South Pacific Air War
Buna and Milne Bay June - September 1942
Michael Claringbould & Peter Ingman
Kent Town, SA: Avonmore Books, 2020;
Softcover 180pp RRP $44.95
Reviewer: Neville Taylor, March 2021
This volume records the day-by-day activities over an eleven-week period that saw a move from air combat to support for forces involved in land battles. With no carrier support the Japanese Navy air forces based at Rabaul were forced into a reactive mode and attacking multiple targets over longer distances.
Reconnaissance and bombing raids against Rabaul were stepped up and a Japanese gunboat was sunk by a US submarine. The Japanese undertook long-range reconnaissance from Lae to Cairns and Cooktown, and attacked Port Moresby, while the Allies attacked both Lae harbour and Salamaua.
An Australian ground attack against Heath’s Plantation near Lae, caused the Japanese to strike at mountain strongholds at Wau and Bulolo. Large scale attacks by both sides continued to be thwarted by bad weather and poor visibility over the selected targets. Several aircraft flying out of north Queensland were lost with heavy passenger losses. Longer range reconnaissances were flown when Japanese shipping was detected off Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Solomons Islands.
Without ships capable of good speed, the Japanese assembled a fourteen-vessel convoy that left Rabaul on 20th July for the Buna and Gona on the coast of Papua. Thousands of troops were disembarked and set about establishing a base from which to push overland towards Port Moresby through Kokoda. On 22nd the Allies sunk a Japanese transport vessel, while strafing of landing barges did not cause much disruption. Despite early warning of the landing, the Allies missed a golden opportunity to inflict major losses on the invasion convoy, its troops and materiel. With virtually no aerial resupply for its troops and the native carriers being intimidated by Japanese air activity, the Allies now faced a major resupply problem for those defending the southward thrust to Port Moresby. An Allied attack on 29th July launched against a third Japanese convoy to Gona, resulted in major loss of aircraft and crews. It was on this day the Japanese captured Kokoda. Three air raids on Townsville in the last week of July saw important military installations destroyed. A fourth transport convoy to Buna was turned around after Allied bombers attacked it.
As August came round, air attacks on Lae forced the Japanese Zeroes there to withdraw to Rabaul. Air reconnaissance on 3rd saw the Japanese discover the Allied airbase at Milne Bay. Finding Rabaul full of Japanese aircraft, a massive raid was launched against them on 7th August, with the Commander Allied Air Forces claiming between 75 and 150 bombers being destroyed! [Japanese commanders did not rate the raid highly in their memories.]
The massive Allies convoy, having been masked by poor weather, landed unopposed on 7th August at Guadalcanal which possessed a newly-completed Japanese airstrip, while carrier-based aircraft wiped out the Japanese aircraft at Tulagi. The following day the Japanese navy sunk four Allied cruisers at the Battle of Savo Island.
Two squadrons of Kittyhawks and five Hudsons were operational at Milne Bay by early August with air transport flights commencing as well. As use by heavy US bombers became too dangerous, so it was almost exclusively used by the RAAF. Avoiding the radar coverage of Port Moresby on 17th August, Japanese bombers inflicted major destruction of the air transport fleet at Port Moresby. Japanese air efforts were concentrated on Guadalcanal and a concerted attack on Milne Bay was thwarted by bad weather. The Japanese build-up at Buna continued with additional convoys and the airfield became operational.
The Japanese desired to capture Milne Bay to provide a forward base and Allied Intelligence indicated a land offensive against Milne Bay in the last week of August. Barges despatched from Buna were spotted by a coastwatcher on Goodenough Island and were destroyed by Kittyhawks. An invasion convoy of nine vessels landed nearly 1200 men on 26th August some distance from the selected site. Kittyhawks destroyed all barges and fuel on the landing site. Due to bad weather and the overnight withdrawal of Allied aircraft to Port Moresby, Japanese air attacks on the base were virtually ineffective. The main Japanese attack on the base was launched on 31st August, without air support as the Zeroes on Buna had been strafed and bombed several days earlier. Stern ground opposition saw the attackers suffer their first land defeat of the war, and the subsequent withdrawal of the Japanese land force was completed by 7th September.
As a result of the 76 air raids on Port Moresby prior to August 1942, there were no heavy bombers stationed there, thus significantly reducing Allied bombing effectiveness. In the eleven weeks considered, Japanese losses were only 37 aircraft and 46 crewmen compared to 89 and 191 by the Allies - mainly through accidents and poor weather.
This volume is able to stand alone and be read as an individual work. The incredible detail of the day-by-day action over the eleven-week period has been compiled as a result of exhaustive research of the war records of both sides – aircraft types, crews, damage sustained, lost aircraft and fate of crews. Excellent maps preface each volume, with black and white photographs of aircraft, their crews and ground locations generously interspersed in the text. Even more impressive is the full colour artwork of aircraft in combat. The respective appendices listing aircraft losses and fatalities for each period show the incredible attrition rates suffered by both sides. A bibliography and detailed index round out this work.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.