Did the Dauntless Dive-Bomber Decide the Battle of Midway?

Peter Smith

6 mins

20 Nov 2019

The Douglas SBD Dauntless was the United States Navy’s standard carrier-borne dive-bomber at the beginning of the Pacific War. She was a single-engine monoplane and had first entered service with the fleet in 1941.

She had only a moderate performance and could be armed with a single bomb below the main fuselage (either a 500lb when she was acting a Scouting aircraft or a 1,000lb weapon in her main role), carried on a swing-out crutch to clear the propeller.

U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-3 'Dauntless' dive bombers from scouting squadron VS-8 from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) approaching the burning Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma to make the third set of attacks on her, during the Battle of Midway, 6 June 1942.

U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive-bombers approaching the burning Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma to make the third set of attacks on her, during the Battle of Midway, 6 June 1942.

What this aircraft did have, however, were two things that were to prove vital in the battle against the Imperial Japanese Navy:  the accuracy that dive-bombing alone could provide and a two-man crew (pilot and rear-gunner), totally trained and dedicated to their mission and the will to carry it out.

Contrasting tactics

In Second World War carrier-versus-carrier naval battles, although desirable, it was not essential to actually sink an aircraft-carrier target in order to take her out of the battle. One only had to score hits on the carrier’s flight deck to render her inoperative.

British aircraft carriers had armoured decks – their main threats were expected to be the heavy bombers of the German Luftwaffe or the Italian Regia Aeronautica in the confined waters around Europe. But American and Japanese carriers in the wide wastes of the Pacific only had wooden decks, with the vulnerable hangar decks and engine rooms below them.

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The pre-war policy then was always to land the first blow with the maximum number of aircraft, as that could decide the issue in carrier warfare. The Japanese operated their carriers in groups of four to six, fully harmonised to maximise the attack force, as at the Pearl Harbor attack.

The American aircraft-carriers had a different policy whereby, although acting in concert, each carrier mounted her own strike. There were plus and minus factors in each scenario; in the Japanese case, find one carrier and you found them all; in the American case their policy spread chances, but could result in uncoordinated attacks.

But being the first to attack the enemy was paramount to both sides.

American carriers carried fighter aircraft (VF), torpedo-bombers (VT), scouting (VS) and dive-bombers (VB) to form an Air Group. Three USN carriers were present at the Midway battle in June 1942.

In overall command was Admiral  Chester W Nimitz at Pearl Harbor, while at sea the two US Task Forces were TF17 (Yorktown) under Frank J Fletcher and TF16 (Enterprise and Hornet) under Raymond A Spruance.

Nimitz was a submarine specialist, Fletcher and Spruance were both cruiser specialists. It was these men who, ironically, fought the most important air-sea action of the Pacific War.

USS Yorktown at Pearl Harbor days before the battle.

USS Yorktown at Pearl Harbor days before the battle.

‘Hit first with the maximum force’

These carriers were all of a similar type and the Dauntless components roughly equal in each ship. There were also US Marine Corps Dauntless land-based on Midway atoll itself, and these had both the SBD and the older Vindicator dive-bombers.

Thanks to brilliant code-breaking by Joseph Rochefort at Pearl Harbor, the Americans knew almost precisely the composition of the Japanese carrier striking force of four carriers (Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū and Soryū commanded by Admiral Chuichi Nagumo) along with their accompanying escorts, and time and date of attack.

More details Akagi, the flagship of the Japanese carrier striking force which attacked Pearl Harbor, as well as Darwin, Rabaul, and Colombo, in April 1942 prior to the battle.

Akagi, the flagship of the Japanese carrier striking force in April 1942 prior to the battle.

Nimitz arranged an ambush accordingly based on ‘Point Option’. Unfortunately, Fletcher decided to search for more Japanese carriers away from this position and ordered Spruance’s force to follow him.

Thus, all three American carriers required two hours hard steaming to get back to within extreme striking extreme distance, wasting crucial time, during which much had happened to frustrate the ‘hit first with the maximum force’ mantra that the whole pre-war US carrier battle plans had been based upon.

Nagumo’s tortuous dilemma

It was the Japanese who opened the battle early on 4 June 1942, with a strike by 108 aircraft against Midway itself.

Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese commander in chief, had cautioned Nagumo to keep half his aircraft back in case US carriers should turn up against expectation. Meanwhile the various US land-based aircraft from that atoll attacked the Japanese carriers in wave after wave, but failed to damage any vessel, despite themselves suffering heavy losses.

A B-17 attack misses Hiryū.

A B-17 attack misses Hiryū.

US Army B-17 heavy bombers also attacked and returned to Pearl Harbor claiming to have destroyed the Japanese fleet. This was widely reported  by newspapers in the States. In truth, the Flying Fortresses failed to score so much as a single hit.

Thinking another attack on Midway itself was required, and not having had any reports of American ships from his own scouting aircraft, Nagumo then made the fatal decision to send off his ‘reserve’ force against Midway.

This required some of them being re-armed but meanwhile Fletcher finally released Spruance to make an attack with his two carriers, while he continued to recover his own search force from their fruitless hunt away to the north-east.

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The Japanese finally discovered the American carriers in turn and left Nagumo in a torturous dilemma of his own making, with the returning aircraft having to be landed on and the existing aircraft having to be again re-armed against ship targets.

By the time Spruance was ready to launch his own aircraft, the Japanese, highly efficient, had recovered their initial strike force but were not yet ready to launch their second attack.

The Americans thought that the Japanese carriers would continue on their course toward Midway to make their recovery and finally dispatched Enterprise and Hornet’s Air Groups on that assumption, but this also proved erroneous.

Yorktown at the moment of impact of a torpedo from a Nakajima B5N of Lieutenant Hashimoto's 2nd chūtai.

Yorktown at the moment of impact of a torpedo from a Nakajima B5N of Lieutenant Hashimoto’s 2nd chūtai.

When the American flyers reached the plotted position of their enemy, they found only empty ocean. Hornet’s group turned south toward Midway to find the enemy while Enterprise’s group, led by Commander Wayne McClusky, turned north. By that time, both forces were critically low on fuel.

McClusky was lucky enough to sight a Japanese destroyer returning to join Nagumo’s force and she led them straight to the target. Meanwhile Fletcher in Yorktown had finally recovered his search aircraft and belatedly flew off with his own attack force. Crucially, he held half of them back in case the Japanese had more carriers to the north after all.

Dive attacks and direct hits

Both the surviving Enterprise SBDs and the reduced Yorktown Dauntless element fortunately arrived over the Japanese carriers at the same time. They made their dive attacks immediately and scored direct hits on the Akagi, Kaga and Soryū.

Caught in the middle of re-arming, all three were heavily damaged from bombs; huge fires broke out and all three were gutted with huge loss of life. Despite claims to the contrary, however, many of their aircrews survived.

The Hiryū survived, partly due to finding refuge in a rain squall and partly due to Fletcher’s decision to hold back part of Yorktown’s striking force. This error enabled Hiryū to launch two separate attacks on Yorktown which damaged her and brought her to a stop.

She was abandoned and later sunk by a Japanese submarine, along with a destroyer. Meanwhile further attacks by the Dauntless from the surviving US carriers wrecked the Hiryū and she also was ultimately sunk.

The abandoned and burning Hiryū

The abandoned and burning Hiryū photographed by an airplane from the Hōshō.

In further attacks over the following days, the heavy cruiser Mikuma, which had been badly damaged in a collision with a sister ship, was also repeatedly hit and finally sunk, while the Mogami and the destroyer Arashio, were both hit by the SBDs and badly damaged.

A remarkable aircraft

The little Dauntless had inflicted all the damage suffered by the Japanese that remarkable day.

She went on to serve at the battles of Guadalcanal, Eastern Solomons, Santa Cruz, Bougainville (including a squadron flown by New Zealanders) and the Philippine Sea, while US Marine Corps Dauntless fought ashore during the liberation of the Philippines.

A rescued U.S. airman on Midway.

A rescued U.S. airman on Midway.

Other Navy Dauntless aircraft bombed the Vichy battleship Jean Bart at Casablanca, raided German convoys off Norway from the carrier Ranger and served with the French in Vietnam between 1945 and 1947. Truly, she was a remarkable aircraft.

Peter C Smith is the author of more than 70 books of aeronautical, naval and military history, including The Dauntless in Battle and the definitive Midway: Dauntless Victory, both published by Pen & Sword Books.