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The Royal New Zealand Navy

CHAPTER 19 — Turn of the Tide in the Pacific

page 279

Turn of the Tide in the Pacific

THE close of the first quarter of 1942 found the Allied cause beset by many perils and difficulties. In the Middle East the British Eighth Army was locked in an indeterminate struggle with Rommel's forces. Russia was under heavy pressure from the Germans on the Volga and in the Crimea and was calling insistently for relief by a ‘second front’. The Japanese were pushing on through Burma toward the frontier of India. In the first days of April a powerful force of aircraft-carriers and fast battleships swept across the northern Indian Ocean to the shores of Ceylon, causing grievous losses of warships and merchant vessels. New Zealand and Australia were preoccupied with anti-invasion measures. Overshadowing all were the grave conditions arising from the U–boat war which was to cost the Allies six and a quarter million tons of shipping during 1942.

Having in March assumed responsibility for the Pacific, the Americans lost no time in implementing measures for the safety of Australia and New Zealand and their lines of communication through the island bases of New Caledonia, Fiji, Samoa, Tongatabu, and Bora Bora. While the Japanese were completing their victorious campaign in the Far East and edging toward New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, American troops and aircraft and supplies were speeding without interference and in ever-increasing volume across the Pacific. From the beginning of March onward the main duty of the New Zealand cruisers was to meet the convoys of transports in the eastern part of the Anzac Area and escort them safely to their destinations.

A Far Eastern War Council had been set up in London in January 1942 to ‘secure full and continuous association’ of the Australian, New Zealand, and Netherlands Governments in the conduct of the war against Japan. Dismayed by the rapid deterioration in the Far Eastern situation, New Zealand and Australia argued strongly for a Pacific War Council in Washington, from which the war could best be directed, and this was established under President Roosevelt. The Honourable Walter Nash went to the United States as New Zealand Minister to Washington, where the Dominion was also represented by a service officer on the British Joint Staff Mission.

At the end of March 1942, by agreement between the Governments page 280 concerned, a new division of Pacific Ocean commands was decided upon and the Anzac Area command ceased to exist on 22 April. A new South-West Pacific Area, extending from the coast of South-East Asia, included the Philippine Islands, the Netherlands East Indies (excluding Sumatra), Australia, New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, and the Solomon Islands. General Douglas MacArthur was appointed Commander-in-Chief of all Allied forces in this area, with headquarters at Melbourne. All His Majesty's Australian ships in the area, other than local-defence vessels, came under the operational orders of Vice-Admiral Leary, USN, who commanded all Allied naval forces in the area.

The vast Pacific Ocean area, of which Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN, was appointed Commander-in-Chief, was subdivided into the North, Central, and South Pacific Areas. The last-mentioned, extending southward from the Equator, was contiguous on its western boundary with the South-West Pacific Area. It included New Zealand and dependencies, New Caledonia, New Hebrides, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and the Ellice, Phoenix, Tuamotu, Society, and Marquesas groups.1 There was also a separate South-East Pacific Area command extending from the eastern boundary of the Pacific Ocean Area to the coasts of Central and South America.

On 8 May Admiral Nimitz, who was also Commander-in-Chief United States Pacific Fleet, assumed command of all sea, air, and land defences in the Pacific Ocean Area, except those for the land defence of New Zealand. Vice-Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, USN, was appointed in command of the South Pacific Area and its forces.

At a rendezvous south of Tonga in the evening of 3 March the Leander and Achilles from Suva met the American heavy cruiser Portland and took over from her convoy PW 2034 comprising the transports Monterey, 18,017 tons, Matsonia, 17,226 tons, and Mormacsea, 4955 tons, bound from San Francisco for Brisbane. After refuelling at Brisbane the Leander and Achilles went to Noumea, where they were joined on 16 March by other ships of the Anzac Squadron. A convoy of eight ships with 20,000 American troops had arrived from Melbourne four days earlier. During their stay at Noumea, parties of Royal Marines from the New Zealand cruisers and United States Marines from the Chicago were exercised in landing operations.

