The Pacific War at Sea: the Battle of Midway, 4 June 1942

Neil Faulkner analyses the strategic situation in the Pacific in early 1942 and the military balance of forces.


The Battle of Midway is now the subject of two epic feature films. The first was released in 1976 and starred Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, and a host of other top American actors. A second, directed by Roland Emmerich (of Independence Day fame), is due for release this month. Does Midway deserve the hype?

Aircraft are prepared for launching on USS Enterprise in the early morning, 4 June 1942

The answer is yes, at several levels. The Pacific Ocean is the biggest single battle space on Earth. More than 60 million square miles in extent, the approximate mid-point – the Midway Atoll – is 2,000 miles from any continent. Across this vast area, between December 1941 and August 1945, Imperial Japan and the United States of America waged one of history’s greatest wars.

The Battle of Midway, on 4 June 1942, was the turning point in that war, the moment when the Japanese surge that began with Pearl Harbor ended and the Americans went over to the strategic offensive. Thereafter and continuously, until the bitter end, at Okinawa and Hiroshima, the Japanese were on the defensive in a war of attrition they could not possibly win.

Yet the odds were stacked against the Americans at Midway, and mid-morning on the day of battle they were facing a disastrous defeat – one that might have lost them both Midway and Hawaii, and therefore control of the Central Pacific; one that might have added years to the length of the war.

The stakes could not have been higher. Yet the battle was turned around by the action of just 34 airmen in a mere five minutes – what military historian John Keegan has called ‘the fatal five minutes’ that delivered ‘the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare’. This is no exaggeration: at 10.25am on 4 June 1942, the Japanese had maritime and air supremacy in the Central Pacific; by 10.30am, they had lost the war.

This extraordinary turnaround confirmed what another military historian, Basil Liddell Hart, referred to as ‘the chanciness of battles fought out in the new style by long-range sea-air action.’

It also confirmed that the age of the general fleet action by lines of great battleships was over. Midway was a carrier battle in which the opposing fleets never saw each other. The decisive weapons were seaborne aerial bombers. Nothing in naval warfare would ever be the same again.

Our special this time offers a detailed military analysis of Midway. Our first article discusses the men, the machines, the grand strategy, and the tactical imperatives. Our second provides a blow-by-blow account of the action, setting in context ‘the fatal five minutes’ that transformed the war in the Pacific.

The Pacific War at Sea

The Japanese surge across South-east Asia and the Pacific in the four months from December 1941 to April 1942 had been every bit as impressive as the German blitzkrieg in the spring and summer of 1940.

Japanese war planners had set out to seize all the resources necessary to feed Japan’s burgeoning industries and armed forces, and to establish an effective defensive perimeter around this vast new empire, the grotesquely misnamed ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’.

By spring 1942, the Japanese controlled Manchuria, a large part of coastal China (including the British colony of Hong Kong), French Indo-China, Thailand, Burma, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, half of New Guinea, and most of the Western Pacific island groups (the Marianas, Marshalls, Carolines, Solomons, and Gilberts).

These gains had not only been made at lightning speed, but at minimal cost – for the loss, in fact, of about 15,000 men, 380 aircraft, and four destroyers.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 was only the opening onslaught in a four-month blitzkrieg that created a vast Japanese Empire covering much of South-East Asia and the western Pacific.

Imperial Japan’s dilemma

The strategic situation, however, was far from straightforward. At war with Nationalist China since 1937, the Japanese Empire was now in conflict with the Dutch, the French, the British, and the Americans. Above all with the Americans, who could not tolerate a Japanese-dominated Pacific, nor the immense damage to US prestige represented by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

The intention had always been to seize the territories needed for national self-sufficiency and then to go over to the defensive. In practice, this could not be done, for the Japanese Empire would never be secure in control of its massive conquests in the face of powerful Pacific rivals.

The British might easily be held on the India–Burma border, at least for the time being – the British Empire was fighting a desperate struggle against Japan’s Axis allies to defend the home island and keep open its supply lines in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The Americans were an altogether different matter.

