Royal New Zealand Air Force
CHAPTER 11 — Operations from Guadalcanal, November 1942-February 1943
Operations from Guadalcanal, November
THE battle for Guadalcanal was essentially a battle for the airfield. As long as the Americans could hold the field—they captured it at the beginning of August 1942—they were assured of a base which, when developed, would give them adequate air support. If they lost it their nearest land base was in the New Hebrides, and if the enemy succeeded in recapturing it and putting it into operation he would not only have control of the sea but overwhelming superiority in the air. By 18 August the Americans had extended the almost completed strip1 to over 1250 yards, and on the 20th one squadron of dive-bombers and one of fighters, of United States Marine Air Group 23, flew in to begin operations the next day.
For a fortnight after the original landing on 7 August the Marines had little opposition on land; but the disastrous naval action off Savo Island on the night of 9 August, in which a Japanese force sank four American and Australian cruisers, had given the enemy full, if temporary, control of the sea. His naval units were able to bombard the Marines' positions ashore at will and almost with impunity. He was also able to reinforce and supply his own troops while cutting off all seaborne supplies to the Americans. There were three American carriers in the South Pacific which could have supported the Marines with aircraft, but they were being held in reserve well to the south, out of range of search planes, until the enemy should make a major attempt to retake Guadalcanal.2
The battle of the eastern Solomons was followed by a period of minor reinforcement on both sides. American control of the air, which was assured as long as aircraft could operate from Henderson Field, restricted the Japanese to running in troops and supplies by destroyers at night, while the Japanese superiority in surface vessels hampered the flow of American reinforcements and supplies.
On 18 September the Americans were reinforced by the 7th Marine Regiment which had been brought up from Samoa. The convoy carrying it arrived in the early morning, and the complete unit with all its weapons, most of its mechanical transport and forty days' rations, as well as 150,000 gallons of much-needed petrol and oil, was disembarked during the day and the ships retired at 8.30 in the evening. The safe arrival of this convoy was one of the major factors in saving Guadalcanal for the Allies. The Marines who had been on the island since the beginning of the campaign were worn out with constant fighting against an enemy who was being steadily reinforced. Supplies of food and ammunition were running low. The men had been living on captured Japanese rations and using Japanese petrol in their transport vehicles.
By the end of September the position, although still critical, had improved. The addition to the fighting force had relieved the strain a little and, moreover, some 1100 construction personnel had been brought in in small parties as opportunity offered. These men, the 6th Construction Battalion, took over maintenance work which formerly had necessarily been done by combat troops, and in addition began other work which it had not been possible to do before. They drained the airfield, which had previously become waterlogged after every rain, built roads and bridges, and made additional strips beside the main airfield.
The next Japanese attempt to land large reinforcements on the island occurred on the night of 11–12 October. Their escorting naval force of cruisers and destroyers was defeated by a task force under Rear Admiral Scott, USN, in the battle of Cape Esperance, page 144 but their transports succeeded in landing several thousand troops. Two days later, on 13 October, the Americans also landed reinforcements, the 164th Infantry Regiment of the Americal Division.1
Very heavy land fighting took place on 23–25 October when the Japanese, using all the forces at their command, attempted to overwhelm the American positions. At the same time they assembled a large fleet to the north which was to drive south and eliminate the American naval forces in the area. The land attack failed to capture the airfield, and on 26 October the naval force was met by an American task force near the Santa Cruz Islands. Shipping losses in the engagement were fairly equal, and the Japanese lost an estimated 123 aircraft against the Americans' 74. But the issue had already been decided by the failure of the land forces to capture Henderson Field, and the Japanese fleet, denuded of aircraft, retired northwards.
The last major attempt by the Japanese to land reinforcements with naval support was made in the second week of November. In a series of engagements known as the Battle of Guadalcanal, lasting from the 12th to the 15th, American naval and air units sank two battleships, a cruiser, three destroyers, six transports and cargo ships, and damaged nine other vessels, of which four were subsequently beached, for the loss of three light cruisers and seven destroyers, with seven other ships damaged. This battle ranks as the third great turning point in the Pacific war. The Japanese had been halted in the South-West Pacific in the battle of the Coral Sea and in the Central Pacific in the battle of Midway Island, and the battle of Guadalcanal stopped their advance in the South Pacific. It put an end finally to their attempts to bring in convoys of transports protected by strong naval escorts. Henceforth the only reinforcements which reached the island were the relatively small numbers which could be carried in destroyers running down from the northern Solomons, discharging their cargoes under the cover of night, and retiring again before daylight.2
2 These destroyer convoys were known by the Allied troops as the ‘Tokyo Express’.
An attempt to reinforce their troops on Guadalcanal by a force of eight destroyers was defeated by an American cruiser force on the night of 30 November–1 December in the battle of Tassafaronga, off Lunga Point. Four of the American ships were severely damaged by torpedoes and one of them subsequently sank; but one of the Japanese destroyers was sunk and two damaged, and the attempt at reinforcement failed. This battle was the last occasion in the campaign on which large American naval forces were engaged with enemy vessels.
