Seventy Years Ago Today: An Improbable Victory

It was on this day, 7 June 1942, a Sunday precisely six months to the day after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, that the most decisive naval battle of the 20th Century came to an end in the vastness of the Central Pacific Ocean. The Battle of Midway, which lasted from early on the morning of 4 June 1942 until mid-afternoon on 7 June, resulted in a decisive victory for the United States of America against the Imperial Japanese Navy. Japan withdrew from the battle with catastrophic losses: four of Japan’s largest aircraft carriers had been sunk against a single United States carrier. Moreover, the loss represented essentially irreplaceable damage to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s forces, while the United States of America would build more than two dozen large carriers in the next three years.

It seems hard to believe at this far remove in time, but heading into Midway, the United States Navy was the undoubted underdog. The U.S. had three fleet carriers compared to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s four, and only a third of the additional support vessels needed for such a Confrontation. The U.S. had a slightly greater number of aircraft, but almost all were outdated and inferior to the Japanese warplanes. The Japanese High Command could feel understandably confident of another smashing defeat of the U.S. Navy.

In complete reversal of the Pearl Harbor disaster, the victory at Midway was in large measure a triumph of Military Intelligence. The U.S. Navy had broken the Japanese Naval code, and was able to decode much of the radio traffic leading up to the Japanese attack on Midway. When there was uncertainty as to the target of the huge Japanese task force – referred to as “AF” in the Japanese communications – a clever ruse pinpointed the intended objective. The commander of the small American force on Midway was instructed by secure cable transmission to radio a message stating that Midway’s water distillation plant was out of order. Subsequent Japanese transmissions revealed that “AF” was low on fresh water. The U.S. Navy thereby knew that Midway was the objective of the attack, and could plan accordingly.

Intelligence Data alone, of course, cannot win battles. It takes determination, skill, commitment, and courage. These too were abundant at Midway. The famed sacrifice of the U.S. Naval fliers of Torpedo Squadron 8 stands out. Torpedo Squadron 8 made the first American attack of the battle on the Japanese carriers despite the fact Squadron 8’s planes had too little fuel for a return flight, and despite the fact that the Japanese fighters were far faster and far more maneuverable than the dated, cumbersome American torpedo bombers. Indeed, only one pilot from that group survived the battle: Ensign George Gay escaped his ruined plane and floated among the hellish carnage for three days before his rescue.

Gordon Prange, in his landmark 1983 account of the battle, Miracle at Midway, (McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0070506728) asserted that the role of Torpedo Squadron 8 had been over-emphasized, especially in light of the fact that the squad’s attack completely failed to inflict any damage upon any Japanese ships. While I am in no way competent to challenge Professor Prange’s impeccable scholarship, I respectfully disagree with his interpretation of this attack. The mere fact that Torpedo Squadron 8 attacked greatly disrupted the Japanese plans, and ultimately left three Japanese carriers under-defended when they were struck by American dive bombers. The Japanese decks were covered with aircraft being re-armed and refueled, and the American divebombers were able to inflict an almost ideal tactical blow: the bombs struck amid fuel lines and piles of ammunition and explosives. This hugely multiplied the effect of the American ordinance, and proved fatal to the Japanese carriers.

The self-sacrifice of Torpedo Squadron 8 undeniably contributed to the U.S. victory, despite the fact that they did no direct damage. I have always been in awe of the commitment and courage of men who, knowing they had no hope of safe return, nevertheless pressed home their attack. Far from being futile, it bought the needed time and created the needed opportunity for a successful American attack, and for the ultimate victory. But for the unimaginable bravery of these men, the U.S. would have lost its element of surprise, and that alone could have changed the outcome of the battle.