The United States looked east to Europe and west across the Pacific with equal concern. From December 1941, it was fighting two wars with similar vigour. From the outset, it sought ways to strike back at Japan.

Two particular anxieties pressed upon the Japanese Naval High Command – two possible bases for an effective US counterattack. The US aircraft carriers had escaped the destruction at Pearl Harbor, and they could continue to operate out of their Hawaii base, roughly mid-Pacific. Then there was Australia, which was both an Allied stronghold and a potential Allied springboard for a counter-thrust into Borneo, New Guinea, and the Solomons.

The Coral Sea

Which to prioritise? This was the subject of an internal dispute within the Japanese High Command until 18 April. Then, a daringly conceived and executed air-raid on Tokyo – the Doolittle Raid, intended to avenge the humiliation of Pearl Harbor and raise American public morale – shocked the Japanese military leadership into a sharp strategic focus on Midway, Hawaii, and the US carrier fleet.

President Franklin D Roosevelt at the signing of the declaration of war against Japan following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

This appreciation was correct: destruction of the enemy’s principal armed forces in theatre had to be the main priority. Pearl Harbor had left the US Pacific Fleet with only its aircraft-carriers among its capital ships still in action. The most advanced naval thinkers in both the US and Japan understood naval airpower now to be the decisive arm at sea. The destruction of the US carriers – at a moment in time when the Japanese enjoyed a massive preponderance at sea – was clearly the most urgent military imperative.

In consequence, an operation to extend Japanese control over New Guinea and the Solomons, and to push eastwards into the New Hebrides and New Caledonia – an operation designed to impose a barrier between America and Australia, and to establish bases for a direct assault on the latter – was reconfigured as a secondary operation.

In the event, in any case, it misfired. Though the Battle of the Coral Sea (7-8 May) was indecisive, the Japanese south-eastward thrust was largely thwarted. An additional result of the clash was that, though the carrier Lexington was lost, the US ships were battle-tested for the first time and their crews’ confidence raised.

Yorktown, moreover, though damaged at the Coral Sea, was repaired at Pearl Harbor in an astonishing two days (the ship’s commander had estimated that a ‘90-day refit’ would be necessary), sailing to join the other two US carriers, Enterprise and Hornet, at station in the mid-Pacific, on 30 May.

Daunting odds

Even so, the Japanese military superiority was awesome. The Japanese carrier fleet outnumbered the American ten to three. The carriers were supported by 11 battleships, and 38 cruisers, whereas the Americans had no battleships and a far smaller number of cruisers.

This advantage was somewhat squandered by strategic dispersion. The Japanese High Command organised a simultaneous assault on the Aleutian Islands in the far north. This, like the push into New Guinea and the Solomons in the south-west Pacific, was conceived in part as a distraction to confuse American commanders as to the direction of the main strategic thrust. But it could not be expected to achieve this purpose, unless the US command was seriously deficient.

There were two connected reasons for this. First, as long as Midway and Hawaii were under threat, their defence had to be the US priority. Second, because of US naval weakness following Pearl Harbor, concentration of force was the only option: the American admirals simply could not deploy sufficient capital ships in June 1942 to operate effectively in two strategic theatres. The main consequence of the Aleutian operation, therefore, was to diminish the size of the Japanese force at Midway, without affecting that of the US force.

The mass production of Douglas Dauntless dive-bombers. The gradual mobilisation of US industrial power meant that Japan was in a race against time to consolidate her sweeping gains in the opening months of the Pacific War.

Even so, the odds were daunting. The Japanese First Air Fleet comprised six large carriers, and four of these, Akagi, Hiryu, Kaga, and Soryu, would fight at Midway. Each carrier bore 70 planes – against only 60 for each of the three American carriers – so that 270 Japanese bombers and fighters would confront 180 American planes on the day of battle.

Moreover, whereas most of the American fliers were not yet combat-experienced, the Japanese naval aircrew were a national elite, formed of men who had won a string of victories and were of the highest morale and motivation.

