Oilfields of Borneo – 1942

“Pacific Offensive, 1942: • Sergeant-Major, Infantry; Borneo, January 1942 • Superior Private, Infantry; Java, DEI, March 1942 • Seaman 2nd Class paratrooper, 1st (Yokosuka) Special Landing Unit; Celebes, DEI, January 1942”, Stephen Andrew

As the oilfields of Borneo – and two weeks later, the oil fields of Sumatra – would fulfill a strategic objective on the Japanese Southern Road, other moves made on the Dutch East Indies chessboard were designed to address tactical concerns. As the Japanese closed in on Java and Sumatra, the Dutch, who had barely defended Borneo, were concentrating their resources, just as General Arthur Ernest Percival intended to do with his British Commonwealth assets in Singapore.

Just as IJA and IJN airpower was keeping pace with Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 25th Army on the Malay Peninsula, moving into abandoned RAF bases closer and closer to the front, the tactical plan for the ultimate battle in the Dutch East Indies required a network of airfields on other islands which were closer to Java and Sumatra. One such island was the major Dutch East Indies island of Celebes (now Sulawesi) to the east of Borneo and due south of the Philippines.

Offshore, the Celebes operation was supported by a naval force commanded by Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka which included the cruiser Jintsu, his flagship, ten destroyers, two seaplane tenders, and several minesweepers. An additional covering force under Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi included the cruisers Nachi, Haguro, and Myoko, and two destroyers. They were all part of the growing IJN presence in the nearly 3 million square miles of Dutch East Indies waters.

The IJN surface fleet in this area was divided generally into two operating groups. The Western Force under Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, commander of the Japanese Southern Expeditionary Fleet, was tasked with operations in the South China Sea, and had supported the campaign in Malaya and Singapore. The Eastern Force, commanded by Vice Admiral Ibo Takahashi, conducted operations from eastern Borneo, east through Celebes, Ambon, Timor, and eastward to New Guinea.

Operations ashore in Celebes were conducted entirely by the IJN Special Naval Landing Forces, and occurred simultaneously with the IJA and IJN landings on Tarakan. This ground action, which was a brief one that history treats almost as a footnote to the Borneo operations, is notable for including the first Japanese airborne operation in Southeast Asia. The latter was a precursor to tactics that were to be revisited a month later in Sumatra.

Under the command of Captain Kunizo Mori, 2,500 men of the 1st and 2nd Sasebo Special Naval Landing Forces conducted the initial amphibious landings near the northern Celebes cities of Manado (also spelled Menado) and Kema before dawn on January 11, overwhelming the outnumbered KNIL defenders.

Meanwhile, staging out of Davao, 28 transport variants of the Mitsubishi G3M medium bomber carried more than 300 paratroopers from the 1st Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force to a drop zone behind the invasion beaches. Landing at about 9:30 am on January 11, the paratroopers surprised the Dutch defenders, and began an assault on the airfield at Langoan and the seaplane base at Kakas.

The unexpected attack from above certainly reminded the Dutch troops of the use by the Germans of airborne troops in the conquest of their home country in May 1940. Indeed, Japanese tactical planners in both the IJA and IJN had made note of the successful use of German Fallschirmjäger, or paratroopers, as a spearhead during the Wehrmacht spring offensive of 1940, and had begun training their own airborne troops. Germany’s capture of the entire island of Crete, solely by airborne troops, in May 1941, must have been especially noteworthy as the Japanese planners pondered the island-studded map of the Southern Road. In retrospect, it is a wonder that the tactic was not employed on a wider scale.

A second airborne attack by the 1st Yokosuka on January 12 brought additional landing forces to Celebes, and assured the capture of the Langoan airfield. Though some of the Dutch troops managed to hide out in the mountains for about a month, northern Celebes was secured by the middle of the month.

With this, Captain Kunzio Mori’s 1st and 2nd Sasebo headed south. Just as Sakaguchi had leapfrogged down the Borneo coast from Tarakan to Balikpapan, Mori embarked from Manado and headed for Kendari, at the southeast corner of Celebes. His Special Naval Landing Forces, aboard six transports, were escorted by a task force commanded by Rear Admiral Kyuji Kubo, which included the cruiser Nagara, his flagship, eight destroyers, and support ships. As with the task force that had supported Mori at Manado, Kubo’s contingent was part of the IJN Eastern Force.

Mori went ashore under cover of darkness on the night of January 23–24, the same night that Sakaguchi had landed at Balikpapan. Within 24 hours, the defenders had been overcome, and the Japanese were in control of the strategically important airfield at Kendari.

Capturing airfields was a priority second only to the petroleum facilities in the Dutch East Indies, for they brought land-based Japanese fighters and bombers incrementally closer to future battlefields farther south on the Southern Road. The air base at Kendari was destined to be one of the most important. Centrally located within the Dutch East Indies, it would be an important refueling stop. It was also the base of operations for the devastating air attack on Darwin, Australia, which would terrify the land down under three weeks later.

Just as the airfields on Celebes were part of the Sumatra and Java strategy, other Dutch islands far to the east hosted airfields that would be useful in operations against Dutch- and Australian-administered New Guinea, which were scheduled for April. Centrally located between Celebes and New Guinea was 299-square-mile Ambon Island, part of the Molucca (now Maluku) Archipelago, 500 miles east of Celebes, 1,600 miles east of Palembang, and 250 miles west of New Guinea. The strategic importance of Ambon and the substantial, paved airfield at Laha on the island had been lost on neither the Dutch nor the Australians. They had agreed to jointly reinforce the island, but the first contingent of RAAF Hudson bombers had not touched down at Laha until December 7, 1941, less than 24 hours before the general outbreak of hostilities across Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

The Australians also sent troops, but they had few to spare. As we have seen, three of the four infantry divisions which comprised the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) were in North Africa helping the British fight the German Afrika Korps. Most of the 8th Division, except the 23rd Brigade, was helping the British defend Malaya.

The one brigade held back was given the precarious and impossible task of the forward defense of Australia itself. It was divided into what were known as the “Bird Forces,” having been given what the Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs historical factsheet colorfully describes as “ominously non-predatory names.” Forward defense of Australia meant outposts on islands north of that country and east of Malaya which were astride important sea lanes between Japanese-held territory and Australia. It was Gull Force that was dispatched to Ambon, while Sparrow Force went to Timor, and Lark Force went to New Britain, far to the east.

Each of the Bird Forces was essentially a single battalion, roughly a thousand or fewer infantrymen, reinforced with artillery and support troops. Deployed in 1941 before the full weight of the immense Japanese offensive had been experienced, each was sent to do a job that should have been done by a force a dozen times larger.

Deploying about ten days after Pearl Harbor, the 1,100-man Gull Force, centered on the 2/21st Battalion of the AIF, arrived on Ambon, joining a Dutch garrison on the island that consisted of the poorly trained 2,800-man KNIL Molucca Brigade, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Kapitz. Gull Force was initially commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Leonard Roach, but he was replaced on January 16 by Lieutenant Colonel John Scott, who was no stranger to amphibious operations, having participated in the Gallipoli campaign during World War I. Scott arrived to find his new command in pitiful condition, with malaria and other diseases rampant in the equatorial heat, which still swelters in January.

Both USN and Koninklijk Marine flying boats operated out of Ambon, flying patrol missions, as well as frequent evacuations of civilians, but they were pulled out in mid-January, against the backdrop of increasing Japanese air attacks. Air defense of Ambon consisted of a few Brewster Buffaloes, which rose to meet IJN seaplane bombers that began visiting Ambon early in January at the same time as the offensive against northern Borneo.

The Buffaloes held their own for a while, but they were no match for the carrier-based IJN Zeros that first appeared over the island on January 24, the same day as the invasions of Balikpapan and Kendari. For the Ambon operation, the IJN brought in the carriers Hiryu and Soryu, both of which had been part of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s Pearl Harbor strike force. At Ambon, they targeted Dutch and Australian aircraft, compelling Wavell to make the decision to pull out the last of the Allied aircraft to preserve them to fight another day. When the invasion fleet was sighted at dusk on January 30, the Allied ground troops knew they would have to face the enemy with no air cover.

The fact that the IJN had used seaplanes and carrier-based aircraft to conduct operations against Ambon is, in itself, an illustration of why the Japanese needed to have airfields at locations across the sprawling Indies.

The remainder of the naval escort for the ten transport ships of the invasion fleet to which the Hiryu and Soryu were attached was largely the same contingent that had supported operations against Manado on January 11. Commanded by Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka, this force was comprised of his flagship, the cruiser Jintsu, as well as eight destroyers and support vessels. The same covering force under Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi that had supported Tanaka at Kendari also accompanied him to Ambon.

