Episode 16 – The Battles of Midway versus Poltava

Today’s podcast covers two pivotal clashes, one Midway, which turned around the Pacific conflict between Japan and the United States of America and, Poltava which pitted two great northern nations, Sweden, led by Charles XII and Russia, directed by Peter the Great.

Japanese Expansion pre-Midway
Japanese Expansion pre-Midway

The Battle of Midway was a naval engagement between the Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States. It started on June 4th, 1942 and ended on either the 6th or the 7th, depending on your point of view. To say that it was a pivotal moment in the Pacific War Theater is to underestimate its significance grossly.

Let’s first introduce the commanders whose roles and actions were crucial to the success of the American’s and the failures of the Japanese.

Leading the US was Fleet Commander Chester Nimitz. He wanted to have his most aggressive commander, William Halsey to lead the ships but he was out of commission supposedly having come down with chicken pox. Given the situation it fell upon the shoulders of Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher and Admiral Raymond Spruance.

The Japanese were led by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who you will meet in Episode 26 when he faces off against William the Conqueror. Aiding him were, Nobutake Kondo, Chuichi Nagumo and Tamon Yamaguchi.

The American forces included the garrison on Midway and Task Force 16 and 17. This included 3 carriers, 7 heavy cruisers, 15 destroyers, 233 carrier-based aircraft, 127 land-based planes and 16 submarines.

On the Japanese side there was the 1st, 2nd, and 5th naval fleets and the 11th Air fleet. There were 21 ships and 264 planes. They also had a substantial reserve of 13 fighting ships and 35 support boats that never saw action.

Yamamoto’s plan was a two-pronged attack. One was to send up a group towards the Aleutian Islands as a diversion with the primary goal of attacking, then occupying the atoll of Midway. The plan would have been brilliant except the Americans had cracked the Japanese Naval Code known as JN-25. The Americans knew what was coming and could prepare for the eventual attack. American cryptanalysts had cracked the Japanese military code at the Battle of the Coral Sea coming on the heels of breaking the diplomatic code before Pearl Harbor.  

Midway was critical to the Americans as it was a significant submarine base and a jumping off point for their plan of island hopping with the goal of being able to launch air attacks on the Japanese mainland. It was also 1,200 miles or 1,900 kilometers away from Oahu, Hawaii and the home of the Pacific Fleet. The distance also meant that Midway would be too far for planes from Hawaii to aid in its defense.

The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought from May 4th through the 8th, 1942 was the first naval engagement that halted the Japanese onslaught. The Americans, while they lost the fight in the short run, it was a long-term win. The US had lost the carrier the Lexington and the Japanese thought they lost the Yorktown but that was not the case. The American industrial might was able to rehabilitate the Yorktown in record time which was to play an essential role at Midway. 

Another misconception the Japanese had was the thought that the attack on Pearl Harbor and the sweeping wins throughout the Pacific would demoralize the Americans. Nothing could have been further from the truth. While Yamamoto knew that waking the industrial giant was a big risk but he thought that if he could capture Midway he might be able to hold off the US and make them sue for peace.

The plan by the Japanese was to spread out their forces with many ships lagging behind the main force. This was a major mistake and one of the many reasons for the American victory. Yamamoto was way too cocky and way too sure of the perceived weakness of his enemy. 

Because to Americans knew that an attack was imminent, they began sending spotter planes to tell the commanders where the Japanese ships were. The first spotter was on the morning of June 3rd when Ensign Jack Reid reported that “It must be the whole Jap Navy.” While it wasn’t, only the invasion fleet of Admiral Kondo, B-17 bombers were sent out from Midway, but no hits were recorded. 

On June 4th, the real fighting began. Nagumo sent his bombers out to soften up the Midway garrison. The effect wasn’t nearly as powerful as was necessary, so the second wave of planes was put together to try again. This is a significant turning point in the battle. Nagumo was informed that a US aircraft carrier was spotted but the information was vague and varied about the size and number of ships. This caused him to hesitate and question whether he should load bombs on his planes to attack Midway again or load torpedoes to attack the American ships. 

It was here that the Americans began their attack on his ships, the Akagi, Kaga and Soryu. Wave after wave of American planes tried and failed with their wave-top attacks. The Japanese Zero’s flew low and thwarted the US pilots. But this proved a fatal mistake in staying low as a bunch of Douglas SBD “Dauntless” dive bombers came from on high and devastated the Japanese fleet. The aforementioned ships were all destroyed as they were loaded with planes filled with ordinance. They exploded and with it, came an end to the expansion of the Japanese Empire. 

The next few days saw the destruction of many other Japanese ships namely the Hiryu and Mikuma while the USS Yorktown suffered enough damage to force it back to Pearl Harbor for repairs. It didn’t make it as it was sunk by a Japanese submarine.

