Musings on Midway

3 Jun

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.


Now what?

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.

24 Responses to “Musings on Midway”

  1. duncancairncross June 3, 2016 at 9:43 am #

    Japan had an expectation that if they managed to inflict an initial massive defeat on the USA the US “weak” democracy would then negotiate terms

    From our viewpoint this looks like an incredibly unlikely outcome!
    But it was what the Japs were expecting

    Before we castigate them for such an incredible misreading of the situation we should think back to more recent clusterfucks

    The Shock and Awe – and the welcomed as liberators in Iraq for instance

  2. Gazza June 3, 2016 at 11:11 am #

    If the Japanese managed to raid the American mainland, possibly with a raid on the Panama Canal as well, The panic in the American public may have forced the American government into a deal with the Japanese irrespective of the military reality.
    I think that all the allied forces were overestimating the effectiveness of the Japanese forces up until Midway. If Midway was lost the morale factor would have swung massively against the allies.

    • duncancairncross June 3, 2016 at 11:28 am #

      Hi Gazza
      Despite the Japanese victory over the Russians at Tsushima the western nations were very dismissive of the Japanese military

      The overall view was that they were very weak and primitive
      It wasn’t until they started beating the British and US naval forces that they were taken that seriously so I don’t think the US public would have panicked
      It’s a long way before my time but that is my reading of the history-

    • Gazza June 3, 2016 at 7:18 pm #

      Seems there are Two. Just so there is no confusion, 1 has a bird.

  3. Mark P June 3, 2016 at 2:27 pm #

    If a powerful Japan caused a delay in the invasion of Europe , Germany may well have a window of opportunity to develop further V weapons including the long range versions. They may also have had time to develop their own nuclear weapons.

    This could have led to a cold war situation where the US could not use nuclear weapons for fear of reprisals.

    America would then need to occupy Japan to subdue it with the horrific cost in US dead.

    In this case the US may have had to agree peace with Japan and the Germany still occupying large areas.

    • chrishanger June 4, 2016 at 7:34 am #

      I doubt it – even if the Germans managed to produce something akin to ‘Fat Boy’, they’d still have to get it to its target. Building a V2 capable of carrying it would be impossible until long after the war.


      • Mark P June 4, 2016 at 9:14 am #

        Assuming D-Day didn’t occur because of the assumptions mentioned above, the European war would have been protracted, giving the Nazi rocket engineers the time to take the conceptual A10 intercontinental missile into production.

  4. shrekgrinch June 3, 2016 at 6:20 pm #

    Yamamoto was the only person in Japan with any brains during that time, it appears:

    “Should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States, it is not enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House. I wonder if our politicians, among whom armchair arguments about war are being glibly bandied about in the name of state politics, have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.”

    — As quoted in At Dawn We Slept (1981) by Gordon W. Prange, p. 11; this quote was stated in a letter to Ryoichi Sasakawa prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Minus the last sentence, it was taken out of context and interpreted in America as a boast that Japan would conquer the entire continental United States. The omitted sentence showed Yamamoto’s counsel of caution towards a war that would cost Japan dearly.

    “In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.”

    -Statement to Japanese cabinet minister Shigeharu Matsumoto and Japanese prime minister Fumimaro Konoe, as quoted in Eagle Against the Sun: The American War With Japan (1985) by Ronald Spector. This remark would later prove prophetic; precisely six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese navy would suffer a major defeat at the Battle of Midway, from which it never recovered.

    My Two Cents: Japan was doomed because the Imperial Army insisted on invading and occupying China while also going to war with the US later on, which sucked in a lot of Japanese resources with little return on investment. It was their super-vietnam. They should have taken India instead. A lot more wealth to be had there and India would have secured their supply lines better to take the rest of Southeast Asia and even Australia. Then after a year or two of consolidating forces/logistics, hit the US fleet at Pearl — including an invasion and occupation of Hawaii — and then continue to hit the Navy bases and shipyards at San Diego, Alameda and up in the Puget Sound area. We would have still ramped up like we did, but would have had to deploy more resources earlier to the West Coast against a possible Japanese invasion so as to delay our plans of dealing with Hitler first. The Japanese would have been in a stronger bargaining position to exit the war on their own terms by simply offering Hawaii & the Philippines back and a oceanic ‘neutral zone’ in the mid-Pac between the US and Japan. Washington would have been in a lot more pressure to accept that.

  5. georgephillies June 4, 2016 at 5:05 am #

    The most remarkable failing of the IJN was its failure to use its very good very long range submarines to attack American shipping on any significant scale. Try re-reading Morrison’s history of the US Navy in WW2. There was a huge effort to defeat the Reichsmarine, but the IJN subs are hard to find on any scale. And the IJN had superb torpedoes.

