“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” — Winston Churchill
Two historic events happen on this day. Both were turning points in World War Two — one in the Pacific and the other in Europe. One was a victory and the other turned a military disaster into a victory.
We’ll begin with the Pacific theater.
Six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States defeated Japan in one of the most decisive naval battles of World War II. Thanks in part to major advances in code breaking, the United States was able to preempt and counter Japan’s planned ambush of its few remaining aircraft carriers, inflicting permanent damage on the Japanese Navy. An important turning point in the Pacific campaign, the victory allowed the United States and its allies to move into an offensive position.
On this day in 1942, the Battle of Midway — one of the most decisive U.S. victories against Japan during World War II — began. During the four-day sea-and-air battle, the outnumbered U.S. Pacific Fleet succeeded in destroying four Japanese aircraft carriers while losing only one of its own, the Yorktown, to the previously invincible Japanese navy.
In six months of offensives prior to Midway, the Japanese had triumphed in lands throughout the Pacific, including Malaysia, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines and numerous island groups. The United States, however, was a growing threat, and Japanese Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto sought to destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet before it was large enough to outmatch his own.
This fleet engagement between U.S. and Japanese navies in the north-central Pacific Ocean resulted from Japan's desire to sink the American aircraft carriers that had escaped destruction at Pearl Harbor. Admiral Yamamoto, Japanese fleet commander, chose to invade a target relatively close to Pearl Harbor to draw out the American fleet, calculating that when the United States began its counterattack, the Japanese would be prepared to crush them. Instead, an American intelligence breakthrough — the solving of the Japanese fleet codes — enabled Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester W. Nimitz to understand the exact Japanese plans. Nimitz placed available U.S. carriers in position to surprise the Japanese moving up for their preparatory air strikes on Midway Island itself.
A thousand miles northwest of Honolulu, the strategic island of Midway became the focus of his scheme to smash U.S. resistance to Japan's imperial designs. Yamamoto's plan consisted of a feint toward Alaska followed by an invasion of Midway by a Japanese strike force. When the U.S. Pacific Fleet arrived at Midway to respond to the invasion, it would be destroyed by the superior Japanese fleet waiting unseen to the west. If successful, the plan would eliminate the U.S. Pacific Fleet and provide a forward outpost from which the Japanese could eliminate any future American threat in the Central Pacific. U.S. intelligence broke the Japanese naval JN-25b code, however, and the Americans anticipated the surprise attack.
The intelligence interplay would be critical to the outcome of the battle and began many weeks before the clash of arms. American radio nets in the Pacific picked up various orders Yamamoto had dispatched to prepare his forces for the operation. As early as May 2, messages that were intercepted began to indicate some forthcoming operation, and a key fact, the planned day-of-battle position of the Japanese carriers, would be divulged in a notice sent on May 16. By the time Nimitz had to make final decisions, the Japanese plans and order of battle had been reconstructed in considerable detail.
American combat forces took over where intelligence efforts left off. Scouts found the Japanese early in the morning of June 4. Although initial strikes by Midway-based planes were not successful, American carrier-based planes turned the tide. Torpedo bombers (Douglas TBD Devastator) became separated from the American Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers and were slaughtered (36 of 42 shot down), but they diverted Japanese defenses just in time for the dive-bombers to arrive — some of them had become lost, and now by luck they found the Japanese. The Japanese carriers were caught while refueling and rearming their planes, making them especially vulnerable. The Americans sank four fleet carriers — the entire strength of the task force — Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu, with 322 aircraft and over five thousand sailors. The Japanese also lost the heavy cruiser Mikuma. American losses included 147 aircraft and more than three hundred seamen.
The only Japanese carrier that initially escaped destruction, the Hiryu, loosed all its aircraft against the American task force and managed to seriously damage the U.S. carrier Yorktown, forcing its abandonment. At about 5:00 p.m., dive-bombers from the U.S. carrier Enterprise returned the favor, mortally damaging the Hiryu. It was scuttled the next morning.
