Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Midway 65 yers later

June brings many significant anniversaries related to military history. Summertime is prime campaigning season in the northern hemisphere, after all. Among them are the Waterloo campaign, Marengo, D-Day, the Six-Day War and Barbarossa.
But the one that I most associate with early June is the Battle of Midway, I've always had a particular interest in that fight because it was the topic of my first serious wargame, Avalon Hill's classic Midway of 1964.
Since then I've built up a small collection of games on the topic, including, besides the original, the later Smithsonian edition of Midway, plus Command Magazine's issue game, the Second World War at Series game and even the Lightning War: Midway card game. Still, the original is my favorite of the bunch.
It's a fascinating battle because it's a rare example of a truly decisive battle that could easily have gone either way. Actually, despite the deterministic viewpoints popular among many students of history, I would argue that the most likely result, despite the over-complexity of the Japanese plan and the American code-breaking, was Japanese victory.
Had the Japanese won at a similar scale as the US did, sinking three carriers while losing one, (which was a likely result, see Hugh's Fleet Tactics for a discussion why) it would have had a profound impact on the course of the war. While Pearl Harbor ensured that Japanese hopes for a short war ending in a negotiated peace were untenable, it's very easy to imagine how winning Midway would have bought them a year or maybe two. For one thing, I doubt the Americans would have felt strong enough to contest the Japanese seizure of the Solomons.
Australia was probably too big for Japan to conquer, but it could have been neutralized as an offensive base.
Also, the Japanese Naval air arm was decimated by the grueling Solomons campaign. If this fight did not happen, or occurred at a less intensive rate, then the Japanese carriers could have maintained their quality far longer. The large U.S. Essex-based carrier fleet of 1943/44 might have faced a far more formidable Japanese carrier fleet in a new major battle. No "Marianas Turkey Shoot" but another potential Midway instead.
Another major Japanese victory might have forced the U.S. to resort to atomic warfare in earnest as the only means for victory. A gruesome outcome, surely.
A lot was at stake in 1942 at Point Luck. We're fortunate that things worked out as well as they did.

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