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Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume III

429 — Letter from Major-General Barrowclough to the Prime Minister1 — Report on Operations—3 New Zealand Division, 1 January 1944 to 30 June 1944

page 445

Letter from Major-General Barrowclough to the Prime Minister1

5 August 1944

Report on Operations—3 New Zealand Division, 1 January 1944 to 30 June 1944


In compliance with the policy decided on by War Cabinet and in agreement with the American authorities the whole of the 3rd NZ Division, together with its forward base establishments, its ammunition, stores and equipment, has been withdrawn from the combat area and is now concentrated in New Caledonia. The Division's first campaign is over. It now finds itself in a non-operational role and, by virtue of the demands of industry upon its personnel, it has ceased to be a fighting formation. At this lowest ebb of its existence I have the honour to report upon its past activities and upon its future potentialities.

My previous report of 31 December 19432 contained an account of our operations up to the end of last year. Before the close of that year I had already received a warning order to prepare for a further operation designed to seize and occupy the Green Islands—a coral atoll lying North West of Buka and East of the southern end of New Ireland. The operation was a step in the general strategic plan to draw a strangling cordon round the Japanese garrisons in the Bismarcks and on Bougainville and Buka. The occupation of the Green Islands would complete the encirclement of Bougainville and Buka and was shortly to be followed by landings on the Admiralties and on Emirau and the complete encirclement of New Britain and New Ireland. That stranglehold could not be effective unless we could command the sea and the air around these enemy bases. It was a natural corollary that our main task would be the establishment of air and motor torpedo-boat bases, and to provide these facilities at the earliest possible moment. The operation therefore presented two aspects—an operational one involving the seizure of the atoll and putting it in a posture of defence, and a logistic one involving the construction of airfields out of the primitive jungle, the building of a small naval base and the landing of endless supplies, including enormous quantities of bombs and petroleum products. The task was no novelty. We had already performed a similar mission at Vella and at Treasury; but that did not lessen its magnitude. As one indication of its extent I may

1 Mr Fraser had returned to New Zealand on 18 July.

2 No. 406.

page 446 mention that within four weeks of our landing we were operating so many aircraft from the Green Island air base that the weekly consumption of aviation gasolene alone exceeded a quarter of a million gallons—and at that stage all of it was manhandled ashore in 40-gallon drums.

The forces assigned for the operation consisted of 3rd NZ Division (less 8th Brigade Group, still in the Treasuries) and a considerable number of American units including a Naval Construction Regiment (four battalions), anti-aircraft and coastal artillery, air ground echelons, Radar and Communications units, Naval units, etc. Altogether these American units comprised about two-thirds of the Force—New Zealand personnel constituting the remaining third. The whole was placed under command of 3rd NZ Division.

Before the operation could be planned in any detail it was necessary to obtain a great deal of information regarding the landing beaches, depth of water in the lagoon, nature of the entrances thereto and a host of other matters. It would have been extremely hazardous to attempt to beach and unload the large initial convoy without some precise knowledge of the conditions likely to be encountered. It was therefore decided to make a preliminary reconnaissance in force. No one overlooked the fact that such a reconnaissance would forewarn the enemy of our intentions, but the advantages to be gained from it so far outweighed the disadvantages that no hesitation was felt in putting it into operation. The 30th NZ Battalion was detailed for the task and was accompanied on its mission by selected officers representing the Hydrographic, Air, Landing Craft, Intelligence, Communications and Engineer services. Lt-Col Cornwall1 (Comd. 30th NZ Battalion) was in command of the operations ashore.

This raiding party was carried to Green Island in three destroyer transports (APDs) and escorted by four US destroyers and two PT boats. It effected a landing shortly after midnight early on the morning of 31 January and secured a base of operations. With the first light the various fighting patrols and reconnaissance parties pushed out by land and water. They thoroughly explored the whole of the lagoon and the entrance channels. They selected landing beaches and sites for airfields, guns, radars and dumps, and collected information regarding the strength and dispositions of the enemy. So complete an investigation could not have been completed without some contact with the Japanese garrison, and during the afternoon a brisk encounter took place. Our, troops were also attacked by seven Zeros, obviously called up by enemy radio. We lost four killed and nine wounded. After nightfall the troops successfully re-embarked with their wounded in small landing

1 Lt-Col F. C. Cornwall, MC, Legion of Merit (US); CO 30 Bn Sep 1943 – Apr 1944.

page 447 craft and at midnight were picked up by their destroyer transports and returned to Vella Lavella. The whole operation was daringly conceived and splendidly carried out. Lt-Col Cornwall and the reconnaissance officers who accompanied him came back with information and data which were of inestimable value in planning the main operation.