1 In the course of the negotiations, both New Zealand and Australia strongly opposed being placed in separate areas, holding that both countries and the islands of the so-called Anzac Area were ‘one strategic whole’. The United States naval high command, on the other hand, held that Australia and New Zealand were distinct strategic entities and that the defence of the latter was primarily a naval task for which New Caledonia, Fiji, Tongatabu, and Samoa were key points on her line of communications.

page 281

The Anzac Squadron sailed on 25 March to cover the arrival and disembarkation of some 500 troops of the American division from Noumea at Vila, in the New Hebrides, where an advanced base was about to be established. The ships carrying them were met in the forenoon of 28 March. The New Zealand cruisers then left the squadron and went on to Suva, whence the Leander sailed on 30 March to rendezvous with convoy BT 201 coming from the Panama Canal, and the Achilles two days later to meet convoy PW 2055 from San Francisco. The Monowai sailed from Napier on 8 March in company with the Rangatira, both carrying troops for Fiji. They were back at Auckland a week later, and on 30 March the Monowai sailed to meet convoy BT 201.

This convoy had sailed from New York by way of the Panama Canal to Bora Bora, where the United States cruiser New Orleans and a destroyer took over escorting duty. It comprised the Uruguay, 20,183 tons, and Santa Paula, 9135 tons, for Melbourne and the General J. Parker, 12,000 tons, Santa Clara, 8100 tons, and Santa Lucia, 9135 tons, for Brisbane. They were carrying 13,220 troops, whose ultimate destination was New Caledonia.

The Leander from Suva and the Monowai from Auckland met the convoy about 250 miles south of Tongatabu on 1 April. When the Uruguay reported that she had only sufficient water for four days' steaming at 15 knots, she and the Santa Paula, escorted by the Monowai, were diverted to Auckland, where they arrived on 3 April. They sailed next day and arrived at Melbourne on the 10th. The Leander delivered her section of the convoy at Brisbane on 6 April and sailed four days later for Noumea.

On 3 April the Achilles from Suva met the American heavy cruiser Chester in a position north-east of the Kermadec Islands and took over convoy PW 2055. It consisted of the Queen Elizabeth, 83,673 tons, and the American transports Mariposa, 18,017 tons, and President Coolidge, 21,936 tons, all carrying troops for Australia. As the Queen Elizabeth was unable to enter Sydney harbour more than one hour after high water, she and the Achilles left the convoy at noon on 5 April and, steaming at 26 ½ knots to ‘catch the tide’, arrived at Sydney heads at noon next day.

The Achilles remained at Sydney for twelve days, during which time positions were prepared by the dockyard staff for mounting seven Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns. Captain Mansergh, DSC, RN,1 relieved Captain H. M. Barnes in command of the Achilles on 16 April. The cruiser sailed two days later and met the Mariposa which

1 Vice-Admiral Sir C. A. L. Mansergh, KBE, CB, DSC, m.i.d., US Silver Star; born England, 7 Oct 1898; served World War I, 1914–18 (DSC); Captain HMNZS Achilles, 1942–43; HMNZS Leander, Feb–Oct 1943; promoted Rear-Admiral, 1948; Vice-Admiral, 1951; President, RN College, Greenwich, 1953–.

page 282 was returning from Melbourne to San Francisco. Having escorted the transport to a position about 230 miles north-east of Samoa, the Achilles arrived at Pago Pago on 25 April.

The Monowai, with the United States destroyer J. D. Ford in company, sailed from Melbourne on 12 April escorting the steamers City of Paris, 10,902 tons, and City of London, 8956 tons, to Fremantle, where they arrived a week later. The Monowai and the destroyer returned to Melbourne on 25 April and the former sailed two days later for Auckland, arriving there on 2 May. During the month of April the Monowai had steamed 7831 miles.

HMS Ascania,1 an armed merchant cruiser, arrived at Auckland on 4 April after a passage of three months from the United Kingdom. She had been allocated for duty on the New Zealand Station, but four days before her arrival the Admiralty informed the Naval Board that the loss of bases in the Far East necessitated the provision of depot ships and repair ships for the maintenance of the increased forces which would operate in Eastern waters. As the serious shipping situation would not allow additional merchant tonnage to be taken over for that purpose, it had been decided to convert a number of armed merchant cruisers, including the Ascania. Admiral Leary, commanding the Anzac Area, indicated that he had ‘no immediate use’ for the Ascania which could be ‘operated by the N.Z. Naval Board as required’. Accordingly, she was employed in transporting troops to Fiji and made four voyages between Auckland and Suva. At the request of the Admiralty she was disarmed at the end of June and sailed from Auckland on 14 July on her return to the United Kingdom.

