The Battle of Midway
June 3 - 6, 1942
APPENDIX FOURTEEN:
UNITED STATES NAVY
FIGHTER TACTICS

Introduction
Formations and Tactics
Fighting Three and the Beam Defense
Gunnery and Methods of Attack


Introduction

When most people think of the Battle of Midway, they think of those six minutes when three United States Navy squadrons, flying SBDs, hit three Japanese aircraft carriers, thereby destroying forever Japan's ability to conduct offensive operations in the Pacific. However, from the perspective of the fighter pilot, Midway was also a watershed battle. After less than spectacular results against the A6M2 in the Coral Sea just one month earlier, US fighter pilots learned how to not only survive combat against this legendary machine, but how to shoot it down. The 1.5 to 1 kill ratio established by the F4F-4 over Japanese Zeroes at Midway would remain constant through out the remainder of 1942, and increase dramatically with the introduction of new aircraft like the F6F-3 and F4U-1.

The Battle of Midway also saw the combat debut of LCDR John S. Thach's "beam defense," later coined the "Thach Weave" by LCDR Jimmy Flatley. Even though Fighting Three was only partially trained in the new combat formation, Thach and his men not only survived combat with Zeroes over Kido Butai against overwhelming odds (roughly three-to-one), but they shot down four of the legendary fighters at the loss of only one F4F (actually lost prior to Fighting Three's use of the "beam defense"). While Fighting Three did not have enough planes to prevent Torpedo Three from succumbing to the safe fate as the unescorted torpedo squadrons, they did shatter once and for all the myth of the invincible A6M2 Zero.

US Navy fighter pilots at the Battle of Midway, through the use of superior tactics and training, defeated a generally more combat experienced and better equipped enemy, proving again they were the best in the world.

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Formations and Tactics

Through the beginning of the Second World War in Europe, United States Navy fighter squadrons were comprised of eighteen planes made up of three-plane sections- a leader and two wingmen. However, in October of 1939, VADM Charles A. Blakely (Commander, Aircraft, Battle Force or ComAirBatFor) directed that two squadrons, Fighting Two and Fighting Five, experiment with two-plane sections. Results were immediate and positive. Fighting Two went further in that it adopted the wingmen were to fly stepped-down behind the leader, with the wingman cutting inside his leader on all turns. With visibility being better up than down, it made the job of sticking with ones leader that much easier for the wingman. This was a natural yet important development, not one that was immediately recognized.

In spite of the disadvantages of three-plane section, including the fact that the wingmen were often more inclined to concentrate on their leader to hold formation than watch for enemy aircraft, and the obvious advantages in two-plane sections, VADM William F. Halsey, the new ComAirBatFor, rejected the use of the new two-plane section in his command. In obvious violation of this, Fighting Two continued to use the two-plane sections as it base element.

ComAirBatFor was won over and on 7 July 1941 the two-plane section became the base element of US Navy fighter squadrons. The directive organized fighter squadrons into three divisions of six aircraft, with three of the aforementioned two-plane sections comprising each division. The commander of the Atlantic Fleet air squadrons, RADM A. B. Cook, followed suit on 10 August.

With the implementation of new procedures came the use of new formations and the modification of doctrine. For example, when cruising, a division would often fly in A-B-C Formation. The sections were deployed in a stepped-up alignment with about 600 feet or so between sections. This was double the normal open distance of 300 feet. (Note: Formations normally had two variations: open and closed. The diastase between sections within a division and the leader and wingman within a section varied with each formation and whether or not it was opened or closed.)

Before entering combat, the division would usually move into an echelon stepped-down behind the leader. The usual open distance between sections was 300 feet with a closed distance of 150 feet. By forming his division into an echelon, the pilots could see potential targets and bring a massive amount of firepower to bare. Additionally, it was relatively easy for the section leaders to catch signals from the division leader. For example, a division might attack as one unit or split to attack the enemy from different directions as sections.

