The Battle of Midway
June 3 - 6, 1942
READER CONTRIBUTIONS:
THE AIR BATTLE
OF MIDWAY

AIRCRAFT OF THE AIR BATTLE OF MIDWAY
Version 2

The classification of the Battle of Midway as a great naval battle has naturally tended to place the historic focus onto the ships and the sailors, and so take a little away from the aircraft which participated on both sides, particularly from those based on the island ‘carrier’ which has given the battle its name.

As an air battle lasting just a few days Midway was unusual in the number and variety of aircraft involved. It involved a tragic ‘last hurrah’ for some types and their heroic crews and a shaky debut for other types, some of which went on to great success in their design roles. Others were switched to new uses in other war theatres, achieving success there.

 

AMERICAN AIRCRAFT

It was the first and only combat use by US forces of the Brewster F2A-3 ‘Buffalo’, flown off Midway by the Marine Corps pilots of VMF-221. Hopelessly outclassed by the Zeros, thirteen of the twenty operational F2A’s were shot down in the first Japanese attack. The Buffalo had a brief post-Midway role as a flight trainer.

The other obsolete American aircraft on Midway were the eleven Vought SB2U - 3 ‘Vindicators’ of Marine Corps VMSB-241. They left Midway together with the SBD-2 Dauntless bombers of the same unit but their low speed meant they arrived after the others. Three of the Vindicators were lost in this action, another one while returning from a late search flight and a further one in their last use in combat, the attack on the IJN heavy cruisers the next day,

The biggest single loss of obsolete American aircraft at Midway was sustained by the carrier borne Douglas TBD ‘Devastator’ torpedo bombers of VT-3, VT-6 and VT-8. Thirty five of the forty one Devastators which took part were destroyed. Like the Vindicator the TBD’s were not used in combat after Midway, being replaced by the Grumman Avenger.

Six Midway based brand new Grumman TBF Avengers of VT-8 took part in the first badly coordinated attacks on the Japanese Carrier Group. Five of the six were destroyed, the sixth being badly shot up but managing to return to the island. The Avenger never the less went on to be the Allies’ most successful torpedo bomber, ‘front line’ until VJ Day.

The four new Army Air Force B-26 Marauders were no more successful in their torpedo bomber role. They scored no hits, two of them being shot down and a third crash landing when it returned to Midway. Some Marauder equipped units remained operational in the South Pacific in both bomber and torpedo-bomber roles, but their main subsequent use and successes were in Europe and North Africa.

This was also the case with the Boeing B-17E Flying Fortresses. Although none of these were lost in direct combat during the Battle of Midway their high level attacks on the Invasion Force on 3 June and on the Carrier Group the following day produced no better results than similar ones made off Luzon and Australia some months earlier. B-17’s were progressively replaced in the Pacific theatre by B-24 Liberators, and much later by the B-29 Superfortress.

The star ship-destroying role at Midway was filled by the Douglas SBD ‘Dauntless’. Both mark 2 and mark 3 versions took part, the earlier as part of VMSB-241 on Midway, the later version flying from all three American carriers as scouts and dive-bombers and sinking or mortally wounding all four IJN carriers and a heavy cruiser.

Tremendously strong, a reliably stable platform in a dive, and in spite of its nickname nimble enough to successfully scrap with Japanese fighters on many occasions, including Midway, various versions of the "Barge" were flown by the US Navy, Marine Corps and Army Air Force and several Allied air forces, many still being service at the end of WW II.

The front line American fighter at Midway was the Grumman F4F ‘Wildcat’, with VMF-221 flying the mark 3 version from Midway and VF-3, 6 and 8 operating the mark 4 version from all three carriers. Both versions made kills at Midway, and although the F4F's were progressively replaced by F5F Hellcats on fleet carriers, later Wildcat versions including the GM built FM-2 served on escort carriers until the end of the war.

American reconnaissance patrols before and during the battle and rescue missions after were mainly carried out by Consolidated PBY-5 and 5A ‘’Catalina’s" flying from Midway. PBY’s made the first sightings of both the Invasion Force on 3 June and the Carrier group on 4 June. Less fortunately, a PBY was also the first American casualty, one being shot down on 3 June by seaplanes from an IJN seaplane tender in the Invasion Force.

