Trying something a bit different here, with a review of Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully.
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Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Members Episode 18 - A review of Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully. Those who follow me on social media know that over the last month or two I have been doing what I call some “free reading” which basically just means reading books about the Second World War that are not immediate research needs. So for example I have read An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 by Rick Atkinson about Allied landings in North Africa as part of Operation Torch and Empires in the Balance: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies to April 1942 by H.P. Willmott. And I have also given a read to Shattered Sword. Now this book is by far the most mentioned book everytime I ask people for what I should read about the Second World War. Such glowing and consistent feedback honestly made me a bit hesitant, but it certainly paid off. Due to how much I enjoyed this book I thought I would try something different for the Members episode this month, and this will be a book review. Book reviews of some kind have been a type of episode that has often been requested by listeners of my podcasts, and while I have made a few attempts to do so over the years, none of them have been in my mind fit for release. Since you are hearing this episode, obviously this review is different. Much like the primary source review that featured so heavily in Members Episode 17, this is something of a pilot episode, and it is very likely that over the coming years the podcast will feature more book review content, I think it could be an interesting thing to discuss once I get the form sorted out. Those future episodes probably will not be Members episodes, I do not really think it fits with what I want the Members feed to be, but for this first one hopefully it is a worthy edition to the catalog. The general structure of this episode will be three parts: a quick overview of the topic of the book, a discussion of the approach that the authors use, and then how successful I feel the authors are at using that approach when creating a book that other humans might read. As always, and especially for this episode, please feel free to drop some comments on the Patreon page about this format and this episode.
Shattered Sword travels very well covered ground when it comes to Second World War History, the battle of Midway which occurred from June 4-7 1942. This battle revolved around an attempt by the Japanese Navy to land an invasion force on the island of Midway, which was in the Hawaiian island chain. Placing Japanese troops, and more importantly aircraft, on the island was seen as a way of extended out the Japanese defensive perimeter into the central Pacific. The entire operation was one of several options that the Japanese had in early and mid 1942 as they attempted to take advantage of their incredible string of successes that they had experienced during the first 6 months of the war in the Pacific. Of course if the Japanese were planning on landing troops on Midway they had to deal with the fact that the United States Navy did not want Japanese troops on Midway, and so there was the expectation that some kind of naval battle would occur as the Japanese moved closer to their destination. To deal with this fact they would have two primary groups of ships, the first built around 4 Fleet carriers of the Kido Butai, with the carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu. These were all veterans of the Pearl Harbor operation of the previous December, and then the Indian Ocean raid that had occurred in the time between. They were the most experienced aviation units of the Japanese navy. They would be joined by a large surface fleet built around the battleship Yamato, but this collection of surface vessels was in what would be considered distant support. Like several of the other major confrontation in the Pacific, Midway would be almost entirely a battle of aviation units of the two navies, there would be some minor interactions with submarines, but no surface ships would be engaged with one another. The first part of the operation would be a Japanese air strike against the island, but then as that strike was underway, and they began to prepare for a second strike, American aircraft arrived and attacked the Japanese carriers. The Americans had learned of the Japanese plans through signals intelligence, which was quite the coup for the American intelligence services and it allowed them to prepare to meet the Japanese force with 3 carriers, the Yorktown, Enterprise, and Hornet. There would be a whole series of airstrikes by the American and Japanese Carriers that I won’t run through in this quick summary, but the outcome would be decisive. On the American side they would lose Yorktown, 150 aircraft, and roughly 300 casualties. But on the Japanese side, all four fleet carriers would be sunk, 248 aircraft destroyed, and over 3,000 killed. Obviously those are very one sided numbers, and Midway would be seen quite rightfully as a major victory for the American Navy which up to that point had not had much success. Over the last 80 years Midway has achieved almost mythical status within the annals of America’s war story. The idea that the Americans persevered against massive odds plays in quite well with the kinds of heroic narratives that all nations like to cultivate.
