Midway, what if the Japanese had just pushed on?

Nineteen Kilo

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Just finished up Walter Lord's "Incredible Victory" on Midway. According to Lord, Yamamoto considered pushing on to Midway even after his carriers were smashed on June 4th, and that night ordered 4 heavy cruisers to race into Midway and shell the two islands, as a prelude to carrying out the planned invasion. However when (again according to Lord) the sun was setting a scout plane erroneously reported 4 more American aircraft carriers still north of Midway, he threw in the towel and ordered the withdrawal.

This left me pondering, "What if the Japanese had carried out the invasion despite the daytime losses?"

Not such a far fetched question when you factor in that the American air strength was just about exhausted after the very heavy losses of June 4th. (The Enterprise and Hornet could probably only scrape up 40 SBD's between them, and Midway was down to the B-17s and a handful of Vindicators - and let's assume the airfield would have been target #1 of the night time shore bombardment by the cruisers.)

However I'm of the opinion that even had the Japanese pushed on the American Marines likely would have stopped them on the beaches (if Wake can be used as a precedent), and if not, the Japanese would have become the proud owners of an outpost they couldn't resupply and was within B-17 range of Hawaii. So in the end I believe Yamamoto made the right decision to withdraw both tactically and strategically.

Anyone care to be Devil's Advocate on this one?
 

jrv

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Would it have mattered if they had seized it, in the big picture? As you say there was no way to support it without the Kidō Butai; there was no nearby land airbase for the Japanese. It was used to support American submarines, but it was not a vital base for the reconquest of the Pacific.

JR
 

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nope no D.A on that one. Highly skeptical of any book, or historian that would contend Yammato was scared off by a report of 4 more carriers.

From my upcoming book on this.

intelligence dude - Yo Admiral. We's gots reports of 4 more American carriers coming at us man.

Yammato - You bin smoking that Hamada shit man ... the Americans only had 2 carriers in their entire fleet after we sank the Yorktown at the battle of the Coral Sea. You think they just shit out 4 more out of nowhere.. get off of my bridge.. you're fired.



Historian jive aside... even the most amateur of historian knows the purpose of the battle was not to conquer Midway, It was an attempt to draw out the fleet to a fight it had to fight, then destroy it, capturing Midway was the cherry on top. In itself it meant nothing if in fact the Japanese didn't win the Pacific War by destroying the American fleet and likely threatening Hawaii before the American industrial complex could build those 4 and then some carriers.
 

Nineteen Kilo

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Sparky I'm going to defend Lord a little bit here (since he can't speak for himself). He (as you said) would agree the whole purpose of the operation was to lure out the remaining US Fleet and finish it off - the purpose was not to"capture Midway"

As far as the erroneous sighting of 4 carriers, who knows what kind of shock the Japanese High Command was in that evening and what they were willing to believe after the loss of their most valuable asset.

BTW the observation pilot appears to be free of blame as he transmitted something along the lines of "2 carriers (Enterprise & Hornet), 6 cruisers, & 8 destroyers." "Correction; 2 carriers, 6 cruisers & 7 destroyers". The "correction" was dropped in the relay process and it was read as 2 separate sightings totaling 4 carriers, 12 cruisers, and 15 destroyers. At least the way Lord tells it anyway.
 

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yeah, but from my limited understanding. The Japanese had a rather extensive and good intell operation at Pearl. I wouldn't subscribe to the 'temporay idiocy' excuse which is about what it would boil down to think that 4 carriers suddenly appeared out of nowhere.. literally... nowhere to scare them away

nah. Bad guys? Hell yeah. Idiots? No way
 

jrv

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There was also the Saratoga, which was on the west coast and arrived a few days after the battle (June 8), ferrying replacement aircraft.

JR
 

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here is something you might find of interest if you haven't read this before. What IF they had won at Midway. Perhaps not as great a 'what if' in the annuls of ww2 as my personal favorite.. if what if Stalin had attacked Hitler as he (as some do believe, including myself) was within weeks of doing in the late summer/fall of 41. Had Stalin not telegraphed his intention to attack Germany and break their treaty thus giving Germany warning of what was coming thus leading them to the only thing they could NOT do but simply had no choice. Attack first thus leading to Barbarossa and create a 2nd front out of necessity (not stupidity or some passages from Mein Kampf as most think) thus violating the two front taboo that every SINGLE German officer knew they should NOT do but still. While Stalin taking over the whole of continental Europe, as he would have, might have rewritten history as we know it, you do have to wonder how different Asia and Pacific might have been.

https://thediplomat.com/2016/01/what-if-japan-had-won-the-battle-of-midway/
 

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This left me pondering, "What if the Japanese had carried out the invasion despite the daytime losses?"
....
However I'm of the opinion that even had the Japanese pushed on the American Marines likely would have stopped them on the beaches (if Wake can be used as a precedent), and if not, the Japanese would have become the proud owners of an outpost they couldn't resupply and was within B-17 range of Hawaii. So in the end I believe Yamamoto made the right decision to withdraw both tactically and strategically.