It was now possible to finalize and settle all details of the plan for the seizure and occupation of the atoll. The plan conformed in all essentials to the Transport Doctrine with which we had long become familiar, and needs no elaboration except that I should pay a tribute to the splendid work of the staff in working out the enormous detail that is involved in every amphibious operation. Thanks to their skill and tireless efforts the embarkation of the first flight was effected without a hitch and the whole expedition got away in first class order. Whilst at sea the overall command was in the capable hands of Rear Admiral T. S. Wilkinson, USN, who had had charge of both of our previous operations and for whom we all had the highest possible regard. The large convoy started from Lunga Point on Guadalcanal and picked up various elements at the Russells, Munda, and Vella Lavella. It was divided into echelons of varying speeds leap-frogging through each other during the night preceding the attack and timed to arrive in the ‘transport area’ just off the landing beaches as their respective troops, stores and equipment were required to be disembarked.

Just before dawn on 15 February the leading ships of the convoy made out the dim low-lying shores of Green Island. They were the APDs (destroyer transports) carrying the leading assault parties. Just as the APDs came to a stop in the transport area in order to launch their small landing craft, the whole convoy was attacked by about fifteen enemy dive-bombers. The attack came in with little or no warning because the radar screens were confused with the large number of friendly fighter and bomber airplanes then on station to support the landing. But a warning was hardly necessary as all were alert and at their battle positions. The enemy aircraft were engaged by our own fighters and by our AA fire. They had no fighter cover and though they pressed their attacks home we suffered no damage or casualties except on one LST which sustained minor damage from a near miss. The landing operation proceeded as if the incident had never occurred.

Complete plans had been made to support the initial landings with heavy fire from the guns of the supporting destroyers and by dive-bombing attacks. This fire was not needed, however, and was not used. The leading waves of boats hit the shore without the slightest opposition on all three landing beaches, and though on one beach a subsequent wave came under fire for a short time it was not long before the enemy post was liquidated and the rest of the landing operations page 448 were carried out with absolutely no enemy interference. This complete immunity from enemy interference lasted all day and was as surprising as it was gratifying. It spoke volumes for the effective work of Admiral Fitch's1 airmen who had been assigned the task of neutralising enemy airfields in the Bismarcks. They had succeeded one hundred per cent.

But though the skies were denuded of Japanese aircraft, Japanese soldiers still lurked in the jungle. The infantry pushing out from the immediate perimeter of the beachheads were to encounter isolated Japanese detachments, all of whom withdrew steadily before us. We located two enemy barges and some enemy personnel on Sirot Island and these were heavily shelled; but nowhere did we encounter any serious opposition. By nightfall every gun and vehicle, every single round of ammunition, every item of equipment had been unloaded and the whole convoy had safely retired, leaving us in well established positions on the atoll. Field and anti-aircraft guns had been emplaced, radars were already installed and in operation and defensive positions were manned. The huge administrative tasks were well in hand. During the night we were twice raided by enemy bombers but they caused neither casualties nor damage to the invading force though four natives were wounded, one of them quite seriously. Thanks to the prompt installation of the radars we were able to direct our night fighters on to the enemy bombers and two of them were shot down without loss to ourselves.

During the next four days our infantry were gradually combing the jungle and driving the Japs into one area. On Sirot Island after a very sharp engagement in which we lost five killed and four wounded we succeeded in destroying twenty-one Japs—the entire party. It was a desperate fight—the Japs were cornered and fought till the last man had been killed. Elsewhere there were minor patrol clashes in all of which we were successful. On 20 February (five days after the landing) the most serious engagement took place. It was supported by four of our Valentine tanks and the enemy, who was in a strong position amongst large boulders of very hard coral, fought as usual till the last man had been killed. On this small but bloody battlefield we counted seventy mangled bodies piled one on top of another in a most revolting confusion. Never in my experience have I encountered such a concentrated spectacle of carnage as was presented here. Our casualties were relatively very light. Only a few of our troops were engaged but they behaved with great gallantry. This was the first occasion in which our tanks were in operation in dense jungle and they played their part

1 Vice-Admiral A. W. Fitch, USN; Commander Aircraft, South Pacific Force, Sep 1942 – Apr 1944; appointed to command combined air forces of Army, Navy, Marines and Australian Air Force in South Pacific, 1943; Deputy Chief, Naval Operations (Air), Aug 1944 – Jul 1945.

page 449 magnificently. With this victory all organised opposition ended. We were left to the prosaic task of establishing and developing the air and naval bases.