This brings us to the book and its approach to telling this story. The authors are very adamant that they want to in many ways attack the myth of Midway. This comes in two forms, they attack the very detailed pieces of the story that have not been correctly told over the years while also looking at the bigger picture which also plays an important part of the myth. One specific example of the first is the idea that when the first American airstrike arrived at the Japanese carriers, their decks were full of aircraft that were just waiting to be launched on a strike against the American carriers. The strike was initially held in reserve for this very purpose, but then it had been partially rearmed to be used as a second strike against the island, before again being swapped back to anti-ship armament for a strike against the carriers. This idea of the American aircraft arriving just in time to stop a strike from being launched is very evocative, but it is an idea that the authors go to great lengths to disprove. They attack this myth by investigating how the Japanese actually prepared aircraft for launch on their carriers. Unlike some other navies, the Japanese armed their ships in the hangers, not on deck, and there were limits on how quickly they could rearm the aircraft. These limits were based on the number of men available to do the swapping, but also on the number of carts available to transport the munitions up from the magazines. Due to these processes and these limitations there were limits to how quickly a strike could be prepared from the time that it was ordered to the time when it was fully armed and could be moved to the deck to begin the process of warming up the engines. The authors literally just start counting forward from the time that the order was given to swap from the bombs that would be used against Midway to the bombs and torpedoes used against the American carriers to show that it was basically impossible that the Japanese ships would have been on the decks when the Americans arrived. There simply was not enough time for what needed to happen before the aircraft would have been moved to the deck. The obvious question would be why didn’t they move a partial strike to the deck, which would have been the source of the myth, but that was also impossible due to the combat air patrol requirements of the Japanese formation which meant that there was the constant need to launch and recover fighters to provide that combat air patrol. This meant that the Japanese carriers had to really time operations quite carefully so that there were enough fighters airborne, with enough fuel, when the attack aircraft were moved to the deck to allow them to warm up and take off before any airborne fighters needed to land. At a higher level the authors also look at some of the myths that have been built up around the consequences of the Japanese defeat. Traditionally the disaster that the Japanese navy experienced at Midway is seen as an important turning point of the war in the Pacific. The authors attack the idea that this was because of the aircraft and aircrew losses that the Japanese experienced at Midway. In terms of aircraft, the the 250 aircraft that were lost were just a tiny percentage of the thousands that would be manufactured for the Japanese Navy. Obviously nobody likes to lose aircrews, but the actual number that were lost by the Japanese at Midway was not as massive as might be expected. Many of the aviators from the Japanese carriers were actually recovered, with the carriers taking many hours to sink or be scuttled which allowed large numbers of those on the ships to escape. The authors instead put the blame for the problems that Japanese Naval aviation would have when it came to trained pilots not on Midway but on the long attritional battles in the South Pacific during the last six months of 1942. These operations would see the remaining cadres prewar trained aviators drastically reduced both numerically and in terms of combat effectiveness due to simply exhaustion. The authors also make a note that the most important thing that the Japanese lost was the carriers themselves, something that had far reaching and critical consequences on Japanese naval plans and their ability to project power across the vast Pacific in the months and years the followed.
When it comes to an evaluation of how well the authors did when it came to crafting a book, I do have two mild complaints. One of the things that I generally dislike in books which bill themselves as a major re-evaluation of accepted narratives, is that they can often feel like they are directly attacking a single other author. Shattered Sword absolutely falls into this category, with their sights set directly at Misuo Fuchida and his work The Battle that Doomed Japan. So many of the criticisms that teh book levels against the normal history told about the battle are directly targeted at Fuchida. The Battle that Doomed Japan certainly has its problems when it comes to accurate history, and it has been used by many historians over the years as a source mostly uncritically, but I think that at times the authors take the direct targeting a bit too far. Several times throughout the book they adopt a structure where they pull a direct quote from Fuchida, just so that they can tear it down and talk about how wrong it is. I understand the urge to do that but at times it feels to me almost like a snarky reddit post or something similar. I really feel that they could have established the idea of Fuchida’s account being flawed without such sentence by sentence attacks. Another slight downside of the book is its extreme focus on the actions of the Japanese. I think it would have been a better book if it would have spent a bit more time on the actions of the Americans, something that only really enters the narrative as a way of putting enough context around their air raids on the Japanese fleet. This also is not just me, as an American, wanting to see American actions discussed in greater detail, but I also feel that there is a missed opportunity. A deeper understanding of American actions and intentions would have provided a better picture of the myths that the authors were attempting to dispel. I think this is felt most acutely when it comes to a full appreciation of what the American plan was for Midway and what they knew of Japanese intentions. There is a brief discussion of some of the signals intelligence and then their plan to move carriers to Midway, but what is lacking is a deeper investigation into the carrier practices of the American Navy, other than how it compared to Japan, and how they planned to meet a Japanese incursion into the central Pacific.
