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I: Coral Sea (5/42)
  • Operation FS, the Japanese invasion of the South Pacific islands, will likely always be the most ambitious military campaign ever attempted. The plan demanded that thousands of Japanese soldiers be transported as far as 7500km away from their home bases, to capture several islands including one of the most heavily defended naval bases in the world, with a minimum of friendly air support available. At the same time, the Imperial Japanese Navy was expected to blockade an entire continent and to locate and completely defeat the rest of the US Navy in a final decisive battle. All the while relying on only half the tankers normally required for a Navy that size, and an air force that could expect little reinforcement.
    While not as large in terms of troops or tonnage as the Torch landings or D-Day, no operation has ever demanded more success from less resources than 'FS'. And in spite of every difficulty, the campaign almost worked. A story of boldness and overreach, this is the tale of the time Japan went an island too far.

    On December 7th, 1941, bombs rained down on Pearl Harbour. Over the next four months, Wake, Guam, Hong Kong, Luzon, Singapore and Java would all fall to the Japanese with minimal casualties. The oil fields that convinced the Japanese high command to go to war in the first place were secure, although Dutch sabotage greatly hindered Japanese efforts to get anything useful from them. The plan was that after this string of successes, the Allies would have no choice but to surrender, reopening trade with Japan in exchange for the return of some of their islands. Crucially, no allowance was made for if the Americans refused.
    With no Allied surrender forthcoming, the Japanese accelerated and expanded their plans. The most important of these new offensives would begin with the Battle of the Coral Sea...

    I: Coral Sea, May 1942

    FS was born from a bold idea: if Japan could seize and control a number of key bases off the north and eastern coasts of Australia, they could sever communication between Australia and the United States, and thereby cause a collapse of the Allied coalition. In May of 1942, most Japanese troops in the Pacific had only recently completed the conquest of Java, or were tied up in the battle to take the final American bastion in the Philippines on Corregidor Island. This left few troops available to fight in the South Pacific, and the bulk of that campaign was presently timetabled for July. However, Japan could presently spare the South Seas Detachment, a force of around 5000 men, for an invasion of Port Moresby on the south coast of New Guinea. The invasion was set to take place on the 10th of May.
    To escort the invasion, the Japanese sent Admiral Inoue, with the two newest fleet carriers flying the Rising Sun: the Shokaku and Zuikaku, as well as a collection of cruisers and destroyers and a third, smaller carrier in Shoho. Inoue’s opponents would consist of Rear Admiral Fletcher, the US carriers Lexington and Yorktown, and a slightly smaller group of surface vessels. Perhaps more importantly, the Americans had broken the Japanese codes, and knew of the planned invasion of Port Moresby. Their goal was to stop it.
    The Battle of Coral Sea can be considered to have begun with the Japanese takeover of Tulagi, a small island in the Solomons that could provide a good anchorage but was otherwise of limited military value. Fletcher received word of the invasion around 1830 on May 3rd, and decided to act. Shortly after dawn on May 4th, he ordered most of his aircraft to attack the Japanese fleet. Despite the favourable weather conditions, the American attack accomplished very little: an old destroyer, three minesweepers and five recon planes were destroyed, at the cost of just one TBD Devastator (whose crew were successfully rescued). Unfortunately for the Americans, Vice Admiral Takagi, commander of the Japanese carrier group, now knew that American carriers were in the area. The valuable ships had eluded the Japanese at Pearl Harbour and been a constant thorn in their side since, raiding various Japanese outposts in efforts to raise morale at home. Takagi wanted them sunk, and on May 5th, he would get his chance.

    Coral Sea’s second day began uneventfully. Although both sides knew the other’s carriers were in the area, neither knew exactly where. Both needed to refuel some of their ships, and for much of the morning the efforts to refuel dominated both commanders’ attention. While this was happening, a Japanese H6K flying boat based in Rabaul discovered the American fleet. Although the flying boat was shot down just minutes later, the message was sent back to 25 Air Flotilla’s HQ. More importantly, it was then passed on to Inoue*.
    Inoue, after some consideration, decided to act. His own forces were now protected by the cold front that had shielded the Americans the previous day, and it was apparent that Fletcher was still refuelling some of his ships. The Americans, he believed, probably didn’t know where the Japanese carriers were, meaning that any counterattack they launched would be confused and weak. An order was sent to Takagi, to launch two-thirds of his available strike forces: 60 bombers, an even split between torpedo-carrying B5Ns (known as ‘Kate’s to the Allies), and D3A (‘Val’) dive bombers, as well as 18 A6M ‘Zero’ fighters as escorts. If a more certain positioning of the American carriers was found, the reserves were to be sent out immediately. Else, he would have to guess.
    As it turned out, Takagi had guessed correctly. Just a few hours after the recon report came in, the strike force found the two American carriers. Both were protected by a combined combat air patrol of 16 F4F Wildcat fighters, but it was evident that the Americans were not expecting a Japanese attack. Fletcher rushed to get as many fighters as possible into the air, and called for urgent reinforcements from the land-based aircraft in Australia and New Guinea. Unfortunately for Fletcher, the battle was taking place too far east for any fighters to be sent to assist, although a squadron of P-39s based out of Port Moresby was launched in case any additional Japanese planes were sent out of Rabaul.
    Takagi’s strike proved decisive. Both American carriers were pounded by the Japanese onslaught, while the elite Japanese pilots did to the carriers what they had done to the battleships at Pearl Harbour. Lexington was hit by no fewer than four torpedoes, and sank quickly. Yorktown meanwhile had its flight deck plastered by the dive bombers, as well as two torpedoes, one of which hit the engine room. As the Japanese departed, Yorktown was scuttled by her crew. Luckily for the Americans, the Japanese never launched a second wave, and efforts to evacuate the crews of both carriers saved enough men to be considered a success.
    Takagi’s amazing success had not come cheaply however: the two carriers cost him eleven Zeroes, ten dive bombers and fourteen torpedo bombers – half his striking power against an unprepared foe. Planes, at least for the moment, were replaceable. His elite pilots were not.

    By dawn of May 6th, the great battle was over. Bereft of any carriers, and too far from Australia or New Guinea to cover his forces with land-based aircraft, Fletcher gave the order to retreat. Those ships that could be safely sent to assist in defending Port Moresby were sent west, while Takagi was ordered to move his carriers west to cover the invasion force. A flight of B-17 bombers would attempt to bomb the Japanese fleet from high altitude later that day, which damaged a cruiser but was otherwise ineffective, and in the late afternoon news arrived announcing the fall of Corregidor Island. The Japanese had now conquered the Western Pacific, and their position in the south had never looked stronger.
    The invasion attempt on Port Moresby itself followed as planned on May 10th. The bulk of Japanese airpower in the South Pacific was committed to the battle, including much of the carrier strike forces and nearly 40 aircraft based in Rabaul, many of them bombers. The Australian garrison, only slightly smaller than the Japanese invaders, gave good account of itself but was ultimately overwhelmed, as the furious naval battle taking place off the coast failed to scatter the Japanese ships. Japanese losses approached 1500 ground troops and another 40 aircraft, but the port and airbases were secured in the following days. In addition to the defenders of New Guinea itself, the Allies saw two destroyers sunk and three cruisers with varying levels of damage, while the Japanese light cruiser Yubari was also sent to the bottom.

    *This is the PoD: historically the message made it only as far as flotilla HQ.

    - BNC
    II: Aftermath of Coral Sea (5/42-6/42)
  • II: Aftermath of Coral Sea, May-June 1942

    In the days immediately following the decisive battles at the Coral Sea and Port Moresby, both sides were forced to reconsider their plans. The Japanese efforts to take Nauru and Ocean Island while the battle of Port Moresby was being fought, were yet another success, although hardly a notable one. The attempted feint by two of the remaining US carriers – Hornet and Enterprise, achieved nothing as Japanese reconnaissance planes failed to find the US force.
    In Washington, considerable criticism was directed towards Admiral Fletcher for his aggressive strike towards Tulagi, a move which informed the Japanese of the US carriers’ presence and ultimately enabled the fateful strike on May 5th. His subsequent performance in handling the retreat from the Coral Sea was overlooked by the press, but not by President Roosevelt, who made sure the commander stayed on duty (indeed, once the anger towards him died down, he was promoted to Vice Admiral).
    Allied planners were concerned that the next Japanese move would be made against the Australian mainland, either Darwin in the north or somewhere along the Queensland coast. Loudest among all of these was General Douglas MacArthur, who insisted that forces be pulled out of New Caledonia and sent to defend Australia, while also advocating an invasion of New Guinea before the Japanese could consolidate their position. He received some reinforcements, most notably the 32nd and 41st Infantry divisions which had been sent from the West Coast in March, but no additional forces were to be sent to Australia unless an invasion actually began.
    Several proposals for a counterattack were made, including a plan to land forces on Milne Bay in eastern New Guinea and construct a new airbase that was scrapped due to the considerable risk posed by nearby Japanese carrier forces. Operation “Watchtower”, aimed at Tulagi and other positions in the Solomon islands, was also cancelled as intelligence indicated more Japanese fleet units were likely to be sent South in coming months. Eventually the American command fell back on the ‘Germany First’ philosophy and sent much of the allocated equipment for ‘Watchtower’ to assist in the invasion of North Africa planned for November. The 1st Marine Division would be sent to New Zealand.
    Elsewhere in the Pacific, the overall Allied strategy was one of great caution. With no significant victories over the Japanese other than the First Battle of Wake, many were becoming hesitant to risk further naval resources without a clear advantage. The carrier Saratoga, having recently been refitted at Puget Sound, was sent to Auckland where it would come under Fletcher’s command, while Hornet and Enterprise were sent back to Pearl Harbour to conduct training exercises.

    In Tokyo, two plans competed for attention: ‘MI’ and ‘FS’. As most ground forces were still in Java and the Philippines after the fall of those locations in the previous months, it would take a long time to transport them to Truk, Rabaul and other South Pacific bases in order to attempt an invasion of Fiji, Samoa or New Caledonia. At present the official FS timetable dictated the first invasion, aimed at New Caledonia, to begin on July 8th, which looked unrealistic in face of the daunting logistical requirements that the operation demanded, especially as the forces originally earmarked for the campaign were now tied up around Port Moresby, barely sufficient to garrison the area.
    Discussions turned towards the now little-known MI plan. MI called for a formation of as many IJN carriers has possible to assist in an amphibious assault against the tiny islands of Midway, located northeast of Hawaii. By attacking Midway, the carriers would be able to draw the remaining American fleet into a final battle that would see its total destruction. The airbases at Midway would then be able to host Japanese bombers, which would target Hawaii and ensure the security of the Central Pacific. The plan was set to be carried out in early June, a fact well-known by the American code-breakers.
    MI was a contentious plan at best. The Army bitterly opposed it, and refused to have anything to do with Midway. Even among Navy ranks, the plan was losing popularity. Coral Sea had destroyed two American fleet carriers, and the Japanese believed their opponents now only had two left in the Pacific. Some among the Japanese ranks were convinced that the Americans could be drawn into a decisive battle somewhere else, preferably somewhere more in line with the other Japanese goal: to isolate Australia from the United States. If Enterprise and Hornet could be forced into battle in the South Pacific, there would be no need for the Midway operation at all.
    Ultimately, MI would be scrapped because of the problem that the war was trying to solve: oil. Japan entered the war with a very limited stockpile of oil, sufficient for perhaps a year of intensive operations at most, and had burned a great deal of this in the campaigns in the Western and Central Pacific. As detailed plans for both MI and FS were drawn up, the Japanese realised that while either operation by itself could be supplied by the current stockpile, attempting both would use up more fuel than the IJN was willing to accept, knowing that a reserve would be needed in case of an American counterattack. With this in mind, and no clear prospect of meaningful victory from the Midway plan, MI was abandoned.

    FS, on the other hand, enjoyed widespread support from both the Army and Navy (a considerable rarity at this or any other time). Coral Sea and Port Moresby had ensured that, in the absence of an unlikely severe Japanese defeat, the plan would be executed some time in the later half of 1942, but at present many details of the plan were quite vague. New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa were the stated targets, with both ports and airbases as the objectives on each island. The original timetable called for a July attack, although one of the first revisions to the plan after Coral Sea was to postpone various parts of the plan by as much as one month. In this region, the cyclone season begins around November: all objectives needed to be completed by then or combat operations would become impossible for months – a situation that the IJA was currently experiencing in Burma as the conferences dragged on.

    Without the need to send the carriers off to Midway in June, all six carriers present at Pearl Harbour gathered once more in Truk throughout late May and early June for a much-needed rest and refit. All six had seen heavy action across the Pacific and many crews were worn out. Aircraft stocks were replenished, taken out of bases as far away as the Home Islands to ensure that FS, now the highest priority for equipment, would be as strong as possible. New planes were sent to Truk and Rabaul, allowing a small reserve to be built up, although demands on the many other fronts never allowed this to become as large as it really should have.
    Staff in Tokyo spent this time altering the plan for FS. Among the most important changes was the addition of Efate and Espiritu Santo, two key islands in the New Hebrides, as first-stage targets for invasion. Admiral Yamamoto, who designed the final version of the FS plan, also advocated that Fiji, rather than New Caledonia, should be made the primary objective, and it was there that the second landing should take place. The Allied naval base at Noumea, and the nearby airfield at Tontouta, would continue to attract attention however, and although New Caledonia would now be the last significant island marked for invasion, Imperial Headquarters was determined to take it as well. The date of the first landing, postponed many times in the past, was now set for late July.
    To ensure the operation’s success, the IJA created a new formation, the 17th Army, under the command of Lieutenant General Hyakutake. The majority of 17th Army – roughly 40,000 men – would be used to conduct landings in the New Hebrides, Fiji, Samoa and New Caledonia, while a series of smaller forces attached to the army would act as garrisons in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. By mid-July, the majority of the army would be deployed in Rabaul, ready to begin the operation. It would be Japan’s largest amphibious invasion since the attack on the Philippines in December.

