Royal New Zealand Air Force
INTERCEPTING THE TOKYO EXPRESS
INTERCEPTING THE TOKYO EXPRESS
Twice in the first week of December the Tokyo Express ran down from the northern Solomons to Guadalcanal. On the 3rd two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and six destroyers left Buin and made a dash down the ‘Slot’. They were successfully tracked by Allied coastwatchers and search planes from the time they left Buin. At half past three in the afternoon an RNZAF Hudson on patrol sighted them moving southwards near Vella Lavella, and shadowed them until twenty minutes to five. Radio contact with Guadalcanal was difficult as the Japanese attempted to jam the Hudson's signal, and then asked for the message to be repeated and immediately afterwards sent a message cancelling it. Nevertheless an American striking force of dive-bombers, torpedo-bombers, and fighters was sent from Guadalcanal and attacked the warships at half past six, in the channel opposite central New Georgia. Four of the ships were hit by bombs and ten enemy aircraft were shot down.
Another enemy convoy was reported off Vella Lavella by coastwatchers on the afternoon of 7 December and attacked by American page 151 fighters and dive-bombers at dusk. It was attacked again during the night near Guadalcanal by American PT boats, but a number of the ships reached Guadalcanal and remained there for about an hour before retiring northwards. The next morning the surviving ships were seen near Faisi by an RNZAF Hudson on early morning patrol, but they escaped before a striking force could reach the area to attack them.
At midday on 11 December the coastwatcher near Buin reported by wireless that a convoy of Japanese destroyers had left the anchorage there and was steaming south-east at high speed. An RNZAF Hudson searched the sea near Vella Lavella and New Georgia in the afternoon but did not see the enemy ships. Later in the afternoon they were discovered and attacked off New Georgia by American dive-bombers and fighters which claimed hits on five of the destroyers. The Japanese force held its course and arrived off Guadalcanal shortly before midnight. In the early hours of the morning American PT boats attacked the destroyers and sank one of them. Following their usual practice, the warships retired before dawn and were seen by two RNZAF Hudsons on early morning patrol steaming northwards some 230 miles from Guadalcanal.
American photographic reconnaissance early in December confirmed previous reports that the Japanese were building an airfield at Munda under a camouflage of coconut plantations, leaving the trees standing until they were ready to begin the final surfacing of the runway. Gun emplacements had been built in the area and, according to the Allied coastwatcher, enemy troops had moved into the surrounding native villages and were fortifying them. If the enemy could bring the strip into operation he would have land-based aircraft within 150 miles of Guadalcanal, with which he could mount heavy air raids against the Allied positions and give air cover to his convoys along the whole route from Buin to Cape Esperance.
One of the first Allied attacks on Munda was made by an RNZAF Hudson on the morning of 9 December. It dropped four bombs from 7000 feet, of which one hit the runway and a second set fire to buildings and tents. By this date most of the trees covering the strip had been removed and the runway appeared to be ready for operations.
From this date on Munda was attacked daily by American bombers, but in spite of this the Japanese managed to make it serviceable. It was never developed beyond an emergency staging post, but Japanese aircraft were using the strip by 17 December. By the end of the month they had fighters stationed there permanently for its defence. Early in January, as repeated bombing attacks had failed to prevent the Japanese from developing it, COMSOPAC page 152 sent a task force of cruisers and destroyers to shell the airfield. The force left Guadalcanal on the 4th, and during the day RNZAF Hudsons were employed as part of the air cover, searching the seas to the west for enemy ships and submarines. The task force arrived off Munda during the night and bombarded the airfield successfully, leaving the target area, according to reports, ‘a shambles'. During its retirement in the early hours of the morning on the 5th the force was attacked by enemy dive-bombers and fighters, probably from Kahili, and one of the ships, HMNZS Achilles, was hit by a bomb. In spite of the damage done by the bombardment the Japanese were operating aircraft from Munda a few hours after the attack.
Allied air operations in January and February were hampered by bad weather. The rainy season had started by the end of December, and for the next few months there were frequent heavy rainstorms throughout the area. Japanese shipping took full advantage of the cover which they provided, and which enabled it on many occasions to escape detection by searching aircraft.
