Remembering the war in New Guinea
Australian naval campaigns (Longer text)
Module name: Campaign history (Australian perspective)
This page was contributed by Dr David Stevens (Sea Powers Study Centre)
Units of the Australian Navy were active from the start of the Pacific war, but the naval campaign in New Guinea might be said to have begun with the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Combined Operational Intelligence Centre, linking information from locally based signals intelligence units, coastwatchers and aerial reconnaissance, issued an assessment on 25 April 1942 that a Japanese assault on Port Moresby was imminent. On 1 May, the cruisers HMAS Australia and Hobart and USS Chicago, escorted by three American destroyers sailed from Hervey Bay to rendezvous with an American force built around the aircraft carriers USS Yorktown and Lexington. The Australian force, under the command of Rear Admiral John Crace, RN, and reinforced with a fourth American destroyer, was detached on 7 May to block the movement of any Japanese ships through the Jomard Passage. The Battle of the Coral Sea continued through to the next day and resulted in the sinking of one aircraft carrier from each side.
Although the results were not decisive, Japanese losses and the presence of the Australian force convinced the Japanese to abandon their plans to continue with the Port Moresby invasion. Thereafter the Japanese would have to accomplish its capture either by crossing the mountain ranges of New Guinea, or by stepping around the coast. The course of the future campaign for the island was thus resolved, one absolutely determined by seaborne logistics.
The first serious Japanese attempt to disrupt Allied shipping began in May 1942 with the deployment of five fleet submarines to the Australian east coast. Although combined with the midget submarine attack on Sydney, it was the sinking of several merchant ships in early June that achieved the greater strategic impact. Coastal convoys began almost immediately and were followed by regular routine convoys between New Guinea and the Australian mainland. Convoys to New Guinea continued until March 1944, by which time more than 1,100 merchant vessels had made the journey and more than a third of the RAN’s tonnage was devoted to the escort task. The safe transport of troops received particular attention, and between 1941 and 1943 almost 190,000 Australian military personnel were safely transported to New Guinea.
There were, however, some close escapes. On 23 August 1942 the steamship Malaita reached Port Moresby with a load of troops and supplies. On sailing for Cairns six days later she was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine RO-33. Malaita’s escort, the new destroyer HMAS Arunta, sank the submarine in a 90-minute action. With the successful conclusion of the Milne Bay battle the RAN provided support for forces operating in northern New Guinea and began the development of a string of bases that would be opened up along the coast to support the Allied advance. The RAN’s ubiquitous corvettes shouldered much of the operational burden, and their varied tasks included the conduct of shore bombardments, anti-submarine and anti-aircraft defence, and the transportation of troops and supplies.
One particularly important element of the coastal work was the survey task necessary before ships could operate in the largely uncharted waters. This began in September 1942 and was underway in earnest by late October with ships such as the sloop HMAS Warrego and the converted small ships Paluma, Stella and Polaris. The Australian-directed hydrographic effort in support of the entire south-west Pacific campaign was a vital naval contribution to the war and one which has gone largely unremarked.
December 1942 saw the commencement of Operation Lilliput which, over a six month period, delivered 60,000 tons of supplies and 3,802 troops from Milne Bay to Oro Bay. The hardworked corvettes still provided the majority of the escort force. Losses during Japanese air attacks amounted to two merchant ships sunk and two badly damaged while several of the corvettes also sustained damage and casualties. In March 1943, the Japanese suffered a major defeat when a reinforcement convoy heading for Lae was destroyed by Allied air attack in what became known as the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. Intelligence on this convoy was provided by the joint RAN/USN codebreaking organisation in Melbourne.
As 1943 and 1944 progressed, Australian ships were involved in the campaigns to oust the Japanese from West New Guinea and adjacent islands. The RAN’s three armed merchant cruisers, Manoora, Kanimbla and Westralia were converted to infantry landing ships and took part in many of these operations as part of General MacArthur’s Seventh Amphibious Force. Meanwhile, Australian cruisers and destroyers were tasked to provide shore bombardments and seaward cover.
That such cover was needed was apparent in late May 1944 during the Allied assault on the island of Biak north of New Guinea. The Imperial Japanese Navy soon responded with a force of three destroyers towing landing barges, escorted by three more destroyers with distant support from two cruisers. The Allied covering forces under Rear Admiral Victor Crutchley, RN, were ready and eager for an encounter. The Japanese, however, had been warned of the presence of Crutchley’s force by shadowing aircraft and were wary in their approach to Biak. Detected by radar late on the evening of 8 June, the Japanese destroyers shortly afterwards turned away and increased speed. The Allied ships gave chase, but were unable to catch the Japanese ships, which escaped with only limited damage.
In sum, Australia’s naval campaign in New Guinea embraced two different but complementary aspects. Although, the fact is seldom remembered, the war in New Guinea was solely dependent on the maintenance of sea lines of communication. Throughout the campaign, and in the face of a variety of threats, the warships of the RAN escorted the shipping that allowed the forces ashore to prevail. The second aspect of the Australian naval campaign involved the direct support of General MacArthur’s amphibious landings once the war had passed from its defensive to the offensive phase.