What if Japan Won the Battle of Midway?

Source: Image: US Navy

The Battle of Midway was one of the most decisive US Naval victories of World War II. But what if the Japanese had won instead? It could have caused the European Allied forces to fall apart.

In June 1942, the Japanese and American Navies engaged in one of the most important battles of World War II.

Hoping to catch the American fleet and destroy it in a climactic naval battle, the Japanese moved their six-carrier force, the Kido Butai to the central Pacific. Learning of the move from deciphered intercepts, the US Navy laid a trap for the Japanese, tricking them into attack the base on Midway Island. In the three-day battle that followed, the US Navy hammered the Japanese navy, sank four of its carriers, and shattered the Kido Butai forever, losing only one American carrier.

While the US was able to rebuild its losses afterward and increase its control across the Pacific, the Japanese struggled to concentrate its strength. However, this story does not capture the full scope of how important The Battle of Midway really was. To explore this, we have to ask ourselves what would have happened if the Japanese won at Midway.

Japanese Naval Strategy

The Japanese carrier Akagi in the Indian Ocean. Source: Wikipedia
The Japanese carrier Akagi in the Indian Ocean. Source: Wikipedia

It's important to understand the Japanese strategy in 1942. Thanks to its commitment to the China quagmire, the Japanese were desperate for the raw resources of the Pacific Basin and the United States. However, aggressive Japanese actions that include supporting a war in China alienated it from the United States and Britain and placed vital trade agreements at risk.

To compensate, the Japanese looked to seize the colonies of France the Dutch East Indies, which were rich in rubber, rice, and oil. However, Neither the United States nor the British government would acquiesce to Japanese control over these vital territories. Both loudly and publically declared that aggression in Asia would not be tolerated and that further Japanese expansion would not go unpunished.

Planners in Tokyo concluded that expanding south into the East Indies would be opposed by American operations based out of Hawaii and the Philippines, supported by the British who controlled Singapore and India to the East. So, it was critical that the Japanese destroy the American fleet in the west to pave the way for a general eastward attack. This line of thinking led to both the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the invasion of South East Asia, resulting in the fall of Singapore in 1942.

These moves culminated in Japanese raids of the Indian Ocean during the late spring of 1942, aimed at the naval bases on Ceylon This move caused considerable damage to the British navy, sinking one of three local carriers. It also scared the hell out of the regional commanders, who feared that a Japanese offensive would strike out across the Indian Ocean and link up with Vichy forces in African Madagascar.

The HMS Hermes sinking in the Indian Ocean. Source: Wikipedia
The HMS Hermes sinking in the Indian Ocean. Source: Wikipedia

This route was vital because it controlled the British sea route to its colony in India and because it sat on the critical trade route with neutral Persia. It's no exaggeration to suggest that without that route, the Soviet Union would have been cut off from most of its western aid.

But thankfully, Japan's Indian Ocean adventure ended in late April 1942, along with the threat to these vital lanes, when its forces were recalled in preparation for a westward attack against the US Navy.

What if Japan Won the Battle of Midway?

Very little would have immediately changed for the US if was defeated by the Japanese at Midway. The Japanese would have dominated the central Pacific and perhaps tightened its grip on the Aleutians. But an invasion of a base as large and well defended as Pearl Harbor and Hawaii was never realistic given the posture of the Japanese Navy at the time, especially with its land commitments across the eastern Pacific.

Victory would have allowed the Japanese to consolidate its hold on captured territories and further damage the American Navy's buildup in the region. But the gears of American industry, which were already grinding into motion in 1942, would have eventually made up for the losses.

The USS Yorktown at the Battle of Midway
The USS Yorktown at the Battle of Midway. Source: US Navy

However, the other side of the Pacific would have seen a different situation.

After the disastrous loss of Singapore, the Royal Navy was on its heels in Asia. Meanwhile, the Japanese had concentrated a powerful army that was poised to continue its drive westward. If it had the support of the Kido Butai, these forces could have returned to the Indian Ocean in force. Japan would have then established bases on many of the islands across the western and southern regions of the Indian Ocean to interfere with British convoy operations. The Japanese could have also even offered direct material support to the Shah in Persia, who was already chafing under the yoke of the British.

The Persian Connection

These developments would not have come at a worse time for the Allies. The Battle of Midway occurred at the same time as the next major eastward German offensive, named Case Blue. This offensive would eventually culminate in the great Stalingrad encirclement.

American and British aid finally began to reach the Russians in 1942, but the Soviet economy was still recovering from battles in 1941 and early 1942. If Russia had been cut off from its oil supply along with the material aid from the Western Allies, then it’s unlikely that the Soviets probably would have been able to halt the German attack.

US Army trucks driving across the Persian plain en route to the Russian front, 1943. Source: Wikipedia
US Army trucks driving across the Persian plain en route to the Russian front, 1943. Source: Wikipedia

Additionally, the German Africa Corps under Erwin Rommel was putting the British Eighth Army in Egypt under great stress. These actions would eventually lead to the First Battle of El Alamein in July.

This battle was also a close-run affair that absorbed a significant amount of resources to win. It was only possible because the Eighth Army’s rear areas in the Middle East and India were secure from enemies. It's impossible to know what the outcome may have been if a Japanese presence in the Indian Ocean convinced Persia to switch sides at that key moment.

Persia could have become the bridge uniting the German thrust into the Caucuses and Russia with the arm in Egypt and the Middle East. The union of this great space, and the resources it contained, would have been disastrous for the Allies at precisely the time in which they were the weakest.

It's no exaggeration to suggest that Midway and the destruction of the Kido Butai was inadvertently the most important military development of the Second World War because it blocked Axis efforts around India and the Persian Gulf.

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Contributing Editor

B.T. Graves lives far from the sea amidst the trees and the hills. He spends every night at home with his two cats in a soft leather chair reading about great captains and legendary battles while he dreams of the salty sting of the ocean air.