The Battle of Midway
The Battle of Midway was a turning-point in the war in the Pacific. Before the campaign, the offensive initiative was in the hands of the Japanese both in Asia and in the Pacific, and after their successes, they planned to capture the Midway Islands and use them as a forward base for the navy’s air arm. In addition, they hoped to lure what was left of the US Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Coral Sea to an engagement in which they would destroy it finally and especially its aircraft carrier power. Thanks to their signal intelligence achievements, the Americans succeeded in surprising the Japanese fleet and sinking four aircraft carriers which had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor only half a year before.
In the process, the Americans lost only one of their three aircraft carriers. After Midway, the offensive initiative in the Pacific passed to the Americans and the Allies.
Immediately after the opening of the Pacific War in December 1941, the Japanese conducted offensive operations against the United States, the British Commonwealth and the Dutch East Indies in South East Asia and the Pacific. In the first phase, the Japanese occupied Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, and other groups of islands in Cental and Western Pacific. This phase ended in March 1942.
Already in January of that year, the Japanese Supreme Imperial Command issued instructions regarding the second phase, which was designed to isolate Australia and India from the United States and Britain. In the Pacific this stage called for the capture of bases in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. These would serve as support for future operations in New Caledonia, the Fiji Islands, and Samoa. At the beginning of March, with the conquest of Lae and Salamaua, the Japanese took control over the entire northern coast of New Guinea and prepared to land in Port Moresby, the capital of the island.
At that time, the Americans had two monitoring bases in the Pacific zone - one in Melbourne, Australia and the other in Pearl Harbor (called "Hippo").
The third base, which was on the island of Corregidor in the Philippines, was evacuated to Australia due to the Japanese occupation. These bases intercepted the Japanese transmissions, decoded them, and the intelligence analysis enabled the US fleet to receive accurate and real-time information on the Order of Battle and deployment of Japanese naval units, on the naval land air bases and, most important of all, they had access to the orders to, and up-to-date information on the operational activities of the Japanese Navy. The Intelligence units distributed their assessments and warnings to senior naval commanders including Navy Chief Admiral King and Admiral Nimitz Commander of the Pacific Fleet.
In early March, the development of events forced the Japanese to postpone the capture of Port Moresby. On the 10th of the month, an American aircraft carrier attacked the Japanese naval concentrations in Lae and Salamaua, an event that followed a failed Japanese attempt to attack Rabaul on 20th February.
These events provided sufficient proof to the Commander of the Japanese 4th Fleet, Admiral Inoue, that the Japanese had not yet achieved air supremacy in the battle zone.
Only at the beginning of May, when Admiral Inoueia managed to concentrate three aircraft carriers, were the preparations for landing completed, but the Battle of the Coral Sea, which developed on May 7-8, ended with the sinking of the American aircraft carrier Lexington and heavy damage to the Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho. This brought about an additional postponement of the capture of Port Moresby-
For the first time since the beginning of the war, the Japanese had been stopped in the Pacific War Zone. This success stemmed mainly from the ability of US intelligence to provide commanders in the South Pacific with vital information in real time on the Orbat and overall strength of Japanese forces and their operational orders.
Parallel to the Japanese operations in New Guinea, at the beginning of the year there were indications of Japanese intentions to progress eastwards from the Marshall Islands. Reinforcements of sea, air and land forces were seen to be concentrated in the islands and their surroundings and extensive operational transmissions were intercepted in this context. As of 4 March, the code AF started to appear in Japanese transmissions. On March 5, it was reported that Japanese naval planes launched from a submarine near the Hawaiian Islands carried out a reconnaissance patrol in the zone. On March 13th, the American Intelligence succeeded in cracking the code AF and realized that the reference was to the Midway Islands.
On April 16, 1942, following an assessment of the situation by the Japanese Imperial High Command and the Navy Headquarters, the operational idea of Admiral Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese Navy, was accepted.
The idea was to draw what was left of the US Navy in the Pacific Zone, and especially its aircraft-carrier force, into a battle against the concentrated power of the Japanese Navy, which in a series of operations would destroy the US fleet and would gain absolute naval and air supremacy in the war zone. The plan was to deceive the Americans as to where the main Japanese effort would be made by way of a diversionary attack on the Aleutian Islands and towards Alaska. At the same time the Japanese would make landings on Midway and capture the islands. Then, when the US fleet would turn towards Midway, it would enter the killing ground of the Japanese aircraft carriers and planes taking off from Midway and would be destroyed. If the plan would succeed, the Japanese would have a security zone in the center of the Pacific that would ensure continuation of Japan’s strategy in Asia.
