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Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the…

Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (2005)

by Jonathan Parshall, Anthony Tully

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Many consider the Battle of Midway to have turned the tide of the Pacific War. It is without question one of the most famous battles in history. Now, for the first time since Gordon W. Prange's bestselling Miracle at Midway, Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully offer a new interpretation of this great naval engagement. Unlike previous accounts, Shattered Sword makes extensive use of Japanese primary sources. It also corrects the many errors of Mitsuo Fuchida's Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan, an uncritical reliance upon which has tainted every previous Western account. It thus forces a major, potentially controversial reevaluation of the great battle. The authors examine the battle in detail and effortlessly place it within the context of the Imperial Navy's doctrine and technology. With a foreword by leading WWII naval historian John Lundstrom, Shattered Sword will become an indispensable part of any military buff's library.… (more)
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An interesting antidote to the recently reviewed Midway: The Battle that Doomed Japan, and dispels many of the myths I thought I knew about the battle. The authors of Shattered Sword, Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, are as polite as possible without actually calling Mitsuo Fuchida an outright liar; in this regard they place some blame on American military historians, noting that Fuchida’s account of the battle was still being used as the definitive description of the Japanese side 20 years after it had been debunked in Japan.

Shattered Sword discusses three aspects of the Battle of Midway: strategy (i.e., why the Japanese chose to attack Midway, rather than elsewhere); operations (i.e., the deployment of the forces for the Midway campaign); and tactics (i.e., the performance of the Japanese ships and aircraft in attack and defense). Parshall and Tully attribute the Japanese loss at Midway to institutional level flaws in all three areas, although the tactical flaws – even though they resulted in the loss of four aircraft carriers and a heavy cruiser – were actually the least severe.

At the strategic level, the decision to attack Midway was not based on its inherent value as a piece of terrain but on the hope that the United States Navy would be drawn out of Pearl Harbor and defeated in a decisive battle. Although Parshall and Tully allocate a lot of blame to Yamamoto, they conclude that the basic problem was institutional failures in the Japanese navy. The argument is that based on their previous experience the Japanese Navy sacrificed defensive capability and damage control to speed and striking power. Thus Japanese warships – particularly the fleet carriers at Midway – were, to use a phrase from a different war, “eggshells armed with hammers”. For example, I hadn’t realized this before but two of the Japanese carriers at Midway (Sōryū and Hiryū) were so fast (34.5 knots) that they could outrun American torpedoes (33 knots) and the other two (Akagi, 31.5 knots and Kaga 28.3 knots) were very difficult targets. The reverse, though, is that damage control capabilities were neglected; aviation fuel lines and fire-fighting water mains in all the carriers were vulnerable to damage and difficult or impossible to isolate and crewmen were not trained in damage control to the level found in the USN. A similar observation is the IJN dedication to the “deckload strike” – all available carriers would launch all available attack aircraft at once and overwhelm opposition. The IJN was the best in the world at this – Shattered Sword notes that the Japanese carriers could and did organize mass, coordinated strikes at a time when the USN carriers were still operating individual air groups. But the dedication to overwhelming offense reduced the flexibility of Japanese carriers and their ability to respond quickly.

Parshall and Tully present this thesis authoritatively, but they may be too hard on the Japanese here; after all, up to Midway every campaign the Japanese Navy had fought had been won by a “single decisive battle” so it wasn’t all that unreasonable to assume things would stay that way. Further, they don’t note that the only possible way that the Japanese could have beaten the US was to have a “single decisive battle”; there was no imaginable way the Japanese could have won an attrition war. The flaw was not so much in placing hopes in decisive battles but in assuming the USN would accommodate them.