Outside Pago Pago harbour on the morning of 28 April, the Achilles and her destroyers Helm and Henley were joined by the Leander and the destroyer Lamson which had come up from Suva. The ships now operated under the direct orders of Admiral Nimitz as Task Group 12.2. They shaped course to the eastward and at noon met the United States cruiser Honolulu and three destroyers escorting convoy PW 2059 of eight ships from San Francisco and San Diego. The Honolulu and her destroyers then parted company with three of the transports for Pago Pago and Task Group 12.2 took over the remainder of the convoy.

The convoy arrived at Vila harbour, in the island of Efate in

1 HMS Ascania sailed from the United Kingdom on 8 January 1942. She was detained at Port Elizabeth, South Africa, for urgent repairs and the stowage of 300 tons of rock ballast. After calling at Mauritius and Fremantle she spent twelve days at Melbourne repairing damage to her propelling machinery. The Ascania, a twin-screw steamer of 14,000 tons, speed 15 knots, was built in 1925 for the Cunard Line. As an armed merchant cruiser, she mounted eight 6-inch and two 3-inch guns. She was to have been replaced on the New Zealand Station by HMS Carthage, another armed merchant cruiser, but owing to raider and blockade-running activity in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, this did not take place.

page 283 the New Hebrides group, in the forenoon of 4 May. While the troops were landing, one destroyer was on anti-submarine patrol off the harbour entrance. The remainder of the task group carried out a sweep to the north and west and entered harbour the following morning, when the Achilles went alongside the Leander to receive her Oerlikon gun equipment and stores.


Two United States minelayers had arrived shortly before the convoy and laid defensive minefields covering the approaches to Vila harbour and other possible landing beaches on Efate. The Achilles and Leander refuelled from an American fleet tanker and during the night Task Force 12.2 carried out another sweep to the northward, returning to harbour next morning.

The orders of the Commander-in-Chief United States Pacific Fleet were that Task Force 12.2 was to cover the unloading of the convoy. The presence of a powerful Allied naval force in the Coral Sea at that time reduced largely the threat of sea attack. It was decided, therefore, that subject to any change in the situation, the Achilles and Leander should remain in harbour with steam at immediate readiness for sea, while one destroyer was on extended patrol and another at anchor in the entrance to Vila harbour.

On 4 May 1942, the day on which the Achilles and Leander arrived with their convoy, naval operations of vital importance to the security of New Zealand and Australia were taking place in the Coral Sea where the hitherto all-victorious Japanese were to experience their first check.

The unexpected ease and speed with which they had carried out the first part of their basic war plan and gained the ‘Southern Areas’ and their rich resources caused the Japanese to underestimate the actual and potential strength of the Allied powers and to undertake further expansion of their immense perimeter. Their operations continued to be offensive, but their strategy entered a defensive phase and was directed towards securing their eastern flank against attack. Accordingly, plans were prepared for (a) the capture of Port Moresby in New Guinea and Tulagi in the Solomon Islands; (b) the capture of Midway Island, the western outlier of the Hawaiian Islands, and intended to force a decisive engagement with the United States fleet; (c) the occupation of the western Aleutian Islands in the North Pacific; and (d) the seizure of New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa in order to cut the lines of communication between Australia and New Zealand and the United States.1 The last project was contingent on the successful completion of the first two. The occupation of Port Moresby would deny the Allied

1 By a coincidence, more than 6000 miles away in the Indian Ocean, a British combined force was about to occupy Diego Suarez, in Madagascar, which in hostile hands would constitute a similar threat to communications to the Middle and Far East.

page 284 air forces a base within range of Rabaul and establish the Japanese in a position dominating New Guinea and northern Australia.

United States naval intelligence had given sufficient warning of the intended Japanese expedition to Tulagi and Port Moresby to enable the Americans to assemble a strong naval force in the Coral Sea. Task Force 17, commanded by Rear-Admiral F. J. Fletcher, USN, consisted of two aircraft-carriers, eight cruisers (including the Australia, Hobart, and Chicago of Task Force 44 under Rear-Admiral Crace, RN), thirteen destroyers, and two oilers. The Allied air forces based in Australia were charged with ‘air reconnaissance of the general area’. Eleven United States submarines based at Brisbane patrolled the northern approaches to the Coral Sea.