The aftermath of the Battle of Midway was the beginning of the end of the Japanese Navy’s domination of the Pacific theater. It was still a dominant force, but it lost a significant percentage of its aircraft carriers. More importantly, they lost a large number of skilled pilots, the cream of the crop. With the US pressing them from this moment on, they had to bring on new pilots before they were adequately trained. 

The Americans lost approximately 300 men along with the carrier Yorktown and a destroyer. Also killed was Major General Clarence Tinker. The Japanese lost ten times that number of men, 3,057. They lost four carriers, the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu. Other destroyers were severely damaged or, in the care of the Mikuma, sunk. 

There was considerable criticism of Admiral Spruance for not pursuing and destroying the remainder of the Japanese fleet but many historians since have agreed with his decision. They were getting low on torpedoes and fuel as well as having to repair significant damage to their ships. 

What I found interesting in researching this battle was the report that Nagumo submitted to the Japanese High Command. “The enemy is not aware of our plans, we were not discovered until early in the morning of the 5th at the earliest.” This is contrary to what we know now but it was a remarkable statement. Also, the Japanese government kept the loss a secret from the people and transferred many of the injured to hospitals that were isolated, and the men were unable to contact their families as well. 

Now on to the next contestant, the Battle of Poltava. 

Battle of Poltava
Battle of Poltava

Let’s set the stage. The Battle of Poltava was part of what is known to history as the Great Northern War. Many of The participants switched sides numerous times but the main players were Sweden on one side with the Russians, Polish and Denmark on the other. Early on in the war, Sweden crushed the Russians at the Battle of Narva which led Swedish king Charles XII to believe, like most of Europe did, that Russia was a backward oriental nation with a ragtag undisciplined army unworthy of a great power such as his.  

Because of this viewpoint, Charles decided to end things with Denmark and Poland, so he took the six-years after Narva to crush the other two countries which he did successfully. With his flanks protected, he went after the big prize, Russia. What he did not know was that his adversary, Tsar Peter I was a remarkable man who didn’t take defeat as a shameful act, he took it as a lesson to be learned and learn he did. 

Using the six-year respite as a way to train, increase in size and rearm his army and newly formed navy, Peter was not going to allow Russia to be beaten like he was previously. The Tsar brought in a number of western military men to change the backward fighting style of his people. He was bringing his country into the European fold. Charles was unaware of this and if he knew they were preparing for a second fight, he held the Russians in such low esteem, that he was dismissive of their enhanced fighting capabilities.

It should be noted that the rest of Europe was watching the events unfold in the Great Northern War, but they were dealing with their own issues, namely the War of the Spanish Succession which pitted the Grand Alliance led by the Holy Roman Empire, Great Britain and the Dutch Republic against the Bourbon Alliance led by France, Spain, and to a lesser extent, Cologne and Liege. 

After Charles had finally defeated Augustus II of Saxony-Poland, Tsar Peter offered a peace treaty in which the Russians would surrender all of their Baltic land except St. Petersburg but the Swedish king refused. He was so sure he could beat his foes in battle with ease that he thought a treaty would be unsatisfactory as he could gain far more by fighting his oriental adversary.

Starting in last-August 1707, Charles led his invasion force eastward with the goal being Moscow. He slowly moved forward until he reached the area near Minsk in what is present day the capital of Belarus where he made winter quarters. 

The Russians offered little resistance which was in part due to the Bulavin Rebellion going on between 1707 and 08. This was an uprising of the Don Cossacks, unhappy with the policies of Peter as well as a large number of Russian peasants running away from serfdom, a form of slavery. I covered the Bulavin Rebellion in episode 126 of the Russian Rulers History podcast.

Because of the Russian winter, Charles wasn’t able to move his troop ahead until June 1708. Even worse, General Lewenhaupt with his 12,000-man army wasn’t able to join up with his Swedish king until mid-October. By this time, Charles decided to move south into Ukraine to join up with the now insurgent forces of Cossack Hetman, Ivan Mazepa who had previously helped the Russians put down the Bulavin Rebellion.  

General Boris Sheremetev and Mikhail Golitsyn attacked Lewenhaupt’s men at the Battle of Lesnaya. This proved disastrous for the Swedes as they lost half of their men and as importantly, their baggage train and food supplies. This battle has been known to some as the Mother of Poltava.

General and Prince Alexander Menshikov raced his army in the same direction and got to the town of Baturyn first where he ordered everything destroyed including all food and ammunition stocks to deprive the Swedes of critical supplies. Strike one.

We now move to the spring of 1709 which followed the coldest winter in Europe in over 500 years, known as the Great Frost of 1709. It was so cold that parts of the waters in Venice froze over. In France, over 600,000 people killed because of the subsequent famine. This cold snap was reminiscent of the invasions of Napoleon and Hitler but was far worse than either.

