4 October 1943: In an effort to interrupt the supply of iron ore from Norway to the Third Reich, the Royal Navy and United States Navy staged Operation Leader. Task Force 121, a combined task force of two British battleships, two cruisers and nine destroyers, along with the American aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV-4) and its escorts of a heavy cruiser and five destroyers, sortied from Scapa Flow on 2 October. The mission was to attack German convoys at the Norwegian sea port of Bodø.
By early morning, 4 October, the task force had arrived at a position in the Vestfjord Sea, about 100 miles west of the Norwegian coastline. At 0618, Ranger launched a strike force of 20 Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bombers with an escort of 8 Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters. The airplanes flew at 50–100 feet (15–30 meters) above the water to avoid detection. The squadrons maintained total radio silence.
The air strike was undetected and sunk or severely damaged several ships.
A second air strike of 10 Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers with 6 Wildcats followed. They damaged several more ships in the harbor.
This attack was the United States Navy’s only aircraft carrier operation north of Arctic Circle during World War II.
It was later determined that the steamship Rabat (2,719 tons) and the freighter Vaagen (687 tons) were sunk. The tanker Schleswig (10,762 tons), Topeka (4,991 tons) and the freighter La Plata (8,056 tons) were heavily damaged. La Plata was run aground to prevent its sinking, as was another ship, Kaguir (1,536 tons). A German troop transport, Skramstad, carrying more than 800 enemy soldiers, was damaged beyond repair. More than 200 soldiers were killed.
Strike force losses consisted of two SBD dive bombers and a TBF. Five airmen were killed, and the two survivors captured and held as Prisoners of War. One F4F, one TBF, and 4 SBDs were damaged. One airman was wounded.
Luftwaffe bombers counterattacked. A Junkers Ju 88D-1 and a Heinkel He 115B float plane were shot down by Ranger‘s Combat Air Patrol fighters.
The Operation Leader task force retired and arrived back at Scapa Flow on 6 October.
4 June 1942: The Battle of Midway: By the afternoon American planes had heavily damaged three Japanese Aircraft carriers. They would later sink. Planes from the fourth carrier, IJN Hiryu, were launched to attack the American aircraft carriers.
USS Yorktown (CV-5) was hit by two aerial torpedoes from Nakajima B5N torpedo bombers. She listed sharply, lost power and was out of action. She would later be sunk by the Japanese submarine I-168. Hiryu was attacked by U.S. Navy SBD Dauntless dive bombers and was badly damaged, set on fire, and sank later in the day.
The Battle of Midway was not over. It would go on until 7 June. However, the outcome was clear. Midway was a decisive American victory.
The Americans lost 1 aircraft carrier and 1 destroyer, about 150 aircraft, with 307 soldiers, sailors and airmen killed. The island outpost was saved and would never again be seriously threatened.
The Imperial Japanese Navy lost 4 aircraft carriers and one cruiser, with other warships, including battleships, so heavily damaged that they were out of the war for some time. Also lost were 248 aircraft and 3,057 sailors and airmen killed.
For the rest of the War, the Japanese Navy suffered from the loss of these highly experienced naval aviators. Though they could replace the men, they could not replace their years of combat experience. From this point forward, the Empire of Japan was on the defensive with its defeat inevitable.
The Battle of Midway was the most decisive naval battle in history. It was fought almost entirely by aircraft.
Very Highly Recommended: History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume IV, Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions, May 1942—August 1942, by Samuel Eliot Morison, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, September 1949. The entire 15-volume series has TDiA’s highest possible recommendation.
4 June 1942: At the Battle of Midway, beginning at 0702 hours, fifteen Douglas TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bombers were launched from the United States Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) along with squadrons of Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers and Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters.
Led by Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT-8) flew at low altitude toward the expected position of the attacking Japanese fleet, while the fighters escorted the dive bombers at high altitude. Waldron sighted the enemy fleet at a distance of 30 miles and ordered his squadron to attack. Without any fighter escort, the slow flying torpedo bombers were attacked by Japanese Navy A6M2 Type 0 fighters and defensive anti-aircraft fire from the warships. All fifteen TBDs were shot down.
A detachment of VT-8, flying Grumman TBF-1 Avengers, had been sent ahead to Midway from Pearl Harbor. These six torpedo bombers, led by Lieutenant Langdon K. Fieberling, also attacked the Japanese fleet. Five were shot down by intercepting Zero fighters. The sixth, flown by Ensign Albert Kyle Earnest, was badly damaged and its gunner killed. The torpedo bomber was able to return to Midway but crash-landed. It was the only aircraft of Torpedo Eight to survive the Battle of Midway.¹
Only one man, Ensign George H. Gay, of the thirty pilots and gunners of Torpedo Eight who had launched from USS Hornet, survived. Ensign Earnest and Radioman Harry Hackett Ferrier, were the only survivors of the 18 men from the Midway detachment of VT-8. The torpedo bombers failed to score any hits on the Japanese ships, and their machine guns did not bring down any of the Zeros.
In the enigmatic ways of warfare, the attack by Torpedo Eight caused all of the Japanese fighters defending their aircraft carriers to descend to low altitude in their efforts to shoot down the American torpedo bombers. When the SBD Dauntless dive bombers from USS Enterprise and USS Yorktown arrived a few minutes later, there were no Japanese fighters at high altitude to interfere with their attack.
The dive bomber attack was devastating. The aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga and Hiryu were bombed and sunk. Soryu received major damage, and was sunk by its escorting destroyers later in the day.
The Imperial Japanese Navy, up to this time on the offense all over the Pacific and Indian Oceans, never recovered from the loss of the experienced pilots that died when those carriers went down.
In his After Action Report, Hornet‘s commanding officer, Captain Marc A. Mitscher (later, Admiral) wrote:
“Beset on all sides by the deadly Zero fighters, which were doggedly attacking them in force, and faced with a seemingly impenetrable screen of cruisers and destroyers, the squadron drove in valiantly at short range. Plane after plane was shot down by fighters, anti-aircraft bursts were searing faces and tearing out chunks of fuselage, and still the squadron bored in. Those who were left dropped their torpedoes at short range.”
¹ In a 2008 U.S. Naval Institute article, survivor Commander Harry H. Ferrier (then Aviation Radioman 3/c) wrote that following the Battle of Midway, TBF-1 Bu. No. 00380 was returned to Pearl Harbor for inspection. It had been hit by at least nine 20 mm cannon shells and sixty-four 7.7 mm machine gun bullets.