What was already evident at the time was how superior aircraft were in combat on the seas and in use against combat ships and enemy fleets. A new form of warfare soon emerged: More and more often, long-distance action was being fought on the seas – often far out of sight of the enemy – but in massive waves of aircraft and bomber attacks. War on the high seas had changed.

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How the USA won the Battle of Midway

Midway, or: Midway, or: How to turn an almost lost battle into a victory in just a few minutes!

Was the American victory at the Battle of Midway a lucky coincidence?

Or was Midway a historically brilliant demonstration of the unique superiority of the US in the strategic understanding of the war and their adversary, Japan?

Fact: The Battle of Midway, despite its epic size, was decided in just a few minutes.

How could this happen?

Two critical aspects of the warfare in this particular phase of World War Two are essential to understand the Battle of Midway:

Large battleships had determined naval conflicts for centuries.

However, this changed during the Second World War and with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

One of the most painful and, at the same time, important lessons of the attack on Pearl Harbor was that large battleships are vulnerable to aerial attack.

Industrial advances in the first decades of the 20th century introduced modern warfare with aircraft.

Squadrons of bombers could now reach battleships with impressive speed and ultimately destroy them through quick air raids. And the defense systems of large ships against attacks from aircraft were not well developed then.

The defense was often too slow, cumbersome, and inefficient.

Modern warfare had changed, and in a very short time: air supremacy, also at sea, became a decisive factor for the further course of the war.

The second important aspect in understanding Midway and its strategic importance was the time of the first large aircraft carriers.

Especially in the Pacific and the conflict between the two emerging great powers, Japan and America.

Another reason aircraft carriers were strategically and tactically important was their ability to carry small, maneuverable aircraft to protect battleships, cruisers, entire fleets, and of course, the aircraft carriers.

These agile fighters were capable of intercepting bombers and thus compensating for the significant weakness of fleets and larger warships against aerial attacks.

This circumstance was decisive for the course and the turning point in the Battle of Midway.

Yamamoto believed an attack on Midway might prompt the Americans to launch a hasty counteroffensive

Another important fact for understanding the Battle of Midway lies in the attack on Pearl Harbor itself – in the historical coincidence that American aircraft carriers were not in port at the time of the Japanese attack.

They were spared the surprise attack and thus preserved for the American fleet. Japan had initially dismissed this as a small, unimportant detail.

Japan’s understanding of warfare in the Pacific was still primarily focused on building large, impressive battleships and massive naval formations.

But the Japanese were soon to realize that their assessment was wrong.

That the Americans had kept their aircraft carriers virtually intact was crucial to the war.

In the months following the attack, the Japanese first held virtually unchallenged control of the Pacific.

They conquered important islands, countries, and regions and inflicted heavy losses on the American allies, mainly the British.

But the Americans had meanwhile prepared for a counteroffensive.

What was already evident at the time was how superior aircraft were in combat on the seas and in use against combat ships and enemy fleets.

A new form of warfare soon emerged: More and more often, long-distance action was being fought on the seas – often far out of sight of the enemy – but in massive waves of aircraft and bomber attacks.

War on the high seas had changed.

The opponents didn’t even have to face each other anymore – it was enough to reach the enemy formations with bombers to inflict considerable damage on them from the air.

This made aircraft carriers all the more critical at this stage of the war, as well as the use of reconnaissance flights.

Both would also play an essential role in the upcoming decisive battle between Japan and America at Midway.

Yamamoto, the Japanese commander of the Japanese fleet, devised a plan to lure the Americans into a strategic trap around the tiny Pacific island of “Midway.”

And Midway was a relatively insignificant American outpost with rather rudimentary military fortifications and facilities.

Nevertheless, Yamamoto believed an attack on Midway might prompt the Americans to launch a hasty counteroffensive.

And he hoped to get an opportunity to take out the remaining American aircraft carriers.

What he didn’t know was that the Americans had partially succeeded in deciphering the Japanese code and were, therefore, at least partly informed about the strategic considerations of the Japanese at this time.

Yamamoto assumed that the US would send only two aircraft carriers to Midway to defend the outpost, and Japan would have a clear superiority by sending four aircraft carriers into the battle.