Anyone care to be Devil's Advocate on this one?
The Japanese wouldn't have stood a chance. The question isn't so much whether they would have been stopped on the beaches, as whether they would have made it to the beaches in the first place. Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully address a variation of this question (which assumes that the Japanese retained their carriers) in one of the appendices of Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway. Basically, the point they make is that marines on Midway were both more numerous than the attacking force, and very well prepared. In addition, Midway is almost completely surrounded by a reef, which would have been uncrossable by landing craft, even at high tide. This reef is no less than 200 yards from the beach-- a long way to wade under rifle, machine gun, and artillery fire.
 

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here is something you might find of interest if you haven't read this before. What IF they had won at Midway.

https://thediplomat.com/2016/01/what-if-japan-had-won-the-battle-of-midway/
Interesting. This is one of the few Midway counterfactuals that has not made me want to immediately reach for a whiskey bottle. I remember reading somewhere (and I really wish I could remember exactly where...) that if the US had been dealt a significant setback in the Pacific, the plan was to double down on the Europe First strategy, and then turn attention to Japan with Germany out of the picture. In that time, American industrial superiority would have come into play, and the numbers game would not be favoring the Japanese. The end result would be that the war would be over in 1947 or '48 at the outside.

I can't even begin to imagine what the casualty count would be though, especially if the Manhattan project were still completed in 1945, and nuclear weapons immediately committed to combat.
 

Paul M. Weir

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I can't find an earlier and quite detailed post from a number of years ago I did about Midway. However from shaky memory the Midway garrison had 4 x 7" and about a dozen 5" coastal guns as well as a dozen to a score of dual purpose 3" AA guns. The 7" and 5" guns were long barrelled secondary guns taken from US pre-dreadnoughts. The 5" guns were intended to take out destroyers and light cruisers and the 7" to take on armoured cruisers and pre-dreadnought battleships. The 5" were longer barrelled than the US WW2 dual purpose 5". The initial air attacks on Midway made little impact on those guns.

In a ship vs coastal gun battle the coastal gun has a very definite edge. It has a solid base vs the ship's swaying, moving platform. A near miss on a coastal gun likely will have little effect while a miss on a ship's turret might well hit another part of the ship, coastal guns can't sink. The 7" guns were well capable of sinking any Japanese 8" cruiser at the range a cruiser could usefully engage the island. The Japanese had bugger all idea of the ground defences on Midway. At Wake the first the Japanese knew of Wake's 5" guns was when they sank the destroyer Hayate, so I strongly suspect the Japanese would have lost a cruiser or two before drawing back. The 5" guns would have had a strong advantage over Japanese destroyers and would have put up a good show against the cruisers at closer (5000m) ranges.

The Japanese total ground force was about the same as the USMC contingent but was about 50/50 divided between combat troops and support/construction personnel intended to allow Japanese aircraft to use Midway. The 3" AA and the multitude of 37mm and 20mm guns would have shredded any landing craft with ease, never mind the 5" and 7" guns. I would have been surprised if more than 1/4 to 1/3 of LC reached shore. The Marines would only have had to mop up the Japanese remnants.

Overall it would have been a slaughter of the Japanese assault landing force. I suspect they would have lost a cruiser with another crippled and various degrees of damage on all other ships. The US had a far, far greater force advantage at Tarawa, but still suffered dreadful losses, the Japanese did not have any advantage at Midway, so ...
 

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I am not sure how many of those coastal emplacements would survive the shore bombardment by the battleships (and they had a number of them) and cruisers that were present. In addition, although they lost the four "fleet" carriers they still had some air assets. However, the capture of Midway Island would have given Japan little strategic value. It would have only been worthwhile if they had not lost the Kaga and the Akagi. However. if that was the case they would have still had the air assets to reduce the coastal emplacements.
 

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From what I gather the majority battleships were for distant support of the other ships against any US naval forces. The Japanese still wished for a Tsushima style "decisive battle".

