Nagano’s Midway
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
November 2022

For our Deluxe edition of Second World War at Sea: Midway, I wanted to explore possible variations on Operation MI, the Japanese invasion of Midway, as well as the battle itself (and others that took place in the same region, like the Pearl Harbor and Wake Island operations).

Though American propaganda successfully portrayed the victory at Midway as the triumph of an underdog against long odds, the U.S. Navy actually had a slight advantage in carrier air power at Midway. Japanese advantages in surface ships – the origin of the “underdog” statement – were frittered away in a hopelessly complex plan sending many separate forces into action rather than concentrating force.

The Japanese did hold an overall strategic advantage in naval power in the summer of 1942, one that would erode in the following year as new American warships, in particular the powerful Essex class aircraft carriers, came into service. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Combined Fleet, urged a decisive battle to cripple American naval power while Japan still held this superiority. He selected Midway Atoll as the bait to lure the Americans into such a battle.

Midway itself was a dubious choice; it lay out of air range of the main Hawaiian Islands and was very small. It could not have served as a true jumping-off point for an invasion of Hawaii. The chief of the Naval General Staff and Yamamoto’s nominal superior, Admiral Osami Nagano, preferred a series of operations aimed at Fiji, New Caledonia and Samoa that would sever communications between the United States and Australia.

Yamamoto scored a decisive bureaucratic victory in the early months of 1942, ramming through his vision of Central Pacific operations. Yet two of the First Air Fleet’s six carriers were detached to support operations in the Coral Sea, resulting in both being damaged badly enough to miss the Midway operation. As Parshall and Tully write multiple times in their Shattered Sword, in 1942 there were only two types of objective for the Imperial Japanese Navy: those worth attacking with all six fleet carriers, and those worth attacking with none of them.

So Midway Deluxe Edition also looks at what sort of operation the Japanese could have mounted had Admiral Nagano imposed some discipline on his subordinates (in essence, had he done his job). In late May 1942 the First Air Fleet was down from four to six carriers, thanks to the damage to Shokaku at the Battle of the Coral Sea and the devastation of Zuikaku’s air group in the same battle (Japanese practice saw the air group as an integral part of the ship’s company, and the idea of simply amalgamating all of the surviving planes and aircrew and placing them on the intact carrier ran totally counter to the Imperial Navy’s institutional culture - though they did it anyway to provide an air group for the new light carrier Junyo and to send Zuikaku to sea in the days after the Battle of Midway).

In addition to missing two key platforms, the air groups of the four remaining fleet carriers had been badly depleted. Each of them went into action at just under 85 percent of authorized strength: the four carriers had operated 267 combat aircraft at Pearl Harbor, and took just 225 to Midway. They had also had little opportunity for training; for example, no torpedo bomber crew had dropped a torpedo, either live or practice, since the attack on Pearl Harbor.

All of that added up to the Japanese going into battle at the time and place of their choosing, with a fraction of their potential fighting power. What might have happened had Japan’s top admiral remembered that he held that job and put aside his fondness for afternoon naps to delay Operation MI until early August, when the tides would again align for landings on the atoll?

Given a two-month delay, the First Air Fleet would have been a very different fighting force:

• The carriers could have undergone a more thorough refit. This lack doesn’t really show up at the scale of Second World War at Sea – the loss of a knot or two of speed won’t affect game speeds – but would have been helpful all the same.

• Aircrew would have the opportunity to rest and train, while squadrons and sections integrated replacements.

• Japan’s anemic aircraft industry could replace the machines lost in six months of war; the production lines for carrier attack aircraft had been shut down to switch over to new models, despite the outbreak of war. Probably at least a few of the new Yokosuka D4Y Suisei (“Comet”) dive bombers could have been available, a very fast (and unarmored) new plane.

• The damaged carrier Shokaku could be repaired, and Zuikaku could restore her air group.

• The new light carrier Hiyo could be worked up and added to First Air Fleet, joining her sister Junyo.

• The lessons of Pearl Harbor, the Indian Ocean operations and Coral Sea could finally be studied and adjustments made to carrier doctrine, as the new Third Fleet’s staff actually did after Midway. Many of these helpful changes could have been developed before Midway, like the integration of light carriers carrying only fighters into the fleet carrier divisions, freeing more of the big ships’ own aircraft for strike operations while strengthening their air-to-air defenses. But little if any thought was given to improvements when current practice appeared to be working so well.

Delaying Operation MI would have had an impact on the Americans as well, and the Japanese would have faced a much stronger foe had they waited:

• The battleship North Carolina, crossing the Caribbean on her way to the Pacific at the time of the Battle of Midway, would have given one of the American carrier task forces enormous surface and anti-aircraft firepower.

• The carrier Saratoga, en route to Pearl Harbor from repairs and modernization at Bremerton, Washington, would have been available (she arrived on the Battle of Midway’s final day).

• The carrier Wasp, steaming with North Carolina, two cruisers and six destroyers, transited the Panama Canal four days after the Battle of Midway ended and would have been available as well.

Those changes would have probably brought the odds well into the favor of the Japanese (if one looks at the situation for the actual Battle of Midway as one slightly favoring the Americans). The Japanese would have six fleet carriers, two light carriers bearing only Zero fighters, and two large light carriers that could be placed in either role: delivering naval strikes or carrying still more Zero fighters. Unlike the actual battle, all ten ships would have full flight decks, potentially 595 aircraft, more than twice as many as were embarked for the actual battle.

The Americans would counter with five carriers of their own – all of their useful fleet carriers – with about 366 aircraft on their own decks. Plus they would have a fast battleship.

Culturally, the Japanese were probably unable to completely abandon their love for intricate operations plans and still would have tried to do too many things with their forces. The concentration of ten carriers would have mitigated this insanity somewhat, pulling two fast battleships and more cruisers into the carrier screen instead of steaming about to no apparent purpose.

In this Battle of Midway, the Americans are actually the underdogs. But in the cat-and-mouse interaction of carrier warfare, the battle is not always to the strong.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife and three children. He will never forget his Iron Dog, Leopold.

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