If Japan had attacked the US, but not Britain - An earlier Midway?
This fun little concept comes from my previous articles about what would have happened if Britain and France had not gone to war with Germany in September 1939, and instead a war had started about December 1941. This needed so much back story analysis that there are 6 articles in the series so far, but here is some of the summary from the last one, which led to me considering this little question in a bit more detail.
A weird and wonderful bag of possibilities. Enjoy.
We will start with a recap of my previous article...
So is there any chance of a World War starting in December 1941 instead.
No, not in the form we know it.
But yes, definitely in the form of a German and Japanese alliance against Russia.
After all, that would be both more possible, and more attractive, given the changing balance of naval power.
But does that become a world war? Could such a simple war start have led to 'complications'.
Would Britain or France have gone to war to save Stalin's Communist dictatorship in such circumstances? It seems unlikely. (Nor would the Dominions have been keen to go to war for Stalin.)
More interestingly, would the US have eventually decided to try and intervene on China's behalf? Unlikely given US isolationism, but I suppose it is possible to conceive of the US going to war with Japan over China. After all, it was ever increasing US pressure and sanctions over China that effectively convinced Japan it had to take on the US (and almost incidentally the British and Dutch) in 1941.
This then provides the amusing picture of the US deciding to fight Japan over China while Britain and France are still neutral. (It may be hard to imagine the US actually taking the lead in anything given their domestic politics, but it parallels what they actually did in 1941.)
In which case, perhaps it would even exceed the same disastrous results that the US managed to achieve in reality? Without any allies to distract the vast majority of the Japanese military into land and sea operations in Malaya, the East indies, Burma, Rabaul, New Guinea and the Indian Ocean, there would be no need to divert most of the best Japanese units in other directions. Leaving only the barest screen against the British/French/Dutch navies (which in this situation might actually outnumber the IJN anyway), the Japanese could have concentrated their battle hardened forces on the inadequately prepared Americans instead.
Stupidly risky thing for Japan to do, but again, reflecting the unrealistic risks that Japan really took anyway...
So lets start playing with a few options...
A 'Battle of Midway' without any allies to delay and run interference?
Given how completely the US position in Asia collapsed in early 1942 – even with Britain, Australia, India and the Netherlands taking their side and fighting long and hard against the cream of the Japanese forces for 6 months – it is scary to imagine what the Japanese could have achieved without all that distraction.
Instead of just complete disaster at Pearl Harbour; the retreat of their surviving battleships to the West Coast; and the loss of the Philippines and most of their Pacific Islands; the US may have also suffered the equivalent of the combined British and Dutch losses in the first six months of the real war as well... (Add 2 more battleships, 1 aircraft carrier, several cruisers and dozens of destroyers, plus half a dozen British, Indian or Australian divisions and another 10 Dutch East Indies divisions, and several hundred more fighters and bombers... to the US's already impressive losses - particularly the dozen divisions and hundreds of aircraft in the Philippines, and the various island bases. Now try and imagine what the US would have left to defend Hawaii?)
And that is only if Hawaii hadn't been invaded in the first round using the 3 crack divisions that in reality attacked Malaya.
The Japanese had actually completed plans for such an invasion of Hawaii, and only actually needed 2 divisions to make it work! (In reality the Japanese Army said it couldn't spare the resources given the other operations needed against the British, Dutch and Australians... but if those operations weren't needed? Indeed, even if they were still needed, the effects of a successful invasion in December 1941 would have been mind boggling. IJN Captain Kurishimo of the Japanese planning staff, who accepted the recommendation of his junior, Commander Watanabe, that invasion was too risky in these circumstances, later called that decision, the 'biggest mistake' of my life.)
But even if they hadn't committed to that up front, Midway Island almost certainly would have been captured at the same time as Wake and Guam, changing the entire strategic perspective way in advance of the actual battle of Midway..
Certainly the USN would have faced a complete and un-exhausted Japanese fleet at any final 'Battle of Midway', which presumably would have been fought either about the time of the battles of Rabual (23 January 1942); of Java Sea (28 February 1942), of Darwin ; or of the Indian Ocean Raid (5 April 1942): not months later (4 June 1942) after the Japanese had suffered long months of constant effort and attrition, and the US had had many extra months to prepare...
Let's consider IJN carrier aircraft attrition over those 6 months for instance.
(I start with taking starting figures from Navweapons, apologies for mistakes, but it is generally a good rough guide (if I added correctly!) - http://www.navweaps.com/index_oob/OOB_WWII_Pacific/index_OOB_WWII_Pacific.php
However I note that there are endless suggestions to how many planes were really on any given operation, with much disagreement in the documents. It is noticeable that the theoretical figures in Navweapons for the Indian Ocean raid assume full December 1941 squadrons, which is unlikely after 5 months of constant operations, and doesn't reflect some suggestions that squadrons had already been downsized a bit by the time of the Indian Ocean Raid. The figures certainly don't remotely fit with what Shokaku and Zuikaku were really carrying at Coral Sea, a few weeks later, after 6 months of operations. (After the Indian Ocean Raid the Japanese claim to have only lost 5 aircraft on the entire operation... British estimates are Zero 4 kill & 3 damaged, Val 6 kills & 7 damaged, Kates 2 kill & 12 damaged, for 34 kills or badly damaged... and some of damaged never made it back to a carrier to be repaired... let alone any operational losses... I have seen all sorts of weird numbers claimed, but again, estimates of substantial losses from already reduced squadrons seem to come a bit closer to reflecting how many planes the Japanese took into action at Coral Sea and Midway than the Japanese claim of only 5 losses from full squadrons...)
