4 June 1942


It is difficult to think of any battle in the Pacific war, or indeed the whole of the Second World War, quite as decisive and significant as the Battle of Midway. And yet it was a naval battle fought without a gun being fired. It was decided by just ten bombs, a ratio of effort to outcome only exceeded by the two nuclear bombs three years later. Those ten bombs could so easily have gone astray. If Midway was against the odds in the conventional sense of an imbalance of forces, it was also against any reasonable bet that enough American aircraft would get through the wall of Japanese fighters to inflict terminal damage on all the enemy’s aircraft carriers.

A painting of the Battle of Midway by the American artist Robert Grant Smith (1914-2001), who became famous for his depictions of naval aviation. Here two Douglas-SBD-3s fly over the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi. Only three bombs on target were required to turn the Japanese flagship into a blazing inferno.

The background to the battle lay in the decision by the Japanese naval high command to exploit the stunning attack at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 by threatening Midway Island, which was within striking distance of Hawaii, and luring what was left of the US Pacific Fleet to a decisive engagement. Once defeated, the Japanese assumed that the United States would accept a stalemate in the Pacific and allow the Japanese to build their new Asia-Pacific empire. Japanese naval planners began preparation in May 1942, under the codename ‘MI’. The navy brought together an imposing force organized in five attack groups: a carrier force of four fleet carriers commanded by Vice Admiral Nagumo, which was at the heart of the Japanese plan; a large battleship fleet, including the flagship Yamato commanded by the naval commander-in chief, Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto; a smaller force to seize and occupy Midway Island; a further diversionary force to capture some of the Aleutian Islands, off Alaska; and finally a screen of submarines to provide intelligence and to intercept American vessels.

The Japanese could not be confident that the US Pacific Fleet would accept battle, but they assumed that the loss of Midway would be too great a threat for the Americans to ignore. Japanese intelligence discounted the two American aircraft carriers it knew about because those were assumed to be somewhere in the southwest Pacific, guarding Australia. What they did not know was that US Naval Intelligence on Hawaii had broken enough of the Japanese naval code, JN-25, to be able to work out Japanese intentions.

American uncertainty about the destination of the Japanese fleet was overcome by a clever ruse. A message was sent to Midway by regular radio traffic, which it was known the Japanese would intercept. When the message was relayed back to the Japanese naval command in code, it betrayed the codeword for Midway, confirming Midway as the fleet’s destination. The American commander, Admiral Frank Fletcher, decided to position the American fleet northwest of Midway, out of range of Japanese aircraft and submarines, to ambush the Japanese when they advanced on the island. The whole strategy rested on the presence of not two, but three American aircraft carriers, commanded by Rear Admiral Raymond ‘Electric Brain’ Spruance, nicknamed after his capacity for cool and rapid thinking under pressure. Hornet and Enterprise sailed north from the southwest Pacific, and were joined by Yorktown, quickly repaired at Pearl Harbor in time to join the battle.

As the Japanese fleet steamed towards Midway and the Aleutians, it was assumed that the American navy had no knowledge of the plan. On 3 June, an American Catalina flying boat spotted the Midway task force and reported back. The Japanese carrier task force was known to be further to the north, so Fletcher moved his force to be on the northern flank of Nagumo’s ships as they moved towards Midway. On the morning of 4 June, a Japanese reconnaissance plane flew over the American fleet but failed to see it; other reconnaissance aircraft failed to take off, but Nagumo was overconfident that there was no American strike force within reach. He ordered waves of carrier aircraft to pound the small American base on Midway Island. An American aircraft spotted the carriers, and bombers from Midway air base flew out to attack Nagumo’s force. Most were shot down by the screen of waiting Mitsubishi Zero fighters. Then at 7.30 a.m. news finally came from a Japanese aircraft that there were American ships to the north, but no carriers. Nagumo hesitated. He had aircraft converting from torpedoes to bombs, and aircraft about to return from the Midway raids to rearm. At 8.20 a.m. he was warned that there might after all be one American carrier. He decided this was not a great threat and allowed his aircraft to land for rearming and refuelling. His carriers were now exceptionally vulnerable; all over the decks and below decks were aircraft with fuel lines, stacks of bombs and torpedoes and gun ammunition.

Fletcher and Spruance enjoyed remarkable good fortune. Nagumo’s decision meant that most Japanese aircraft were dangerously immobile at just the point when the American carrier aircraft prepared to make their strike. The attack was nevertheless not easy, over open ocean with a small target to locate. Aircraft from Hornet took off on a notorious ‘flight to nowhere’, with some having to ditch into the ocean after failing to find the enemy and running out of fuel. Torpedo bombers from the other two carriers struck Nagumo’s fleet at around 9.30 a.m. They were shot to pieces by the circling Zeros – only six out of forty-one returned, and not a single torpedo hit. Everything rested on a group of fifty-four Dauntless dive bombers circling high above, undetected by Japanese fighters. They dived out of the sun ‘like a beautiful silver waterfall’, as one survivor recalled. Their bombs were the margin between victory and defeat. Most failed to hit the target, but Nagumo’s flagship Akagi was hit by three bombs and turned into a floating torch; Kaga was hit by four bombs and Soryu by three, both blazing out of control. Aircraft from the remaining Japanese carrier, Hiryu, managed to damage Yorktown (which was sunk by submarine three days later) but at 5 p.m. it, too, was struck by four bombs dropped by dive-bombers from Enterprise, and it sank the following morning, with its commander, Admiral Yamaguchi, standing on deck, sword drawn, as it slipped beneath the waves.

The Battle of Midway had been decided by just ten bombs. Of course the outcome relied on sound intelligence, Nagumo’s failure to take the American threat seriously, and the solid training of America’s professional naval aviators, but the margin was slim indeed. Most bombs fell harmlessly into the sea. For Yamamoto, the outcome was disastrous, different in every respect from what had been expected. The Japanese navy never recovered. Japan built a further seven carriers, the United States a further twenty-three. Almost three-quarters of Japan’s elite naval airmen were casualties. For the American Pacific Fleet, and for the American people, the improbable victory against an overwhelmingly larger force, thanks to just a handful of bombs, finally confirmed that old-fashioned big fleet engagement, battleship to battleship, was history. Midway was won entirely by aircraft.