    - BNC
    III: Japanese Planning (7/42)
  • III: Japanese Planning, July 1942

    Planning the operation that would become FS was well underway in Tokyo as early as January 1942, although various delays (particularly in the Philippines) ensured that the original plans, with an invasion date in April, would not be carried out. Indeed as April approached, the overall situation across the Pacific was looking such that the operation would be cancelled (or postponed indefinitely). For a brief period of time the Navy’s plan to lure the American fleet into a decisive battle near Midway would be favoured instead.
    During this time, the plans decided upon the overall objective of isolating Australia’s communications with the United States and the prevention of any Allied counter-attacks against the southeastern sector of Japan’s defensive perimeter, but capturing New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa. Naval forces were to be transferred upon the completion of present objectives in the Indian Ocean, and nine infantry battalions would be used to secure the islands. Under this plan, New Guinea was to be taken in May and the Midway Islands in June, with the assumption that these two operations would destroy the remaining Allied naval forces.
    By May, final drafts of the FS plan were being prepared when the Battle of the Coral Sea and the subsequent capture of Port Moresby rapidly altered the balance of power in the South Pacific. In the days before Coral Sea, the plans at the Imperial General Headquarters had allocated six aircraft carriers to FS, while the Allies were thought to only have two. Such an advantage (and the apparent ease at which US carriers were sunk at Coral Sea) convinced the IGHQ to cancel the Midway operation at the last minute, instead preferring to fight the decisive battle in the waters near New Caledonia. Cancelling Midway would also free up around a quarter of a million tons of fuel oil, which would be essential if the operation was to last any significant length of time.

    Even though the Coral Sea operation went almost exactly according to plan (and some would argue even better), the Japanese did learn one extremely valuable lesson from the battle. Port Moresby was one of the first seriously contested landings the Japanese had attempted – nearly 5000 Australian forces had defended the position. While Japan had been successful in storming the beaches, their success had come in a large part down to the availability of several cruisers and destroyers to provide naval gunfire support, and several waves of bombers disabling the Australian artillery. Landing on a defended beach would be difficult, and in subsequent plans for FS, the Army settled upon a 3:1 ratio between attackers and defenders as the requirement for a successful landing. In addition, most of the islands targeted by FS were large enough that simply avoiding the enemy’s defences when landing the first wave would be possible – storming them by land would be easier than by sea.
    Intelligence reports in March and April indicated that Allied defences were strongest in Fiji, with an estimated 7000 New Zealand defenders and another 3000 local volunteers. The Samoan islands were garrisoned by around a battalion of US Marines, while New Caledonia was thought to host around 3000 US and Australian soldiers – a number even the Japanese were uncertain about (as it turned out, the Allies had deployed an entire division in Noumea). Using a 3:1 ratio, nine battalions would not be sufficient to destroy these forces. That job would instead fall to a corps-sized formation, the newly-constituted 17th Army.

    In the plans drafted after Coral Sea, the 17th Army was to be composed of various units from all across the Pacific. Under the April plans, the South Seas Detachment was to be the most important force in the invasion, but that unit was still hunting down continued Australian resistance in New Guinea and so was not available. Knowing that the Navy would not accept the operation without Navy units taking part in the invasions themselves, it was decided to use the units previously allocated to the invasions of Midway and the Aleutian Islands – now known as the 2nd Combined SNLF, a total of approximately 5000 men. Many roles were discussed for them, but it was eventually decided that they would be used to capture Samoa. The most distant objective would be an entirely Navy affair.
    The Army’s contribution was originally defined as the 41st Infantry Regiment coming from Java and the 35th Brigade from Mindanao, a total of around 5000 men. With Fiji’s defences alone now known to be larger than that, this force was deemed insufficient and the IGHQ rushed to find the forces that would bring 17th Army to the appropriate strength. Among the forces transferred would be the 4th and 29th Regiments, taken from Java with the 41st, the 28th Regiment presently deployed in Saipan, and the 66th and 115th Regiments from Northern New Guinea. In addition, the construction units building an airfield on Guadalcanal island were to be allocated to FS as soon as the Guadalcanal airfield was finished, so that an airfield within range of New Caledonia could be established in the New Hebrides. This brought the strength of the first wave of invaders just above 30,000 men, 80% of them Army.
    17th Army’s order of battle also included the 228th and 229th Regiments (also deployed in Java) as a first set of reserves deployed to Rabaul only in late July, and a variety of smaller units including the 2nd Tank ‘Regiment’ (which had about 60 tanks, most of them Type 97 mediums), two artillery battalions, an engineer regiment, a company of armoured cars and two field AA battalions. Furthermore, the entire 48th Infantry Division, a 25,000-strong formation currently garrisoning Timor against a potential Allied strike towards the East Indies, was considered as an emergency reserve, although not placed under 17th Army command. Most of these forces were preparing in Rabaul or Truk by the end of June, with the beginning of FS now set for late July.

    - BNC
    IV: Japanese Planning 2 (7/42)
  • IV: Japanese Planning 2, July 1942

    In contrast with the substantial increase of Army forces committed between the April and May versions of FS, the Imperial Navy’s force allocation to the plan remained mostly unchanged in the final revisions of the plan. The most significant change to the plan was the increase of the number of battleships from two (likely the two Nagato-class ships) to five, which would see the 70,000-ton giant Yamato, Japan’s newest and mightiest warship, sent to the South Pacific, along with the much older Kongo and Hiei. If the South Pacific was to be the site of the decisive battle, the battleships would have to be there. Consideration was given to the transfer of several other battleships, including Ise and Fuso, but many within Navy ranks were beginning to see these ships, which dated back to World War I, as obsolescent. The ships would use up a lot of fuel sailing to Truk, much less New Caledonia, and the decisive battle was already half-won at Coral Sea. It was thought that the older battleships would be unnecessary.
    When the warships were assembled at Truk in mid-June, the Japanese could call on a total strength of eight carriers (the six veterans of Pearl Harbour, plus Shoho and Zuiho), nineteen cruisers (fourteen heavy), nineteen submarines and just shy of 50 destroyers. In addition to this, thirty cargo ships were assigned to supply the operation (a substantial amount considering the Midway operation had only called for twelve!), and a variety of smaller craft including oilers and minesweepers were attached to the fleet. This incredible undertaking had stretched the Japanese Empire to its limits, but the armada had been assembled.
    Even before the Americans were given a say in the plans however, the Japanese were already struggling. While operations in the Philippines and Malaya could be conducted from relatively nearby bases at Formosa and Saigon, the small incomplete airfield at Guadalcanal was Japan’s closest base at just 2000km from Fiji. Most fleet operations would instead have to come from Rabaul (for smaller units, around 3000km) or Truk, over 4000km away. At least until bases could be secured, any ships operating across much of that distance would be vulnerable to Allied air and submarine attack, while the distance was too great to support any sort of ‘supply line’ in a traditional sense. Instead, IGHQ decided that carriers could be used to support individual convoys that would drop large loads of supplies at a time on the islands. The carriers would ensure that the supply ships could not be attacked by air, while escorting destroyers and cruisers would protect the ships from submarines on their month-long round-trip from Rabaul.
    While this would provide a solution to the supply issue, it took away from the carriers’ other major roles, namely the defeat of Allied airpower on the islands and the defeat of remaining US warships should they appear. The final version of the FS plan called for a major ‘first strike’ be made by a carrier group to defeat each island’s airpower before the troops were landed, but there was not enough fuel for all eight carriers to maintain a constant presence around the islands. The decisive battle itself was even less well thought-out: the best plan the Navy staff could come up with was to have the battleships on call at Truk, ready to sail out and meet the US battle line whenever it appeared. Six days’ cruising away, it was a poor solution to what the Navy considered to be its greatest objective, but no-one at Tokyo came up with anything better. Such a challenge should have served as a warning to those who advocated the plan. Instead Tokyo would rely on martial spirit where traditional methods wouldn’t work.

    The plan was finalised in early July, with orders sent out to the various fleet commands in Truk and Rabaul. This plan laid out the following objectives:
    • First, two regiments (28th and 41st) are to land on Efate, except for a small detachment instead ordered to Espiritu Santo. Both islands are to be secured with the intention of capturing or building an airbase which can then be used against Allied positions at New Caledonia. Construction units on Guadalcanal are to be made available for this purpose should existing installations not prove sufficient for operational needs.
    • Second, a total of four regiments (4th, 29th, 66th and 115th) and the 35th Brigade are to land on the south coast of Viti Levu, the largest of the Fijian islands in two waves. The first shall depart Rabaul at the same time as the New Hebrides forces, the second once the appropriate shipping can be made available. These forces are to capture the Allied naval base at Suva and any airfields on the Fijian islands. Following this, the remainder of Viti Levu is to be secured and further operations considered against the Allies on nearby islands.
    • Third, the Imperial Navy is to conduct operations against the American bases on Tutuila in the Samoan islands, and Wallis island, upon the satisfactory completion of operations in the New Hebrides or Fiji. Should enemy resistance be light, Navy forces should seek to capture the islands, otherwise destruction of facilities followed by a withdrawal is ordered. Operations should be directed towards nearby islands, particularly Upolu, as the situation allows.
    • Fourth, all forces save those tasked with the occupation of the secured islands will then be used against Allied positions in New Caledonia, in cooperation with Vichy French authorities, as directed by Imperial Headquarters in following orders. The operation against New Caledonia is expected to begin no later than the first week of September.
    • In the event that a significant Allied naval presence is detected, all available resources are to be committed to their destruction. This will include the battleships stationed at Truk and any carrier groups active in the South Pacific other than those ensuring the safe delivery of supplies to ground forces.
    • The entirety of the FS Operation is to be completed before the beginning of the season of tropical storms in November.
    Before the coded message containing these orders made it to Rabaul, the Allies promptly intercepted the message, decoding before the Japanese commanders could. Admiral Fletcher was immediately notified, although a lack of available warships limited his ability to fight back against the entire might of the Kido Butai. On July 18th, 1942, the first of the troopships began to leave port. Operation FS had begun...

    - BNC
    V: Allied Planning (7/42)
  • V: Allied Planning, July 1942

    The Allied commands in the South Pacific were first organised only days before the Battle of the Coral Sea. General Douglas MacArthur, having escaped from the Philippines just ahead of the Japanese invaders, held the primary Army command, known as the South West Pacific Area, responsible for all territories north and west of the Australian mainland, as far as Java and the Philippines. The Navy commands were divided into the North, Central and South Pacific Areas, all three under the overall command of Admiral Nimitz, while the South Pacific Area was commanded more directly by Admiral Robert Ghormley. His command extended from a line in the Tasman Sea as far north as the Gilbert islands, covering virtually all of the area contested during FS (the only significant exception being the Japanese bases at Rabaul, which was in MacArthur’s region, and Truk, which was technically part of the Central Pacific Area but in practise was ignored by the Allied leadership until well into 1943).
    Ghormley was an uninspiring and pessimistic officer, who spent much of his time at his headquarters in Auckland – indeed it appears that his appointment was more due to favouritism from President Roosevelt than any great skill. His greatest contribution to preparations against FS was to consistently remind Washington that resources for a proper defence of the area were insufficient, especially as Japan’s seemingly endless string of success didn’t look to be ending soon.
    More important to the campaign was the recently promoted Vice Admiral Fletcher. Fletcher’s experience in the war so far had been dominated by bad luck – his efforts to relieve Wake island in December had been called back after the Japanese captured the island, and his failed attempt to attack the Japanese carriers at Coral Sea had instead resulted in the loss of his own. In the wake of the battle, Fletcher had managed to keep most of his remaining force intact (although how much of this success was due to Japanese focus on Port Moresby remains open to debate), and once it became evident that the Japanese were going to continue their focus on the South Pacific, Fletcher’s force was reinforced with those ships that could be made available.
    Unfortunately, there wasn’t much that could be available. The carrier Saratoga had been hastily transferred south to ensure that the defenders would not have to rely exclusively on land-based aircraft. In a region where all major bases were too far apart to support each other, this provided some much-needed flexibility. Fletcher’s surface fleet mostly consisted of a small force of destroyers and light cruisers, nearly all of them veterans of Coral Sea. While they were numerous enough to provide adequate escorts for Saratoga, they hardly formed a striking force of their own. The arrival of the battleship North Carolina in early July would help, as would a pair of New Zealand’s light cruisers, but both Fletcher and Roosevelt knew that the IJN would control the seas until a much greater force could be sent as reinforcements. A small force of submarines had also been present at Coral Sea, but these were under MacArthur’s command, and the general had no interest in giving them to Fletcher.

    The Allies could count on one major advantage in the campaign, namely their intelligence efforts. The Japanese codes had been broken early in the war, and the Japanese appeared to be totally unaware that they had done so. As a result, Washington knew exactly what Japan’s plans were, including what islands were being targeted, how many forces were committed and even the fact that Vice Admiral Yamaguchi would be their main opponent. Had Fletcher been able to call upon a more substantial naval force, it is very likely that the operation could have been destroyed in its opening days.
    Yet the Allied intelligence proved to be as much of a hindrance as a help in the weeks between Coral Sea and the first landings of FS. For much of May, the Allies believed that Midway would be the Japanese target, while officers in Tokyo argued amongst themselves. While no naval forces were committed to the defence of Midway, the decision was made to expand the bases on Efate with the intention of using the island as a staging point for a potential counterattack in the Solomons. The 1st Marine Division had been allocated to such a plan, codenamed ‘Watchtower’, only for intelligence to then warn that the Japanese would be coming south after all. Watchtower was cancelled, the Marines sent to New Zealand (the first plan was to send them to Australia, but the Navy was reluctant to give more forces to MacArthur), and plans for a new airfield on Espiritu Santo scrapped.
    The defence of Efate became a topic that saw great debate throughout June. Unlike Japan’s other targets, the New Hebrides were close enough to Japanese bases that the IJN could potentially maintain a presence around them for an extended time if necessary. Should they do so, it was considered inevitable that any garrison on the islands would be doomed to siege and eventual surrender. If the islands were to be contested at all, a much larger force would need to be sent than was currently present in order to have a defence strong enough to throw the Japanese landings back into the sea upon their landing. Efate’s bases were not up to supplying that many forces however, and most supplies would have to come by sea, where they would run the risk of destruction by the Japanese Navy. This indecision would cause great trouble for Allied efforts on the island – while the construction crews were evacuated in early July (as was the 4th Marine Defence Battalion) and many demolitions carried out, the remaining garrison was left behind. The 24th Infantry Regiment was left uncertain of its future: a second evacuation effort, or a desperate defence, and blame for this fiasco can be assigned entirely to Admiral Ghormley.