Akagi – 27 Zero, 27 Kate, 18 Val = 72
Kaga – 27 Zero, 27 Kate, 24 Val = 78
Soryu – 27 Zero, 18 Kate, 15 Val = 60
Hiryu – 27 Zero, 18 Kate, 15 Val = 60
Shokaku – 15 Zero, 27 Kate, 27 Val = 69
Zuikaku – 24 Zero, 18 Kate, 15 Val = 69
Total – 147 Zero, 135 Kate, 114 Val = 396 (Theoretically, many sources say higher numbers – up to 423 in some cases; or lower – 359 in others. Almost 20% variation before we even start? This lack of clarity even before the IJN has had a single operational or combat loss, makes some of the later quoted variations of numbers highly suspect.)
Raid on Darwin (19 February, 1942)
(Navweapons doesn't cover it! Not really a battle? But Wikipedia suggests 188 carrier aircraft involved from Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu – 36 Zero, 81 Kate, 71 Val – and suggests up to 32 were lost or damaged. This doesn't seem to work very well with Navweapon suggestion that all Japanese carriers were fully equipped with war start loads a few weeks later in the Indian Ocean Raid.)
Indian Ocean Raid (5 April, 1942)
(You can read a comprehensive summary of this series of skirmishes, but almost battle, here -https://www.armouredcarriers.com/battle-for-ceylon-hms-indomitable-formidable - Interestingly, in the 'Order of Battle' section it lists the full theoretical numbers carried by each Japanese carrier - matching what Navweapons says, but this doesn't seem to relate well with the Darwin numbers or losses. But it also says "Some sources argue that due to losses due to combat (40 aircraft), deck landing and mechanical attrition since Pearl Harbour, the Japanese carrier force had standardised their squadrons at 18 operational aircraft each to allow for spares. therefore Akagi at this time was operating 18 fighters, 18 dive bombers and 18 torpedo bombers for a total of 54".)
Navweapons totals (Armouredcarrier totals)
Akagi – 27 Zero, 27 Kate, 18 Val = 72 (Or 18 Zero, 18 Kate, 18 Val = 54)
Soryu – 21 Zero, 21 Kate, 21 Val = 63 (Or 18 Zero, 18 Kate, 18 Val = 54)
Hiryu – 21 Zero, 21 Kate, 21 Val = 63 (Or 18 Zero, 18 Kate, 18 Val = 54)
Shokaku – 18 Zero, 27 Kate, 27 Val = 72 (Or 18 Zero, 19 Kate, 19 Val = 56)
Zuikaku – 18 Zero, 27 Kate, 27 Val = 72 (Or 18 Zero, 19 Kate, 19 Val = 56)
Total – 97 Zero, 123 Kate, 114 Val = 342 (Or 90 Zero, 92 Kate, 92 Val = 274)
As usual, both options are little more than best guesses, though Navweapons suggestion of 100% squadron load after 5 months of constant operations, and the Pearl Harbour and Darwin losses, let alone normal operational or deck landing accidents, seems highly unlikely.
Coral Sea (4 May 1942)
Shokaku – 18 Zero, 21 Kate, 19 Val = 58
Zuikaku – 20 Zero, 23 Kate, 22 Val = 65
Total – 38 Zero, 44 Kate, 41 Val = 123
(Note one month earlier these two ships had taken somewhere between 112 and 144 aircraft to Indian Ocean. If they took 144 to the Indian Ocean, and all 5 losses there were from just these 2 carriers, why are there only 123 left? If they took more like 112 (or somewhere in between) to the Indian Ocean, and there were 30 odd losses or write offs amongst the 5 carriers involved, then even allowing for replacements or transfers from other carriers returning to Japan for refit, 123 aircraft still seems optomistic? After this battle – and the Wikipedia article suggests that these two carriers (and Shoho and 2 some tenders), managed to lose 139 'carrier planes' in that battle! – they were too depleted/damaged to participate in Midway.)
Akagi – 24 Zero, 18 Kate, 18 Val = 60
Akagi – 27 Zero, 27 Kate, 18 Val = 72
Soryu – 21 Zero, 18 Kate, 16 Val = 55
Hiryu – 21 Zero, 18 Kate, 18 Val = 57
Total – 93 Zero, 81 Kate, 70 Val = 244
(Note - Akagi, after Indian Ocean Raid, is down to 60, whereas Akagi, which didn't go, is still at 72? Soryu and Hiryu, which both took 63 to Indian Ocean, or perhaps 54, are now on 55 and 57 respectively? These 4 ships, which had 270 expert pilots at Pearl Harbour, had 244 - including less experienced replacements - at Midway, and Shokaku and Zuikaku were too depleted to join them. 10% less numbers in those 4 ships alone – despite replacements, and almost 40% less overall aircraft/aircrews than their strike force had used at Pearl Harbour. Regardless of what numbers you finally accept, 40% reduction for the crucial battle compared to 6 months earlier is a clear case of attrition in action.)
