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March 2013 marks the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.  One of the forgotten battles of WWII, yet one of the most significant as it represented the beginning of the turning point to the Japanese advance that had gone unimpeded throughout much of China, Hong Kong, Philippines, Thailand, Burma, Dutch East Indies, Malaya and well into the Pacific including New Guinea.  A few days away was Australia...

The following is reproduced with the kind permission by the author, Dr. Alan Stephens.



Australia's Forgotten Victory
The Battle of the Bismarck Sea


By Dr Alan Stephens, Air Power Studies Centre.

General Douglas MacArthur described it as "the decisive aerial engagement" of the war in the South West Pacific.  The historian, Lex McAulay, believes it was one of World War II's "great historical moments - a land battle fought at sea and won from the air”.  With the exception of the Battle of Midway (June 1942), it involved more destruction more quickly than any other conflict between aircraft and ships during the war.  It finally eliminated any likelihood that the Japanese might be able to regain the initiative in New Guinea, and subsequently invade Australia.

Yet few Australians have heard of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.

Exactly why such a brilliant victory does not hold a pre-eminent place in Australians' knowledge of their military history is puzzling and, perhaps, disturbing.

In the past twelve months, Australians have spent a great deal of time reflecting on the 50th anniversaries of those military campaigns which dominate our memories of the Second World War - Greece and Crete, Tobruk and the fall of Singapore.  Like the disaster of Gallipoli from the First World War, those actions in distant lands all involved defeat (albeit often characterised as heroic).  Again like Gallipoli, none of them had any immediate relevance to the defence of Australia.

Nations should not forget the young men and women who served them in war; nor should they fail to analyse disasters to try to avoid repeating them.  Equally, however, it cannot be constructive to dwell excessively on failure at the expense of success.

Thus, one of the more valuable consequences of the current interest in World War II generated by the fiftieth anniversary has been the attention focused on the Australian victories at Milne Bay and along the Kokoda Trail in mid 1942.

Unlike the ill-conceived and poorly managed early campaigns in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Malayan Peninsula (and, in World War I, Gallipoli), the fighting at Milne Bay and Kokoda was directly relevant to the defence of Australia.  Also, unlike the earlier campaigns, the actions in New Guinea resulted in stirring victories rather than defeat.  For those reasons alone they deserve far greater prominence than has been the case to date.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea similarly warrants national acknowledgment.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea was the last occasion on which the Japanese tried to reinforce New Guinea with large vessels.  As the American official historians concluded, the engagement was a "smashing setback" to the enemy's plans to hold onto Australia's nearest neighbour.

Following their defeats at Milne Bay and along the Kokoda Trail, the Japanese had attempted to regroup at Buna, on the coast halfway between Lae and Milne Bay.  However, by the end of the year they had also been defeated there.  Allied intelligence assessed that, in response to those reverses, the Japanese were likely to try to reinforce their garrisons at Lae and Salamaua by sea.

It would be the task of the Allied Air Forces (AAF) to prevent that landing.

The AAF comprised elements of the USAAF, the RAAF, the Royal New Zealand Air Force and the Netherlands East Indies Air Force.  It was under the overall command of General MacArthur's air commander for the South West Pacific Area, General George C. Kenney, an innovative and aggressive leader with an exceptional knowledge of the capabilities and potential of air power.

By February 1943, Allied intelligence was confident that the expected Japanese convoy would sail around the northern coast of New Britain to Lae or Salamaua, either later that month or early in March.  General Kenney immediately began preparing for a major air assault on the convoy.  He would rely on his reconnaissance aircraft to detect the fleet as early as possible.  Long range heavy bombers from the USAAF would then start medium altitude attacks.  Once the Japanese were within range of the AAF's potent anti-shipping strike aircraft - the RAAF's Beaufighters, Bostons and Beauforts, and the USAAF's Mitchells and Bostons - an all-out combined attack would be mounted from medium, low and very low altitudes.


This map shows just how close the reinforcements came to assisting the Japanese forces
already crossing the Ownen Stanley ranges in New Guinea. These forces would have quickly
become the striking element of the main 
invasion force into Australia.

No Americans fought on the Kokoda track but 24,000 participated in the Battle of Buna-Gona, at Milne Bay, 
and large number were involved in air and coastal operations, in particular the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.

Fought seventy years ago between 3-5 March 1943, just off the north east coast of New Guinea, the battle saw land-based aircraft from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) win a devastating victory over a Japanese fleet attempting to land urgently needed reinforcements in New Guinea.  Of the 16 Japanese ships which left their major base at Rabaul for Lae, 12 were destroyed; of the estimated 6400 enemy troops on board, almost 3000 were killed by the Allied air attacks or drowned.
 
