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Royal New Zealand Air Force


page 156


February opened with air activity more intense than any that the Allied forces had experienced since November. The large and increasing concentrations of enemy shipping in the south Bougainville area caused the American Command to expect a major invasion attempt. On the first day of the month the coastwatcher on Choiseul reported, shortly after midday, that twenty Japanese destroyers were heading south, and all Allied forces were alerted in anticipation of a surface attack. In the middle of the afternoon an RNZAF Hudson sighted them 200 miles from Guadalcanal. It reported them again at four o'clock when they were north of New Georgia and still 180 miles from Cape Esperance. As a result of the reports twenty-four American dive-bombers and torpedo-bombers, escorted by fighters, were sent out to meet the ships and attack them in the early evening. Two of the destroyers were sunk and a third set on fire, while three of the enemy's covering aircraft were shot down for the loss of four American planes. As the enemy force approached Guadalcanal near midnight, Japanese aircraft bombed the new bomber strip at Henderson Field and slightly damaged the runway. American PT boats and dive-bombers attacked the destroyers while they were off Cape Esperance during the night, and claimed to have sunk one and set fire to another. By four o'clock in the morning the force had dispersed and was off Santa Isabel Island on its run northwards.

On 1 February the American bases at Guadalcanal experienced the heaviest Japanese air attack for many weeks. Fifty-one Japanese bombers and fighters attacked in two waves, the first shortly before midday and the second in the middle of the afternoon. The runway at Henderson Field where No. 3 Squadron was based was damaged, and damage was also done to shipping in the road-stead. American fighters which went out to intercept the attacking planes claimed that they shot down nineteen of them for the loss of two.

On 2 February the American Air Command made every effort to re-establish contact with the enemy ships before they reached their bases in the northern Solomons. Six RNZAF Hudsons were sent out at dawn on a series of special searches, and at half past six one of them sighted a group of eight destroyers 150 miles from Guadalcanal. It shadowed them for an hour and three-quarters, but as its radio was not working its signals giving their position were not heard at base. Another group was located by an American striking force of dive-bombers and torpedo-bombers later in the morning between Kolombangara and Choiseul. The Americans bombed the destroyers but scored only one direct hit.

page 157

In contrast to the preceding few days, 3 February was uneventful for No. 3 Squadron. Seven routine searches were flown, all of which were negative.

The next day, however, was again full of incident. Shortly after one o'clock the Choiseul coastwatcher reported that twenty Japanese destroyers had left Faisi and were steaming south. A little later the Vella Lavella coastwatcher signalled that they were in the area north-west of Vella Lavella and still moving southwards. An RNZAF Hudson next reported them when they were 220 miles from Henderson Field, and an hour after that they were seen by an American search plane coming down the channel north of Vella Lavella.

At four o'clock in the afternoon they were attacked by American dive-bombers, torpedo-bombers, and fighters off Kolombangara. One ship was sunk and another damaged. Twenty-five Japanese fighters were protecting the convoy and the Americans shot down seven for the loss of six. A second attack was made an hour and a half later in which two destroyers were hit and ten fighters shot down for the loss of four American aircraft. Although Munda had been bombed earlier in the day, reports from the coastwatcher stationed there indicated that part of the enemy air cover had been staged from that airfield. During the night at least fourteen of the destroyers reached Cape Esperance, retiring northwards again shortly after midnight. After dawn on 5 February American and RNZAF planes searched for the retiring warships but failed to make contact with them.

The last run made by the Tokyo Express to Guadalcanal took place on the night of 7 February. A little before two o'clock in the afternoon the Vella Lavella coastwatcher reported that nineteen destroyers were moving south at high speed through an area covered by low rain clouds. They were reported by an RNZAF Hudson 20 miles west of Ganongga Island and again, at a quarter past four, south of Ganongga. American dive-bombers attacked them at half past five 20 miles south of Rendova Island and scored hits on two ships. This was the first time that the Tokyo Express had come round the south of New Georgia instead of taking the more direct route down the ‘Slot’. During the night most of the destroyers succeeded in reaching Guadalcanal, embarking most of the Japanese troops still there and retiring before daylight. Searches next morning were unsuccessful.

After their major effort to recapture Guadalcanal in November 1942 the Japanese undertook no large offensive operations in the Solomons. They concentrated on developing their forward bases at Munda, Vila and Rekata Bay, building up the Buin-Kahili area page 158 in southern Bougainville into their major base in the Solomons, and establishing outposts on Vella Lavella, Choiseul and Shortland. The last two months of the campaign on Guadalcanal had been a delaying action to cover their development of these areas. They brought in army reinforcements to Bougainville and occupied most of the island, with their main concentrations in the Kahili, Kieta and Buka areas. Small groups were moved into the forward bases on New Georgia and Kolombangara. The effectiveness of the Allied air attacks on shipping forced the enemy to give up the risk of using ships south of Bougainville, and as a result their forward bases became dependent on barge traffic. Consequently their development was desultory and on a small scale.

The Japanese air force based its main concentrations south of the Equator at Rabaul and in New Guinea. A minimum number of aircraft was based in the Solomons for local defence and reconnaissance, but the presence of strong reserves at Rabaul made possible overnight large-scale reinforcement of the forward bases. Except for two attempts to strike American convoys off Guadalcanal, the enemy air force in the Solomons in the four months following the evacuation of Guadalcanal was small and relatively ineffective. It was employed mainly on wide reconnaisance in the area south of Guadalcanal to obtain advanced warning of American shipping movements. Its offensive operations were limited to spasmodic night raids by one or two aircraft against Guadalcanal, the Russell Islands and Santo, and to two small attacks on American convoys in the San Cristobal area.