He was wrong. Informed of the Japanese plan, the Americans sent three aircraft carriers and an impressive fleet.

And there was another significant miscalculation in Yamamoto’s plan: the three American aircraft carriers could send a total of 233 aircraft into combat – in contrast to the 248 aircraft on the four aircraft carriers of the Japanese. So Japan underestimated the capabilities of the Americans.

The commander of the American fleet at that time was Admiral Chester Nimitz – and he was known for his calm and calculated considerations and decisions.

First, the American command had Midway Island reinforced, especially the runways for bombers and aircraft, and then sent additional bomber squadrons to the island.

The American fleet set off. At a distance of 325 miles, the Americans were waiting for the Japanese advance on Midway. And indeed: Japan continued to prepare the offensive on the island as planned.

The Battle of Midway was decided by a brief distraction within the Japanese defenses – in a matter of minutes.

On the morning of June 4th, the Japanese began their attack on Midway.

108 aircraft attacked the small island. The Americans immediately sent their aircraft stationed at Midway to the defense, but the Japanese planes were much more agile and robust and, therefore, superior in battle.

Both sides launched reconnaissance flights – at that time, it was not yet possible to locate an enemy outside one’s view.

Reconnaissance flights had therefore become a crucial tool within the new warfare.

During the Battle of Midway, an exceptionally fortunate coincidence happened in favor of the Americans: the Japanese reconnaissance plane number 4 had difficulties taking off – it took off half an hour later than planned.

And this plane was supposed to fly over the area where the Americans were waiting.

It gave the Americans a good 30-minute head start in information, as they had already spotted the positions of two Japanese aircraft carriers.

The American planes launched an attack on the Japanese.

But the first wave was anything but successful.

At that time, the American Air Force did not have an effective system for coordinating complex attacks with aircraft – the first wave of attacks fizzled out without effect, and not a single target was hit.

Another crucial detail of the battle happened: Yamamoto had told commander Nagumo to keep half the planes in reserve and with bombs that could be used against ships – to launch an attack in case the position of the American fleet was discovered.

However, Nagumo decided to send these planes into another attack on the island.

During the preparations for this attack – the crew had to change the aircraft’s armament to regular bombs – Japanese reconnaissance flight number 4 returned – with the position of the American fleet.

But now, the capacities for an immediate attack were missing – the planes were not ready anymore for bombing a naval fleet.

Meanwhile, the Americans launched new waves of attacks against the Japanese.

Again without success.

It is estimated that 100 American bombers attacked the ship commanded by Nagumo, and not a single bomb reached its target.

However – and this was the final crucial element in this particular battle.

What the Americans managed to do through multiple waves of attacks: The Japanese defenses by aircraft fighters were scattered as the attacks progressed.

Above all, the recent wave of American attacks with planes carrying torpedo bombs and carried out near the water surface meant that the Japanese aircraft now flew far below their actual position of defense – usually, they should circulate over the ships.

They did not.

Here’s an essential factor for understanding what it means and why it matters: the best defense of aircraft carriers are squadrons of aircraft, which can patrol the ship and take out incoming bombers before they reach the drop zone.

For this reason, combat-ready aircraft constantly circulate over aircraft carriers – it is a defensive tactic.

What happened during these crucial moments in the Battle of Midway: Distracted by the American planes carrying torpedo bombs and arriving very close to the water’s surface, the Japanese defense planes circled too low now while missing to defend the airspace over the fleet.

And the airspace over the Japanese aircraft carriers was open and undefended for a few minutes.

American bombers flew over the aircraft carriers and dropped their bombs with devastating results: three Japanese aircraft carriers were destroyed in just a few minutes.

The Battle of Midway was decided by a brief distraction within the Japanese defenses – in a matter of minutes.

The last remaining Japanese aircraft carrier, Hiryu, defended itself for a while and did it bravely.

Japanese bombers still managed to damage the American aircraft carrier Yorktown.

But ultimately, American bombers sank the last aircraft carrier, too.

Japan had suffered its first decisive defeat in the Pacific War.

The momentum of the war turned against Japan.

The United States was off the defensive and back on the offensive.

Japan had lost its advantage, and from that point on, they were on the losing road in the Pacific.

America not only won a victory but effectively turned the tides of war in its favor.

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