The Battle of Midway was certainly the crucial turning point in the Pacific War, but it is equally true that the outcome of the battle did not determine the outcome of the war: it is generally agreed that the United States’ vastly greater industrial capacity and greater access to raw materials would, in any case, have led to ultimate defeat of Japan no matter how Midway had concluded. But it seems equally clear that the American victory at Midway greatly shortened the Pacific War. In the six months between Pearl Harbor and Midway, the Japanese Imperial Navy had almost unchallenged command of the Pacific, and the United States Navy was merely able to react to Japan’s initiative. After Midway, the U.S. Navy commanded the initiative. But victory would take a further three years: the Imperial Navy was in an underdog position following Midway, yet it was far from defeated.

Thus the Battle of Midway was not quite such a pivot point of history as the Greek victory over the Persian fleet at Salamis, nor the victory of Nelson’s British fleet over Napoleon’s forces at Trafalgar, for the ultimate fate of the war and the combatant nations was probably unchanged, however much the U.S. victory at Midway hastened the final conclusion. In any case, it was surely the most important naval action of the 20th century, and it definitely stands among the most important naval battles of history. Too, it represented an almost impossible achievement: a navy that had been largely destroyed merely six months before defeated a larger and better-armed force. Careful and accurate intelligence can offset numeric superiority; valor can neutralize tactical superiority and guide the course of history.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Without courage, all other virtues lose their meaning.

— Winston Churchill

Sixty-Eight Years Ago: D-Day, The Invasion Of Europe

It is certainly proper that we take a moment in our busy schedules to remember the momentous event of 68 years ago today.

The 20th century, like any other, was fully provided with great and terrible moments, and instances that have changed the course of history. Nevertheless, if there be one day — one isolated day — that can truly be called the single most important day in the last century, then surely D-Day must be that day.

It was on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994 that I began periodically sending these historical notes. I must mark this anniversary, especially as there has recently been something of a distressing trend to minimize or denigrate the significance of D-Day. I feel a personal connection to this crucial historic event because my late father, Bill Rawson, Senior, flew his first bombing missions, co-piloting a lead bomber at the age of 19, in support of the invasion.

Sixty-seven years ago, Tuesday 6 June 1944, the leaders of the forces allied against Hitler’s terrible Reich gambled men and materièl on a scale the likes of which the world had never seen (and which we may ardently hope it never will see again!) At 0630 on 6 June, the first waves of what was to become a force 156,000 strong hit the beaches of Normandy to establish an allied toehold on the continent of Europe and to effect the beginning of the end for Hitler’s ghastly regime.

We know, live with, and daily benefit from the results of this day, but we may easily forget the risks that were then associated with the invasion and we rarely explore the dire consequences that a failure would have brought. It is easy to ignore the possibility of failure in the light of 68 years of hindsight, and we often tend to see that which has happened as inevitable. But to those involved at the time, the risks were real and the possibility of failure was keenly sensed; General Eisenhower carefully prepared his official statement in the event of failure. As it turned out, the invasion was successful beyond the most optimistic projections of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces.

Planners’ predictions of the day’s casualties ranged from a low of 12% to a high of 60%; the actual results were far, far better despite the terrible fighting on “Bloody Omaha.” Recently, extensive archival research has been conducted to provide an accurate and precise total for the day’s actual casualties. Historically, the total allied casualties for that day were reported as fewer than 6,000, about 4% of the 156,000 troops landed that day, with about 2,400 of these being fatalities. The recent research, as reported at the British D-Day Museum website, gives revised totals standing at nearly 10,000 total casualties and almost 4,000 fatalities. The final human cost was enormous, but even adjusted to the newer 6% figure, it was far below what had been expected. And for a historical perspective, These losses were about the same as those which Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia incurred in a single day at Gettysburg.

The invasion inescapably wrought death and destruction on the population of Normandy. The towns, villages, and farms of Normandy suffered under allied bombing and Nazi shelling, and from the ground battles that were fought across the Norman countryside. A 2009 article in the New York Times estimated that there were nearly 20,000 French civilian casualties as a result of the 10-weeks of fighting that followed the invasion. Allied tanks and armor bulldozed great swathes through the ancient hedgerows of the picturesque Norman farms. Driving through Normandy in early July of 1977, I noted that it was still easy to identify the route that the tanks had taken, because the relative newness of the hedgerows that had regrown was plainly visible, even 33 years after the invasion.

