Author: Peter C. Smith
Publisher: Pen & Sword Books Maritime
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter
Over the past several years, the Battle of Midway has
become a myth undone. No longer an “incredible victory” that “doomed
Japan,” naval historians have begun to look at Midway from a more sober,
analytical perspective. This trend was probably started by Jonathan
Parshall’s and Anthony Tully’s groundbreaking Shattered Sword. Longtime
military historian Peter C Smith has introduced the recent Midway:
Dauntless Victory into the substantial canon of books written on Midway.
Smith, who wrote a book on the battle in 1976, has since become
increasingly frustrated by the way it has been portrayed in movies,
documentaries, and popular histories. With this book, he hopes to set
straight some old myths and provide new insights on Midway’s place in
Uniquely, Dauntless Victory is written by a British
historian, rather than Japanese or American writer like most books on
the subject. This allows him some creative freedom, and to avoid being
criticized for nationalistic grandstanding. His perspective is a bit
more cynical than usual, though anyone expecting an anti-American
diatribe will be happy to know that he hands out generous praise where
praise is due. However, his views on the decision-making abilities of
the American admirals, as well as a number of obvious failures of
command, are often deeply critical.
Dauntless Victory is very much a “grognard” book,
packed with seemingly obscure details whose inclusion in the main text
often isn’t immediately obvious until later in the book. It’s packed
with interviews with surviving principals, tables, flight crew rosters,
discussions of naval tactics and equipment, and mini-biographies of
every major player. Besides that, it includes an extremely comprehensive
notes section, with more than 1,200 footnotes spread throughout the
book. Dauntless Victory covers a wide range of topics, though I’ve
narrowed this down to 10 broad categories.
Aerial Navigation. This played a larger part in the
conduct of the Battle of Midway than many people might think. Smith
explains in great detail how pilots navigated over large expanses of
water in the days before GPS, the equipment used onboard carriers to
help guide returning planes home, and the perils of inaccurate weather
data and miscalibrated instruments.
Dive Bomber Tactics. The Douglas SBD ‘Dauntless’
dive bomber played the largest part in the American victory at Midway,
and in this book Smith corrects some old misinformation about how dive
bombers flew and fought during World War II. Along with comparing
American tactics with British and Japanese ones, he also explores in
great detail the dive-bomber’s history as a weapon of war.
The Failure of the USAAF. Despite having an
incredibly poor showing at Midway (not a single bomb dropped by the
USAAF hit a Japanese ship), the Army Air Corp somehow managed to
convince the American people for a long time that they’d won the
battle. This shameful manipulation of the truth is one of the more
interesting anecdotes from Dauntless Victory.
Failures of Command. Even though it was an
overwhelming victory for the Americans, there’s no denying that many
of the American leaders at Midway made some fatal mistakes. Smith
examines some of these, ranging from the pointless destruction of
Waldron’s VT-8 squadron, the sinking of the Yorktown, and the
inevitable tensions that flared up between the “Brown Shoe” and “Black
The Fog of War. This played a large part in the
confusion of the Midway. Smith describes how green pilots often
assumed they’d scored hits on Japanese ships when none actually
occurred, to over and underestimate the actual composition, course,
and speed of their force, and the impact this had on the decision
making processes of both sides.
Intelligence. Through extensive research, Peter C.
Smith learned that the claim that the Americans knew the exact
composition of the Japanese fleet, and the story surrounding the “AF
is short of water” are both seriously flawed. He also details the
contributions of ANZAC code breakers, the Japanese attempt at using
submarines for reconnaissance, and the overall state of Japanese naval
Misrepresentation in Popular Media. Smith saves his
most scathing commentary for the inaccurate depiction of the battle
presented in television documentaries, and in motion pictures going
back to 1944. Now “wearily resigned” to the fact that Hollywood often
distorts history, he also takes to task various documentaries for
depicting Essex-class carriers battling kamikazes off Okinawa as
actual footage of Midway, or Dauntlesses instead of Vals bombing Pearl
Harbor. Anyone who’s ever watched the History Channel can attest to
Operation ‘Orient’. In the book’s final chapter,
Smith describes this old “What If?” standby that suggests that the
Germans and Japanese could have linked up in India and conquered all
of Asia. He discusses the plausibility of such a scenario, how the
Japanese exploited British weakness in the Far East, the impact the
Japanese defeat at Midway would have had on their expansionist plans,
and the battle’s impact on the course of the war overall.
Post-Battle Conclusions and Analysis. Chapters 11
and 12 focus on the impact Midway had on naval thinking worldwide, the
conclusions put forth by naval authorities in the early postwar
period, and the controversy generated by some of the first “popular”
studies of the battle. Smith also discusses and criticizes some of the
obscure and well-known books on Midway, ranging from Walter Lord’s
Incredible Victory to Alvin Kernan’s The Unknown Battle of Midway.
The Sinking of the Yorktown. Most books tend to
skip over this subject, but Dauntless Victory tackles it head-on in
frequently graphic detail. Smith examines the effects of each bomb and
torpedo to hit the ship in a literally blow-by-blow account, detailing
the human and material destruction wrought by these weapons. Some of
this is rather graphic, and certainly not for the squeamish.
Dauntless Victory is certainly not an easy weekend
read - a “fortnight read” would probably be more appropriate. I wouldn’t
call it a “tough slog,” but it’s certainly not something you’d want to
tackle if it’s the first Midway book you’ve ever read. It’s dense, but
in a fascinating way, and demands the fullest attention from the reader.
Unfortunately, Smith’s writing style can come across a little abrasive
at times, but I can sympathize with him. He’s had a 40-year career as a
military historian, and has been slandered as being Pro-Nazi or
Pro-Imperial Japanese for writing books on Axis aircraft. That
frustration shows through occasionally in parts where he goes a little
overboard in describing certain pieces of equipment, bringing the
narrative to a crawl.
Those flaws aside, I think Dauntless Victory will
make a valuable addition to the Midway canon. Like any good naval
history, it brings new material into the light, crushes some hoary old
myths, and forces the reader to reconsider some old misconceptions while
simultaneously suggesting thought provoking alternatives to the common
perception of the battle. You might not agree with all of Peter C.
Smith’s conclusions (would the Japanese have really risked a nighttime
cruiser bombardment of Midway without any air cover? Who knows?), but he
certainly adds plenty of grist for the grind, and the dive-bomber crews
finally get the respect they deserved but never received. Besides being
a generously sized hardcover, Dauntless Victory has good production
values and almost 100 photographs, many of which were new to me. I’m
pleased to be one of the first reviewers “across the pond” to acquire a
copy of Dauntless Victory. I wish it the greatest success for its
eventual US publication.