Midway, Normandy and the importance of strategy over slogans

June 6 is a remarkable date in the annals of great American military battles and victories. Eighty years ago today, the Battle of Midway (June 4-6) ended. Two years later, the allies landed at Normandy, beginning the destruction of the Nazi war machine and the occupation of Germany.

What is remarkable about both battles is that to a large degree it was flawed Japanese and German strategies that contributed to U.S. success and enemy failure. The history of both battles is well known and the subject of several Hollywood movies and hundreds of books.

After the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan’s army made rapid advances, overrunning and conquering much of Asia. At the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, the Japanese Navy was halted but not defeated. Concurrently, the Pacific Fleet’s cryptologists had broken enough of the Japanese naval code to conclude Midway was the next target.

Relying on this intelligence, Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Chester Nimitz ordered his only three aircraft carriers to Point  Luck, 150 miles northwest of Midway, to lie in wait to bushwhack the Japanese fleet while reinforcing Midway’s complement of combat aircraft. On June 4, the U.S. struck first.

During the two-day battle, four Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk and irreplaceable pilots killed. One U.S. carrier, Yorktown, was lost. The Japanese striking force retreated in arguably America’s greatest naval victory.

Besides the advanced intelligence warning, skill, daring and luck of the American side, Japanese strategy was fatally flawed. The fleet commander, Admiral Isokuro Yamamoto, who designed the Pearl Harbor attack, had divided his vast fleet into three parts. The first element was Chuichi Nagumo’s four carrier strike force meant to destroy Midway’s air defenses.

The second was the invasion force trailing 100 miles astern. Further astern was Yamamoto’s powerful battleship force. The plan was to occupy Midway and draw out the U.S. fleet, which would be destroyed by Yamamoto’s battleships and aircraft.

Two Japanese carriers had been assigned to the Army invasion of two of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands in an ongoing operation. Had Yamamoto’s force not been divided and had additional carriers been assigned to Nagumo, the U.S. Navy almost certainly would have lost. Hence, this strategic planning failure would ensure Yamamoto’s defeat.

At Normandy, Hitler assumed that the allies would land at Pas-de-Calais, the closest point across the English Channel from Britain. Nazi defenses were based on that premise. To reinforce Hitler’s instincts, the Allied supreme commander, Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower, created the phantom First U.S. Army Group, FUSAG, under the command of General George S. Patton. FUSAG’s order of battle consisted of thousands of rubber mockups and dummy planes, tanks and artillery pieces deployed directly across from the Pas-de-Calais to fool Hitler.

The weather on June 6 was marginal at best for an invasion. Because of the foul weather at the French beaches, many Nazi generals left their posts for leave or to attend war games. Army Group B Commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was en route back to Germany when the allies struck.

Conforming to the fuhrer’s infallibility, the landings at Normandy were initially considered a diversion. Rommel immediately requested permission to unleash his Panzer reserves to drive the attacking force back into the English Channel. Hitler refused. He was wrong.

While the allies established a beachhead around Normandy, the advance inland bogged down because of the French bocage — the hedgerows and easily defended terrain. For six weeks, the Germans held.  But on July 25, Operation Cobra broke through, enabling the allied offensive to move east and eventually occupy Germany.

But suppose Hitler had chosen to trust his generals and not his instincts and ordered Rommel’s Panzers into battle at Normandy. Would that have reversed the invasion and altered the course of the war? 

One counter argument was Allied command of the air. With no Luftwaffe, Allied air power might have repelled the Panzers. Fortunately, Hitler’s superior wisdom prevailed, and the Panzers were withheld until it was too late.

These two battles reaffirm the crucial importance of a sound strategy, a conclusion that is timeless. Unfortunately, since World War II, the United States has too often failed to follow that basic principle. Vietnam, Afghanistan and the second Iraq War are tragic testimonies of flawed strategies.

Today, the main thrusts of the Pentagon’s defense strategy rest on “integrated deterrence, campaigning and maintaining an enduring advantage” over potential adversaries. Yet, those terms seem more like slogans than strategy. Another review of the history of strategy in war is sorely needed — now.

Dr.  Harlan K. Ullman is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest  book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.