There were a pair of Kongos each with the carrier fleet and the invasion fleet. Given the disposition of those, their main purpose was to provide close protection against US surface combatants. They might not even had much shore bombardment ammunition. The invasion and support fleets had 8 CAs and swarms of (sometimes CL led) DDs along with minesweepers and support vessels. The CAs and DDs would have been the main shore bombardment vessels. Those would have been very, very vulnerable to the 7" and 5" guns.

BB shore bombardment can be quite devastating, provided you have good doctrine and very good fire direction. The USN took a few years to get it right and even then allocated (multiple) whole battleship squadrons just for that purpose. You have to have the right ammo as well. Standard BB ammo was AP shell, designed to penetrate very thick armour, then explode. Using it against a land emplacement meant that it would bury itself fairly deep before going "pop" as opposed to a HE shell which would go "BANG" on or very near the surface, the AP shell's HE content being low.

Gun emplacements are in the order of low tens of meters whilst ships are in the order of low hundreds of meters (Mogami ~ 200 m). Guess which is easier to hit? Allied to that the Japanese were operating almost blind and had no idea of the land forces on Midway. If Wake was any indication, the first the Japanese would have known about the 7" coastal guns would have been when their first CA blew up. By the time they would have got the first shells anyway near a battery, they would most likely have lost another CA or two and 2-6 CL/DDs. Ships simply have no chance against similar calibre coastal artillery unless in vastly superior numbers and even then should expect heavy losses.

The Japanese had lost or had put out of immediate action a fair number of aircraft in the initial strike on Midway (108 used, 11 shot down, 14 heavy and 29 some damage), that was 25+ short-medium term unusable/lost of 233 or 11% and that's before any action with the US carriers. So even after a successful carrier clash the Japanese would most likely have been reduced to 50 or fewer operational aircraft.

Japanese amphibious assault doctrine was much less developed that that of the USMC. Like so many Japanese offensives there was a good element of "it'll be alright on the day" thinking.

As a follow up to PH in '41 the Japanese would have had a very, very good chance of taking Midway, but by the time of the historical battle the only question would have been how many Japanese would die before they gave up, not whether Midway would fall.
 
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von Marwitz

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I think the answer to the question has to be made from the strategic perspective:

The Kido Butai was the prime aircraft carrier force of its time. It was able to conduct coordinated flight operations by standard, that included not only aircraft from a single carrier but aircraft working closely together from several carriers. In this, it was superior to its US counterparts of the time.

The main value of the Kido Butai was that it could strike with overwhelming power where it selected to do so.

This is also the crux that leads to the answer of the question:

The Japanese had no good means to escort and secure the supply to their increasing number of bases throughout the pacific. So, a bit simplified, one might say, the Japanese were strong where they elected to be strong but they were weak, where they could not be strong.

If they had divided up the Kido Butai and detailed some of its carriers to securing supply routes, the Japanese would have deprived themselves of their most potent weapon that kept the Allies on their toes.

For that reason, at some point, the value of more bases would have been dimished by the increasing difficulties in supplying and supporting them. For the same reason I believe that a landing on Hawaii by the Japanese would have been a strategic failure considering the assets that they had at hand.

At Midway, the Kido Butai was dealt a severe blow that had strategic consequences. It was clear from the start, that Japan would never be able to even come close to matching the US capability to (re-)build ships, fleet carriers and military gear. So even if the Japanese had one Midway, it would not have changed the outcome of the war. Midway merely shortened the time in which the Japanese had the strategic initiative.

As such, it would not really have made a difference, had the Japanese captured Midway or not. Judging from the perspective of the Japanese of the time, I believe it was the correct decision not attempting to force the capture of Midway after the blow they had just received. The further risks this would have incurred would not have made up the benefit.

von Marwitz
 

Bob Walters

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From what I gather the majority battleships were for distant support of the other ships against any US naval forces. The Japanese still wished for a Tsushima style "decisive battle".

There were a pair of Kongos each with the carrier fleet and the invasion fleet. Given the disposition of those, their main purpose was to provide close protection against US surface combatants. They might not even had much shore bombardment ammunition. The invasion and support fleets had 8 CAs and swarms of (sometimes CL led) DDs along with minesweepers and support vessels. The CAs and DDs would have been the main shore bombardment vessels. Those would have been very, very vulnerable to the 7" and 5" guns.

