Battle of the Bismarck Sea

Battle of the Bismarck Sea

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of the Bismarck Sea
partof=World War II, Pacific War

caption=An A-20 Havoc/Bostonbomber of the 89th Squadron, 3rd Attack Group is shown at the moment that it clears a Japanese merchant ship following a successful skip bombing attack off Wewak, New Guinea in March 1944. This photo illustrates the type of low level attack that was used so successfully during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea.
date=March 2 1943 – March 4 1943
place=Bismarck Sea, in the vicinity of Lae
result=Allied victory
combatant1=flagicon|USA|1912 United States,
flagicon|Australia Australia
combatant2=flagicon|Japan|alt Empire of Japan
commander1=flagicon|USA|1912 George C. Kenney
commander2=flagicon|Japan|naval Masatomi Kimura, Gunichi Mikawa
strength1=39 heavy bombers; 41 medium bombers; 34 light bombers; 54 fighters
strength2=8 destroyers, 8 troop transports, 100 aircraft
casualties1=2 bombers, 3 fighters destroyed
casualties2=8 transports, 4 destroyers sunk 20 fighters destroyed,
3,000-5,000 troops killed [Nevitt, "", states that 3,000 troops were killed. Bergerud, "Fire in the Sky", p. 591 says "5,000 more than were lost by either side in any naval battle off Guadacanal".]

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea was a battle in the South West Pacific Area (SWPA) during World War II, in which planes of the United States Fifth Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), attacked a Japanese convoy carrying troops to Lae, New Guinea (now Papua New Guinea). Most of the task force was destroyed, and Japanese troop losses were extremely high.


On December 23 1942, the Japanese high command decided to transfer about 105,000 troops from China and Japan to Lae in New Guinea to reinforce their forces there. This would allow the Japanese to fall back from their defeat at the Battle of Guadalcanal, which they ordered evacuated the following week. The troops were needed near Lae, where an Allied offensive was expected.

Relocating such a large force was a great burden on Japanese shipping capability, but the high command considered it a military necessity. By late February 1943, the 20th and 41st divisions had been safely transported to Wewak, also in New Guinea. Next, the 51st Division was to be transported from the major Japanese base at Rabaul to Lae, a perilous manoeuvre because Allied air power in the area was very strong, especially in the Vitiaz Strait through which the ships would have to pass.

On February 28 the convoy assembled for the task, comprising eight destroyers and eight troop transports with an escort of approximately 100 fighter aircraft departed from Simpson Harbour in Rabaul. The commanding officer of the 51st Division, Lieutenant-General Hidemitsu Nakano, was aboard the destroyer "Yukikaze", while Rear Admiral Masatomi Kimura, commanding Destroyer Squadron 3, was aboard the destroyer "Shirayuki".

Allied air forces, under the air commander SWPA, Major-General George Kenney, and based in Allied territory on New Guinea, had been preparing for such an eventuality. In particular, the crews of specially modified USAAF B-25 Mitchells and RAAF Bristol Beaufighters had been practicing attacks on shipping. The Mitchell crews were developing a new technique called "skip bombing": after flying only a few dozen feet above the sea towards their targets, they would release their bombs, which would then skip across the surface.


The convoy, moving at a top speed of seven knots, was not detected for several days because of two tropical storms which struck the Solomon and Bismarck Seas between February 27 and March 1. However, at about 15:00 on March 1 the crew of a patrolling B-24 Liberator bomber spotted the convoy north of Cape Hollman. U.S. heavy bombers were sent to the location but failed to locate the convoy.

At about 10:00 on March 2, another Liberator found the convoy, and clear skies allowed several flights of U.S. B-17 Flying Fortress bombers to attack and sink up to three merchant ships, including the "Kyokusei Maru". A B-17 was seriously damaged by a New Britain-based Mitsubishi Zero fighter, and the crew was forced to take to their parachutes. The Japanese pilot machine-gunned some of the B-17 crew members as they descended and attacked others in the water after they landed. [ Anniversary talks — Battle of the Bismarck Sea, 2–4 March 1943 [Australian War Memorial ] ]

Out of 1,500 troops being transported by the "Kyokusei Maru", 800 were rescued from the water by the destroyers "Yukikaze" and "Asagumo". These two destroyers, being faster than the convoy since its speed was dictated by the slower transports, broke away from the group to disembark the survivors at Lae. The destroyers resumed their escort duties the next day. The convoy, without the troop transport and two destroyers, was attacked again on the evening of March 2, with one transport sustaining minor damage.

PBY Catalina flying boats from No. 11 Squadron RAAF continued to trail and occasionally bomb the convoy over the night of March 2, and at about 03:25 on March 3, when the convoy was within range of the air base at Milne Bay, Bristol Beaufort torpedo bombers from No. 100 Squadron RAAF took off. However, because of bad weather only two Beauforts found the convoy, and neither scored any hits.

The convoy was rounding the Huon Peninsula, bringing it into clearer conditions. A force of 90 Allied aircraft took off from Port Moresby and headed for Cape Ward Hunt; simultaneously 22 RAAF Douglas Bostons set off to attack the Japanese fighter base at Lae, reducing the convoy's air cover. Attacks on the base continued throughout the day.

At 10:00, 13 B-17s, led by tail number 8160, reached the convoy and bombed from medium altitude, causing the ships to disperse and prolonging the journey.