Two days later, the US Air Force (B-25 Mitchell medium bomber squadron) commanded by Lt. Col. James Doolittle carried out a bombing raid on Tokyo when the aircraft took off from the Hornet aircraft carrier and the majority after the raid landed in China. This raid convinced the Japanese High Command to advance the Midway operations in order to get Tokyo out of the range of all American aircraft (they never imagined that bombers of this type could take off from aircraft carriers). On May 5, the Imperial High Command issued Order no. 18 to the Navy which instructed Admiral Yamamoto to capture Midway and key areas in the Aleutian Islands in conjunction with the army.
During this period, the volume of communications of the Japanese Navy in home waters increased sharply. This reflected the preparations and exercises carried out by the navy in anticipation of the forthcoming operations in Midway and the Aleutian Islands.
On May 7, the listening base at Pearl Harbor heard the message of fleet commander Admiral Nagomo calling his subordinates to a planning group on May 16. The subject of the planning group was the provision of air cover to landing forces, close assistance to their operations, and the suppression of all resistance by the defenders.
On May 9, the listening base in Melbourne intercepted Order no. 16 of the 1st Aircraft Carrier Fleet attack force ordering the organization of a new task force of aircraft carriers and the beginning of a mass movement of the fleet on 21st May. Based on this information, US intelligence issued a warning about a Japanese attack sometime in May.
On May 19, intelligence cryptanalyst officers at Pearl Harbor (Chief Superintendent. Rochefort and Lieutenant Commander Layton) accurately identified Midway and Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands as targets for the expected Japanese attack. On May 22, because of a signals deception operation, Melbourne finally confirmed that AF was a code for Midway and Pearl Base cracked the Japanese code regarding the dates in question. These achievements allowed the intelligence officers to determine that the date of the Japanese attack on Midway and the Aleutians would be June 4. This intelligence was transferred to the Naval Commander of the zone Admiral Nimitz, who organised his forces accordingly.
The course of the battle
On May 26, the Americans took their first steps when they sent the submarine Gudge on a patrol northwest of Midway and reinforced the island with a Marine’ battalion, a light tank platoon, and an anti-aircraft unit equipped with 3 inch anti-aircraft guns. Task Force No. 16 under the command of Admiral Halsey returned from the Pacific to Pearl Harbour on the same day. This force included the Hornet and Enterprise aircraft carriers. The aircraft carrier Yorktown which had been damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea reached Pearl the following day.
On May 26, the northern Japanese force left, with two two light aircraft carriers in its center towards the Aleutians.
At the same time, a striking force of four Japanese aircraft carriers, Hiro, Soryu, Kaga and Akagi commanded by Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, with a force of 229 fighter - bombers moved out towards Midway. Two days later, on May 28, the main body of the Japanese Fleet , commanded by Navy Commander Admiral Yamamoto (commanded on board the Yamato, the World's largest battleship), emerged from the home waters. At the same time, the Japanese landing force under the command of Admiral Kurita, consisting of 15 transport ships carrying of troops from Guam and escorted by Admiral Tanaka's Escort Fleet (2nd Fleet), left Saipan. These naval forces included 17 long-range naval reconnaissance aircraft.
Task Force 16, which assembled around the aircraft carriers Enterprise and Hornet, left Pearl Harbor on May 28 and deployed northeast of Midway.
Admiral Raymond Spruance was appointed commander of the force because Admiral Halsey fell ill. Two days later, Task Force 17, under Admiral Fletcher's command on the aircraft carrier Yorktown (most of whose damage was repaired by a massive effort of dockyard workers in Pearl),joined Task Force 16 north east of Midway .With the junction of the two task forces 550 kilometers northeast of Midway, Admiral Fletcher became commander of the unified force. The three American aircraft carriers, reinforced by a cruise carrying seaplanes, composed a total of 234 fighter –bombers.
This force was supported by another 110 fighters, bombers, and reconnaissance aircraft from the base in Midway. In addition, as part of the preparations for the battle, 12 submarines under the command of Vice--Admiral Robert English were deployed around Midway.
Meanwhile, on May 29, the sea plane carrier USS Thornton was stationed at the French coral reef island of Fregate, west of Midway, as a forward base for the naval reconnaissance aircraft. This American takeover of the coral reef disrupted the Japanese plans, as the latter planned to place a refuelling submarine base there in order to extend the range of their naval reconnaissance plane up to Pearl Harbor. As a result, the Japanese did not have an aerial view of the departure of of the American carriers from Pearl. Although their signals analysis permitted them to assume that at least one task force of American carriers went out to sea, but even this partial information was not transferred on time due to Yamamoto's strict order to maintain wireless silence. Thus, in the absence of the ability to carry out their intelligence collection program, the Japanese entered the battle in a blind state.
