Australians served in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in World War II. During the battle, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and the United States Army (Fifth) Air Force (USAAF) joined forces. It's remembered as one of the pivotal battles in the South West Pacific Area (SWPA). The combined force executed a thorough and well-rehearsed plan. US General Douglas MacArthur described the battle as a 'decisive aerial engagement'.
Acting on intercepted intelligence
By early January 1943, the Allies were threatening Japanese-held positions at Wau, Gona and Buna. So Japanese authorities decided to send reinforcements to Lae from Rabaul.
Allied authorities learned of the Japanese plans to reinforce the Lae garrisons and prepared to attack the convoy.
Under the command of General George C. Kenney, the Allied Air Force included:
- the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF)
- the Netherlands East Indies Air Force (NEIAF).
The force included 154 fighters, 34 light bombers, 41 medium bombers and 39 heavy bombers.
RAAF elements came from the No. 9 Operational Group.
An initial full dress rehearsal did not go smoothly. As a result, the force had to revise the plan many times. Work to improve performance included practice bombing on a wrecked ship in Port Moresby harbour.
One aerial warfare tactic was 'skip bombing'. This involved dropping bombs from 30 to 60 m above the water, causing the bomb to skip along the water's surface, detonating when the tip of the bomb hit a ship's hull.
A practice run on 28 February 1943 involved a combined force of B17s, B25s, P38s and Beaufighters. The fighters carried out high, medium and very low-level bombing and strafing on the wrecked ship.
Lae Resupply Convoy
At midnight on 28 February 1943, a convoy of 8 Japanese ships left Rabaul. On board were around 7,000 men of the 115th Regiment and 14th Field Artillery, 51st Division and about 400 marines.
Eight destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Masatomi Kimura escorted the transport ships.
The Lae Resupply Convoy (codenamed Operation 81) was also supported by 100 fighter aircraft, acting as escorts and providing air defence.
First day of the attack
The crew of a B24 Liberator was the first to spot the Lae Resupply Convoy, at 4 pm on 1 March. However, they could do little to stop the fleet due to bad weather.
On 2 March at 6.30 am, the Allies began their attack.
Six RAAF A-20 Bostons bombed the Japanese base at Lae. They damaged the airfield after dropping 5-tonne bombs.
At 8:15 am that same day, a B24 located the convoy again and reported its location. The Allies' air attack group was quickly dispatched to attack.
Around 10 am on 2 March, another crew sighted the Japanese convoy. The Allies launched 8 B17 Flying Fortresses. Another 20 joined in the attack later.
The first Allied formation attacked with 450 kg demolition bombs. The aircraft returned to claim 2 of the Japanese transports, one which broke in half and sank, and 2 other ships were badly damaged and on fire. When last seen at around 6:20 pm that day, the convoy numbered 16 ships.
Final days of the attack
Around midday on 3 March, the Japanese convoy was nearing Lae. They managed to disembark some troops of the 51st Division to reinforce the Japanese Army in New Guinea.
RAAF and USAAF pilots and their crews were now ready to begin the onslaught.
Meeting at the Cape Ward Hunt rendezvous point, on the north coast of Oro Province, the formation of RAAF and USAAF now fielded:
- Bristol Beaufort Torpedo bombers
- Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers
- Douglas A-20 Havoc medium bombers
- North American B-25 Mitchell medium bombers.
Sixteen Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter bombers acted as escorts.
The Allied formation approached the Japanese fleet from all sides.
The Japanese ships opened fire, concentrating their largest anti-aircraft guns on the bombers. The smaller guns targeted Allied aircraft carrying torpedoes. Around 28 to 30 Japanese fighter aircraft attacked the Allied formation from above.
RAAF Beaufighters of No. 30 Squadron and USAAF 90th Squadron flying low over the ships used cannon fire and machine guns to strafe the Japanese decks and their gun crews. Attack after attack overwhelmed the Japanese gun crews.
The B-25s flew at below-mast height to carry out their strafing attack. Some B-52 crews managed to drop their bombs at a very low level.
Other aircraft, mainly the USAAF B-25s, dropped their bombs from high altitudes. They released the much-practised skip bombs.
The planes flew at very high speed, ducking and weaving through the fleet. This tactic made it impossible for the Japanese ships to stop them with anti-aircraft fire.
From 2 to 4 March, the Allies inflicted severe Japanese losses. The Japanese had 8 transport ships sunk; 4 destroyers sunk and another 4 badly damaged; and around 50 to 60 Zero fighter aircraft shot down.
After the initial battle, Allied aircraft were ordered to search the waters for Japanese lifeboats and rafts to eliminate survivors. The search lasted several days, and caused long-lasting trauma for many of the aircrew involved.
Some 2,890 Japanese soldiers and sailors were killed or drowned in the battle and its aftermath. Around 3,800 were rescued by Japanese boats in the area.
Allied casualties were relatively light. Some 13 RAAF and USAAF aircrew were lost in the action, along with 6 Allied aircraft.
Watch Bismarck convoy smashed! by official war correspondent Damien Parer on 3 March 1943 [courtesy of British Pathé]. Parer filmed the action from a plane cockpit over the shoulder of Flight Lieutenant Ronald Frederick 'Torchy ' Uren, DFC.
This film includes shots of air attacks on ships and rafts by Beaufighters of No. 30 Squadron RAAF.