    • duncancairncross June 4, 2016 at 5:27 am #

      Hi George
      Possibly linked to that is the fact that the Japanese were totally useless at commerce protection – the US subs were able to sink merchantmen at will – they never instituted a convoy system

      • Don Yu June 4, 2016 at 12:27 pm #

        Japanese did not have the experiences the Western powers had with total war including commerce raiding and protection because of WW1. The importance of convoy system was felt in the Atlantic theatre of WW1 and continue on into WW2 because of the uboats.

        Japan went to war because of US trade pressures limiting their abilities to source material needs especially oil for their needs.

        Both Germany and Japan lost at the end because of industrial output could not match what US was able to so replace losses and increase their war making capacities.

        Invading India would not help them with gaining access to oil and time to produce the war materials needed to fight to the mainland US.

  6. Anarchymedes June 4, 2016 at 5:09 am #

    Neal Stephenson in his Cryptonomicon exploits a rather interesting point regarding the Axis loss in WW2: it was because the Allies could read their encryption, from the very start. And it was this line of research that eventually led to the creation of the first electronic digital computer. Now this may be just a nice plot twist for a novel, but I know for a fact (from my own sources 🙂 ) that the Battle of Kursk was won by the Soviets only because one Soviet cryptoanalyst got lucky and manually broke the German message, thus allowing the Soviets to forestall the planned German attack.
    My point is: there is no way to tell what could’ve happened on the large scale and in the long run if one battle had gone a different way. Or if there was a different El Nino/La Nina pattern in the Pacific at that time (when the navy still more or less depended on favorable weather). Any loss could’ve potentially broken the morale of the relevant side, in which case one defeat might cause a chain reaction all over the globe. A tropical cyclone could’ve disrupted a smoothly running supply line. A volcaninc eruption (somewhere in Indonesia or PNG) could’ve destroyed lots of troops and fortifications. This is what makes the alt history a fascinating genre. isn’t it? Just about anything goes, really: it’s possible to create a pattern justifying even the unlikeliest turn of events.
    As for whetherJapan was doomed, I’m not an expert on military history, but I’ll say this: you can’t win a war until the other side agrees to lose it – or until it shares the fate of the Old Testament Amalekites. If it wasn’t so, the Soviets would’ve won in Afghanistan, and so would the West later. In fact, if wars could be won by sheer techno/logistic/etc. superiority, the Middle East would be peaceful by now. But unfortunately, you should never pick a fight with someone who is more ready to die than you are: you may be bigger, stronger, and faster, but you’ll still lose. I think it was ultimately Hirosima that broke Japan’s will to die. Or something did. Maybe the disenchantment with the old Samurai ways.

    • duncancairncross June 4, 2016 at 5:31 am #

      Hi Anarchymedes

      I would categorically deny your history of the battle of Kursk,

      The information that the Russians needed was fed to them by John Cairncross
      Stalin would not have believed the information if the British had given it to him so it was “stolen” for him by Cairncross – at Churchill’s orders

      • Anarchymedes June 4, 2016 at 10:20 am #

        Well, my own source actually comes from the former KGB, and he writes (not in English) that the name of the person who broke the crucial cryptogram has never been formally declassified, therefore he does not dare to be the first to name him. The rest is Wikipedia’s, and not mine.

      • LisaM June 12, 2016 at 12:33 am #

        I think it is pretty clear that the Soviets had broken the German codes by Kursk.

        They knew, thanks to their British spies, that it could be done and received lots of intelligence that way. They almost certainly got technical details on how to do it. They had access to lots of enigma machines. They had (and have) some brilliant mathematicians (etc).

        The British efforts were hampered by only being able to only use radio signals, so what they had was limited at a detail level. The Soviets by tapping landlines (much used by the Germans in the east) could get far more detailed info, which they then had to break.

        Given how well and how quickly they read the German plans for Kursk it seems realistic to assume they had broken enigma by then.

        After the war they kept it, as did the British, a major secret.

  7. Don Yu June 4, 2016 at 6:47 am #

    People don’t see the US how militaristic their society is. If American people see that they are attacked then they support going for victory at all cost. Just look at US history and only war that lost public support was Vietnam war because public did not get the clear war aims delivered. US people don’t like no end date occupation but willing to support they leader in WAR.

    Even if Japan won Midway the Pearl Harbour attack will only allow total victory acceptable to the US people as you can see from US response to the Twin tower attacks.