As in Borneo, the ground operation at Ambon was to be a joint operation between the IJA and the IJN Special Naval Landing Forces. The latter contingent included 820 men from the 1st Kure Special Naval Landing Force, while the IJA contingent of approximately 4,500 men was centered on the 228th Infantry Regiment, one of three regiments in the 38th Division, which had taken part in the conquest of Hong Kong. This joint force was known as the Ito Detachment and commanded by Major General Takeo Ito, who had commanded the entire 38th Division at Hong Kong, and who operated at Ambon under the banner of the division’s headquarters.

The first wave of IJA Ito Detachment came ashore during the night of January 30–31, with the IJN landing forces in the north, and the 288th mainly in the south. Ambon is nearly bisected by Ambon Bay, which cuts into the island from the southeast. The southern part contains the major population centers, while Laha airfield was across the bay on the northern part. Most of the defenders were located in these areas, but the initial Japanese landings were on the lightly defended north, and the least-defended area on the south side, well away from coastal guns guarding the entrance to Ambon Bay. Of course, established beachheads can be expanded more easily than landing troops under fire.

During January 31, the Japanese moved rapidly, reaching Australian-defended Laha from the north, and capturing Ambon City in the south by around 4:00 pm.

As the Allies shifted troops to face the landings, they left holes in their lines, which were exploited by the Japanese. A second wave of Ito Detachment troops came ashore at Passo (also written in some accounts as Paso) at the neck of the Laitimor Peninsula, effectively cutting the island in two. At the same time, the Japanese also snipped the telephone line which was the only way that the Allied troops could communicate with one another. The absence of communications isolated the various units and created confusion.

Kapitz ordered his men to continue fighting, which they did. However, shortly after midnight, the Japanese captured Kapitz, who had moved his headquarters close to Passo. For most of February 1, the action involved an Allied withdrawal, away from Passo and Ambon City, toward the southeast tip of the Laitimor Peninsula. These troops, with Colonel Scott still in command, had their backs to the Banda Sea, and realized that their position was essentially hopeless.

As this was ongoing, Admiral Tanaka ordered his minesweepers into Ambon Bay to clear the mines laid by the Koninklijke Marine, before they withdrew from Ambon earlier in January. This was in preparation for landing additional troops inside the bay. However, much to the immense joy of the troops fighting for their lives on the peninsula, one of the minesweepers struck a mine, blew up, and sank. Another was damaged.

Nevertheless, the jubilation that the Allied troops enjoyed at this juncture was certainly qualified by the pounding that was being dished out to them in the form of offshore naval gunfire and air attacks from the air wings aboard the Hiryu and Soryu. Throughout February 1, the naval bombardment also fell on the Australian and Dutch troops that were still trying to defend the airfield across the bay at Laha. On the morning of February 2, having encircled Laha, the landing troops, under Commander Kunito Hatakeyama, launched a ferocious assault aimed at dislodging the defenders. At around 10:00 am, Major Mark Newbury, commanding the joint force at Laha, decided that any further resistance would waste lives in an impossible situation, and ordered his men to surrender. Scott surrendered the defenders of the Laitimor Peninsula on February 3. About 30 Australian Diggers managed to successfully escape Ambon by canoe.

Newbury’s hopes of saving lives by his surrender were darkened when, over the ensuing two weeks, Hatakeyama randomly murdered around 300 prisoners at Laha. Newbury himself was killed on February 6. Scott survived the war as a POW, although most of the troops who surrendered on Ambon died in captivity. In 1946, witnesses and makeshift graves were located, and Hatakeyama was tried, convicted, and executed as a war criminal.

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The Saipan Mission – Plan for a “Special Attack of IJN Battleships”

The disastrous Philippine Sea battle left the Imperial Navy in the position of having important forces in a combat zone completely dominated by the Allies. Not only were more than 15,000 sailors caught in the trap, but also those endangered included skilled ship artificers and aircraft mechanics, Japanese communications intelligence experts, naval infantry, and the staffs and commanders of the Central Pacific Area Fleet, First Air Fleet, and Sixth Fleet.

For days, talk of rescue expeditions roiled across Tokyo. Navy staff officials promised salvation. Junior naval officers clamored for action, accusing the Japanese Army command of obstructing a rescue. Many others thought the whole idea ludicrous. The scheme might have had some chance while Ozawa’s Mobile Fleet monopolized Allied attention, but the day after Prime Minister Tojo approved the mission the Mobile Fleet went down in defeat at the Turkey Shoot.

Combined Fleet chief of staff Kusaka Ryunosuke, anxious to succor his old boss Nagumo, dreamed up the first scheme for the Saipan mission, revolving around two old battleships. Staffers thought Kusaka’s idea silly, but he was determined to go ahead. Captain Yamamoto Chikao (no relation to the great admiral), who led the operations section of the NGS, completed the plan on June 21.

The next day Admiral Ozawa’s vanquished Mobile Fleet anchored at Okinawa on its way home. As the fleet neared Japan, C-in-C Toyoda Soemu held the options open by ordering Ozawa to concentrate in the Inland Sea and prepare for an immediate mission. Under a revised rescue plan, the one available fleet carrier, Zuikaku, and every other two-bit aviation ship the Navy could scrape up would be loaded with whatever planes could fly, scrounged from both the Army and the Navy. The planes would have to take off only once. They would be expended in the fight.

This improvised carrier fleet would sail several days behind a convoy escorted by the Fifth Fleet, Japan’s northeast sea frontier protection force, expected to leave the port of Yokosuka carrying an Army infantry regiment. The carrier force would cover its approach with a one-way air attack. The next day Japan’s Second Fleet, the Navy’s big-gun unit, would steam in and crush the Allied fleets off the Marianas. The Fifth Fleet would then arrive with the Army’s regiment, and a day after that would be another convoy with a full Army division.

The rescue, still merely on paper, already looked shaky. The Ozawa fleet had been smashed in a full-scale battle and could hardly be ready for another. That went for the Second Fleet as well—it had been part of Ozawa’s force. Admiral Ozawa himself estimated he needed two months to get the ships back in fighting trim. About the only naval units really at hand were the Fifth Fleet and the old battleships. The aged Yamashiro of Battleship Division 2, and a pair of converted battleship–aircraft carriers, the Ise and Hyuga, were just completing modification to this hybrid status. There was also the Fuso, then in the southern Philippines after participating in a similar—but abortive—sortie to aid the Japanese defenders of Biak Island. The two hybrid ships, still working up, were ultimately left out of the plan.

Operations officers wanted to send at least the Yamashiro. She could dash to Saipan, deliver the regiment to stiffen the defenses, and then ground herself to serve as an artillery battery. The Army might contribute one of its own transport ships. Cruisers of the Fifth Fleet could carry more troops as well as the landing barges to put them ashore. With a handful of escorts these warships could become a relief mission. The Fuso, sailing independently, would shoot up Allied convoys headed to the battle areas. Combined Fleet alerted her for that mission on June 17. But the battleship-only rescue was a nonstarter. Three days later the Navy scrubbed the Fuso raiding mission. Combined Fleet commander in chief Toyoda Soemu thought the entire concept reckless and rejected chief of staff Kusaka’s proposals. According to Kusaka this was among the few times Toyoda ever did that.

Historian Anthony Tully attributes the rescue to Captain Kami Shigenori. A notorious hothead in the Imperial Navy, Kami might well have dreamed up this kind of scheme. Tully reports that Captain Kami, ready to accept any risk, volunteered to skipper the Yamashiro to her destiny. Contrary to some claims, however, at that time Kami was no operations specialist with either the fleets or the NGS. He was captain of the light cruiser Tama. That vessel at least belonged to the Fifth Fleet and could have participated, but it leaves the captain as just another advocate, not the planner of this extravaganza. It is true that Kami had spent much of his career in staff billets, but by the same token he had minimal command experience. The Tama had been his first ship in many years. Why the Navy should put Kami in charge of a battlewagon goes unexplained. In November 1966, Admiral Kusaka personally claimed credit, regretting the rescue had not been carried out, claiming that with the right timing it could have worked.

Meanwhile the plan had also envisioned that a long-range air unit (the “Hachiman Force”) would cooperate with the surface fleet, flying out to strike the Allied armada and paving the way for the surface ships. Cobbled together ad hoc, and composed of crews picked from the Yokosuka Air Group and Twelfth Air Fleet, the Hachiman Force actually deployed to Iwo Jima, but it never comprised more than sixty aircraft, and half those were lost in June and July.