During December the Marines were relieved by United States Army troops and preparations were begun for a land offensive to destroy the enemy on the island. The preliminary moves began on 26 December and the final drive on 10 January 1943.
After a comparatively inactive period in December 1942, Japanese naval and air activity increased in January 1943 to a level approaching that of November. The presence of large enemy naval and air forces in the northern Solomons and at Rabaul indicated that the Japanese Command had the means to launch another counter-attack. American reinforcements were steadily moved into Guadalcanal, and six major naval task forces were concentrated to the south in anticipation of an attack. Considerable advances were made by American troops on land and during the month enemy resistance weakened. The Americans pushed out from their perimeter round Lunga towards Cape Esperance, where the main Japanese concentrations were located.
Towards the end of the month enemy air and shipping activity in the Solomons increased and for the first time since early in November enemy air forces raided Guadalcanal in daylight, indicating that their strength in the Solomons had been reinforced. It was not clear to Allied intelligence whether the Japanese were expanding their defence system to the north of Guadalcanal or whether they were preparing for an offensive.
During the first week of February the situation on Guadalcanal was as tense as it had been during the critical weeks of the previous November. In expectation of an enemy offensive about 12 February, COMSOPAC declared a state of emergency on the 1st. All American task force commanders were warned and all air force units alerted, as were the forces of the South-West Pacific Command which were responsible for operations in the New Guinea and Bismarck areas. The American drive along the north-west coast of Guadalcanal towards Cape Esperance was halted and units were page 146 redeployed to meet possible invasion. During the week three large groups of Japanese destroyers successfully made the run from Buin, the enemy's main supply base in the northern Solomons, to Guadalcanal and back; and enemy troops were reported to have landed on the Russell Islands, 50 miles north of Guadalcanal.
According to American intelligence the Japanese had 175 aircraft available in the Solomons, including 65 fighters, and strong reserves at Rabaul. Their air bases in the Solomons comprised a major airfield at Kahili, a fighter strip at Ballale, a large strip at Munda, a strip under construction at Vila, and seaplane bases at Faisi and at Rekata Bay. In anticipation of violent air action Allied air units were reinforced to a strength of over 230 fighters, bombers, dive-bombers, torpedo-bombers and float-planes. The original airstrip at Henderson Field had been augmented by a second bomber strip at Koli Point, which was almost completed, and two fighter strips, while a seaplane base was in operation at Tulagi.
On 9 February the American Command discovered that the Japanese activity of the previous weeks had been not a prelude to an offensive but a cover for the evacuation of their troops on Guadalcanal. Allied intelligence estimates of the numbers of men who had been landed by the Tokyo Express were completely at fault since the destroyers, instead of bringing in personnel, had been carrying them out. Except for stragglers and a rearguard, all the Japanese on the island had been evacuated by 8 February. The operation must be counted one of the most successful bluffs of the war, for by making the Allies take up defensive positions and halt their offensive operations the Japanese were enabled to complete their evacuation with little interference from the American land forces.
MOVE OF NO. 3 SQUADRON TO GUADALCANAL
No. 3 Squadron, RNZAF, entered the campaign on 23 November when a flight of six aircraft and eight crews was detached from Santo and sent to operate from Guadalcanal. The aircraft had been preceded by a small servicing party, which had travelled by sea two or three days before and had set up a camp in a jungle-clad gully close to Henderson Field.
Aircraft were used by the American Command in four main roles: (i) the protection of installations; (ii) support for the ground forces on Guadalcanal itself; (iii) the disruption of enemy forces gathering to the north and strikes against the bases being developed in the central Solomons; (iv) attacking hostile forces whenever they approached Guadalcanal. The specific tasks of the Search and Patrol Group were to conduct daily and nightly searches of the approaches to Guadalcanal, and daily low-level searches along the coastlines of islands which might be used as staging points for enemy movements of supplies and troops.
This was the primary role of No. 3 Squadron. The Hudson was essentially a reconnaissance aircraft. It was armed with machine guns for self-defence, and carried bombs which could be used if a suitable target presented itself; but it was impressed on all crews that their job was to report enemy movements, not to go looking for trouble. The bomb-load of No. 3 Squadron's Hudsons when on patrol normally comprised four 500-pounders.
In its efforts to counter aggressive operations by enemy naval and air forces the American Command depended upon advance intelligence of Japanese aircraft and shipping concentrations at Rabaul and Buin. Rabaul, the major enemy base south of the Equator, was covered by the South-West Pacific Command intelligence, while enemy movements in the Solomons from their supply pivot at Buin were covered by Allied coastwatchers and search planes. After the defeat of the Japanese fleet at the battle of Guadalcanal in the middle of November, the chief concern of the American Command was to get advance warning of convoys of the Tokyo Express so that American bombers could attack them before they arrived off Cape Esperance. To get the maximum cover from darkness the enemy ships left the Shortland area in the northern Solomons about noon. As they passed down the ‘Slot’1 in the early afternoon, they were observed by the Allied coastwatchers on Vella Lavella and Choiseul, whose reports were of immense value to the American Command. Warnings were radioed to Guadalcanal, and if the reports were early enough and the weather favourable the bombers had a chance to attack them before nightfall. The coastwatcher system was supplemented by air reconnaissance over the ocean areas to the north and west of Guadalcanal. American and RNZAF aircraft carried out regular patrols by day and night seeking enemy convoys.