King Charles XII had by now lost half of his fighting men and those left were indeed weaker than the day they crossed the Vistula River in 1707. Still, they were a formidable fighting force led by their brilliant leader. Strike two.

The Swedes began their siege of the fortress of Poltava on May 2, 1709. Peter began to gather his army of 80,000 to relieve the men on the Vorskla River. On June 20th, while on reconnaissance, Charles was struck in the foot by a stray bullet. It was so bad; he was unable to attend to the upcoming battle. Strike three.

 Field Marshall Carl Gustav Rehnskiold took command of the 30,000 men left to face the Russians. In the time between their arrival and the battle, Peter and his generals had built many redoubts, types of forts in a T-shape to provide flanking fire against the incoming Swedish army.

One by one the redoubts were taken by the brace Swedish soldiers but the toll of attrition began to weaken them hour by hour. They started to create a hole in the Russian lines but it turned into a trap where they became enveloped in what history calls a Cannae envelopment. It became a rout. Some fled into the surrounding forest, many were killed or captured. 

Charles ordered a hasty retreat. He was able to escape into Ottoman territory with only 1,500 men. There he would stay until December of 1715 when he returned to Sweden. King Charles XII of Sweden would die three years later at the Siege of Fredriksten.

Estimates of casualties depends on who tells the story. If you listen to the Russians, 9,234 Swedes were killed and 2,900 were captured with the victors losing 1,345 with 3,290 wounded. According to the Swedish, they had 6,900 killed and wounded with the same 2,900 captured.

The outcome of the Battle of Narva was to demote Sweden from the top of the food chain in the north, replaced by the Russian bear. Sweden was never again to be considered a great power, especially after signing the Treaty of Nystad in 1721.

Now on to the scoring. This is for the 15 points that are awarded for the number of people involved. At the Battle of Midway, I will only include the number fighting as the Japanese had countless ships that sat idly by. It is somewhat difficult to come up with an exact number but from what I could see, it was about 10-15,000. I may be way off but that is what I could find in my research. Whatever the real number, it is dwarfed by the numbers at Poltava. The Swedes had approximately 30,000 while the Russians had 80,000 for a total of 110,000. For this I give Poltava 15 points and Midway 10.

Next up is the 20 points for the impact of the battle on the rest of the world at the time it occurred. For Poltava, it marked the end of the Swedish Empire and it freed countries like Denmark, Norway, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia from its influence but put some of them under the control of Russia. It was an earthshattering change of the balance of power.

When it comes to the Battle of Midway, you have a halt to the expansion of the Japanese Imperial Navy in the Pacific, you destroy a large part of their carrier fleet and make a significant dent in their experienced pilot force. Still, the impact was not immediate as World War II was still at its low point for the allies and its effect would not be honestly seen for a year or two. For these reasons, I’m giving Poltava 20 points and Midway 12.

Next up is the effect on world history. Midway was critical in the defeat of Japan during the Pacific conflict. There is serious doubt that the war would have been ended in 1945 had this battle turned out differently. A possible ramification is that the Soviet Union may have been dragged into the conflict and with their help the war would have also been successfully concluded but with the USSR gaining substantial territory in the Far East.

With Poltava, we have the emergence of Russia as a great power in the North and Europe. They were seen as a nation to deal with and not just a backwater Oriental country. They kept on developing to where they were able to stop the French Invasion in 1812. How the world might have changed if Charles had been successful. For these reasons I am giving a slight edge to Poltava, 25 to 23.

For the last and biggest prize, 40 points for how the battle affected their country for the better, Midway gave the American people and military a morale boost that would translate into a final victory over the Japanese in August of 1945. The ensuing rebuilding of the defeated nations of Germany and Japan as well as Western Europe, gave America an economic boost that would carry it to present day. The United States was the only industrially capable country to be able to aide the combatants in World War II as it was virtually untouched except for Pearl Harbor.

Poltava gave the Russians a new sense of belonging to Western Europe and opened the door for a renaissance that it missed during its isolationist period. Few Russian people benefited but the elite certainly did. Serfdom continued unabated, the majority of the people so no improvement in their lot and as a matter of fact, many of the Russian people hated the reforms of Peter. Had he lost the battle, the country would have stagnated and may have returned somewhat to the days before his ascension to the throne. 

This was a hard score to give out as both were significant victories with important ramifications for their nations, but I have to give the points out. Midway gets the full 40 points with Poltava getting 35.

So, in the final tally we have Midway receiving a respectable 80 points, but the winner is Poltava with a whopping and well-deserved 95. It will move on to the next round where it will face the United States Civil War Battle of Antietam.  

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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