    Japanese intelligence had predicted that Fiji would be the most strongly defended location in the South Pacific, and had dedicated more than half of their forces to its capture. The reasons for doing this were obvious to both sides: Fiji was the central position through which communications between Australia and the United States would pass. Yamamoto had declared the islands, principally Viti Levu, as the sole most important objective of FS other than the defeat of the US Navy.
    In May, Fiji had been defended by the New Zealand 8th Brigade, as well as some local Fijian units. Ethnic tensions in Fiji, principally between those of Indian heritage and those who were not, resulted in most Indo-Fijians refusing to fight, but even so the British colony raised over 4000 soldiers. The available defence, slightly smaller than Japanese estimates, was deemed insufficient for the expected task, and the US 37th Infantry Division was ordered to defend the islands in June. Allied strength on the islands reached close to 20,000, giving them a slight numerical advantage over the estimated Japanese forces.
    The decision to commit the bulk of their strength to Fiji left just two battalions to defend the large naval base at Pago Pago in Samoa – the US 7th Marine Defence Battalion and the 1st Samoan Battalion, a native unit that the Americans had trained. Both were deployed to Tutuila, the island hosting the naval base and most other military installations. Further to the west, Wallis island was garrisoned by the 8th Marine Defence Battalion and a unit of Seabees who were tasked with building an airbase on the island. Work had only just begun in July, while the island’s harbour had only the barest of facilities. Despite the intelligence warnings, the Allied commanders believed that the threat to Samoa was only remote owing to the enormous distance between it and any Japanese bases, and any suggestion of further reinforcement was dismissed. Fiji was under greater threat, and there were not enough soldiers to defend every island. The decisive battle would be fought in Fiji.

    In perhaps his only major contribution to the campaign’s planning, Admiral Ghormley was adamant that under no circumstances would any forces be withdrawn from New Caledonia. Despite the large and quickly growing Allied base at Noumea, the long and narrow island appeared to be only an afterthought in the latest version of the Japanese plans (a major change from the top priority it had once been). With all the focus on Fiji from both the Japanese and Allied commands, New Caledonia looked like an attractive source of reinforcements – it was currently hosting more than 20,000 Allied soldiers.
    Ghormley’s argument was centered around those old plans: if the Japanese decided Fiji was too difficult to conquer, they may decide to ignore Yamamoto’s recent insistence on Fiji and instead attempt to take New Caledonia instead. While losing Fiji would be a considerable nuisance, losing the much larger base at Noumea would be a catastrophe as bad as the loss of Singapore had been four months earlier. It would force the Allied command back to either Brisbane or Auckland, which would make a counteroffensive through the South Pacific almost impossible. No matter what, Noumea would have to be held.

    - BNC
    VI: First Blood (7/42)
  • VI: First Blood, July 1942

    “In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.” - Such was Admiral Yamamoto’s prediction of the outcome of a war between Japan and the Allies. July 26th, 1942, just seven and a half months after Pearl Harbour, would be forever known as the day that Yamamoto would be proven right for the first time. Japanese offensives would continue, but they would no longer ‘run wild’ as they had in the first months of the war.

    The sinking of the light carrier Shoho on that day was only a very small victory for the Allies. The light carrier had begun its life as a submarine tender, and was regarded as a very poor conversion effort. Only able to hold 30 aircraft, most of them old A5M (‘Claude’) fighters, the decision to send her as part of FS’ first wave came down to the need to send the larger decks to Fiji and Samoa instead. Later that day, the Japanese would land around five hundred men on Espiritu Santo, and most of their aircraft had been sent further south to suppress the American airbase on Efate.
    The Americans were aware of the coming invasion, and planned to use the few aircraft they did have in the New Hebrides (a squadron of B-17s and another of F4F Wildcats) to delay and damage the invasion force as much as possible, before flying to bases on New Caledonia. Japanese patrols had intercepted several American scout planes in the morning, but two returned to base safely. One reported nothing, having been sent almost due east from Efate, the other had spotted the Japanese approaching from the northwest.
    The American commander on the ground acted as the Japanese had at Coral Sea. With very limited information other than the fact that two Japanese carriers were in the area and that something was to the northwest, he sent all of his B-17s into the air. Flying at around 20,000 feet, they would be hard to intercept, while the Japanese patrols would likely be weak if they intended to attack Allied bases that day. The bombers would be sent without escorts, owing to the need to defend Efate, but they were given orders to abort the mission and return to New Caledonia if the Japanese were prepared. As things were, the Japanese were launching their own bombers off Akagi and Shoho at the same time. Flying along different paths, the two groups of aircraft did not encounter each other, while the Shoho, operating at some distance away from Akagi, had only four fighters and two destroyers to act as escorts.
    From very early in the war, the B-17 had a poor reputation among the Japanese. While the B-17 would soon prove its worth when bombing cities (and had already become a nuisance through repeated missions against Port Moresby), it had a much more difficult time bombing ships. Nearly all of the American bombs missed Shoho and the destroyers (the landing ships were further to the south at this time), but one hit was all that it took to cripple the carrier. Where exactly the bomb landed is not known, but a huge fireball was soon observed to consume much of the ship, which broke into pieces and sank. Nearly all of the crew was lost, with no time to escape the ruined ship. Her aircrews were forced to land on Akagi.
    In the United States and other Allied nations, the news immediately became a front-page headline. Other than the Doolittle Raid in April, few efforts against the Japanese had returned any positive results, and any victory was better than no victory at all. Morale was boosted on the home front, while in Japan the news was never announced at all.

    The loss of Shoho did not significantly deter the Japanese fleet, which pressed on towards Efate. Aircrews chased the Americans away from the islands as two bombing raids were launched against the airstrip on the island, while the Americans effectively abandoned the islands to their fate. Admiral Fletcher held his naval forces back, nearly all of them being kept south of New Caledonia to prevent their destruction by an overwhelming Japanese force.
    The landing on Espiritu Santo, the largest island in the New Hebrides, was a relatively uneventful operation. The Americans had withdrawn what forces they had on the island in June, and the Japanese moved into Luganville unopposed. Too far from New Caledonia to be of any real use, Espiritu Santo was captured only to deny its use by the Allies. Those Japanese soldiers left behind were to serve as an occupation force, with no expectation of resupply - there was no hope of ensuring a constant line of supplies to Espiritu Santo while keeping up with the demanding timetable of FS, and the Japanese knew it. Only around 500 strong, they were ordered to live off the land, with more ammunition promised in the event of an Allied attack that would never come. Forgotten by their own commanders and ignored by their enemies, the soldiers on Espiritu Santo could only watch as a much more fierce battle erupted to the south.

    - BNC
    VII: Efate (7/42)
  • VII: Efate, July 1942

    Efate, one of the largest islands in the New Hebrides, was Japan’s first major target in the FS Operation. Half way between New Caledonia and Fiji, the small base at Port Vila would be a useful jumping off point for further operations in the South Pacific, while the newly-built airfield on the island would allow at least some land-based air cover for the Japanese warships that would soon sail further south and east. Mountainous in the north and wooded in the south, Efate’s geography presented a limited range of landing sites with easy access to Port Vila. Having been warned of the fall of Espiritu Santo the previous day, the defenders of Efate knew that the Japanese were coming, and could predict where they were likely to land. When the Japanese Navy sailed into Meli Bay an hour after dawn, they were ready.
    As the troopships filled the bay, bombers launched from the carrier Akagi attacked the defences on the beach, as well as the nearby airfield. Unbeknownest to the Japanese, the hangars were empty, all flyable aircraft having been sent to New Caledonia over the previous few days to prevent their capture, while those that could not fly were destroyed by their crews. The skies above Efate were filled with fire as the few anti-air guns on the island were used in a desperate attempt to keep the bombers away. Four D3As were knocked down, as was an escorting Zero.
    The battle for the beaches began with the mid-morning low tide. The few artillery pieces available in the Meli Bay region had survived the Japanese air raids with only light damage, and were now turned against the 4000 soldiers disembarking along a four kilometre stretch of beach. Outnumbered, with only one regiment to cover the whole island, the Americans put up a valiant fight. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than at “the Corner”, an otherwise insignificant point where a relatively straight beach is interrupted by what appears as just a tiny bump on the map.
    The Battle of the Corner was a brave defensive action fought by just a company of American soldiers. Armed with two artillery pieces, they fired into a mass of Japanese soldiers attempting to leave their landing ship, scattering an enemy who otherwise had a reputation for being fearless. As the Japanese gradually took control of the other beaches and began advancing east, the soldiers defending the Corner found themselves forced to retreat, and forces on both sides rushed to take control of a small river nearby the Corner. Twenty metres or so of river, and the soldiers manning a hastily formed line behind it, was all that stood between the Japanese and Port Vila and the airfield.

    At 1500, the Japanese bombers returned. Unlike the morning raids, this time they had no clear targets. While the Japanese field commanders had informed the Navy that the sector between the hills and the river was under Japanese control, the river was far too small to be seen from the air, while pilots flew past it at close to 200 kilometres an hour. Most bombs were dropped on Port Vila instead, where they disrupted American efforts to bring forces from the other side of the island. An American barracks was hit, as were several other buildings, but the raid is memorable more for its effect on morale than any material damage. The Americans, already feeling abandoned by their senior commanders as they were left behind when the engineers and aircraft were evacuated, now felt as if the entire world was against them.
    On the Japanese side, the raids appeared as a symbol of victory. A shallow point in the river having been found, the infantry stormed across, overwhelming the defence that had been set up just hours ago. Efate airfield was taken, and the Japanese rushed into Port Vila from the north. With most of his men still on the river line and sure to be encircled, or too far away to turn the tide, the American commander offered to surrender. The battle had taken just ten hours, but it had cost more than five hundred lives, most of them Japanese.

    With news of the surrender of Efate, the troopships that had landed the invasion in the morning now returned in the evening to take the Americans away to a prisoner-of-war camp on New Britain. As would become characteristic of all the landings conducted during FS, supplies of all kinds were simply dumped on the beach, where Japanese soldiers were expected to collect them after a beachhead had been established. Among other things these included rations, which were denied to the Americans as they made their eight-day journey across the Coral Sea. Unlike in the Philippines, it does not appear that the starvation of the prisoners was a deliberate attempt to mistreat them (at least when compared to the other times Japan handled prisoners throughout the war). Rather, it was recognition of the fact that Japan simply could not afford to do anything better. What few supplies could be brought to Efate were needed by the invasion force-turned-garrison.
    Unlike on Espiritu Santo, the occupation of Efate was one of great activity. The ineffective bombardment of the island had left most important installations intact, including a small coral-surfaced runway and a few small fuel storage tanks (the larger ones had been sabotaged by the Americans in days past). The port facilities were still operable, the American demolition units given too little time between the landings and the surrender to destroy them (while they had been used in the evacuation of the island before that). For the soldiers left behind on the island as the IJN departed, the occupation was a straightforward case of taking over the American base and filling it with their own soldiers. All of them knew that one day in the near future, the Navy would return to collect them, ready to take them to a target further south.
    Efate’s true value to the Japanese came from its position. Just 500 kilometres to the south lay the Allied base at New Caledonia, well within the Zero’s combat range. Focused on the efforts to take Fiji and Samoa, the Japanese squandered the opportunity of the first days after the landing to move fighters there, and before long the Americans were sending B-17s over to bombard the base. Instead they followed their plans, almost religiously, and completed a near-useless airfield at Guadalcanal throughout early August before sending the construction teams to Efate. When the Japanese did feel ready to use Efate, the airfield was wrecked. Japan’s overworked carrier fleet would have to shoulder another heavy burden.

    - BNC
    VIII: The Longest Night (7/42)
  • VIII: The Longest Night, July 1942

    As dusk began to fall over Fiji on the night of the 29th of July, Admiral Yamaguchi ordered his ships to begin unloading the troops. His task force was built around the carriers Soryu and Hiryu, the latter serving as his flagship. Two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and fifteen destroyers were also tasked with escorting the nineteen troopships (the entire allocation for FS save those sent to the New Hebrides) and the handful of smaller vessels accompanying them. 12,000 Army soldiers were to be landed on the island of Viti Levu. A quarter of them would be delivered to the island by destroyer – an innovative way to stretch Japan’s limited resources.
    A night landing, typically considered a hazardous operation, was Yamaguchi’s idea. Japanese intelligence knew that Viti Levu was heavily defended, and with half of his forces still waiting in Rabaul, Yamaguchi knew that storming a defended beach as had been done at Port Moresby and Efate would too greatly weaken his force before he could support it with the second wave. The choice of location, 75 kilometres west of Suva, was also unconventional: a short beach with many steep hills not too far behind. Had it been defended, the area would have resembled Gallipoli. Yamaguchi was gambling that it wasn’t. In another stroke of fortune, he could count on a full moon to help the sailors find their way*.
    The landings began well, as the soldiers were dropped on the beach, along with what heavy equipment was considered important enough for the first wave. This included several light artillery pieces, which would be invaluable in setting up a defensive perimeter on the western flank of the landing site. Taking positions in the mountains, the battalion ordered to hold the line would have the most important job of the entire force: if the Allies could break through there before the Japanese could take Suva, the operation would have to be called off. But the Allies did not discover the landing efforts, and by 0400 all of the troops had landed. Yamaguchi had hoped to get the equipment ashore as well, but with dawn only three hours away, he decided it more important to keep the secrecy of the operation intact, and withdrew the ships from the coast. They could return and finish the job the following evening.