During combat, the section leader needed to take care that he catch signals from the division leader, and pass them on to his wingman. It was up to the wingman to protect and support his leader. In the tradition of team work, the wingman was to be more concerned about following his section leader than to actually take shots himself. The overzealousness of some wingmen who broke from their leader led to some losses at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, and cost many young pilots their lives in other engagements. However, by sticking together and working as a unit the odds for survival increased. The standard open position within a section was 150 feet, with closed distances of 50 feet. As described and shown above, when the section leader makes a turn, the wingman is to slide underneath and inside his leader to help keep station and allow him to continue his primary function of support. When recovering from gunnery runs, the distance between the two planes was more open, but it was never to exceed 400 yards.

It was with these tactics and doctrine that the United States Navy fighter squadrons entered the war in the Pacific. And, it was with these tactics and doctrine that Fighting Six and Fighting Eight would fly at Midway. The exception to both cases was Fighting Three, led LCDR John S. Thach.


 

Fighting Three and the Beam Defense

LCDR John S. Thach was already considered one of the Navy's better pilots and tacticians in the summer of 1941. However, it was what he did after that that turned him into a legend not only within the Navy but within the entire military aviation community.

In July of that year Thach and the rest of Fighting Three were in San Diego to exchange their Brewster F2A-3s for Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats. While in San Diego Thach learned of Japan's new carrier based fighter, the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero. Information from the Fleet Air Tactical Unit reported phenomenal performance: a top speed of between 345 and 380 mph, cruising speeds of between 210 and 250 mph equipped with 20mm and 7.7mm guns. Reports coming from the American Volunteer Group in China showed less speed (about 320 mph), but told of an exceptional rate of climb (3500 feet/minute) and maneuverability. This worried Thach because his potential enemy already had a plane that could out fly what he was just getting.

Thach had already developed a habit of using matchsticks to test new ideas. With the news from FATU and China, he spent many a night with matchsticks spread out over his kitchen table. He was most interested in developing a new formation that would counter the Zero's maneuverability and allow the F4F to get shots while maintaining a defensive position.

Even before coming up with his "beam defense" position, Thach came to the conclusion that two two-plane sections were better equipped to engage fighters than divisions of six. Armed with that, Thach considered several ideas:

Four-plane divisions in close formation.

Four-plane division with sections split one behind the other.

Neither of these options were successful. The closeness of the tight formation offered little advantage over a six-plane division that was already in use. The split section formation was better. It would require the attackers pick only one section to attack. That left them vulnerable to counterattack by the un-attacked section. However, the sections were still too close together to provide effective mutual defense.

Thach was determined to find a solution to the Zero problem. And he did just that. Thach deployed the sections abreast of each other at a distance that represented the turning radius of the aircraft. Immediately he saw the incredible possibilities of his new formation.

Because of the position of the fighters, the opposing sections had an excellent view of the other, particularly the vulnerable tail. And, since they were already looking at each other, hand signals would be readily seen and reacted upon.

When fighters engaged from the rear, the one section should be able to shoot the attackers off the other. However, to take advantage of this and make best use of the "beam defense position," Thach needed to develop a lookout doctrine. This doctrine would differentiate the "Thach Weave" from later and less formal tactics (called "bastard weaves" collectively). Since each section was already looking behind their opposite section, the easiest way to warn of an attack on the opposite section was to simply turn towards it. Upon seeing the opposite section turning towards them, the attacked section would turn into them and set up a scissors. At this point, the attacker has two choices- press home his attack and risk a head-on attack, or break off and offer a long range shot by the un-attacked sections.

The idea worked well with match sticks. Now he needed a real world test. In this test Thach and three others would fly F4Fs with their throttles wired to reduce their power usage. Four additional F4Fs under LT(jg) Edward H. "Butch" O'Hare, a future Medal of Honor winner, would oppose Thach, with no restrictions on their performance. This would give O'Hare's men a performance advantage over Thach that would roughly simulate what he could expect going up against Japanese Zeroes.