Analysts often point to Japanese aircraft losses at Midway as eliminating the power of the Imperial Navy's air arm, but in fact about two-thirds of air crews survived. More devastating was the loss of trained mechanics and aircraft ground crews who went down with the ships. Some historians see Midway as the turning point in the Pacific theater of the war, after which Americans rode straight to Tokyo; others view it as a cusp in the war, after which initiative hung in the balance, to swing toward the Allies in the Guadalcanal campaign. Either way, Midway ranks as a truly decisive victory for the naval forces of the United States. Military historian John Keegan called it "the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare." It was Japan's worst naval defeat in 350 years
When the Battle of Midway ended, Japan had lost four carriers, a cruiser and 292 aircraft, and suffered an estimated 3,057 casualties. The U.S. lost the Yorktown, the destroyer USS Hammann, 145 aircraft and suffered approximately 300 casualties.
Japan's losses hobbled its naval might--bringing Japanese and American sea power to approximate parity—and marked the turning point in the Pacific theater of World War II. In August 1942, the great U.S. counteroffensive began at Guadalcanal and did not cease until Japan's surrender three years later.
Books have been written and films made about the battle. Perhaps the most authentic film about the battle was made in 1976. Midway produced by Walter Mirisch stars Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Glenn Ford, and Hal Holbrook as Commander Joseph Rochefort the eccentric naval code breaker. The film, while having a fictional story line regarding a naval pilot and his Japanese girlfriend, is an accurate portrayal of the events leading to the battle and the battle itself. It is well worth watching if you are interested in naval history. The film made with he cooperation of the United States Navy is one of the best portrayals of the war in the Pacific with the exception of Tora, Tora, Tora.
On the other side of the world on this day another war changing event ended.
On June 4, 1940, the evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk on the Belgian coast ended as German forces captured the beach port. The nine-day evacuation, the largest of its kind in history and an unexpected success, saved 338,000 Allied troops from capture by the Nazis.
On May 10, 1940, the Germans launched their attack against the West, storming into Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. Faced with far superior airpower, more unified command, and highly mobile armored forces, the Allied defenders were a poor match for the German Wehrmacht. In a lightning attack, the Germans raced across Western Europe. On May 12, they entered France, out-flanking the northwest corners of the Maginot Line, previously alleged by French military command to be an impregnable defense of their eastern border. On May 15, the Dutch surrendered.
The Germans advanced in an arc westward from the Ardennes in Belgium, along France's Somme River, and to the English Channel, cutting off communication between the Allies' northern and southern forces. The Allied armies in the north, which comprised the main body of Allied forces, were quickly being encircled. By May 19, Lord John Gort, the British commander, was already considering the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) by sea.
Reluctant to retreat so soon, the Allies fought on and launched an ineffective counterattack on May 21. By May 24, Walther von Brauchitsch, the German army commander in chief, was poised to take Dunkirk, the last port available for the withdrawal of the mass of the BEF from Europe. Fortunately for the Allies, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler suddenly intervened, halting the German advance. Hitler had been assured by Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, that his aircraft could destroy the Allied forces trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk, so Hitler ordered the forces besieging Dunkirk to pull back.
On May 26, the British finally initiated Operation Dynamo — the evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk. The next day, the Allies learned that King Leopold III of Belgium was surrendering, and the Germans resumed the land attack on Dunkirk. By then, the British had fortified their defenses, but the Germans would not be held for long, and the evacuation was escalated. As there were not enough ships to transport the huge masses of men stranded at Dunkirk, the British Admiralty called on all British citizens in possession of sea-worthy vessels to lend their ships to the effort. Fishing boats, pleasure yachts, lifeboats, and other civilian ships raced to Dunkirk, braving mines, bombs, and torpedoes.
During the evacuation, the Royal Air Force (RAF) successfully resisted the Luftwaffe, saving the operation from failure. Still, the German fighters bombarded the beach, destroyed numerous vessels, and pursued other ships within a few miles of the English coast. The harbor at Dunkirk was bombed out of use, and small civilian vessels had to ferry the soldiers from the beaches to the warships waiting at sea. But for nine days, the evacuation continued, a miracle to the Allied commanders who had expected disaster. By June 4, when the Germans closed in and the operation came to an end, 198,000 British and 140,000 French troops were saved. These experienced soldiers would play a crucial role in future resistance against Nazi Germany.
With Western Europe abandoned by its main defenders, the German army swept through the rest of France, and Paris fell on June 14. Eight days later, Henri Petain signed an armistice with the Nazis at Compiegne. Germany annexed half the country, leaving the other half in the hands of their puppet French rulers. On June 6, 1944, liberation of Western Europe finally began with the successful Allied landing at Normandy. Many of the British and French troops participating in that landing were veterans of Dunkirk.