Battle of Midway, June 1942 (Pacific Ocean)

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In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7th 1941 the Americans were determined to take revenge yet although the attack had missed their carriers and the vital fuel reserves had been left untouched, it would be some time before the American fleet could openly challenge the Japanese. On 18th April 1942 the Americans hit back with a raid of Mitchell B25 bombers bombing Tokyo and several other Japanese cities after taking off from the USS Hornet. The blow had a tremendous impact on the Japanese who believed their homeland safe from attack. Admiral Yamamoto apologised to the Emperor and vowed to destroy the US fleet.

The Japanese plan was to lure the Americans into a trap by attacking the small island of Midway 1,136 miles west of Pearl Harbour. Without Midway US long range patrol planes could not effectively screen Pearl Harbour and it would be open to surprise attack once again making it unusable. The attack would start with a diversionary attack on the Aleutian Island forcing US ships to investigate while an invasion force under Admiral Nagumo would attack the island. Midway was not the main objective, and while the invasion would draw out the US fleet,the main force (including 4 carriers) under Yamamoto would be waiting 300 miles away to trap and destroy the Americans. A huge fleet of over 200 ships (including 11 battleships and 8 carriers) was gathered and divided into 8 task forces, against this the Americans had 3 aircraft carriers, 3 cruisers and 14 destroyers. The Japanese were so confident they even arranged for their mail to be sent to Midway. The attack was planned for June 7th but the Japanese were in for a few surprises.

Despite efforts to confuse them the Americans knew what was going on. The Japanese codes had been cracked and after leaking a message saying that Midway's freshwater plant was broken the Americans new that Midway was the target. Admiral Nimitz had only three carriers, with others either damaged or too far away. The Americans set a trap of their own, with the carrier Yorktown waiting 200 miles north east of Midway. The Americans then set about reinforcing Midway with aircraft, anti aircraft guns, barbed wire and fast torpedo boats. As the Japanese set out for Midway they changed their codes but the damage had been done, by then the Americans even knew how many ships and who their captains were, and what course the Japanese had set. The battle got underway with a series of air attacks by US planes based on Midway with the Japanese attacking the island with their carrier based force.

Neither side did much serious damage as the Japanese fleet proved too well defended and the American crews too inexperienced. During this aerial boxing match the US spotter planes, (Catalinas) proved vital, with their courageous crews performing many acts of bravery to shadow the Japanese fleet and provide vital intelligence. During the height of these attacks a Japanese spotter plane sighted 10 enemy ships only 200 miles from the Japanese task force, the Japanese Admiral realised that with his aircraft reloading with bombs ready for another attack on Midway, he was very vulnerable and needed to reload with torpedoes quickly, then the message came in that the ships contained no carriers so the Japanese continued loading bombs a fatal mistake. Within 20 minutes the report came in that the American ships did have a carrier with them! Again Nagumo changed the loading of the planes and started to retire to allow his planes to rearm, his fighters were just coming in to land being short on fuel, as the last plane landed the American air attack began just as the Japanese were most vulnerable. The first attacks were met by the Zeros on patrol but as they landed to refuel the main American attack struck the now defenseless carriers.

In six minutes the Akagi, Nagumo's flagship carrier was burning, the Kaga was next followed by the Soryu. When Yamamoto received the news he had no choice but to sail on in the now thickening fog. The last Japanese carrier counterattacked and turned the Yorktown into a crippled wreck which slogged on until finally sunk by a submarine on 6th June.The Americans gathered their remaining bombers and attacked again setting the last carrier, the Hiryu, alight. Yamamoto knew that his battleships were too vulnerable to go on without fighter cover (Pearl Harbour had proved how vulnerable battleships were). At 2.55am June 5th the Japanese abandoned the invasion of Midway. The Americans had lost one carrier, a destroyer and 147 aircraft, but the Japanese had lost four carriers, one cruiser, with 280 aircraft going to the bottom on the sunken carriers and a further 52 shot down, hundreds of their most experienced pilots killed. The battle of Midway was to shape the future of the war in the Pacific and to herald in a new age of war at sea, where the aircraft carrier was both the most powerful and the most vulnerable asset.
Midway: Dauntless Victory, Fresh Perspectives on America's Seminal Naval Victory of World War II, Peter C. Smith. A very detailed and well researched account of the battle of Midway and of the historical debate that still surrounds it, supported by a mass of original documents and interviews with participants. An invaluable look at this crucial battle. [see more] cover cover cover

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How to cite this article:Dugdale-Pointon, TDP. (3 August 2000), Battle of Midway, June 1942, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_midway.html

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