    When the Allies sent up reconnaissance aircraft the following morning, they found the Japanese fleet south of the small island of Mbengga. Yamaguchi redirected some of his own fighters, attempting to destroy them before they could be used to find the Army, although this effort was unsuccessful and the Zeros soon prepared for the Americans to attempt a strike against the carriers. A squadron of B-26s was sent from Fiji with orders to sink the carriers, although this action too appears to have had only a minor impact, with only a few planes destroyed on each side, and no ships sunk. The Americans did hit the heavy cruiser Mogami with one torpedo, damaging the ship but not crippling it. Only when the ship returned to base was it found that a second torpedo had struck the ship. A defective Mark 13 model, the torpedo had failed to explode.
    Despite his best efforts however, Yamaguchi could not keep his army hidden forever, and by 1200 a RNZAF Hudson had confirmed the landing site, first located by local coastwatchers earlier that morning. When the report was sent back to headquarters, the Americans were left confused. At Espiritu Santo and Efate, the Japanese Navy had rushed back to base as soon as they had unloaded the infantry, and Fiji was even further from Truk or Rabaul. Some believed that the landing, in difficult terrain far from any likely objective, was just a diversion, and that the cargo ships that had been spotted with the carriers still held another army, soon to be landed in Lauthala Bay. Forces on the ground were ordered to prepare for another landing, while Admiral Ghormley ordered the naval forces in the area to assemble east of Suva. To avoid Japanese bombers, which were now bombing several locations across Viti Levu, Ghormley would seek a night battle.
    Yamaguchi never found out that his landing site had been discovered, but his bomber crews reported that the Allied navies were operating in the area. Some bombers had even attacked the destroyers in Suva harbour instead of installations on land, with no apparent effect, but as sunset approached it would be too late to order a full strike against the destroyers. Unwilling to compromise the landing effort, and also seeking a battle with the Americans, he split his forces in two. All of the cargo ships, the damaged Mogami and five destroyers would return to the landing site to deliver the tanks, armoured cars and supplies to the army. The rest of his navy: two cruisers (one heavy) and ten destroyers, would stay in the Kandavu Passage. The carriers, positioned somewhere between the two groups, were ordered to have the bombers ready to strike at dawn, to finish off the Allied navy if the surface fleet could not.

    Commander Stephen Roskill, captain of the HMNZS Leander and the senior Allied officer in the Battle of the Kandavu Passage, very quickly realised that Ghormley had ordered him into a trap. His force was almost the equal of Yamaguchi’s detachment, with New Zealand’s two light cruisers and six US destroyers, and he was operating in friendly waters. While his stock of torpedoes was virtually worthless, regular gunnery should have been sufficient to battle the Japanese to a draw. But the Japanese had trained their sailors specifically to fight night actions. The Allies had not, and the difference soon showed.
    Roskill’s battle plan was fairly straightforward, having only had a matter of hours to plan it out. The other Japanese heavy cruiser, Kumano, was to be targeted if at all possible, and his destroyers would attempt to keep the Japanese destroyers away. No attempt was made to control the sea specifically: if Efate was any example to go by, the Japanese Navy would leave Fiji before too long anyway. Yamaguchi had similar intentions – the destruction of Roskill’s cruisers, although he was determined to maintain control of the Kandavu Passage for the night, so that his subordinates could finish unloading on the beaches.
    As the Allied ships closed in for a gunnery duel, the Japanese destroyers launched a swarm of torpedoes into the Allied force. The dreaded Type 93 ‘Long Lance’ torpedo had sunk six ships at the Battle of the Java Sea, and in Fiji they proved just as deadly. Two destroyers and both light cruisers were sunk by the Long Lances, and another destroyer was sunk by Japanese gunfire. Yamaguchi lost just one destroyer, and decided not to pursue his defeated foes. Had he done so, it is very likely the other three destroyers would have been sunk as well, but with the landing effort completed he recognised the need to get the Navy out of Fiji as quickly as possible. The Americans would surely be back, and the Japanese had neither the fuel nor the ships to fight a decisive battle in the Kandavu Passage. When the sun rose on the 31st, Yamaguchi ordered his strike aircraft to attack suspected Allied positions as the army began to move. Once the bombers returned, the Navy headed for Rabaul.

    * = This was a genuine moment of good fortune for the Japanese here, not just me declaring them lucky: I planned the Japanese timetable out and only afterwards looked up the lunar cycle for the relevant dates. Turned out there was a full moon on July 28th 1942!

    - BNC
    IX: The Road to Suva (8/42)
  • IX: The Road to Suva, August 1942

    Lieutenant General Yi Un, once the Crown Prince of Korea, was now the senior Japanese commander on the Fijian Islands. Just over half of his force had been landed by the Navy, and the rest would not be able to be landed for at least another couple of weeks. Japanese intelligence believed that the first wave outnumbered the defenders of Viti Levu, although only slightly, and General Yi was under pressure to begin the attack as quickly as possible: the troops would be needed elsewhere before too long. When the landings were completed and a perimeter established, Yi ordered the drive east to begin. What supplies he did have would not last forever, so a quick victory was going to be vital.
    The island of Viti Levu is dominated by a series of large mountains occupying much of the island’s centre, at times taller than a kilometre above sea level. The heavily forested interior is only sparsely populated, with most villages located on or near the coast. The most significant installations on the island were located near Suva, on the south east coast, and near Nandi and Lautoka in the west. Suva, the older and more developed port, was to be the first Japanese target, while a battalion in the mountains would protect the Japanese landing beaches until the main army could swing back to take the west part of the island too. Only one significant road, a dirt track running parallel to the coastline around the entire island, connected the ports: it would be along here that most of the fighting would take place.
    The defence of Viti Levu was divided between the New Zealand 8th and 14th Brigades and the US 37th Infantry Division. The New Zealanders, under the command of Major General Owen Mead, had taken over the defence of Fiji from the British in 1940, and were deployed to what was considered an unlikely target for enemy attack, allowing the British to commit more resources to the fight in Europe. They were due to be pulled from Fiji, probably to garrison Tonga, when news of the imminent Japanese attack came out. The Americans would have replaced them, but Ghormley decided both forces would be needed, especially in light of the fact that the 37th Infantry was a green unit which was still undergoing training in early August. Against experienced veterans of the Java campaign, it would be an uphill battle.

    By sending his army east, General Yi would fight the New Zealanders first, and almost immediately, the plan began to fall apart. The strike against the Fijian airfields, ordered just hours before the carriers left, had failed to knock the bases out of action, and only a few planes were destroyed. The Japanese carriers could not maintain a presence around the islands for lack of fuel, leaving Yi with no air cover. His only way to strike back at the Allied bombers was with a small anti-air “battalion”, which had only a handful of guns and a desperate lack of ammunition. While the Fijian jungle sheltered his troops, repeated Allied bombing raids damaged the already poor-quality road, and there were no spare parts for any vehicles that broke down. Only the fact that the Allies had just a few bombers kept the damage from being worse than it was.
    Major General Robert Beightler, of the 37th Infantry Division, decided against a quick movement against the Japanese within a couple of days of the landings. Most of his force was deployed near the base at Nandi, and was tasked with the expansion of that base and a new airfield nearby. Starting almost from scratch, the construction work was a big ask by itself, and the division still needed to complete its training. Beightler also lacked detailed intelligence regarding the exact strength of the Japanese positions in the mountains, and estimated that a third or even half of their 10,000 or so soldiers were there, all of them sure to be among the Emperor’s best. Despite his knowledge of the Japanese landing, Beightler stuck to the pre-war plans calling for strong defences only in the areas closest to the vital ports, and sent only a small reconnaissance party to the south, ready to warn him if the Japanese crossed the mountains. The Japanese were still completely unaware of the Americans’ presence on the island.

    After five days of marching, the Japanese reached the village of Navua, two thirds of the way to Suva. Situated on the eastern bank of a small river, with perhaps ten square kilometres of flat land surrounding it, the village could have served as the focal point of a defensive line. The New Zealanders, during their two years on the island, had dismissed any thought of major operations away from Suva or the Nandi-Lautoka region, although the plain was considered as a possible Japanese landing site. However, the New Zealanders were not the only ones to decide how the islands of Fiji would be defended.
    From the very beginning of the war, the local Fijian population had been enthusiastic in their efforts to help the Allies defend their islands. Several thousand of them had worked for the New Zealanders, helping to construct airfields, hospitals and even barracks designed to look like native villages. Some had even volunteered to serve with the Allied armies, where their knowledge of the land had proved invaluable. Many of these Fijians, equipped with American or New Zealand rifles, had acted as guerillas, harassing the Japanese invasion column as it moved east and retreating into the hills any time the Japanese attempted to destroy them. Unburdened by heavy equipment, they could traverse the land much more quickly than the occupiers.
    With the invasion came a desire to evict the Japanese from the islands as quickly as possible. While the New Zealanders may not have been concerned with anything outside of the “defence zones” surrounding the three ports, the Fijians knew that several villages lay behind enemy lines (the Japanese had seen those villages as unimportant, ignoring them or occasionally buying food from anyone willing to accept yen). Several days after the invasion, a group of Fijian leaders eventually convinced General Mead to allow them to send forces to fight the Japanese. It was these forces that would present the first significant resistance to the Japanese column.

    The Navua skirmish saw barely one thousand Fijians clash with the Japanese. Greatly outnumbered, the native fighters confirmed the sense of General Mead’s decision to concentrate forces around the “defence zones”, as they had no hope of fighting the Japanese tanks and machine guns without their own artillery. Faced with impossible odds, the Fijians fought bravely, earning the respect of their opponents and adding a modern chapter to the land’s fierce history. The skirmish ended in the Fijians retreating into the jungle, while the Japanese attempt at pursuit proved fruitless, but it held up the Japanese for the better part of a day. Under pressure from General Hyakutake in Rabaul to defeat Suva as quickly as possible, General Yi urged his men to continue the march long into the night.
    Yi’s demanding orders got him results: by nightfall on August 7th, the Japanese could see Suva on the horizon. Both sides knew that a great battle was about to begin.

    - BNC
    X: First Suva (8/42)
  • X: First Suva, August 1942

    The Suva Defence Zone, designed long before Pearl Harbour, was where General Mead decided he would make the stand for control of Fiji. Beginning ten kilometres west of Suva and extending north into the hills, then east to the coast, the defence zone covered all major installations in the eastern half of Viti Levu, most importantly the airfield, port and supply stores. Originally designed to be manned by a brigade, it was now defended by 10,000 New Zealanders, equipped with two to three months’ supplies. The lack of coordinated command that had troubled the garrison throughout early 1942 had finally been solved in July, when General Mead was appointed Supreme Commander, Fiji. His position gave him authority over both the New Zealanders and the Americans on the island, a decision made in light of the fact that the New Zealanders had been building defences since early 1940, while the Americans had only been there for two months.
    Much has already been written about the abysmal standard of the Japanese supply system, operating more than three thousand kilometres from their major bases. What is often ignored is that the Allies had it little better. While Fiji was a friendly territory, the local agriculture could not feed close to 20,000 Allied soldiers as well as their own people, and there was no weapons industry on the islands. New Zealand had a small amount of industry, barely enough to keep the original garrison in supply, and anything coming from Auckland would have to travel two thousand kilometres by sea. With Australia’s industries desperately working to reinforce MacArthur’s “Brisbane Line” before a feared Japanese landing could occur, anything beyond small arms and a few old artillery pieces would have to come from the US West Coast.
    In spite of the difficulties, Mead and his predecessor William Cunningham had built a formidable defence. Barbed wire surrounded the defence zone by land, and a small minefield protected Suva Bay by sea. Inside the perimeter he had eight Bofors AA guns, which had already seen success destroying Japanese bombers in the first days of the invasion. Sixteen howitzers were also available, although nearly all dated from the Great War. At the last moment before the Japanese move on Suva began, Mead was also informed that the USS Wasp had been repaired at Tongatabu. Under Fletcher’s command, the carrier could provide much-needed air support to Suva’s besieged garrison.

    After waiting a day to survey the Allied position, General Yi ordered his army to attack on August 9th. Breakdowns and guerilla attacks from the Fijians had reduced his force to just 39 tanks, which now made short work of the first-line defences. Yi sent the infantry in behind them, while the New Zealanders fell back to the second line on the Tamavua River. While the first line served as little more than a warning system, the second line was a true defensive position. The Tamavua is around fifty metres wide, with both banks heavily forested, and was within the range of several of Mead’s artillery pieces. Knowing that this would be the main Japanese attack, Mead moved half of his infantry to the river line, where trenches had already been prepared.
    Yi’s assault of the Tamavua line began around 1300. With the tanks providing covering fire in place of proper artillery, the Japanese infantry attempted to storm across the river, only to be met with heavy shelling from Mead’s guns. Trained on the location, the guns provided a bombardment more accurate than most, and within minutes Yi had lost several hundred men. Most casualties were merely wounded, but with no hospitals on the island under Japanese control, any casualty was a man out of the fight for Fiji. Yi made a second attempt to cross in the late afternoon, with similarly disastrous results. With ammunition beginning to run short, an end to the effort was called in the evening. The sole Japanese success that day came when the submarine I-11 sank an American destroyer that had been sailing towards Fiji.

    Rather than continue wasting men attempting to cross the river, Yi decided that Suva could be more easily taken if the river position was outflanked, as had been done successfully at Efate. Throughout the night, the bulk of the Japanese infantry moved north into the hills and forests. A small unit of Fijian guerillas was encountered, and a fierce fight began. The Fijians alerted General Mead in Suva, but were soon overwhelmed by the much larger Japanese force. The Japanese heavy equipment, most importantly the tanks, had to be left near the coastal road.
    It would be the New Zealanders that launched the next offensive the following morning. Now able to call on aircraft from the Wasp, General Mead was under pressure from the Fijians to push the Japanese away from Suva. Mead dismissed any notion of storming the west bank of the Tamavua: the Japanese tanks could ruin any crossing just as easily as his own machine-gun crews had. Instead he chose to send his reserves to the north, meeting the Japanese in the forests, where the Tamavua is just a small creek. Wasp’s aircraft, as well as land-based planes operating out of the airfields near Nandi, were directed towards the entire Japanese line.
    Wasp’s aircraft were largely ineffective, more often bombing empty forest than enemy force while under fire from the small Japanese AA guns, and on the ground the engagement was a draw, with both sides retreating in the afternoon. The Japanese by this time were down to perhaps 60% of their original effectiveness, and supplies, most importantly ammunition, were almost out. Had the New Zealanders known this, they could have probably defeated the Japanese force the following day. Instead, General Mead decided to fall back to his own lines. He had used up a lot of supplies of his own, and overestimated Japanese capabilities (unsurprising, given their endless list of successes until now). Both sides called for reinforcements. In Rabaul, the second half of the Japanese invasion force was just about to leave port, while Auckland had very little available. General Yi also reported sightings of larger numbers of F4F Wildcats than had previously been seen over Fiji, and Yamaguchi made preparations for the long-awaited decisive battle.

