Thursday, June 05, 2008

Decisive Battles: Midway, 1942

Midway: 4-5 June, 1942

Forces Engaged:
Japan: 4 carriers, 7 battleships, ~150 support ships, 264 carrier aircraft
United States: 3 carriers, ~50 support ships, 233 carrier aircraft, 127 land-based aircraft

Situation: The architect of Pearl Harbor, Admiral Yamamoto, is famously supposed to have said that if he was directed to attack the United States that he could "run wild for six months" across the west Pacific. In fact he did just that for exactly that long; from December 7th to June 7th the Imperial Japanese military had seized almost all of their objectives, particularly the petroleum-producing areas of what is today Indonesia.

Yamamoto's object of greatest concern was the U.S. Navy's fleet aviation forces, what he believed to be the decisive strategic factor in the war with the U.S. Without naval aviation, he believed, the U.S. would not be able to make an effective assault against the Japanese naval perimeter in the west and southwest Pacific, allowing the Imperial forces to hold off the Americans for a time (although it's worth noting that the admiral was convinced that this was only a delay, not a defeat, for the U.S., and that Japan had erred in starting the war with the Americans)

With this in mind, Yamamoto's plan was to bring the USN to decisive engagement in the central Pacific and defeat them. His plan was complex - probably overcomplex, given that his fleets were widely separated and liable to defeat in detail - and well-crafted enough except for a critical intelligence failing: the Imperial Navy's main operational code had been broken (note - this was not the same codebreaking that was classified as "MAGIC") and the USN was well aware of his dispositions and general plan of attack.

The Engagement: Reduced to essentials, the Battle of Midway consisted of both fleets trying to locate each other first in the vastness of the central Pacific. Luck and naval skill played strong parts in this, as did the fleet dispositions, which put the cruiser-borne scout planes of the IJN back with the First Fleet, well away from the Second's flight decks).Both decryption and superior scouting allowed the USN to locate the IJN carriers first. After this the battle came down to a combination of luck and training.

The sequence of attacks was:
1. June 4, 6am: The Japanese carrier air forces of Second Fleet attack Midway Atoll (this as part of the planned preparation for landing and capture). The IJN has not found the US carriers. Strike results prompt the Japanese carrier air arm commander to rearm the aircraft held in reserve for a ground attack.
2. June 4, 7am: The USN Carrier Strike Force (Task Forces 16 and 17) launches individual squadrons as it turns towards the Japanese Second Fleet.
3. June 4, 9-11am: US naval aircraft arrive over the Japanese carrier force. Torpedo attack proves suicidal and without effect (US aerial torpedoes later prove to be defective), but dive bombing sinks three of the four IJN fleet carriers.
4. Jun 4, 11-1pm: Aircraft from IJMS Hiryu, following the US aircraft back to their carriers, badly damage USS Yorktown.5. June 4, 4-5pm: US naval aircraft fatally damage Hiryu, which sinks the following day.

The battle was effectively over by nightfall on the 4th. The next day US submarines located the IJN First Fleet, which consisted of the heavy gun platforms intended to sink the carriers crippled by their naval aviators, and combined with US aircraft to harry it west and out of the battle.

A Japanese submarine sank the Yorktown on 6/7/42, officially the last loss of the battle.

Outcome: Complete tactical/major strategic U.S. victory.

This was NOT the utter "turning point" in the Pacific War; the Japanese did not LOSE the war because of Midway...they could still have managed to salvage a draw of sorts. But the striking arm of Imperial Japan in the Pacific was her Navy. Losing 2/3rd of her fleet carrier decks as well as thousands of naval aviators, crews and carrier officers ensured that she could no longer WIN it.

Impact: The end of Yamamoto's six months, and the end of the Japanese Navy's dominance on the Pacific high seas.

Interestingly, possibly the single longest-lasting and strongest impact of this battle was on the U.S. Navy, whose carrier fixation was hammered in steel set in stone cast inside concrete by this victory. In a sense, the USN has been designed to refight every battle as Midway for the past sixty-six years. Personally, my suspicion is that the nuclear submarine has made the fleet carrier the TBD Devastator of the blue water navy. But we won't know that until the next general naval war which, hopefully, you and I will never see.

Touchline Tattles: The USN made a very short, very sad little film about the aviators of VT-8, Torpedo Squadron 8 of the USS Hornet.Here it is, a reminder that many of those in the "Greatest Generation" paid for its gaudy reputation with their lives. And that the notion that Americans have gone into combat with "hillbilly armor" and inadequate weapons and equipment is not entirely a fault of the Bush Administration.


mike said...

Chief: Thanks for the video!! I note that except for Squadron CO Waldron's gunner/radioman who is a Chief, the remaining backseaters appear to be all E3 and below. Several butterbar pilots also.

Douglas was the manufacturer but they also built the Dauntless Divebombers that successfully sank the IJN carriers. I would not blame the Navy contracting officers or the builder for the Devastator's failure. The aircraft had been successful in sinking a Japanese carrier earllier in the war. And a replacement was already being built. Unlike Rummy and Bush who would not even uparmor the HMMWVs until their hand was forced by the press and congress.