Serious fliers thought this enterprise could only be a death ride. How a small air unit would penetrate the dense Allied umbrella, where the entire Mobile Fleet had failed, remained a mystery. Similarly, an ancient battleship was supposed to sink the mighty Blue Fleet, and another would get through to Saipan and reverse the strategic balance. The rescue plan had no substance. Admiral Toyoda stuck to his guns, and the Army high command dismissed the idea out of hand. The Army had spent six months reinforcing the Marianas with really significant forces—more than a few of which had been sunk en route by Allied subs. A single regiment sent now would achieve nothing, a regiment plus a division not much more.

But these plans, empty as they were, are important for other reasons. Such a degree of desperation now prevailed in Tokyo that the most extreme alternatives suddenly appealed. There is an argument from cultural history that the Japanese held special esteem for showing nobility even in failure. In the Pacific war in late 1944, Japan stood at the brink of that very deep chasm.

A more mundane reason would turn out to be a distraction in the next real battle. That is, the rescue plan envisioned taking the Fifth Fleet away from its geographic mission, employing it instead as an integral element in a battle concept. Once the Imperial Navy finally finished reconfiguring the force for the next battle, that element stuck—the old northern force would morph into the anticipated vanguard for the Ozawa fleet.

Emperor Hirohito sided with the young Navy officers. He demanded action. He had told Admiral Shimada on the eve of the Philippine Sea battle that with sufficient determination Japan might achieve a success like Tsushima, the glorious 1905 victory against the Russian fleet in the Sea of Japan. Hirohito warned Prime Minister Tojo of air raids on Tokyo if the Marianas were lost. They had to be held. IGHQ chiefs kept bringing him bad news. The emperor ordered Navy minister Shimada to craft a rescue. On June 24 Tojo and Shimada united to tell the emperor the bad news that Combined Fleet now felt the plan unworkable. Hirohito countered, demanding a second opinion from the Board of Field Marshals and Fleet Admirals, a military appendage of the jushin, or senior statesmen, who had a behind-the-scenes role in Tokyo. When the board also nixed a rescue, the emperor ordered them to put that judgment on paper, turned on his heel, and stalked off. The Yamashiro mission evaporated.

One jushin with whom diplomat Kase Toshikazu discussed Japan’s situation was Admiral Okada Keisuke. Okada had been Navy minister and prime minister in the 1930s. Now he told Kase that a rescue operation would only deepen the disaster, though perhaps that was a good idea—“he thought it advisable to let the ‘young fellows’ have their own way once in order to reconcile them ultimately to their inevitable fate—defeat.” Admiral Yonai Mitsumasa, another jushin, agreed the loss of Saipan would be a calamity, but he refused a useless gesture.

On June 29 Prince Takamatsu conceded to associates that the recent defeat had stymied the Imperial Navy for the present. The Navy captain’s remark, coming from the second brother of Hirohito, suggested the emperor had accepted reality.

The only efforts to rescue the Japanese in the Marianas would be by submarine. The big fleet submarines, I-boats, and smaller medium-range craft, RO-boats, were used in these operations. Two subs went down in futile missions to Saipan to recover Sixth Fleet commander Vice Admiral Takagi Takao. Thirteen Japanese submarines were lost in the Marianas, nearly half in rescue attempts. The sole success came to Lieutenant Commander Itakura Mitsuma’s I-41. Itakura managed to get his boat into Apra Harbor on Guam and spirit away more than 100 airmen.

Onward to Port Moresby

Carrier USS Lexington under Japanese Attack.

By the time that the IJA had sewn up its occupation of Sumatra and Java in the second week of March 1942, they had possession of those islands among the 17,500 of the Dutch East Indies that mattered. The growing empire of Emperor Hirohito now included the oil fields, and a Japanese governor seated in the jewel of the former Dutch colonial crown. The momentum of the invincible IJA invited – indeed it demanded – a next step.

Looking eastward from the Dutch East Indies lay New Guinea, the second largest of the world’s islands. Bracketed by Japanese-occupied Ambon and Timor to the west and Japanese-occupied New Britain to the east, it spanned 20 degrees of the earth’s longitude. On the chessboard of the intersection between Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific, ownership of New Guinea appeared essential to the Japanese strategy of containing Australia and any offensive that the Allies might launch from Australia.

Aside from its place on the map, and an enormous place it is, New Guinea is probably the most improbable slice of real estate to be fought over by the great world powers of the mid-twentieth century. A land of mystery with an unexplored interior, New Guinea is more than twice the size of Japan, but it had fewer census-counted inhabitants than the city of Kobe. It is still a land of impossible terrain where even in the twenty-first century it has yet to be bisected by a highway. It is a place of such remoteness that even many decades after World War II, it was inhabited by multitudes of species not yet catalogued by biologists, and home to numerous groups of stone-age people whose languages had never been heard by anthropologists.

New Guinea had been largely ignored by Europeans until the middle of the nineteenth century, and thereafter they had shown little interest beyond planting their flags. The Dutch had administered the part – or more properly, outposts along the coastline of that part – west of the 141st meridian as Nederlands Nieuw Guinea. The British and the Germans had each claimed a slice of the eastern part until 1919, when this half had been bestowed upon Australia by the League of Nations as the New Guinea Trust Territory. Today, the former Dutch half is part of Indonesia, while the eastern half is the independent state of Papua New Guinea (or Papua Niugini). It is indicative of New Guinea’s “forgotten” status in the affairs of the middle twentieth century that its largest city, Port Moresby on the Australian side, was home to barely 2,000 people in 1941.

It was to this, the eastern half of New Guinea, that the Japanese turned much of their attention after the fall of Java. Specifically, they focused on the 400-mile-long Papuan, or “Bird’s Tail,” Peninsula at the southeast tip of the island. Strategically, this was the part closest to their mushrooming base complex at Rabaul, and on the south side of the Bird’s Tail, Port Moresby was only 300 miles from the Cape York Peninsula in the Australian state of Queensland.

As Port Moresby was the largest city, largest port, and home to a growing concentration of Australian and American forces, it was the ultimate objective of the Japanese New Guinea strategy. In Allied hands, it could threaten Rabaul. In Japanese hands, it could protect Rabaul and be used to threaten Australia.

If most of New Guinea was strategically irrelevant to the Japanese master plan, Port Moresby had been a square on the Southwest Pacific chessboard upon which Japanese planners had been fixating for years. As early as 1938, the IJN had begun drafting plans for its capture as part of anchoring the sea lanes at the southern edge of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. With the approval of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto – commander of the Combined Fleet and architect of the Pearl Harbor attack – the plan for the capture of Port Moresby and its use in the chess game against Australia had been designed and filed away for later use. By March 1942, with all of the other pieces in place on the board, it was time to dust off the plans for Operation Mo (or Mo Sakusen, named for the first two Roman letters in “Moresby”).

The opening gambit in Operation Mo and the New Guinea campaign came on March 8, even as surrender terms were being dictated on Java. The initial targets were the twin villages of Lae and Salamaua on the north side of the Bird’s Tail, 200 miles due north of Port Moresby across the Owen Stanley Mountains, from which air support operations could be launched.

Major General Tomitaro Horii, who had led the operations against Guam and Rabaul, had set sail aboard four troop transports from the latter base three days earlier with the IJA’s South Seas Detachment. This organization was under the command structure of the IJN South Seas Force (based on the 4th Fleet), and was based on the 144th Regiment of the 55th Division. Horii’s order of battle for the Lae and Salamaua operation was essentially the same that he had successfully used to capture Rabaul in January. Horii’s troops were escorted by a substantial IJN fleet, including destroyers, patrol boats, and ships from two cruiser divisions. From Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto’s Cruiser Division 6, there were the heavy cruisers Aoba, Furutaka, Kako, and Kinugasa. Contributed by Rear Admiral Marumo Kuninori’s Division 18 were the light cruisers Tatsuta and Tenryu.

The landings on March 8 went like clockwork, just as the IJA had come to expect from their experiences at dozens of beachheads across Southeast Asia since December 8. At Lae, the Japanese troops landed without opposition. At Salamaua, there was sporadic gunfire. Attempts by a handful of Allied aircraft to attack the invaders were swatted away as more of a nuisance than a threat.

Two days later, the situation was surprisingly different, as American aircraft launched a concentrated attack against the ships anchored off the invasion beaches. USN bombers from the carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown, as well as eight USAAF B-17 Flying Fortresses operating from Townsville, Australia, did considerable damage. Three of the transports were sunk, and one damaged. Also damaged were a cruiser, two destroyers, and several support vessels. It was not a major defeat, but it was a serious blow to the complacency with which the Japanese had been operating. It was also the harbinger of an ebbing of Japanese air superiority.