Their equipment, too, was first-class. The Zero was one of the finest fighter aircraft of the Second World War – rated by some ahead of the Spitfire – and Kate and Val bombers, though slower than their American equivalents, carried heavier loads over longer distances. John Keegan likened the Japanese naval fliers to the tank crews of Hitler’s panzer divisions.

Carrier warfare

The Empire of Japan in spring 1942. Having seized this vast extent of widely scattered territories, Japanese strategy was essentially defensive for the remainder of the war.

Naval aircrew of all nations had to be exceptional men. Both take-off and, more particularly, landing were very hazardous operations. Aircraft tended to dip as they left the carrier’s flight deck and could easily crash into the sea. Landings had to be performed at high speed, and if the arrester wires were missed, the result could often be a fatal accident.

None carried airborne radar, so navigation was by sight and rough bearings. At the end of a long flight out and back, reaching the limit of endurance, pilots had to find their carriers in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Though visibility at high altitude on a clear day might be 100 miles, the margin for error was often small, and aircrew compelled to ditch would become two men in a dingy in an ocean 2,000 miles wide.

These were the risks even before considering those of combat itself, which were extreme. Aerial bombers – whether dive-bombers or torpedo-bombers – had to launch their missiles at close range, exposed to attack by enemy fighters, which were faster and more manoeuvrable, and by the multiple anti-aircraft guns of enemy ships.

Many naval men still expected great clashes of battleships and gunnery – battles like Trafalgar, Tsushima, and Jutland. In reality, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and even submarines had become defensive screens around the main tactical asset: seaborne aerial bombers.

The Japanese Zero: one of the best fighters of the Second World War.

Warships of all classes had, in their turn, become dependent on protective umbrellas of carrier-borne fighter aircraft.

The bombers

The bombers were of two types – torpedo-bombers and dive-bombers. Torpedo-bombers tended to be slower and they had to attack at low level and on a horizontal trajectory to launch their weapons: this made them vulnerable to the defensive fire of warships. Dive-bombers tended to be faster and to attack at speed in a near-vertical dive: this made them harder to shoot down.

But whereas a torpedo strike near the waterline might inflict crippling damage and sink a battleship or a carrier, it was less clear that equally substantial damage might be inflicted by bombs dropped on the upper decks. Midway was to settle this matter, confirming that the dive-bomber could be as deadly as the torpedo-bomber.

Though the bombers were the crucial offensive weapons, half a carrier’s air group needed to be scouts and fighters. The typical US pattern was two squadrons of fighters (usually Grumman F4F Wildcats), two of dive-bombers (Douglas SBD Dauntlesses) – one for scouting, one for bombing – and one of torpedo-bombers (Douglas TBD Devastators).

A Douglas Dauntless dive-bomber flying over the USS Enterprise. Image: Zogo.

The scouts were essential to locate enemy vessels, though in practice all aircrew received similar training, so all Douglas Dauntlesses could carry out bombing runs when required. The fighters were necessary to defend the carriers and other ships against enemy bombers. Providing cover for bombing missions was more problematic, since it involved leaving ships exposed to air attack, but without it the bombers were liable to be massacred.

The bombers were heavier and slower than the fighters – the loaded Dauntless weighed 10,400lbs and had a maximum speed of 250mph, against the Wildcat’s 7,000lbs and 330mph. The Japanese Zero was even better, with only 6,200lbs in weight and the same maximum speed of 330mph.

The extra speed and manoeuvrability of the fighters was, of course, a critical advantage in air-to-air combat. The bombers carried defensive armament – the Dauntless had four machine-guns – but these were in fixed positions, which limited their value against faster enemy fighters.

The value of the immense investment in manpower and machines represented by a Second World War carrier fleet came to depend on a small ‘sharp end’ comprising a few dozen aerial bombers. In fact, at Midway, heavy American losses in the early stages of the battle would reduce the decisive force to just 37 Douglas Dauntless dive-bombers and their 74 aircrew.

A squadron of Grumman Avenger torpedo-bombers in flight.