    - BNC
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    XI: Under Siege (8/42)
  • XI: Under Siege, August 1942

    As the fight for Suva stalled, attention in Tokyo turned from the battles on Viti Levu to a decisive battle with the remaining American carriers once more. Believing that the Americans had only two aircraft carriers remaining in the Pacific, one of which was confirmed to be operating near Fiji after it was sighted by a submarine, Yamaguchi decided to form the largest concentration of forces that the offensive had seen so far. Four carriers: Shokaku, Zuikaku, Akagi and Kaga, and the two Nagato-class battleships would seek battle with whatever the Americans had in the region. (Yamato, Japan’s mightiest warship, was still in the Home Islands at the time). The fleet would also bring two dozen destroyers, loaded at the last minute with some high-explosive shells to bombard the defences at Suva, as well as two heavy cruisers and the supply ships necessary to deploy the second wave of invasion forces to Fiji and Samoa.
    Yamaguchi had originally intended for the fleet carrying the Navy forces to Samoa to leave Rabaul three days earlier than those dedicated towards Fiji, so that both invasions would land on the islands on the same day, confusing the Allied commands and hopefully shocking them into surrender. The chaos at Suva put an end to that plan, as it was becoming apparent that the forces already on Fiji could not afford three days of delay. When the fleet did leave port in the early hours of August 11th, they were to follow a new plan, drafted by Yamaguchi as he was receiving General Yi’s reports.
    This latest rewriting of FS ordered the task force to move as one giant unit towards Fiji, where it was expected that they would meet both US carriers. The surface fleet was to locate and sink the American carriers while Japan’s carriers provided air cover and destroy the remaining Allied airforce on Fiji. Once the Allied navy had been defeated, two of the carriers and their escorts would continue on to Samoa, while the Army landed in Fiji. When the Samoan operation was completed, that detachment would rejoin the rest of the Navy to return to base as one large group. Like most IJN plans, it was needlessly complex and contained a specific and demanding timetable for each stage of the operation. If Samoa was to be reached at all, that timetable would have to be met – the islands were at the extreme edge of the IJN’s range, and only a day’s fuel could be spared near the islands.

    In Washington and Auckland, debate raged on about how to continue defending Fiji. It was known to be considered the most important objective by none other than Yamamoto himself, and although the New Zealanders had beaten back the first Japanese wave, the Japanese were sure to try again. A considerable amount of transport had by now been sent to the Atlantic in preparation for the invasion of Northwestern Africa, leaving the Allies with the capability of sealifting just 5000 men and their supplies within the region at a time. Fiji currently held around 18,000, ruling out the possibility of an evacuation before a second Japanese landing. A request was made to bring even more equipment out of New Zealand, but the home defences could only spare small arms – there was considerable fear of an imminent Japanese invasion among the population, and fake wooden guns had only just been replaced with actual weapons again.
    When intelligence discovered that a large Japanese fleet had left Rabaul, including four carriers, any plans for relief of Fiji were scrapped. Auckland was hardly closer to Suva than Rabaul, ensuring that the two fleets would run into each other. Japan’s fleet was larger than anything the Allies could realistically bring to bear against it, and neither Coral Sea nor Kandavu Passage suggested that gambling the fleet would be a wise move. Fletcher had been willing to use Wasp when Yamaguchi was in the Solomons, but even with Saratoga he believed that fighting the ‘decisive battle’ as the Japanese desired would be dangerous at best. To raise morale in Suva, the Allies decided to send loads of small-arms ammunition by air, ending the ineffective bombardment of Japanese-controlled jungle so that B-26s could fly between Auckland and Suva. Despite the presence of Japanese soldiers just twenty kilometres to the west of the airfield, the airlift was a complete success.
    After three days, continuing the airlift was considered too risky as the IJN approached, and Wasp, which had been providing fighter escorts for the B-26s, was ordered south. Codebreakers had still found no Japanese plans to attack Tonga, and plans to turn the archipelago into a forward base were decided as the best way to resist the Japanese thrusts into the South Pacific. Elements of the 1st Marine Division, once considered for an attack on the Japanese airfield on Guadalcanal and now based in New Zealand, were now sent to the island of Tongatabu to build up a defence there while the Seabees continued work on an airfield near the town of Nukualofa. The town itself would be transformed from a reserve fuel storage base to an island fortress, from which it was hoped an offensive to retake Fiji could one day be mounted.

    The commitment of four carriers to the second landing on Fiji also finally convinced the Americans that the Japanese were no longer thinking of attempting an invasion of Midway. Two carriers, Hornet and Enterprise had been stationed in Pearl Harbour since May to stop such an attempt as well as provide the opportunity for some much-needed training of carrier crews. Admiral Nimitz did not want to continue the retreat in the South Pacific forever, and on August 14th finally gave the order that would send Enterprise to Noumea, via (Free) French Polynesia to avoid encountering any Japanese forces. The 10,000 kilometre journey would take the better part of a month, but it ensured that the Allies would not be falling back forever.

    - BNC
    XII: Second Suva (8/42)
  • XII: Second Suva, August 1942

    The Combined Fleet returned to the waters around Fiji on August 19th. Cargo ships had only had a minimum of time to refuel and rest the crews at Rabaul, before being loaded with the second wave of invasion troops and supplies and ordered to join the four carriers sailing out of Truk. Some ships would carry on to Samoa, but all were to be present for the long-awaited decisive battles. On land, the situation around Suva remained uncertain, and the second wave was expected to join with the first to launch an overwhelming attack while air and naval support distracted and neutralised the remaining defences. Once the town was taken, supporting submarines were expected to have located the enemy fleet, which would be destroyed before the task force divided in an effort to take Nandi and Samoa simultaneously.
    The landings were conducted during the dawn low-tide on the 19th near the village of Navua, territory occupied by the Japanese earlier in the month. What few Allied bombers remained on Viti Levu were directed to attack the transport ships, damaging several but none critically, while Japanese pilots once again proved that the Zero was a fearsome opponent. By the end of the day’s air battles, Allied air forces on Fiji were eliminated as an effective force, and the few surviving aircraft were withdrawn to Tongatabu. Too far from Fiji to provide an effective escort for offensive operations, the fighters on Tongatabu would defend the growing Allied base to the south.
    General Takeo Ito would command the second wave, made up of the 228th and 229th Regiments which together made up a force almost 10,000 strong. Even for an IJA officer, Ito already had a reputation for being ruthless, having murdered civilians in China and then executed prisoners again in the East Indies campaign. In contrast to Yi’s careful advance along the southern coast of Viti Levu, Ito would begin a wild rampage through the villages, unafraid of killing those who he believed to be in the way. His methods would earn him some time with the hangman after the war, but they would also get him to the edge of Suva’s defences within forty-eight hours.

    Admiral Yamaguchi sent six destroyers and the heavy cruiser Kumano to positions just a few kilometres off the Fijian coast. Loaded with 50% HE shells, instead of the usual load of mostly armour-piercing shots, they would be less effective in any battle with the Allied navy, which had yet to be located. Instead, they were tasked with bombarding Suva into submission while the ground forces finished the job. At the beginning of the Fiji campaign, Suva had been defended by just sixteen artillery pieces and a few coastal defence guns. Much of the equipment was already old, and had been worn by near constant use in the preceding days. The crews manning the guns continued to give good account of themselves, scoring several hits and eventually sinking the Japanese destroyer Kuroshio, but the day-long bombardment and a large air raid weakened Suva’s struggling defences considerably.
    When the ground offensive began on the 21st, the Japanese once again overestimated their previous success. While the naval bombardment had knocked out several of the defenders’ guns, the remaining artillery could still count on adequate stocks of shells, and only minimal damage had been done to the frontline positions. General Ito attempted another bloody charge of the Tamavua line, finally establishing a position on the eastern bank of the river, but it was only after Yi’s force broke through the northern defences in the forests that the position became untenable.
    Suva’s fall after the Tamavua breakthrough was only a matter of time. Ito’s force, having greater stocks of supplies available, was chosen to lead the march into Suva, while Mead ordered his forces to retreat in the hopes of forming a new position a few kilometres to the southeast in a desperate attempt to keep the Japanese out of the town. Pinned down by Japanese attacks near the Tamavua, the New Zealanders’ attempt to retreat was not as successful as they had hoped, and it was only after nightfall that the final line of defence was adequately manned. That position too was overrun the next morning, and as Japanese infantry stormed Suva, Mead felt as though he had no choice but to surrender.

    The surrender of Suva is among the greatest tragedies in New Zealand’s history. 10,000 of the country’s soldiers, roughly one man in every twenty that the country contributed to the war, were lost as either battle casualties or prisoners of war in the fight for Fiji. Furthermore, the fall of Suva made the possibility of an invasion of New Zealand more real than ever before (the fact that this was well beyond the IJN’s capabilities was unknown at the time and is appreciated by most New Zealanders even today). In recognition of the disaster, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Peter Fraser declared that August 22 of every subsequent year be made into a national day of mourning and remembrance, eventually known as ‘Soldiers’ Day’. In recent years, Soldiers’ Day has come to replace Anzac Day for most New Zealanders, with people preferring to remember a uniquely New Zealand sacrifice instead of Gallipoli where a majority of the troops instead came from Australia.

    As the fight for Suva had turned in Japanese favour, the Imperial Navy had been searching the waters around Fiji for the American carriers. Yamaguchi wanted to attack the American navy near Fiji, where he had four carriers available to provide strike aircraft, and could only spare a couple of days around Fiji before he would have to move part of the fleet to support the attack on Samoa. Floatplanes and submarines were sent in every direction to locate the US Navy, but with the exception of one US submarine heading towards New Caledonia, nothing was found within range of the bombers. Reluctantly, Yamaguchi ordered part of the Navy to carry on to Samoa on the 22nd, conceding that the decisive battle could not be fought at this time. He hoped that when the Navy returned from Samoa a week later, he would be able to fight the Allies then. What he did not know was that Fletcher was preparing to fight him further east.

    - BNC
    XIII: Samoa (8/42)
  • XIII: Samoa, August 1942

    A thousand kilometres east of Fiji, the Samoan islands were Japan’s most distant objective. At the extreme edge of the IJN’s logistical capabilities, and now defended by no fewer than five battalions of American and Samoan troops (the latest having arrived only weeks earlier as Japan’s intentions in the South Pacific became more clear), they would also prove to be among the most difficult. Operating so far from their bases, the Navy could only keep its ships in Samoan waters for a couple of days at most, leaving no time to wait for favourable tides. Reconnaissance efforts of the islands and their surrounds had also been poor, as had intelligence efforts which still indicated the presence of less than 1000 US Marines on the islands.
    Yamaguchi’s final version of Operation SA reflected both Japan’s increasingly impossible logistics and also their continued belief that anything could be accomplished. Having taken a longer route by traveling via Fiji in order to keep all four carriers available for the decisive battle, the fleet would have less fuel available, giving them less time around Samoa. The plan to take Wallis Island, west of the main Samoan islands but well north of Fiji, had been cancelled at the last minute, with all of the IJN’s troops now directed to land near the village of Fagasa on Tutuila island, before crossing the mountains to attack the base at Pago Pago from the west. The location had been visited once before by the Japanese in January, when a submarine had surfaced there to shell the nearby US naval station (and ironically hitting the only Japanese structure on the island instead). One of only very few beaches on Tutuila, the site was an obvious choice.

    American codebreakers were aware of Yamaguchi’s plan to split the fleet between Fiji and Samoa within hours of it leaving his headquarters, and an opportunity was quickly sensed. Because the Japanese were determined to fight the decisive battle near Fiji, it was obvious that they would keep their best forces in that sector. Near Fiji, the Japanese would have as much of an advantage as they could anywhere in the South Pacific, able to keep the fleet active for several days before needing to return to base, while their armies on Viti Levu could potentially warn of approaching Allied ships. Furthermore, the Americans knew that a defeat in a decisive battle, exactly as the Japanese planned, would have disastrous consequences for them. At the very least, major carrier operations would be impossible until the arrival of the Essex-class in mid-1943, while the IJN would have the better part of a year to interfere with communications between Australia and the United States with little risk of serious loss.
    Instead, a smaller battle near Samoa was proposed. If both Wasp and Saratoga were dedicated to the battle, the Americans would be fighting on roughly even terms with the Japanese, while the Japanese would also be attempting to cover an invasion force. Furthermore, the Americans had a good idea of where the Japanese carriers were likely to be, while the Japanese were still expecting a fight near Fiji or assuming that no carriers were in the area at all. While the Americans did not know exactly how long the Japanese could stay in near Samoa, the rushed nature of the invasions of Efate and Viti Levu indicated that they would not want to stay any longer than necessary. Fletcher was given the order to send the bulk of his navy, including both carriers and the North Carolina, to intercept the Japanese invasion force. Nimitz had hoped that Enterprise would also be available for the fight, but the carrier was still refueling in Pappete when the Japanese were located.

    West of the international date line, the calendar read the 24th when the Battle of Samoa began roughly 350 kilometres southwest of its namesake islands. In many ways, it was a rematch for Coral Sea: with Yamaguchi still in Fiji, Admiral Inoue was leading the Japanese, again with Shokaku and Zuikaku under his command. Fletcher too had seen Coral Sea, and was determined not to be surprised again. When the Catalinas reported back to Tutuila locating the Japanese fleet, Fletcher’s bombers were ready to be launched.
    Inoue knew from reading the after action reports of the Espiritu Santo landings that the Americans were likely to attack his fleet as soon as it was located, and believed that Fletcher would try to do to him what he had done so successfully three and a half months earlier. Orders were given to put as many Zeroes into the air as possible: the troopships had to be protected. Inoue believed that he would be attacked by bombers based on Tutuila and Upolu, both to the northeast of his position. Instead, Fletcher’s Wildcats and SBDs came from the southeast.

    The decision to direct the Zeroes to the north was to prove fatal for the Zuikaku, positioned further south than most of the Japanese fleet. Although an Aichi E13A (‘Jake’) seaplane spotted Fletcher’s bombers approaching from the south, the time it took for many of Inoue’s Zeroes to fly south and meet them gave the Americans the chance to attack the carrier. Several SBDs scored hits while close to 100 fighters of both sides clashed above the ruined carrier, the Japanese being joined by another wave of Zeroes launched from Shokaku. This extra wave of fighters, made up of Inoue’s reserves, has been widely considered the reason that the Japanese fleet survived the battle at all.
    With most of their bombs expended on Zuikaku and some nearby destroyers and cargo ships, the American aircraft returned to their carriers. Inoue briefly considered a counterstrike, but believed that his limited fuel would not permit him to fight a major battle with the Americans, especially now that he was down to just one carrier. After receiving approval from Yamaguchi, the Samoan offensive was postponed and the fleet ordered to retreat. Neither Fletcher nor the code breakers ever intercepted the message of Inoue’s retreat, and the admiral decided that his fleet would be best used to cover Samoa. The carriers were sent north, with strike waves prepared to destroy an invasion that the Japanese would never attempt.