As the Japanese began the enormous task of reinforcing Lae and Salamaua in advance of their assault on Port Moresby, parallel operations were getting underway more than a thousand miles to the west. The great battles which unfolded in eastern New Guinea later in 1942 have been discussed in great detail elsewhere, but the Japanese operations in western New Guinea, which flowed from the momentum of the Dutch East Indies Campaign, have been virtually ignored.

The battle plan for the western New Guinea operations was a naval plan. The objectives were the isolated Dutch coastal enclaves across the north side of the island, as well as around the 21,469-square-mile Vogelkop (now Kepela Burung) or “Bird’s Head” Peninsula, which is like an appendage to the northwest corner of New Guinea just as the Papuan Peninsula, the “Bird’s Tail,” is the signature geographic feature on the southeast corner of New Guinea. The plan was simply to use a naval force to pluck the isolated coastal communities one by one.

The spearhead for operations in western New Guinea was the IJN Special Naval Landing Forces. Specifically, they were troops under the command of the 24th Special Base Force, which was part of the IJN 2nd Southern Expeditionary Fleet; this was essentially the IJN 3rd Fleet, renamed on March 10 and given the responsibility for activities within the largely pacified Indies. The invasion force, known as Expeditionary Force N and under the overall command of Rear Admiral Ruitaro Fujita, was organized on Ambon immediately after the conquest of Java, and shipped out on the night of March 29.

Outnumbering the transports, the escort included the light cruiser Kinu, two destroyers, assorted patrol boats, and submarine chasers. Air support was supplied by the seaplane tender Chitose, which had been active in supporting a number of previous landings in the Dutch East Indies. The landing force itself, under IJN Captain S. Shibuya, included a small detachment from the 24th, plus the battalion-sized contingent of infantry from the 4th Guards. It was small relative to those assigned to previous operations because it was correctly assumed that resistance from handfuls of KNIL stragglers would be minimal.

The first objective for Expeditionary Force N was Bula on the eastern tip of the island of Ceram, where there was a small oil production facility. Reaching this on March 31, and finding that it had been abandoned, the Japanese ships steamed westward, making landfall at Fakfak on the western tip of New Guinea proper on April 1. From here, Expeditionary Force N proceeded clockwise around the Vogelkop Peninsula, reaching Sorong on April 4, and Manokwari on April 12. A week later, they reached Hollandia (now Jayapura), near the border with Australian-administered eastern New Guinea, which had been one of the few important Dutch administrative centers on the island.

At each point on this expedition, the Special Naval Landing Forces found their objectives either lightly defended or completely deserted of KNIL troops. Most of the Dutch had long since embarked on a long and difficult escape to Australia, or had escaped into the jungle to conduct guerilla actions against the Japanese. Indeed, in most cases, the defense of western New Guinea had been so insignificant that lightly armed sailors from the warships served as garrison troops. Garrison detachments of IJA forces were not sent to relieve them on a permanent basis for several months. Neither side bothered with the south and southwest coast of western New Guinea, which was inhospitably swampy, and home to few settlements.

Eastern New Guinea, however, was another matter. With the Japanese reinforcing their position at Lae and Salamaua, and the Allies doing the same at Port Moresby, both sides were building toward the pivotal battles that were about to take place on the ground, in the air and on the sea across in eastern New Guinea and across the Southwest Pacific.

Early May was to be a pivotal moment here, as was the middle of January in Borneo or the first week of March on Java. It was the moment when the invincible Japanese war machine would make decisive and simultaneous moves across a vast swathe of ocean and island from Port Moresby, about 870 miles to the east, across the Coral Sea to the islands of Tulagi and Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands chain.

There was great confidence and no reason to believe that things would not go as they had at every turn for the past five months since the great simultaneous offensives on December 8. If the landings in the Solomons went smoothly, it would advance the Japanese pieces on the chessboard much closer to Australia’s east coast. Japanese air bases here could threaten not only Australia, but its ocean supply lines from the United States.

Tomitaro Horii’s South Seas Detachment, roughly 5,000 strong aboard a dozen transports, departed from Rabaul. The invaders of Tulagi had disembarked from one of the ships, and had gone ashore on Tulagi unopposed on the night of May 3–4, while the rest were bound for their amphibious landing at Port Moresby which was scheduled for May 7.

They were supported by the IJN 4th Fleet under Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue aboard the cruiser Kashima. It was the largest Japanese naval force assembled in one place since the operations across the Java Sea during the latter half of February. Directly supporting the Port Moresby invasion group was Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka, with the cruiser Yubari, as well as the destroyers Asanagi, Mochizuki, Mutsuki, Oite, Uzuki, and Yayoi. Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto, meanwhile, commanded another covering group that included the light carrier Shoho and the cruisers Aoba, Furutaka, Kako, and Kinugasa. Also on hand was a carrier strike force comprised of the fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku and commanded by Takeo Takagi who had led the virtual obliteration of the Allied fleet in the Java Sea, and who had just been promoted to vice admiral on the first of May.

The meticulous Operation Mo planning had called for the South Seas Detachment to secure Port Moresby by May 10, and Horii was confident that he could deliver. Japanese bombers would be conducting operations against Australia from Port Moresby by the morning of May 11. Before that morning, however, there would be other mornings and the unexpected, which always haunts the overconfident.

On May 4, just as the Japanese had gone ashore on Tulagi, they were attacked by USN aircraft from the USS Lexington and USS Yorktown, part of Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher’s Task Force 17. As the two sides became aware of one another, and Fletcher deduced from intelligence sources that the long-anticipated invasion of Port Moresby was in motion, the opposing fleets searched for one another across the Coral Sea. Two days of maneuvering led to the joining of a remarkable battle on May 7. It was unlike anything that had yet been seen in naval history. The ships of neither side came within striking distance of the other. Throughout May 7 and May 8, the offensive battle was waged entirely by aircraft.

In the battle of the Coral Sea, each side lost a destroyer and several lesser ships damaged or sunk, but most of the attention was focused on the opposing carriers. The Japanese lost the light carrier Shoho, while the Shokaku was put out of action through battle damage, and the Zuikaku’s aircrews were depleted in the fighting. The Lexington was fatally damaged and scuttled, while the Yorktown eventually limped back to Pearl Harbor for repairs. The naval battle was a statistical draw, but a strategic victory for the USN insofar as the Coral Sea marked the high-water mark in a great run of successes for the IJN.

A month later, during the first week of June, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto prepared for what might have been a brilliant end run victory which, in turn, might have checked the USN in the central Pacific. He sent four fleet carriers to support the invasion of Midway, due north of Hawaii. He had planned to include the Shokakau and Zuikaku, but after the battle of the Coral Sea, they were heading to Japan for repairs and were unavailable. If the battle of the Coral Sea was the end of the beginning for the IJN, the battle of Midway was the beginning of the end. All four of the Japanese carriers, Akagi, Hiryu, Kaga, and Soryu – each a veteran of the Pearl Harbor attack – were sunk at Midway. Things would never again be the same for the IJN.

The battle of the Coral Sea was also the high-water mark for the IJA in the Southwest Pacific. They would hold on in the Solomons, but as the hold began to falter, the momentum was never revived.

What then, of the invasion of Port Moresby, which was scheduled for May 7, and which was to be completed by May 10? As the battle began to unfold in earnest on that day, Admiral Inoue withdrew the invasion fleet. On May 7, with all three aircraft carriers preoccupied and embroiled in the great air battle, they could not support the invasion. Inoue decided that it would not be prudent to go forward with the landings without air cover. By the following day, one of the Japanese carriers was gone and the other two unfit for operations.

Inoue initially ordered a postponement to May 12, then to May 17, and finally the amphibious attack on Port Moresby, which was once just a matter of hours from happening, was cancelled. Inoue was relieved of his command and brought home to desk duty.

General Tomitaro Horii’s South Seas Detachment, meanwhile, were not relieved of their duty. It was decided that instead of coming across the beaches, they would attack overland, across the Owen Stanley Mountains which form the jagged spine of the Bird’s Tail. On July 21, Horii landed on the north shore of the Bird’s Tail in the area of the villages of Buna, Gona, and Sanananda, with around 6,500 men. They then attempted to hike across the mountains on the rough, 65-mile Kokoda Track, a trail which climbs to 3,380 feet through some of the most difficult terrain on earth. Opposing the Japanese were small understrength Australian units – and the land itself.

New Guinea was such a difficult place to wage war that the troops found it a triumph when they managed to march a mile a day through its dense forests. These jungles, with their slippery hillsides tangled in forests and foliage where the sun had never shown, and where visibility is often measured in inches rather than yards, were literally hell on earth for most troops who dared to challenge them.

