Over the burning Japanese ships. From the battle of Midway on, air forces had been playing more and more decisive role in the naval warfare.



The name Midway describes this place very precisely - it is a little tiny atoll in the Pacific Ocean right in the middle of the way from San Francisco and Yokohama. However this unremarkable name has passed to the history of the Second World War as the place of one of its most pivotal battles. Because there, in the beginning of June 1942, was directed the next mighty blow the Japanese intended to deal immediately after the battle of the Coral Sea. According to John Frederic Charles Fuller

What the object of this operation was is not clear. Merely to occupy Midway was not worth the risk, because the island was too small to be made a powerful air base. It would seem, therefore, that the Japanese aim was either to lure a weaker American force into a trap, or what appears more probable is, that it was the first step of a larger operation - the capture of the island of Oahu. Were this effected, then the U.S. line of communications with Australia would be severed at its most vital point, because Oahu was the Aden of the Pacific. Once in Japanese occupation, Australia would be isolated, as Egypt would have been, after Italy entered the war, had Aden fallen into Italian hands. Further, time would have been gained for Japan to consolidate her island defences. [Fuller J. F. C. (1993).]

It is worth mentioning, however, that Fuller is not right while writing about Midway not worth the risk to be occupied. There are two small islands in the inner lagoon of the atoll, which could be used as airfields. One needs to keep in mind that bomber planes taking off from those islands played an important role in the battle to come. Finally, as small as it was, the bigger of them, Sand Island, alone could accommodate more aircraft than a fleet of aircraft-carriers.

To divert the Americans' attention from the main objective, the Japanese detached some forces to attack the Aleutian islands, the archipelago spanning the American Alaska with the Soviet Kamchatka. Without much effort they took there two islands and demolished port installations in Dutch Harbor, but those successes were useless. Since some time the Americans were able to read Japanese dispatches, and, undisturbed by the diversion, they concentrated their forces for the battle of Midway.

Both sides had concentrated the largest air and naval forces seen thereto in the Pacific operations. The Japanese had engaged the bulk of their forces; the core of their fleet comprised seven battleships, four big aircraft-carriers, four heavy and two light cruisers, thirteen destroyers, one small aircraft-carrier, two hydroplane tenders, and eighteen submarines were guarding that mighty armada. Moreover, twelve transports laden with troops were following, escorted by two cruisers and twelve destroyers. The landing forces were also given a mighty fire support of six heavy cruisers, a small aircraft-carrier and eight destroyers.

As far as the displacement and the fire-power of the fleet is concerned, the Japanese had mounted a substantial superiority over the Americans, who were able to scramble only three aircraft-carriers, seven heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, fourteen destroyers and twenty submarines. In a classic sea battle they would be at least defeated. But during the Second world War classic sea battles, during which opposing fleets would fire at each other from close distances, were passing away. Great sea battles were decided by the fleets of aircraft. The plane had changed the character of the naval warfare.

On 3 June 1942 American reconnaissance planes spotted the enemy invasion fleet less than 500 miles from Midway. It was the time to undertake counter-measures. From the airfields on Midway took off the bomber planes, which were slaughtered during the first attack on the Japanese fleet, but they at least managed to delay the Japanese actions. In their turn the Japanese attacked Midway with the forces of their carrier-based bombers, but simultaneously their main forces were located, reckoned and attacked by all the American aircraft at hand, chiefly carrier-based ones as well. As a result, it never came to a direct confrontation of both fleets. The outcome of the battle was decided by the air forces, with minor involvement of the submarines.

All four Japanese aircraft-carriers were sunk. Also were sunk two heavy cruisers and one light cruiser, three destroyers, as well as a transport with an infantry regiment. Moreover, three Japanese battleships, three heavy cruisers, four destroyers and three transports were heavily damaged. The Americans lost the aircraft-carrier Yorktown, heavily damaged in an air raid and sunk practically after the battle, as well as one escort destroyer. On 6 June the Japanese commander, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, deemed his mission impossible and gave the order to retreat. He did not know yet that he would have no chance any more to take revenge.

In place of the sunken Yorktown American shipyards were already building ten new aircraft-carriers, which had to be commissioned within a year. The Japanese had nothing to replace the four sunken carriers of theirs. Their shipyards were not able to build replacement ships sooner than in three years. Moreover, they lost 250 aircraft, the core of their naval air forces. On the other hand, the Americans lost 150 aircraft, it means less than the Japanese, while their aircraft industry achieved full production capacity. Since the battle of Midway the Americans had enjoyed the command of the air. The Japanese, lacking planes and aircraft-carriers, were bound to operate only from land-based airfields.

Of course, it does not mean that since then on conducting the war was any easier to the American forces. The enemy with previous fanaticism fought for every scrap of land, and was capable of dealing painful blows. In particular, they succeeded in that during the battle for Guadalcanal, one of the islands in the archipelago of the Solomon Islands. On 7 August 1942 the US Marines landed on Guadalcanal and took the biggest airfield in that region. The Japanese had been building it to menace both New Caledonia, and New Guinea with its main port and military base at Port Moresby. The airfield was not yet completed and was not used as planned. But the Japanese strove to take it back whatever the price.