The RAAF units assigned to the expected operation belonged to No 9 Operational Group, headed by Air Cornmodore J.E. Hewitt.  Hewitt had, however, only recently assumed command, so the main Australian planning contribution came from his predecessor, Group Captain W.H. (Bull) Garing.  An outgoing, intelligent and forceful officer who enjoyed General Kenney's confidence, Bull Garing made a vital contribution to the conduct and success of the battle.

Before World War II, Garing had spent seven years as a pilot with the RAAF's seaplane squadron at Point Cook.  When Germany invaded Poland, he was in England, taking delivery of the RAAF's new Short Sunderland maritime patrol aircraft.  For his gallantry in operations in Europe, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.  Posted back to the South West Pacific Theatre in 1941, Garing raised No 9 Operational Group in New Guinea in 1942 and directed the crucial and highly successful RAAF operations during the defence of Milne Bay and Port Moresby.  At the time of the Bismarck Sea action, he was one of the few men in the Allied Air Force(AAF) – Australian or American - who was an expert in maritime combat air operations.

It was Garing who convinced General Kenney of the need for a massive, combined attack against the Japanese convoy.  That tactic would involve large, numbers of different types of aircraft striking the convoy from different directions and at different altitudes, with exact timing,  It was an operation which would demand precise coordination.

Group Captain Garing knew that relatively inexperienced aircrews would not find it easy to achieve the necessary degree or coordination.  He therefore suggested to General Kenney's forward commander, General Ennis C. Whitehead, that a full-scale dress rehearsal should be held.

Whitehead saw the merit of Garing's proposal, and the American and Australian air staffs began to make arrangements for the rehearsal.

Allied planners decided that for the actual attack, the formations of aircraft would rendezvous over Cape Ward Hunt; on the coast ninety miles to the south east of the entrance to the Huon Gulf, where it was expected the Japanese convoy would be intercepted.  The rendezvous point would also provide the aircrews with their last positive navigation fix before they reached the enemy.  Overflying Cape Ward Hunt at the correct time would be vital if each element of the combined force were to make its time on target and achieve the coordinated attack and concentration of force sought by General Kenney.

For the dress-rehearsal Group Captain Garing instructed the aircrews to rendezvous at Cape Rodney, ninety miles south east of Port Moresby, and carry out a simulated attack on a wrecked ship in Port Moresby harbour.  He and General Whitehead then observed the arrival of the formations of aircraft over the wreck from a nearby hill, noting in particular their timing.

The dress-rehearsal proved to be invaluable as a potentially disastrous error was revealed - many aircraft were up to 20 minutes late over the target.  Thorough debriefings were held and the problem resolved.

During the waiting period, intensive gunnery and bombing training was also conducted against wrecked ships.

Throughout January and February, Allied reconnaissance reported regular Japanese traffic between Rabaul and Lae, ranging from large surface warships to light transports and submarines.  On occasions, fierce fighting took place between the vessels and RAAF and USAAF aircraft.  But none of those resupply missions was large enough to strengthen the Japanese forces sufficiently for them to attempt to regain the initiative in New Guinea.  The need for a major reinforcement remained.

The Japanese in fact intended reinforcing their New Guinea garrisons with about 6000 army troops and 400 marines, primarily from the 51st Infantry Division.  Their soldiers were to embark at Rabaul between 23 and 27 February, with the convoy of eight destroyers and eight merchant ships scheduled to sail just before midnight on the 28th.  The ships would arrive at Lae on 3 March and be back at Rabaul by 8 March.  Air cover would be provided by about 40 naval and 60 army aircraft, flying out of bases in New Ireland, New Britain and New Guinea.
 
 
The convoy left on schedule and initially was favoured by poor weather which hampered AAF reconnaissance aircraft.  In the meantime, six RAAF A-20 Bostons from No 22 Squadron attacked the airfield at Lae in an attempt to put it out of action and deny the Japanese air support.

It was not until mid-morning on 3 March that USAAF B-24 Liberators sighted the convoy. General Whitehead immediately launched eight B-17 Flying Fortresses, followed shortly afterwards by twenty more.  The Fortresses attacked the convoy from 6500 feet using 1000 lb demolition bombs.  Later in the day another attack was conducted by 11 B-17s.  The Fortress crews claimed a large number of hits, reporting that vessels were
"burning and exploding", "smoking and burning amidships", and "left sinking".
Up to three merchant ships may have been sunk.