Being located barely south of the equator gives New Guinea a climate in which a veritable encyclopedia of tropical diseases can flourish. The troops discovered that malaria was almost routine and maladies such as dysentery were actually routine.

The Japanese continued to pour men and materiel into the Kokoda Track for months, eventually losing as many men as they had first committed to the futile campaign. One of them was Horii himself, who drowned crossing a river in September.

The IJA never reached Port Moresby. The momentum lost through the cancellation of the amphibious operation on May 7 was never recaptured. A month later, the battle of Midway guaranteed this. Australia was safe. If there had been an invasion of that country on the books, without Port Moresby, it was impossible.

Alsace Campaign (November 1944-January 1945)

Allied campaign to capture Alsace from German forces. Formidable barriers to the east and west protected the plains of Alsace from invasion; to the east was the Rhine River and to the west the Vosges Mountains. The two primary gaps in the Vosges were the Belfort Gap and the Saverne Gap, with the former defying capture by the German army both in 1870 and 1914. The vaunted Wehrmacht did what past German armies failed to do when Panzer Group Guderian penetrated the Belfort Gap in the French Campaign of 1940. German forces occupied Alsace until the Allied campaign of winter 1944-1945.

The Alsace Campaign was a joint American-French campaign to capture Alsace and reach the Rhine River. Lieutenant General Jacob Devers, commander of the Allied 6th Army Group, exercised overall control of the campaign. His forces consisted of the U. S. Seventh Army under Lieutenant General Alexander Patch and the First French Army under General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. The VI and XV Corps made up the Seventh Army, and the First French Army consisted of the I and II Corps. Opposing was the German Nineteenth Army under General der Infanterie (U. S. equiv. lieutenant general) Freidrich Wiese. His army consisted of eight infantry divisions, six of which would be nearly destroyed in the campaign. Wiese’s most reliable unit was the 11th Panzer Division (known as the Ghost Division for its fighting on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union).

Ultimate control of the German forces, however, was in the hands of Army Group G Commander General der Panzertruppen (U. S. equiv. lieutenant general) Hermann Balck. Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) had low expectations for the campaign in Alsace; its attention was more clearly focused on the battles to the north involving the 12th and 21st Army Groups. General Devers was to clear the Germans from his front and secure crossings over the Rhine River. In the 6th Army Group zone, General Patch’s XV Corps, commanded by Major General Wade Haislip, held the left, or northern, flank and was linked up with Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s Third Army of the 12th Army Group. Next in line was the VI Corps under Major General Edward Brooks, who took over when Lieutenant General Lucian Truscott was reassigned. Holding the southern flank was the First French Army; this was also the southern flank of the entire Allied line.

The campaign in Alsace was to begin in coordination with the fighting to the north. The XV Corps was to jump off on 13 November 1944 and capture Sarrebourg and the Saverne Gap, then exploit its gains eastward while at the same time protecting Patton’s flank. (Patton’s offensive started on 8 November.) The VI Corps was scheduled to begin its campaign two days after the XV Corps started, or 15 November. It would attack in a northeasterly direction, break out onto the Alsatian plains, capture Strasbourg, and secure the west bank of the Rhine. Farther south, the First French Army was to commence operations on 13 November. The I and II Corps would force the Belfort Gap, capture the city of Belfort, and exploit its success. There was ample opportunity for spectacular success.

The XV Corps attacked in a snowstorm on 13 November with the 79th and 44th Divisions and the French 2nd Armored Division. The 79th Division captured Sarrebourg on 21 November and advanced so quickly that General Patch directed XV Corps to capture Strasbourg if it could get there before VI Corps. On 23 November, elements of the French 2nd Armored Division liberated Strasbourg, capital of Alsace. The VI Corps began its attack on 15 November with the 3rd, 36th, 100th, and 103rd Divisions and achieved similar success. Crossing the Meurthe River, the 100th Division penetrated the German “Winter Line” on 19 November, a position that quickly crumbled. The attack in the First French Army sector began on 13 November. The French troops successfully breached the Belfort Gap, and elements of the 1st Armored Division of I Corps reached the Rhine on 19 November, the first Allied troops in the 6th Army Group zone to do so.

In the midst of this success in the 6th Army Group zone, Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar N. Bradley met with Devers and Patch on 24 November. The result was an order for the Seventh Army to turn northward and attack the West Wall (the series of fortifications protecting Germany’s western frontier) along with Patton’s Third Army. The XV and VI Corps, minus two divisions, were subsequently turned northward while the First French Army and the 3rd and 36th Divisions focused their attention on German troops around the city of Colmar.

The attack northward began on 5 December, with the XV Corps on the left and the VI Corps on the right. After 10 days of heavy fighting, elements of the VI Corps entered Germany on 15 December. The 100th Division’s effort around the French city Bitche was so fierce that it was given the sobriquet “Sons of Bitche.” The Seventh Army offensive was halted on 20 December to enable it to cooperate with the Allied defense in the Ardennes.

The German troops in the 6th Army Group front planned an offensive for late December 1944, known as Operation NORDWIND. Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, the onslaught commenced. Through much of January 1945, the attack forced Allied troops to give ground. Eisenhower even toyed with the idea of abandoning Strasbourg, but General Charles de Gaulle vehemently opposed such a plan. The city was held, and by 25 January, the German offensive petered out and the German forces withdrew.

Battle for the Colmar Pocket, (20 January-9 February 1945)

Colmar pocket was the German bridgehead west of the Rhine River and south of the city of Strasbourg, held by Colonel General Friedrich Wiese’s Nineteenth Army of eight divisions (some 50,000 men). On 7 January 1945, the Germans launched a major attack out of the Colmar pocket, gaining very little ground. But the Allies wanted to remove the pocket, and the task was assigned to General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny’s First French Army of 6th Army Group.

On 20 January, de Lattre’s troops attacked the Colmar pocket. The French I Corps led off by attacking the southern flank. On the night of 22-23 January, II Corps assaulted the northern flank. The objective was to envelop the pocket by converging on Neuf-Brisach and the Rhine Bridge at Breisach. Deep snow along with German mines, machine guns, tanks, and artillery kept the attacks from gaining much ground.

The U. S. 3rd Infantry Division, which was attached to the French, then crossed the Fecht and Ill Rivers. The Germans counterattacked, but the 3rd held them off and reinforced its bridgehead. Severe shortages of French troops led to the eventual attachment to the operation of the entire U. S. XXI Corps, composed of the 3rd, 28th, and 75th Infantry Divisions. Major General Frank Milburn commanded XXI Corps.

Milburn’s XXI Corps took over the right of the French II Corps zone and the main effort to envelop the Colmar pocket from the north. The II Corps guarded its left, clearing that area to the Rhine.

The attack continued. The 28th Division arrived at Colmar on 2 February, and the 75th entered the outskirts of NeufBrisach in the rear of the pocket. The U. S. 12th Armored Division was then added to the attack. On 3 February, it drove south through the 28th. Pockets of German resistance held up one arm of the attack, but the other, driving down the main road, captured Rouffach on 5 February. Other task forces surrounded the town and met the 4th Moroccan Division from the I Corps. This maneuver split the pocket.

On 5 February, leading elements of the U. S. 3rd Division arrived outside the walled town of Neuf-Brisach. Early the next morning, as the Americans prepared to attack the city, they encountered a Frenchman who took them to a 60-foot tunnel that led into the town from the dry moat. An American platoon entered through this tunnel and found only 76 German soldiers, who surrendered without a fight. Before leaving the town, their officers had told them to fight to the finish.

French forces finished off the pocket on 9 February. In the entire operation, the Allies had sustained about 18,000 casualties and the Germans between 22,000 and 36,000. Only the 708th Volksgrenadier Division, evacuating the pocket on 3 February, escaped reasonably intact. The German 2nd Mountain Division had 1,000 battle casualties and 4,700 men taken as prisoners. Only 500 members of the German 198th Infantry Division and 400 men of the German 338th Infantry Division managed to escape. The Germans also abandoned 55 armored vehicles and 66 field pieces.

The campaign in Alsace was over. Although overshadowed by the 12th and 21st Army Groups to the north, General Devers’s 6th Army Group had contributed an important accomplishment.