The Japanese forces consisted of a striking force, two aircraft-carriers, two heavy cruisers, six destroyers, and an oiler, commanded by Vice-Admiral Takeo Takagi; a group of eleven transports and six destroyers for the invasion of Port Moresby; a smaller group for the occupation of Tulagi (to be followed by the seizure of Nauru and Ocean Islands); a support group with two cruisers and a seaplane carrier to establish a base on the Louisiades, and a covering group consisting of an aircraft-carrier, four heavy cruisers, and a destroyer, commanded by Rear-Admiral Goto. The overall command was exercised from Rabaul by Vice-Admiral Shigeyoshi Inouye, commander of the Fourth Fleet, who also controlled seven submarines and a land-based air force.

The American ships had just completed refuelling from their oilers on 3 May when Rear-Admiral Fletcher received word that the Japanese had occupied Tulagi. He steamed north during the night and at sunrise on 4 May, from a position about 100 miles southwest from Guadalcanal, the Yorktown launched forty aircraft to the attack. This was followed by a second strike about four hours later and by yet another in the afternoon. The attacks were ‘disappointing in terms of the ratio of ammunition expended to results achieved’.1 One destroyer, three small craft, and four landing barges were sunk and a few aircraft destroyed for the loss of three United States aircraft. The damaged minelayer Okinoshima, flagship of Rear-Admiral Shima at the Tulagi landing, was sunk by an American submarine off Rabaul on 11 May.2

While the Port Moresby invasion group was steaming southward from Rabaul, Admiral Takagi's striking force passed east and south of the Solomon Islands and entered the Coral Sea on the morning of 6 May. That afternoon his carriers were only 70 miles from those

1 Comment by Commander-in-Chief US Pacific Fleet. The aircraft expended 22 torpedoes, seventy-six 1000-pound bombs, and nearly 83,000 rounds of machine-gun ammunition.

2 Admiral Shima, who was on his way to Nauru Island at that time, was recalled to Truk. Nauru and Ocean Islands were occupied by the Japanese on 25–26 August 1942.

page 285 of Admiral Fletcher steaming to the north-westward, but neither knew of the close proximity of the other. On the same day four long-range bombers from Queensland unsuccessfully attacked the aircraft-carrier of Goto's force heading southward 60 miles from Bougainville in the Solomons. By midnight the Japanese transports were approaching Jomard Passage in the Louisiades.

At sunrise on 7 May Fletcher's task force turned north from a position about 100 miles south of the Louisiades. At the same time he ordered Admiral Crace's support force to carry on to the northwest and attack the Port Moresby occupation group as it emerged from Jomard Passage. About an hour and a half later aircraft from the Yorktown and Lexington located and attacked Admiral Goto's force near Misima Island. The carrier Shoho was hit by seven torpedoes and thirteen bombs and sank in less than fifteen minutes.

Away to the south-east at about the same time, aircraft from the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku attacked the oiler Neosho and destroyer Sims which had been reported as ‘a carrier and a cruiser’. The Sims was sunk and the oiler disabled and badly damaged.1 During the afternoon Crace's cruisers were attacked with torpedoes and bombs by Japanese shore-based aircraft, five of which were shot down. The ships carried on till midnight when, learning that the invasion force had turned back, they shaped course for Sydney. In the evening twenty-seven aircraft from the Shokaku and Zuikaku were intercepted by fighters from the American carriers and ten shot down. Eleven others were lost while trying to land on their carriers in the darkness.

Next morning the two carrier forces located each other and simultaneously launched their aircraft to attack, the Japanese under cover of a weather ‘front’ while the Americans were in clear sunlight. None of the American torpedoes found its mark and the Shokaku was hit by only three bombs. But she was badly damaged and set on fire, 108 men being killed and many wounded. Less than three hours later she was on her way back to Japan for repairs.

On the other hand the Lexington was hit by two torpedoes and two bombs and several near misses ruptured her plates. The York-town avoided the Japanese torpedoes, but was hit by one bomb which killed or wounded sixty men and started fires that were soon brought under control. The Japanese lost 43 aircraft and the Americans 33 during this action, which ended shortly before noon. About an hour later, however, several internal explosions shook the Lexington, which was soon badly on fire. Further explosions finally forced the

1 The destroyer Henley found the Neosho four days later and sank her after taking off 123 men, many of them wounded. A search for others who had left the oiler on rafts on 7 May was made by the destroyer Helm, which on 17 May found a raft and took off four men, the only survivors out of 68.

page 286 abandonment of the big carrier, which was sunk by torpedoes from a destroyer. Meanwhile, the Port Moresby invasion force was returning to its base to await another opportunity which never came.