FDChief said...

mike: No argument that in both attitude and aptitude there can be no comparison between the third FDR Administration (or any of his administrations, perhaps the most truly "ministry of all talents" since the Founders time) and the loyal Bushies, a ministry of none.

And the TBD wasn't a bad A/C, just as out-of-date as the Fairey Swordfish in 1942. But my understanding is that the Navy knew that the TBD was obsolete - that's why the TBF "Avenger" was already in preproduction - but that the TBD was a deathtrap and sent its airmen out in it anyway bacause it was all they had. I understand the why but can still feel regret for the guys that had to fly the poor old spamcan.

The torpedo issue was a whole 'nother deal: aviators had been pissed off and hammering at the USN since at least the Coral Sea several months before about MAJOR problems with the Mk 13 aerial torpedoes (the USN sub guys had similar or worse problems with the Mk 14 and similar lack of response) and the USN was pretty much still in denial in '42. This problem is directly comparable to the "hillbilly armor" issue and, though not costing lives directly, made the losses that did occur in the ineffective torpedo attacks all the more bitter.

Anonymous said...

I've got to second both you and Mike, Chief - the Bush administration totally screwed up things, starting from a position of strength. The US in WWII was starting from weakness, and trying to build a world-spanning army + a world-spanning air force (almost from scratch), while bringing the navy up to world-spanning levels.


sheerahkahn said...

I've got to say that I hadn't realized the impact of the use of carriers in the USN stemming from Midway...that is a nugget I will chew on for quite some time.

Meghan H said...

I have to agree that the aircraft carrier, while likely an important part of any navy, is near-useless in today's US conflicts (esp. Iraq & Afghanistan).

Having recently watched the PBS show "Carrier", I gained a new understanding of this.

ON this show, pilots and all their support staff were out in the region for months on end, burning untold amounts of jet fuel to fly over Iraq and drop NOT ONE SINGLE BOMB in all that time. They are simply used as a "show of force" (by their own admission). Even the pilots know they're not much use to the average soldier who is being told to search house-to-house for "insurgents". What good is a fighter jet when any bomb he might drop would not only kill that one bad guy, but all his neighbors for a several-block radius? Not much good, that's how much.

Also, it made me realize the environmental impact of aircraft carriers is tremendous. 5,000 people roaming the oceans for months at a time generate a lot of sewage and trash that's dumped at sea, not to mention the impact of nuclear fuel that's powering the darn thing.

I just think the carrier's days should be numbered as the end-all-be-all of the US Navy, but it seems unlikely to diminish in importance any time soon.

FDChief said...

meghan: I don't want to totally dis the CV - as a "force projection" platform it still has tremendous utility and versatility. My issue is that the submarine has made technical and tactical improvements between 1942 and 2002 as great as the carriers did between 1912 and 1942. My guess is that the sea-skimming supersonic antiship missile (the Harpoon or the Silkworm) and the guided torpedo has degraded the survivability of the fleet carrier to the point where I think that for purely NAVAL warfare the nuclear attack sub is the capital ship of the 21st Century as the battleship was the mid-19th to mid-20th and the carrier was the mid-20th to the 21st.

That said, the Navy really DOESN'T have much of a mission in the COIN-centric occupations of Central Asia.

mike said...

On the other hand, they do have a mission out there. It is called supporting the flanks. And without them there who knows what mischief could have been done to the logistic trains of the Army and Marine Corps. I opine that they are needed there regardless of the main mission be it COIN, or preventing civil war, or whatever.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest threats is shallow water ops where even the not-so-modern subs have an ambush capability. The Navy is not unaware of this.

And yes, modern subs are a threat even in blue water. But a carrier is no easy pickings even to a super sub. Carrier task forces with their destroyer screens and ASW aircraft are not blind. Many times they are accompanied by their own hunter-killer submarine.

More opinion on my part - subs are not that easy to hide long term. Sure they can lie silent for awhile, but modern sonars and new multiple spectrum sensors can find them when they move. And somewhere I am sure there is a land based Naval Intel Center that knows the class and tonnage of every sub in the world, knows exactly what time they left their home port, knows what general direction they were heading, and can tip tracking forces to follow it.

FDChief said...

mike: Oh, no argument. I'm not saying that the CV is dead as the dodo. It's just that modern missile and torpedo technology seems to doing what the naval aircraft did in 1942 - become a cheap but effective way to sink a big, expensive ship. You don't have to sink many carriers to justify the expense of a lot of cheap little subs.

And you're right, too, in that littoral operations, in the Harpoon Era, can be damnably exensive, as the Brits found in the Falklands.

Publius said...

Actually, it's long been my contention that the U.S. Navy is in some respects the service that might ultimately save this nation's bacon.

First, the nuclear triad: the Boomers, with MIRVed missiles, have long been the hole card. We should hope that never changes. We have only 20 long-range penetration bombers and God knows what's happened to the ICBM force. The Boomers are still there.

Then there is force projection. Fact is the mobile platform beats the hell out of the USAF in a small war era, which is what it looks like we're in. Yeah, carriers are vulnerable, which is why protection is so important, but stack a carrier up against the USAF, which needs 10,000 foot runways and basing rights, and you see just how useful the carrier is.

I'd rather see more money invested in the Navy than in the Air Force.