20 January 2012

After Pearl Harbor Part Six - The Second Battle: Midway

The Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu maneuvers to avoid bombs dropped by USAAF Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress bombers
Part One

The Battle of Midway from 4 June to 7 June 1942 is arguably the most important naval battle in the Pacific War. With one fell swoop from the forces of two US carriers, Japan lost three of its aircraft carriers - a fourth would follow later. The United States only lost one. Japan's naval supremacy in the Pacific entered a downward path that they would never recover from.

As the story of Midway is well known, I'm going to take a different tack on this post. I'm going to discuss carrier operations c. 1942 with some of my computer game experiences helping in the analysis of this. I find that war games can be very educational in this regard.


I don't imagine the air conditioning on US Navy warships was all that good back in 1942. I guess key components could be kept cool, but for many you're basically in a large metal can that has the sun shining on it the whole time. In the Pacific in mid-summer it wouldn't be pleasant.

It'd also be cramped. Sailors have long faced a lack of privacy and a tiny living area - sometimes having to "hot-bunk", which I really wouldn't want to do.

Take off

Launching from an aircraft carrier wouldn't be all that hard. Just push the throttle forward to maximum power and use the wind speed generated by a combination of the carrier's own engines and the prevailing wind to get airborne. Of course, if your engine didn't work properly, you could drop into the sea, facing the chance of either being run over by your own carrier or drowning trapped in your aircraft.

I've never had any particular problems with carrier take-off in the Battlefield games at all (it's a bit harder in Il-2) - in fact it's easy in all walks of life to "take off". The question is staying airborne and landing safely.

Transit and return from target

The ocean is a big place and finding a small ship is not easy, especially when you don't have radar. Even then, you might misidentify your target in some form.

In addition, a spotter plane that found an aircraft carrier would need to call the report in. You couldn't do it like today with an encrypted satellite phone and your own voice. I may be wrong, but for distance transmissions you were having to rely on Morse - which takes time to send. It was not unheard of for a spotting aircraft to be destroyed before it get a contact report off.

Navigation was a lot harder back then as well. You were basically relying on a compass, a stopwatch and sometimes the stars - no real landmarks at sea. A small error could quickly mount up and result in you missing your target by miles. Or even worse, failing to find your carrier before you ran out of fuel. This can be demonstrated in particular by the early performance of Bomber Command over Germany where the vast majority of bombs didn't even get within five miles of their target. That's a big miss.

Attacking the target

No fancy stand-off weaponry back then. There were two basic ways to attack a carrier - dive-bombing or torpedoing.

Dive-bombing basically involves swooping down on the carrier and releasing your bombs so that they hit the deck. This is harder than it sounds. I've had enough problems in Battlefield trying to get bombs to drop accurately onto target - I usually just do lay-down and hope, with little success so far.

You've got to come in at a steep angle against a moving ship that is shooting at you. With a lot of guns - US carriers had a large number of AAA guns on board up until the missile age. One hit in the right place and you're either going to explode or not be able to pull out of the dive.

Torpedo attacks involved coming in straight and low, so the torpedo (which ran straight) would not go straight down when it hit the water. Again, you've got flak coming at you from the ship, with some small arms fire for added "effect". A hit here and you have little room for manoeuvre before plunging into the sea.


"Trapping" on a carrier is regarded as one of the most scary things to do in aviation, especially at night. You have to find the carrier in the first place and then come in at the right angle and approach to catch one of the four arrestor wires on a deck moving in three dimensions, which will bring you to a screeching halt. There were none of the optical landing systems back then - they would be invented after the war. You were reliant on eyesight and the landing officers waving you in. Come in too low and a "ramp strike" was a distinct possibility or having your landing gear collapse on you.

If you miss the wires today, you just slam the engines on afterburner and go around - as the landing area is at an angle to the rest of the ship to prevent a "bolter" from hitting aircraft parked forward and allowing for a safe fly-off. Back during the war, you'd either hit the aircraft, hit a safety net and have your aircraft badly damaged, or go off the side.

I've never made an arrested carrier landing in any game, so I can't comment on this.

Leaving your aircraft

Ditching from an aircraft over the sea is not something that any pilot would ever want to do. If you landed close to an enemy carrier, you were going to end up a POW or dead - considering the Japanese, some might have preferred the latter. If you landed in the open ocean and managed to avoid drowning by being pulled under by your own chute if you failed to release it on landing (a distinct possibility if you were injured), you had to hope someone found you...


It's a simple one really - it takes skill and bravery to be a carrier aviator. I don't think I could do it.

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