The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first major engagement in naval history in which the issue was decided without the ships firing a shot at one another, it being fought out in a series of actions by aircraft operating as flying torpedo-boats and gunboats. It took place in an area barely 1700 miles from New Zealand. It was the first reverse suffered by the Japanese and had far-reaching consequences. It was the prelude to an even greater defeat in the Central Pacific a month later.

The New Zealand cruisers did not have the good fortune to take part in the Battle of the Coral Sea. The progress and outcome of the prolonged engagement, little more than a day's steaming from the New Hebrides, became known to them at Vila from intercepted wireless signals. These indicated that enemy action against the New Hebrides was improbable in the immediate future. The situation was discussed with the General commanding the American forces at Vila, who agreed to the withdrawal of the Achilles and Leander should the Commander-in-Chief United States Pacific Fleet require their services for the continuance of offensive operations in the Coral Sea.

The Leander's aircraft was badly damaged on 17 May while being hoisted out for the routine dawn patrol. It was replaced by one from the armed merchant cruiser Manoora which, in company with HMAS Mildura, arrived next day. The Australian ships took away the Royal Australian Air Force unit and the small detachment of Australian troops which had been garrisoning Vila until relieved by the Americans. A number of refugees from the New Hebrides and the Solomon Islands also left in the ships. The Achilles sailed from Vila on 20 May for Suva and Pago Pago.

While the Leander was at Noumea she was joined by the United States destroyers Bulmer and Paul Jones for duty with Task Group 12.2. It was arranged with the United States military authorities, in order to save time, that the cruiser should transport the advance body of troops for the occupation of the island of Espiritu Santo at the northern end of the New Hebrides group.1 Accordingly, the Leander and the destroyers proceeded to Vila, where she embarked 500 troops and some 200 tons of stores and equipment. In company with the destroyer Whipple, the Leander arrived on 28 May in the Segond Channel at the south-east end of Espiritu Santo, where the

1 Espiritu Santo was rapidly developed by the Americans into a great forward naval and air base, second only to that at Noumea. The Segond Channel provided an extensive and secure fleet anchorage. Another great naval base, with facilities for large repairs to damaged ships, was established at Havannah harbour, north of Vila, in the island of Efate.

page 287 destroyer Alden was waiting with lighters and towing craft to land the troops. The Leander returned to Vila next day and, her duty of covering the unloading of the supply ships completed, sailed on 1 June in company with the destroyers for Suva.

The Leander and destroyer Tucker sailed from Suva on 4 June to meet convoy PW 2076 from San Francisco at a rendezvous about 500 miles east from Samoa. They were joined in the morning of the 7th by the destroyers Cummings and Farragut, and the convoy, escorted by the United States heavy cruiser San Francisco, was sighted about three hours later. It was carrying the American 37th Division for Fiji, where it was to relieve the New Zealanders.

In order to secure the early release of four transports, the President Coolidge and Santa Lucia were to go direct to Fiji and the other ships to Auckland, whence the General Tasker H. Bliss was to proceed to Australia. On completing her first disembarkation at Suva the President Coolidge was to maintain a shuttle service between that port and Auckland until all the 37th Division troops were landed in Fiji.1 Accordingly, while the San Francisco and the destroyer Farragut carried on with the five transports for Auckland, the Leander and the destroyers Cummings and Tucker as Task Group 12.2 escorted the other two to Suva, where they arrived on 10 June. Subsequently the task group escorted the President Coolidge for three voyages from Auckland to Fiji, the ‘lift’ of 37th Division being completed on 13 August.

During the last week of May and the first half of June the Achilles was engaged in covering the occupation by United States marines of Wallis Island, a French protectorate lying about 180 miles west from Samoa.2 The Achilles, in company with the destroyer O'Brien, left Pago Pago on 25 May escorting the United States ships Sumner and Swan3 which carried the first echelon of troops. Two days later the Free French vessel Chevreuil joined the convoy off Wallis Island and led the Sumner and Swan inside the reef. The

1 The troops of the 37th Division landed at Auckland were accommodated in camps at Manurewa, Papakura, Karaka, Pukekohe, and Opaheke.

