Shattered Sword – Parshall and Tully

Subtitled ‘The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway’, this is a Japanese-centric view of the battle.  By looking at how the Japanese fleet conducted itself, the authors are able to show that the Midway operation was in trouble from the start, rather than a triumphal parade that was overturned by a single stroke of luck.

The first major issue was the plan itself.  Why Midway? If they took the island, there was virtually no way it could be defended against counterattack.  It was hardly useful as a springboard to Hawaii, since Hawaii could not be taken, and the civilians could not be fed by Japanese resources if the had taken it.   If the plan was to lure the Americans to battle, then there was little need to carry along the large battleship and troop train that played no part in the battle except to alert the Americans a day or so sooner.

And if the Midway adventure was bad, the Coral Sea and Aleutian expeditions were even sillier – dissipating the carrier force without return.

The authors do a great job in showing how the time needed by the Japanese to mount a strike, by analyzing how they reloaded and moved planes to the deck shows that the fleet needed a considerable amount of free time to get a major strike launched.  After the first strike, aimed at Midway Island, the scattered and ineffectual US attacks first from Midway, then from the torpedo bombers of the fleet, kept the Japanese from launching any second strike until after the dive bombers found and devastated three of the four Japanese carriers.

While Japanese damage control was nothing to write home about, in at least two of those three carriers, the damage on the first strike was severe and would have been enough to render the carrier useless, if not sink it.  The Akagi, hit by just one bomb, might have been kept serviceable with better damage control.  But the real problem for the carrier force was that, pinned in easy range of the US Fleet and Midway, it did not have the time to launch the large coordinated strikes the Japanese favored.

There was no real need for the fleet to press that close.  Japanese planes had a range advantage over most US planes.  Keeping the range open made all kinds of sense.  Shielding the carriers with surface forces also had some merit – and would even be Japanese doctrine in a year or so.  But the main problem was that there was no good reason for the Japanese to try to take Midway, and not much reason for the US to defend it, aside from the chance getting a shot at the carriers.

Ironically, the Japanese, who had produced the best carrier fleet in the world, didn’t value it as much as the US did, once their battleships were ravaged at Pearl Harbor.  They scattered it, and risked it in campaigns of little to no value.  At Coral Sea two carriers were put out of service for months, and at Midway four were sunk.  The remainder was not enough to keep the offensive, and by the time the US started producing its massive fleets of fast carriers in 1943 and 1944 the Japanese could not hope to compete.


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