On June 3, American B-17 bombers from the Midway base, spotted the convoy of Japanese transport ships about 1000 kilometers west of the island and attacked it without causing any damage. As a continuation of the attack on the night of 3-4 June four Catalina seaplanes were sent towards the convoy. At the same time the Japanese launched an attack on Dutch Harbour in the Aleutian Islands from the Ryujo and Zuiho aircraft carriers of the Second Strike Force under the command of Vice Admiral Kondo.
After midnight on June 4, air patrol reports allowed Admiral Nimitz to inform the commanders of his battle forces at sea as to the position of the Japanese main body, about 800 km from Midway. At dawn, a naval reconnaissance plane spotted two of the Japanese aircraft carriers which had launched their planes to attack Midway and reported this to the American carrier force.
The first attack on June 4 was carried out by the four naval planes that intercepted the convoy of Japanese troop carriers and launched a torpedo at a tanker. At 0630 the Japanese air attacks on the Midway Islands began. The damage was small but the Marines’ and naval Buffalo and Wildcat fighters which were sent to intercept the attackers encountered the Zeke (Zero) Japanese fighter planes and lost 17 of the 26 aircraft, and an American torpedo boat was damaged and was grounded on a reef.
In the next two hours, using aircraft and anti-aircraft guns the Japanese were able to fight off all American air strikes from all directions and by all types of aircraft, both from aircraft carriers and from the island's air base without losses of their own.
Between 0930 and 1030 three squadrons of Devastator- torpedo aircraft from the Enterprise and Yorktown attacked the Japanese force and were all repulsed by Japanese fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft fire from the ships, when a Torpedo Squadron 8 was completely destroyed (one pilot –Ensign Gay, survived). However, these repeated attacks by the American planes caused a large dispersal of the Japanese fighter planes and the sky remained open to the attacks by Dauntless bombers which also came from the American carriers. In a matter of minutes, they caused deadly damage to the aircraft carriers Kaga and Akagi and destroyed the Suryo aircraft carrier. An American submarine joined the attack and fired torpedoes at the Akagi aircraft carrier but they did not explode.
At 1100, the aircraft carrier Hiryu, which was not hit sent its aircraft to attack the American carrier Yorktown, which was hit, and a second wave that struck in the afternoon, hit her again and forced her to leave the battlefield and limped back to Pearl Harbor. On the other hand, the Dauntless fighters attacked the Hiryu and destroyed it at 1700 hours. The destruction of the four major aircraft carriers and thus the Japanese main offensive force was such a serious blow to Admiral Yamamoto that he decided to abandon the invasion of Midway and the Japanese Navy began to retreat westward.
On June 5, Task Force no. 16 under the command of Admiral Spruance continued the pursuit of the Japanese Navy whilst at the same time making attempts to rescue the Yorktown aircraft carrier as well as the rescue operations of crewmembers from both fleets.
On that day, Japanese destroyers were forced to torpedoe what was left of their aircraft carriers, Akagi and Hiryu, which could not be saved.
On June 6, the last air attack in the battle of Midway was carried out when American attack bombers from Task Force 16 sank the Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma and hit two destroyers and the light cruiser Mugami After this attack and the completion of rescue operations, Admiral Spruance decided to cut off contact and return to Pearl Harbor. The listening bases reported in the next two days that the Japanese Navy had retreated towards Saipan and the Home islands.
In the meantime, a Japanese submarine spotted the damaged aircraft carrier Yorktown and sank it finally together with a destroyer which accompanied it on its way to Pearl Harbor.
The results of the Battle of Midway were resounding. This campaign entered history as the first main turning point of World War II.
Thanks to the American signals intelligence, battle technique of operating aircraft carriers and more than a little bit of luck, the US Navy succeeded in causing a searing defeat to the combined Japanese fleet that was undefeated until then. The performance of the three American carriers have been taught since then in naval academies world-wide to learn about the sacrifice of their aircrews in this battle.
The Japanese lost the four aircraft carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor half a year ago and in fact the core of their combined fleet in comparison with the loss of one American aircraft carrier. Moreover, they lost more than 100 trained and experienced pilots who could not be replaced.
The results of the battle, both objectively and retrospectively, show that Admiral Yamamoto still had considerable naval supremacy in the battlefield with his 11 battleships against none on the American side, a decisive superiority in cruisers and destroyers, and he still had four light aircraft carriers from his other fleets and the force in the Aleutians. All this opposed to only two American aircraft carriers which lost about 100 aircraft and pilots in the battle, and their crews completely exhausted from the effort of the last few days.
However, the blow suffered by the Japanese was first of all psychological one, and it was this that guided the considerations of the commander - Admiral Yamamoto, who decided to withdraw.