References: Bonn, Keith E. When the Odds Were Even: The Vosges Mountains Campaign, October 1944-January 1945. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1994. Clarke, Jeffrey J., and Robert R. Smith. United States Army in World War II: European Theater of Operations: Riviera to the Rhine. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 1993. Lattre de Tassigny, Jean M. G. de. The History of the First French Army. Trans. Malcolm Barnes. London: Allen and Unwin, 1952. Weigley, Russell. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. Wyant, William. Sandy Patch: A Biography of Lt. Gen. Alexander M. Patch. New York: Praeger, 1991

Complete Victory In North Africa I

If the tide of World War II can be said to have turned at any one point in time, that point occurred in November 1942. In the foul jungles of Guadalcanal, as the last Japanese counterattack was hurled back, the United States took a permanent grip on the initiative in the Pacific. In Russia, the ferocious struggle for Stalingrad turned against Hitler as the Red Army encircled 300,000 German troops. And in North Africa, the twin successes of El Alamein and Operation Torch opened wide the gates of opportunity to the Allies.

This opportunity for quick, complete victory in North Africa had to be grasped immediately, however. The first chance came along the coast road west of El Alamein, as Rommel’s beaten troops fled before the victorious 8th Army. If Montgomery could throw an armored flanking column across the road ahead of the remnants of the Panzerarmee, the job begun at such cost at El Alamein would be finished in one stroke.

Montgomery’s painstaking battle plan had included a force to pursue the beaten enemy – Montgomery never doubted that the enemy would be beaten – but the three divisions he named a corps de chasse were sucked into the battle and badly mauled. At the very moment of victory, he had to improvise a new corps de chasse, one that was neither stocked with extra fuel nor rested and fresh for the chase.

“The essence of an armoured pursuit,” wrote a historian of the campaign, “is speed and boldness to the point of fool-hardiness.” Such a pursuit was, in fact, a perfect example of Rommel’s theory of boldness – a driving, headlong rush with much to gain and no real threat to the army if it failed. But this was not Bernard Montgomery’s way. He was a master of the set-piece engagement, superbly skilled at planning and preparing an army for battle and in balancing and adjusting forces on the battlefield. It was against his nature to take military risks, to indulge in what he called “mad rush” tactics. Nor, perhaps, was the Rommel legend quite dead. Even in defeat the Desert Fox’s reputation inspired caution among his pursuers.

The result was a series of frustrating near-misses. At first the very size of the 8th Army was a handicap, and the monumental traffic jam that developed as the corps de chasse tried to shake free cost some twelve hours. One trap misfired when a British column cut in toward the coast road too soon; another failed when the pursuers stopped for the night while their quarry kept moving. The New Zealanders were held up half a day by a mine field that turned out not only to be a dummy, but a dummy laid by the British themselves during the Gazala Gallop.

Most frustrating of all was the plight of the 1st Armored Division, which made a long dash through the desert toward Matruh – the site of Rommel’s dazzling victory the previous June – only to run out of gasoline twice and lose the race. On the evening of November 6, with Rommel’s hopes for escape already growing brighter, the heavens opened wide and rain deluged the two armies. On the desert tracks, the corps de chasse was immediately axle-deep in mud. On the paved coast road, the Panzerarmee limped on in the rain – and was finally out of reach.

So one Allied opportunity was lost, but another soon appeared in its place – Tunisia. By quickly seizing and holding this very defensible country, the Torch army could sever Rommel’s supply line and leave him hopelessly trapped. Tunisia, in fact, had once been on the list of Torch’s D-day objectives, but with all the other uncertainties, it seemed too much of a gamble to attempt an amphibious landing under the very nose of the Axis air force in Sicily. Still, the need to strike fast for Tunisia never left Eisenhower’s thoughts. “This single objective was constantly held before all eyes,” he wrote.

There were some 15,000 French troops in Tunisia, poorly armed but strong enough to deny the country to the Axis at least temporarily – if they would fight. Admiral Darlan, however, shrank from ordering the Tunisian garrison to shoot at Germans, even after ordering the shooting at the Allies in Algeria and Morocco to stop. Nor could the French commanders of the garrison bring themselves to put aside notions of military honor and loyalty to Marshal Pétain to act on their own.

As the hours slipped away and General Clark tried to pin down the squirming Darlan, the Germans scraped up men and guns and hurled them across the Sicilian narrows. French units sat in their weapons pits around the Tunisian airfields and watched impassively as scores of Junkers transport planes spiraled down and landed. Soon a thin line of German troops held the primary northern ports of Tunis and Bizerte and the defensive ground around them and began to trickle southward to “hold the door open” for Rommel.

(It took months to straighten out the troublesome political tangle centered in Algiers. The uproar in the United States and Britain over the so-called Darlan Deal ended only when Darlan was assassinated on Christmas Eve of 1942 by a young French patriot. General Giraud then took over, but he proved to be, in President Roosevelt’s tart phrase, “a very slender reed” to depend upon. Finally, General de Gaulle brought order out of the confusion. Free French forces were rearmed and eventually played an important role in liberating their homeland from Nazi rule.)

The door of opportunity was still ajar, for the German beachhead was very weak, and the Allies were racing hard for Tunis. More than 550 miles of rugged, mountainous country lay before them. “Get there somehow, and get there quick” was their motto, a war correspondent wrote. “No one quite knew what enemy, if any, was ahead or to the flanks, but morale was up to the limits and there was an infectious air of excitement. . . .” Infantrymen and paratroopers, U.S. Rangers and British commandos, rushed on, never knowing if there would be fuel or ammunition – or food – for the next day.

By mid-November, the Allies were well across the Tunisian border but facing stiffening resistance. The Axis poured men into Tunisia at the rate of more than 1,000 a day, a pace the Allies could not match. The Luftwaffe harassed the advancing columns. Nevertheless, a British force pushed to within a dozen miles of Tunis before it was forced back. The race was in its last lap, the outcome was hanging in the balance – and then the rains came.

The soil of northern Tunisia has a peculiar consistency, and overnight it turned into one great soft sea of mud. “Tunisian mire has a flypaper quality all its own,” wrote Hollywood producer Darryl Zanuck, a colonel in the Signal Corps. “There are no puddles and you don’t slip or splash; you just sink in sort of gentle-like and stay there.” General Eisenhower toured the front before a major attack he had scheduled for Christmas Eve. Everywhere he looked the army was bogged down; at one point he watched as four soldiers tried to get a single motorcycle out of a mud hole, became swamped themselves, and finally left the machine mired deeper than when they began. Bitterly disappointed, he called off the attack. The race for Tunis was over.

The stalemate in Tunisia during the winter of 1942–43, like the siege of Tobruk in 1941, was bloody and monotonous and frustrating; but instead of the heat and dust of Tobruk, the troops in Tunisia lived in cold and mud. It was a winter full of those little incidents of war that seemed especially senseless when neither side could gain an advantage. Correspondent Alan Moorehead recorded one such incident, in a village called El Aroussa, in January, 1943.

“The morning broke unusually clear, and I wandered into the village,” Moorehead wrote. “In the main street half a dozen Tommies were washing in the horse trough, and I fell into conversation with them. They were Londoners, adolescent boys on their first campaign and enjoying a good deal of it. Their backs and chests as they washed were very white, but their faces had gone scarlet through exposure. . . . They were friendly and shy and very determined to do well in the war. . . .

“As I walked back to my camp the Stukas came over. . . . It seemed for a moment that they were going to sail by the village, but at the last moment they altered direction, opened their flaps, and dived. The bombs tumbled out lazily, turning over and over in the morning sunshine. Then with that graceful little jump and a flick, each aircraft turned upward and out of its dive and wheeled away. . . .

“I walked over to the centre of the village, keeping care to stay away from an exploding ammunition lorry. A barnlike building had taken a direct hit, and the coiled barbed wire [stored there] had threshed about wildly in a thousand murderous tentacles. The blast had carried these fragments across to the water trough, and now my six young friends were curiously huddled up and twisted over one another. It is the stillness of the dead that is so shocking. Even their boots don’t seem to lie on the ground as those of a sleeping man would. They don’t move at all. They seem to slump into the earth with such unnatural overwhelming tiredness. . . .”

In the desert to the east, meanwhile, the retreat of the Panzerarmee continued. The British pursued doggedly, relentlessly, unable to catch up to Rommel but giving him no rest either. On November 23, for the third time in less than two years, he was back at El Agheila. There the Panzerarmee held for three weeks, gravely wounded but still dangerous, while Montgomery stock-piled supplies for an attack. On December 13, as the British barrage began, the Desert Fox pulled out.