For a little comparison of reality, Admiral Fletcher started the Guadalcanal campaign on 7 August 1942 with 99 Wildcats on 3 carriers - Saratoga, Enterprise and Wasp. It must be said that their first couple of days of operations were almost as successful as any other surprise attack by any other navy had been – say the British at Taranto or the Japanese at Pearl or Darwin. Nonetheless Admiral Fletcher notes he was down to 78 active fighters within 36 hours when he withdrew to refuel. That's about 21.5% casualties in a little over a day of successful operations. Very successful. Admittedly the USN was still possibly a bit less skilled at carrier ops than the Japanese, but frankly, they were also a bit more honest about losses and real attrition rates. (The IJN actually declared Midway a victory in the Japanese press, and didn't admit their carrier losses to the Imperial General Staff for months. Leaving the army with the impression that the IJN strike force was still intact!)
Claims that the IJN entered the Indian Ocean operations with the equivalent full start of war numbers (despite all the casualties from Pearly Harbour to Darwin); and came away with only 5 losses from the entire operation: seem extremely unlikely.
I am sure many people can quote endless variations to these numbers (and I am happy to get suggestions of better sources), but let's just accept that on active operations you suffer steady attrition through combat and accident. And, perhaps more significantly, also accept that replacement pilots are often less experienced.
Consider the real Midway
In real life 1942, the USN would almost certainly have lost had the Japanese not been so reduced by attrition and distracted by other operations. Even at the real Midway, Yamamoto made a mistake in not keeping the main body advancing. He probably still would have won. The USN had practically nothing left to face his force, and the Wikipedia article (referenced 30.4.21) on Midway makes the following point:
Historian Samuel E. Morison noted in 1949 that Spruance was subjected to much criticism for not pursuing the retreating Japanese, thus allowing their surface fleet to escape. Clay Blair argued in 1975 that had Spruance pressed on, he would have been unable to launch his aircraft after nightfall, and his cruisers would have been overwhelmed by Yamamoto's powerful surface units, including Yamato. Furthermore, the American air groups had suffered considerable losses, including most of their torpedo bombers. This made it unlikely that they would be effective in an airstrike against the Japanese battleships, even if they had managed to catch them during the daytime. Also, by this time Spruance's destroyers were critically low on fuel.
As an aside: Consider the effects of allies actually cooperating.
It is also worth noting that the allies had genuinely tried to run interference for each other for months. When Churchill heard the Indian Ocean Raid was coming, he asked Roosevelt for a diversion in the Pacific, and was told the Doolittle raid would be hastened. It was too late to effect the actual Indian Ocean Raid, but it certainly convinced the Japanese they couldn't take the time to have another go at finishing off the Eastern Fleet before turning back to face the USN. The IJN had failed at their only chance of avoiding a two front war, and would have to keep major forces bouncing back and forth between the Truk/Rabaul and Singapore bases for most of the war to try and deal with this failure.
Likewise, when Midway was coming, Roosevelt requested the British Eastern Fleet try a diversion in the Indian Ocean.
The RN had just invaded Madagascar (May 5), to prevent the expected Vichy follow through to the handover to Japan of Indo-China, with the handover to Japan of Madagascar. (Which would have almost certainly cut British supplies to the Middle East, and Allied supplies to Russia via Iran, and possibly have meant a combined German and Japanese Atlantic/Indian Ocean attack on merchant shipping might have won the war for them in a single move...)
Japan hadn't actually been planning to occupy Madagascar, but nonetheless responded with a redeployment of naval forces – particularly submarines. (They actually managed to torpedo one of the Revenge class battleships off Madagascar – the tenth allied battleship sunk or put into dry dock by the IJN in 6 months – but she sailed to South Africa under her own steam and was quickly repaired.)
When Midway was happening Admiral Somerville tried another diversionary attack against the Andaman Islands, threatening the Burmese coast. Again, simply too late to effect Midway, but again, considering the Burma campaign was still in full swing, drawing the Japanese attention in two directions, rather than being able to focus on one. Similar efforts later in the war meant that Eastern Fleet (sometimes supported by the USS Saratoga) attacks on the oil fields in the East Indies were more or less co-ordinated with USN offensive operations in the Pacific.
[And later, after the USN was reduced to one operational carrier at Santa Cruz, the RN loaned an armoured carrier to assist. See Wikipedia article on HMS Victorious' service with the USN (referenced 30.4.21) : USS Hornet was sunk and USS Enterprise was badly damaged at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, leaving the United States Navy with only one fleet carrier, USS Saratoga, operational in the Pacific. In late December 1942, Victorious was loaned to the US Navy after an American plea for carrier reinforcement. ... Rear Admiral DeWitt Ramsey, commanding the division, carried out evaluation exercises and patrol sweeps in June and determined that Victorious had superior fighter control but handled Avenger aircraft poorly because of their weight. Accordingly, he transferred 832 Squadron FAA on to the Saratoga and US Carrier Air Group 3 on to the Victorious. Thereafter, Victorious's primary role was fighter cover and Saratoga mainly handled strikes. ... On 27 June, TF14 was redesignated Task Group 36.3 and sailed to provide cover for the invasion of New Georgia (part of Operation Cartwheel). Victorious spent the next 28 days continuously in combat operations at sea, ... launching 614 sorties. Returning to Nouméa on 25 July, Victorious was recalled home. ... Though the Japanese had four carriers to Ramsey's two, it seemed clear that they were not intending to press their advantage and the first two carriers of the new Essex-class had arrived at Pearl Harbor well ahead of schedule... Again, and despite most history books ignoring or misinterpreting it, the allies genuinely tried to work as allies.]