Until the arrival of the New Zealand squadron the Americans had been using torpedo- and dive-bombers for sea reconnaissance work, supplemented by long-distance patrols with their heavy bombers. The dive-bombers had had to carry out search patrols and, having found a target which they reported, they had been obliged to return to base and bomb-up for strike missions. During the intervening period targets often disappeared. The Hudsons with their longer range relieved the dive-bombers so that they were more readily available for their proper role when reports of targets were received. At the same time, the Hudsons released the American long-range bombers from much of their reconnaissance work and let them get on with the job of bombing the enemy. Thus the arrival of No. 3 Squadron filled an important gap in the types of aircraft available in the area, and was heartily welcomed by the overworked aircrews of American Air Group 14.
The American Command had planned to use the six New Zealand Hudsons on five searches daily. The achievement on most days of this commitment became a heavy strain on both aircrews and ground staff. By 6 December congestion at Henderson Field had been relieved and more of No. 3 Squadron moved up from Santo, after which it was possible for the New Zealanders to take over a greater amount of reconnaissance work. A tendency to over-employ all the available Hudsons had to be curbed so that the maintenance organisation could keep pace with the flying. As a result of discussions between the RNZAF and American commanders in the area, the flying was limited to what maintenance crews could support, so that the squadron could continue to operate successfully with its forward echelon at Guadalcanal and its immediate maintenance support at Santo, while major overhauls were carried out in New Zealand.
The advance flight began operations the day after it arrived at Guadalcanal, and during the first week aircraft sighted enemy ships four times, enemy aircraft three times, and were twice attacked by enemy aircraft. On the first day of operations a Hudson captained by Flying Officer Gudsell1 saw a tanker and two transports, escorted by a destroyer, to the south of Vella Lavella. The Hudson was attacked by three Nakajima float-planes which were circling above the convoy, but they did not press home their attacks, being deterred by the Hudson's turret and side guns. After an engagement which lasted about twenty minutes the Hudson escaped without either side having scored any hits.page 149
A more severe engagement occurred three days later on 27 November when a Hudson, again captained by Gudsell, sighted an enemy task force to the south-west of Vella Lavella. Gudsell reported the composition and position of the force, and then closed with it to make a closer inspection. As he was doing this he was dived on by three land-based Japanese fighters. In their first attack they put the Hudson's top turret gun out of action and then concentrated on attacks from astern. Gudsell directed the Hudson from the astro-hatch while the second pilot, Flying Officer McKechnie,1 piloted the aircraft. After an action which lasted seventeen minutes the Japanese aircraft broke off and retired, having scored only three hits and without having injured any of the Hudson's crew.
This early action contributed to the high morale which prevailed in the squadron throughout its tour of operations. In the previous month the Americans had lost a number of their search planes through enemy action and, after seeing the comparatively light armament of the Hudsons, had told the New Zealanders that they would be sitting ducks for Japanese fighters. The proof that the Hudson could repel odds of three to one when properly handled and resolutely fought was comforting to all the aircrews.
Until the middle of December Hudsons flew on four, five, or six patrols daily over New Georgia, Santa Isabel, Choiseul and the surrounding waters. On 14 December the squadron's commitment was changed and the daily programme was standardised at two morning and four afternoon searches. An average flight extended about 400 miles from base and lasted up to five hours. Normally the Hudsons flew at not more than 1000 feet, which was the best height from which to launch an immediate attack on submarines when they were seen, and was also the most satisfactory height from the point of view of observation and visibility. It also minimised the chance of attacks by enemy aircraft from below, the quarter in which the Hudsons were most vulnerable. As their main responsibility was the reporting of enemy forces, crews were instructed to avoid combat whenever possible: Generally, while the early morning searches were carried out in clear weather, aircraft flying later in the day had a fair amount of cover in the large masses of cumulus cloud which formed in the area in the afternoons.
On 2 December a Hudson captained by Sergeant Page1 was on a routine patrol to the west of New Georgia when it sighted some 12 miles away what at first looked like a canoe with a native standing in it. Approaching to investigate, Page identified the object as a rusty and weatherbeaten submarine of 500 tons, fully surfaced, with a lookout on the conning tower. The Hudson made a bombing run out of the sun and dropped two 250-pound anti-submarine bombs and two 325-pound depth-charges as the submarine crash-dived. Three of the bombs fell short and one just over the target. A large patch of oil came to the surface over the position where the last had landed. The submarine was probably damaged, but in the absence of further proof no claim was made of its destruction.
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.
FINAL STAGES OF THE CAMPAIGN
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.