The Battle of the Bismarck Sea
The Forgotten Battle that Saved the Pacific
Sydney, NSW: Hachette, 2021
Paperback 352pp RRP $32.99
Reviewer: Robert Dixon, November 2021
The Battle of the Bismarck Sea is the latest book by Michael Veitch. He is the author of a number of critically acclaimed books, including two about the war in the Pacific. One, titled 44 Days – 75 Squadron and the Fight for Australia is about the role of the RAAF in the defence of Port Moresby in early 1942. The second is Turning Point – The Battle for Milne Bay 1942, Japan's first Land Defeat in World War II. I must begin this review by urging potential readers not to be put-off by the rather odd subtitle of this work as the book is both well written and covers an important event in the Pacific War.
The Battle of the Bismarck Sea took place in early March 1943 and involved a force of land-based Australian and US aircraft attacking a Japanese convoy made up of eight cargo ships carrying 6,900 troops, ammunition, and fuel together with eight navy destroyers. The convoy was sailing from Rabaul at the northern tip of New Britain to Lae on the New Guinea coast and had a fighter escort. The attack on the convoy resulted in the sinking of all eight cargo ships and four of the destroyers.
The Battle of the Bismarck Sea is of interest not only because of the success of the attack but also because of the number of different types of aircraft involved (Bristol Beaufort torpedo bombers, multi-role Bristol Beaufighters, B-17 heavy bombers, P-38 Lightning fighters and A-20 Havocs (aka Bostons) & B-25 Mitchells, both medium bombers), the different weapons used to attack the ships and the number of different bases the aircraft were operating from. These factors introduce such enormous complexity in planning and in execution that it is rare in the history of aerial warfare that we even see such an operation being attempted – let alone carried out with such success. In this case it was an RAAF officer, Group Captain Bill Garing, who argued in favour of launching a simultaneous attack with different types of aircraft operating at different altitudes, approaching the convoy from different directions and attacking in a particular order.
One of the most attractive features of The Battle of the Bismarck Sea is the amount of time devoted to events which took place prior to the actual attack itself. For example there are chapters devoted to the Naval codebreakers in Melbourne and Washington, the pioneers of skip-bombing, the conversion of Mitchells and Havocs into gun-ships and their use in an anti-shipping role and the important role of the senior staff from the RAAF and the USAAF who planned the attack.
The book includes twelve B&W photographs, many taken during the attack together with two very useful maps. One shows key locations Northern Queensland, Papua & New Guinea while the other shows the area between Rabaul and Lae in more detail. It is particularly useful as it shows the position of the convoy when it was first sighted and also the locations where it was attacked. Unfortunately, one of the airfields mentioned in the book, Dobodura, is not shown on either of the maps. The book also has sixteen pages of endnotes, a four-page select bibliography and a very comprehensive index. Importantly, both the font and the font size are very ‘reader friendly’.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.