Battle of the Bismarck Sea, 2-4 March 1943
Presented by Brad Manera, Military Historian, Australian War Memorial, on Monday, 3 March 2003 beside the Roll of Honour at the Memorial.
From August last year at ceremonies around Australian the 60th anniversary of the battles of Papua were remembered. The see-saw campaign on the Kokoda Trail and the battles for the beachheads at Buna, Gona and Sanananda were Australian victories. They were expensive victories but they did not end the Japanese threat to our near north.
The Japanese army in Papua may have been killed or driven off but the Japanese army in New Guinea was alive and aggressive. Early in 1943 they launched an offensive. The 51st Japanese Division advanced on Kanga Force – the Australians holding the airfield at Wau. To achieve its objective the Division required reinforcement from Japanese forces in Rabaul. These reinforcements were to sail around New Britain through the Bismarck Sea and across the Huon Gulf to Lae.
Today we remember a battle fought 60 years ago on the Bismarck Sea by the Royal Australian Air Force.
The Allies expected the Japanese to reinforce their forces in New Guinea by sea. To meet this threat Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and United States Army Air Force (USAAF) bomber squadrons began practicing attacks on ships at sea.
On 19 February Allied Intelligence intercepted signals that indicated the Japanese were marshalling their forces and preparing to embark a New Guinea bound troop convoy from Rabaul. Almost 7,000 Japanese infantry and marines were to travel to New Guinea in eight crowded troop transport ships. Surveillance patrols increased and the Allies readied their air forces.
By the beginning of March a US/Australian force of 154 fighters, 34 light bombers, 41 medium bombers and 39 heavy bombers had been assembled. But the weather closed in. From 27 February to 1 March the Solomon and Bismarck Seas were lashed by storms. At 3pm on 1 March a patrolling B24 Liberator spotted a convoy through a break in the clouds. US heavy bombers were immediately despatched to attack, but failed to find the convoy.
At 10 am the next morning another Liberator flew out of a cloud bank to discover the convoy below him. This time daylight and clear skies allowed a formation of B17 Flying Fortresses to attack the convoy. Through the day flights of eight or more of these aircraft attacked the convoy in relays. Several of the transports and escorting vessels were hit and at least one transport sunk. One B17 was bought down by escorting Zero fighters from New Britain and they were seen to machine gun the crew in their parachutes or life vests.
During the night RAAF Catalina flying boats relived the USAAF Liberators trailing the convoy.
At 4 am on the morning of 3 March 1943 the convoy was within range of the RAAF bomber squadrons at Milne Bay in Papua and they attacked. By morning the skies over Port Moresby had cleared and the RAAF and USAAF squadrons from the airfields in that area joined in. The first attack was made by RAAF Beaufort torpedo bombers. They did not score any hits but were followed closely by 13 RAAF Beaufighters who inflicted damage with low level straffing runs until B25 Mitchells of the 5th USAAF attacked from altitudes of 2,000 to 3,000 feet.
The next attack was by more USAAF Mitchells who had been practicing skip-bombing at low level. They claim to have scored 17 hits. Above them heavy B17s bombed the convoys from high altitudes and claimed another five hits. By this time half of the transport ships have been lost or are sinking.
In the final phase of the attack twelve A20 Bostons attacked, claiming 11 direct hits, and six B25s reported 4 additional hits. While the attacks on the convoy were occurring other allies aircraft attacked the Japanese airfield at Lae to prevent them providing air cover for the embattled convoy. During the night of 3 /4 March five USN torpedo boats attacked what was left of the convoy. They finished of a sinking transport and scattered or destroyed lifeboats. By daybreak on the 4 March all eight Japanese transports had been sunk and 4 of their escorting destroyers had also been lost. The other four were badly damaged. As many as 50 or 60 escorting Zero fighters had been shot down.
Through 4 and into 5 March Allied aircraft were despatched to straff Japanese life rafts and rescue vessels to prevent the large number of Japanese who had escaped their sinking transports from being rescued and arriving in Lea to be rearmed and sent to the front. There was a deadly race for the survivors between Japanese submarines and Allied aircraft. It was a horrible task and one that haunted several of the aircrews for years to come. It is one of the realities of war that they had to be prevented from getting to the fighting in New Guinea. 2 890 Japanese soldiers and sailors were killed in the battle or drowned trapped in their sinking ships or drifting in the wreckage spread. Only 850 reached Lae. Few were battle ready and most had lost their weapons and equipment.
13 US and RAAF aircrew were killed, and three of these were in an accident. Eight airmen were wounded and six aircraft were lost.
The Battle of the Bismarck Sea was an Allied victory. It is an example of sound intelligence gathering, thorough command planning and inter-Allied operational cooperation and coordination. It was also a victory for skilled and tenacious aircrew, tireless ground staff … and luck.
Although the RAAF lost few aircraft in the battle of Bismarck Sea itself this phase of the fighting was costly in stress on equipment and fatigued aviators. The fighting demanded long flying hours with little rest over unforgiving terrain and pitiless seas. No quarter was given or asked.
22 Squadron RAAF played a major role in the battle of the Bismarck Sea. One of the pilots who flew in the battle and was to earn a Victoria Cross for his aggressive low level attacks on Japanese troops and camps in the following days was 23 year old Flight Lieutenant W E ‘Bill’ Newton. Newton and one of his crew, 27 year old, Flight Sergeant John Lyon survived the battle of the Bismarck Sea but within a fortnight were forced down on the sea. They were captured and executed.
Lest We Forget