Today we commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Midway, the decisive naval engagement in the Pacific which turned the tide of war.
It was, in fact, the most decisive naval engagement since Nelson’s brilliant Trafalgar more than a century before. In eight short minutes, three of Japan’s four fleet carriers were mortally wounded and sinking, with the fourth to follow later in the day. It was, as Churchill expressed in a slightly different context, ‘not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.’ Japan persevered for more than three years, but the high tide of its invading forces was already past. Never again would it assume the strategic offensive.
There are a number of interesting and excellent books concerning the Battle of Midway from both the Japanese and the American perspective. Now, as part of an excellent series of works on historical contingencies by the Oxford University Press, Craig L. Symonds, Professor of American Naval History at the United States Naval Academy, has produced a superb volume on this important battle.
As Symonds describes it in his introductory remarks, “there are few moments in American history in which the course of events tipped so suddenly and dramatically as it did on June 4, 1942. At ten o’clock that morning the Axis powers were winning the Second World War. Though the Red Army had counterattacked the Wehrmacht outside Moscow in December, the German Army remained deep inside the Soviet Union, and one element of it was marching toward the oil fields of the Caucasus. In the Atlantic, German U-boats ravaged Allied shipping and threatened to cut the supply line between the United States and Great Britain. In the Pacific, Japan had just completed a triumphant six-month rampage, attacking and wrecking Allied bases from the Indian Ocean to the mid-Pacific following the crippling of the US battle fleet at Pearl Harbor. Japan’s mobile striking force (the Kido Butai) was at that moment on the verge of consolidating command of the Pacific by eliminating what the strike at Pearl Harbor had missed: America’s aircraft carriers. The outcome of the war balanced on a knife-edge, but clearly leaned toward the Axis powers.
“An hour later, the balance had shifted the other way. By 11:00 a.m., three Japanese carriers were on fir and sinking. A fourth was launchibng a counterstrike, yet before the day was over, it too would be located and mortally wounded. The Japanese thrust was turned back.”
In this excellent book, Symonds’ explores the context, circumstance and course of the Battle of Midway with crisp prose, outstanding scholarship, cogent analysis, and a keen sense of timing. I strongly recommend Symonds’ The Battle of Midway for anyone interested in the Second World War, naval history and strategy, intelligence operations or any of a host of allied topics.