Version of this remarkable aircraft remained in service until the end of WWII and beyond, serving not just as scout and utility aircraft but in combat roles such as bombing and torpedo attacks and in mine laying operations in the Pacific Ocean and China Sea.

Curtiss SOC-3 "Seagull" floatplanes carried by US cruisers in both TF 16 and !7 were launched on scouting flights on 5 and 6 June, and this sturdy biplane, capable of service on floats or with wheels, also remained in service at least until 1946. A lone example of another durable American biplane floatplane, a Grumman J2F-2 "Duck", was on the ground on Midway and together with a timber and metal decoy aircraft known as the "JFU" became the first American aircraft on Midway to be destroyed by Japanese bombs.

The last air action of the Battle of Midway was taken on the evening of 6 June, when four newly arrived USAAF aircraft took off for night raid on the nearest Japanese air base, Wake Island. The aircraft were the LB-30 version of the Consolidated B-24 "Liberator". They failed to find their target and the lead aircraft failed to return. The B-24 went on to success in every theatre, being built in greater numbers than any other US aircraft in WWII.

 

JAPANESE AIRCRAFT

Apart from the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter and possibly the B5N1 torpedo bomber, the other carrier based Japanese combat aircraft, like their American counterparts, were considered obsolescent and approaching replacement. The first was to prove a crucial ‘apart’, as almost all the early American losses were due to intercepts by the Zeros.

The most advanced aircraft of either side at Midway, the Mitsubishi A6M2 Model 21, variously known as the Reisen, 'Zeke' and Zero, was a lethal combination of agility and range flown by battle experienced pilots. The performance advantages were gained at the expense of lighter construction, lack of armor or fuel tank protection and less power than their American opponents.

The floatplane version of the Zero, the Nakajima A6M2-N 'Rufe', was also present at Midway, on board the seaplane carriers in the Invasion Force, but appear to have been intended for use from Midway after its capture, and were not used in the battle.

Versatile Nakajima B5N1 "Kate" aircraft were used both as level and torpedo bombers, but this very versatility was to cost the Japanese more dearly than the American use of individual types for each role, when time lost in change-overs and the unsecured ordinance left the Japanese carriers as floating bombs. Its replacement in the form of the NakajimaB6N ‘Jill’ was a long time coming, gradually replacing Kates between 1943 and 1944.

The Aichi D3A1 "Val" dive-bomber rode high on the tide of initial Japanese victories, and is said to have sunk more Allied warships than any other Axis aircraft, but Midway probably marked the peak of its career. Although versions of the Val were in production until 1945, from Midway on its low speed and poor armament made it increasingly vulnerable to improved Allied aircraft, tactics and numbers. It was then turned mainly to shore based use, and replaced on carriers by the improved mark 2 and 3 versions of the Yokosuka D4Y

One Yokosuka D4Y1 "Judy" was used at Midway as a reconnaissance aircraft, another having been damaged on the way. Designed as a dive bomber replacement for the Aichi D3A-1 Val, the Judy was at this time fitted with an unreliable engine and plagued with structural problems. Later re-engined and modified structurally it did successfully replace the Val as Japan’s front line dive-bomber.

Aircraft from two IJN carriers and three escorts of the Carrier Group took part in the 4 June reconnaissance. One obsolete Kawanishi E7K1 "Dave" floatplane was launched from the battleship Haruna and initially one Mitsubishi F1M "Pete" and one Aichi E13A "Jake" from the cruiser Tone and two Aichi E13A "Jake’s" from the cruiser Chikuma.

The Daves were withdrawn to training uses after Midway but the slightly younger and much tougher Petes were extensively used in a variety of roles for the rest of the Pacific war, while the Jake with its up to 15 hour endurance was used for scouting until the end.

Unlike some of the American aircraft types, all of the Japanese aircraft which appeared at Midway were still in some form of service at the end off the war, and many individual aircraft put in brief final appearances in Kamikaze squadrons.

 

20-20 HINDSIGHT

Japanese aircraft sustained ‘acceptable’ combat losses in the air. It was the total loss of the remaining aircraft and their experienced aircrews following the sinking of the four Japanese carriers, including those planes and crews being carried for landing on Midway, which represented the greatest blow to the Japanese Naval Air Service.

