Feb 10, 2017

5 min read

The Key Factors Determining the Battle of Midway’s Outcome

Sometimes, you Google for something and the answer just won’t come up in any concise form. I have been reading the book Miracle at Midway and all along I have been intensely razor-focused on getting an answer to the question of “how did the miracle happen?”

Otherwise, I can’t see any good primary reason for someone to be interested in the topic. The answer to the question “what was the Miracle” is obvious to anyone who has taken a history class. The question of “what were the implications of the battle” is also pretty well-understood by the educated. From the history of military tactics, I want to know the critical element in the reversal of fates, which was the critical element in the reversal of the Pacific war, which helped defined the 20th century.

I’ll take a little bit of a risk in trying to answer this question while I’m still half-way through the book because I’ve read the Wikipedia article and others writings and don’t anticipate the answer changing. But I doggedly know the format I want the answer in. I want the answer in bold going with primary reason, supporting reason, supporting reason.

So, how was the USA able to pull off a surprise victory at the Battle of Midway:

  • Extremely poor aircraft carrier logistics on the Japanese part combined multiple factors to leave them vulnerable at the critical moment
  • A well-calculated gamble by American forces to launch multiple groups piecemeal

Each point comes down to multiple factors, but generally factors that have a common shared thread and were resultant of broad patterns of actions by the players in the conflict. That’s why I think this is something that needs to be summarized into a few bullet points. But that doesn’t preclude elaboration on the points.

Aircraft Carrier Surprise

I’ve so-many times heard the factoid, almost a mnemonic, that the battle was fought over the horizon, with the naval forces not actually seeing each other. But repeating this statement doesn’t impart much of value to a newcomer to the subject (such as myself). One element of the significance is that this time was the twilight of the age of the battleship, and Midway was a bell-weather that indicated that the age of the aircraft had fully arrived. True, but both sides had visionaries that fully grasped this reality.

What really mattered for the battle was the fact that the US was able to conceal its plans from the enemy and use the element of surprise to achieve a shocking victory. Naval warfare has always been about positioning and stealth to some degree, but the warfare of carriers is dominated by frustrating time constraints regarding battle readiness. The aircraft need to be on the right deck at the right time, in air at the right time, and loaded with the right payload.

The Japanese forces did receive some advance notice that the American forces were better prepared than anticipated, but it was the US knowledge of the Japanese movements that really gave the advantage. Basically, the Americans were able to put their planes in the right place at the right time when the enemy still thought those planes were 100s of miles away and not something that could be mobilized to be relevant for many days still.

The way they were able to accomplish this was largely by the hat-trick of code breaking, along with relatively good leadership. Code breaking was so surprising of a development that many Japanese leaders refused to accept that it could have divulged the volume of information that it did even after the war.

Japanese Logistical Fumbles in Loading and Launching

Both offensively and defensively, the Japanese methods for approaching the battle exposed them. Their forces were under-prepared and poorly coordinated for the type of battle, which they didn’t understand they were walking into. The first component of this was the way they managed aircraft forces:

  • Changing their minds at certain points, changing from one type of ammunition to another left the forces in the wrong places

But on the defensive side, Wonder Duck makes what I think is one of the best points I’ve read on the battle:

The loss of experienced and talented Japanese mechanics. Nearly the entire complement of Kaga’s and Soryu’s hanger deck workers were wiped out when their ships were sunk.

This mistake probably comes down to pure hubris. Because there was no plan to enter an engagement as large as they did at this point-in-time, they had made no serious consideration of loss-management. The entire Zero program was isolated and brittle from a technical standpoint.

Effective American Gamble at Staggering Launches

The final point is about the flexibility that the American forces showed, and reads like something straight out of The Art of War. For this, Wikipedia is more than sufficient:

Accordingly, American squadrons were launched piecemeal and proceeded to the target in several different groups. It was accepted that the lack of coordination would diminish the impact of the American attacks and increase their casualties, but Spruance calculated that this was worthwhile, since keeping the Japanese under aerial attack impaired their ability to launch a counterstrike (Japanese tactics preferred fully constituted attacks), and he gambled that he would find Nagumo with his flight decks at their most vulnerable.

The distinction is between launching a large group of airplanes all at once, and moving as a group even with diverse technical capabilities. Ultimately, you do need something of this mix. To attack, you want to have both attack planes and bombers together, but to keep them all within close flying formation for the entire approach is to sacrifice dramatically too much flexibility.

It came down to pure war tactics that the Americans went with the risky option. Boldness of this type is often needed, and the will to commit to the fight has always been make-or-break in the history of warfare. The Battle of Midway was exactly one such occasion.

Nonetheless, I would rank this immediate tactical decision as much less important than the first 2 factors. The fate of the battle was mostly determined by the long lead time before the battle where the Americans were employing tremendous ingenuity while the Japanese were becoming blinded by a narrow objective. The preparation enabled an effective gamble that involved very real sacrifices and risk, but it paid off. That is the high-level version of the story we should remember.