    Inoue’s defeat in the Battle of Samoa proved ruinous to the overall FS plan. Instead of quickly taking the Samoan islands and limiting the Allies’ ability to strike at their position on Viti Levu, the Japanese could only interdict some of the naval traffic passing through the ocean between Fiji and Samoa, while their important base in Fiji was vulnerable. In addition to Zuikaku, they had also lost five destroyers and three cargo ships, taking with them a quarter of the IJN’s SNLF infantry. The carriers’ air groups had also taken heavy losses, with all of Zuikaku’s bombers going down with the ship, although fighters that survived the battle were able to land on Shokaku instead. Yamaguchi ordered Inoue to return to Fiji so that the entire fleet could return to base as one large group, while a use for the SNLF was decided upon.
    Coming just two days after the fall of Suva, the Battle of Samoa gave the Allies some much needed good news, filling newspapers and being championed as the first true victory in the Pacific to improve morale on the home front. Japan’s aura of invincibility was shaken, and support for Roosevelt’s government increased in the vital months before congressional elections. Within the US high command however, the story was very different: Samoa, although a victory, would not radically alter the balance of power in the South Pacific, while the loss of Suva was a complete disaster that many had believed impossible. For those in the top positions, Samoa signaled that changes would be needed if Japan’s rampage through the Pacific was to be stopped for good.

    - BNC
    XIV: Tightening the Noose (8/42)
  • XIV: Tightening the Noose, August 1942

    Admiral Inoue returned to the seas of Fiji disgraced but with a substantial part of his fleet still intact. While the loss of Zuikaku did weaken Japan’s capabilities, it was the loss of three cargo ships that were the most troubling: as things were the transport fleet was well overstretched even without the US Navy interfering, and any losses suffered by those ships were losses Japan could not afford. Imperial Headquarters had committed every ship that could be spared, straining the Empire’s resources to do so, and Allied submarines were already causing damage to Japan’s merchant shipping, particularly between the East Indies and the Home Islands.
    As Inoue turned west, Yamaguchi was desperate to find a new use for the surviving Navy infantry. From the very beginning of planning for FS, it had been clear that the IJN would not allow itself to be limited to being a supply service for the Army, and sending the SNLFs back to Rabaul after two weeks at sea would be wasted time that the operation had no room for. All of Viti Levu was supposed to be subjugated by now, not merely the southern half, while reconnaissance and intelligence efforts painted an increasingly bleak picture of the planned invasion of New Caledonia: instead of a few brigades, it now looked like an entire US division was on the island, if not more. Samoa, always an afterthought in the operation, could be spared, but New Caledonia was deemed important.

    The need to complete the campaign in Fiji was ultimately the deciding factor in Yamaguchi’s order to send the SNLF to invade Vanua Levu. Less than a hundred kilometres to the north of Viti Levu, Fiji’s second largest island had a commanding position over the sea lanes that would be vital for any Allied efforts to resupply the defenders of Nandi and Lautoka. Yamaguchi believed that if he took Vanua Levu, not only would it kill any Allied momentum after their victory off Samoa, but it would also shatter the morale of Nandi’s garrison, allowing the Fiji campaign to be ended without another bloody fight. Every day saved in Fiji would prove invaluable in New Caledonia.
    Unlike its southern neighbour, Vanua Levu was only lightly defended, with just one American battalion drawn from the 37th Infantry Division. As no major military facilities existed on the island, Ghormley and other commanders believed even that was more than the island really deserved, especially considering that it wasn’t a known Japanese target. When the Americans did intercept Yamaguchi’s orders to invade it, it was too late for reinforcements: the only troops close enough to get there before the Japanese would have to come from Nandi, while the Imperial Fleet was maintaining a menacing presence around Fiji.
    The hastily-planned invasion of Vanua Levu began around 1300 on August 26th. Fuel concerns and high tides effectively ruled out a dawn attack, so the Japanese infantry were ordered onto the beaches as soon as the ships were ready, while Yamaguchi’s entire task force, now rejoined by Inoue’s detachment, covered the invasion. Destroyers and carriers bombarded the beaches and nearby installations, while the battleships stood by, ready to fight should Fletcher’s force return.
    Vanua Levu hosted only one target of any consequence: the town of Savusavu, and so it was little surprise that the landing took place near there. The American commander in charge of the operation had decided that a defence of the beaches was the only possible way to win the battle: allowing the Japanese to land without interruption had already cost half of Viti Levu, as well as innumerable other locations across the Pacific. A beach battle meant that the fighting would be short and bloody, but in the end the result was not in doubt. The American battalion was outnumbered more than 3:1, facing hardened veterans with relatively fresh troops. Savusavu fell the next day, as the Japanese fleet retired for much needed refuelling and resupply. Vanua Levu’s fate was sealed. Many believed that it was the end for Fiji as well.

    But the Japanese could not maintain a presence around Nandi forever. Forced to return to Rabaul and Truk to refuel, the Imperial Navy could maintain only a few submarines in the seas around Fiji, and it would be a minimum of two weeks before they could return in strength. Land forces on Viti Levu were still hunting guerillas along the south coast, while the long march around the island ensured it would be a while before General Yi could threaten Nandi on land. The newly-captured airbase at Suva was still damaged from Allied sabotage and Japanese bombs, and while a small stockpile of aviation fuel had been surrendered, no Japanese aircraft were operating from the base.
    The Allies sensed that this was possibly their last good opportunity to support the defenders of Nandi, and a hard decision between evacuation and reinforcement had to be made. Estimates from the battles of Suva suggested that the Japanese had at least 20,000 men on Viti Levu, outnumbering General Beightler’s force by approximately 2:1, a ratio that could be made worse if a third invasion wave was landed. A defence would be difficult, even with the prepared fortifications left behind by the New Zealanders, and the landings at Savusavu provided yet another reminder that the best Japanese troops were being committed to the operation.
    The alternative, evacuation, did not look especially promising either. Additional transport ships had been sent from the US West Coast shortly after the battle for Fiji began, and they were beginning to arrive in the theatre, but there was still not enough transport available for moving half a division in one load (nor were further deliveries likely for the immediate future, as planning for Operation ‘Torch’ reached its final stages). Abandoning a notable objective to the Japanese would have bad effects on morale both among the armed forces and the civilians at home, and an incomplete evacuation effort before the IJN returned would mean the certain loss of anyone left behind. Fletcher had enough escorts to provide an evacuation convoy with a reasonable degree of protection, but submarines would remain an ever-present threat even so.
    Within forty-eight hours of the IJN’s withdrawal, it was decided that the risks of evacuation were too great, and instead an emergency convoy was assembled in Noumea. While supplying any more troops at Nandi would be impractical owing to the less developed port there and likely Japanese interdiction, Beightler could be supplied with more food and weapons that would prove valuable in what was effectively a siege. Above all, large artillery pieces and M3 ‘Stuart’ tanks would greatly improve the strength of the US position, while the Japanese would be relying on much lighter equipment. Leaving port as the month changed, the convoy was not detected by the Japanese.

    - BNC
    XV: Isolation (9/42)
  • XV: Isolation, September 1942

    The beginning of Autumn 1942 would eventually prove to be both the mid-point of the war, and the high-tide mark of the Axis advances across the world. Rommel’s final offensive in North Africa was about to be checked at the Alam el Halfa Ridge just eighty kilometres west of Alexandria. On the Eastern Front, the German Sixth Army had pushed to the banks of the Volga River and Stalingrad, where the war’s bloodiest battle was unfolding. In the Pacific, Japan had control of more than half of Fiji with the other half on the edge of collapse, while IJN submarines had been sent to bombard the airfield and other installations on Midway island near Hawaii. Samoa had been a small victory, albeit important for morale, and so far it did not appear to have even slightly reduced Japan’s momentum. Tilting the balance had never been more important for the Allies, and it was clear that the efforts made so far would not be enough.
    The first to act had been New Zealand’s Prime Minister Peter Fraser, who had asked Churchill to transfer New Zealand troops from Egypt mere hours after the first wave stormed ashore on Viti Levu. Churchill had been hesitant then, believing that protecting Egypt and the Middle East was of vital importance while Rommel continued to march relentlessly eastward. Now that Suva had fallen, Fiji was useless to the Allies as a major base and a direct threat of invasion was apparent in New Zealand: Fraser was adamant that the troops immediately be brought home. Montgomery was furious, wishing to expand his available forces in preparation for the next battle with Rommel, but Churchill reluctantly allowed the transfer. Alam el Halfa would be the last time German and New Zealand troops clashed on land.

    Australia’s John Curtin had even less patience with his allies than Fraser did. Shortly after the Japanese onslaught began, he had pulled troops from Europe destined for Australia, only to see them instead sent to Singapore before being promptly taken prisoner by the Japanese. While New Zealand had only seen attacks on its soil from the rare Japanese submarine bombardments of Auckland and once Wellington, in Australia Darwin had been the target of numerous air raids from February, and various points along the Queensland coast had been attacked following the Battle of the Coral Sea. Strong enemy forces in Timor and New Guinea made the threat of imminent invasion real, and although the Brisbane Line was by now a formidable obstacle, no Australian wished to gamble with the Japanese.
    Curtin’s criticisms with the war’s conduct were not directed so much towards Churchill, who sent the Australians out of North Africa shortly after the New Zealanders, but with Roosevelt. General MacArthur had been in command in Australia since the fall of the Philippines, where he had quickly annoyed both Curtin and Australian General Thomas Blamey. While Curtin had effectively resigned himself to MacArthur’s presence, he had also tired of Admiral Ghormley’s handling of the battles in the New Hebrides and Fiji, and the loss of Vanua Levu prompted him to make a now-famous phone call. “I won’t stand for my country being invaded because your commanders don’t know what they’re doing,” he said to Roosevelt, “Get rid of the bloody idiot!”
    It is not clear whether Curtin’s loss of confidence in Ghormley had any impact on Roosevelt and Nimitz’ decision to relieve the admiral in early September, instead giving him a desk job in Washington. Nimitz’ first suggestion for his replacement was William “Bull” Halsey, however he was still recovering from poor health, and it was soon decided that the best replacement would be Admiral Fletcher, who had already fought two major fleet actions with the Japanese and was as familiar with the South Pacific region as anyone in the US Navy could be.
    The decision to appoint Fletcher was nonetheless a curious one. Not only would Halsey be ready for duty again in just a few weeks, but Fletcher’s approach to the war was the complete opposite of Halsey’s: while Halsey supported aggressively attacking the Japanese with whatever was available, Fletcher had been advocating for preservation of existing forces above all else – a policy that had cost him the chance to destroy the entire Japanese force at Samoa, most importantly the second carrier. That missed opportunity would hang in Fletcher’s mind for a long time, and he was determined to ensure that the next battle he fought with Japan would be decisive. But with the shipping needed for offensive action still unavailable, a strong defensive fight looked like the best way to prevent the crisis from getting any worse than it already had.

    What the Allies did not know was that the crisis already had gotten worse. As the second wave landed in Fiji, the Japanese had decided to finally send the enormous battleship Yamato, flagship of the Combined Fleet, to Truk and make it available for use in the South Pacific. Although the Americans had been aware of new battleship construction in Japan as early as 1936, their estimates of this effort believed that the class would weigh in between 40,000 and 50,000 tons, comparable to the German Bismarck-class. Yamato was instead closer to 70,000 tons, much larger than any possible opponent, and was so far unnoticed by the Americans. A US submarine had spotted the battleship and its escorts, but mistakenly identified it as a heavy cruiser after rain made visibility difficult.
    Yamato would carry the Imperial Navy’s greatest officer, Isoroku Yamamoto, to the centre of the action in the South Pacific. The architect of the final drafts of the FS plan, who had until recently been monitoring the situation in Tokyo while ensuring that the proper resources were being sent south, would now take direct command of the operation. Success at Efate had finally convinced Tokyo that the plan was worth committing every available resource to, and Yamamoto’s first order was the immediate transfer of even more cargo ships, not only to make up for losses suffered around Samoa but also enough to land the entire 17th Army on New Caledonia in a single attack, aimed at overwhelming the Allied defences which were by now known to be much stronger than initially thought. Yamamoto faced a problem: the ships he needed simply did not exist. A few operating nearby were briefly pulled from other sectors to transfer construction units from Guadalcanal to Efate, allowing the airstrip there to finally be repaired in preparation for the New Caledonia offensive. Anything more however, was simply impossible: the dream of 30,000 men landing on New Caledonia simultaneously could never become reality.

    The shipyards in the Home Islands were directed to begin the construction of as many new cargo and transport ships as possible. The fighting in New Guinea and Fiji had demonstrated that operations on the ground would dictate the behaviour of the fleets, and while more cargo ships could be produced in a matter of months, large warships would take at least two or three years. With materials scarce, the decision was made to cancel many planned warships, as losses had been less severe than planned. While work on the Yamato’s sister ship Shinano would continue until that ship’s completion in the middle of 1943, several other capital ships were cancelled, leaving only two aircraft carriers to be built after Pearl Harbour: the Taiho which would be completed in 1943 and commissioned in 1944, and her sister Unryu which would be ready for service only months before the end of the war. Unryu had originally been planned along another lightly-built design similar to the Hiryu, but the lack of an urgent need for replacements convinced the Japanese high command that the more resilient Taiho design would be more valuable than a quicker construction job.
    Some readers may be interested to know of the existence of Japanese plans to convert several warships into aircraft carriers, most notably the half-built Shinano and the old battleship Ise. None of these plans were carried out, but they remain a subject of interest among historians, who have often discussed what such a “battle-carrier” might have been able to accomplish. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in discussions of the mighty Shinano, which would have been heavier than any carrier preceding the Fletcher-class of the 1960s, and able to carry several squadrons of bombers in addition to its 18-inch gun batteries: truly a ship to fear if ever there was one!

