The Battle of Midway

Posted on Friday 1st June 2012

There is no doubt that it was the British who benefited the most from the victory at Midway. Australia was desperate and glad of the victory, even New Zealand felt threatened.
Churchill’s speech in July 1941 reflected the feeling of a burden being lifted from his shoulders. He was generous in his praise, and, as always, had to exaggerate, the politician in him always overcoming all else:
‘All this improvement in the position of Australia and New Zealand and of India has been clinched by the brilliant victories gained by the United States Navy and Air Force over the Japanese in the Coral Sea and at Midway Island. No fewer than five out of the twelve Japanese regular aircraft carriers have been sunk. When the Japanese came into the Bay of Bengal at the beginning of April with five carriers we were caused great anxiety, but five are now at the bottom of the sea and the Japanese, whose resources are rigidly limited, have now begun to count their capital units on their fingers and toes. These splendid American achievements have not received the attention they deserve in this island. Superb acts of devotion were performed by the American airmen. From some of their successful attacks on the Japanese aircraft carriers one returned in nine. In others the loss was more than half, but the work was done and the balance of naval power in the Pacific has been definitely altered in our favour.’
In retrospect Churchill was equally generous, stating that Midway, ‘this memorable American victory’, was of cardinal importance, ‘not only to the United States, but to the whole Allied cause. The moral effect was tremendous and instantaneous. At one stroke the dominant position of Japan in the Pacific was reversed.’
These words contrast starkly with both the pessimistic predictions of doom coming from some quarters of America before the battle, and the revisionist writings downgrading the battle (so prevalent on web sites nowadays). The former preached, ‘Give up, its all hopeless, why go on’, the latter, ‘It was not so important; with the Americans’ industrial base we would have won eventually anyway’. Both are wrong. And stupidly wrong, because they do not take into account, as Churchill did, and as we surely still should, the effect on morale at the time – not just American morale, but the morale of the whole Allied cause, and also the effect on the enemy. Americans tend to be very parochial, and many, even today, seem incapable of seeing the wider picture.
The task ahead
A rather different viewpoint from others recorded here was expressed by the American Marxist Joseph Hansen, writing in May 1942, just before the Battle of Midway. His attitude was pessimistic in the extreme, and it could be briefly expressed as ‘A plague on all your houses!’
Contemplating the advance of the Japanese across the Pacific, Hansen wrote in black despair: ‘Such enormous military forces will be required to dislodge Japan, such a titanic navy and air fleet, such colossal armies, such slaughter of troops, that American economy and the American people must be strained to the breaking point'.
He poured scorn on the very concept of a fight-back as defiantly espoused by General Douglas MacArthur and others:
Ready to go! First launch of Air Group 8 aircraft from the decks of the Hornet, 4 June 1942.

‘If we leave out the alternative of revolution and colonial uprising... [it] means taking and holding Java, Celebes, Sumatra, Borneo and the lesser neighbouring islands; advancing into the blazing muzzles of the giant guns of Singapore (which is now being repaired and impoved by the Japanese), advancing along the coast of China, retaking Hong Kong, Canton, Shanghai etc, recapturing the Philippines, and then landing on the Japanese islands themselves. If this project is ever carried out, the western water of the Pacific will be dyed crimson with the blood of the opposing forces.’
But of course hardly any of this tortuous course proved necessary; only the Philippines subsequently featured in the Allied advance, and that was a political invasion, not a necessary one. For Hansen, like Stalin and Hitler, did not understand sea power, which could cut off victorious Japan from its new-found oil riches simply by submarines sinking all the tankers that conveyed it; one did not have to occupy the lands the oil wells stood on to blockade Japan and starve her of fuel. Nor did any Allied army have to slog its way yard by gruelling yard across south-east Asia. They just sank the enemy ships and took the island bases by-passing everything else. If one controlled the sea, as Great Britain found in Napoleonic times, the enemy could bring a whole continent to heel and march to the very gates of Moscow, it would not matter one jot! What Hansen and fellow travellers failed to see was that control of the sea negated his dismal prognosis. But it was the wrong-headed views of people like Hansen, if consistently repeated in the media of the day, that the Japanese ultimately put their faith in to make Americans war-weary. As the war continued it became their only hope, however misplaced. Fortunately, in those distant days, Hansen and his ilk were a minority.
Certainly, the victory at Midway had a galvanizing effect; a real morale-booster after months of defeats. The Allied leaders were determined; the people were resolute but getting awfully tired of always losing. The Americans had suffered six months of reverses and withdrawals, the British had undergone two and half years of almost continuous military disasters: Poland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, France, Yugoslavia, Greece, Crete and most of North Africa, Hong Kong, Borneo, Malaya, Singapore and Burma.
Consequently, Midway cannot be judged simply on the profit and loss basis of four aircraft carriers, one heavy cruiser and many aircraft against one aircraft carrier and on destroyer, although many still do. Nor can it be dismissed with the question ‘Did it matter?’ a rhetorical question as insulting to those who died there as it is silly. Of course it mattered. It gave a battered and shaken nation a beacon of hope. It gave desperate allies a signal that their powerful new ally was beginning to get her act together. It proved, for the first time, that the Japanese were not invincible – their expansion could be faced up to and halted. The road back might be a long one, but not as long as the Hansens of this world predicted. Heads up once more, the American people prepared to take the first step on that road, and soon the US Marines were wading ashore at a virtually unknown island in the Solomons Group, Guadalcanal.
The Battle of Midway battle map.

Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.

Aichi D3A Val dive-bomber taking off from the Akagi.

Wrecked Japanese cruiser Mikuma, photographed on the afternoon of 7 June 1942.

Further Reading

Midway: Dauntless Victory
(Hardback - 358 pages)
ISBN: 9781844155835

by Peter C Smith
Only £30.00

This is an in-depth study of the Battle of Midway that reviews the many previous accounts and compares their accuracy and veracity with fresh documentation that has been released recently, including some new material on the post-war analysis made by a select committee. There are new viewpoints on the muddle among the US Admirals; the total failure of the USAAF, despite elaborate claims; views on a whitewash of Admiral Fletcher and others; fresh thinking on the part played by the US Navy Dauntless dive-bombers in the action; the mystery of…
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