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Here's where I am starting from:

Aleutians, Battle of Dutch Harbor - June 3–4, 1942. 2 smaller aircraft carriers.

Main Midway battle. June 4-7. 4 big carriers, with 2 smaller that weren't right there. US puts 3 carriers.

Leaving alone why the 6 carriers got split into 4 and 2 at Midway, why didn't the Japanese concentrate all their forces?

Now, in wars, concentration of forces is generally considered a good thing. But there are valid reasons for splitting up an attacking force: a diversion to lure defenders elsewhere, a simultaneous attack to force the defenders to split up their forces and finally increased opportunity for flanking the enemy when your forces are not too widely separated.

The Aleutians sideshow fit badly on all those counts. Coming so soon before Midway, the US Navy wasn't going to send off its carriers there in time to strip them from Midway. And conversely, being so far away, each US force was acting independently anyway.

Now, Midway is thought of as a great US victory. And it was. But it might easily have been a disaster. The first attacking US torpedo planes had been entirely destroyed until the dive bombers arrived just when the Zero's CAP was occupied with the lower level torpedo bombers. And the Japanese still managed to sink 1 carrier. At this time of the war, the Zero was still dominant against Wildcats and Buffalos and they still had their very best pilots around.

Having the 2 smaller Alaska carriers could easily have made a difference, especially as a big part of carrier engagements was finding the enemy carriers - even a relatively small attack wave could get lucky and put a carrier out of action.

I did watch a Youtube about the Coral Sea battle and, yes, it seems that Japanese Navy loved complex plans with lots of different forces. And, yes, what might seem natural to Westerners raised on Clausewitz and Napoleon - pushing for a decisive battle with all your forces - may not be as appealing to Japanese, especially if someone like Sun Tzu was an influence.

But I still utterly fail to understand why the Aleutians couldn't wait until after Midway. Was that somehow related to Japan's shortage of ship fuel, that they wouldn't have been able to do both?

Edit: I've added why a diversion to Alaska, on the 4th, would be not help and in fact would be disadvantageous to the Japanese, if the USN went for it:

I should have mentioned the cracked codes, but they are not a factor in how Yamamoto reasons about Alaska as a diversion (even if they screw up anything Yamamoto does decide to do).

Think of this as a game of poker. Yamamoto does not know the US sees part of his hand. He can't know the USN will never fall for an Alaska diversion, but he can apply logic to calculate what the effect of the US taking the bait would be.

Let's say he wants to get some part of the US fleet underway towards Alaska so that he has more time to invade Midway without interference from the US Navy.

If it is a diversion, the whole point is that the USN needs to be spun up/prepped for depature and then head out 5000 3700 km away to Alaska. What's that gonna take? 12 hrs? 24 hrs? If it takes the USN 24 hrs to be ready to sail, then after Alaska on the 4th, they are ready to sail on the 5th... just as the IJN is striking Midway. Essentially, Yamamoto is giving the USN a 0 hour response time.

Would you, as a Japanese planner, assume that your enemy would be able to ship in less than 12 hrs, on this level of deployment? Capital ships on a 3700k/4-5days trip that's going to take them to a combat area where there may be no US fuel stations left by the time they get there? Assuming they launch at all - it's a very risky-sounding deployment for uncertain upsides. Because that's the "good reason for doing this" assumption for a June 4th Alaska strike if it is meant as a diversion.

The Royal Navy, as far as I understand, when they heard the Germans were out, took 8 hrs to leave Scapa Flow, their base, on the way to nearby Jutland (BBC Jutland timeline). But the 1916 RN is probably not what the 1942 USN is at this stage. Much less what the 1942 IJN thinks the USN is capable of doing.

Then, once the USN is heading out, since you want to gain time, you need to have them sail further away. If they were going the opposite way, say 180 degrees towards Panama/California, then you'd pretty much win 1 day for each day they went out. But Alaka is more at a 90-120 deg angle, so if you want to gain 2 days, they need to be out 3 days before they hear you're at Midway. So you'd strike on June 1st in Alaska to gain 2 days (sorry for the rudimentary math, geography and geometry here ;-) ?

Correction to the above geometry: US ships going from Hawaii to Western Alaska will be getting closer to Midway as they do so, at least for about 1000 km (the total distance is 3700 km): Google maps

Now, take away "Alaska is a diversion" and replace "And the boss says to do Alaska. Them US Navy guys are pushovers anyway. Same time, so they'll be sleeping again".

Or whatever other reason, just the diversion idea, on the 4th, makes no sense and these pre-computer guys are very smart with numbers.

The cracked codes make it a lot easier for the US Navy to win. But the victory is not a foregone conclusion, look at the actual battle. The level of courage and sacrifice by sailors and pilots of both the IJN and USN is tremendous, but a lot of it boils down to luck and those 2 carriers could have helped the Japanese quite a bit.

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    Rereading through this question, I'm struck by the Sun Tzu reference. I've of course read the Art of War, but I'm not sure what in there would have had anything to do with making complex plans. I'm curious what you thought the relation might be. If anything, I'd think would argue for simplicity. Better yet, never fight at all. I never seem to interpret it the way others do though. – T.E.D. Jul 12 at 22:23
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    Sun Tzu seems to be about pre-maneuvering so that you don't need a decisive battle, because you've already won and relies heavily on deception. Western military doctrine however has long favored the decisive battle model. In one of his books, John Keegan claims that it came from citizen soldiers of the Greek city states needing to fight a battle, get it over and go back home to manage harvests and the like. I have no idea how Sun Tzu figures in Japanese military thinking, considering how little respect the Japanese had for China. But I still wonder at the influence of cultural proximity. – Italian Philosopher Jul 12 at 22:38
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The traditional historical narrative has been that the Aleutian attack, which happened a day earlier, was intended as a diversionary attack, hoping to spread American forces thinner, and thus make the Japanese fleet carrier concentration at Midway as devastating as possible.

Parshall and Tully, operating from Japanese sources, have a different story. According to them, the Japanese Army had its heart set on invading the US. Since Prime Minister Tojo, the man basically in charge of running the war, was also a General in the Army, the Japanese Army was in a better political position than the Japanese Navy. The Army tended to prefer plans where the Army was doing the heroic stuff, and the Navy was supporting them. What Parshall and Tully found was that Yamamoto had a very hard time getting his plan for an attack on Midway approved, and only did so after agreeing to support the Army's plan for an invasion of the US in Alaska.

In fact the attacks were supposed to be simultaneous (not a day apart). If anything, the Japanese Admiralty, thinking the US had only 2 fleet carriers rather than 3, would have preferred not to have any possible diversion, as the whole point of Midway was to force what they thought were the 2 remaining US fleet carriers into battle, and destroy them.

  • Yes, I have also recently read that doing the Aleutians was the IJN's "political cost" to get the green light for the Midway operation. That makes a lot more sense than this notion of diversion 5000 km away, 1 day before. But I haven't read Shattered Sword yet. – Italian Philosopher Jul 12 at 16:09
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    @ItalianPhilosopher - Another interesting thing I found reading over that book...they dispute a lot of the standard story of how that battle was lost, and instead argue (among other things) that the Japanese carriers were, relative to the US ones, what gamers today would call "Glass cannons". – T.E.D. Jul 12 at 17:58
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    @HenningMakholm - I've added a wiktionary link to the comment, but the name is really kind of self-explanatory. The basic idea with their carriers was that they were designed entirely around offensive capability and delivering huge combined strikes, with no thought given to being themselves resistent to attacks. Fending off attacks was what their planes and surface escorts were for. As a result, they were actually capable of outrunning US torpedoes, but if they took a good bomb hit or two they were (literally) sunk. – T.E.D. Jul 12 at 19:04
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    @HenningMakholm, consider: Japanese aircraft "sank" the Yorktown twice in the Battle of Midway; in comparison, none of the Japanese carriers managed to bring the damage under control, much less resume operations the way Yorktown did. – Mark Jul 12 at 23:21
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    @T.E.D. Yes the Japanese Navy wanted to entice the US carriers into a battle where they could be destroyed. However that's not synonymous with the Japanese Navy did not desiring misdirection. A diversion in the Aleutians would have divided American carriers, midway coming 1 day later would have meant the American forces coming to relieve midway would have come piece meal, making them easier to destroy, The US navy with fore knowledge of midway did not respond to the Allutian attack and were waiting at Midway in full strength. A worse case situation for Japan. – JMS Jul 14 at 20:45
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With 20/20 hindsight you can win just about any battle. Which is what we do here in this question. Military History Visualized has a good explanation. Japanese operations were usually quite complicated. This was no exception. Had Yamamoto been replaced by another admiral, the plan would have been just as complicated.

To elaborate on that: Yamamoto directed the planning and operation. He didn't do it alone, his staff was working out the details. Replacing Yamamoto with any other admiral would have presented a very similar (and complicated) plan.

One of the reasons why the Japanese attacked the Aleutians was to draw forces to that theater. Anything send to defend the Aleutians wouldn't be available for the defense of Midway.

They also thought they had destroyed a carrier in the battle of the Coral Sea. However, the USS Yorktown was quickly repaired and send into action. That was one carrier the Japanese didn't think to be there, and gave the US 50% more carrier power.

And lastly, in war everybody makes mistakes. The Japanese had the bad luck in this battle that everything they did wrong worked against them, likewise the US Navy had the good luck their mistakes worked in their favor.

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    Anything send to defend the Aleutians wouldn't be available. This is patently not relevant, as any glance at a map and the timeframe will show you. Attacking Alaska on the 4th will not result in any US drawdown in the Hawaii-Midway theater by the 5th, so the IJN is not diverting the USN, but diluting its own efforts. Additionally, Midway is intended to lure US carriers from Hawaii into a main engagement to take back an invaded Midway some time later, to get destroyed. Having them go to Alaska instead would defeat that purpose. – Italian Philosopher Jul 12 at 15:51
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    The same Youtube guy doesn't talk about the Aleutians, but does say that the IJN didn't try really hard to max their Midway forces: Coral Sea leaves 1 damaged carrier and 1 carrier with a very depleted aircraft force. They could, but didn't, have transferred the planes to the intact carrier. That, and your remark that they didn't expect the Yorktown is probably closer to the mark: they're overconfident. Yes, of course, armchair generalling is tricky and the battle's luck went to the USN, but my question was about preliminary planning. – Italian Philosopher Jul 12 at 16:04
  • 1) I read were one of the ijn pre-battle war gaming conjured up the eventual American actions, but the higher up dismissed the idea. 2) The Americans had broken the ijn codes which nullified all the Japanese complex diversions. – historystamp Jul 12 at 21:02
  • I found it curious that the ijn split the midway strike group into a battle ship group and a carrier group thus making the carrier group easier to attack. – historystamp Jul 12 at 21:05
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    @historystamp, that makes sense if you consider the full Japanese battle plan for Midway. First, the carriers hit Midway to disable the runways and destroy the land-based aircraft; the battleships hang back safely out of range of land-based bombers. Second, with Midway Airfield neutralized, the battleships move up to provide fire support for an infantry landing. Third, the battleships and carriers coordinate to destroy the inevitable American counterattack. The Japanese loss at Midway happened halfway through step 1. – Mark Jul 12 at 23:50
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I did watch a Youtube about the Coral Sea battle and, yes, it seems that Japanese Navy loved complex plans with lots of different forces. And, yes, what might seem natural to Westerners raised on Clausewitz and Napoleon - pushing for a decisive battle with all your forces - may not be as appealing to Japanese, especially if someone like Sun Tzu was an influence.

But I still utterly fail to understand why the Aleutians couldn't wait until after Midway.

I would like to quote an English source, but unfortunately, the Wiki about the wars toward Aleutians in English is so poor, thus I would like to quote the Japanese wiki.

アリューシャン列島は、太平洋戦争開戦時の連合艦隊作戦計画では占領または攻撃破壊すべき外郭要地として定められていたが、これは十分検討を経て決められたものではなかった。その目的は、アメリカの北方路の進行を阻止するもので、米ソ間の連絡を妨害し、シベリアに米航空部隊が進出するのを妨害しようとするものであった。日本本土の東方海面は幅広く開放されており、米空母の本土への奇襲を防止するには、莫大な哨戒兵力が必要であったが、海軍はこれに十分な兵力をさく余裕はなく一部を重点的に哨戒する他なかった。その状況にこの正面の警戒を担当する北方部隊は不安を抱いており、特に米空母の機動が開始されてからは、一層その不安がつのっていた。

Translated

Aleutian archipelago was set according to the plan by the Imperial Japanese combined fleet as the important factor either to be attacked or occupied, but the process ( or the goal ) of the plan was not satifactorily planned in detail at the time of the opening of the war. The direct purpose of the rough plan was for the JIA to shut down the American fleets to advance to northern area, particularly ( by the JIA ) focusing to disrupt the communication between the U.S and the Soviet. The JIA's north eastern territorial sea field was too vulnerable or too large to the surprise attack by the U.S fleet on the main land Japan ( like doolittle ) but the JIA needed a huge number of armies to defend against this so that the JIA had only choice to pinpoint targets to satisfy this situation. Some division staffs of the JIA's naval fleet whose job was to protect this area was so worried about this situation particularly after the operation by the U.S fleet resumed its operation.


一方で1942年2月、連合艦隊のセイロン島攻略作戦図上演習において米空母の機動に手を焼いたばかりでなく、アリューシャン列島西部のアッツ島に近いセミチ島からアメリカの最新大型爆撃機による帝都空襲が行われ、その一部が奇襲に成功したことで日本の同方面に対する関心はさらに高まった。また米空母の機動が頻繁となり、わが本土奇襲の懸念がますます増加してきた。そのため連合艦隊も軍令部もこの正面に対する関心が強まり、一部にはキスカ攻略の実施を考えるものも出てきていた。このような時期にミッドウェー作戦が内定した。そこで軍令部はミッドウェーと同時にアリューシャン列島西部を攻略し、米航空兵力の西進を押さえるとともに、両地に哨戒兵力を進出させれば、米空母のわが本土近接を一層困難にすることができると判断し、その作戦実施を連合艦隊にはかり、連合艦隊でもその必要性を認めていたし、攻略兵力にも余裕があったので直ちにこれに同意した2

Translated

On the Feb 1942, Japanese Imperial navy conducted its own tactical map operation to attack Ceylon island, which ended up to invite not only the traumatic ( loss of its own ships or hardship to destroy ) the U.S fleets, but the anticipated air attacks by new bombers ( if this description is addressing either about B-19 or B-29 is unknown ( by me. )) on its own empire's homeland from Semichi? island near Ats island which is located at the southern part of the Aleutian archipelago and the result of the tactical map operation ended up that U.S ( new ) bombers could've attacked Japanese main homeland. Under this circumstances staffs of the Japanese Imperial Naval combined fleets became strongly concerned about those areas, and one of staffs strongly started to demand the attack and the occupation of the Kiska island. At the same time, the Operation Midway officially started. Under such time, the Imperial Japanese Navy's command department drafted a tactic : Attacking the Midway but also advancing to the western parts of Aleutian archipelago to set up the basement for the patrolling, which potentially could have stopped the advancement by the U.S fleet from this side, and could've delayed the potential areal attack from the north, and this draft was accepted by top of the Japanese Imperial Naval combined fleet, which also foresaw the danger from the north. I will skip some part, since the conclusion will be same anyway.


1942年4月15日(推定)に上奏された「大東亜戦争第二段作戦帝国海軍作戦計画」には、「成る可く速やかに「アリューシャン」群島の作戦基地ヲ破壊又は攻略し米国の北太平洋よりする作戦企図を封止す」とある[6]。

Translated,

On the military draft by the JIA army on the estimated 15h April in 1942, named "The Second stage of the Japanese Imperial Navy's operation on this war" says, "As soon as possible, we need to either destroy or occupy the U.S basement at the islands of Aleutian archipelago so that we stop the attack by the U.S from the North.


Conclusion

Now, in wars, concentration of forces is generally considered a good thing.

Yes, but unfortunately? It didn't or couldn't apply to the JIA's Navy.

But there are valid reasons for splitting up an attacking force: a diversion to lure defenders elsewhere, a simultaneous attack to force the defenders to split up their forces and finally increased opportunity for flanking the enemy when your forces are not too widely separated.

As I presented above, ( it seems to cover the whole Pacific ocean by its own navy ( Attack on homeland by the U.S fleets was considered to be "at the time" was "inconsiderable" ) was "too stretched" ), and the Japanese Imperial Army "at that time" considered the attack from the north by the U.S as a great potential threat to its own homeland. And they ( JIA ) took it seriously. But it seems they had no choice, so that they went on to the Aleutian operation despite Midway.