On 9 August at dawn, in the strait between Guadalcanal and the island Savo, a Japanese squadron of five heavy and two light cruisers attacked American naval forces supporting the seaborne landing on Guadalcanal. The superiority of forces was on the American side: they had seven heavy and two light cruisers, and six destroyers against one Japanese. Another six destroyers escorted troops transports and were not involved in fights directly. But the American commander neglected the enemy danger, underestimated its mobility and overestimated his own position in the strait full of coral reeves. On top of that the radar on the destroyer patrolling the entry to the strait malfunctioned, and the Japanese squadron managed to penetrate the strait undetected. The Japanese opened fire at close quarters. What happened then hardly even fits the description of a sea battle - it was a regular slaughter of the American ships.

The American cruiser Chicago, honeycombed by the Japanese shells, sank in no time. The Australian cruiser Canberra, whose captain was killed by the first salvo, resisted longer and sank in the morning. Yet it was not the end of the peril. The Japanese squadron turned against another group of American cruisers. Its commander took the roar of the nearby cannonade for anti-aircraft fire and prepared his ships to repel an air raid, while he was completely caught in surprise by the attack of surface ships. Within less than twenty minutes one American cruiser exploded, and another one, completely demolished in the fire of the Japanese guns, capsized. Both ships became graves to more than 2,000 sailors. Third cruiser, abandoned by her crew, sank in few hours. The Japanese casualties were limited to some damages to the light cruisers. It was not until the next day that one of the ships of the successful raid was hit by four torpedoes from an American submarine and sank with all her crew on the way to her base on the New Britain.

As effective a success it was, the Japanese failed to develop it to a full victory. The Americans still possessed large naval forces, and landing on Guadalcanal continued uninterrupted. More reinforcements arrived on 23 August. Also on the same day the Japanese tried to bring more troops to the island, but in the fire of air raids they had to retreat with serious casualties. The Japanese success in the battle of Savo was after all the last success of theirs in the fights on the Solomon Islands, which continued for months. On 11 October the Japanese carried a new raid of a small but fast squadron - it failed with the loss of one cruiser and one destroyer. They fought with bigger success on 26 October, when the opponents faced each other with bigger forces off the small island of Santa Cruz. The Japanese sank then one American aircraft-carrier, but still failed to achieve their objectives. Also consecutive counter-attacks on land against the American troops, holding the bridgehead they had taken on Guadalcanal, were ineffective, although it took a lot of effort to repel them.

And what exactly was the airfield on Guadalcanal? A veteran of the battle, Lieutenant Bernard Brodie, explained it in his post-war study:

Our possession of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal gave us not only a base for direct air attack, but also a valuable advance position of reconnaissance for our surface forces. Our planes could not scout far to the north of the island, over waters which Japanese naval forces and transports had to cross in approaching Guadalcanal, while the Japanese were largely denied similar reconnaissance in the direction of our own approach. Thus we were able to bring our available ships to the scene when needed, and upon arriving there they were likely to enjoy all the advantages of surprise. In such devices our surface forces were able to exercise a continuity of pressure out of all proportion to the total time they spent in the disputed waters. [Brodie B. (1977).]

On 11 November 1942 the Americans brought to Guadalcanal fresh forces and continued advance on the next day. The Japanese had brought to the island even bigger forces, but they were not able to reverse the situation. Out of 11 transports carrying 14,000 troops only four ships with 2,000 men reached the shores - the rest was eaten by sharks. Also two Japanese heavy cruisers and two American light cruisers were sunk. For the first time in the Pacific campaign battleships had an opportunity to fire at each other; one American battleship was damaged. Yet eventually the Japanese had to contemplate their defeat. There was no more chance to reinforce their troops fighting on Guadalcanal, although they fought stubbornly to the bitter end.

On 30 November the Americans suffered a new setback, as they lost a cruiser in a clash with a squadron of Japanese destroyers. Another four cruisers were damaged in the same clash, but that could not change the fates of the archipelago. At the night from 7 to 8 February 1943 the last Japanese troops abandoned Guadalcanal. During the fights the Japanese lost 20,000 men. Half of their casualties were claimed by diseases and starvation: during the last weeks the defenders were completely deprived of supplies and ate what they could find in the jungle.

Breaking the code used by the Japanese signals had also brought another spectacular success: there was shot down the bomber that carried the commander-in-chief of the Japanese navy, Admiral Yamamoto, and his staff. This event has been elevated to the level of a crucial factor that decided about the fates of the war in the Pacific, which it was not. Yamamoto certainly was a talented strategist, under his command the Japanese might be able to wage the war a couple of months longer and inflict bigger casualties on the Americans, but no military genius would be able to win that Japanese nonsense war.