2 At the beginning of May the political situation in New Caledonia was very disturbed. Rear-Admiral d'Argenlieu had been sent out by General de Gaulle, leader of the Free French movement, as High Commissioner for French Oceania and the popular Governor of New Caledonia, M. Sautot, was under recall to London. A committee of citizens had cabled to de Gaulle requesting him to recall d'Argenlieu instead of Sautot, and there were popular demonstrations in Noumea where a general strike was called. On the orders of d'Argenlieu, Marines entered Sautot's residence and escorted him on board the Chevreuil, together with four members of the citizens' committee who had been arrested. The latter were landed on Walpole Island, off the southern end of New Caledonia, and Sautot was taken to Auckland. In the meantime d'Argenlieu, his chief of staff, and four others had been taken into custody by the militia, but on the intervention of General Patch, United States Army commander, they were released, d'Argenlieu having agreed to the release of the four citizens, who were brought back from Walpole Island by the Chevreuil.

3 USS Sumner, surveying ship, 2900 tons; four 5-inch guns. USS Swan, seaplane tender, 840 tons; two 3-inch guns.

page 288 Achilles and O'Brien then returned to Pago Pago, whence they sailed on 29 May escorting the second echelon of United States marines in three transports. The Achilles remained at Wallis Island until 18 June, when she departed for Pago Pago and Suva.

The Monowai, in company with HMS Ascania and the Wahine, sailed from Auckland on 13 May carrying 1000 New Zealand troops and a draft of naval ratings to Suva. On her return to Auckland the Monowai spent five weeks refitting, two additional Oerlikon guns and a radar set being installed. The Ascania and Wahine made a second voyage to Suva carrying 885 troops.

The turn of the tide of war in the Pacific came during the first week of June when the Battle of Midway was fought. Undeterred by the reverse of fortune in the Coral Sea, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, went ahead with his grandiose plan to seize Midway Island1 and the western Aleutians and force a decisive fleet action on his own terms. By 27 May his various forces, comprising the major strength of the Japanese Navy, were all on their way. This great armada numbered 84 fighting ships, apart from 16 scouting submarines, 12 transports carrying a landing force of 5000 men, and 16 oilers and supply vessels.

Yamamoto flew his flag in the newly commissioned Yamato, a battleship of nearly 80,000 tons, mounting nine 18-inch guns. Vice-Admiral Nagumo was there with four of his big aircraft-carriers and their seasoned pilots. From December to April his carrier striking force had ranged victoriously across 120 degrees of longitude from Pearl Harbour to Ceylon, seldom sighted and never attacked.

The odds against the Americans were heavy. They had only three aircraft-carriers against Nagumo's four. No battleships of sufficient speed to work with the fast carriers were available, whereas Yamamoto had eleven. The American carriers were supported by 13 cruisers and 25 destroyers. The Yorktown, which had returned from the Coral Sea to Pearl Harbour with damage estimated to take ninety days to make good, had been repaired in 48 hours. The defences of Midway had been greatly strengthened and more than 120 aircraft were stationed there. The American intelligence system had succeeded in penetrating the enemy's most closely guarded secrets well in advance of events and kept the naval command well informed, even as to the date when the expected blow was to fall.

The first report of the enemy's approach was made at nine o'clock on the morning of 3 June, when a flying boat on patrol 700 miles

1 Midway Island, sentry outpost of the Hawaiian group, lying 1135 miles west-north-west from Pearl Harbour, was an important air base and refuelling station for submarines. In 1942 it was the westernmost American base in the Central Pacific and the nearest to Japan.

page 289 to the westward of Midway sighted a group of eleven ships. Seven bombers made an unsuccessful attack in the afternoon, and shortly after midnight four flying boats attacked with torpedoes and damaged a tanker.

The Japanese carriers coming down from the north-west were 240 miles from Midway at 4.30 a.m. on the 4th when they launched an attack by 108 bombers, well supported by fighters. An hour later the carriers and the aircraft were sighted and reported by a flying boat and all aircraft took off from Midway. Admiral Fletcher's carriers Yorktown, Enterprise, and Hornet, then 200 miles north from Midway, intercepted the message and at once shaped course to the southwest in the direction of Nagumo's force.

