Friday, June 4, 2010

My favorite battle -- Midway

The Midway Objective card from Lightning: Midway by Decision Games.

It should be hard to pick a favorite battle for study and gaming, there being so many fascinating possibilities, but I have to say that it's never been a difficult call for me. I've been enthralled with the story of Midway since my first wargame, which was Avalon Hill's Midway. About the only historical engagement that rivals it for me is Gettysburg.

But unlike Gettysburg, which I think has proven difficult so simulate and even more difficult to create a good competitive wargame for, Midway is a natural. Nearly every Midway game is a pretty decent contest for players and the historicity of most isn't bad. As a matter of fact, the 1964 Midway probably holds up better as a wargame today, nearly a half century later, than any of its land-based peers.

There's a lot of drama at Midway, of course. It was a battle of strange twists of fate. But it was also a remarkably even fight. Yes, it's true that the combined Imperial Fleet vastly outnumbered the American force defending Midway -- except that the Japanese didn't combine their fleet. Japanese naval planners were absolutely in love with intricate, complicated battle plans that relied on nearly split-second timing. As a matter of fact, they remind me a lot of a certain sort of wargamer we've all seen at the table. He's always a really smart guy and he comes up with these amazing, detailed plans. On the wargame table you can even sometime s make this stuff work, but in real operations the best rule of thumb is to keep it simple.

But Japanese battle plans were rarely simple and even among the universe of complicated Japanese naval plans the Midway operation was one of the worst.

So the bottom line was that at the tip of the spear, the critical point of engagement, the two sides had almost the same effective strength. Each had four "airfields." For the Japanese these comprised their four most elite carriers and their air crews. The Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu and their air units were undoubtedly the premier carrier force on the planet in early June, 1942. They could operate four carriers together (and actually they could operate six together, but two fleet carriers were missing). In contrast, the Americans were breaking some new ground doctrinally by operating the Hornet and the Enterprise together in one task force. And even this was a baby step, as the two carriers still maintained seperate screens. By 1943 and 1944 the U.S. Navy was habitually operating large numbers of carriers together as integral tactical units, but that lay in the future.

So the Japanese had four first-class carriers available and the United States Navy had three comparable units. The USS Enterprise was a crack unit, as was the USS Yorktown, although the Yorktown still had some unrepaired battle damage from the Coral Sea battle and had a composite air group aboard. The third carrier, the USS Hornet, was the newest of the class, and it's air group was the greenest of the bunch. In addition to being new, the ship had missed out on some additional training time because of the Doolittle Raid. Finally, Midway itelsef provided a fourth airfield that had the advantage of being unsinkable but was, naturally also fixed in place. The Midway air force was a mixed bag of types, quality and effectiveness, but it was numerous.

The Japanese carrier strike force had a total of around 225 aircraft, the U.S. carriers had about 223 aircraft and Midway added another 110 or so. Escorting the Japanese carrier strike force were two battleship,s three cruisers and a dozen destroyers. Screening the U.S. task forces were 8 cruisers and 14 destroyers. It was really about as even a fight as you can get in a historical battle situation.

The Americans had an important edge in intel, but the two task forces were, for all intents and purposes on their own. The USS Saratoga and escorts was on the way but clearly would be too late to take part in the battle. Meanwhile the Japanese, while suffering from a self-inflicted wound of dispersal, did have a huge fleet of potential reinforcements available to support the carrier force -- as many as four light carriers, 9 more battleships, 18 more cruisers and 53 destroyers.

On June 4, 1942 the two carrier fleets met in battle and by the end of the day all four Japanese fleet carriers were sunk, while only the Yorktown was mortally wounded on the US side. But it was hardly a foreordained outcome and it would not have been a shocking result to see the tally reversed, with the US carriers wiped out. Besides the material losses, such an outcome would have had huge strategic impact. There would have been no Guadalcanal campaign. And the Japanese carrier air arm would have avoided the awful battle of attrition that wasted it away in 1943.

A lot was at stake at Midway -- probably a lot more than was at stake at Gettysburg. Gettysburg is often styled a turning point in the popular accounts, but few Civil War historians see it that way. Most would rank Vicksburg much more significant. A Union defeat at Gettysburg would have been unfortunate for the federal cause, but it would have been just one more in along string of such defeats. The primary effect probably would have been to bring Grant to the East earlier.

In contrast Midway was a true turning point. The vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean and Japan's fanatical resistance meant that the road back was long and hard, but the initiative had already shifted, permanently to the Allies.

Yes, to me Midway is the ultimate wargame -- a very even fight that was also very important and filled with drama.

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