By nightfall the enemy fleet had reached the Vitiaz Strait, which meant that on the morning of the 4th it would be within range of the full force of AAF strike aircraft.  For that attack to be successful, the precise location of the convoy had to be known at daybreak . Consequently, throughout the night, it was tracked by an RAAF Catalina flying boat from No 11 Squadron, which occasionally dropped bombs to keep the Japanese in a state of anxiety.
 

Also during the night and before the planned main AAF attack, eight RAAF Beaufort torpedo bombers from No 100 Squadron took off from Milne Bay to try to use the darkness to their advantage.  Flying through heavy frontal weather, only two of the aircraft found the convoy.  Neither was successful with its attack.

On the morning of 4 March 1943, the Japanese convoy was rounding the Huon Peninsula.  It was now within range of the entire AAF strike force, which had been waiting for this moment for weeks.

For much of the time since the convoy had sailed from Rabaul, adverse weather had helped the Japanese to avoid detection and attack.   Now, however, as the morning came, clear conditions favoured the Australian and American aircrews.  Over 90 aircraft took off from Port Moresby and set heading for their rendezvous point at Cape Ward Hunt.  While the strike aircraft were en route, Bostons from the RAAF's No 22 Squadron again successfully bombed the Japanese airfield at Lae.

By 0930 the AAF formations had assembled over Cape Ward Hunt, and by 1000 the battle had started. The Australian and American aircraft attacked in three waves and from three levels, only seconds apart.

First, 13 USAAF B-17 Flying Fortresses bombed from medium altitude, at about 7000 feet.  In addition to the obvious wish to sink ships, the medium level attacks were intended to disperse the convoy, as vessels broke station to avoid bombs.

Second, 13 RAAF Beaufighters from No 30 Squadron hit the enemy from below 500 feet, lining up on their targets as the bombs from the Flying Fortresses were exploding.  With four 20mm cannons in its nose and six machine guns in its wings, the Beaufighter was the most heavily armed fighter aircraft in the world.  The Australian crews' job was twofold: to suppress antiaircraft fire, and kill ships' captains and officers on the bridges.

The Beaufighter pilots initially approached their targets at 500 feet in line astern formation.  They then dived to mast-level height, set full power on their engines; changed into line abreast formation and approached their targets at 220 knots.

It seems possible that some of the Japanese captains mistook these manoeuvres for a torpedo attack, for they altered course to meet the Australians head on to present a smaller target.  Instead, they made themselves better targets for strafing as, with a slight alteration of heading, the Beaufighters were now in a position to rake the ships from bow to stem.  This they did, subjecting the enemy to a withering storm of cannon and machine gun fire.  According to the official RAAF release at the time,
"enemy crews were slain beside their guns, deck cargo burst into flames, superstructure toppled and burned"
 

With the convoy now widely dispersed and in disarray, the third wave of attackers was able to concentrate on sinking ships.  Thirteen USAAF B-25 Mitchells made a medium level bombing strike, while simultaneously, a mast-level attack was made by 12 specially modified USAAF B-25C1 Mitchells - known as "commerce destroyers" because of their heavy armament -which bombed and strafed the enemy.  The B-25C1s were devastating, claiming 17 direct hits from the 37 bombs dropped.  Close behind the B-25C1 s, USAAF A-20 Bostons added more firepower.

Following the initial coordinated onslaught, Beaufighters, Mitchells and Bostons intermingled as they swept back and forth over the convoy, strafing and bombing the most suitable targets.  Within minutes of the opening shots, the battle had turned into a rout.

The official Australian history records that at the end of the action,
"ships were listing and sinking, their superstructure smashed and blazing, and great clouds of dense black smoke [rose] into a sky where aircraft circled and dived over the confusion they had wrought among what, less than an hour earlier, had been an impressively orderly convoy".

Above the surface battle, 28 USAAF P-38 Lightning fighters provided air defence for the Allied strike force.  In their combat with the Zeros which were attempting to protect the convoy, three of the Lightnings were shot down, but in turn the American pilots claimed 20 kills.  Apart from those three P-38s, the only other AAF aircraft lost to enemy action during the battle was a single B-17, shot down by a Zero.

With their armament expended, the AAF aircraft returned to Port Moresby.  However, there was to be no respite for the enemy.  Throughout the afternoon the air attacks continued.  Again, USAAF B-17s struck from medium level, this time in cooperation with USAAF Mitchells and RAAF Bostons flying at very low level.  The Bostons were led by Squadron Leader C.C. Learmonth, after whom the RAAF's major base in north west Australia is now named.