Any good tactical guide from Sun Tzu onwards will note that keeping your enemy unbalanced with flurries of light jabs, often has a significant effect on the development of the total fight: and it is usually when they are unbalanced that you get to deliver the actual knockout blows.
Consider a Midway without allied assistance or at least distraction
Now imagine the same battle being fought in February, March or April, with all 6 or the IJN's main carriers still operational at a bit closer to peak strength, and the USN much less prepared. Frankly it wouldn't have mattered if it was fought off Midway, or off Hawaii itself... (though if Midway or even Hawaii had fallen in December 1941, it may have been fought off San Francisco instead...)
Most importantly, the actual USN success at Midway was based on 7 distinct 'lucky breaks', that all needed to happen for success...
A) partially breaking Japanese codes; B) having the time to work out the 'water shortage' ruse to confirm the information; and C) having the time to reinforce both Midway and the Pacific Fleet - particularly with enough new aircraft to make the defences at least competitive; and D) combat experience from Coral Sea that meant Yorktown – but still only Yorktown – had the capability of launching a full strike effectively.
Even then it was pure luck kicked that a combination of E) the vital Japanese scout plane failing in its job; F) the slaughter of the USN's torpedo bombers allowing a crucial brief gap in Japanese fighter cover; and G) a small force of 18 dive bombers that had actually got lost, and was almost out of fuel, but took the risk to follow an errant destroyer just long enough to attack at a critical moment...)
Had any one of those 7 critical factors not gone the USN's way, they would probably have lost at Midway.
Had Yamamoto pushed on with his main force, they would probably still have lost at Midway.
It is worth quoting the Wikipedia commentary on Midway (referenced 30.4.2021) in some detail to reinforce the 'luck' point, and to emphasise the fact that even after 6 months of war, the USN was terribly inexperienced in carrier ops.
Fletcher, along with Yorktown's commanding officer, Captain Elliott Buckmaster, and their staffs, had acquired the first-hand experience needed in organizing and launching a full strike against an enemy force in the Coral Sea, but there was no time to pass these lessons on to Enterprise and Hornet which were tasked with launching the first strike. Spruance ordered the striking aircraft to proceed to target immediately, rather than waste time waiting for the strike force to assemble, since neutralizing enemy carriers was the key to the survival of his own task force.
While the Japanese were able to launch 108 aircraft in just seven minutes, it took Enterprise and Hornet over an hour to launch 117. Spruance judged that the need to throw something at the enemy as soon as possible was greater than the need to coordinate the attack by aircraft of different types and speeds (fighters, bombers, and torpedo bombers). Accordingly, American squadrons were launched piecemeal and proceeded to the target in several different groups. It was accepted that the lack of coordination would diminish the impact of the American attacks and increase their casualties, but Spruance calculated that this was worthwhile, since keeping the Japanese under aerial attack impaired their ability to launch a counterstrike (Japanese tactics preferred fully constituted attacks), and he gambled that he would find Nagumo with his flight decks at their most vulnerable.
American carrier aircraft had difficulty locating the target, despite the positions they had been given. The strike from Hornet, led by Commander Stanhope C. Ring, followed an incorrect heading of 265 degrees rather than the 240 degrees indicated by the contact report. As a result, Air Group Eight's dive bombers missed the Japanese carriers. Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8, from Hornet), led by Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, broke formation from Ring and followed the correct heading. The 10 F4Fs from Hornet ran out of fuel and had to ditch.
Waldron's squadron sighted the enemy carriers and began attacking at 09:20, followed at 09:40 by VF-6 from Enterprise, whose Wildcat fighter escorts lost contact, ran low on fuel, and had to turn back. Without fighter escort, all 15 TBD Devastators of VT-8 were shot down without being able to inflict any damage. Ensign George H. Gay, Jr. was the only survivor of the 30 aircrew of VT-8. He completed his torpedo attack on the aircraft carrier Sōryū before he was shot down, but Sōryū evaded his torpedo. Meanwhile, VT-6, led by LCDR Eugene E. Lindsey lost nine of its 14 Devastators (one ditched later), and 10 of 12 Devastators from Yorktown's VT-3 (who attacked at 10:10) were shot down with no hits to show for their effort, thanks in part to the abysmal performance of their unimproved Mark 13 torpedoes. Midway was the last time the TBD Devastator was used in combat.
The Japanese combat air patrol, flying Mitsubishi A6M2 Zeros, made short work of the unescorted, slow, under-armed TBDs. A few TBDs managed to get within a few ship-lengths range of their targets before dropping their torpedoes—close enough to be able to strafe the enemy ships and force the Japanese carriers to make sharp evasive maneuvers—but all of their torpedoes either missed or failed to explode. Remarkably, senior Navy and Bureau of Ordnance officers never questioned why half a dozen torpedoes, released so close to the Japanese carriers, produced no results. The performance of American torpedoes in the early months of the war was scandalous, as shot after shot missed by running directly under the target (deeper than intended), prematurely exploded, or hit targets (sometimes with an audible clang) and failed to explode at all.
Despite their failure to score any hits, the American torpedo attacks achieved three important results. First, they kept the Japanese carriers off balance and unable to prepare and launch their own counterstrike. Second, the poor control of the Japanese combat air patrol (CAP) meant they were out of position for subsequent attacks. Third, many of the Zeros ran low on ammunition and fuel. The appearance of a third torpedo plane attack from the southeast by VT-3 from Yorktown, led by LCDR Lance Edward Massey at 10:00 very quickly drew the majority of the Japanese CAP to the southeast quadrant of the fleet. Better discipline and the employment of a greater number of Zeroes for the CAP might have enabled Nagumo to prevent (or at least mitigate) the damage caused by the coming American attacks.