Though it was prosaic enough it was nevertheless a great undertaking. Speed in the development of the airfields and of the naval base facilities was the most important factor and from the very first night work proceeded all round the clock. Flood lights had been included in the equipment carried with the first flight, and from D day onwards Green Island was a blaze of light throughout the hours of darkness so that work might proceed without interruption. Blackout restrictions were unknown and the Island must have been visible for miles out to sea. We relied on our radars to give us warning of approaching enemy air and surface craft and our confidence in them was never misplaced. The men and machines of the US Naval Construction Regiment—inspiringly led by Commander C. A. Whyte—performed miracles which broke all records of that record making Corps—the United States ‘Sea Bees’.1 New Zealanders and Americans toiled all through steaming hot days and stifling nights scouring the jungles for isolated Jap fugitives, dragging guns, radars and other heavy equipment through trackless jungle, digging through almost impenetrable coral rock and unloading and transporting thousands of tons of supplies of every description. It is impossible to overestimate the magnitude of the work involved in unloading this cargo. Some of it came in LSTs which could enter the lagoon and drop their ramps on the various beaches. No sooner had the huge bow doors opened than men swarmed into the cavernous holds and in sweating teams they dragged out vehicles and loose cargo through oceans of mud to the dumps ashore. Most of the cargo, however, arrived in larger ships which could not enter the lagoon. These had to be unloaded into smaller landing craft (usually LCTs) which pitched and tossed alongside the larger ships in the heavy ocean swell that was usually running. The agility and skill of the soldiers in performing this dangerous task would have done credit to experienced sailors. All services of both nations worked with a most commendable zeal.

This whole-hearted enthusiasm could not be denied its inevitable reward. On 6 March the Fighter Strip was opened—fourteen days ahead of schedule—and moreover the strip was built to a length of 5000 feet whereas the Master Plan required only 3250 feet. This acceleration of the programme and the provision of a longer runway than was originally specified was to prove of great assistance to our air effort in the whole theatre. The Japanese began an assault on the airfields at Bougainville and many of the aircraft stationed there had to be moved to other fields. We were able to accommodate planes far

1 United States Naval Construction Battalions.

page 450 in excess of the numbers originally planned and the partial denial of our use of the Bougainville fields was completely offset by the additional use we were able to make of the new air facilities now established on the Green Islands. The Bomber Strip was also completed ahead of schedule and soon the Green Island fields were operating aircraft of all kinds, including heavy Liberator Bombers as well as Fighters, Medium Bombers and Catalinas.

With the completion of the airfields and their ancillary services we were able to devote a little more time to the improvement of living conditions for the troops on the island and the development of roads. The United States Service of Supply brought forward and installed refrigerating machinery and it now became possible to obtain occasional supplies of fresh meat and vegetables. The change in diet was most welcome. So were the arrival of a cargo of beer and the provision of picture shows. Life began to assume a more normal routine. The landing of American troops in Emirau Island resulted in our ceasing to be in the van of the South Pacific Area and we were justified in relaxing to some extent the state of preparedness against enemy attack.

On 21 March I left Green Island and proceeded to New Zealand where I received instructions from the War Cabinet regarding the proposed withdrawal of troops from 3rd NZ Division to essential industries at home. I arrived back in Green Island on 1 April and from then on my attention and that of my staff was divided between the discharge of our duties in reference to the exercise of command over the combined American and New Zealand forces on the island and the fulfilment of the plan for the gradual return of a large proportion of the Division to civil occupations. This Industrial Plan, as it came to be called, assumed major proportions. It involved the despatch of troops from the base at New Caledonia as well as from the forward areas at Guadalcanal, Treasury and Green Island. The strength of the force was to be halved at one blow and in subsequent blows it was to be almost decimated. Not a single unit or sub-unit but was called on to make its contribution to the army of industry. Our equipment, however, still remained with us. All the administrative functions of the Force had still to be performed. For a time we still had an operational role. In the result considerable reorganisation and improvisation were called for and additional work and responsibility were inevitably placed on those who remained. I am happy to report that all concerned shouldered these extra burdens with zeal and efficiency, and the first drafts to industry left the forward areas in time to fulfil to the letter our obligations under the scheme.