During this mission the Bostons were repeatedly attacked by enemy fighters.  On one occasion, Flying Officer H.B. Craig was pounced on by four Zeros simultaneously, but Craig audaciously turned into his enemies with his guns firing, and they broke away.

The B-17s, Mitchells and Bostons claimed at least 20 direct hits on the by-now devastated convoy, and the RAAF was credited with a definite sinking.

[insert Group Captain Garing award presentation in the field]

That was the last of the coordinated attacks. The victory had been won.

There was, however, important work still to be done.  On the night of 4 March, five American motor torpedo boats slipped out of their base at Tuft and finished off one crippled ship.  The next day RAAF Beaufighters and USAAF Mitchells followed up the victory at sea by inflicting severe damage on Malahang airfield near Lae, destroying numerous aircraft and ground installations.  At the same time, other AAF aircraft continued to patrol the Bismarck Sea,  where they found and sank one solitary and badly damaged destroyer.  As the official history notes, that was
"the last that was seen of the great Japanese Lae convoy".

But there was still a 'terrible yet essential finale' to come, one which has since created some controversy, and which confronts a central moral dilemma of war.

For several days after the battle, Allied aircraft patrolled the Huon Gulf, searching for and destroying barges and rafts crowded with survivors from the sunken ships.  It was grim and bloody work which many of the crews found nauseating, but as one RAAF Beaufighter pilot said, every enemy they prevented from getting ashore was one less for their Army colleagues to face.

The morality of the AAF's action is too complex a matter to be fully examined here.  Briefly, however, an analogy might be drawn with the Royal Air Force's largely indiscriminate bombing attacks against German cities in 1940-41, which were often criticised for their alleged immorality.  Speaking on that issue years after the war, the distinguished historian Dr Noble Frankland suggested that the great immorality open to Britain at the time was to lose the war against Hitler's Germany.  He argued that to have
"abandoned the only means of direct attack which we had at our disposal [air bombardment] would have been a long step in that direction".

The same logic applied in the South West Pacific in March 1943.  After 15 months of Japanese brutality, the great immorality open to Allied commanders would have been to ignore the rights of their soldiers, it must also be remembered that as late as November 1942, the Australian War Cabinet had still feared Japanese invasion, with its frightful possibilities.

One further controversy clouded the immediate reaction to the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.  On 7 March General MacArthur issued a communiqué stating that the AAF had destroyed 22 ships.  Regrettably, at the time, arguments over this exaggerated claim and the exact composition of the Japanese convoy tended to divert attention from the stunning extent of the Allies' victory.

In contrast to MacArthur's overstatement, Japanese radio never reported the battle.  However, in a macabre footnote, two weeks after the tragedy Tokyo announced that all Japanese soldiers were to be taught to swim.

A number of RAAF aircrew were decorated following the battle.  The commanding officers of Nos 30 and 22 Squadrons, Wing Commanders, B.R. Walker and K. D. Hampshire were both awarded the Distinguished Service Order for their leadership and fighting qualities during the New Guinea campaign.  Distinguished Flying Crosses for the Bismarck Sea action, were won by Squadron Leaders Learmonth and R. Little, Flight Lieutenant R. Uren, Flying Officers A. Spooner, J. Maguire and J.T. Sandford, and Pilot Officer C. Campbell. For his contribution to the success of the Allied Air Forces, Group Captain Garing was awarded an American  Distinguished Service Cross in the field by General Whitehead.

The victory won by Australian and American airmen less than 500 miles north of Cape York fifty years ago was one of the most decisive in any theatre during World War II.  For the loss of a handful of aircraft, the Allied Air Force sunk 12 of 16 ships and killed almost 3000 enemy troops.  The brilliantly conceived and executed operation smashed Japanese hopes of regaining the initiative in New Guinea.

To the extent that we as Australians draw on military history to help shape our national identity, we do so largely in terms of ill-considered Imperial adventures in distant lands.  It would be more constructive and more relevant to our sense of nationhood if instead we contemplated the circumstances and human qualities - inspirational leadership, innovation, professional mastery, teamwork and courage - associated with the victory we shared with Americans in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in March 1943.

Dr Alan Stephens is a senior research fellow at the Air Power Studies Centre.  He has previously contributed to the Australian Defence Force Journal. In 2013 he was a guest speaker at the 70th anniversairy commemoration service of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.