Thursday 4 May 2017 by AWM Website Admin. 2 comments

Japanese planning created crucial errors.

An article by Jonathan Parshall from our official magazine Wartime, issue 59

The battle of Midway has long been the subject of hype: “decisive … the battle that doomed Japan … the most important naval battle of the Second World War”; the list goes on. And yet, with all due respect to the momentous nature of the battle itself, Midway cannot be properly understood in isolation. Instead, it is necessary to contemplate the nature of America’s seminal naval victory in terms of both the naval battle that immediately preceded it (Coral Sea), and the twin campaigns (Guadalcanal and New Guinea) that came after. 

The early months of 1942 had seen the Allied strategic position in the Pacific ripped to shreds by advancing Japanese forces. Backed by the world’s finest carrier force and powerful land-based air formations, the first wave of assaults from the ferocious Japanese Army had crushed Malaya, captured Singapore, Hong Kong, Guam and Wake, and driven the US Army into its doomed redoubt on Bataan in the Philippines.

Realising that Allied defences were even weaker than they had anticipated, the Japanese had wasted no time in launching follow-on attacks, quickly capturing Borneo, Java, Bali and other islands in the Malay Archipelago. They also extended their positions south-east by capturing the crucial harbour at Rabaul on New Britain. Australia was now directly threatened. Indeed, Darwin had already been powerfully attacked on 19 February by Japan’s vaunted carrier force. By March–April 1942, Japan had effectively secured all the raw materials it had gone to war for in the first place. It had humbled the militaries of Great Britain, Australia, the Netherlands and the United States. And not incidentally, it had sown the seeds for the eventual destruction of white colonialism in Asia.

It was at this high-water mark of Japanese militarism that things began to fall to pieces for Japan in a strategic sense, because they had no clear idea of what to do next. Though the imperial military had been deep in discussion of strategic options since January, these deliberations were hampered by two key problems. The first was the tug of war between Admiral Yamamoto, head of the Combined Fleet, and his ostensible masters at Naval General Headquarters (GHQ), who were busily trying to wrest strategy-making back from Yamamoto. The navy was at war with itself. The second factor was the Imperial Army, which alone possessed the manpower to conduct major ground operations, but which was loath to become entangled in large campaigns outside its main area of focus in China and Manchuria. The result, perhaps inevitably, was that the strategy that emerged from these tortured deliberations was nothing more than a hodgepodge of competing interests, each jostling for the right to be at the head of the line.

Ironically, one of the losers in this contest over strategy actually ended up going first. Wishing to acquire a ground base from which to threaten northern Australia and simultaneously to secure the flank of Rabaul, the Imperial Navy fixed its eyes on Port Moresby, on the southern coast of Papau. Up to this point in the war, the Japanese had basically been expanding into a military vacuum,
encountering little in the way of naval opposition. What little they had run into, they had annihilated. The Imperial Navy felt that the services of only a single heavy carrier division (Carrier Division 5, composed of Shōkaku and Zuikaku) were all that would be required to ensure Moresby’s capture. 

In this they were badly mistaken. In the battle of Coral Sea, Carrier Division 5 found itself opposed by a joint American–Australian naval force centred on the American carriers Lexington and Yorktown. Indeed, it is worth noting that if the US Navy had not executed the Doolittle Raid against Japan three weeks earlier, there is every likelihood that Enterprise and Hornet would have been on hand as well, which might have resulted in the outright loss of Shōkaku and Zuikaku. 

The resulting battle, fought on 7–8 May 1942, was a highly confused affair, replete with poor scouting, faulty communications, and a great deal of groping about as both sides wrestled with how to fight history’s first carrier battle. When the smoke cleared, the result was a tactical victory for the Japanese, who sank the Lexington (and believed they had sunk the Yorktown as well) for the loss of the light carrier Shōhō. Strategically, however, Coral Sea was a Japanese defeat, as it deprived their navy of both carriers at a crucial time. Shōkaku had been badly damaged by bombs. Zuikaku, though unscathed, had brought home a total of only 56 operational aircraft of the 128 the two carriers had set out with. Carrier Division 5 would not be participating in any operations for the next couple of months at least.