By chance, at the same time VT-3 was sighted by the Japanese, three squadrons of SBDs from Enterprise and Yorktown were approaching from the southwest and northeast. The Yorktown squadron (VB-3) had flown just behind VT-3, but elected to attack from a different course. The two squadrons from Enterprise (VB-6 and VS-6) were running low on fuel because of the time spent looking for the enemy. Air Group Commander C. Wade McClusky, Jr. decided to continue the search, and by good fortune spotted the wake of the Japanese destroyer Arashi, steaming at full speed to rejoin Nagumo's carriers after having unsuccessfully depth-charged U.S. submarine Nautilus, which had unsuccessfully attacked the battleship Kirishima. Some bombers were lost from fuel exhaustion before the attack commenced.
Now personally, I feel that Midway was one of the greatest naval victories of all time. But I feel that particularly strongly because it is impressive how many pieces of pure luck came together to allow an inferior and vastly less experienced force to win. Operating mainly withe obsolete equipment and tactics, and losing as many aircraft to getting lost and running out of fuel as to enemy action, the USN none the less managed to fluke a victory. And if those 18 lost dive bombers had not turned up at precisely the right moment, that would simply not have happened.
Luck is always important in battle. In this particular case, even with all the other 6 vital factors accidentally coming together, it was this 7th, a lucky late arrival from the wrong direction by lost planes... that actually won the battle.
Midway fought same time, but no allies
Had Japanese been able to concentrate on this operation, without the distractions of armies and air fleets and naval support fighting simultaneously in Burma and New Guinea and other places. It is hard to see how they could have failed to win.
For a start, even if Coral Sea had sort of happened; and even if the Japanese had only sent 2 carriers to Coral Sea instead of the 5 they used for the Indian Ocean Raid (which might have meant Coral Sea became a decisive loss for the USN, with Yorktown being sunk as well – and thus being unavailable for Midway – even if the USN did still manage to take out Shoho); and even if Shokaku and Zuikaku missed Midway as a result of aircraft attrition: the IJN just would have had way more resources to throw at this operation.
But more importantly, even if the first 3 Japanese carrier losses still amazingly happened at this version of Midway, WITHOUT the threat of the Eastern Fleet in active operations attacking Madagascar and moving on the Andamans and the Burmese coast to consider: Yamamoto would have had much more incentive to simply keep advancing his main body for a killing blow.
It was the reality of still facing an active two front war that, more than anything else, that made Yamamoto reluctant to commit to the Kantai-Kessen (final battle) strategy right then and there.
Midway fought at the time of Coral Sea, but no allies
Not good. All 6 major Japanese carriers – with much less aircraft attrition over previous months – supported by the entire Japanese battle fleet: against the 3 or 4 available US carriers - still with no battle experience between them - and a few cruisers (actually less cruisers without the Australian ones present). At the real Midway many of the American flight crews were hopelessly untrained, and Fletcher was very grateful for Yorktown's limited battle experience. According to some of the pilots, many of the Devastator pilots had never taken off a carrier with a torpedo attached before.
At the real Midway 18 US aircraft fluked a breakthrough to hit 3 carriers, and won the battle. Even if the same thing accidentally happened in this case, the 3 surviving Japanese carriers would still have been more than capable of smashing the slaughtered US air groups and potentially all 3 or 4 US carriers, even before the IJN's main body arrived to chase any survivors from the field.
Knocking out 3 carriers with just 18 aircraft was an amazing fluke by such an inexperienced and poorly equipped force. (No working torpedoes for God's sake! The only functional role of the Devastators at this battle was as sacrificial decoys! Unsurprisingly, Midway was the last time the Devastator was used in carrier combat...)
Knocking out 6 closer to full strength IJN carriers with these resources and tactics? Not likely.
It gets even worse if the night combat trained Japanese surface fleet gets anywhere near the largely daylight operations only US ships.
Midway fought at the time of the Indian Ocean Raid, but no allies
A more interesting comparison.
Let's say the 5 IJN carriers from the Indian Ocean Operation against the 3 the USN had available just then. (Which assumes Kaga had still been withdrawn for repairs and upgrades... which is much less likely in this case.)
Actually this is possibly the best chance the USN might have had out of these scenarios.
Admittedly they still didn't have the option of the radar guided night strikes that Admiral Somerville was counting on to balance his inferior numbers, if he could get an engagement in the Indian Ocean: but they would at least have all received Wildcat's instead of Buffalo's, and had a few months of operational experience.
All right, Coral Sea (and even real Midway) showed the USN were still far behind the IJN in launching good strikes. But the success of the 9 land based Blenheim bombers from Ceylon to get past the IJN CAP in the Indian Ocean and straddle Akagi with bombs, showed that catching the IJN off guard was possible even without sacrificing dozens of Devastator crews in Kamikaze runs. Not learning from the experience of that shocking vulnerability, or at least not being able to find an effective solution to it, is actually the main reason that the IJN lost so many battles for the rest of the war.
I still think that the IJN's superior resources would make this battle very hard for the USN to win. But never underestimate the incompetence of Nagumo in his ability to snatch defeat – or at least inadequate results for the efforts outlayed – from the jaws of victory.