After a relatively quiet period during December, the Japanese in January again started large-scale attempts with destroyers to reinforce their garrison on Guadalcanal. On the 1st of the month an American B17 patrolling over southern Bougainville reported that four heavy cruisers and six destroyers had arrived at Tonolei. The next day a force of ten destroyers made a run from Buin to Cape Esperance. They were shadowed during part of the day by an RNZAF Hudson and were repeatedly attacked by American bombers, but at least eight got through to Guadalcanal. In the early morning of 3 January they were reported to be lying off Cape Esperance and were attacked by American PT boats. None of the destroyers was sunk in the action, but the PT boats destroyed a number of waterproof containers of food and ammunition which had been thrown overboard to drift ashore. After dawn patrols were sent out to locate the enemy ships as they retired. An RNZAF Hudson sighted them at 7.20 a.m. some 220 miles from Guadalcanal, but a force of American dive-bombers and fighters sent to attack failed to locate them.
The Tokyo Express made another run on 10 January when eight destroyers again reached Cape Esperance during the night. They were attacked by PT boats, which claimed torpedo hits, and retired before daylight. Groups of them were seen next morning by RNZAF Hudsons, but again dive-bombers sent to attack them failed to make contact.
Another strong attempt was made by the Japanese with destroyers and cargo ships on the 14th. They were first reported by the coastwatcher on Vella Lavella and later, at eleven o'clock at night, were page 153 seen by an American Catalina on patrol off the Russell Islands. PT boats attacked them between Cape Esperance and Savo Island and secured hits on two ships. An RNZAF Hudson which took off before dawn on the 15th sighted nine destroyers 110 miles from Guadalcanal at half past six and shadowed them until shortly after seven o'clock, when fifteen American dive-bombers with fighter escort arrived. In the action which followed the dive-bombers sank one destroyer off the coast of New Georgia.
In the late afternoon on 15 January an RNZAF Hudson sighted six destroyers and a cargo ship some 230 miles from Guadalcanal. The aircraft remained in the area, between Faisi and Ballale, for an hour and a half and reported the movements of the enemy ships to its base on Guadalcanal. The area was close to the Japanese air bases at Ballale and Kahili and the Hudson was forced to use cloud cover to escape detection by enemy aircraft. At four o'clock fuel was running low and the Hudson sent its last signal prior to returning to Henderson Field. At that moment nine Japanese fighters appeared 3000 feet above it and forced it to remain in cloud. Eventually the Hudson escaped by flying northward at sea level for a time and then returning to its southerly course. This evasive action was successful and the plane arrived back at Henderson Field without making further contact with the enemy. As a result of the Hudson's efforts, groups of American bombers and fighters attacked the enemy ships later in the afternoon. None of the warships was hit but the cargo ship was set on fire.
Reports from American search planes on 17 January showed that large numbers of enemy ships were still moving into the northern Solomons, the main concentration of eleven cargo ships and four destroyers being off Buin. Bad weather prevented the Allied air force from attacking them. On the 18th an RNZAF Hudson was employed on a special search for convoys that might be moving towards Guadalcanal. For five hours in the afternoon it searched along a route over the south coast of New Georgia to Simbo Island, across Vella Gulf, north-western Vella Lavella, and then back to base. The patrol was uneventful and no enemy shipping was seen. The next day, however, another Hudson reported in the afternoon two enemy cruisers and eight destroyers to the north of Vella Lavella and steaming southward in ‘very murky weather’. Two groups of American aircraft were sent out to attack but failed to locate the force owing to the weather. Next morning forty barrels were seen floating in the sea near Savo Island, indicating that the ships had probably paid a hurried visit to Guadalcanal during the night and thrown stores overboard to drift ashore.
Another successful engagement with enemy shipping took place on 28 January. Six Japanese destroyers were reported in the after- page 154 noon to have left Faisi at high speed, and another group, consisting of a destroyer and two cargo ships, was reported later in the afternoon by an RNZAF Hudson. American dive-bombers and torpedo-bombers escorted by fighters attacked both groups, and one destroyer and two cargo ships were badly damaged.