Even before the battle of Coral Sea, Admiral Yamamoto had been advancing his strategic vision of a contest at the island of Midway. His basic reasoning was that as long as American aircraft carriers remained at large, Japanese gains would never be secure. After the Doolittle Raid, the destruction of America’s carriers was a goal no one would contest. Thus, by overcoming the initial opposition of first his own naval headquarters and then the army, Yamamoto succeeded in pushing his Midway operation ahead.

The resulting battle, fought on 7–8 May 1942, was a highly confused affair, replete with poor scouting, faulty communications, and a great deal of groping about…

It must be noted that Yamamoto’s basic logic was in fact sound. America’s carriers were indeed the sole naval asset of any consequence left to the US Navy. Likewise, those few remaining flight decks were the guarantor of the supply lines running to Australia, which both sides knew would be used as a major base for any eventual Allied counter-attack. The loss of those flight decks would absolutely cripple Allied naval operations until America’s vast shipbuilding programs began pouring forth their cornucopia of vessels in 1943. Japan’s military leaders were keenly aware of these production-based realities, and knew that they had only a relatively short time in which to bring the war to a successful close. Thus, Yamamoto’s desire to sink America’s carriers was well-founded.

What was less well-considered, however, was the battlefield on which he thought he could sink them. Believing the US Navy to be a morally beaten force, Yamamoto focused on creating a battle that was close enough to the Americans’ main naval base at Hawaii that they could be easily lured out to battle, and yet outside the range of the very powerful air forces based in Oahu, the second largest of the Hawaiian Islands.

This fundamental estimate of low American morale drove Japan’s operational planning, with several consequences. The first was that it induced the Japanese to disperse their forces, in the belief that by not showing their complete hand, they would avoid spooking the Americans before they had sortied for battle. Likewise, by attacking an outpost just 1,100 nautical miles (2,000 kilometres) from Oahu, they handed the advantage of better logistics to their enemy. Among other things, Pearl Harbor and its extensive repair facilities were relatively near at hand. This made possible the Herculean efforts that restored the heavily damaged Yorktown to working order in the nick of time for her to make her final, valiant contribution to history. Finally, while Midway was outside the tactical air range of Oahu, it was close enough that land-based aircraft could be ferried to the atoll. This made Midway a much harder nut to crack than Yamamoto had anticipated.

In retrospect, it can be seen that Naval GHQ was right, and Yamamoto wrong, in his choice of location for follow-on operations in mid-1942. Had Japan chosen to fight the Americans again in the south Pacific (or, for that matter, if they had simply sent their entire carrier force to Coral Sea in the first place), the results might have been radically better for the Japanese. The Americans had already demonstrated they were prepared to fight fiercely to protect Australia’s supply lines. Further battles in the same area would have strained the Imperial Navy’s flimsy logistics (based on Truk, now Chuuk, in Micronesia), but the Americans would have been at the end of a very long leash themselves. In this sense, the Imperial Navy paid dearly for its inability to contemplate that such a “backwater” could, in fact, be the scene of a decisive naval battle.

None of this was apparent to the Japanese at the time, though, and the battle of Midway went ahead. Superlative Allied cryptographic work had handed the US Navy the enormous benefit of being able to read sufficient of Japan’s naval codes to craft a sound operational plan. Admiral Chester Nimitz, the American Commander in Chief of the Pacific, audaciously placed his three carriers in a position to ambush the unwary Japanese striking force. Admiral Nagumo, the Japanese carrier force commander, had no inkling of the presence of American carriers until it was too late for him to react decisively. The battle, fought over 4–7 June, was actually decided by late morning on the first day. American dive-bombers, approaching unseen through broken cloud cover, completely surprised Nagumo’s force as it was beginning preparations to launch a counterstrike against the US carriers. In the space of about five minutes, American pilots knocked out three Japanese carriers – Akagi, Kaga, and Sōryū. The Hiryū lasted until mid-afternoon, but she, too, was eventually located and fatally bombed. In one stunning day, Japan had lost her four finest carriers. With them went 248 carrier aircraft and over 3,000 sailors and aviators. The Americans lost only Yorktown. The outcome was a catastrophe for Japan, and one from which it could never recover.

Midway merely underlined the utter bankruptcy of the naval strategy Japan had adhered to over the preceding 20 years.

