The battle of midway was a decisive carrier battle in World War II, which gave the United States maritime supremacy over Japan in the Pacific Ocean. This battle took place from June 3 to 7, 1942 near the Midway Islands, northwest of the Hawaiian Islands. Since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the bombardment of the British fleet in Singapore, the Japanese have gained absolute mastery of the seas in the Pacific. A conquest of Midway Atoll by the Japanese, the first step towards the Hawaiian Islands, would have meant the total withdrawal of American forces from the central Pacific ...
The paradoxical victory of the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 gave Americans hope: after five months of defeat since Pearl Harbor, luck seems to have turned. But Admiral Yamamoto has not said his last word, and he intends to lure enemy aircraft carriers into a trap ... While the operation on Australia and New Guinea has been stopped in the Coral Sea Admiral Yamamoto decides to keep the initiative by planning a new offensive. While the primary objective seems minor, the real goal is to attract the enemy fleet and destroy it.
Indeed, it is Midway, an atoll in the middle of the Pacific, on which Yamamoto sets his sights; it has no great strategic interest, being far from everything, but a landing there would still force the Americans to react. The Japanese admiral is counting on the fact that the American fleet being reduced since Pearl Harbor, but also following the loss of the Lexington in the Coral Sea, the enemy will be forced to throw his last forces into this battle.
It was also decided to launch a parallel attack on the Aleutians: if the goal is to confuse the Americans, this also has the disadvantage of complicating the Japanese plan, and even of dividing the forces for no real reason, a lack of strategy which will be recurrent during the war among the Japanese.
The American fleet comes out of the Battle of the Coral Sea with mixed feelings: it has certainly stopped the Japanese offensive on Australia, but it has also lost the aircraft carrier Lexington, and the Yorktown is a mess, which means the US Navy is in no better shape than the day after Pearl Harbor!
Fortunately, Admiral Nimitz quickly receives the first piece of good news: Intelligence has made great strides since Pearl Harbor, and it looks like they've identified the next enemy objective by breaking the Japanese code: Midway! Chester Nimitz then ordered the repair as soon as possible Yorktown (commanded by Fletcher) at Pearl Harbor, which is done in record time, when the aircraft carrier seemed to have several weeks of dry dock ...
Second good news, the admiral can also count on aircraft carriers Enterprise and Hornet (ordered by Spruance), which should be able to be in the area quickly. The forces are balancing, but the Japanese ignore it.
Preludes to the Battle of Midway
Indeed, too focused on executing their difficult plan, the Japanese do not expect to have three aircraft carriers in front of them; they think the Yorktown was sunk in the Coral Sea! In addition, they must do without Shokaku and Zuikaku, themselves damaged during this battle. Yamamoto therefore has "only" four aircraft carriers for the attack on Midway: the Kaga, the Hiryu, theAkagi and the Soryu. Note that all were present during the attack on Pearl Harbor ...
A large part of the Japanese armada therefore left Japan on May 26, 1941, heading for both Midway and the Aleutians. The next day, it is the American task forces which leave the roadstead of Pearl Harbor, without the enemy knowing; worse, the Japanese staff believes theEnterprise and the Hornet still in the waters of the Solomons… The intelligence war has already been won by the Americans.
The first contact took place on June 3, to the great surprise of the Japanese: the latter thought they were not expected, but they found themselves bombarded by B-25 came from Midway! The damage is minimal, except on Japanese morale, especially when it turns out that the Americans did not fall into the trap of the Aleutians, where the attack leads nowhere.
Midway Raid and Reconnaissance
Obviously, Yamamoto will not stop his attack for all that. He orders Nagumo to launch the raid on the atoll: it is June 4, 1942. At 7:10 am, the first assault is over, the Japanese pilots request a second; they cross the American air force of Midway which attacks the Japanese fleet without convincing results. It's not 9am that atoll-based aviation is gone! Their sacrifice was not, however, in vain: in the meantime, the Japanese had spotted the American fleet, but were unable to attack it because of the raid of these planes from Midway!
For a few hours, in fact, the ballet of reconnaissance devices began. Admiral Nagumo receives disturbing messages, sometimes confusing, but one of them is about the presence of an American aircraft carrier. He hesitates, but sure of his strength he finally does not launch an attack yet, waiting for the end of the raids on Midway. The confusion is such that the Japanese mechanics have to change the ammunition of the devices twice, replacing the torpedoes with bombs, and vice versa. A problem encountered on the four Japanese aircraft carriers, the disorganization is therefore total. Nightmare for the Japanese: the Americans have also spotted them ...
It is only 5:00 a.m. when an American reconnaissance aircraft spots the enemy fleet, well before the Japanese reported Fletcher's aircraft carrier, the Yorktown. These are the devices of theEnterprise who are the first on the Japanese fleet, two hours after the start of the raid on Midway; but the old torpedo boats Devastator hardly get any results and they are pulled like rabbits by the Japanese DCA. However, they have the merit of also deflecting enemy hunting, which leaves scope for subsequent aircraft, in particular dive bombers. Dauntless.
It is then a deluge of bombs that fall on Nagumo's fleet! In a few minutes the Kaga, theAkagi and the Soryu are sunk or out of action! The planes on the decks to turn their bombs into torpedoes this time did not help matters ... At the end of the American raid which lasted twenty minutes, the Japanese fleet only had the aircraft carrier Hiryu capable of launching airplanes.
Farewell to Yorktown
The devices of Hiryu in turn launched the attack at 10:40 am. Their target is the aircraft carrier spotted at the start of the day, the Yorktown. The hero of the Battle of the Coral Sea is struck by three bombs which seriously damage him; then a second wave and this time it's two torpedoes that hit it. There is no more hope and, worse, the aircraft carrier is completed two days later by a submarine, which also manages to sink the destroyer which escorted it! In the meantime, the aircraft launched a new attack on Nagumo's fleet, and sank the Hiryu ; Yorktown remembrance revenge continues with two-day pursuit of heavy cruisers Mikuma and Mogami, the first being finally sunk, the second very seriously damaged.
Admiral Yamamoto understood the tragedy too late and he cannot come to Nagumo’s rescue. He orders the retreat. The failure is bitter.
Assessment and consequences
This time, unlike the Battle of the Coral Sea, the results are not debated! The Japanese left four aircraft carriers there, the Americans only one! Above all, the Japanese fleet lost too many of its most experienced pilots, which will be decisive for the rest of the war.
At the strategic level, Admiral Yamamoto fails in his capture of Midway but, more importantly, he has lost the initiative. From Midway, the Japanese advance is definitively stopped but, above all, the Americans can launch the counterattack, which will begin with Guadalcanal. It is a turning point in the conflict in the Pacific, just like the victory of the Allies on the Russian front or in North Africa.
Finally, this naval battle firmly established the domination of the aircraft carrier over the fleets, to the detriment of the battleship. What will be symbolically recorded by the agony of the giants Musashi and Yamato later in the conflict. But we are not there yet…
- J.J. Antier, The great naval battles of the Second World War, Omnibus, 2000.
- P. Souty, The Pacific War 1937-1945, PUL, 1995.
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- The Battle of Midway, by Roland Emmerich. Fiction, 2020.