It was assumed that the US would need to be “lured” to accepting battle and much of Yamamoto’s ridiculously complex battle plan for the Midway campaign was based on the idea that the American fleet would somehow have to be tricked into leaving Pearl Harbor. In fact, the whole reason for the Midway campaign in the first place was to attack somewhere the US would have to respond, and even that was based on flawed assumption of American intentions; there was no reason for the Americans to react to an attack on Midway at all and the only reason they did was that they had broken Japanese codes and therefore had a pretty good idea of where they would be and what they would do. Parshall and Tully savage Yamamoto’s Midway campaign plan by paradoxically noting it was exactly opposite of what Japanese doctrine dictated; instead of concentrating the IJN’s offensive power it was spread out all over the North and Central Pacific. The forces involved were: The Attu and Kiska Support Force; the Attu Occupation Force; the 2nd Mobile Striking Force (small carriers for the attack on the Aleutians); the Main Body (Yamamoto); the 1st Mobile Striking Force (the four fleet carriers and their escorts); the Midway Invasion Force; the Midway Occupation Transports; and the Close Support Force (for naval gunfire support of the Midway invasion). None of these operated within range to provide support to any of the others. After the war there were claims that the Aleutian campaign was a “diversion” with the hope that the USN would respond. However, the schedules were such that the attacks on the Aleutians wouldn’t occur until after the start of the attacks on Midway; Parshall and Tully note that the Aleutian operation was added apparently just to give other naval units something to do. They fault Yamamoto for ignoring his own navy’s doctrine of overwhelming force: any target important enough to justify using a major part of the Japanese fleet should have justified using all of the fleet (including waiting for repair and replenishment of the two carriers used in the Battle of the Coral Sea, Shōkaku and Zuikaku and allowing the other carriers crews time to rest and refit).

Thus, on the strategic and operational levels Parshall and Tully advance the following:

* The Japanese shouldn’t have attacked the United States at all. It’s become sort of conventional wisdom in the US that Yamamoto was reluctant to go to war – usually using the “sleeping giant” and “After that I have no expectation of success” quotes as evidence. Parshall and Tully note, however, that proposal only to attack Britain and the Netherlands were dismissed by Yamamoto.

* Once the United States was in the war, the Japanese should have stuck with the original “barrier” strategy; seize territory that could be fortified and defended, with a powerful mobile fleet behind it. Midway certainly didn’t fall in this category; it was noted it would take around 50 transport loads a month to keep Midway supplied. In fact, it would have been a perfectly reasonable strategy for the US to let the Japanese have Midway and just wear down them down trying to keep it supported. Almost any of the other strategic options considered – further into the Southwest Pacific, Ceylon, New Guinea, part of Australia – would have been better than Midway.

* If Midway had to be attacked, then use the entire Japanese force available to do it. Any target that justified a large part of the Japanese Navy justified all of it. The division of the IJN into penny packets wandering all over the Pacific was unnecessary and ultimately disastrous.

Parshall and Tully are extremely thorough with tactical details. Multiple tactical maps show every bomb and torpedo dropped and every aircraft splashed within the limits of the displays. There’s a graph showing the number of Japanese CAP aircraft airborne at any given time throughout the battle, and appendices list all Japanese air operations – i.e., insofar as they can be determine every Japanese air operation is listed. Despite all that technical detail, the accounts of the battle are gripping enough; this is an account of the Japanese side, so much of action on the American side is summarized. Parshall and Tully again go after Fuchida here; three of his major claims (that if Japanese reconnaissance had gone off as planned the US forces would have been detected in time to attack; that if a strike had been launched as soon as the US force actually were detected the attack on the Japanese carriers would have been prevented; and that the presence of Japanese aircraft on deck being rearmed contributed to the loss of the carriers) are all refuted. Fuchida’s claim that “two phase” reconnaissance sweeps should have been used ignores the fact that these just weren’t doctrine at the time. The argument Nagumo should have launched his attack aircraft immediately rather than waiting for their armament to be changed from bombs (for attacking Midway) to torpedoes (for attacking ships) is also refuted; the US strike that destroyed (Sōryū, Akagi, and Kaga was already on its way. Finally, Fuchida’s last claim (that the Japanese aircraft on deck being rearmed contributed to the destruction of the carriers) is also dismissed; Japanese aircraft weren’t armed on deck, they were armed in their hangers below. Parshall and Tully note that no aircraft appear on deck in any of the multiple photos taken during the battle. If Nagumo had ordered an immediate strike, there might have been some aircraft being spotted on deck, but there still wouldn’t have been time to launch a deckload strike before the Dauntlesses arrived. What Nagumo should have done (and what Yamamoto had given him a verbal suggestion to do) was retain a percentage of his attack aircraft ready to launch as soon as enemy forces were discovered, even though this would have conflicted with the “deckload strike” doctrine. He didn’t.