Throughout January enemy shipping activity in the area increased steadily and numerous sightings were made by patrolling aircraft in addition to the major ones already described. At the end of the month shipping in the northern Solomons increased still more, and on 29 January twenty-nine ships, including cruisers, destroyers, transports and cargo ships, were counted at Tonolei, in southern Bougainville.
Throughout the month aircraft of No. 3 Squadron averaged just under seven sorties a day.1 Most of these were routine patrols, but individual Hudsons were occasionally used for special missions which provided a welcome change from the monotony of flying for hours over the sea looking for enemy ships which frequently were not there. On 1 January an aircraft carrying Captain D. E. Williams, commanding the Fijian guerrilla detachment on Guadalcanal, made a flight over Guadalcanal to reconnoitre the enemy positions. A week later a Hudson was sent to bomb the village of Boe Boe, near Kieta, on southern Bougainville. The local natives had been supporting the Japanese against the coastwatcher, and the strike was made to frighten them and bring them again under the coastwatcher's control. The aircraft took off from Guadalcanal early in the morning and bombed the village just before dawn. The coastwatcher later signalled his thanks and the crew was congratulated by General Mulcahy, Commander of the 2nd Marine Air Wing, who remarked: ‘It is a very unhealthy spot for a plane with the limited armament yours has got’.
Early the next morning the area was raided again, but on a larger scale, by five American B17s which were guided to the target area by Flying Officer Partridge,2 who had navigated the Hudson. The bombers were intercepted by enemy fighters and three were damaged, giving point to General Mulcahy's remark.3
1 Summary of operations by No. 3 Squadron, November 1942–January 1943.
|Number of Sorties||Ship Sightings and Number of Ships||Aircraft Sightings and Number of Aircraft|
3 The High Commissioner for the Western Pacific objected to the bombing of native villages, as he felt that in some cases the information concerning pro-Japanese activities was not reliable enough to warrant such measures. Consequently Admiral Halsey ordered that it should be done only when the information was quite certain or where the village was completely occupied by the enemy.
On 22 January a Hudson made a reconnaissance flight over Vila, on Kolombangara Island, where the Japanese were building an airfield, and photographed the area as part of the preparation for an American naval bombardment which had been planned to take place two days later. The aircraft met fairly heavy anti-aircraft fire over Vila but did not encounter any enemy aircraft. As a result of the reconnaissance COMAIRSOPAC Intelligence was able to state that the runway had been cleared but that no surfacing work on the strip had been started.
On 24 January a Hudson on patrol attacked a Japanese tanker in Vella Gulf, 215 miles from Guadalcanal. It dropped two bombs and two depth-charges from 3000 feet, but the tanker evaded them by turning and they missed by fifty yards.
Enemy air activity in the Solomons also increased during January. Throughout December the Japanese air force had played an almost entirely defensive role and had made only one minor raid on Guadalcanal. The virtual completion of the strip at Munda, however, and the arrival of air reinforcements in the northern Solomons, enabled the enemy air force to take a more aggressive part in the campaign in the new year. On the nights early in January when the Tokyo Express visited Cape Esperance, small forces of enemy bombers carried out diversionary raids on Henderson Field. Later in the month nuisance raids at night became more frequent.
On the 21st the personnel of No. 3 Squadron, RNZAF, experienced the worst bombing they had yet had. As was usual in their night attacks, the Japanese sent over only one or two aircraft at a time; but seven separate alarms were sounded during the night and bombs fell within a hundred yards of the New Zealand camp. For the rest of the month Guadalcanal was bombed almost nightly. Although a number of bombs fell in and around the camp there were no New Zealand casualties.
The camp still consisted solely of tents set on the muddy ground. The absence of dugout accommodation meant that the men had to tumble out of their beds into foxholes whenever enemy planes were overhead; and for some weeks the efficiency of the squadron was threatened, although it was never impaired, by fatigue caused by broken nights and lack of sleep.
1 Empty bottles, when falling, make a noise like bombs coming down and help to disturb the enemy's peace of mind.