Then 13 Bristol Beaufighters from No. 30 Squadron RAAF approached at low level, to give the impression they were Beauforts making another torpedo attack. The ships turned to face them, and the Beaufighters were then able to inflict maximum damage on the ships' anti-aircraft guns, bridges and crews, during strafing runs with their four 20 mm (0.787 in) nose cannons and six wing-mounted .303 in (7.7 mm) machine guns.

Immediately afterwards, 13 USAAF Mitchells bombed from about 750 metres (2,500 ft). Then 12 Mitchells made a "skip bombing" attack, reportedly claiming 17 hits. By this time, half of the transport ships were sunk or sinking. As the Beaufighters and Mitchells expended their munitions, some USAAF A-20s joined the attack. Another five hits were claimed by B-17s from higher altitudes.

While the attack on the ships proceeded, 28 U.S. P-38 Lightnings provided top cover, and 20 Japanese fighters were shot down for the loss of three Lightnings. Two were from the 39th Fighter Squadron: the aces Bob Faurot and Hoyt Eason were both killed in action. During the afternoon, further attacks from Mitchells and RAAF Bostons followed.

All seven of the remaining transports were sunk about 100 kilometres (60 mi) southeast of Finschhafen, along with the destroyers "Shirayuki", "Arashio", and "Tokitsukaze". Four of the destroyers picked up as many survivors as possible and then retired to Rabaul. The fifth destroyer, "Asashio", was sunk in a subsequent strike as it was picking up survivors from the "Arashio".

Following orders from Kenney, reportedly in retaliation for the shot-down bomber crew being machine-gunned as they descended, from the evening of March 3 until March 5, Allied patrol boats and planes attacked Japanese rescue vessels, as well as survivors from the sunken vessels on life rafts and swimming or floating in the sea. [Manera, Australian War Memorial, 2003.]


The battle was a disaster for the Japanese. Out of 6,900 troops who were badly needed in New Guinea, only about 800 made it to Lae. The Australian War Memorial states that 2,890 Japanese soldiers and sailors were killed.

"A merciful providence guarded us in this great victory," said Douglas MacArthur in one of his communiqués. He used the victory to request five additional U.S. divisions and 1,800 aircraft in preparation for his landings in northern New Guinea.



*cite book
last = Arbon
first = J
authorlink =
year = 1979
chapter =
title = The Bismarck Sea ran red
publisher = Walsworth Press
location =
id = ASIN B0006XMVUI

*cite book
last = Bergerud
first = Eric M.
authorlink =
year = 2000
chapter =
title = Fire in the Sky: The Air War in the South Pacific
publisher = Westview Press
location = Boulder, CO, USA
id = ISBN 0-8133-3869-7

*cite book
last = Birdsall
first = Steve
authorlink =
year = 1977
chapter =
title = Flying buccaneers: The illustrated story of Kenney's Fifth Air Force
publisher = Doubleday
location =
id = ISBN 0-385-03218-8

*cite book
last = Bruning
first = John R., Jr.
authorlink =
year = 2005
chapter = Chapter Seven – The Butchers of Bismarck Sea
title = Ship Strike Pacific
publisher = Zenith Press
location = St. Paul, Minnesota, USA
id = ISBN 0-7603-2095-0

*cite book
last = Henebry
first = John P.
authorlink =
year = 2002
chapter =
title = The Grim Reapers at Work in the Pacific Theater: The Third Attack Group of the U.S. Fifth Air Force
publisher = Pictorial Histories Publishing Company
location =
id = ISBN 1-57510-093-2

*cite book
last = McAulay
first = Lex
authorlink =
year = 1991
chapter =
title = Battle of the Bismarck Sea
publisher = St Martins Pr; 1st ed edition
location =
id = ISBN 0-312-05820-9

*cite book
last = Morison
first = Samuel Eliot
authorlink = Samuel Eliot Morison
coauthors =
year = 1958
chapter =
title = Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier", vol. 6 of "History of United States Naval Operations in World War II
publisher = Castle Books
location =
id = 0785813071

*cite web
title= Bismarck Sea and air battle and Operation No. 81
first = Kane | last= Yoshihara | authorlink = Kane Yoshihara
coauthors= translation by Doris Heath
work= Southern Cross | publisher= Australian War Memorial
date= |year= |month= |doi= |archiveurl= |archivedate= |quote=
accessdate= 2008-02-17

External links

* [ Brad Manera, Military Historian, Australian War Memorial, 2003, "Battle of the Bismarck Sea, 2 March-4 March 1943" ]
* [ Historic Wings: Battle of the Bismarck Sea]
* [ Dr Alan Stephens, ?, "Battle of the Bismarck Sea" ]
* [ Geoff Hastwell, 2003, "The Battle of the Bismarck Sea" ]
* [ Allyn D. Nevitt, 1996, "Battle of the Bismarck Sea"]
* cite web
last = Craven
first = Wesley Frank
authorlink =
coauthors = James Lea Cate
date =
year =
month =
url =
title = Vol. IV, The Pacific: Guadalcanal to Saipan, August 1942 to July 1944
format =
work = The Army Air Forces in World War II
pages =
publisher = U.S. Office of Air Force History
language =
accessdate = October 20
accessyear = 2006

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