O'Hare and his men tried virtually every type of attack and were repeatedly discouraged by Thach and his countermoves. In spite of flying a better airplane, O'Hare simply could not get in a good shot without risking the defenders getting an equally good shot. Thach had hit upon the most significant new tactic of aerial combat.

Despite the obvious advantages in this new formation and doctrine, ComAirBatFor did not accept the new tactic into other squadrons. Halsey did, however, give his official blessing to Thach and Fighting 3 to continue to use it.

During Fighting Three's only combat tour previous to Midway, in the spring of 1942, the squadron encountered no aerial fighter opposition and therefore did not get a chance to test out the "Thach Weave." After leaving Lexington in April, Fighting Three was reorganized, and Thach lost most of his veteran pilots. Necessitated with rebuilding his squadron from square one and only five pilots permanently assigned, he began teaching his charges the basics at NAS Kaneohe in May. With rookie ENS Robert A. M. Dibb and experienced NAPs from Fighting Two, MACHs Doyle C. Barnes and Tom F. Cheek, Thach began his training. With Thach and Dibb comprising one section and Barnes and Cheek the other, two Army Air Force P-39's were assigned the task of "attacking" the F4F-4s of Fighting Three. These two pilots experienced the same frustration that O'Hare had several months before.

The third week of May brought a virtual end to the training on the "beam defense position" with the addition of seven new Ensigns to the squadron. Instead, Thach needed to concentrate on teaching basics of gunnery and fighter tactics. However, he did get in a few sessions, and added to his lookout doctrine. If necessary, the rookies were told to radio, "There is one on your tail!" to set up the scissors with the other section.

The frantic absorption of many Fighting Forty-Two veterans into VF-3 meant that Thach had virtually no time to teach his new tactic, and no hope of employing it in large numbers on the upcoming cruise to Midway on Yorktown. However, he did hope to fly an escort mission comprised of two divisions of four, with the second division led by MACH Cheek. This way, the two experienced division leaders could use the radio to instruct the other two pairs by radio. As it turned out, Thach led six fighters, one division of four that flew top cover for Torpedo Three, and one section led by Cheek that flew close escort for the torpedo planes. As described in more detail on Midway, June 4, Thach's division, after the initial loss of one plane, slipped into the weave. In spite of terrible odds and an inexperienced wingman, Thach and his men shot down four A6Ms and damaged at least two more without further loss. Considering the three men were outnumbered five or six-to-one, the results were spectacular and demonstrated conclusively that the "Thach Weave" worked. Cheek's section shot down two additional Zeroes and damaged others, even though they were not able to use the weave.

After being proven at Midway, Thach went on to work with the Bureau of Aeronautics (or BuAer) to add his "beam defense position" into official doctrine. While best used with two two-plane sections, the "Thach Weave" could be employed by anything from individual aircraft to divisions of four planes. The keys were flying abreast, proper spacing, proper lookout doctrine and scissoring at the right moment. Throughout 1942 and 1943, Thach and Jimmy Flatley, who fell in love with the weave at Santa Cruz in October 1942, (Flatley and three other pilots, having returned from a strike escort mission on 26 October, used the weave at 50 percent power to keep Zeroes off until the fuel starved fighters could land safely on Enterprise) began training a new generation of pilots in the use of the "Thach Weave."

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Gunnery and Methods of Attack

 

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BIBLIOGRAPHICAL DATA:

While I have seen bits and pieces of this discussed elsewhere, there is no other source that rivals John Lundstrom's The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway in it's descriptions of US Navy fighter doctrine. For those interested more interested in learning about the men and tactics of US Navy Fighter squadrons, I highly recommend this book.

Additionally, since there is no other comparable source, much of the work on this page is based upon what I have learned from Mr. Lundstrom, either from his book or from discussions with him. Thank you John!

The account above is largely based upon the excellent work of John B. Lundstrom's The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway. For a more detailed account of this action, read this outstanding book.

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