The Battle of Midway
The Battle of Midway is a famous naval engagement that marked a significant turning point in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. The battle, fought almost entirely by aircraft and often described as one of the most decisive naval battles of all time, saw the United States of America destroy most of Japan’s aircraft carriers and best trained naval pilots. This highly tactical battle effectively ended the threat of Japanese invasion in the Pacific.
On May 27, 1942, at the large anchorage of Hashirajima in Hiroshima Bay, the mighty Akagi of the Japanese Carrier Division, the proud flagship of Vice Admiral Nagumo Chuichi of the First Air Fleet, embarked on its journey into the Pacific.
Even though the Japanese navy produced the mightiest battleships the world had ever seen, many of the officers believed that the real modern power on the sea lay with the carrier force, the Kido Butai. It would decide winning or losing control of the sea, and so far, the Japanese carrier fleet had proven its worth.
By mid-1942, the Japanese had humiliated the western nations at Malaya and the Indies; moved towards Guam, Java, the Philippines, Singapore and the British bases on Ceylon; and even raided the north of Australia. They had successfully surprised the US Navy on Hawaii, sinking and crippling many of the warships anchored there. And they had just scored a tactical victory at the Battle of the Coral Sea, though the Allies had prevented an invasion of Port Moresby. But that was just a hiccup. That battle merely confirmed that carrier-based operations would be successful against the inferior Americans.
What was the next step? Venture further into the Indian Ocean? Attempt to invade Australia? Or move again against the now-awakened giant in the east? Marshal Admiral Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Japanese combined fleet, knew that the US had to be crushed before they could bring their industrial might to bear. He ordered the “Eastern Operation” to continue and an invasion of Hawaii. Before they could attempt that however, the Japanese had to lure the American navy away from the strongly defended target, and towards another one that was easy enough to attack but important enough to trigger an American response. Midway, a tiny two island atoll in the middle of the Pacific, seemed perfect for that.
By June 4, Admiral Nagumo’s Kido Butai and its four carriers, the Akagi, the Kaga, the Hiryu and Soryu, was closing in on Midway. But he was without two carriers after the Battle of the Coral Sea, the seas had been foggy for days and the Japanese plan was already in disarray. Their submarines were nowhere to be seen and the main fleet was up to two days away. Nagumo didn’t worry, since the mighty battleships were only needed in phase two, after the bombardment of Midway once the American fleet had been alerted. After all, the element of surprise was presumed to be on their side.
Except that it wasn’t. American cryptographers had revealed Yamamoto’s rough intentions a few days prior. The code-breaking station at Hawaii had intercepted the traffic between the Akagi and the other carriers, realising that something big was up, though they weren’t sure of the destination which was codenamed ’AF’. They came up with a ruse – an uncoded message about Midway’s desalination system breaking down was sent and picked up by the Japanese, who interpreted the message said that ‘that they should bring a water tanker with them to AF’. Midway it was.
At this point the Americans were losing the war. The US Asiatic squadron was a shadow of its former self, and the Japanese had both the numbers and the initiative to dictate the course of the war. It would take time for the superior American industry to kick into high gear and change the balance, but what if it was too late by then?
Commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz, took over command after Pearl Harbor and was trying to reassert confidence in the American navy. With the Japanese having just lost strategic surprise unbeknownst, Nimitz was quick to transfer his three available carriers, the Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet, to the command of Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance. The carrier task forces would wait in ambush 300 miles north of the anticipated axis of advance of the Japanese, until the attack on Midway began.
The attack on Midway begins
The attack on Midway began at 06:00 in large numbers. Each carrier had a variety of aircraft to carry out a well-balanced strike including the Mitsubishi fighter Type “Zero”, the Dive Bomber Aichi Type 99 with armour piercing and high explosive bombs, and the Nakajima Type 97, armed with torpedoes. They were to overwhelm the enemy in one coordinated, massed display of firepower.
The key to carrier warfare is to bring up the right planes at the right moment. If there are enemy bombers on the horizon, start the fighters in response. If destroyers come along, answer with torpedo bombers, and if they sight carriers, get the dive bombers on deck. That is why intelligence is so important during wars and battles. Being caught wrong footed is a death sentence.
At 07:00 the first wave of bombers returned from Midway. At 08:00, Admiral Nagumo had given the order to prepare for a second bombing run when a message reached him from his reconnaissance planes. “Enemy surface ships detected”. Spruance’s force was moving south. Nagumo’s reports spoke of 10 enemy units, but it was unclear what kind of ships they were. Concluding that 10 ships were not much of a threat to the mighty Kido Butai, he chose to proceed with the attack on Midway.
Soon, the first American bombers were above them. Tracer bullets lit up the skies as the bombers aimed for Akagi and Soryu. Sharp evasive manoeuvres saved the carriers, until the Zeros made short work of the inexperienced American pilots. However, the Japanese anti-aircraft guns had not hit a single target. Something was clearly off, as they were far too slow to react to multi-vector and multi attitude attacks.