[But frankly even Somerville's risk – and risk it was – of attempting a night ambush with radar planes against the 2 carriers he thought were coming, was a gamble. Even the much greater RN combat experience with radar guided CAP's and fighting off waves of hundreds of German and Italian bombers in the Mediterranean, very probably wasn't enough to overcome 5 still efficient IJN carriers in daylight. A night attack was their only real chance. The idea that even 3 of the USN's still combat inexperienced carriers could do better in daylight is not convincing, particularly as they had no functional torpedo's! And if they did fluke knocking out 3 carriers at similar cost to their own aircraft as at the real Midway, the other two or three IJN carriers – backed by the main force with it's extra support carrier (or two or three extra support carriers if the Aleutians distraction had been dismissed) – were still almost certainly going to win.]
Midway fought at the time of Darwin, but no allies
Even if you believe that the Japanese only lost 5 aircraft on the Indian Ocean Raid, you have to accept that the 4 carriers the attacked Darwin had far bigger and more efficient aircraft loads before taking 34 losses/serious damages at Darwin. The same force would have had more than double the carriers, planes, and chance of winning: as at Coral Sea.
Midway fought at the time of Battle of Java Sea
Frankly I only mention it to point out that the IJN mounted several substantial attacks, and won several major sea battles, while the USN was still frantically trying to recover from Pearl Harbour. Consider the same efforts concentrated on preventing that recovery.
Midway fought at the time of Pearl Harbour, but no allies
If Japan wasn't trying to attack everywhere at once, and could concentrate the forces allocated against the British, Thais, Burmese and Dutch against the US, why not follow through? Even Nagumo would have been willing to take a third strike against Pearl in these circumstances. Particularly with his boss Yamamoto and his main body following close behind, and carrying the 3 crack divisions no longer needed to invade for Malaya for an invasion of Hawaii! (See Japanese discussions of just such an invasion here.)
It is hard to imagine the American carriers not trying to intervene? (Though it would probably be more sensible for them to run for the US West coast instead.)
[Saratoga was actually entering San Diego harbour when the attack started, while Lexington was near Midway and Enterprise had just sent 18 of her Dauntless's to Pearl that morning - and had most of them shot down either by a combination of the Japanese fighters and US AA!]
But even had the two carriers actually available been able to link up and co-ordinate somewhat, they could hardly be in organised position to strike back much before the main body arrived. It is also worth noting that Lexington for instance was still equipped with just 17 Buffalo fighters at this stage! Buffalo's!!! The USN, unlike the RN or IJN, could still only really fight in daylight. (It certainly lacked the radar guided bombers the RN has to make air attacks at night possible.)
Both US carriers together, fielding less than 40 fighters, against 147 Zero's... in daylight... And their Devastator torpedo bombers lacked a functional torpedo! It would be entirely down to perhaps a couple of dozen Dauntless dive bombers against 7 Japanese carriers and probably 7 battleships and God knows how many cruisers, destroyers and submarines as well.
In reality we get this (Wikipedia article on Enterprise sourced 30.4.2021):
Enterprise received radio messages from Pearl Harbor reporting that the base was under attack, and she was later directed to launch an airstrike based on an inaccurate report of a Japanese carrier southwest of her location. The strike was launched around 17:00, consisting of six Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters of Fighting Squadron Six (VF-6), 18 Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers of Torpedo Squadron Six (VT-6), and six SBDs of VB-6.
Six dive bombers against 6 Japanese carriers! The Devastators without functional torpedos are mere distractions. Even had Lexington rendezvoused next day for a joint strike, her 58 total bombers and torpedo bombers also come down to less than 20 extra dive bombers. The two of them together against practically the entire Japanese navy?
It is very hard to see any combination of fantastic flukes that might make this a winning proposition for the USN.
Frankly it doesn't bear thinking about.
Some possible USN reinforcements?
To be fair, if Britain and France had not gone to war against Germany, and there was no Atlantic Ocean battle going on, then the USN would have had marginally more resources available to face the Japanese. The 'Neutrality Patrol' in particular would have been a little less important, and the US could have relied on what Kissinger referred to as the 'sure shield' of the RN to denude East Coast defences even further.
In reality that would probably only amount to another 2 or 3 of the oldest and most vulnerable USN battleships - say Arkansas, New York and Texas. I am sure they would have made nice additional targets at Pearl Harbour.
There is the outside chance that the brand new North Carolina or Washington might have been working up in the Pacific rather than the Atlantic. In reality of course, Washington was still in trials in the Atlantic, and still having propellor trouble and failing to reach designed speeds. But in the extremely unlikely event that the North Carolina's trials been done in the Pacific instead of the Caribbean, is it possible she might have added actual value?
North Carolina's new 20 x 5" heavy AA battery alone would have almost doubled the heavy AA firepower of Battleships Row... If it could be manned and used effectively. (Her extra 16 of the dreadful 1.1" AA, and 18 .50 Cal machine-guns would be considerably less significant.) But even if she was there, she would still be only starting her work up, and as such would probably be trapped in one of the inside positions on Battleship Row. Limited arc AA from there was much harder, even if the crews were actually available, experienced enough to cope with limited arcs, and competent? Frankly a relatively untrained crew might be just as likely to hit any adjacent battleships as Japanese bombers...
But what about North Carolina surviving in Battleship Row?
Ryan Szimanski does a very entertaining Youtube analysis of whether damage to ships sunk at Pearl Harbour would have sunk an Iowa, which suggests North Carolina would probably have survived those first two strikes, even if damaged. (Though note the case where he says 'that would probably have sunk an Iowa too'...) But presumably any of those battleships survive only if the Japanese don't get in a third or fourth strike... Which they definitely would under this scenario. Still, an amusing reflection.
