- Sutton, Andrew, Sublieutenant
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
As it turned out the Battle of Midway was the turning point in the war in the Pacific. The Japanese fleet, which was led by four large fleet carriers as well as their escorts, was under the command of Admiral Nagumo. Behind them was the major Japanese fleet, which consisted of numerous battleships and escorts. In effect three US Navy aircraft carriers stood between American and Japanese control of the Pacific. The battle was a game of cat and mouse as both sides sent out scouts to find the enemy fleet. The Japanese had bombed Midway successfully but a US seaplane had spotted their fleet, while the Japanese soon located an American carrier force.
Admiral Spruance then made the critical call to attack as he realised that the opportunity had arisen when he could catch the Japanese fleet off guard when they were refuelling and rearming their bombers. As it turned out the Japanese had located Task Force 17 and after loading their bombers with bombs for a second attack against Midway, were now rearming with torpedoes to attack the Yorktown. It was a massive risk, as Spruance knew the Japanese fleet was right at the limit of his planes’ range. The first waves of attacks were disastrous for the Americans, as waves of torpedo bombers were shot down by anti-aircraft fire and Zero fighter planes, which were intercepting them at low level. High above the fleet the US dive-bombers could not find their targets until the very last of the torpedo bombers were making their attacks. For a little over a minute the Japanese would have felt victorious, until the dive-bombers saw the aircraft carriers which were covered with aircraft, fuel and explosives. The Japanese fighters, still at low altitude, were unable to intercept the dive-bombers, which were now pouring down from high altitude unleashing their bombs. Within seconds two Japanese fleet carriers were on fire and then only minutes later Yorktown’s dive-bombers attacked and destroyed a third. The fatal mistake of leaving bombs on the decks in order to save time rearming hastened the demise of the carriers. The remaining Japanese carrier struck back hitting Yorktown which had just launched an attack which would sink the remaining Japanese carrier. After efforts to save the Yorktown, she eventually succumbed after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. In an afternoon the face of the war had changed, it was the turning of the tide. The Japanese still hoped to engage the US Fleet in a surface action but Spruance withdrew his fleet rather than pursue the enemy as he did not want to meet the remainder of the Japanese fleet head on, particularly without battleships in a night action where the advantage he now had in the air would be diminished, as he rightly feared the remainder of the Japanese surface fleet. The question remains if Halsey would have done the same thing.
Ultimately Admiral Yamamoto called off the Midway invasion as without his fleet carriers it would prove impossible. Almost overnight the Japanese expansion was halted and the tide turned in America’s favour. The factors that proved important in the victory were supreme judgement by the US Admirals, especially Spruance, the skill and courage of the combatants and the breakthroughs in intelligence. However just as important were the failings in Japanese intelligence, their overconfidence, and their mistake in leaving bombs on the decks of their aircraft carriers rather than stowing them away. This mistake echoes that of the British battlecruiser squadron at Jutland in 1916 where proper ammunition handling procedures were done away with in the quest for a faster turn around of firepower.
Spruance had proven himself to be an effective leader at the highest level. Aerial combat would now dominate naval battles for the remainder of the 20th Century and Admiral Spruance’s influence resonated throughout Naval Aviation doctrine. Spruance became opposed to horizontal bombing and torpedo bombing because of the ineffectiveness and danger to aircraft. As a result dive-bombing at low level became the preferred method of attacking ships until the event of guided ordnance after the war. The fact that Spruance was able to command one of the all time great naval victories against all odds, only two days after taking command of his task force shows that an officer does not have to have an alpha personality to lead as long as he is still able to effectively make very good timely decisions. His participative style made him popular with his commanders and his results spoke far louder than he did.