Within a few hours of the start of the invasion, it became clear that the allied forces could hold their beachheads. It took weeks for the armies to break out of Normandy, and it was almost a year before Germany capitulated, yet the outcome plainly hinged upon this daring gamble. The gamble succeeded for many, many reasons, of course. But today we should remember and be grateful to the soldiers of Free France, Canada, Great Britain, and The United States of America, as well as those of smaller contingents from Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Poland, whose courage and determination made the victory a reality, and who allowed us to live and grow in a world where the open brutality and blunt terrorism of nations is less common, and the horrors of war less frequent than in the first half of the 20th century, albeit such horror is undeniably still far too frequent.

And we should remember that there are hundreds of thousands of men and women serving us around the world today. Some are directly in harm’s way, others well-removed from the front. But all serve. These people, too, deserve our thanks. So as we remember and honor the men and women of what Tom Brokaw has aptly styled “The Greatest Generation,” we should also say thank you to those who today rise to the challenge and serve a great nation even unto their last full measure.

My thanks to all who have served and who do serve in any capacity. I am deeply grateful for your sacrifices. Thank you. It cannot be said too frequently. Thank you.

Jamie Rawson

Flower Mound, Texas

In war, resolution;
in defeat, defiance;
in victory magnanimity;
in peace, goodwill.

— Winston Churchill

FURTHER READING:

Online Resources:

The Portsmouth British D-Day Museum Website:

http://www.ddaymuseum.co.uk/

The U.S. National D-Day Museum Website:

http://www.ddaymuseum.org/

New York Times Article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/21/us/21iht-letter.html

Books:

For D-Day, there are, I feel, three essential books. First and foremost is Cornelius Ryan’s classic The Longest Day. First published in 1951, Ryan’s work was the first comprehensive distillation of the massive official documentation of D-Day (from both the archives of the allies and the Third Reich) supplemented with extensive personal interviews. Ryan was a journalist, and the style of The Longest Day reflects that background, but his work is a landmark of contemporary history. An excellent and highly readable work, The Longest Day is an excellent starting point from which to learn more about D-Day.

The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day, Cornelius Ryan; Simon & Schuster, 1994: ISBN: 0671890913

John Keegan, sometimes called “the Dean of Military History” was inspired by his childhood memories of watching the preparations leading up to D-Day in rural England. He became a historian and specialized in military history, bursting onto the mainstream literary scene in 1976 with his outstanding The Face of Battle, a study of three famous battles, comparing and contrasting them. In 1982, Keegan published Six Armies In Normandy, an account of D-Day that goes further that Ryan’s by following the invasion up to the Liberation of Paris two months later. Keegan is a wonderfully engaging writer who never forgets that history should be as interesting to read as the best fiction, while maintaining impeccable academic standards.

Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris, John Keegan; Penguin, 1994: ISBN: 0140235426

Stephen Ambrose completed D-Day as a tribute to the 50th anniversary 17 years ago. This book was one of Ambrose’s most successful efforts to reach beyond the academic world and into the mainstream. And in this book Ambrose managed to crossover into popular publishing without compromising academic rigorousness or integrity. (Later, his popular success led to unfortunate carelessness which resulted in accusations of plagiarism, but this book predates that time.) D-Day is scrupulously well-researched and includes material from thousands of interviews which Ambrose conducted. The book reads so breathtakingly that you find yourself almost anxious to learn the outcome! This is among Ambrose’s best, and a must-read to learn more about D-Day. Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers is an excellent supplement, containing extensive material from interviews with participants from D-Day through to The Bulge.

D Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, Stephen E. Ambrose; Simon & Schuster, 1995: ISBN: 068480137X.