The tactical details of the battle conflicted with my own preconceptions – because, as Parshall and Tully point out frequently, Japanese and Americans tended (and still tend) to assume that the other side operated the same as they did. In particular, I had assumed that a Japanese carrier group operated the same as an American one – a ring of supporting vessels providing antiaircraft support for a carrier in the center. In fact, Japanese carriers provided the bulk of antiaircraft fire themselves, and depended more on maneuver to avoid bombs and torpedoes (requiring them to keep well clear of each other and their screen). This actually worked very well right up until the time that it didn’t. It was also my preconception that the sacrifice of VT-8 drew the Japanese CAP down to sea level allowing the dive bombers to come in unmolested; in fact the VT-8 attack was almost half an hour before the dive bombers showed up and there was plenty of time for the Zeros to climb back to altitude. What VT-8 actually did was spread out the Japanese formation and (possibly) interfere with the detection of the incoming dive bombers; Parshall and Tully note that once the SBDs reached their pushover point they were essentially immune to both airborne interception and antiaircraft fire. I was also unaware that the dive bomber attack was actually relatively poorly coordinated; there was a mix-up that resulted in most of VB-6 and VS-6 going after Kaga rather than splitting to attack both Kaga and Akagi; Akagi was only attacked by three planes from VB-6 and only hit by one bomb (which turned out to be enough). This also bears out the difference between USN and IJN ship construction and damage control procedures; the Akagi was lost from one 500-pound bomb hit; the Yorktown took a bomb at the Battle of the Coral Sea, was sufficiently repaired to fight at Midway; took three bombs in the first attack on her at Midway but repaired the damage quickly enough that a follow up strike mistook her for an undamaged carrier and put two torpedoes into her. Even then she was deemed salvageable and a tug was moving to take her in tow when she was hit by two more torpedoes from I-168 (a third torpedo sunk the destroyer Hammann which was alongside providing electrical power; the Hammann’s depth charges went off as she went down and perhaps provided the coup de grace).

The assumption of American intentions, with the corollary that the Americans would react the same way Japanese would lead to yet another Japanese error during the battle; Nagumo assumed that the Americans would be charging into a surface battle – pitting their carrier screen against his force, which included two battleships – and therefore left his sole remaining carrier, Hiryū in range – in fact, closed the distance – rather than retreating. That eventual proved fatal to Hiryū when the Yorktown’s dive bombers showed up.

Final chapters discuss interpretations of the battle. Parshall and Tully note that “alternate histories” (which they claim to dislike) frequently choose Midway as what the Japanese were hoping for a “decisive battle”, with the implication that the Pacific War would have gone differently if the US had lost. Their counter is that it would have been unlikely to make much difference even if the Japanese had sunk all three American carriers with no losses to themselves. First off, they note that it’s unlikely an invasion of Midway would have succeeded. The carrier strikes against Midway, while damaging a number of surface installations, hadn’t damaged a single defense gun. While there was considerable naval gunfire weight available, Japanese naval support doctrine was very poorly developed (especially considering the notoriously bad relationship with the Japanese army) and the Japanese had very poor results in previous attempts to invade against resistance (Wake Island and Bataan). Parshall and Tully therefore argue that the most likely result of a Midway invasion would have been a lot of Japanese bodies floating in the lagoons. Even if they controlled the local waters, the Japanese were in no position to besiege Midway; they couldn’t support that large a force that long that far from bases. Finally, as already noted Midway really wasn’t much good for anything the Japanese might want to do with it. As noted it would have been extremely difficult to keep supplied and it wasn’t suitable as a naval base for anything but very light craft. At best it could have been a long range reconnaissance seaplane base.