    - BNC
    XVI: Out of the Mountains (9/42)
  • XVI: Out of the Mountains, September 1942

    Operating so far from their major bases, the Japanese in Fiji could not hope to be fully supplied with everything that an army needed at all times. Cargo ships, often forced to choose between carrying food, ammunition, fuel and other supplies, were ordered to focus on delivering those items that could not be easily found on captured islands: while soldiers could carry some rations on the voyage from Rabaul, they would be expected to get their food from the Fijians. Sometimes this meant paying the Fijians with yen and other occupation currencies, other times the army would resort to theft. As long as the Navy could keep the guns firing, Imperial Headquarters would be satisfied.
    The capture of Allied supply dumps at Suva thus proved incredibly important to the Japanese war effort. Their takeover of the southern coast had yielded only a small amount of farmland, hardly sufficient to support the 20,000 or so soldiers, and for much of the campaign the Japanese had been close to starvation. Suva changed that: equipped with enough rations to keep a division fed for more than three months, and with plentiful farmland just to the east of the town, the base could keep the Japanese fed when their own Navy could not.

    Leaving some men behind to defend the newly-captured Suva, the rest of General Yi’s army headed west, following the coast road once again in order to take over Nandi and Lautoka. While General Mead had destroyed thousands of documents before his surrender, enough of them had survived to alert the Japanese to the presence of the greater part of the US 37th Infantry Division. Having overcome the New Zealanders, Yi was unconcerned.
    Until the Navy returned however, Yi would have to wait. While his ammunition stocks were large enough to keep the Fijian guerillas at bay, he would need bullets from Rabaul to fight the Ohio National Guard. On the night of September 13th, a small convoy of ships arrived at the original landing site on the southwestern coast of Viti Levu, delivering everything from rifle rounds to spare parts for the handful of tanks that could still be operated on the island. The convoy had maintained a higher speed throughout much of its journey, burning more fuel than normal in an effort to finally finish the conquest of Fiji as quickly as possible. Arriving a week earlier than the Americans predicted, it avoided any significant American attack.
    The Imperial Navy did not stay around Fiji long this time. So soon after the defeat off Samoa, the admirals were wary of leaving a carrier, and more importantly the cargo ships, exposed to enemy attack. Their forces were also split as another detachment patrolled the waters around Efate as that base was readied for use in the New Caledonia operation. Two airstrikes were launched against Nandi and Lautoka, leaving the Allies with few serviceable aircraft still able to operate from Fiji. The final battle of Viti Levu would be fought without airpower: victory there would have to be written in the blood of the infantry.

    Once resupplied, General Yi moved quickly to cross the mountains that effectively divided the island into Japanese and American zones. Still several dozen kilometres from the American Defence Zone, the movement occurred without incident, and scouts were sent forward to locate the enemy positions. Now using captured maps of Fiji taken from the New Zealanders at Suva, Yi knew that a second, smaller range of hills lay between him and the Americans, and beyond that the landscape opened out into a flat plain with Nandi almost at its centre. At this point, the coastal road turns inland to cross the hills, and Yi suspected that the enemy defences would be strongest there: he had followed that road for the entire campaign so far. His tanks would have no choice but to stay on the road, but his infantry were not so limited. He ordered them into the hills.
    General Beightler was sure that the Japanese attack would come within a matter of days of the third supply run, and had his forces on high alert from the moment that convoy was spotted. Deployed in accordance with standard US Army doctrine, the 37th Division was concentrated around several strongpoints, most notably the coastal village of Momi just behind the hills. Between those points, the landscape had been mapped out, with artillery crews ready to bombard the likely Japanese routes of advance. His own artillery was far superior to the Japanese artillery, equipped with heavier 105mm guns instead of the Japanese 75mms, and far better supplied: able to unload both shells and the guns themselves at a port instead of a beach in darkness.
    Yi had also realised that Momi would be an important objective: it was far enough west of the coastal road that any large defences on the road could be avoided, while its capture would allow him to outflank the hills through which the road passed, giving the Japanese a straight path into Nandi. Furthermore, while the inland hills had hosted numerous native Fijian guerillas, a persistent source of trouble for the IJA, they would be less likely to threaten him nearer the coast, where the Navy could bring destroyers in to provide naval support if that proved necessary. While those destroyers were at Efate or even further away right now, the mere threat of them could be used to the Japanese advantage.

    Like most of the fighting in Fiji, the Battle of Momi was extremely bloody: two Japanese regiments each lost a whole battalion to the National Guard’s artillery and machine gun fire before the village’s defenders were cut down by rifle fire and officers’ katanas. Japanese infiltration tactics, having worked to such deadly effect in Malaya and many other places across the Pacific, once again tore up another Allied strongpoint, and once Momi fell the rest of the Japanese army stormed through the gap left behind. The feared Allied position on ‘Road Hill’ proved much weaker than expected, and collapsed in face of a pincer attack striking from north and south. Beightler’s force, outnumbered from the beginning, saw their ranks dwindling as the western half of the Defence Zone was overrun, and the general ordered those units still in the hills to fall back on Lautoka.
    The Japanese would meet the retreating Americans somewhere just south of Nandi, where a four day long battle erupted, now known simply as the Battle of Nandi. Although the Americans managed to break in to the Japanese lines on the second day, the arrival of more Japanese forces, fresh from their victory at Road Hill on the third meant that Beightler was eventually overwhelmed. The fall of Nandi and the Lautoka soon followed.
    Beightler was not prepared to surrender to the Japanese however, and ordered his force to continue retreating. With the help of local guides, survivors of Nandi would trek towards the northern village of Tavua. Fletcher, now in command of three carriers after the arrival of the Enterprise, finally felt that he had enough resources to attempt an evacuation, intelligence indicating that the IJN was not near Fiji in strength. With the carriers sent to suppress the Japanese position on Vanua Levu, Fletcher’s smaller ships collected nearly 5000 American soldiers from the beaches near Tavua. They would bring back invaluable combat experience, and a determination to one day return to liberate Fiji.

    - BNC
    XVII: Occupation (10/42)
  • XVII: Occupation, October 1942

    In planning the FS operation, the Japanese had made few official plans for the occupation and administration of the islands they sought to control. The final draft of the plan stated that the occupiers would use yen in any dealings with the native populations of most islands, the exception being New Caledonia where occupation currency was to be used instead. Even this very basic plan was only rarely enforced: in Fiji, yen, pounds and dollars were all circulated during those times when the occupation force bothered to pay at all.
    Only in early September, after the fall of Suva, did any clear Japanese occupation policy emerge. On Tokyo’s orders, the islands were to be administered in a manner similar to that occurring on Guam and other islands taken from the Americans in the early days of the war. The Fijians were to be more or less ignored except when they would prove either useful or dangerous. The population was allowed to trade for what it needed, although food was officially rationed (although rarely enforced in the villages) and the few radios on the islands were taken by the Japanese. Schools were required to begin teaching Japanese customs, most importantly bowing to the occupation troops, and occasionally the Japanese would conscript the locals to do manual labour. Many disappeared into the hills, joining a resistance movement that would give the Japanese many troubles. Those unfortunate enough to be captured from the resistance were treated as prisoners. Japan having never signed the Geneva Convention, that could mean anything from months in a poorly built prison camp with appalling conditions, to a bullet in the back of the head.
    Unfortunately, even as the Japanese began withdrawing their forces from Fiji in early October, General Takeo Ito was left behind. A brute of a man, he had been merciless to prisoners in China and again in the East Indies. Officially, he was following orders from Tokyo at all times, but when junior officers acted contrary to that policy he was more than willing to look the other way.

    Manpower for the occupation would prove to be an issue from the very beginning of the campaign. From early October, the Japanese began pulling troops out of Fiji to use them in the upcoming invasion of New Caledonia, leaving Ito with just 3000 troops to control a population of a quarter of a million. His ranks would be gradually boosted as wounded men left to recover in Fiji were able to return to duty, but even at its strongest point the occupation could never really control anything too far from Suva, Nandi or Savusavu. The jungle belonged to the resistance.
    While the resistance could not hope to throw the Japanese out by itself, the Allies still intended to make the occupation efforts as difficult as possible. As Japanese attention shifted to New Caledonia, Admiral Fletcher ordered his B-17s to drop supplies to the resistance fighters. While many of these efforts resulted in crates of weapons landing in the jungle, those that reached the Fijians proved a considerable nuisance for General Ito. As word was sent back to Rabaul and then Tokyo, Ito’s call for reinforcements went unheeded. Every available man would be needed at New Caledonia, which was intended to be used as a base from which Australia and New Zealand could be placed under siege. Fiji’s use to Japan was seen primarily in their ability to deny it to the Allies: as long as Ito could keep hold of the major ports, Tokyo would not see reinforcement as necessary.

    Tokyo did present a potential solution to Ito’s problems however, in its announcement of the formation of a Fiji Battalion for the Indian National Army.
    Beginning in the 1870s, the British had transported thousands of Indians to Fiji, where they served as indentured labourers, working on the sugar cane fields in the north and west of the islands. When their terms were finished, many stayed behind, and by 1939 they represented around three eighths of Fiji’s population. The British however continued to treat them as lower class citizens than the native Fijians, paying them only two shillings per day when a Fijian would receive four, before banning them from military service in 1940. These actions caused considerable resentment and division in Fiji, and the situation was far from resolved when the Japanese took over.
    The Japanese leadership had already decided that Indian people were an important part of their ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ by the fall of Singapore, with Hideki Tojo making several references to Indian independence in his speeches to the Diet. Fiji’s place in the Sphere was much less well defined, but the fierce resistance shown by native Fijians from the early days of the invasion convinced the Japanese that they would not prove to be loyal allies. Knowing of the divided state of Fiji’s population, Japan decided to attempt to side with the Indians. So far, the Indians had shown much less opposition to Japan’s efforts than the native Fijians had, and few joined the resistance movement. They were rewarded with preferential treatment by the occupation forces.
    The Fiji Battalion, nominally a unit of the Indian National Army but in practice a separate force altogether, was the result of Japanese attempts to further turn the Indians against their former masters. Equipped largely with weapons taken from the New Zealanders, this all-volunteer force served as both a propaganda tool and an additional occupation force for the Japanese. Posted in Suva, the site of the British administration of Fiji, they often antagonised those who had recently treated them as second class citizens, and among the volunteers a desire for revenge more often than not dominated any sense of nationalism, Indian or Fijian. Japan had made no promises of independence, and often proved remarkably short-sighted in their policies and actions in Fiji, content to stir up trouble while holding the islands as a bargaining chip, ready to give the British even more trouble once a satisfactory peace had been made.
    Like the Indian National Army, the Fiji Battalion did not live up to the great expectations of its masters. Even with preferential treatment, barely half a battalion’s worth of volunteers actually joined the force, far from the massive wave of support that the Japanese had hoped for. Most Indians in Fiji recognised that while the Japanese controlled the islands in a different way to the British, they were still substituting one colonial overlord for another. Matters were not helped by the effective disbanding of the INA itself as 1942 drew to a close, although the Fiji Battalion would be maintained until the end of the Japanese occupation.

    - BNC
    XVIII: Turning South (10/42)
  • XVIII: Turning South, October 1942

    Operation NK, the invasion of New Caledonia, was the final stage in Japan’s plan to control the South Pacific. Half way between Fiji and Brisbane, the island was perfectly positioned to control the sea lanes between Rabaul and Japan’s recent conquests, and between Australia and the United States. Japan wanted the island to protect the flank of those vital routes that would allow it to defend its recent conquests; the Allies knew that a fallen New Caledonia would be a dagger aimed at the heart of Australia. The location of the island alone was enough to know that this would be the site of a fierce battle.
    Like the rest of the FS Operation, the planning for NK was in chaos months before the operation began. Yamamoto’s grand vision of the South Pacific offensive had declared that Fiji would fall with the arrival of the second wave, and the conquest would take just three weeks. Instead, it had taken two months, and cost a third of Japan’s effective strength in the area. With disturbing reports of an entire US Division on New Caledonia and a detailed map of the island’s vast coral reefs among the documents captured at Suva, Yamamoto had felt himself forced to call upon the Army to transfer the 48th Infantry Division, the last readily available reserve, to the operation. The request was resented among the Army’s higher command, but New Caledonia was too important to not invade, and in early September they released the division for the 17th Army’s use. Timor, the 48th Division’s previous basing, would gradually fall under the effective control of Australian commandos, reinforced by MacArthur once the weakness of the remaining garrison was realised.
    With a series of hurried and complicated manoeuvres throughout the South Pacific, Yamamoto was also able to transfer almost 15,000 troops out of Fiji, deploying them on Efate before returning the fleet to Truk for urgent refuelling. Efate, less than forty-eight hours from New Caledonia, would be a vital staging point for the invasion: the fleet could be stationed around New Caledonia for a little over a week, enough time to land two or possibly even three waves of troops if they were only coming from Port Vila. Most of the reserves were still only in Rabaul by this time, and would have to be deployed later. Yamamoto would deal with that when he had to, but NK needed to begin as soon as possible: the invasion had been marked for early September, but it was already the middle of October.

    The impending invasion was no secret to the Allies, who had been rushing reinforcements to the island while also building up the base at Noumea. The 23rd “Americal” Division, under the command of Major General Alexander Patch, had been stationed on the island for several months, and they were expected to be joined by the newly-formed 3rd Marine Division before the end of the year. Two airfields were also operational on the island: Magenta just outside Noumea, and Tontouta fifty kilometres to the west. Both were equipped with radar sets, and a continuous air patrol was maintained around the island whenever conditions allowed.
    Noumea harbour had also seen a huge amount of activity, with everything from underwater defences to fuel being delivered in a desperate effort to expand and fortify the base. So much shipping was flowing into the harbour that congestion became a serious problem, made more difficult by occasional Japanese air raids out of Efate or aircraft carriers in the region, and the ever-present threat of submarines added yet another level of danger. Fletcher’s naval forces were rushed to the island’s surrounding waters as soon as the evacuation of Fiji was completed, arriving little more than a week ahead of the first Japanese landing ships. As the threat to New Caledonia became urgent, Fletcher also secured control of several submarines that until now had been under MacArthur’s command.