At 09:00, the reports reaching Nagumo still spoke of cruisers and destroyers, but clearly there were American planes in the air and they had to be coming from somewhere. The Soryu was repeatedly fighting off enemy torpedo planes, but Nagumo had no idea where they came from, for his reconnaissance was insufficient. None of the Japanese carriers were equipped with radar and the radio technology in the scouting planes was fairly primitive. Because of the lack of concrete information, Nagumo still chose to continue his strike against Midway. By 10:20, his four flight decks were bustling with energy as planes were armed and fuelled.
At 10:22, while the entire Japanese carrier force was fuelling and rearming their machines, the American dive bombers attacked. This time it was the veteran dive bombers from the Yorktown. They engaged the Kaga first, pushing their planes into a dive through the hail of ineffective five-inch batteries, releasing their 500lb and 1,000lb bombs. The first three landed in the water, but the fourth hit the flight deck aft, detonating in the crew compartments. The seventh bomb hit the forward elevator, detonating in the fighter stowage rooms. The bombs blew the interior of the Kaga apart, while another blew up the bridge, killing all the officers.
Closing in on the enemy
The dauntless dive bombers were descending on the Soryu. Multiple bombs tore the ship apart. Nagumo watched in horror as both carriers were engulfed in flames and smoke. Everything was blown to pieces; their engines were dead and their boilers ruptured. Aircraft parts and body parts were strewn across the flight deck.
Suddenly the alarms sounded on the Akagi and its AA guns opened up. Then came a massive explosion of a 1,000lb bomb that detonated after bursting through the middle elevator. It tore everything inside the hanger apart.
In just a few minutes the American bombers had been and gone, and left three of the mightiest Japanese carriers burning. These carriers contained high-octane gasoline, oil and lubricants, ammunition and bombs, paper and wood. In minutes they were a burning inferno.
Surviving Japanese firefighters were frantically trying to save the ships. Hundreds had died in moments and many more were now exposed to fire, heat and smoke. A number of the mechanics on the lower decks and boiler rooms were trapped. Further explosions ripped through the ships as ammunition and vaporised gasoline caught fire. Men were literally boiling inside the compartments with no chance of getting out.
Only the Hiryu escaped untouched, as it was still protected by Zeros and only attacked by ineffective torpedo bombers. But this was a major disaster; a disaster which would have made most commanders turn and flee. But Nagumo was not ‘most commanders’. The main body of the fleet, although 600 miles away, could still make a difference. The Americans had lost many of their torpedo-bombers in the attack, and if they could be forced to a decisive surface battle, Japan might just come out on top. Since the Hiryu was still intact, he ordered its two dozen planes to retaliate immediately.
Soon after 13:30, Nagumo’s best dive bombers dove towards the Yorktown. American flak-gunners took a heavy toll on the attackers but at least two bombs hit their target. A 250kg bomb hit amidship and another detonated in the forward elevator. The Yorktown was burning.
By 14:30 it became clear that not only the Kaga and the Soriyu were lost, the Akagi was as well. The Yorktown, though, was still moving, fending off repeated Japanese attacks, sending its planes out to attack the last Japanese carrier. At 17:00, joined by the bombers from the Enterprise, they broke through the cover of Zeros and planted four bombs on the bow of the Hiryu, sheering its flight deck off and engulfing it in flames. Kido Butai was no more.
The battle was decided
As night fell, the battle was decided. Spruance had no intention of going toe to toe with the Japanese surface fleet. The four badly wounded Japanese carriers would be scuttled rather than falling into enemy hands. For the Americans, it seemed like the Yorktown could still be saved, but the undetected Japanese submarine I-168 took its chance and torpedoed and sunk the Yorktown. That and destroyer were the American ships lost, against four fleet carriers.
The war had over three more years to go in the Pacific, but it had just entered another round – a round that resulted in the sides being a lot more even.
Historians are divided on whether the losses at Midway were truly crippling to the Japanese, who had a vast fleet and many pilots, but it is widely agreed that the defeat put them on the back foot and enabled the Allies to take the lead strategically. By 1942 the US was well under way with a major shipbuilding programme, and in the time Japan took to replace three of the aircraft carriers lost at Midway, they had commissioned more than two dozen. With their superiority in the air and at sea lost, the Japanese would never again launch a major offensive in the Pacific.
In the years since the battle, historians have attempted to study the site but the depth of the ocean has prevented them from finding all but one ship – the Yorktown – which was located with the help of US and Japanese veterans in 1998 and photographed for the archives. An expedition a year later found part of the upper deck of the Japanese carrier Kaga, but the remainder still lies beneath the ocean.
If you prefer a visual representation of this story, watch our Sabaton History episode Midway – The Battle of Midway: