The Battle of Midway was a crushing US victory over the Empire of Japan that, at face value, appears to be due to good SIGINT and a huge amount of luck by the Americans.

In particular, the piecemeal way in which the US dispatched numerous small raids of aircraft to harass the Japanese carriers complicated and frustrated said carriers' standard operations - to the point where, at the time the main US airstrike arrived, those carriers were in arguably their most vulnerable configuration with fuel lines, ordnance, and fully-loaded planes scattered across their decks.

The end result was that rather than the Americans having to sink the enemy carriers by a large weight of bombs and torpedoes - something they may not have been able to accomplish even with their large numbers in that decisive airstrike - all they had to do was touch off some of the highly explosive and/or flammable materials on the carrier decks, which then created massive chain reactions of destruction that ultimately doomed those carriers. In effect the Japanese built themselves four carrier-shaped funeral pyres, and all the US had to do was light them.

What I am most interested in is the American tactic I mentioned above - sending in multiple small waves of bombers and torpedo bombers. On the surface this appears to be nothing more than a dreadful and foolish waste of men and materiel, as none of those small waves were able to score any hits and all of their aircrews were lost - yet these failed attempts had the result of keeping the Japanese under constant attack, which effectively set them up for that final, critical airstrike.

The sources that I have access to (Wikipedia and YouTube, which I admit are limited) make no comment about this tactic - in particular, whether it was deliberate on the part of the US, or whether it (like McClusky's decisions that day) was simply happenstance. In other words:

  • did the Americans deliberately choose to stage and stagger those waves of aircraft with the objective of keeping the Japanese under constant pressure, with the intention of delivering the final, decisive, planned blow by that final massed airstrike;
  • or, did they simply throw "everything and the kitchen sink" at the IJN battle group, judging that sooner or later one of those minor strikes should yield a carrier sinking (which failed to happen, despite probability) - thus meaning the entire battle was effectively won by the fact that the US got incredibly lucky with timing?
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    "...appears to be due to little more than good SIGINT and a huge amount of luck by the Americans" -- Drop "little more than" (good SIGINT was not an accident), add to that a considerable overreach on the part of the Japanese, and replace 40% of the American "luck" with "initiative" and you have a pretty good picture. I'd also note that you ignore Japan's own huge luck: The utterly worthless torpedoes that half the US planes were armed with. Had they worked, the battle would have been a rout from the start.
    – Mark Olson
    Sep 23, 2022 at 13:21
  • @MarkOlson The dud torpedoes had no bearing on how the strikes were carried out - why weren't the torpedo bombers placed into larger groups (like the final crippling dive-bomber assault) to give a lower dud probability and thus higher kill probability than the multiple handfuls of stragglers? As for your other comment, agree and have amended accordingly.
    – Ian Kemp
    Sep 23, 2022 at 15:07

2 Answers 2


Yes, By Default

So, first off, I would recommend Shattered Sword: The untold Story of the Battle of Midway by John Lundstrom. While it focuses on the misconceptions about the Japanese actions at Midway (perpetuated by English-language single-source reporting of IJN actions long since discounted by Japanese source) it does an excellent job comparing and contrasting the two sides doctrine and training. Those differences are what led to the American's sending in numerous small waves and the final results.

It boils down to two things:

  1. The Americans, being inexperienced in live-fire carrier operations, simply did not have the skill to create the massed waves of attack craft the IJN made look routine. However, the American emphasis on individual and small-unit command initiative still led to eventual success.

  2. American SIGINT was phenomenal, and that wasn't luck. This combined with squadron leader individual initiative (and the lack thereof in the IJN as a whole) enabled the Americans to win.

I should point out that it wasn't a "lucky" last strike either. The long-reported (in English) story that the Japanese carriers were caught "with bombs on the flight deck" is simply wrong. (Again Shattered Sword gets into all this.) Instead, what happened is the poor command choices and undisciplined actions of the IJN Combat Air Patrol meant that the successive squadron-level strikes brought down the IJN air cover, which instead of climbing back to the correct altitude and position stayed low and away, (or better yet not ALL chase after a relative handful of American aircraft) enabling the later dive bombers to come in unmolested by Zeroes.

Could the Americans have lofted mass waves of squadrons and gotten home that way? Well theoretically yes. But practically speaking the Americans just didn't have the coordination or skill to mass multi-squadron, multi-carrier formations of aircraft.

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    I'm going to challenge the presumption that the sole reason for the American reluctance to use "multi-squadron, multi-carrier formations of aircraft" was "the Americans just didn't have the coordination or skill" necessary. The range of any group of aircraft is that of the first in the sky; and thus smaller groups naturally have both longer range and longer time over target. If it takes an hour to launch and assemble a "multi-squadron, multi-carrier formations of aircraft", that an hour less in the air post departure. Sep 23, 2022 at 18:42
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    Not to be overly picky, but "Shattered Sword" was written by Jon Parshall and Tony Tully; it is, however, a go to book for Midway for the Japanese side. John Lundstrom wrote, amongst his other works, all of which are highly recommended, "The First Team - Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway" which thoroughly covers carrier operations for the period and well covers the Battle of Midway. If you can get your hands on one "A Glorious Page in Our History" a collaborative effort by Bob Cressman, Steve Ewing, Barret Tillman, Mark Horan, et. al. also covers the battle quite well.
    – R Leonard
    Sep 24, 2022 at 14:47
  • @PieterGeerkens You're right in your argument but what you miss is the chain of elements: Americans are slow to take off lot of fire => the first aircraft wait too long for the last and, if they want to go on together, there will be this problem of autonomy => the solution adopted to the problem by the Americans is to send multiple waves as sonn as they are launched On the other hand the Japanese are able to make all their aircraft take off in a timely manner and thus they are not confronted with the problem of autonomy Sep 25, 2022 at 10:58

First, a little disclaimer: you're merging here strategy and tactic: the first one is the way they decided to nearly ambush the Japanese with their fleet (and this is rather considered as grand tactic), the second one is the way each of them organized their attacks.

Based on my numerous readings, from wikipedia to Naval Institute and many books, I would say the following:

  • The deliberate strategy of the Americans was to allow the Japanese attack to Midway and after this effort, to surprise them with their own attack
  • Midway's battle is full of blunders and considerations about the war fog
  • The deliberate tactics of the Americans, forced by their slowness to make their planes take off from carriers, was to attack in different waves that might divert from each other Japanese defences
  • The deliberate tactics of the Midway's air force commander was to harass the Japanese fleet while his own island would be under attack

I recommend the reading of The Samurai's attack, a book that goes on about the battle of Midway and how it integrates in the general list of events of 1942.


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