    Yamamoto and General Hyakutake were still debating the plan for seizing New Caledonia itself well into early October. Early drafts of FS had planned for the landing to take place near Noumea itself, on the south-eastern coast, and until well into the Fiji campaign this remained the intention. All of Japan’s objectives: both airfields, the port and the huge nickel mines, were located at the southeast of the island, and the coral reefs would pose a considerable obstacle no matter where on New Caledonia the landing took place.
    Noumea however was sure to be heavily defended. Owing to shipping constraints, the first wave of the invasion could not be larger than 10,000 men, too small to overpower an entire division, while the second wave, even from Efate, could not be landed for at least another three days following the first. The battle of Savusavu had also reinforced the lesson learned at Port Moresby, that an opposed landing was sure to be costly, and general and admiral both decided that attempting Savusavu on a much larger scale at Noumea would likely end in an expensive defeat.
    If Noumea was considered a bad landing site, New Caledonia had a noticeable lack of good ones. The closest location to Noumea that saw considerable attention was a flat area just south of the Tontouta airfield, barely forty kilometres away. The open landscape there was a rare sight on the mountainous island, and would be an ideal beachhead if the US Army wasn’t using it as an encampment (what the Americans were doing there was unknown to the Japanese). A short march from Tontouta, it would allow for the airfield to be taken in a couple of days, which would make the rest of the campaign much easier. However, several islands close to shore would make an organised landing more difficult, and moving around the islands would expose the vulnerable landing ships to air attacks for several more hours than an open beach would. After much discussion, the Tontouta site was shelved.
    The site eventually chosen had much more in common with its counterpart on Viti Levu than any of those initially planned on New Caledonia. Near the village of Thio on the northern coast, 75 kilometres from Noumea as the crow flies, or 100 by a more practical route, the beaches were far enough from Noumea that the Japanese expected only minimal defences, while also being close enough to their objectives that a ground offensive would not require an unsustainable amount of supplies. Being on the northern coast, the area could be more easily covered by aircraft flying from Efate, and Japanese ships would not need to sail around New Caledonia to support the invasion, saving fuel and time. With a gap in the mountains not far from the village that opened the way to the south, the site was as well positioned for an offensive aimed at Noumea as anywhere on the northern coast could be. A choice made only days before NK began, it was not discovered by the Allied codebreakers until it was too late.

    - BNC
    XIX: Thio Beach (10/42)
  • XIX: Thio Beach, October 1942

    Four carriers, three battleships, two hundred aircraft and ten thousand men. The Japanese invasion force was an armada that could not be ignored, aimed at the island both sides considered vital. Yamamoto was gambling that Fletcher would bring the US Navy out to fight the decisive battle that he had not at Fiji. Japan’s greatest admiral believed his enemy would not have a choice: if they surrendered New Caledonia, they would be giving up whatever control they had in the South Pacific, leaving Australia open to invasion. It was a price that the Americans could not afford. They would fight. They had to.

    Japan’s invasion of New Caledonia, delayed so many times, finally began on October 19th, 1942 with a massive air raid. Waves of D3A bombers launched from Efate and all four carriers struck Magenta and Tontouta, while Zeroes duelled with Wildcats and attempted to keep any Allied bombers away from the landing craft. Another group of bombers, long range G3M ‘Nell’s operating out of Guadalcanal, was sent to bomb the city of Noumea, and most importantly the overcrowded ports that undoubtedly held thousands of tons of supplies. Further raids, directed at Darwin and Cooktown, were launched in an attempt to distract the Allies while the landings took place, and midget submarines attacked Pago Pago, further adding to the confusion.
    General Patch was not surprised when the Japanese landed at Thio. At Viti Levu, the decision to land far from an objective in the hopes of evading the enemy had been a new idea, and considering how well it had worked out there he believed there was some chance the Japanese would try it again. New Caledonia was far too large for every possible landing site to be garrisoned in strength, but Patch believed that the deployment of some light forces at locations that could serve as landing beaches would buy him time and make a landing more expensive for the Japanese – at Thio this was the G Company of the 182nd Infantry Regiment. Once the landing had taken place, those light units could retreat into the jungle and report back.
    As another wave of Zeroes arrived to patrol the skies of northern New Caledonia, General Yi and 10,000 Japanese infantrymen stormed ashore. The Americans engaged, but soon realised that the invading force was too large to be stopped, or even really slowed down, by just a company, and a retreat into the hills was ordered. The village of Thio was taken within three hours. Unlike in Fiji, the Japanese pushed south immediately: every day spent securing the beachhead was one less the infantry would have to capture Noumea before the cyclone season began or the supplies ran out. Thio beach was to be nothing more than a drop-off point for supplies and a short-lived field HQ.

    As New Caledonia was a French territory, the French governments aligned with both sides took great interest in the events of the battle. Adolf Hitler quickly pushed the Vichy regime to celebrate the Japanese invasion as “the triumph of the will and bravery of Japanese liberators over the craven traitors of France”. Even though New Caledonia was far from events in Europe, the battle was championed as a sign of imminent victory for the Axis across the world. That would last for just four days, when the Second Battle of El Alamein began.
    Japan from the very beginning of the operation claimed that the invasion was an “act of collaboration with the rightful government of France to ensure peace and security in the overseas territories”, but in practice Vichy had no influence at all on the battle. Any likely collaborators had been taken out of the island months ago, and the Japanese Army barely acknowledged French rule existing on the island at all: the Rising Sun, not the Tricolour, was flown from Thio and other occupied villages, and there were no French officers present alongside Yamamoto and Hyakutake when decisions were made and orders given out. Hitler’s attention had never been directed towards events in the Pacific for long, and after events in North Africa and Stalingrad grew in importance once again, he appears to have forgotten about New Caledonia entirely.
    Charles de Gaulle immediately rejected the claims coming out of Vichy and Goebbels’ offices, declaring the invasion a “despicable act of Japanese aggression against sacred French soil”, and considering it was Free French forces controlling the administration of New Caledonia, this was the line adopted by the Allies. Roosevelt however was infuriated when de Gaulle followed up with demands for more forces to be sent to defend the island regardless of the situation in other areas (at one point insisting that half of MacArthur’s army in Australia be immediately shipped to Noumea). With de Gaulle offering no troops of his own, Roosevelt ignored the general’s demands and informed him that the defence of New Caledonia would be a matter for the Armed Forces, not politicians.

    As Patch began moving some of his forces towards Thio, Admiral Fletcher was focusing his attention on the Imperial Navy. While he had one fewer carrier than the Japanese, he could count on much larger numbers of aircraft from New Caledonia than the Japanese could hope to supply on Efate, and reinforcements could be called from Australia if an urgent need arose (MacArthur having been ordered by Roosevelt to approve any requests from Fletcher). The morning raids had disrupted the forces on New Caledonia to some degree, but once Thio was reported to be Yamamoto’s target, the search for his carriers was on. If recent landings were anything to go by, the Japanese would want to get out as soon as possible. Fletcher did not aim to let that happen.
    Recon planes discovered the Japanese northwest of Thio in the late afternoon, too late for a strike against them to be ordered that day. As expected, the Japanese were heading north, and would be halfway back to Efate when the sun rose the next day. Any strike would have to take place at dawn, before Yamamoto could get out of range of the bombers. Fletcher hoped for another surprise attack like Samoa, but he how likely it was that the Japanese would expect his attack. His opponent had planned Pearl Harbour and the Fiji campaign, both huge successes against all odds: he was no fool.
    Much to Fletcher’s surprise, it would be Yamamoto that scored the first hit at sea. Around 0200, before any aircraft were even loaded for the upcoming dawn strike, the submarine I-122 found Fletcher’s navy south of Noumea. Within minutes, two torpedoes had been launched, hitting the battleship Washington, before escaping almost undetected. The battleship developed a ten degree list to starboard, and was ordered to Brisbane for repairs.

    The morning’s strike soon turned into a frantic battle. While Yamamoto was busy organising another raid on Noumea, he left Yamaguchi to handle the carriers. Both remembered the harsh lesson of Samoa, and when General Yi reported sightings of US aircraft flying past Thio, every Zero that could be put into the air scrambled to meet the incoming Wildcats and SBDs. Fourteen Allied aircraft were lost in the attacks on the carriers, nine of them bombers, while they managed to heavily damage Kaga and scored a minor hit on Akagi. Yamaguchi, down seven fighters, launched his own strike, which resulted in minor damage to Wasp. A final torpedo delivered by a B5N bomber then finished off the damaged Washington, leading both sides to call the battle a draw.

    - BNC
    XX: Divided Attention (10/42)
  • XX: Divided Attention, October 1942

    Any admiral seeking a decisive battle on October 20th would have been bitterly disappointed by the short and inconclusive battle that was fought, and had it not been for the arrival of some heavy rains near New Caledonia, several more strikes would surely have been ordered. While Fletcher was disappointed, and hoped that the rain would disperse quickly, Yamamoto was satisfied with his own progress: the first wave of troops had been landed, now storming across New Caledonia’s mountainous spine before they were met by serious opposition. Kaga would be useless until it could be repaired: a job that would take at least six months plus however long it would take to return to Japan; several cargo ships had also run aground on the huge coral reefs when the tides lowered, two were left irreparable and had to be abandoned. Yamamoto hoped that Fletcher would waste his bombs on the wrecks.
    The bad weather would prove extremely useful to Yamamoto, who wanted to get the second wave of troops ashore as soon as possible. Ready to embark from Efate as soon as the ships arrived, they would need just over a day for the trip to Thio. Along with roughly 5000 veterans of the vicious fighting on Fiji, the second wave would carry the bulk of the supplies required for the next few weeks of fighting: the first wave had travelled light so that they could establish a position as close to Noumea as possible, but the second would be needed to fight the battle for the city. Unlike Fiji, here there would be fewer opportunities to acquire food from the locals.
    Escorting the supplies had by now become a routine for the Japanese captains, who had spent months running ships to and from Fiji and the New Hebrides, but Yamamoto also had the decisive battle to fight. Fletcher had already announced his navy’s presence on the 20th, and Yamamoto expected he would be willing to fight again: it was now just a question of where, and when. Too early, and a disaster could doom the second wave’s unloading efforts, too late, and fuel would make pursuit more difficult after victory. If the navies stayed on opposite sides of New Caledonia, his superior surface units including the mighty Yamato would not have the opportunity to engage, but if he went around the island then the cargo and support ships off the northern coast would be more exposed.
    “What good is the fleet if we don’t ever use it to fight?” Yamamoto remarked to Yamaguchi as he drew up his attack plan on the night of the 20th. “If we surround the island, Fletcher can either fight, and give us the carriers, or run, and give us Noumea. Either way, a blow will be dealt, and the death of the other shall follow.” Within two hours, Yamamoto was giving out orders once more.

    On board the Saratoga, Fletcher was less concerned about the decisive battle that was referenced so many times in intercepted Japanese messages. While he was prepared to fight the Japanese, he knew that the Allies’ greatest weapon in this war was time: the longer the conflict dragged on, the more of an advantage America’s enormous industrial capabilities would be.
    It was this line of thinking that led him to request the transfer of MacArthur’s submarines to his command. Attrition would weaken the Japanese just as effectively as a single large confrontation would. His target was not Yamamoto’s warships, which would surely show up for battle at some point, but his slow, vulnerable cargo ships. If enough of those were sunk, operations in New Caledonia would become impossible.
    The first time this strategy would be tested would be the second invasion convoy, which left Port Vila in the evening of the 21st. Six submarines were positioned in the waters between Efate and Thio, where they would ambush the convoy in the mid-morning of the 22nd. Several ships were hit, but only two suffered serious damage: one would sink shortly afterwards, the other limped on to Thio, to be unloaded and then scuttled. The strategy showed promise, especially in light of Japan’s ineffective ASW tactics which failed to damage any of the submarines. Poor quality torpedoes would once again prove an issue however, preventing no fewer than three more critical hits on Japan’s most vulnerable ships. Had they been as effective as the dreaded Japanese ‘Long Lance’, the second wave may have never made it ashore at all.

    While the second wave began to unload at Thio, a desperate race for control of central New Caledonia was unfolding. General Yi was pushing south with whatever forces were available, hoping to secure as much land as possible before he met the Americans: once the two sides met, every following inch of land would have a price measured in blood. On the other side of the mountains, General Patch’s force was dispersed across the island: west of the village of Moindou was the 132nd Regiment, tasked with the defence of the western half of the island; next was the 182nd Regiment, closest to the Japanese with their bases along the Ouameni river at the village bearing the same name; further east, the 164th Regiment would defend Tontouta and Noumea.
    Only two roads of any consequence serviced the battlefields-to-be: a north-south route through the mountains connecting the villages of Thio and Bouloupari, and a longer road parallel to the island’s southern coastline. The first would be used by the Japanese as they advanced through the hills, while General Yi hoped to cut the American defences in two by occupying part of the second road: this road would then be used by the Japanese as they marched on Noumea. With a holding force left to guard the western flank, the Japanese could feel secure in their plans: few north-south routes existed further west while the mountains would obstruct other paths, and the best the northern coastline could offer was a series of mule tracks. Short of another amphibious landing, neither side would be able to outflank the other.

    In the race to control the mountain road, General Yi had the advantage. While his forces had landed immediately in front of the road, the 182nd Regiment had been based twenty kilometres west of Bouloupari at the road’s southern end, and the other American regiments were too far away to be of use in the initial battle. The Japanese rushed south just as they had in Fiji, while Patch grew concerned over where the second Japanese invasion force was to land: if the first wave was just a diversion, he could not risk exposing Noumea to the second. The 132nd Regiment would eventually be directed to head east once it became clear that the Japanese had no interest in the island’s west, but only after Yi’s troops met the Americans just 10 kilometres north of Bouloupari, at the very edge of the mountain range.
    Once the battle began however, it would be the Americans who held the best cards. Much of Yi’s heavy equipment, including tanks, cars and artillery, was still at sea in the second wave, as Yamamoto and Hyakutake had decided bodies would be more important than equipment for the first. While the Japanese outnumbered the American regiment, the American equipment, including some M4 ‘Sherman’ tanks, could make up the difference. The remnants of the area’s bad weather continued to ground air forces, leaving field commanders uncertain of their position in the battle. After a short clash, it was Yi who decided to retreat first, feeling that he would need his reinforcements to break out of the mountains. The American commander, waiting on the 132nd Regiment from the west, occupied the battlefield but decided further pursuit into the mountains would be unwise.

    - BNC
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