    If Germany did not declare war on US after the Pearl Harbour attack nearly all of war production would of gone to Pacific war even if the leadership want to support European war the public would not have supported that before Japanese defeat.

    Pacific war ending in defeat for Japanese was never in doubt but how much of the war production would be sent to European theatre to influence the outcome is the question.

    • Anarchymedes June 4, 2016 at 10:24 am #

      Which is as it should be. I just hope the US will stick to it and not start kissing up to Putin under The Donald’s Presidency.

  8. Phillip Nolte June 4, 2016 at 10:57 pm #

    Ah, the wisdom of hindsight. The boost in morale that swept the USA after this, the first of their victories over Japan, was badly needed. US and British naval forces had been swept away by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the easy defeat of two British battleships in Indochina as well as the rout of the Asian fleet (Houston, Perth etc.) Defeating their heretofore unbeatable foe created a momentum that galvanized the US forces and the industry back home into to high gear. The positive effect this had on the US attitude as to their capability to win the war was incalculable. While the cold calculus of hindsight might suggest that the US was destined to win the war, no one knew it at that time, and up until Midway the US had been getting their ass kicked rather badly.

  9. Lodrik June 6, 2016 at 8:40 pm #

    It has been pointed out several times that the US didnt need the win at Midway, but it had big advantages. Yamamoto said it himself most of you miss the reason for the war itself.
    The japanese saw the war as unavoidable and they knew themselves in a bad positon so they striked first in order to weaken to US (they feeled mistreated by the west powers, the americans were trying to end the second Sino-Japanese War (lots of economic reasons, the americans were once again heros for benefits…). The Nanking Massacre and USS Panay incident are prominent cases regarding this issue.)
    Anyways, Midway marked the turning point, the japanese were pushed back starting then, even while the US made germany the primary target (that speaks loudly).

  10. Lindsay June 7, 2016 at 7:47 am #

    Very interesting hypothesis Chris…is there a book in it perhaps? 🙂

    • chrishanger June 8, 2016 at 6:08 pm #

      I’ve been thinking about a timeline, but we will see.


    • Lodrik June 9, 2016 at 4:33 pm #

      lots of books on it and modern historians agree

  11. Jozza June 13, 2016 at 10:30 am #

    It’s difficult to always understand the drivers for battles, its rare that there is a single logical decision point which both parties share. I think we have slipped into the ‘sports’ psychology of warefare which suggests we meet we fight and somebody wins.

    Certainly Midway from a British perspective was much more important from an attritional perspective than a strategic one, it almost looked like a WWI battle. The cost of the defeat was in Japans ability to project power. However as many have said other than a somewhat quirky plan to take out the lock gates on the Panama canal Japan had not defined a strategic intention for the Americas, nor even for Pearl.

    It is important to remember that Japan’s focus was still in China, the government was primarily an Army affair not a Navy. The Navy’s responsibilities by 42 was to contain the US while the Army secured resources and production capacity within China and the former French and British colonies. The Brief unplesant war between the Soviets and the Japanese in 39 culmonating in the Nomonhan battles had taught them that they were niot equipped to the standards of the Great powers and the conclusion was they needed upgraded facilities near the raw materials which were also not reliant upon shipping which the Army rightly viewed as vulnerable.

    Had the Chinese not adopted a scorched earth policy the Army might have achieved a measure of this. Of course thats a whole other story.. Had the US sent almost any other General to Stillwell to work with the Chinese the Chinese war effort might have been much more effective. Had the British not fought so well at Kohima and Imphal in 44 under General Slim would India have been knocked out of the war in a general uprising?

    I tend to agree with Chris and one or two others that this wasnt a strategic hinge point… I also very much agree with Lodrik that the Japanese could see no way to avoid the war so striking before the US were better armed and the British were stretched fighting alone across the globe makes more sense. I think Midway has become important in hindsight because of what followed. It was a huge morale boost and played that way in the US which embedded it into popular historical culture.

    However what if the Japanese Navy faction had won the argument and delayed the attack on Pearl? It would not be impossible to envisage Lord Halifax doing what he had done with the Swedes in 40 after the fall of france behind Chirchills back and this time via the Soviets to see if Britain might negotiate a peace in the East? Now thats a counter factual that has legs 🙂

    • georgephillies June 16, 2016 at 4:45 pm #

      An interesting alternative…has to start well back in time…is that the Naval treaty does not limit Japanese construction to all they could have built anyhow, so Japan stays attached to its WW1 allies, and also keeps better control over its junior army officers, so it keeps Korea and Manchuria but does not get into a war with the US at all.

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