Aircraft Carrier Reinforcements?
More significant would bc the location of the USN's other carriers: USS Yorktown, USS Hornet, USS Wasp and USS Ranger.
Hornet had only been in commission for a little over a month, and was still doing basic training out of her port of construction Norfolk. She didn't head off for operational duties until March 1942, so I think we can safely assume she could not have been at Pearl Harbour in December 1941, or indeed available at the time of battles like Darwin, Java Sea, or Rabual. Her first actual appearance was the Doolittle raid, contemporary with Coral Sea, and hopefully I have pretty well covered her likely value from there on. She simply could not have been available at Pearl Harbour.
If Yorktown had been Pacific based instead of Atlantic at this time, her being in port after a patrol would imply either in Port on the US West Coast – no real difference – or, much worse, in port at Pearl Harbour!
One of the saving graces of Pearl Harbour, and one of the great disappointments to the Japanese, was that there were no carriers in port. If there were, then the Japanese strike force would have prioritised them. Doesn't sound good for Yorktown, or the USN.
I suppose we could argue that she might have also been off doing a delivery to some US island base... but even that remote possibility would have put her in no better position for a counter-attack than Lexington or Enterprise. It might have potentially offered 3 carriers to counter-attack, and lifted the total number of Dauntless's available to almost half those available at real Midway. Giving a better possibility of doing similar fluke and damaging 3 of the 6 Japanese carriers, but it is still hard to see any possible fluke taking out all 6?
Frankly I suspect if Yorktown had been wandering around with the other two, it might have encouraged them to try something silly. Particularly if third and fourth waves were coming in. But that implies that Yamamato's main body and his invasion fleet are also closing in...
Perhaps it would have been better for the USN, if such an incredibly unlikely set of chances didn't put Yorktown in any of these positions?
The only other aircraft carrier reinforcement possible in December 1941 was the undersized and extremely vulnerable USS Wasp.
[Still armed with Vindicator dive bombers, the USN's first experiment with monoplane bombers. Wikipedia comments: Airmen with experience in more modern aircraft spoke disparagingly of SB2Us as "vibrators" or "wind indicators" in their later combat assignments. The RN inherited 50 from a French navy order, and tried to upgrade them adequately to fit them for escort carriers, but found them so unsuitable for operations that it was decided to re-equip those squadrons with the similar vintage but far more reliable Swordfish biplanes...]
As Wasp's Wikipedia article (referenced 9.5.2021) notes:
The Navy sought to squeeze a large air group onto a ship with nearly 25% less displacement than the Yorktown-class. To save weight and space, Wasp was constructed with low-power propulsion machinery (compare Wasp's 75,000 shp (56,000 kW) machinery with Yorktown's 120,000 shp (89,000 kW), the Essex-class's 150,000 shp (110,000 kW), and the Independence-class's 100,000 shp (75,000 kW)).
Additionally, Wasp was launched with almost no armor, modest speed, and more significantly, no protection from torpedoes. Absence of side protection of the boilers and internal aviation fuel stores "doomed her to a blazing demise". These were inherent design flaws that were recognized when constructed, but could not be remedied within the allowed tonnage. These flaws, combined with a relative lack of damage control experience in the early days of the war, proved fatal.
Wasp's limited capacity meant that she was held back for Atlantic operations (where her most useful operations in first 6 months of 1942 were ferrying fighters to Malta), until the USN was reduced to desperate straits and forced to use her as a frontline carrier. After the losses at Coral Sea and Midway, they had no choice. Wasp arrived off Guadalcanal in August 1942, and was – perhaps fortunately – off re-fuelling during the Battle of Eastern Solomons. But she was torpedoed and sunk anyway within a few weeks.
The possibility of the Wasp, with her Vindicator dive bombers (predecessor to the excellent Dauntless, but just as bad as the Devastator's or Buffalo's), making much difference against the IJN in the earlier battle options above is somewhat dubious, but must at least be taken into account... Post Midway she received Dauntless's, but by then she had repeated engine problems, and struggled to make 25 knots for some of the critical mid period (sometimes only managing 15), but an operational flight deck is a flight deck, and if she was way less protected than most USN vessels, she was still no more vulnerable than many of the IJN's ships.
Which leaves USS Ranger – a far too light experimental carrier – which the USN never considered fast enough or in any way suitable for Pacific Operations. She spent her entire operational life in the Atlantic on escort or ferry roles, and wasn't even considered worth upgrading to carry the more modern and heavier aircraft until the war was almost over.
As Ranger's Wikipedia article notes: On 15 April 1942, Prime Minister Winston Churchill cabled President Franklin Delano Roosevelt requesting North Carolina and Ranger reinforce the Eastern Fleet in the wake of the Indian Ocean Raid... Admiral Ernest King had already definitely stated that Ranger and any other major fleet unit could not be made available for the Indian Ocean... King's draft response to Churchill's insistence displayed a lack of tact. Roosevelt supported King, but toned down King's draft by playing up Ranger's faults to steer the British towards accepting the ferry mission.
I think it is fairly safe to dismiss the idea that the USN would have accepted the idea of having no carriers at all in the Atlantic in 1941, and suggest that Ranger and Wasp would almost certainly have been there in December 1941 even if Hornet had been relocated to the Pacific.