  • Nice. Those would be B17s, B29s don't show up till 1943-44, depending how you count. Almost seems as this motivation to avoid bombing of homeland at all costs should then count as an after-effect of the Doolittle raid. – Italian Philosopher Jul 13 at 14:45
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    @ItalianPhilosopher Thanks for the enlightenment for the bombers. At that time, meaning at the time of the beginning war, it was almost "inconsiderable" by any cost such a thing, that bombing by the U.S on Tokyo, the sacred city where the sacred Emperor lived could occur. Actually even at the time of the end of the war, the general that governed the Eastern part of Japan, link [ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shizuichi_Tanaka ] committed suicide after the war, because "he was sorry that he could no nothing effective to defend the sacred city, where emperor lives, which is Tokyo. FYI. – Kentaro Tomono Jul 13 at 17:24
  • Makes sense. The B-29 had the range to strike Hokkaido from Attu Island; a B-17 with extra fuel tanks and fewer guns probably could do the same. – Mark Jul 14 at 19:27
  • to put it another way: the attack on the Aleutians was designed to prevent a US counterattack through there, and the attack on Midway to stop the US from interfering against New Guinea and Australia. Doing both at the same time may have been strategic overstretch, but seeing as different kinds of units were prevalent (surface combatants against the Aleutians, carriers against Midway) it makes sense. – jwenting Jul 15 at 11:25
  • @jwenting Probably so. Please remember I am purely only quoting the Japanese Wiki, I know this wording sounds not good, sorry. – Kentaro Tomono Jul 15 at 11:29
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I think each answer so far has hit on very important points: complexity of Japanese planning, diversionary tactics, and Army-Navy rivalry. One thing I would like to point out, however, is why Midway was such as a success and why the Aleutians diversion failed.

We had partially broken the Japanese naval codes in use at the time and the Japanese were unaware we had this ability. We, the US, was fairly certain the Japanese would try to gain a major strategic advantage in the summer of 1942, but there were no clear cut answers as to where they might strike. The Japanese defeat at the Coral Sea forced them to shift their thinking. Capturing Midway would directly threaten U.S. Pacific forces at Pearl Harbor and might just give them the ability to claim the Pacific as their own and prevent us from approaching their imperial holdings in China, the Dutch East Indies and Southeast Asia.

Anyway, back to the naval codes. We knew shortly before the attack that the Japanese had settled on Midway Island as their target. Had we not known this, the attacks on the Aleutian Island chain might have been provocation enough for our fleet to head north and miss the decisive strike entirely. But U.S. military planners, however, had a fairly complete picture of Japanese intentions and so, didn't fall for the bait. Instead we concentrated our forces at Midway, not as a lucky guess, but knowing full well what was coming for them.

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  • Yes, you are correct. +1 People look like are thinking that I answered to gain the reputation, well, it was not. The north eastern-middle pacific was too large to cover the potential hitback by the U.S fleets even back then ( 1942-1943 ) by our pathetic number of aircraft careers, and even the admiral Yamamoto knew fully was aware of it. – Kentaro Tomono Jul 14 at 2:56
  • @KentaroTomono - No worries, you well deserve your reputation and I believe your answer needs more upvotes because it's a nearer-to-Japan insight to what might have the IJNs reasons than our, mostly Westerner, viewpoint. – Italian Philosopher Jul 14 at 18:49
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    @Adam391 I should have mentioned the codes, but I've edited my question to explain my belief that the diversion, on the 4th, would not have been a good idea from the IGN point of view, even if the US had believed in it. – Italian Philosopher Jul 14 at 18:51
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    yes, had the Aleutian strike worked and drawn the US Pacific fleet north, Midway would have been a ripe plum, ready for the picking. And it would cut off Hawaii from the rest of the Pacific at the same time. Up north, the US carriers would have been relatively harmless because of the notoriously bad weather, and subject to strikes by Japanese surface fleets as well as shore based medium bombers (which could have been flown in from the Home Islands in the time it would take the US fleet to assemble and sail north). – jwenting Jul 15 at 11:21

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