After another three-week pause at Buerat, some 200 miles to the west, the retreat continued. Tripoli could not be defended, and on January 23, 1943, the 8th Army marched into the city. Since the days of Wavell and O’Connor, British soldiers had dreamed of taking Tripoli, seemingly as unreachable as a desert mirage. Now, wrote a correspondent, they “stood with wonderment and emotion beside the playing fountains” – and then marched on westward. On February 12, the second anniversary of Rommel’s arrival in North Africa, the rear guards of the Afrika Korps withdrew across the Libyan border into Tunisia. The Axis dug in at the formidable Mareth Line.

This kind of retreat had gone against all Rommel’s instincts. His orders had been to withdraw as slowly as possible, holding off the 8th Army as long as possible. Rommel favored either withdrawal from North Africa (given Axis supply problems, he believed the campaign was a lost cause) or the classic strategy of an army threatened with entrapment: rapid concentration to defeat the enemy forces in detail before they could combine against him. Every mile Rommel retreated shortened his supply line and lengthened the 8th Army’s, allowing him to retreat a great deal faster than the British could chase him. The Desert Fox had wanted to hurry to Tunisia, connect with General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s 5th Panzer Army there to rout the still-weak Torch army, and then turn on the 8th Army while it dangled at the end of its long supply line.

He flew to Germany to raise these matters of strategy with Hitler. The reaction was, in Rommel’s words, “like a spark in a powder barrel. The Führer flew into a fury. . . . I began to realize that Adolf Hitler simply did not want to see the situation as it was and that he reacted emotionally against what his intelligence must have told him was right.”

Rommel was still determined to seize the initiative if he could. In February 1943, leaving his infantry in the Mareth Line to hold off Montgomery, he led the Afrika Korps northward for an assault on the Americans in the narrow “waist” of Tunisia. On February 14, the panzers sprang forward to the attack.

Complete Victory In North Africa II

Suddenly it was the old glory days all over again – the quick surprise thrust, the reeling enemy, the Desert Fox leading from up front, the waves of consternation spreading through the opposing high command like ripples through a pond after the splash of a stone. Two panzer columns ripped through the thin American line, converged on a mountain gap called Kasserine Pass, brushed aside the force defending it, and poured through the pass into the American rear areas. Desperate counterattacks were methodically chewed up by German tanks and antitank guns.

Collecting every unit they could lay hands on, the Allied commanders labored to plug the gap. Early in the Kasserine battle the green U.S. troops and their inexperienced commanders had been badly knocked about by Rommel’s desert veterans; now they began to dig in their heels stubbornly, particularly hard-fighting units of the U.S. 1st Armored Division. “They recovered very quickly after the first shock,” Rommel wrote. On February 22, unable to achieve a breakthrough, he pulled back through Kasserine Pass.

Two weeks later, Rommel tried a second attack, this time against the 8th Army near Mareth. But the old magic was gone. He was exhausted mentally and sick physically, and he mishandled the attack. His armor charged blindly and was cut to pieces by Montgomery’s antitank guns; some fifty tanks were lost, while the British lost but half a dozen. On March 9, 1943, his health broken, the Desert Fox left North Africa, never to return.

By the end of March, the Torch army’s losses at Kasserine Pass had been made good. Units were consolidated and inept commanders weeded out, and General Alexander arrived from Cairo to command the Allied ground forces. It was now a battle against time, a battle to end the campaign in Tunisia in time to assault Sicily and Italy that summer. If von Arnim could hold out for three or four months, however, no further Allied campaigns would be possible in 1943. This would suit Hitler very well indeed, giving him the chance to concentrate all his forces for one last mighty thrust at Russia.

The terrain facing the 8th Army in southern Tunisia was on the familiar desert pattern, but the rugged, mountainous north was something else entirely. In desert fighting, the armies were spread out and concealed in dust clouds, and the progress of a battle was seldom easy to follow. In northern Tunisia, on the other hand, it was usually possible to see the enemy positions clearly and to plot the course of the battle without difficulty. In the sector manned by the British 1st Army, for example, there was a long and bitter struggle for a piece of high ground known as Longstop Hill. The climactic British assault on Longstop, made in late April, looked like this to an eyewitness:

“Everything appeared to happen in miniature. The tanks climbing on Jebel Ang looked like toys. The infantry that crept across the uplands toward [the village of] Heidous were tiny dark dots, and when the mortar shells fell among them it was like drops of rain on a muddy puddle. Toy donkeys toiled up the tracks toward the mountain crests, and the Germans, too, were like toys, little animated figures that occasionally got up and ran or bobbed up out of holes in the ground between the shell explosions.”

As Longstop was being overrun, another equally bitter battle was being fought for Hill 609 in the American sector a few miles to the north. This high ground – named for its height in meters on the maps the Allies were using – was blocking the advance of the American 2nd Corps, commanded by Major General Omar Bradley. For four days, the fight for Hill 609 raged. Von Arnim’s stubborn infantrymen were dug into cracks and crevices on the stony heights, and their mortars and artillery dominated all the approaches to the hill.

“Seldom has an enemy contested a position more bitterly than did the Germans high on Hill 609,” wrote General Bradley. They rolled hand grenades down on the Americans clawing for a foothold on the steep slopes, and their strong points were taken only after hand-to-hand combat with pistols, knives, and fists. Each American gain was met by a vicious counterattack. Finally, Bradley ordered Sherman tanks forward to provide fire support. They nosed up to the foot of the hill and chipped away at the enemy positions with their seventy-five millimeter guns, their armor proof against the bullets and grenades showered down on them.

At last, on May 1, Hill 609 was encircled and the defenders hunted down. The capture was sweet revenge for the U.S. 34th Infantry Division. The 34th had been badly mauled by the Afrika Korps at Kasserine Pass in February, losing both its reputation and its self-respect in the process. Now it regained both, with interest.

Already, Montgomery, in a masterful display of battlefield tactics, had forced the Mareth Line and linked up with the Torch army. The loss of Longstop and Hill 609, combined with heavy pressure from the 8th Army, drove von Arnim back to his final line of defense overlooking the approaches to Tunis and Bizerte. Last-minute attempts to fly in reinforcements from Sicily met with disaster. Scores of Junkers transports and mammoth six-engined Messerschmitt troop carriers were knocked into the sea by Allied fighters.

On May 6, behind a tremendous artillery barrage and a bombing attack, the last German line was blown open. Tanks burst through like water through a broken dam. “In scores, in hundreds, this vast procession of steel lizards went grumbling and lurching and swaying up the Tunis road,” wrote correspondent Moorehead. The next day, Tunis itself was in sight. It was especially fitting that the Desert Rats of the British 7th Armored Division, their famous red jerboa emblem still decorating their vehicles, were among the first to enter the city. The Desert Rats were bringing to an end the long campaign they had begun under O’Connor in those far-off days of 1940.

That same day, the Americans reached Bizerte. A force of Grant tanks swept into the city, exchanging fire with snipers and the German rear guard. A crewman of one of the tanks described the scene in a letter to his family.

“By this time it was getting very hot and stuffy in the tank,” he wrote, “so we climbed out and took a smoke. . . . Then a Frenchman comes up with a bottle of wine and we all had a smoke and drank the bottle of wine. A shell lands behind the tank and sort of makes us mad, so we get back in and start shooting away again – and the people just standing there on the sidewalk. Every time George would shoot the seventy-five, plaster would fall down from all the buildings around, but they didn’t seem to mind that, they were so glad to see us. . . .”

Axis troops were now surrendering in droves. Many tried to flee to Cape Bon, a finger of land jutting out into the Mediterranean, but when they saw that there were no ships or planes to carry them across to Sicily, they too gave themselves up. As the men of his Afrika Korps marched into captivity, Rommel was with Hitler in Berlin. “I should have listened to you before,” the dejected Führer told him, “but I suppose it’s too late now. It will soon be all over in Tunisia.”

It was all over on May 13, 1943. Close to 275,000 Axis troops were captured in the last week of battle. They stacked their weapons and came into Allied lines in endless, orderly columns of trucks. Almost none escaped. “It is my duty to report that the Tunisian campaign is over,” General Alexander cabled Prime Minister Churchill. “All enemy resistance has ceased. We are the masters of the North African shores.”

The crushing defeat in North Africa was the beginning of the end for the Axis partners. Before the year was out, Sicily and Italy were invaded, and massive Russian attacks rolled back the Germans on the eastern front. In June 1944, the Allies attacked across the English Channel to win a foothold on the Normandy shores; by fall, France was liberated and the battle for Germany had begun.

For some, North Africa was the first step on the road to military fame. Eisenhower became supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, with Montgomery the head of his ground forces. Alexander commanded the forces in the Mediterranean theater. American generals such as Bradley, bloodied in Tunisia, went on to carve important niches for themselves in the European campaign. But for others the desert war was the climax of their military careers. Wavell and Auchinleck, for example, later served in relative obscurity in the Far East; General Ritchie ended up as a corps commander in Europe under Montgomery.

