Wednesday, March 02, 2005

On this day in military 1943

On this day in military history….in 1943. US and Australian air forces destroy a Japanese convoy at the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. In late 1942, after falling back from their losses during the Guadalcanal campaign, the Japanese High Command decided to focus their energy on reinforcing New Guinea and transfer troops from China and Manchuria to New Guinea. The troops would be used reinforce Japanese forces at Lae where an Allied counterattack was expected. The transfer would involve transporting troops from the Japanese naval base of Rabaul (sometimes called the “Pearl Harbor of the South Pacific”) in New Britain. The troops needed to be ferried around Cape Gloucester thru the Dampier Strait to Lae in New Guinea. Due to Allied air power being very strong in the area, the convoy would be afforded fighter protection.

The convoy set sail with 8 transports and an escort of 8 destroyers. It was soon spotted by Allied scout planes, but using the cover of darkness and bad weather, it was able to proceed to Cape Gloucester with the lost of only one transport. However, as the convoy got closer to Lae, the weather cleared and the attacks became more frequent due to being much closer to Allied airbases. The Allies had determined that a convoy of that size had to be stopped, so over the next few days, they threw anything and everything at the convoy to stop it. High-altitude bombing, dive bombing, torpedo attacks and strafing were all used to stop the convoy. The most famous of these were attacks B-25 medium bombers using a new bombing technique called “skip bombing”. The aircraft would fly at 50 ft above the water and release its bomb. The bomb would “skip” along the surface of the water like a stone until it hit the target in the side. The technique sank the most Japanese ships than all the other attacks combined.

The attacks could be described as “shooting fish in a barrel” as Japanese fighter cover was either non-existent or destroyed by Allied fighters and Allied bombers were essentially free to bomb and strafe the convoy “at will”. The convoy was finally stopped when it was about 200 kms from Lae. All eight of the transports and four destroyers were sunk. Only 800 troops of about 7,000 ever made it to their final destination. Because of the proximity to Lae and the coast of New Guinea, the Allies ordered that all Japanese rescue vessels be attacked and the survivors of the sunken transports be strafed while floating in the water. This was a direct violation of the Geneva Convention Rule of War, but was justified by the fact that Japan was not a signatory of the convention and that the Japanese had done the same against civilians and Allied forces.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea was a perfect example of just how deadly air power can be when allowed to attack shipping that is not protected by air cover. The British had learned that in the Mediterranean sailing convoys from Gibraltar to Malta. Apparently the Japanese hadn’t.


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