A possibility of an extra few cruisers or destroyers being available in December 1941 if there was no neutrality patrol is also there: but again, the numbers would not be particularly significant.
Other possible factors to consider?
More interesting is the question of whether continued increases in orders for aircraft by the RAF and the French Air Force between 1939 and 1941 might have boosted aircraft types and numbers available to US forces?
Presumably most such aircraft would be going to fill said orders, but under peacetime conditions, there may have been more flex in deliveries than otherwise? It is hard to imagine the numbers would be enough to make substantial differences, but certainly there might be some variations? But also consider how US industry had benefited from the war starting in 1939.
A considerable part of US armaments expansion pre 1941 was to fill British or allied orders, and included everything from light infantry weapons and ammunition; to Grant and Sherman tanks; to Warhawk, and Wildcat fighters (and of course the Mustang fighter, which was designed for a British order); to Liberators and Catalina's; to Liberty ships and Escort Carriers. Even destroyer and escort production had begun to increase in response to the Battle of the Atlantic at a rate well beyond what the USN would have been doing otherwise. Without those orders, the US would have had only a fraction of the armaments production capacity it benefited from in December 1941.
In practice the US would have been in a far worse military position to deal with and replace the sort of casualties it took in late 1941 and early 1942 if a major war hadn't already been going for a couple of years.
If war had not started in 1939, then it is hard to see the Japanese daring to attack a potential coalition of Britain, France, the Netherlands, the US, and perhaps even Italy in December 1941.
No matter what the Germans think or do.
If the Japanese are willing to go to war in December 1941, or perhaps earlier in June or July in a better planned cooperation with the Germans: it would most likely be only against the Russians. (Perhaps particularly if Italy is also attacking Russia, and teh British and French are showing further disinterest?)
In which case it is theoretically possible to see the US still putting enough pressure on Japan in support of China to make Japan want to attack the US. Theoretically.
In fact I suppose if Japan hadn't gone to war on Russia, they might even be in a better position to attack the US, if they kept trying to support China even without British and French assistance and access other Burma supply route etc...
But either way, if Japan attacks the US when the US has no Britain, France, Netherlands or Australian allies to distract them, then it is almost impossible to see how the US would not have suffered even worse losses than it already did.
Even if the British and French could be relied on to step in to help the US when it was attacked, they would not have been ready to launch any effective offensive operations until months after the Japanese had completed the occupation of Hawaii and the Philippines, and the destruction of much more of the USN. (Leaving the RN the challenging task of fighting past the Japanese occupied positions in the Philippines and Taiwan and China before it could bring any pressure to bear on Japan itself. A huge task that the US took 3 years to gather the resources to do even when it had major allies... And that is only if Britain could be convinced to consider the cost worthwhile while Germany and Italy are still sitting there as potential threats, possibly looking for new opportunities as Russia collapses? And even if Britain did intervene, would France or the Netherlands want to play too?)
It is perhaps amusing to consider a world war of Germany and Japan (and perhaps Italy – land and air anyway as the RN would continue to ensure that the Italian Navy would not take risks trying to attack US interests), against a coalition of the Russians, Chinese and US.
Perhaps internal politics might have led Britain and France and the other allies to act like the Americans actually did, and just stand aside for years and try and profit from other people's misfortunes. without doing anything to actually assist in maintaining some sort of order?
But if any of these myriad options did happen, in any form, it is very hard to see it ending well for the USN.
The US would no doubt have eventually recovered, even from the loss of their entire Pacific fleet, and the resulting carrier launched bombing of their West Coast cities and factories. No doubt they would possibly have eventually defeated Japan, but presumably having taken the sort of economic damage that Britain actually experienced through having to take most of the load for many years with little support. (Which would have re-entrenched the British as the dominant international power post war, not the Americans... Interesting... the Middle East would certainly have been more peaceful since... probably Asia too... But Eastern Europe might have been an ongoing bloodbath...)
But the US had no more chance of saving their allies in Soviet Russia and China in such circumstances than the British did of saving Poland and Yugoslavia. (Would the rump of China have still finished Communist? Probably. The US allied with the two Communist powers, or at least what is left of them? Fun concept.)
So no doubt a peace would have eventually have happened, probably with US West Coast cities, and almost all Japanese cities, being in the same ruins as the US East Coast cities were at the end of their disastrous intervention in the Napoleonic wars. (See the War of 1812... The reality version, where the US war aims to 'liberate' Canada fail; the US coastal cities and trade are in ruins; and the inevitable peace allows the British to go back to their actual priority of finishing off Napoleon. Not the US apologists version where the US 'won' something in some way... see Canadian opinion of that fantasy.)
But Germany would still dominate European Russia, and although the peace might involve Japan ceding back the Philippines and much of China so the US could claim victory, Japan would probably still have been left with much of Siberia and Mongolia and Korea etc. (And quite as capable of economic recovery post war as the US was after the War of 1812...)
Even an unlikely, and very costly, US invasion of Japan would not have changed Germany dominating Russia. Without the British Empire and Commonwealth to carry much of the effort, the US simply wasn't capable of winning more than one front at a time. And her economy would have looked like Britain's post war, while Britain's would probably have looked more like America's.
But that is far more conjectural than assessable.
Conclusion – very bad news for USN
In fact, returning to more practical realities, without British and Australian and Netherlands allies, the chances of the USN coming out on top of the IJN in early 1942 are almost impossible to imagine.