For Erwin Rommel, who put such a unique, personal stamp on the desert war, the future brought only disillusionment and doom. In July 1944, while commanding the German forces in Normandy, he was gravely wounded in an air attack. A few days later, a group of generals, convinced that Hitler was insane and dragging Germany down to destruction in a war already lost, tried to kill the Führer by planting a bomb in his headquarters. Rommel, who had long since come to despise Hitler, knew of the plot to overthrow him but took no part in it. Nor did he know that the conspirators planned to name him head of state to negotiate peace if they succeeded. But Hitler survived, and in the purge that followed, Rommel was implicated.

He was at his home recovering from his wounds when Hitler’s police came. They gave him the choice of suicide by poison or a public execution, with its disgrace to his family and his memory. He chose to kill himself. His son, Manfred, saw the body soon afterward. “My father lay on a camp bed in his brown Africa uniform,” he said, “a look of contempt on his face.” The German people were told that the Desert Fox had died of the wounds suffered in Normandy, and on October 18, 1944, he was given a hero’s funeral. Seven months later, Hitler also killed himself, and Germany lay defeated and in ruins.

Armor in the Pacific theater of World War II Part I

The use of armor in the Pacific during World War II began as an experimental attempt to break through the strong defensive positions on the island of New Guinea during the battle of Buna. The military found that even though the terrain dictated when and where tanks could be employed, their use provided the infantry with the needed firepower and armor protection that could be found nowhere else on the battlefield at the time.

There were occasions where tanks could not be used, primarily due to poor terrain. During the New Guinea campaign, tanks were brought onto the beach at Hollandia, but due to the wetness of the terrain and softness of the ground, could not be used in that area. They remained on the beach to protect the logistical base. The same holds true for the Santa Maria area of the Philippines where tanks were relatively useless due to the terrain. Wherever possible, tanks were brought ashore early in an assault to provide necessary support for the infantry.

Tanks were effective in providing direct support to the infantry and proved to be an invaluable asset during the war. Their ability to get close to Japanese positions and employ cannon or flames to destroy enemy fortification complemented and enhanced the infantry’s role, which was to destroy the enemy in close combat. The development of the tank-infantry team concept enhanced both combat arms’ ability to accomplish assigned missions. They were employed as a team, along with artillery, engineers, and air power whenever possible. Although the war in the Pacific was primarily an infantryman’s battle, the tank provided necessary direct support to the infantry and was employed in a manner which best suited the terrain and situation at the time.

Buna

The first introduction of armor into the Pacific theater of World War II was during the battle of Buna, New Guinea, from November 1942 to January 1943. Although the Japanese attempted to use tanks prior to Buna to overrun the Allied position in a surprise attack at Milne Bay on 25 August, the event was relatively insignificant as the tanks became mired in the mud and were abandoned by the Japanese. The lessons learned from this brief but unexpected armored confrontation were that the Australians were not armed with antitank weapons at the point of the attack and only poor trafficability saved what could have been a successful Japanese incursion.

The first Allied use of armor occurred just outside the village of Buna. Allied forces discovered a well- fortified Japanese strongpoint which repelled numerous infantry attempts to destroy the positions. The Allies’ first attempt to use armored vehicles was the employment of armored Bren gun carriers, which were light armored cars with a top mounted heavy machine gun. Five carriers assaulted the Japanese positions, but were not supported by infantry. One well-concealed Japanese antitank gun destroyed all five carriers in less than 20 minutes. The infantry, pinned down behind a log wall, was unable to provide adequate supporting fire to suppress the enemy gun. The first attempt of allied use of armor failed due to lack of coordination of combined arms teamwork and support.

On December 18, 1942, Allied forces employed tanks in an offensive role in the vicinity of Cape Endaiader, also near Buna. Seven tanks, with one held in reserve, led a successful assault against Japanese machinegun emplacements. The tanks’ 37mm main guns were used to penetrate the bunker and destroy the position. Dismounted infantry was used to protect the flanks of the vehicles during the attack. The tanks also used the main gun to knock down trees being used by snipers. As the attack continued, the tanks were slowed by heavy undergrowth. The infantry continued the attack but was soon stopped by more Japanese machinegun positions. The tanks were once again brought forward, supported by infantry, and destroyed the bunkers within two hours.[18] General Eichelberger described the Japanese strongpoints as a series of bunkers connected by trenches. The positions were concealed and well-protected and almost impervious to rifle and machinegun fire. He continued to assess that the successful destruction of Japanese bunkers at Buna was largely due to the employment of tanks, supported by infantry.

One tactic developed during the attack on Buna was to maneuver the tanks close to a bunker position, blast a hole in a corner of the bunker with the tank main gun, then use the tanks’ machineguns to cover an infantry attack on the position. The infantry would throw hand grenades into the hole created by the tank round and destroy the bunker. This technique was demonstrated numerous times and was extremely effective in the elimination of enemy positions.

During the battle for Buna, many tanks were lost to enemy fire. The Japanese used antiaircraft guns effectively as antitank weapons against Allied tanks that were employed without infantry support. Of the original eight tanks listed previously, four were knocked out by Japanese antiaircraft guns. In almost all cases, the tanks were knocked out while leading an attack without reconnaissance or proper intelligence of the enemy situation.

The terrain in the area around Buna was a mixture of grassy plateaus, heavy forested areas, and swamps. Tanks were best used in the open, grassy terrain but were most vulnerable to enemy antitank fire. Only under complete surprise were tanks able to achieve success, as was the case on January 1, 1943 at Giropa Point. In this case, Allied tanks made a swift attack across open terrain, caught the Japanese by surprise and caused them to scatter and flee at the sight of the oncoming tanks. The Japanese were unable to reposition their antitank weapons in response to the suddenness of the attack and lost the advantage of their well-established kill zone (an area which the defender plan so inflict the most casualties on the enemy). In the heavily forested areas, the infantry physically led the tanks through the jungle, greatly impeding the speed and momentum of the attack. Engineers were not available at Buna to make roads for the tanks, which made them bypass swamps, forcing the infantry to continue the attack without tank support until a different route could be found.

General Eichelberger stated, “There were no new principles of warfare learned at Buna,” but the importance of tank-infantry cooperation and the usefulness of tanks in support of the infantry during Buna became quite evident. In many cases, individual tanks were employed in support of an infantry platoon or company, and became an important asset to the success of the operation. Major General George Vasey, commander of the 7th Division, highlighted this thought when he stated that without tanks at Buna, the infantry could not have defeated the bunkers.

Tarawa Although the terrain on the island of Tarawa was not conducive to armored warfare, the Marines attempted to employ armor in the jungle fight during the fall of 1943. As at Buna, the Marines experimented with the problem of reducing and destroying heavily fortified enemy positions. The use of tanks at Tarawa did not resolve this problem for the Marines, but tanks were used wherever possible to support operations. During the battle of Tarawa, one tank battalion was assigned to each Marine division. Two medium tanks and seven light tanks supported the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines during this operation. During the final offensive phase, the employment of the two medium Sherman tanks was paramount in saving many Marine lives.

On November 23, 1943, as the two Sherman tanks led a final assault, a strong Japanese counterattack poured down a narrow valley towards the American position. The tanks provided supporting fire using canister antipersonnel ammunition and decisively broke the enemy attack. It was estimated that the first round fired from the lead tank had killed 60-70 enemy soldiers. The main role for armor during the battle for Tarawa was to provide direct fire support for the infantry.

Biak

Throughout 1944, General MacArthur continued a leapfrog campaign from island to island to reduce Japanese strongholds in the Pacific. On May 27, 1944, American forces continued this strategy by landing on the island of Biak, a small Japanese-held base off the New Guinea coast. Although the terrain was not suitable for massed armored warfare, both American and Japanese forces employed a small number of tanks during this battle.

On 6 June. 1944, as United States infantry attacked across Biak, the first tank battle in the Pacific ensued. Seven light Japanese tanks attacked the American forces which were led by five Sherman tanks. The attacking Japanese tanks were destroyed in a battle that lasted less than thirty minutes. The amount of armor protection and larger gun system on the Sherman tanks directly contributed to the American success in battle.

Throughout the remainder of the battle for Biak, tanks were used to support the infantry and engineers. The island was found to be honeycombed with caves which the Japanese used as bunkers and hiding positions. Tank main gun fire was used to cover engineer demolition teams while they placed explosives in the caves. Other than the previously mentioned tank battle, armor was used to provide direct fire support for the infantry and engineers throughout the battle.