Parshall and Tully concede that a Japanese naval victory at Midway would have postponed any US offensive; there would have been no Guadalcanal for a while. But the US was outbuilding the Japanese in fleet carriers at a rate of 12:1. Assuming thing in Europe went as they did historically, Japanese defeat was inevitable.

This is an outstanding book on several levels and certainly the definitive story of the Japanese side so far. As mentioned there are excellent maps; there are also detailed drawings of the carriers and their aircraft with specifications. There are numerous endnotes, although sometimes they include information that would have been better presented in the text. The bibliography is extensive. English translations of Japanese terms are used throughout –- for example, Kidō Butai for the Japanese carrier force, chūtai for a six to nine plane air group, kankō for carrier attack bomber. This is sometimes annoying but fits with Parshall and Tully’s observation that Japanese and American practice wasn’t quite the same – i.e., Kidō Butai isn’t quite the same as “Carrier Task Force” and chūtai isn’t quite the same as “carrier air group division”; however “Kate” could have been substituted for kankō.
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1 vote setnahkt | Dec 19, 2017 |
Jonathan Parshall writes the definitive story of the Battle of Midway, told mostly through Japanese viewpoints. Parshall makes extensive use of Japanese source materials that, until now, have not made it into any English texts regarding the Battle of Midway.

The author is meticulous, and yet, the book never slows downs. It is crafted well, with timelines, charts, and descriptions of the battle. His poignant retelling of the sinking of the four carriers lost that day by the Japanese was gripping.

Throughout, carefully, Parshall explains the how and why of the American victory at Midway. From the Japanese rigid command structure to their inadequate damage control and everything in between, the battle is laid before the reader in such a way that its easy to understand while at the same time being very comprehensive. Highly recommended. ( )
  bhuesers | Mar 29, 2017 |
Shattered Sword is one of the finest -- if not the finest -- works of military history I've ever read. It is no ordinary military history, but rather a work of military analysis. The book has a purpose and it is not only to provide a lucid account of the battle, though it does that well. This is a book that for the first time in the western literature makes full use of Japanese sources. The authors' research uncovered the fact that western dogma about the battle had long been thoroughly debunked by Japanese scholars, but none of that work was accessible except in Japanese. In view of this, the approach here is to look at the battle from the Japanese point of view, considering Japanese strategy and decision-making at each step. The goal is to set the record straight by confronted the prevailing dogmata, and correct the misconceptions. While the American performance and American command decisions are part of the story of Midway, these have been told elsewhere. Parshall and Tully rewrite the history of this crucial clash in a way that is not only convincing, but is intellectually gripping as well. The reader can now make sense of Japanese goals, missteps, and calculations. I found it thrilling. ( )
  stellarexplorer | Aug 20, 2016 |
I must 'fess up to being fascinated by the Pacific campaigns during WWII. So to hear of a, relatively modern, revisionist POV on the seminal battle of Midway was a no brainer for me. As you can garner from my rating this is an exceptional book.

Exceptional as it changes many of our long-held views on what happened at Midway and also, how important it really was. I've always felt it was a pivotal battle in WWII along with the likes of Stalingrad, El Alamein, the bombing campaign but now I think differently.

What I really appreciate, and love, about this book, is the depth it goes into to perform its analysis and conclusion. Not just grand strategy and dive bomber heroics but the design of the ships, how planes were loaded, contemporary habits of the participants and so on.

Highly, highly recommended. ( )
  martinhughharvey | Apr 24, 2016 |
Brilliantly researched, highly technical history of the Battle of Midway which upends the long-established myths about the battle and tells the whole story with extreme detail and engaging wit. Necessary to own for any WWII naval buff. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 29, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Parshall, Jonathanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Tully, Anthonymain authorall editionsconfirmed
Lundstrom, John B.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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