A while back, I compared Culloden to Midway; a battle that seemed significant, but in reality was largely irreverent. The ultimate outcome was not determined by any particular battle and certainly not that one. This garnered some interesting discussion about what would have happened after a Japanese victory at Midway.
I’m not going to get into a blow-by-blow account of the alternate battle. Let’s just assume, purely for the sake of argument, that the Japanese opt for a KISS-focused battle plan and crush the American fleet. All three American carriers and most of the remaining ships are sent to the bottom; the Japanese lose a handful of aircraft, but little else. The battle is a complete Japanese victory.
Midway itself was actually heavily defended. The only assessment I’ve seen of a hypothetical Japanese landing on Midway suggested that the Japanese would take heavy losses – and might well be driven back into the water. Their army hadn’t planned to coordinate its operations with the navy; their logistics had shrunk to a shoestring. And their American opponents knew that surrender was not an option. I’d imagine the Japanese paying a horrific price for capturing Midway, if they manage to do it at all. Someone like Yamamoto might just argue that the islands weren’t worth capturing.
The problem facing the Japanese is that they are at the very limit of their logistics – and they may not, thanks to Victory Disease, know it. Their options are actually quite limited; strike west to Pearl Harbour, strike south to Australia, strike east into India or attempt to consolidate and crush China. It’s possible losses during the invasion of India would be enough to shock them to their senses, although historically the Japanese kept fighting stubbornly even after they were pushed all the way back to Japan itself.
Worse, there is no way they can drive the United States out of the war. Invading Pearl Harbour would push their logistics to breaking point. Invading India or Australia would make life unpleasant for the allies, but it would not be decisive. The Japanese still hold a commanding position, yet their advantages are slipping away with terrifying speed. Even trying to consolidate and catch their breath is going to cost them.
The United States, I suspect, will devote more of its 1942-43 war production to coastal defence. This will have unpredictable knock-on effects on Lend Lease to Britain and Russia; it’s vaguely possible that a Japanese victory at Midway will be indirectly responsible for a German victory on the other side of the world. (The British may lose their grip on the Meditererian if Lend Lease is slowed down.) Much effort will be wasted fortifying the western seaboard of America (and the Panama Canal, which is a genuine target.) However, there is no reason to believe that the US will lose its nerve.
Picking a course for the Japanese in this period is somewhat arbitrary. Going for India might just open up the promise of a direct land route to German-occupied territory, but their logistics would be an absolute nightmare. I would expect the Japanese Navy to go after the remnants of the Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean, as well as bombing British territory, yet actually taking that territory might prove impossible. India was restive, true, but by then there was ample reason to be suspicious of Japanese plans for the post-war world.
But it doesn’t actually matter.
The core problem facing the Japanese is that they can neither capture nor destroy the American or British industrial bases. More – and better – American ships will be entering the waters between 1942-44. By the end of 1943, the Americans will be deploying seven fleet carriers and seven light carriers, contrasted with six Japanese fleet carriers and two light carriers. (This doesn’t include either escort carriers or British ships.) The US will already have regained near-parity with the Japanese in numbers alone; their aircraft, radar and suchlike will also be more advanced. By the end of 1944, the Americans will outmatch the Japanese two-to-one; by 1945, the odds against the Japanese will become staggering.
Worse, American and British submarines will be targeting Japanese shipping ruthlessly. The Japanese never bothered with convoys, historically; their merchant shipping will be practically driven from the seas long before the USN returns to Japanese-held waters. It’s quite likely the Japanese will also lose a number of warships to allied submarines, warships they cannot replace. And American-produced weapons will be flowing to allied armies all over East Asia. The Japanese have a fight on their hands they cannot possibly win.
An island-hopping campaign might not take place in this timeline. The allies will still be focused on the defeat of Germany, despite probably losing the chance to mount Operation Torch (which might just give the Germans a fighting chance to avoid a disaster at Stalingrad) or invading Europe in 1944. I would envisage an increasingly-heavy bombing campaign against both Germany and Japan, once suitable airbases have been located and secured. And, by 1945, the US will have at least three atomic bombs. Japan is doomed.
That’s not to say that there won’t be major changes to the timeline. If Germany avoids Stalingrad, Hitler will have a much better chance to avoid disaster and defeat the allies in Normandy – if, indeed, there is a D-Day in this timeline. Germany may not be crushed until 1946; Stalin may be in position to snatch more or less of Europe, depending on where the pieces fall. A Japanese invasion of India will probably cause a colossal humanitarian disaster, a disaster the remnants of British authority will be unable to solve. Or a thrust into China might shatter Nationalist authority and leave plenty of room for the Communists. Or a Russian thrust eastwards, before Japan surrenders, might just leave them with both Manchuria and Korea.
I could do a timeline. But many of the changes would be arbitrary.
The problem facing Japan is that she has embarked upon a war she cannot win, a war characterised by some of the most horrendous atrocities in human history. It was sheer madness for Japan to start the war; it was utterly insane for Japan to act in a manner that guaranteed savage revenge. Japan may survive into 1946, if she’s very lucky, but she won’t live to see 1946.
And Midway, the battle that doomed Japan, was nothing of the sort. Japan was doomed, as has been noted before, by the decision to go to war.