the target's defenses and allow for maximum damage to be inflicted while minimizing casualties.  There was never any thought to leaving the Midway strike dangling, because that's not how the Japanese carriers worked.

So, what would have happened if a coordinated American strike had been launched and all the attackers arrived on target at the same time?

The answer, as mentioned before, comes down to timing.


Let us assume that the US carriers of TF16 and TF17 had been able to launch their planes in such a way as to have them all attack in a group (note that at this time of the war, the US Navy was generally incapable of accomplishing this feat.  While it became commonplace for the Americans later on, in 1942 the only navy in the world that could routinely dish out balanced multi-carrier airstrikes was that of the Japanese).

The only way for this to occur was if the attack launched at 8am, after the Yorktown's recon planes had returned.  Indeed, this is the time TF17's attacks took off, so it's not much of a stretch to push back TF16's to this time as well.  Furthermore, let's give the Hornet's air wing competent leaders, instead of Stanhope Ring and Marc Mitscher, so they could actually arrive at the battle.  If all else occurred as it actually happened that morning of June 4th, 1942, this would put a massive strike on target at 1010am (which is when VT-3, Yorktown's torpedo squadron, arrived at Kido Butai).

We have already seen what an American combined dive bomber/torpedo bomber strike, with fighter cover, could accomplish.  It actually occurred at the Battle of Midway, and resulted in the destruction of three Japanese carriers.  It's hardly a stretch to imagine that an attack roughly twice the size of the real climactic strike would have taken out the Hiryu as well as the Kaga, Akagi and Soryu, and possibly some of the escorts as well.

But.  Timing is everything.

Removing the piecemeal attacks of VT-8 and VT-6 from the timeline would have given Kido Butai about an hour where it had finished landing its Midway strike and wasn't under attack.  In those 60 minutes, the four carriers could have finished rearming its planes, spotted and warmed up a full strike, then gotten them into the air and on the way to the American fleet. 

For the results of this hypothetical attack, we need to look back to the Battle of the Coral Sea.  There, a balanced strike from Carrier Division 5, the Shokaku and Zuikaku, attacked  USS Lexington and the Yorktown.  CarDiv5 was considered "wet behind the ears" in comparison to the four carriers at Midway, inexperienced at everything having to do with carrier combat.

They managed to sink the Lexington and cause major damage to Yorktown, damage that required the repair crews at Pearl Harbor to move heaven and earth in order to get her ready for Midway.

So what would an attack from the four most experienced carrier air groups in the world do to TF16 and 17?  It's hard to imagine that Yorktown, which was positioned closer to Kido Butai than TF16's carriers, would have survived, for sure.  After she was polished off, would the strike force then go after Hornet and Enterprise?  It's no stretch to think so, and the results can only be imagined.  Both carriers damaged?  One or both sunk? 

Let's go worst-case scenario: all three carriers are sent to the bottom, or otherwise mauled and out of the war for an extended period of time.  The "Miraculous Victory" of Midway suddenly becomes both a tactical and strategic draw, and one that leaves the Americans with only one carrier, USS Saratoga, in the Pacific Ocean.

But.  Timing is everything.

In the real-life climactic strike on Kido Butai, the hangars of all three carriers sunk were packed with refueling and rearming aircraft.  When the American bombs exploded, these airplanes, their fuel and their armament, went up with them.  Perhaps not immediately, but that just made the damage worse.  In fact, the Akagi was only hit once, with one near miss that eventually jammed her rudder.  The one hit would have been survivable if it hadn't occurred amongst a mass of hastily rearmed planes.

Our imaginary strike would find the Japanese carriers with empty hangar decks.  What difference would that make to the final results?  Instead of four carriers sunk, would any of them survived to fight another day?  Or, perhaps, would history repeat itself and would Hiryu escape attack altogether?  By virtue of her positioning, she was not bombed in the real-life attack, either because she was obscured by cloud cover (no American pilot in the attack ever claimed to see more than two of the Japanese carriers at any one time) or because she was seperated from the other three due to evasive manuevering.  Knowing that, it's hardly impossible to see the Battle of Midway end up with the Japanese having control of the air by virtue of having the lone flight deck remaining.

Would the planned invasion of Midway have then gone ahead?  There was another carrier, the Zuiho, with 14 Vals and 16 Zeros, integral to the Invasion fleet.  Combine her with the Hiryu, and the planes that survived the hypothetical attack on the American carriers, and would that be enough to restrike Midway?

Fortunately, we'll never know. 

Timing is everything.


Posted by: Wonderduck at 10:44 PM | Comments (3) | Add Comment
Post contains 1570 words, total size 12 kb.

1 Also IIRC the Japanese carriers were behind the curve on ship board fire fighting techniques and equipment. When the bombs ignited the ordnance and fuel of the aircraft, aviation gas fuel lines on the carriers were subsequently ruptured. Again IIRC they had no way to flood or purge with CO2. The disaster cascaded.

Posted by: toad at June 04, 2009 11:12 PM (WmNXR)

2 Well, they did have a way to CO2-flood the hangar decks, involving metal curtains that would divide each into three areas.  The areas could then be flooded with CO2.  Unfortunately for the Kaga and the Soryu, based on where they were hit, bomb fragments almost certainly shredded the curtains, preventing the areas from being flooded.

The Akagi was a different story.  Her lone hit probably didn't damage the curtains, but it probably did blow her center elevator all the way down.  The wreckage, and probably bomb fragments, almost certainly would have destroyed her CO2 tanks.  Oops. 

Posted by: Wonderduck at June 04, 2009 11:22 PM (hlGBx)

3 While the American attack could be called a piece meal commitment of forces it did result in a non-piece meal defeat of the Japanese. Maybe Bismark was right, "God looks after drunks, children, and the United States of America."

Posted by: toad at June 04, 2009 11:26 PM (WmNXR)

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