Midway, Dauntless Victory: Fresh Perspectives on America's Seminal Naval Victory of World War IIMidway: Dauntless Victory

Author: Peter C. Smith
Publisher: Pen & Sword Books Maritime
Year: 2007
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 world history.

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 Shoe” navies.

  • 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 intelligence.

  • 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 this.

  • 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.



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