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Battle of Midway US Torpedo and Dive Bomber Attacks

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#1 R Leonard

R Leonard


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Posted 12 February 2011 - 10:01 PM

While your enthusiasm is duly noted and greatly encouraged, a truism in life would be: don’t get your history from television.

There were four separate VT attacks on the Kido Butai over a period of about three and a half hours. First came the VT-8 Det & the B-26s out of Midway itself starting at about 0700. Then came the VT-8 attack from Hornet starting their run in at about 0920. Third up was VT-6 off Enterprise starting their attack at about 0940. Lastly came VT-3 from Yorktown which started it’s attack at about 1015. It was the VT-3 attack, and its VF-3 escorts, which kept the Japanese CAP’s attention at lower altitudes while SBDs from VB-3, VB-6 and VS-6 arrived overhead.

The VB-3 SBDs, also from Yorktown, were the third piece of the only coordinated arrival of a US air group over the Japanese fleet. Their flight was planned out by the senior folks back on Yorktown: Capt Buckmaster (CO Yorktown), Cdr Arnold (Air Officer), LCdr Pederson (CAG), and LCdr Armstrong (Asst Air Officer), using what they called a running rendezvous. A departure from the standard doctrinal deferred departure where everyone circles the ship until the last plane forms up & everyone goes off in one big gaggle, the running rendezvous launched the slowest planes first & sent them on their way, these being the TBDs of VT-3. Next launched were the next slowest, the SBDs of VB-3, and off they went. Last off were the six escort F4Fs of VF-3. At a point calculated based on known performance speeds and the headwork necessary to figure the probable location of the Japanese, the SBDs overtook the TBDs and then both were overtaken by the F4Fs. About 10 minutes later the Japanese fleet hove into sight.

There was no deliberate “flanking” of the Japanese by the Enterprise’s VB-6 and VS-6 led by LCdr Wade McClusky. Having earlier led his troops off to where he was told to expect to find the Japanese, all they found was an empty ocean. Rather than simply turn back, McClusky did two things. First he decided that the Japanese would not have gone closer to Midway and therefore must be somewhere to the north of his position. Next, he quickly devised the timing and turns necessary for a standard box search. It was in the course of that box search that he spotted a Japanese destroyer and used it track bearing to lead him straight to the Japanese. Importantly, but usually lost in the “gee whiz” of it all is that his search pattern would have led him to the Japanese anyway, it simply would have taken about 20 minutes longer. The track bearing of the Japanese destroyer allowed him to cut the corner of his search.

So, while McClusky and company are coming up on the Japanese from one quarter, the Yorktown strike has already started. Attracting the attentions of the Japanese CAP are the TBDs of VT-3 and their escorting F4Fs of VF-3.

The way the distraction of the Japanese CAP is often portrayed is some nebulous torpedo plane attack, and usually ascribed to the 0920 attack of VT-8, is not correct and serves only to perpetuate myths. It goes something like “the VT attacks kept the Japanese CAP at low levels long enough for the VB/VS attacks to return their remarkable results.” Written that way, it is a myth. The way it should be written is: VT-3 and the VF-3 escort, together, kept the Japanese CAP sufficiently occupied to allow the VB/VS squadrons to enter their attack profile without interference.

And if you know anything about dive bombing as practiced by the USN you know that once the bomber enters its dive it is very, very difficult to stop.

Dick Best, the CO of VB-6, had said on many occasions, and, even once to me personally, that he observed the remnants of a torpedo plane attack going after the fourth carrier as he pulled out from his dive on Akagi. The only VT squadron in the area at the time was VT-3. Best was pretty sure that torpedo attack failed which was why he reported one carrier still untouched when he got back aboard Enterprise. Consider also, that what VB and VS aircraft that encountered any of the Japanese CAP did so as they were making their get-away, egresses made at relatively low levels. Thach, with the VF-3 escort, had his hands full and things looked pretty grim until the CAP just stopped making runs on his division . . . he looked around and saw three carriers afire.

While by no means denigrating the losses of VT-8 (Det), the USAAF B-26’s, VT-8, and VT-6, all of them made their attacks, and sacrifices, before the various SBD squadrons, VT-3, and the VF-3 escort arrived on the scene. It was, in my opinion, the one-right-after-another frequency of the VT attacks that kept the Japanese off balance, impacted the coordination of their CAP, and kept their attention riveted to defensive zones closer to sea level. The VT-3 attack was the culmination of these repeated strikes.

One has to remember that the Japanese had a very good torpedo plane and even better torpedo technology. As far as they were concerned, torpedoes were the critical danger. Note that Yorktown was able, with effort, to shrug off bomb hits (a function of damage control); it was the later B5N delivered torpedoes that brought her to a final halt and started her down the road to her eventual loss.

US torpedoes, on the other hand were another issue altogether. First of all we know there were no, none, zip, zero, nada torpedo hits on any of the ships of the Kido Butai. In fact, the only torpedo hit scored by any US plane during the period of the Midway action was dropped in a night attack of a PBY on the Japanese invasion force in the wee hours of 4 June, striking a tanker, but with only minor damage as a result. For all of the bad things one can say about US torpedoes at the time of Midway, atrocious, almost suicidal, delivery profile; slow speed; short range; faulty firing mechanisms; and so on; the salient point is that the vast majority of the TBDs that were shot down on 4 June 1942 went down before being able to drop their weapon towards a given target. Probably not more than 30% of torpedo planes, including the B-26, were actually able to drop a torpedo in the general direction of a target. Certainly a gallant effort, but in the absence of fighter escorts, in sufficient numbers, they were pretty much doomed from the start.

Of course, the month before at Coral Sea, Shoho was struck by at least seven TBD delivered torpedoes. There was plenty of time to set up and execute their attacks. There is some evidence that the torpedoes dropped in this case by VT-5 had been subject to some rather meticulous maintenance rather than just being hoisted up from the magazine, given a quick once-over, and loaded on the planes. There was also a small issue of production runs. The torpedoes used by VT-5 on Shoho were of a later production run, i.e., they were newer than the remaining torpedoes aboard the ship. VT-5 losses were none, the VF-42 F4Fs had already cleared out what CAP there was and the AAA was as typical of those days, a lot of smoke and noise. Two days later, against Shokaku and Zuikaku things did not work out so well. While TBD losses were minimal, VT-5 lost none and VT-2 lost, as I recall and without looking it up, 2, the torpedo performance was abysmal, no hits at all, any that came near a Japanese ship were easily avoided.

The torpedo plane business was recognized long before the war as a quick way to ones reward. My father, a fighter pilot at Coral Sea and Midway, often said that the torpedo plane business was the most self-sacrificing job in naval aviation.

If you are truly interested in Midway, I’ve a great long list, including the aforementioned "Shattered Sword", of what you should be reading.

I wonder what this button does . . .

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