May 25th, 2013

HOW MUCH COULD A US DEFEAT AT MIDWAY CHANGE WORLD WAR II?

At the time, the Battle of Midway seemed like a huge turning point in World War IIs. The Japanese carrier fleet that had nearly destroyed the US Pacific fleet and terrorized every Allied force within its very long reach was mostly gone, at a relatively low cost to the US.

In more recent years, thinking, especially on Internet Alternate History sites, has swung away from ascribing much significance to the Battle of Midway. The ultimate result of the war seems inevitable in hindsight:  flood of US carriers and planes was going to destroy the Japanese fleet, bury it under an avalanche of metal that made Allied victory a foregone conclusion.

I tend toward the "buried under an avalanche of metal" school of thought myself, but I've often found that if I look at alternate history scenarios in detail they take odd and unexpected directions.

I'm going to start with the maximum Japanese victory at Midway that I consider feasible without too heavy a thumb on the scales of history, then carry events through step-by-step as best I can figure them out. I have no particular agenda in this scenario and have no idea at this time as to where it will end up. The extent of the Japanese victory at Midway will skew probability quite a bit in the Japanese favor, but after that I’ll try to take the most likely course of events at each step.

The scenario will take several posts to finish, and I’ll take it to the point where it’s obvious that it’s going to converge on what happened historically, or until the end of the war, whichever comes first.

The Japanese Victory at Midway:

The Japanese knock out all three US carriers present at the battle, plus a heavy cruiser or two, all without losing any of their carriers. The Japanese then suppress US air power on Midway Island, move battleships and cruisers in for shore bombardment, suppress the island's land defenses enough to get the Japanese Naval infantry ashore, then fight a bloody, but relatively brief battle with US land forces that ends with Japanese victory within a few days to a week.

That's not the most likely scenario. As a matter of fact, it's probably less than ten percent likelihood, but since I'm trying to figure out if a different Battle of Midway could have any long-term strategic consequences to World War II, I'll give it to them. If that decisive of a Japanese victory at Midway doesn't alter the long-term strategic course of the war, any less decisive but more likely victory wouldn't either.

Since I'm trying to keep some shred of realism, the Japanese would have suffered some losses. Even if they didn't lose carriers, they would still lose planes and pilots in their strikes on US carriers and on Midway. The naval landing force that tackled Midway would suffer very heavy casualties. Japanese shore bombardment would be devastating on a tiny, crowded island like Midway, but it probably wouldn't be enough to force a surrender. The Japanese would have to land and dig out survivors, with almost no room to maneuver, a straight up slug-fest. The US would have a big advantage in ground unit firepower, bit the Japanese naval guns would more than counterbalance that advantage, at least in the short-term, until they ran low on fuel and ammunition and had to replenish.

So the Japanese score a bloody, but complete victory at Midway. What happens next?

Across the Pacific and Indian oceans, the Allies seem wide open to Japanese attack. No Allied force in either of those oceans can keep the Japanese fleet from showing up and devastating whatever target they want to.  If the Japanese had victory disease before, now it even more rampant and dangerous. There seems to be no limit to what the Japanese armed forces can do. That's a dangerous illusion though.

The Japanese face enemies they can't defeat: distance and logistics. They can reach Hawaii with an all-out effort, but have no realistic hope of successfully invading the islands in the summer of 1942. They can't reach West Coast of the continental US, or the Panama Canal with their carrier or other significant forces. They can raid the Indian Ocean, but they can't stay there and control it. They are in a position to threaten Australia and try to cut it off from the US, but an actual invasion of Australia would be a very bad idea for a lot of reasons, mostly logistical. They can do, or threaten to do, more  in the Aleutians.  They can raid, and maybe take, various US, British or French Pacific islands, but every raid will use up scarce fuel. Every raid also risks scarce planes and pilots.

Actually taking islands means garrisoning them, spreading Japanese military power thinner and imposing more burdens on an already over-stretched logistics systems. Between attrition on air crew and planes and increased logistics burdens, Japan risks winning itself to death.

How Long Would Japan Be Dominant In the Pacific?

Unless the Japanese lost a lot of carriers from sources other than carrier versus carrier action, quite a while. The US produced eight carriers prior to the war. The first of those carriers, the Langley, was converted to a seaplane tender, then lost while trying to ferry planes to the Dutch East Indies. The US lost the original Lexington at Coral Sea In this scenario’s version of Midway, they would lose: Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet. That’s five out of the eight.

Of the remaining three, Ranger historically stayed in the Atlantic most of the war. It spent most of 1942 ferrying planes to Africa en route to the Flying Tigers in China, then provided vital air cover for Torch, the invasion of French North Africa. The navy considered it too small and too slow to work with other fleet carriers. Given the imbalance in the Pacific, they might bring it over, but that would have implication for Torch, assuming that Operation Torch went on as scheduled.

The other two survivors would have been Wasp, a decent carrier, though it was designed around Naval Arms Limitation Treaty tonnage limitations and wasn’t considered as capable as the other larger carriers: Historically, it helped out with Malta convoys in first half of 1942, then headed to the Pacific in early June 1942. Historically, Saratoga was being repaired during Midway after a torpedo attack, and rejoined the fleet in time for Guadalcanal.

Bottom line: The US would have two carriers in the Pacific until the new US carriers came on line, possibly three (or maybe two and a half) if Ranger came across. The Japanese would have the four carriers they historically lost at Midway, plus a couple that were under repair during that battle (Shōkaku and Zuikaku), and several light carriers like Zuihō. In addition, two Hiyō-class carriers came online just before or just after the Battle of Midway, giving the Japanese an overwhelming advantage given this scenario’s Battle of Midway outcome.

Historically, Essex, the first of the new US carriers, was commissioned in December 1942. The next of the Essex-class carriers was commissioned February 1943. The first of the smaller, less capable Independence-class carriers, converted from cruisers, was commissioned in January 1943. After that, the US would be receiving new carriers of either the Essex or Independence class every couple of months through 1943 and on through the end of the war.

Result: Unless the Japanese carriers got whittled down through non-carrier-based losses, the US wouldn’t be able to challenge them until well into 1943, giving the Japanese at least another six to nine months to run amok anywhere within their range, maybe up to a year. The British might have loaned the US a carrier or two, as they did historically in late 1942 and early 1943, but the carrier balance would be so overwhelmingly unfavorable until mid-1943 that any loans probably wouldn’t make much difference until then.

So, the Japanese have bought themselves six months to a year of nearly unchallenged superiority in the western Pacific and parts of the Indian ocean. What would they do with it?

We’ll look into that next time.