Yet, for all its importance, it is in the immediate aftermath of the battle that we can glimpse some of the paradoxical ways in which it was not decisive. Victory at Midway, obviously, did not win the war for the Allies overnight. Indeed, Midway merely underlined the utter bankruptcy of the naval strategy Japan had adhered to over the preceding 20 years. The Japanese had fondly hoped (indeed, expected) that by crushing the American carrier force, they would compel the Americans to see the hopelessness of their position and be brought to the bargaining table. Yet when the positions were reversed, and the Imperial Navy had itself been handed an irredeemable defeat that meant the premature death of its own carrier force, one detects precious little inclination on the part of the Japanese to head for that same bargaining table. Decisive naval defeats, apparently, were only for the other fellow.

Likewise, for all the positive effects that the battle had on the fortunes of the Americans, Midway and the central Pacific were unlikely to be the scene of further combat in the near future. This is because Midway itself wasn’t really worth fighting for in the first place. And now that the momentum in the war had shifted, this was actually not a good thing for the Americans.

From an American perspective, the war to this point had been rather episodic in nature. In the short term this was a blessing, as the Americans were relatively weak and needed to regroup from the initial Japanese onslaught at Pearl Harbor. For the first six months of the war, the US Navy had been outnumbered in carrier flight decks, not to mention smaller combatants such as cruisers and destroyers. Likewise, Japan’s superior capabilities in massing carrier air power had not yet been matched by America’s carrier aviators.

After Midway, though, the US and Imperial navies were fairly evenly matched at sea, at least in terms of the primary coin of the realm – fleet carriers. America’s naval and air forces would grow stronger as 1942 continued. And as the stronger opponent, with potentially deeper reserves of men and machines, the Americans needed to find somewhere that they could get the Japanese into a vice and then begin applying the sort of grinding, day-in, day-out attritional combat that was needed to destroy Japan’s military. Thankfully, the Japanese provided the US with just such a location in Guadalcanal. And as a bonus, they handed the Australians (later joined by the Americans) a second battlefield of almost exactly the same nature in New Guinea.

Although it would have seemed cruelly ironic in 1942 to describe the brutal Guadalcanal and Kokoda campaigns as blessings for the Allied cause, in retrospect it is clear they were precisely that. There is a regrettable (if understandable) tendency on the part of military histories written in both America and Australia to view these campaigns as two separate animals. The Japanese, however, saw them for what they truly were – the twin heads of a monster that was beyond their means to vanquish. They had created the New Guinea “head” themselves by insisting on undertaking further offensives, even after the destruction of their carrier force – which makes their self-inflicted dilemma all the more incredible. And this transformation of Japan’s strategic fortunes took place with wondrous speed. From the battle of Coral Sea to when the first Americans set foot on Guadalcanal, a mere three months passed and by then the Kokoda campaign was underway as well.

In terms of naval losses, the fighting around Guadalcanal, and later in the Solomons, did more damage to the Japanese navy than Midway ever had. Guadalcanal broke the back of the imperial fleet by destroying or damaging a good part of its cruiser and destroyer force, and wiping out the last remnants of Japan’s elite naval aviators. It also cost the Japanese army tens of thousands of troops. New Guinea, for its part, evolved into an endless nightmare for Japan, resulting in the eventual loss of more than 100,000 soldiers. These two campaigns consumed Japanese aircraft – both navy and army – at catastrophic rates, and to absolutely no avail. These were exactly the sort of operations the Allies needed to be implementing towards the end of 1942. Their locations didn’t really matter: what mattered was the attrition. Thus, the final and most meaningful effects of Midway were to be found nowhere near the tiny atoll itself, but nearly three thousand miles away in the south-west Pacific. 

Crew of the USS Lexington abandoning ship during the battle of Coral Sea, 8 May 1942. AWM 157901.

Crew of the USS Lexington abandoning ship during the battle of Coral Sea, 8 May 1942. AWM 157901.

USS Yorktown hit during the battle of Midway. AWM P02018.115

USS Yorktown hit during the battle of Midway. AWM P02018.115

Left to right, the cruisers USS Chicago, USS Salt Lake City, HMAS Australia and HMAS Canberra on patrol during the battle of Coral Sea. AWM P02497.004

Left to right, the cruisers USS Chicago, USS Salt Lake City, HMAS Australia and HMAS Canberra on patrol during the battle of Coral Sea. AWM P02497.004

About the Author

Jonathan Parshall is co-author (with Anthony Tully) of Shattered sword: the untold story of the battle of Midway. He has published in American periodicals and served as historical consultant for television documentaries.