BB shore bombardment can be quite devastating, provided you have good doctrine and very good fire direction. The USN took a few years to get it right and even then allocated (multiple) whole battleship squadrons just for that purpose. You have to have the right ammo as well. Standard BB ammo was AP shell, designed to penetrate very thick armour, then explode. Using it against a land emplacement meant that it would bury itself fairly deep before going "pop" as opposed to a HE shell which would go "BANG" on or very near the surface, the AP shell's HE content being low.

Gun emplacements are in the order of low tens of meters whilst ships are in the order of low hundreds of meters (Mogami ~ 200 m). Guess which is easier to hit? Allied to that the Japanese were operating almost blind and had no idea of the land forces on Midway. If Wake was any indication, the first the Japanese would have known about the 7" coastal guns would have been when their first CA blew up. By the time they would have got the first shells anyway near a battery, they would most likely have lost another CA or two and 2-6 CL/DDs. Ships simply have no chance against similar calibre coastal artillery unless in vastly superior numbers and even then should expect heavy losses.

The Japanese had lost or had put out of immediate action a fair number of aircraft in the initial strike on Midway (108 used, 11 shot down, 14 heavy and 29 some damage), that was 25+ short-medium term unusable/lost of 233 or 11% and that's before any action with the US carriers. So even after a successful carrier clash the Japanese would most likely have been reduced to 50 or fewer operational aircraft.

Japanese amphibious assault doctrine was much less developed that that of the USMC. Like so many Japanese offensives there was a good element of "it'll be alright on the day" thinking.

As a follow up to PH in '41 the Japanese would have had a very, very good chance of taking Midway, but by the time of the historical battle the only question would have been how many Japanese would die before they gave up, not whether Midway would fall.
I don’t think I’d bet against Japanese gunnery in 1942 and the Japanese fleet still had quite a few scouting aircraft. Besides it is a what if so under those circumstances concentrating the battleships to support an invasion is acceptable. Note I am not advocating that the Japanese invade Midway at that point as it is throwing good money after bad with the gain not justifying the risk.
 

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If they had divided up the Kido Butai and detailed some of its carriers to securing supply routes, the Japanese would have deprived themselves of their most potent weapon that kept the Allies on their toes.
The Japanese made this mistake in May, 1942 by detailing CarDiv 5 (Shokaku and Zuikaku) to Operation MO. With Shokaku damaged and Zuikaku's air group badly shot up, Kido Butai lost a third of its overall striking power before Operation MI even got off the ground.

To paraphrase Parshall and Tully again, there were two types of operation in the Pacific in 1942: Those that merited committing the entirety of Kido Butai, and those that merited committing none of it. Half measures could only allow it to be defeated in detail. This is something that the Japanese high command did not seem to realize.
 
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Paul M. Weir

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I don’t think I’d bet against Japanese gunnery in 1942 and the Japanese fleet still had quite a few scouting aircraft. Besides it is a what if so under those circumstances concentrating the battleships to support an invasion is acceptable. Note I am not advocating that the Japanese invade Midway at that point as it is throwing good money after bad with the gain not justifying the risk.
I agree about Japanese gunnery, up there with the best during the day and ahead of everybody at night, with the RN second to them at night. But that's against other ships. Shore bombardment back then was not anybody's strong point. At Guadalcanal, Henderson field was little more than inconvenienced by Japanese naval gunfire. I doubt that the Japanese could eliminate enough guns to make it safe for landing craft and boats.
 

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I agree about Japanese gunnery, up there with the best during the day and ahead of everybody at night, with the RN second to them at night. But that's against other ships. Shore bombardment back then was not anybody's strong point.
Stupid question... why would shore bombardment be harder than anti-ship? I thought one of the advantages of shore batteries vs ships was that the ground doesn't move. So in the reverse situation, when the TARGET doesn't move... isn't that easier than hitting a ship?
 

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Stupid question... why would shore bombardment be harder than anti-ship? I thought one of the advantages of shore batteries vs ships was that the ground doesn't move. So in the reverse situation, when the TARGET doesn't move... isn't that easier than hitting a ship?
That was kind of my take, in addition, shore batteries are, well, on the shore nice stationary direct fire targets. Airfields, like Henderson, are not really good direct fire targets.
 

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That was kind of my take, in addition, shore batteries are, well, on the shore nice stationary direct fire targets. Airfields, like Henderson, are not really good direct fire targets.
As they said upstream, shore targets are small and stable for aiming. Sea targets are big and tough to aim from. I don't remember where I read it, but I recall reading that a 5-1 gun ratio is required to win a gun duel between ships and shore guns.
 
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