By the beginning of May we had received word of comsopac's intention to relieve the whole Division—it having completed the usual period in an operational area. On 11 May I had a visit from General page 451 Lehman1 who called to discuss plans for our relief by his 93rd (Negro) Division. The relief proceeded gradually as shipping became available. By 5 June all my troops on Treasury and most of the Green Island garrison had been relieved. On that date accordingly I left Green Island and moved my Headquarters to New Caledonia where the bulk of the troops was now encamped. It was part of the plan for returning troops to New Zealand that they should spend a period of four to five weeks in New Caledonia, during which they could be kept under medical examination with a view to detecting and treating any symptoms of malaria which might develop as they ceased taking the suppressive atebrin drug. Elaborate provision had been made for the entertainment of the troops during that period. During my visit to New Zealand I had asked War Cabinet for as much assistance as could be given me in that direction. It is now my pleasant duty to express both on my own behalf and on behalf of all members of the Force our very sincere thanks for the action that was taken in response to that request and our great appreciation of the entertainment provided. The Force was visited by a number of ladies and gentlemen from New Zealand who gave lectures, presented plays, concerts and other entertainments and generally did a great deal for the welfare and education of the returning troops. We are extremely grateful to these ladies and gentlemen for their help and to the Government and the Government Departments which arranged for their visit.

From time to time the Division has received many congratulatory messages from the American leaders under whose command it has been operating. I have already submitted to you, through Army HQ in New Zealand, the names of many officers and men whose conduct appeared to me to warrant special recognition and I was glad to learn that all of these recommendations had met with your approval and had subsequently been granted by His Majesty the King. More recently I forwarded through the same channel a list of American officers to whom I considered British awards might appropriately be made. I hope that these recommendations may meet with your approval. I am informed by HQ, usafispa that General Harmon has recommended certain officers of my Force for American decorations.

All such awards are limited in their allocation and representative in their nature. Of necessity they go to those few whose work happens to come most prominently under official recognition. You will be gratified to know, however, that all the members of your 3rd Division and of its Base organisations have acquitted themselves throughout in a manner which does credit to the country from which they come. As their Commander I am eternally indebted to them for the courage,

1 Maj-Gen R. G. Lehman, US Army; appointed Commanding General, 93 US Inf Div, May 1943.

page 452 tenacity and determination with which they have carried out every task to which I have assigned them and for the loyalty which they have always shown to me.

About the middle of July, Admiral Newton, who had succeeded Admiral Halsey in the command of the South Pacific Area, informed me that he thought it would be advisable if the remnants of the Force were to be withdrawn to New Zealand. Hitherto the intention was to retain the Force in New Caledonia, on a reduced basis, until such time as it could be re-expanded and again placed on an operational footing. Admiral Newton stated that large American forces would shortly be arriving in New Caledonia and that the logistic problems involved in accommodating and maintaining them would be greatly lessened by the return of your 3rd Division to New Zealand. The New Zealand Government acceded to Admiral Newton's request and at the time of writing the movement back is already under way. This movement will scarcely be completed before the middle of October. For this movement, as for the movement back from the forward areas, we are dependent on American Transport Services and it is appropriate here to place on record the very great help and assistance we have always received from the American authorities in the provision of shipping facilities.

Your 3rd Division is now in a very unenviable position. It is limping home depleted in numbers, discouraged by the many successive blows that Fate has dealt it and weary from the long periods of strenuous and unexciting work in tropical climates. It is but a fraction of its former self. But I do not believe for one moment that its spirit is broken. There remains a small but loyal nucleus upon which I am confident a new Pacific Division could be built. All it needs is some encouragement from an official source—some assurance that in the not too distant future it will once again become a fighting formation and be permitted to take part in the War against Japan—its actual or potential enemy for over three and a half disappointing years. Without such an assurance of future usefulness it will be difficult to maintain its discipline and its spirit in New Zealand. I very respectfully express the hope that it will shortly be found possible for you to make some authoritative and encouraging pronouncement on its future role. I know that that may not be immediately practicable; but I urge that such a statement be made as soon as circumstances will permit of it.

I have the honour to be, Sir,

Yours respectfully


(Sgd) H. E. Barrowclough