Rabaul: Allies Strike Back in the South Pacific

WWII

Rabaul: Allies Strike Back in the South Pacific

The Rabaul campaign would prove to be one of the longest of World War II. The initial objective was to neutralize a geographically ideal Japanese stronghold.

The Rabaul campaign would prove to be one of the longest of World War II. The objective was to neutralize a geographically ideal Japanese stronghold. 

by Allyn Vannoy

On February 23, 1942, one month after Rabaul had fallen to the Japanese, six B-17s of the U.S. Fifth Air Force, flying out of Townsville, Australia, launched the first Allied air strike against the new enemy stronghold on the northeastern tip of New Britain, just east of New Guinea. The campaign against Rabaul would prove to be one of longest of the war, lasting until August 1945. The skies over such places as St. George’s Channel, Blanche Bay, and Gazelle Peninsula would witness one of the most bitterly fought campaigns of the South Pacific air war. The overriding objective of the Allied campaign was to capture or at least neutralize the key Japanese base, whose geographic position made it the hub of the enemy’s formidable air-base system at the southeastern corner of their recently won empire.

The Japanese Dig In

In early 1943, the Japanese prepared their new garrison to meet the anticipated Allied onslaught. The Eleventh Air Fleet at Rabaul mustered about 300 planes and 10,000 men, including approximately 1,500 air crewmen. Land-based naval air units in quiet sectors of the Pacific were heavily scavenged for additional planes and pilots. As a backup, two Japanese carrier air groups with another 300 planes were positioned at Truk, and flight operations at forward bases in the Solomons were sharply curtailed to conserve aircraft and crews. Defenders strengthened and expanded aircraft blast barriers and disposed antiaircraft guns in depth. When completed, Rabaul’s formidable air defenses included 260 AA guns ranging in size from 13mm machine guns to 127mm cannons.

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On the Allied side, combat operations called for the use of all land-based aircraft in the Solomons, including the 1st and 2nd Marine Air Wings, the Army’s Fifth and Thirteenth Air Forces, Navy land-based planes, and two squadrons each of bomber-reconnaissance aircraft and fighters of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF). Air assets were organized into three functional task groups: Fighter Command, directing escort and interceptor aircraft; Strike Command, with dive and torpedo bombers and short-range reconnaissance aircraft; and the Army Air Force’s medium and heavy bombers, directed by Bomber Command.

Operation Cartwheel

The Allied seizure of Guadalcanal and Buna-Gona, New Guinea, in early 1943 set the stage for the beginning of a coordinated offensive against Rabaul—code-named Operation Cartwheel. The taking of the Russell Islands by American Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s forces on February 21 marked the opening move of the drive. Construction was begun on Banika of an airdrome for fighters and medium-range bombers to support operations in the central and northern Solomons. The Allied fighters—Marine F4U Corsairs, Army P-40 Warhawks, and P-38 Lightnings—flying out of Guadalcanal, conducted sweeps into the northern Solomons on a regular basis. Strike Command sent a steady stream of SBD dive bombers and TBF torpedo bombers to hit Japanese positions at Munda and Vila. Such operations kept Rabaul’s 300-plane garrison from launching major raids of its own on the swelling American complex at Guadalcanal. (On April 18, American pilots claimed their most important victim when they intercepted and shot down a plane carrying Japanese naval commander in chief Isoroku Yamamoto on an inspection flight from Rabaul to Bougainville.)

Allied raids on Buin-Kahili and the Shortland Islands increased appreciably after airfields in the Russells became operational. In an effort to counteract the Allied activities, the Japanese Combined Fleet transferred 58 fighters and 49 bombers from Truk to the Eleventh Air Fleet on May 10, with the intent of hitting at the Allies’ main strength—their fighter planes. On June 7, approximately 70 Zekes headed for the Russells. Warned by friendly coast watchers, Fighter Command scrambled 104 fighters to intercept. In the subsequent 90-minute air battle, the Japanese were turned back with the loss of 23 planes. Allied losses were seven fighters, with all but one pilot successfully recovered.

Heavy Japanese Losses

Five days later the Japanese sent 77 fighters south again, only to be intercepted north and west of the Russells by 49 Allied planes. Some 25 Japanese planes failed to return, against the loss of six Allied fighters. Despite these losses, the Japanese launched another strike on June 16, with 24 Val dive bombers and 70 fighters. Again warned by coast watchers and vectored into position by New Zealand ground interceptor radar, 74 planes of Fighter Command challenged the Japanese planes. Six Allied fighters were destroyed in the ensuing dogfight, and Japanese losses again were heavy. Those bombers that managed to reach Guadalcanal were quickly shot out of the sky.

Less than a week later, Marine raiders were landing on Segi, heralding the drive to seize the Munda airfield. To meet this new threat, the Japanese threw every available plane into the fight, sending 150 Zekes, Vals, and Kate torpedo bombers of the Second Carrier Division from Truk to the base at Kahili. While this move strengthened Rabaul, it greatly crippled the offensive power of the Japanese Combined Fleet.

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