The Japanese strike severely damaged the installations on Midway. Seventeen American fighters were shot down and others damaged. The enemy's losses of aircraft were heavy. The counter-attack from Midway did no damage to the Japanese carriers, but the American bombers, without fighter escort, suffered severe losses.

Their attack, however, appeared to cloud the judgment of Admiral Nagumo, whose airmen had told him by radio that a second strike at Midway was necessary. He had held some ninety torpedo-aircraft in readiness to deal with American carriers, but none had been sighted by his search patrols when he ordered the formations to be struck below and rearmed with bombs for a second attack on Midway. About twenty minutes later, when a patrol reported an enemy force, he changed his mind and ordered the torpedoes to be left on the aircraft not already dealt with. But his formations were already partly broken down and, in any case, he had to clear his flight decks to land the aircraft returning from the first strike on Midway.

At seven o'clock the Hornet and Enterprise began to launch a strike against Nagumo's force with all the aircraft they had except those needed for their own defence. Two hours later the Yorktown sent off all her torpedo-aircraft and half her dive-bombers with fighter escort. The Hornet's dive-bombers failed to find the Japanese carriers, which had made a drastic change of course. Her unescorted torpedo-bombers found and attacked the enemy, but all were shot down. Those from the Enterprise and Yorktown fared almost as badly. Of forty-one torpedo-bombers from those ships, only six returned and no Japanese ship was hit. But their devotion brought its reward.

The violent manoeuvring imposed on the Japanese prevented their launching more aircraft, and while the enemy's fighters were low down chasing the torpedo-bombers, the dive-bombers went in almost unopposed against the carriers, whose flight-decks were crowded with aircraft refuelling and rearming. Their bombs crashed page 290 into the Kaga, Akagi, and Soryu,1 whose decks quickly became a shambles littered with blazing and exploding aircraft. Great fires broke out below and it was soon clear that the ships were doomed. Admiral Nagumo was forced to shift his flag from the Akagi to the light cruiser Nagara. The Soryu was torpedoed and sunk during the afternoon by the American submarine Nautilus, the Kaga went down that evening, and the Akagi was sunk at sunrise next day by a torpedo from a Japanese destroyer.

Shortly after noon the Yorktown was attacked by dive-bombers from the Hiryu, the only remaining enemy carrier. Most of the aircraft were shot down, but six got through and scored three hits which severely damaged the Yorktown. She carried on at reduced speed, but two hours later the Hiryu struck again, this time with torpedo-bombers which made three disabling hits. The Yorktown was avenged by dive-bombers from the Enterprise. At five o'clock the Hiryu was badly damaged by four hits and she sank four hours later. The Yorktown, under tow, was sunk two days later by a Japanese submarine which also sank the destroyer Hammann.

Bereft of his four big carriers, Admiral Yamamoto ordered a general retirement of his forces.2 But one more disaster was to befall him. The Mikuma and Mogami,3 two of four heavy cruisers previously sent to bombard Midway, collided while avoiding attack by an American submarine. On 6 June they were attacked by aircraft, the Mikuma being sunk. The Mogami was badly battered, but managed to make Truk for temporary repairs.

The Battle of Midway Island was one of the decisive battles of the Second World War. At one stroke the strategic situation in the Pacific had been reversed. Shorn of a major part of her hitherto predominant aircraft-carrier strength, Japan had lost the initiative. The balance of naval power in the Pacific was restored and thenceforth was to swing rapidly and heavily against Japan. The threat to New Zealand and Australia was definitely removed, and in a few weeks the Allied forces passed to the offensive in the South Pacific.

1 Kaga and Akagi, 26,900 tons; speed 25 and 28 knots respectively; 60–70 aircraft; numerous AA guns. Soryu and Hiryu, 17,500 tons; 30 knots; 40–50 aircraft; many AA guns.

2 Yamamoto's northern force seized the small islands of Attu and Kiska in the western Aleutians on 7 June.

3 Mikuma and Mogami, 13,000 tons; ten 8-inch, eight 5-inch, many light AA guns; twelve torpedo-tubes; four aircraft; speed 33 knots. The Mogami was sunk by aircraft in the Battle of the Philippine Sea on 25 October 1944.