With those criticisms out of the way, just to be clear, this book is fantastic. The authors manage to toe the line between professional and conversational when it comes to how the book is written. There are many instances where they break out of a strict detached narrative tone and instead pose questions to the reader and also make first person comments about the source material and the events being discussed. It really reminded me of a podcast in that way. Many history podcasts that I personally listen to will spend 90% of their time in the narrative voice, but will occasionally break into a direct conversation with the listener. The authors of this book do something similar. One specific instance occurs almost at the very end of the book when discussing the consequences of Midway. One of the authors makes a joke about the other really not liking counterfactual or speculative history. Beyond just often being funny, I like this small asides because they are a good reminder that this book, like any other, was written by real people. This is such an important fact to remember when reading or listening to any history, because those people bring their own perspectives and biases to their writing. Another piece of the book that I quite like is the detail and focus on the run up to the battle on the Japanese side. This includes a lot of detail not just on the final plans for the battle and how they arrived at them, but how all of those plans were influenced both by personal opinions among the Naval Staff, as well as the tensions between the Army and Navy. As a person who has for many many years played historical strategy and war games, it was interesting to hear how the Japanese used war games to plan for the battle, and then some of the mistakes they made in those war games that allowed them to ignore some problems in their overall plan. One of the shortcoming identified with these exercises can be summarized by an American postwar study described in the book like this “Turning to the Americans, and their perceived reasons for Japan’s defeat, the very technical postwar study conducted at the U.S. Naval War College rightly cited the overconfidence of Japanese forces.10 Likewise, Yamamoto’s excessive reliance on the element of surprise in developing his plans was carefully noted. In the war college’s opinion, though, a truly cardinal sin was Yamamoto’s designing his plan around America’s perceived intentions rather than their capabilities.” One final complement I will give to the book is based around a discussion that happens just in the last chapter or so of the book around fixing the Japanese battle plan or addressing the mistakes that the Japanese made along the way. The authors really attack the idea of criticizing specific mistakes and suggesting different actions that could have been taken at those moments. In an explanation that really spoke to me and how I personally approach history, they made the argument that you have to take a larger view about why those decisions are made. Military commanders almost always make decisions based on the doctrine and training of the military they are a part of. To give a specific example cited in the book for this phenomenon. A frequent criticism of Admiral Nagumo, the officer in charge of the Japanese carriers, is that he did not order an instant strike with whatever was available as soon as the American carriers were spotted by Japanese scouts. Instead of launching a strike with the aircraft ready to go at that moment, he instead opted to wait while those that had been setup for ground attack were reconfigured for anti-ship operations. This decision is frequently criticized, because in retrospect that would be the only moment that many of those planes could have been launched due to the American strike which was on its way to attack at that very moment. Nagumo would never make that choice though, because it would have gone against everything that the Japanese believed in the realm of carrier operations. A full strike made up of the correct proportions of different type of aircraft were the only attacks that the Japanese navy believed could be successful. Was this a problem for the Japanese at Midway? Absolutely, but to alter those decisions require a far wider and deeper conversation than Admiral Nagumo should have done X, Y, or Z. It was really interesting reading those parts of this book with where the podcast is at right now, because there will be many discussions that are in the podcast over the coming year and more revolving around how to place blame for military defeat. A preview of this is in the Maginot Line episode, but basically when looking at vents and discussing alternatives it is critical not to consider decisions in a vacuum, but instead all of the decisions that led up to the one being discussed. In conclusion, Shattered Sword lives up to the hype, it is well written which makes it easy to read, it does a great job of presenting its arguments and walking the reader through the logic of those arguments. Highly recommended.