But, against an enormous weight of defensive fire, the problem was successful delivery of bombs and torpedoes against enemy vessels by relatively small numbers of relatively slow attacking aircraft. This was the core imperative of carrier battle.

Decision at Midway

Three factors were decisive at Midway: Japanese dispersion, American code-breaking, and luck. The fact that the Japanese fought the battle with only four of their ten carriers – whereas the Americans had all three of their carriers in action – meant that a potentially overwhelming concentration of force was not achieved.

But the battle might well have been lost had not the Americans cracked the Japanese naval codes. Known as ‘Magic’, US code-breaking had the same significance in the Pacific War as the ‘Ultra’ decrypts of Bletchley Park in the European War.

Japanese radio security was tight around the Midway operation. The operation was coded ‘MI’ and the objective ‘AF’. Numerous transmissions containing these codenames were transmitted, but the Magic cryptanalysts did not know what they meant.

One of the Hawaii-based cryptanalysts set out to test his hunch that AF meant Midway. On a secure telegraphic link, he asked Midway to radio in clear that it was running short of fresh water. A short while later, an Australian antenna picked up a coded Japanese message to the effect that AF had reported a shortage of water.

The trick had revealed the Japanese target, and subsequent decrypts revealed that the operation was scheduled for 4 June. The US carriers duly sailed from Hawaii to a position north-east of Midway in anticipation of the Japanese descent.

Task Force 16, based on the carriers Enterprise and Hornet, was commanded by Admiral Raymond Spruance. Task Force 17, based on Yorktown, was commanded by Admiral Frank John Fletcher.

The combined force was under the overall command of Fletcher, but he was subordinate to Admiral Chester Nimitz, the top US naval commander in the Pacific. He was based at Hawaii, at the centre of an intelligence and communications hub that in fact made him a more effective supreme commander than his Japanese opposite number, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who was at sea on board the giant battleship Yamato.

The role of accidents

The key role on the Japanese side was played by Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, commander of the First Air Fleet, the man who had led the attack on Pearl Harbor.

However, command decisions played little role in the outcome of the battle, except by accident. The reason for this was fairly simple: the mismatch between intelligence capability and the speed and power of naval air-strikes.

The rival commanders-in-chief at Midway: [above] Admiral Chester Nimitz (1885-1966) and [below] Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (1884-1943).

Though the battle lasted many hours, a mere five minutes were decisive, and this was down to the fact that US planes were able to strike the Japanese fleet at a moment of maximum unpreparedness. That this was so was largely a matter of accident amid a fog of war.

A further American advantage also played a role, however, in the concatenation of accidents at Midway: land-based heavy bombers (B-17 Flying Fortresses) and amphibious flying-boat reconnaissance aircraft (Catalinas).

It was a Midway-based Catalina that spotted Nagumo’s fleet on 3 June and thereby confirmed the accuracy of the Magic intelligence.

Later that day, Midway-based Flying Fortresses were dispatched to bomb the approaching fleet, supported by Catalinas. The B-17s each carried 17,600lbs of bombs, but they missed the Japanese fleet entirely. The Catalinas, which could function as medium bombers with a 4,000lb load, found the fleet but managed only to blow up an oiler.

This, however, the opening action of the Battle of Midway, turned out to have a significant effect – one of a succession of strokes of luck which culminated in a catastrophic Japanese defeat.

For stroke of luck is the only way to describe it, when the effect was to persuade Nagumo that it was essential to crush the defences of Midway Atoll, both to protect his fleet and to enable the invasion force to get ashore.

Viewed in retrospect, one might argue that Nagumo had lost sight of the main aim: the destruction of the principal enemy force, the US carrier fleet.

But at 4.30am on the morning of 4 June 1942, when he launched nine squadrons of bombers against Midway Atoll, Nagumo had no knowledge as to the whereabouts of the US carriers. He would soon find out. •

All images: WIPL, unless otherwise stated..

You can read Neil Faulkner’s in-depth analysis of the battle here.