The use of these few slow, older aircraft to locate the American ships is hard to explain, particularly given the facts that the Japanese lacked radar and any firm intelligence reports on the location of the American carriers. In fact this could be seen to have been an even bigger mistake than those later ones of Admiral Nagumo, and the one which started the process of compounding errors which led to his defeat.

This was certainly the view of Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese pilot and author who was present at Midway, given in his 1955 book "Midway, the Battle That Doomed Japan"

It is made more puzzling by the fact that the IJN Midway search pattern was a re-run of that used a few months earlier in the attack on British bases and ships in and around Ceylon, which had come close to allowing some potentially dangerous situations there.

On the American side the apparently reckless use of aircraft and crews in a series of uncoordinated and increasingly desperate attacks without a single hit before 10.20 was not without achievement. The Japanese carrier formation and their defenses were split up and the continuing presence of land based aircraft played a big part in Nagumo’s decision to call for a second strike on Midway.

Perhaps most important of all, the various low level American attacks succeeded in drawing all the Japanese fighter cover down almost to sea level, leaving the way clear for the crushing Dauntless dive bomber runs which in less than five minutes fatally hit the three Japanese carriers and turned the battle towards the final American victory.

 

ALL AIRCRAFT WHICH TOOK ACTIVE PART

US NAVY- CARRIER BASED

Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless Dive Bomber
Douglas TBD-1 Devastator Torpedo Bomber
Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat Fighter

 

US NAVY - SHORE BASED ON MIDWAY

Consolidated PBY-5 and 5A Catalina Reconnaissance flying boat
Grumman TBF Avenger Torpedo bomber

 

US MARINE CORPS - SHORE BASED ON MIDWAY

Douglas SBD-2 Dauntless Dive Bomber
Vought SB2U-3 Vindicator Dive bomber
Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat Fighter
Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo Fighter

 

US ARMY AIR CORPS - BASED ON MIDWAY

Martin B-26 Marauder Torpedo bomber
Boeing B-17 E Flying Fortress Heavy bomber

 

JAPANESE NAVY -CARRIER BASED

Aichi D3A-1 ‘Val’ Dive bomber
Nakajima B5N1 ‘Kate’ Torpedo bomber
Mitsubishi A6M2 ‘Zero’ Fighter
Yokosuka D4Y1-C ‘Judy’ High speed reconnaissance monoplane

 

JAPANESE NAVY- WARSHIP BASED

Kawanishi E7K1 ‘Dave’ Reconnaissance biplane
Mitsubishi F1M ‘Pete’ Reconnaissance biplane
Aichi E13A ‘Jake’ Reconnaissance monoplane

 

US NAVY - WARSHIP BASED

Curtiss SOC-3 ‘Seagull" Reconnaissance Biplane

 

JAPANESE NAVY - ON SEAPLANE TENDERS IN INVASION GROUP FLEET

Mitsubishi A6M2 -N ‘Rufe’ Seaplane fighter
Mitsubishi F1M ’Pete’ Seaplane scout

 

WAITING IN THE WINGS

JAPANESE NAVY - SHORE BASED, TO FLY IN AFTER MIDWAY SECURED

Mitsubishi G4M1 ‘Betty" Torpedo bomber - from Wake Island
Kawanishi H8K1 ‘Emily’ Reconnaissance flying boat - from Jaluit Island

 


NOTES

The following reader contribution was first posted to Chris’s Midway Page in May 1997.

Version 1 was written with reference to Peter C Smith’s 1976 "The Battle Of Midway", and from memory of several other secondary sources in storage at that time. It was intended to be a summary rather than encyclopedic, and this remains the objective of:

Version 2. The revision and corrections in Version 2 are the results of considerable further reading on my part and the constructive criticism of a number of people, some Midway Round table members, others visitors to the page. My thanks to all and particularly to Chris Hawkinson, Mark Horan, Rich Leonard, Craig Burke, John Tate and Barrett Tillman. Barrett’s Appendix Four in "A Glorious Page in Our History" and the rest of that book should be the next read for anyone seeking more detailed information on Midway aircraft.

 

by Ralph Brading

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